Gaurav – a Mountain lover & a road trip enthusiast.
Ritika – Gaurav’s little sister, a vivacious lady fondly known as Choti. She is adept at using photoshop.
Kartikay – Stud of the group, nicknamed KT
Ankit – Best photographer of the group… a non veg lover, champion of cards game 29
Nitika – Loved posing for the pics. A happy-go-lucky girl. Her friendly banter with KT was a treat to watch
John – an IT Geek who fell in love with a mountain girl Tashi at Nubra valley. She would be his only motivation to go back to Leh again, of course, on a solo drive
Vipra / Pradyumn – An elegant couple from Kanpur. Vipra and Ritika planned this trip to the hilt.
Varsha – a friend of Vipra, her birthday was more of an ice-breaking occasion for the group
Anshika – Ankit’s friend from college days, a Selfie lover.
Stanzin / Shelly – Two expert drivers of our Innovas, native of Leh.
Ever since I saw Aamir’s 3 idiots climax scene of Pangong Lake in Ladakh, my heart always itched to take this road less traveled. The movie completed seven years in 2017 and so did my dream of exploring the wilderness of Ladakh. I am not sure what abstained me from planning this trip for so long – lack of leaves, finances or fear of AMS… nevertheless, the lady luck smiled when my sister planned a trip with her nine friends and at the last moment one of the friend cancelled his trip. Instead of increasing their budget, I asked if I could join her. All the bookings were already done – stay arrangements, cabs, places to visit etc. All I had to do was give my share of money… In all my previous trips, I had actively been involved in planning of the trip… but this was like taking a chauffeur driven car…sit and relax…someone else will do the hard work. So, the plan was to vanish from 24-Jun-17 to 3-Jul-17 from our mundane lives and get Leh’d’.
The Solo day
Since I had an off-Friday on 23-Jun, I decided to fly to Srinagar a day in advance and explore the valley all by myself as a solo traveler. Various thoughts floated in my mind like clouds. Should I stay at Srinagar and explore the city or should I go to Pahalgam and explore Srinagar later with the gang? How would the situation be in the city since Eid was around? Is it a sane idea to walk around Srinagar all by myself? There many few questions which built a cobweb of chaos in my otherwise tranquil mind. I was initially perplexed but my resolve was stronger than my fear. I didn’t want to drop this idea of a solo traveler as this would be my first time, so I went ahead and booked a Jet airways flight for 23rd Morning from Delhi.
The flight was a beauty and agile, unlike the stewardess on flight. As I landed on Srinagar airport, I was greeted by a board at the landing strip stating that this was a ‘no photography’ zone, owing to security concerns. Welcome to Srinagar, said my fearful heart. As I collected my bags and walked out of the airport, I could see fleet of Indian Army soldiers every 100-200 m. Upon inquiring, I was told that one of the political parties had given a call for bandh… Wow, what a welcome! While going to my hotel in a taxi, I could see writings on the wall screaming azadi for Kashmir. Well, never had I imagined that within India such a demand would be made in open…it was an eye opener. The cab driver advised me not to venture near Lal Chowk area and stick to touristy places only. The ‘sakht-launda’ within me wanted to make the most out of the day but sanity prevailed and I reluctantly visited only the eye-pleasing gardens of Srinagar, following by boating at Dal Lake, the lifeline of Srinagar. I felt that elder locals were willing to maintain normalcy and embrace the changing times, but it was the youth which was more agitated and showed aggression. Anyway, since I was there only for a day or two, that too alone, I decided to be apolitical and enjoy what nature around me offered without taking a political side. Over lunch, I relished wazwan, a local Non-Veg dish with Kashmiri naan and flushed it down my throat with coke. It was delicious, though heavy. I couldn’t risk my tummy considering I had to be on the run for next ten days. It was a resolution I took then and there, which barely lasted till dinner time. Over dinner too, I repeated Wazwan, though with butter naan this time. Coke, as always, was a savior. The night was colder and I needed a quilt…and then it struck me, it was Jun month at Srinagar and if it was this cold here, wonder what was in store for us at Ladakh. Brace for the freezing cold, said my heart.
The trip begins…
Time read 07.00 hrs (24-Jun-17) – I got up lazily as I had to go pick up the gang from the airport. The hotel guy being a gracious host asked me what I wanted for breakfast. I, being a Murthal paratha obsessed guy, requested for aloo-paratha. Now, can you imagine a Kashmir born, Wazwan eating hardcore Non-Veg cook preparing a Punjabi style aloo paratha with white butter… you can’t, right? Well, all I could see then was a Murthal special paratha coming my way. And then reality struck me… hard. The paratha was deep fried with oil oozing from every pore of the crack in paratha. This delicacy was served with salan of biriyani fame and Kahwa… my tummy could bear no more torture as I could hardly eat one-fourth of single paratha and two tablespoons of Kahwa. The salan remained untouched. Had my son been with me then, I would have successfully demonstrated him what fractions are and where they can be utilized. So, a good breakfast was still pending, will have at the airport, I thought. Little did I know that reaching Srinagar airport was an achievement by itself. There was a series of checking before the actual arrival. By the time I reached, the gang had arrived. So, now the brunch was what I looked forward to. Other than my sister, I knew no body in the group. These were all youngsters, about a decade younger than me, men with fine adonis and full hair on their head (unlike myself) & black beard and intelligent & pretty females with high end phones. Well, I had none. Neither the age was on my side (with little hair and pepper-salt beard), nor technology. All I could manage to say to them was “who drinks?” After the reply I got from them I felt elated…Wow… at least now we have something in common to bind us together.
