Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Ladakh Trip: It's not over yet.

Hah - abhi khatam nahin hua.
I'm not back in regular life yet. I'm in a limbo, in the Delhi-Bombay train bound for home; but Routine hasn't yet started to force me back into the groove.

What am I taking back from this trip?
A sense of discpline, a tolerance for extremes?
Trekking to 16,300 feet on burning lungs, deadwood legs, and making it?
Playing a diesel drum by a campfire, singing in the firelit warmth?
The sight of the galaxy sprawled across the sky?
The silence of the monasteries?
The people we met?
That sense of being cut off from everything that tied you to your old life?
How people changed on this trip?
How I changed?

These are things I am going to remember for a long time. There are a few incidents in life, a few experiences, that can alter the course you had been on. Destiny shapers. I don't know where this trip's experience will take me - but I definitely know one thing, that change something it will. I know I'm not the same person who came here. I know I'm moving on a slightly different life-path now.


And the recap -

Day 1: From Mumbai to Delhi - Train trip
Day 2: Delhi - A short rest
Day 3: From Delhi to Manali. Bus trip, hitchhiking, getting there
Day 4: The Journey Begins - Manali to Sarchu.
Day 5: Getting to Leh: Second part of an epic drive
Day 6: Leh: Acclimatization and exploration
Day 7: Khardung la, Nubra, Diskit, Alchi
Day 8: Panamik and the return
Day 9: Chang La and Pangong Tso
Day 10: Pathar Sahib, Basgo, Likir, Ulley Topko
Day 11: Lamayuru Monastery and the Shanti Stupa
Day 12: Rafting the Indus: adventures and misadventures
Day 13: The Stok-La Trek begins
Day 14: Rumbak
Day 15: Stok La Pass
Day 16: Changma Party
Day 17: Return to Stok, leaving Leh

Ki Ki Soso Larghyalo.
Keep us safe on this journey...

Monday, July 28, 2008

Ladakh Trip: Day Seventeen. Return to Stok.

A long, leisurely walk back to Stok, where As and M, who have taken the last six days to freak out in shopping, setting contacts, and exploring the city.

We return to Ladakh Serai, where after a week, I finally have a full, regular, long hot shower. Emerge feeling extraordinarily evolved, glowing with cleanliness from within - it's like I've taken my soul through a car wash and a five-star spa.

A session in the afternoon with Godfather beer. Everyone knocked flat.

Evening, take St to Leh Market, where she makes up for the deprivations of the last week in a titanic explosion of retail therapy.
Ns decides to head to Dharamshala instead of staying with us; he's taking an overnight return Tavera cab to Manali, who will do the 48-hour trip in a screaming, terrifying, 14. We wish him the best and pray for his soul.

I pack by candlelight, dumping inessentials, guesstimating weight, etc, and sleep, to be woken up at 4 am for my flight. Luggage limit is 20 kg. My luggage weighs 19.8. Am I good or what?
The departure lounge has only foreigners.

The flight leaves on time - no bad-weather cancellations, which would have meant I get to see Kashmir with the rest of the group who's going on till there - until the engines roar, I get pushed back into my seat, and the holiday is finally over.

The last look back... icy peaks below. I feel... yes, sad that it's over finally... yet also, in some strange way, elated. This trip had been on my list of things to do for years. It's happened. And no way is this over. This has just been the beginning... and a list is unscrolling in my head, a list of names that ring with more cold, forbidding wastes, monasteries, peaks, valleys, walks, cold wind and warm fires...
The next 20 expeditions, from Kashmir to the Seven Sisters, are already being planned.


Sunday, July 27, 2008

Ladakh Trip: Day Sixteen. The Party.

An easy rest day, well-earned. Wake up for once not at the crack of dawn, but well into sunshine, opening the tent flap, looking out at the panorama and sunshine outside, and absolutely glow in the warm realization that today you don't need to go out and walk through it. When I turned over to snooze some more - that was the second-best snooze of my life.
(the best was in the depths of a Delhi December, foggy and icy, on a day when I had a holiday and my (severely hung over) roommates did not. I lay there under the rajai, telling them of the games I'll play and movies I'll watch and hot tea I'll drink, and hey, aren't you guys getting late for office?)

