Thursday, July 24, 2008

Ladakh Trip: Day Thirteen. The Trek Begins.

Parkla village, outside Leh. 8 AM. Our heavy backpacks are loaded up on mules, while we carry a small daypack with water, snacks, camera and basic survival kits.

Just as well, really. While we may be all gung-ho and acclimatized and all, I personally don't want this trek to be a struggle for existence, toiling up bent double under the weight of an overenthusiastically packed backpack. It might get us through every disaster short of the Great Flood and shark attacks, but I'd rather enjoy the weather, the view and the sun. At least on this trek, where we have the option.

And talking of sun, we get it in spades. The first day's trek is quite short, just about 6 hours at a gentle slow pace, but most of it is in direct sunlight, through a barren mountainscape. Vast open spaces, distant saw-toothed ranges shimmering in the haze of distance.

Ns goes off on his own path, and forty-five minutes later, we see him as a speck on the flatland below. Do that in the Sahyadris and you'd be irrevocably lost. Here, in this openness, it's impossible.

There's pin-drop silence. Even the wind has fallen, so you can hear conversations happening kilometres away. The group separates along the usual lines - the enthu leaders (Ns) going full speed ahead; the less-enthu leaders going steadily along, knowing that this is the best position for lots of frequent rest stops, photos, and breaks (Me and St); the main body of people chattering away as they climb; and the trailers, of people who're finding this hard going, with their minders.

And, of course, the mules, who left around half an hour after us, caught up a third of the way along, and had unloaded and set up long before we reached.

I know I've been giving you readers an overdose of 'open, empty, vast,' etc, but you can't get over it. It hammers at your mind, forges new ways and a new pace of thought. Distractions, concerns, routine, and the past get sucked away into that emptiness; like osmosis, diffusing further and further outwards into the void, trying to fill it, until they're gone. All you have left is the sound of your breath, your footsteps, the prickle of ultraviolent on your skin where the sunscreen's worn thin, the gentle gurgling of the water bottles in your pack, and faraway sound of voices occasionally carried on the breeze. All you think of, here, is what you come up with there and then.
They say, you can never run away, leave it all behind - it isn't true. You can. A life can irrevocably change, just a few hours into this walk.

Jingchan camp.
A loose collection of parachute tents alongside a stream, several small open spaces for the mules and horses (and foals), a swept clearing where we set up our technicolor tents, and a powerful, pervasive, and penetrating scent of manure.
Manure is an aspect of the trek that's always with us; if there are mules, there will be the stuff, everywhere. Most of it is dry and powdery, and not really unpleasant; just very organic and strong. You get used to it by the end of the first day, and by the second, it's unnoticeable.

Ns has been looking fairly uncomfortable for a while now, and finally comes up and tells us why. The pressure is rising, and, in the charmingly appropriate simile that I was introduced to on my first Sahyadri trek five years ago, a 'fax' is imminent. But there don't seem to be any loos around...?
We have to explain the concept of finding a bush or a boulder to him. He is horrified. The girls promptly grab him and whisk him off to teach the science of finding a proper spot to do the business... which will always be, from today onwards, called an N-spot.
The rest of the afternoon goes in dozing and chatting by the banks of the stream, having chai and snacks, chatting and watching the legs of a firang trekker in tank top and microscopic shorts, apparently building a dam in the stream a little way off.

As evening comes, boredom drives me, Yg, Rp, Mi, and Ni to explore the area. A quick rock-climb at the end of the camp up a rock wall, and suddenly we're in a lush green wood, the stream running through it, and a path. We follow it down. After a bit, we notice there are footprints on the trail as well - of bare feet. Not ours.
It's dead silent.

We emerge, in a few minutes, into an open space. There seems to be a deserted village here. some low, roofless walls with tightly-shut doors. Taller walls with barred, closed windows. Rows of batteries on the sills. Haphazard piles of wood and hay. Not a sound, not even birds or dogs.

We walk along a rise, where we can see into one of the walled-off areas. There's some kind of a thing leaning against one of the walls. Taller than a man, covered with a thick, black bushy, matted pelt of coarse black fur. A distinct snout and pricked-up ears. We stare at it for a while, but none of us can figure what the hell it is. It's getting darker, and the place is beginning to creep us out. We turn a corner, and find a basket lying on it's side... gently rocking. As we look at it, it slows to a stop and lies there.

On the walls, there are cow skulls hung up, encased in a wicker contraption.
Exactly at this point, a little piece of my mind experiences an out-of-body experience. It steps outside, and whispers into my ear, 'Hey, Ashish, do you remember The Blair Witch Project? Didn't you see it, like, three weeks ago?'

And with dreadful clarity, I remember everything. Little wicker and wood figurines hung up in trees. The same eerie silence, the descending dusk. The fact that I have the handycam in my hand. The fact that We're in the middle of nowhere with no cellular coverage. The fact that everyone involved in that movie died horribly, usually involving finding their shattered teeth later under little rock piles. The fact that Mi, who's climbed up a short ladder to peer in through a broken door, is leaping backwards and running towards us, eyes open wide and frozen in panic. The fact that a wrinkled brown face under a shock of virulent red hair is emerging from the broken door.

Heheh. Did that scare you? It scared the crap out of us. Obviously, this is where the camp guys lived; they won't hang out in parachute tents in the deep winter, will they? The hay is for the mules, the wood for fire, the skulls are local religious icons, and the wrinkled face is somebody's mother who likes her hair colored. But for a few moments, we all had that feeling of muscles turning to water in panic. Though in all fairness, we must have given an equal scare to the poor old lady as well, who's now grinning gap-toothily at us and telling something in ladakhi to Yg, who's smiling and nodding back, repeating 'Julley' in relieved incomprehension.
Once our respective hearts had returned from mouths, we decided to call it a day for exploration and headed back for tea and story-telling time.

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