After having lunch at the itinerary booked hotel, we got into cabs to go to Dal Lake again. Since I had already seen the lake a day before, my mind wandered and my eyes searched for a wine shop. With Eid approaching, we were told that all wine shops have been closed but we may find something at Dalgate. Well, it was a vague information, but we decided to explore all our options. We were open to anything -Rum, Vodka, Whisky or Scotch. By the evening, we were done with local sightseeing. I had carried a 10L bag specially for carrying booze. Now, picture monkeys inside cages outstretching their hands to get some peanuts. Yes, we resembled them while trying to get our hands on large SmirnOff Green Apple Vodka from the store. That was the only alcoholic drink available there. Finally, we made it. The little overpriced bottle was ours. Alcohol increases Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) symptoms, so we had exactly one night to gulp down this one, before making that ascent to Ladakh.
We got to know that it was our new friend Varsha’s birthday. What better occasion than this to gel together and create a memory worth remembering before embarking the journey to Ladakh. So, before heading back to hotel in the evening, we decided to pick up a birthday cake… looks pretty simple, ain’t it? Well, this was Srinagar. Nothing was simple here. We had to search three bakeries before we could get our hands on a decent looking cake, which was our only option. Forget variety in cake flavors, this one, our cake, was fresh out of deep freezer after two days (not oven)… there was no “happy birthday” plastic topper given, instead the shop keeper tried to write it on the cake using available cream..bad idea… the cake was a small one and writing full name was out of question… So, we had to be content with “H. B’dayVarsha”…moreover, there occurred a spelling mistake and she was rechristened as ‘Harsha’ (as in famous Harsha Bhogle)… all in all a total mess… moreover, there were no cake knife or tissues or disposable plates given… never imagined buying a cake could be so effort taking. The final nail came when this cake was packed in an “Eid Mubarak” box. Was this a signal to what our lives would be for next ten days? Only time would tell. Nevertheless, with cake and booze, we headed straight to the hotel. We all were happy that finally, Leh trip remained uncancelled and everyone did reach so far. Over drinks, chakhna and cake, we gossiped to our heart’s content. Finally, around 01.00 am (date 25-Jun-17) we decided to call it a night and sleep for next 4-5 hours before heading towards Kargil.
Time read 05.00 hrs (25-Jun-17) – We got up over sound of bullet shots coming from a distance. In a hurry, we called our driver Stanzin to pick us from this battle zone at the earliest. Surprisingly, he was calm. He told us that this was normal in Srinagar. He informed that roads were barricaded as there was an encounter going on in the vicinity. He said, he will come as soon as roads are reopened. We waited holding our breath for the sound of guns to die down. The guns slowly got silenced at around 07.00 hrs. Soon Stanzin and Shelly, our two drivers came with Innovas. Hurriedly, we loaded our bags and dashed off towards Sonmarg, our first destination, which was on the way to Kargil. Our driver Stanzin was driving fast as he too, wanted to cross Srinagar as early as possible without any further delay or problems.
As we crossed Wayil Bridge across Sindh river, we saw a small dhaba and I was again reminded of my hunger for aloo paratha and white butter. On pretext of bio break and quick tea, we parked our cars. Sindh river was flowing elegantly caressing every rock gently which fell on its way. The sound of river coupled with beautiful scenery around made us forget the frightful experience of Srinagar. We clicked several photos on this spot. Ankit stole the show with his photography skills. I continued clicking on auto mode wishing my pics would be as stunning as his. Alas, they weren’t.
Upon returning to restaurant, I realized that there was no aloo paratha, but South Indian breakfast with filter coffee available. It looked as if ‘what happens at Murthal, stays at Murthal’… no aloo paratha outside Delhi zone. Anyway, I can’t be fussy for food, at least for next 10 days. Our airtel was one signal down showing three verticals instead of usual four now. Signs of AMS visible already for Airtel. 3G was down to 2G too. After breakfast, we resumed our drive to Sonmarg. The scenery was picturesque and serpentine road ahead made the third seat passengers dizzy, specially me. I took out my novel and tried to read but dizziness, coupled with breakfast, lack of sleep and beautiful scenery around kept me awake, though unfocused on book.