My tentmate, PP, appeared to be fondling himself in his sleep. I kicked him awake. He looked around, sighed, and explained that he was missing his wife. He said -
Ye bedard zamana kya jaane
Kya dard-e-judai hoti hai...
hum l**d pakar ke sote hain
har ghar mein ch**ai hoti hai...

Half the group departed for a walk; the rest of us stayed back, lazing around. Read The Pianist in two hours flat. Strolled down to the nearby Hotel Changma, another parachute paradise.

We had some curious visitors during the day, who walked into camp, peering at us, nuzzling, and generally getting friendly.

In the afternoon, PP decided to go for a lone walk. He's come a long way from being knocked flat by the height at Changla when he arrived... Ns told him, "PP, mera bhoot tujhme chadh gaya hai, aur tumhara mujhme..."
PP: "Yes but I would like it back, please."

The 5 returned, brimming over with ideas for the evening; some of us went and gathered up firewood; and, as expected, now that our camera batteries are stone dead, we have our closest encounter yet with Yaks, who burst through the underbrush while we were woodgathering, barely 5 feet away, and goggled at us in a frankly astonished way before proceeding.

For post-dinner, our camp cook managed to actually bake a cake(!!)

After dinner, we light the fire, and a dance programme ensues; the highlight of which is all the guys dancing to Choli ke Peeche. Yes, there is a video; I will somehow get it from As and get it here one day.
Ajay and Rinku get superexcited, and possibly fuelled by a few surreptitious visits to the kitshen tent, are full of vim and vigour and enthu. Rinku finds a diesel jerrycan, and drums out a beat while Ajay dances around, lost in his own world, to Ladakhi and Himachali folk-songs. Some of us encourage him with whistles, but the head guide shushes us. Since a few dogs had started barking at the Changma tent 2 km away, we asked, 'Kutte aa jaate hain?'
He gave us a very poker-faced look, and said, 'bahut kuch aa jaata hai' and refused to say more.
Dancing makes you gasp in minutes; we sit down, breathing the fragrant woodsmoke, and sing for a while, as the flames leapt and danced all by themselves now, a little spark pushing back the vast darkness.

And finally, it's time to sleep.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Ladakh Trip: Day Fifteen. Stok La.

Wake in the night, the moon so bright
Beating the alarm again, I walk into the dim dawnlight

Rumbak isn't completely flat... have to be careful how you orient yourself when sleeping. Don't want blood pooling in your head...
It's bitterly cold. My whole body's frozen solid. Fifteen minutes of shivering, stumbling movement, staggering in circles to warm up before heading out to find an N-spot. Faint footsteps as somebody else on the same quest strolls around in the dark. Everything numb. Knees weak and stiff, legs trembling.

Today will be the toughest yet - we're going to do two days' walk in one, reaching the next point to give us more time inside the park.
Today, we're going to scale the pass - Stok-La.

Dawn breaks, the peaks erupt with brilliance. A gold-red glow flows down the slopes, slowly trickling downwards as the sun rises. We pack up quickly, a small light breakfast, and by seve, we've started walking.

The next four hours are a haze. Initially it's fine, a gentle slope, and us full of energy. And it keeps going - on and on and on. The slope gets steeper. Breath runs shorter and shorter, until I'm gasping. Head pounds. Lungs burn. Legs are literally screaming for the oxygen that just isn't there.
I'm taking five steps, resting. Five steps, rest. Five steps, rest.
I and St struggle up, encouraging each other periodically, in second place; Nm has gone charging ahead, determined to prove he's not a typical lazy Indian bugger to the group of Germans who crossed us early on, completely kitted out and lugging giant backpacks, several of them well beyond fifty. Everyone else trails far, far behind.

The landscape is saw-toothed and jagged, harsh and savagely beautiful. Blue sky, distant clouds. The horizon is clustered with needle teeth. A sudden break when a young woman in neon-green lycra shorts from a different group just in front of us decides that she has to take a dump; and since there's no place but the path, she does it on the path. I have to stand staring tactfully back at the rest of our team until St gives the all-clear and we proceed.

Himachal and Ladakh is filled with these messages, written by the displaced populace now living in political asylum here.