Soon, our second Innova overtook and stopped in front of us, just as we entered Sonmarg. We got to know that Pradyumn’s cell phone was missing. He wasn’t sure where and when was the last he had seen it. There was no point going back to Srinagar now to check, since we were about 3 hrs away. Time read 10.00 am. They decided to file a FIR at Sonmarg Police for the lost phone. As Vipra and Pradyumn got busy filing FIR, we ordered refreshments at the restaurant nearby. People got busy clicking pics and chatting, while my thoughts drifted to 1960s movies of Shammi Kapoor in which he danced here in nature’s lap. Gone are those days…what was left now was the reminiscence of that bygone golden era. I looked for a washroom but couldn’t find any. Someone suggested taking a leak at the police station. What an idea sirjee… right place for the right job. For the first time, I saw the police station of Kashmir, that too, from inside… wanted to click a selfie but wasn’t allowed one. By the time I was done, the couple was done too with filing of NC (not FIR). Not filing FIR is the easiest way of keeping the crime statistics low. Well, Pradyumn did not hear from Police or his phone again. Soon, we resumed our travel to meet the mighty Zozila Pass.
The tar roads gave way to broken roads, which soon turned into loosely packed gravel and later into plume of dust laden with muddy water. Driving here would test one’s skills, I thought. Stanzin was unperturbed, he dexterously maneuvered Innova into and out of the swamp numerous times. Before we knew it, we were at Zozila pass at a height of 11570 ft. The air seemed thinner and ice cold, outside the car. There was a snow clad mountain staring at us and it looked as if it was challenging us to come over and conquer it. Our Airtel signal had already died without the last rites. Most of our heavy jackets were inside the suitcases which were carefully stacked on the car carrier and covered with plastic sheets and ropes. Taking them out was out of question. We collected whatever woollens we could and got ready to embrace the chilly winds. I stepped out of the car and headed straight to the shack on the opposite side of road which served hot tea and maggi. Few others from our gang took the challenge of the mountain and went climbing up to the icy waterfall. I took Ritika’s zoom lens and zoomed it right up to the mouth of waterfall on a snow cladded mountain. I was content with this view.
Meanwhile, Maggi and tea had arrived. Bliss. This warmth was far better than toiling hard in heavy snow uphill. The snow scooter charged in hundreds while this maggi stall charged hardly few bucks… so I guess, I made a smarter choice, saved money, saw the view through zoom lens and clicked the ‘meri pahar waali maggi’ mandatory selfie. At Zozila, Ankit, KT and myself started a trend of taking a leak at each pass. We were marking our territory, like Lions. In an hour, we were ready to head towards Drass, one of the coldest places in the world. The time read 13.00 hrs.
Drive up to Drass was comfortable. Once we got down to the other side of Zozila, roads had improved. There was fresh tar on the road which helped us gaining speed. After having lunch at Drass, we stopped at Kargil War Memorial to pay our tributes to our fallen heroes. The place will give you goose bumps for sure. The treacherous heights at which our soldiers defend our land, facing extremely harsh weather and cruel enemy is beyond our imagination. We can never repay this debt. This is supreme courage. We saw a short documentary on Kargil war at the auditorium. It literally made our eyes wet. We drove on this highway fearlessly oblivious of the fact that in 1999, this same highway was being targeted by the intruders. Our driver Stanzin told us that in those days, he was hired by Indian army to drive a supply truck at night without headlights or tail lights being switched on. Mighty mountains on one side and remorseless enemy on the other. This is what builds a nation – courage & commitment, not our fancy salaries or Bollywood movies. With a heavy heart, we left the War memorial around 17.00 hrs for Kargil town.
As we entered Kargil, we were welcomed by the sound of Suru river, on the banks of which, Kargil town is situated. After feeding on regular doses of Bollywood movies like Lakshya& LoC Kargil, I had always imagined how the place would look like… well, it was just like another beautiful sleepy hilly town. Nothing to boast about the place. The hotel we checked in was named Saqi. It had bed bugs (rakht pipasu keede). Not going to reveal my ordeal details. Period. Though me and KT changed rooms in the middle of the night, sleep eluded me thereafter. Constantly, I was reminded of the movie title ‘iss raat ki subeh nahi’. I felt as if the bed bugs would creep back to my bed silently once we switched off the lights. Just the way demons came alive at night in Hollywood movie The Conjuring.
Time read 05.00 hrs (26-Jun-17) – I woke up earlier than my alarm. Thank god, the dreadful night was over. Just to leave bed (and bugs), I decided to go for a walk and explore Kargil town. It was a beauty. Watching sunrise over river Suru was a delightful sight. Accompanying me were Ritika, Nitika, Anshika and Ankit, our photographer. The panoramic morning pics just made our day. The only unpleasant thing out of classy scenery pic were us, as Kargil with Suru river provided a stunning backdrop for pics. While walking back to the hotel, we stopped over at a Rajasthani sweet shop for our morning tea. Tea was average, but holding a warm cup on a chilly morning was what we all needed. The warmth was worth ten bucks each. Time read 07.00 hrs. Soon, we all got ready to leave for Leh, our next destination. Me and KT got famous, courtesy bed bugs. I forgot to mention, a day before, Ankit gave me a few lessons on clicking snaps on manual mode…he taught me about aperture, shutter speed, ISO and what not. I nodded my head in affirmative as I used to do during my calculus lecture of class XII. After my crash course in photography, I checked the setting on ‘auto’ and used to punch same settings on ‘manual’ mode to click pics. That was my ‘cheat code’ for manual pics… Ankit buddy, if you’re reading this blog, just remember, you did your best to teach me while having our evening tea at Kargil, but perhaps, I was more keen on hogging hot pakoras than clicking cool pics.
So, we left Kargil around 07.00 hrs and headed towards Lamayuru, which has a beautiful monastery bang on highway. The roads were in excellent condition, fully tarred. Our first stop was Namika La pass, which was at around 12000 ft. The wind was blowing fast. Time read 09.30 hrs. We stopped here for a quick photo session. KT, Ankit and myself, decided to mark our territory here as well… you see, the issue was not to take a leak on the roadside with onlookers, but how to position oneself strategically so that wind blows the leak ‘away ‘ and not ‘towards’ the body. Knowledge of chemical plant operations came handy. In plant, we check the wind direction using wind shacks. Here, it were colorful Tibetan Prayer Flags.
Nevertheless, we were done soon and resumed our onwards journey. The sun was up and as we neared Lamayuru, the muddy hills all around provided an excellent backdrop for pics… we made some quick pit stops, clicked pics, stretched and moved on again. Next stop was Fotu La pass, the highest one on Srinagar-Leh highway, located at a height of 13500 ft. I could sense some symptoms of AMS creeping in, as my head was heavy and cold breeze around was getting bothersome. Still, we clicked some amazing pics here, one of the best ones of the trip.
After marking our territory again at the pass, we started the descent to Lamayuru and I started feeling better. It was around 11.00 hrs when we reached Lamayuru monastery. Few members of our gang wanted to visit monastery whereas I was more interested in having tea from Yak’s milk. Explored places around monastery but Yak’s tea wasn’t available. It was getting warm as the sun was almost at 90° and it being at a height of almost 11500 ft, sunrays were brutally excruciating.
In order to get a reprieve from sunrays, we decided to have a quick lunch and cool off. As we saw the board of Tharpaling restaurant, nestled in a quaint corner of the road, we knew we’d stop here for lunch. Bad choice. The options were really very limited… not even full menu was available…we had to settle for dal-rice-subzi and maggi… it took an eternity to come… and maggi was sandy… yes sandy….it looked like blowing wind in vicinity carried little sand particles which finally settled on our plates…couldn’t eat it… finally flushed it down with coke… really, God (wind god) and coke are omnipresent… saviors…
The clock showed 14.00 hrs when we left for Leh. The road was excellent and Stanzin seemed excited to return to his hometown so he pressed on the gas pedal.
After a few photo stops, we reached the confluence of river Zanskar and Indus. The clock showed 16.30 hrs. The sun was about to set and the reflection of sunrays on river’s face was mesmerizing. Honestly, I did try a few manual clicks here, which were pathetic. Now, I know why auto mode was available on DSLRs, for novice like us. We clicked a few pics there and started for Magnetic Hill.
Time read 18.00 hrs when we reached Magnetic Hill. I did not see my car crawling uphill with natural force at Magnetic Hill, though my head started spinning as we reached there as we were driving since morning. The entire phenomenon looked hoax to me. Our final stop before our Leh hotel was GurudwaraPatthar Sahib, about 25 km before Leh city. It is so heartening to see this Gurudwara being efficiently managed by Indian Army.
Loved it absolutely. It was getting dark. I could not click nice pics as auto mode clicked pics with flash on, which were pathetic. Will focus from tomorrow, with a fresh mind, I thought. By the time we reached our guest house, it was around 20.00 hrs. Goba Guest House, our abode for next two days, was a family run place offering cozy rooms, free WiFi and tasty food. Our Airtel signal too, resurrected like phoenix. After having a beer or two and post dinner, we all slept like a baby, specially me, after a bloody tete-a-tete with bed bugs at Kargil.
Time read 07.00 hrs (27-Jun-17) Call from home woke me up. My wife was getting ready for office and my kid was going to school. And here I was, sleeping peacefully amidst mountains and greenery… they must be envious of me. But someone needs to work to pay for my vacation. Soon, it was time for her to go to office and me for today’s sightseeing. We planned to give our drivers some rest and rented three Royal Enfield bikes and two Honda Activas. Considering my physique and age, I stayed with gearless vehicle. Nitika was my ride partner, while Ritika was riding the other Activa. Perhaps, due to my weight and cruising wind speed on the highway, our two wheeler never crossed 40 kmph speed. So, Nitika and myself, rode slowly enjoying the scenery around, clicking pics and took almost the double time (than Royal Enfield’s) to reach every destination. The day was lazily spent exploring most of the local attractions and bazars. Next morning, we had a rendezvous with Khardungla pass, the second highest motorable road in the world. We thought to booze at night but our other gang members detested the idea as AMS would surely kick in at such heights.