Rock lichens, blazing orange unexpected life on the sterile stone... the slopes are getting steeper. My head has started to pound, now. Resting is a rare luxury - it's only the trail, and just the trail, that's my universe. All else is steeply-slanted scree, only too eager to send you skating down the slopes with twisted ankles and skin scraped raw, on a single misstep. Nowhere to sit. You just keep walking, cursing-singing in your head...

One bloody foot
after the next bloody foot
One bloody mile
after the next bloody mile...

- The French Foreign Legion's unofficial marching song

The local fauna watches us in amused bemusement, munching peacefully on the scrub as we struggle past.

And the slope gets even steeper. S-bend after S-bend. Scrabbling on sliding pebbles and dust. Pause and turn around - Rv has commandeered a horse to carry her, and is plodding gently along. The Professor is showing a sudden dramatic increase in fitness and energy and is catching up with her. Ns is just about a hundred feet away. Look the other way, ahead, up, up, and Nm is at the top, sitting on a rock and peering down.

Whoops. Looking up was a bad idea. Wait for the flashing lights and the ringing in my ears to fade and start again. Now doing little baby steps. Each leg weighs more than a mid-sized car. The mules also cross us, and it's a terrifying sight; each mule has to be physically pushed up by a guide, to stop it from slipping down.

Ns passes us a few minutes later, looking a bit wild-eyed but otherwise doing ok. The scree gives way to a sixty-degree rock spine, made apparently of petrified razor blades.
Walking not possible anymore, we start rock-climbing. It's a relief in a way - my arms can do some of the work now, and my climb up is virtually a series of boosted push-ups, hauling my body along while the feet just about keep up.

The rock is shattered, splintered, and really, really pointy; I stop feeling the edges after a while, and pain fades away. The biggest mistake you can make is get over-excited and try to finish it quickly; it's higher and tougher than you think, and extra effort only makes you dizzy and queasy. Climb - rest - climb - rest - slowly - steadily - wait for the dizziness to fade - climb again - until suddenly, a panoarama opens up of a beautiful valley before you, framed by fluttering prayer flags.

I've done it. I'm at the top.
Sit among the razor rocks, staring at the distance-hazed snowcaps, feeling my heartbeat slow down to near normal.

Nm and Ns are standing at the top, looking each other up & down. Before I continue, let me update you - the last few days, Nm has been drinking out of a hydration pack he picked up recently. The hydrapak is a flexible watertight container, with a long rubber tube and a bite-valve at the end; you keep it in your backpack, loop the tube out, and bite down on the rubber valve at the end to open it and allow the water to flow, every time you want a drink. It saves you from stopping and taking out a water bottle.

Ns pulls an Appy Fizz out of his pack, takes a sip, makes a disgusted face, and offer it to Nm.
Ns: Nm, apple piyega?
Nm: Tu kuch bhi pila yaar... mein piyega
Ns: Mutthi piyega?
Nm: Nikaal.
Yg: Yaad rakh - pichhle 10 din Nm ko peene se pehle zor so kaatne ki aadat ho gayi hai...
Ns: .....!!!

We hang up our own prayer flag line, and start heading down again on the other side. It's a vast panorama of green hills, and to reach them, there is a long, winding, trail through a mountainside of scree, sand and pebbles.
Our guide does an Indiana Jones on us, lacing up his boots and launching himself onto the slopes, and sliding down at 500 kmph, somehow managing to stay upright in a cloud of dust. An animated meteorite going for a crash-landing.

A series of disasters now proceeds to unfold. I twist an ankle. Ns tries to imitate the guide and twists his ankle as well. St manages to get stung by something, and gets the sting stuck inside her skin; she sits and starts frantically chewing gum like a turbopowered chewing machine to make a sting remover. Rv, amazingly, unceremoniously dumps the horse, launches onto the slope, and reaches the bottom in 30 seconds, safe and sound, as scree patters to a stop around her and the dust settles. For the rest of us, it takes two hours. The Prof turns a pretty boiled-lobster-pink in the sun, and I give him some sunscreen. He responds by comparing me to a Community Living Textbook. Yg gets attacked by vicious caterpillars. And finally, by the time we reach a small claring at the bottom of the slope, ns has come down with AMS. He pushed himself too hard while climbing and spent too much time at the top.