Time read 06.00 hrs (28-Jun-17) The thought of us being on the highest pass was incredibly overwhelming. The thought kept me awake at night and left me groggy in the morning too. I never wanted to miss any moment on this road, dreamt of absorbing all the sceneries, humming ‘suhana safar aur yeh mausam haseen’ song… It was 08.00 am when we started from our Leh hotel. As we started our ascent to the mighty pass, the air got cooler and then turned chilly. The road soon was in a dilapidated state. Chunks of snow, mud & water and narrow road made it a difficult climb. At the summit, it was bone chilling. After two sweaters, a jacket and a tea-Maggi later, I was ready to climb on a pile of snow for our photo shoot…it was crowded so we had to wait for other tourists to move out of the photo frame before clicking. This was an achievement, in literal sense, to reach the heights of Khardungla and get a picture clicked, in case my Kejri office needs proof for my absence.
By the time, we left the pass, it was already noon but it appeared to be early morning. It was snow all around. There was no sun. Slowly and gradually, we descended to the other side of Khardungla pass to North Pullu. The scenery changed from snow white to yellow sand soon. River Shyok accompanied us for sometime but then turned away, perhaps finding our togetherness boring. It was just like a crush, one sided. Only we longed for it, Shyok river didn’t. Soon we reached the desert of Hunder where we took Camel Desert safari. Had to wait for 30 mins, for a 10 mins ride on double hump camels. Our friend Anshika clicked a lot of selfies in which we tried to fit in. Man, she really loved clicking selfies. I recorded a few videos too, which unfortunately can’t play with family and kids.
It was about 16.30 hrs when we left the Hunder desert. One Innova with us, the uncultured ones, went straight to our K2 camp, while the other with John went to a Cultural programme which was being organized in the town. It was here that our Raj (John) met his Simran (Tashi, a local mountain girl). However, in this DDLJ, our Raj needed to return to civilization after the trip and his Simran would never come looking for him to Bangalore. John had to be content by talking ‘about’ her, not ‘to’ her. Well, the camp was comfortable, though our Airtel had died long back. It was such a relief seeing smart phones battery running for so long without charging. We called the night early as next morning we were going to Pangong Lake of 3 Idiots fame, my long cherished dream since 2009. We decided to take a shortcut via Wari La pass along Shyok river, instead of via Khardung La and Leh. We had no idea that 29-Jun would be the most distressing day of our trip. Oblivious of this fact, we slept embracing the dark night.
Time read 05.00 hrs (29-Jun-17) As we had to leave early, we got up even before sun was up…we expected hot water and tea to be served to us… Expectation is the root cause of all miseries, isn’t it? The camp guys were sleeping. We tried to wake them up but they shoved us off quoting it’s too early. Reluctantly, we got ready without hot water or tea. By the time clock struck 07.30 am, we were on the road again. The day had started on a bad note but much worse was yet to come. The junction near Khalsar, where a narrow road goes to Pangong Lake via Wari La pass, was submerged under water of Shyokriver. We had no choice but to travel back to Leh via Khardung La and then head to Pangong via Chang La pass. This would increase the time by almost 6-7 hrs, I thought. Anyway, since we had left early, we can absorb this change of plan. How naive of me to think I can challenge nature! By the time, we reached North Pullu, the road was barricaded by local police. Time read 09.00 hrs. We were told that there was an avalanche early morning on the pass which blocked the road on the pass. The excavators were clearing the snow but it would take time. We parked the car along the Shyokriver. Soon, there was a long queue which perhaps stretched up to 3-4 km. It started drizzling, which turned into rain shortly. Soon, Gods decided to test our resilience, our patience. The rains gave way to heavy pouring and then hailstorm. One look at the Khardungla mountain and it was easy to gauge the mood of nature. It was at its worst. Avalanche above, hailstorm below. Couldn’t turn around and go back as there were heaps of cars awaiting for gods to smile back. We waited endlessly for rains to cease. At around noon, the good news came finally. Our car started crawling as the traffic was cleared one way only. The next four km of the climb were the toughest. I had never seen this abundance of snow ever. As we were about 2 km before the summit, we saw the cavalcade of cars coming to a grinding halt again. We thought it was normal stop and go thing and will pass. We were wrong. The avalanche had struck again. The road between us and the summit was blocked, yet again. We were almost at 15000 ft with no help. Initially, we thought of taking this opportunity to click pics. Few pics and videos later, we got anxious as it was getting late. AMS was slowly but surely kicking in. It was getting difficult to breathe as oxygen was thin. Temperature outside was sub-zero. It was snowing hard. The snow walls along the road were at least 15-20 ft high. Our shoes were wet as we stepped on snow while clicking pics. Our Airtel was already dead long back. Was it our turn now for a snowy grave? In such terrible conditions, I had an emergency to deal with.. I needed a bio break to relieve myself. Narrow road with at least 1 ft of snow on ground, flowing muddy chilled water, long vehicles queue, sub-zero temperature outside, where the hell I was going to find a washroom. In fact, even wishing availability of restrooms here was a sure shot sign of senility. I had to answer nature’s call, if need be, in open. Nature was furious today. Finally, my kidneys could not stand it anymore. Hurriedly, I tip toed along the frozen walls and went ahead of the first vehicle standing and relieved myself. So, mission accomplished at Khardungla too. Territory marked. This looked like a good omen.
Soon the vehicles were allowed to make a move. Time read 15.00 hrs. We were stuck for more than 6 hrs on a pass where ideal time people should spend was not more than 30-45 mins, owing to AMS. As we were negotiating with slippery roads and fear of avalanche again, the Scorpio ahead of us got stuck in snow. Its tyres were helplessly trying to get a grip on snow. We were first to respond to the SOS call of the driver. Ankit, KT, Stanzin and myself got down to push the beast out of misery. Nature was adamant. Car did not move. We were in a fix. Stanzin brought his shovel from Innova and moved some snow around the tyres. The tyres screeched initially but 115 BHP Scorpio power finally dominated and pulled itself out. I captured this grit and glory video on my cell phone braving nature’s fury, snow and cold. Felt like a hero. I am sure even KT and Ankit felt nothing less than a superhero saving a damsel Scorpio in distress. So what, if it’s a car. After 15-20 mins crawl, we reached Khardungla summit. Time read 16.00 hrs. We continued the descent to South Pullu without stopping again at the summit for pics. There was no point going to Pangong now. We had to stay at Leh as driving to Pangong meant climbing Chang La pass at night, which in this weather would have been risky. I was dreaming about Pangong when I saw something fell in front of us. It was a small stone. At lower hills, it was raining, which carried stones from mountains on the road. Stanzin advised us all to keep looking at the hill top for falling stones. It was scary. What if something hits the car? The road ahead resembled a Srinagar bylane after stone pelting. Full of small and big rocks. Once again the fleet of cars was stopped and excavators were brought in to remove rocks from the road. Another 30 mins gone. By the time we reached Leh, it was 18.00 hrs. And Pangong was another 6 hrs away!
My desire to enact 3 idiots last scene at the lake remained unsatiated. We again went back to ‘our’ Goba Guest House and cancelled our stay at Pangong. We had faced so much today that upon realizing that all our clothes got wet in the rain, hail and snow (as the bags were on the carrier) it seemed a trivial issue. Soon, we opened our bags, squeezed the water and hung them inside our rooms. Ritika’s shoes got damp too. I offered her mine and I was surprised to see my kiddo stepping into my shoes comfortably. Kids grow up soon, literally. A little while ago, she was a toddler, salivating upon seeing her cerelac. Time flies. Only today, it stood still at Khardungla. We decided to go directly to Tso Moriri Lake and then head straight to Manali without disturbing further itinerary. As it was Ritika’s birthday on July 1st, John bought her cake at night itself, as dreaming of patisseries at Tso Moriri would be a crude joke. The night was calmer and nature’s fury subsided too.
Time read 10.00 hrs (30-Jun-17) Stanzin promised me that he’d arrange for Yak’s milk tea before he drops me to Manali. With only two days before Manali, I reminded him of his promise. We started around 10.00 hrs from Guest House trying to overcome the horror of what we faced a day before. The road to Tso Moriri was good, well tarred and had some running traffic, majorly Army convoys going to China border. On the way, we stopped at Hot water Geyser of Chumathang. Unlike the Vashistha Geyser of Manali, this place stood like an orphan. We literally had to walk along an open drain, jump a few rocks to reach the actual site. I preferred having Maggi and tea at nearby stall than wasting my time here. Since last one week, Maggi had been a constant companion. God bless Nestle. Clock showed 14.00 hrs when we resumed our journey post Maggi lunch.
Stanzin showed us his off-roading skills by driving Innova on grassy lands. Imitating him, our second driver Shelly too followed the suit. The more the crazier! Now, John and Pradyumn, stepped out of their car, and stood on the rear side crash bar holding roof carrier while Shelly drove on with crazy speed. Was it the adrenaline gush in veins, sans alcohol making us do crazy stuff? Don’t know, but all this was fun.