'Ladakh really is the land of extremes,' said Ns, emerging from behind some rocks fifteen minutes later, 'I was puking and shitting at the same time. What is this, yaar?'
PP agrees with him by sharing his extreme experience as well on the climb up, where he went from acutely constipated in the morning to acute loose motions 3 hours later.

Walked a while longer, into the sanctuary, passing herds of wild Bharal perched on the sheer rock faces around us (who gave Nm a brilliant Nat-Geo-worthy photo-op) until, by dusk, with perfect timing, we reached our camp at Changma.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Ladakh Trip: Day Fourteen. Rumbak.

I find my own N-spot early in the morning. It feels - as Dave Barry says - good, but also very fundamentally wrong. Your civilized mind is still going, 'Hey! Did you lock the door? Where's the walls?' while nature takes it's course.
Ns, too used to western-style, finds his legs aching painfully, and described his experience as a series of alternating hops, cramps, scrambles, and stretches.

Our guide, Mutuk, leads the way across Hemis National Park, a high-altitude national sanctuary (and, incidentally, India's largest sanctuary, a fact I didn't realize until a year later). You have a chance to meet Argali, Bharal, Shapu, ibex, tibetan wolves, himalayan marmots, brown bears, mountain weasels, golden eagles, and, of course, the peak of the ecological food-chain pyramid, the famous Snow Leopard.

close encounters with Snow Leopard
- unfortunately, not by us

Occasional caravans of donkeys meander past, with a single or two weathered-faced drivers, wrinkles crinkling in grins and the ubiquitous 'Julley!' as they ride past. The scenery is changing now, and the barren lands are gone - now it's shadier, between the rocks and in narrow valleys, surrounded by juniper, dry birch and fir trees.

Solar cooker

Pass through a village, where we're greeted by a sudden rush of excitedly squealing children, and their mothers sitting in a group at a doorstep, sorting grain. We pause for a bit here, letting the rest of the group catch up, at a local - temple? Holy spot? Something like that, anyway, marked by a collection of bones and skulls painted a blood-red and decorated with ibex horns.

Have lunch, and continue. Not a good idea. The food sits heavy in our stomachs, and it's tough going. By the time we reach Rumbak, my legs are heavy, lungs labouring, head pounding with oxygen lack and black spots doing the occasional swirl in my vision. Perspective is all wrong - everything is too far away. Distances you thought you could walk in ten minutes take nearly half an hour to complete.

Rumbak campsite is in the middle of a flat bowl-shaped valley, surrounded on all sides by mountains, perched dead center in a flat plateau. No vegetation at all. Or rocks. Finding the N-spot here tomorrow morning is going to be a serious issue. Yes, there is a hut-like thingy off to the side, with a dry pit underneath - but trust me, you do not want to go in there. You just don't.

Mutuk catches forty winks while evaluating his charges' chances of surviving the next 72 hours

Take a bath in a stream, though I'm still dead tired and gasping, because in another forty minutes the sun will slip behind the mountain and it'll be too cold to even think of water. It's cold all right, but not icy. With every mugful, energy comes roaring back - this is unbelievably refreshing. This is like magic. I bathe, wash a change of clothes, hang it on a couple of posts to dry, and I'm literally bounding around like a rabbit, I'm feeling so fresh. In fact, I inspire Ns to do it too - who in turn inspires St, who builds an elaborate bathing tent for herself.

Now, I desperately need tea - dusk is falling, and I can't feel my fingers anymore.

Professorism #2: Prof. PP checks out the loo hut, and makes a very significant observation - "Couples will like this. The romantic thing is that, in the bathroom, they have put two stools."
Ah. The Defecating Duo. How truly romantic, indeed...

Set up the dining tent, and recharge with boiling-hot tea (and more importantly, in a boiling-hot mug) as night falls.
Stare up at the sky at night - They say you can see 3,600 stars in the night sky from the ground. In a city, you're lucky to get to a hundred. Here - it's a blaze. With no light-pollution from streetlights and traffic leaking into the sky, you can see big stars, small stars, tiny stars, something that could be planets, the occasional spark of a satellite or maybe the ISS slowly moving across the firmament...

For the second time in my life, after almost fifteen years, I can see the galaxy we live in again.

(image courtesy wikipedia. My digicam can't do brilliant stuff like this)



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