Soon we spotted a huge lake and believed it to be Tso Moriri. This was Kyagar Tso. As the car got parked, we rushed near its banks. It was deserted. We were the only occupants of the lake waving and shouting crazily. It was getting cold. Time showed 15.30 hrs. The winds were picking up speed and I needed my woollen cap. Lake was placid (without a crocodile) and waters were turquoise blue. Here, I honestly tried clicking pics on manual mode and surprisingly a few of them came really stunning. I amazed myself. Ankit, as usual, excelled and captured most memorable pics. Ritika, Nitika, Anshika and KT were busy making boomerangs on Instagram. Other members were just enjoying the calmness and absorbing everything what nature offered. Only John and Airtel were in sombre mood. Former for deserting warm company of Tashi in cold desert of Hunder and latter for being single without signal. Soon, it started drizzling. We hurried back to cars as we couldn’t afford another fury of nature. It was 17.00 hrs when we left from Kyagar Tso.
The road ahead was simply non-existent. Only loose dirt and pebbles. We reached last village of civilization called Karzok. The world literally ended here. Forget human, no animals were in sight around.
Few miles ahead, we saw an army post and a huge lake behind. Our documents were verified by army officer and we were allowed to move on. Finally, we arrived at Tso Moriri, situated at more than 15000 ft elevation. This was simply the biggest, brightest, cleanest (I don’t remember more superlatives) lake I had seen in India. This was actually the best India offered, truly unbelievable!
By the time we checked in Lake View Hotel it was 18.30 hrs. The day had been long and uneventful, thankfully. The evening tea was already served with sandwiches. Time to hog on… no more Maggi for today. The room which KT and I shared had no latch in bathroom, or it wasn’t working. Anyway, it gave us both a chance to hone our crooning skills. The view of Tso Moriri lake from the room was panoramic. However, a slight crack in the window ensured the room remained airy, rather chilly. We started playing cards game 29. Ankit, as usual, remained on top of the game and my face fell pale. Not because me and KT were afraid of losing, but perhaps due to AMS. When I could bear no more, I went to Ritika’s room and slumped on her bed gasping for air. She along with KT, informed hotel management and they arranged for an Army doctor and oxygen cylinder. By the time help arrived, I had already gulped Diamoxin, a medicine to relieve the symptoms of AMS. I was breathing through camphor thrust in my nostrils. It felt better. Now, the gang treated me like a son-in-law. I felt like an ailing man with all his well wishers around. I was brought dinner and dessert to my bed. I didn’t feel like eating dinner but sweets being my weakness, I swindled it from the plate. Never had imagined that AMS would strike so silently with precision.
Time read 00.00 hrs (01-Jul-17) Exactly when the gong struck 00.00 hrs, it was my kiddo Ritika’s birthday. Two days old cake was served to the new born. The first piece she cut was thrust into my mouth… looked like I was the food tester checking expiry of the cake. Leh cake was better than that of Srinagar. Well, jokes apart, I am sure Ritika would remember this birthday at Tso Moriri forever. For the first time, July 1st felt chilly without AC. Symptoms of AMS subsided after sweets& Diamox and we all slept. At around 06.00 am, we all got up to get ready for our last day at Ladakh. I crooned inside bathroom confirming my presence there to KT. It was around 09.00 am by when we were done with breakfast and were ready to see the splendor of Tso Moriri. The lake was huge and hardly there were handful of visitors. We had the entire lake for ourselves. We played music and danced at the banks of the lake, clicked selfies, boomerangs and videos. This went on for an hour or so. Since we had to reach Sarchu the same day, we finally bid adieu to the spectacular blue water lake and headed back.
The sky was clear and it was sunny. On the way, we saw some shanties of Yak nomadic herders. Stanzin parked his car and spoke to them in local language. Later we got to know that he had requested them to prepare Yak’s milk tea. He had kept his promise. It tasted better than I had expected. We clicked pics with local kids and posed with Yak.
Also, I got hold of freshly skimmed pashmina wool. It was really warm. With a heavy heart and reluctance, we finally waved off good bye to kids and Ladakh. Stanzin stepped up on the gas pedal and soon we were cruising on highway. Ladakh was left behind but the beautiful memories it gave would itch us a lifetime.
We stopped for lunch and Ritika once again cut her three days old cake. Soon, we crossed J&K and entered Himachal Pradesh. The tar road disappeared and soon came the dreaded gravel covered with muddy water. As we reached Pang, speed drastically dropped from 60 kmph to 20 kmph. Stanzin confirmed that roads would remain in this condition till Rohtang pass which was way ahead. The jerks and bumps became more evident as we moved on. Finally, we could not bear anymore. The bags were all stuffed on the third row and Ritika &Nitika sat on the front row, with Stanzin driving next to them. When the dusk fell, we reached Sarchu looking for our Dorjee camp. The last lonely camp without much lighting was ours. Time read 19.30 hrs. As we stepped out of the car, we could feel the chill and the wind. The camps were scantly lit through generators which were to go off from 21.00 hrs. After checking in to our respective tents, we rushed to the dining tent, not for the dinner, but to recharge our cell phones and cameras. Post dinner, as the lights went off, we could see it was a starry night, something which most of us never saw since ages. Delhi – Gurgaon – Bangalore – Kanpur are all examples of how our cities should not grow. Staying and working in cities is the collateral we all pay to fund our trips to the lap of nature. After Ankit clicked an exquisite pic of our milky way, we decided to play cards game 29 under torch light. His long boots came handy as we stuffed the torch upside down in it scattering the light from tent top. Don’t remember till what time we all played… guess it was well past mid night. The wind outside had picked up speed. There was a sound of silence everywhere. Not a soul was awake. The mercury had dipped to freezing point. There was no sign of AMS, perhaps because we faced much worse conditions at Khardungla. The bed was cozy. It was warm. Last night before we reach back to civilization. Replaying all pleasant memories of Ladakh, I slept.
Time read 05.00 hrs (02-Jul-17) The sun came up early and woke us up. It was a clear but chilly morning. I clicked a few pics of the tent and surroundings. Stanzin was cleaning the front glass of Innova. We chatted over a cup of tea. Today would be the day when we bid adieu to him as well. The trip was almost nearing its end. There was no hot water available at Sarchu so taking a bath was unthinkable. We packed, had breakfast and headed to our last stop of the trip and first stop of civilization… Manali. We left around 08.30 am. The road was still broken and bumpy. With every jump, I could still taste the breakfast in my mouth. Need to stop for a while, I thought. Well, god listened soon as there was a barricade due to an overflowing nullah. One side of the road had caved in and unless the excavators deflected the nullah, it would be difficult for cars to resume traffic. We took this opportunity to stretch ourselves, walk and digest the food. Pradyumn and John seized this moment to rush to Bhaga river which was flowing about 200 ft below. Seeing them, we too felt the adrenaline rush. Few of us hopped the rocks beneath and tiptoed to the gushing river. Soon age caught up and I was left gasping for breath. As we had descended to around 9000 ft, the air was comparatively warmer now. Soon we heard blowing horns as the road was almost cleared. Stanzin requested us to hop on the cars soon else we’d be caught in traffic. In a higgledy piggledy, we hopped back, the Innova was started and we joined the crawling traffic. The nullah was diverted, still there was a lot of water on the road. I wondered what would happen if a hatchback decides to cross it. It would have surely sunk. Slowly and gradually, we inched towards Rohtang pass.
As we approached the pass, once again, the air got cooler and soon we saw snow, the dirty muddy black one, and of course, the ubiquitous tourists. Back to civilization and the mundane grind, my heart said. The tourists were so happy to see the muddy snow, maggi stalls, the screams… but for us, after avalanche and piles of snow at Khardungla, this was a baby show. We didn’t even care to stop for pics or to mark our territory and headed straight to Manali. By the time we checked in our last hotel, it was 18.00 hrs. A long memorable journey was finally ending. We bid adieu to Stanzin and Shelly. They were going back to Leh the next day. How lucky they were to commute regularly amidst nature, I thought. Post drinks and dinner at Johnson’s cafe, Manali, we packed our bags and finally slept around 23.00 hrs. We made so many videos of the trip, but trust me, not even one we can play with family, unless played on mute. We need to overwrite our conversation running in the video with some music.
Time read 05.00 hrs (03-Jul-17) It had rained all night and was still pouring at Manali. Our hotel was in the bylanes of Old Manali and it was not possible for a car to reach there. It was really chaotic to reach the main road and board the cab. Finally, half drenched, we started around 07.00 hrs from Manali. This Innova was in shambles, just like the Leh-Manali road. Seat belts, door locks, stereo or the tyres… all were in dilapidated condition. We were fortunate that it was moving. Our driver too was one hell of a call center guy. Throughout 12 hours of drive between Manali-Delhi, he was on the phone talking to his customers, making bookings, coordinating with other drivers. At one given time, I was tempted to ask him to allow me to drive while he could speak over phone comfortably. Next time, we’d try taking a Volvo bus for sure. Around 18.30 hrs we were about to cross Aamrik Sukhdev at Murthal. Unanimously, we voted to hog on to delicious parathas and white butter. It was so good to get aloo parathas after long ten days of dependence on Maggi and momos. We ate to our heart’s content. My desire to have a good fluffy aloo paratha was finally fulfilled. The cab dropped us home around 22.00 hrs. The long epic journey finally screeched to a halt. It was amazing to meet my sister’s circle of friends, who are now my friends too. I wish someday, we plan another trip together.
Everything has changed. Just the way, Ladakh changed Rancho’s life in 3 idiots, it changed ours too. In Ten days, ten strangers undertook one epic trip. We all faced Srinagar’s dangerous life, AMS, hailstorm, snowfall, avalanche, falling rocks, traffic snarls and bed bugs with courage. Ladakh teaches you how to survive all odds and emerge victorious. It has almost been six months now but I still remember every day of our itinerary. The laughs, the time we shared together is a sweet memory, which I want to relive every day. I earnestly hope one day, again, we take the plunge and drive to yet another enchanting land. What say guys? Is it Spiti next?