The Prof. joined yesterday, flying in, and contracted mild AMS this morning at we passed through Chang La. He was pretty much passed out at the pass, muttering grimly with eyes tight shut if we prodded him, but otherwise marginally less interactive than a backpack.
Chang La wasn't the highest pass - 17,800 feet - but it was definitely the coldest. There must've been a cold wave last night; stepping out of the vehicles was like entering a world made of icy knives stabbing straight through thermals, jackets, scarves and the works. In seconds we were chilled to the bone.
Shivering, chattering and trying to huddle into our clothes, we watched enviously as one of the locals, filled with life and good humour in his perfect fur coat - trotted up to welcome us. I envy these guys; huge buggers, bushy, and completely at ease in sub-zero temperatures.
Yep, sub-zero; the water runoff from melted snow during the day had frozen into a thin scrim of ice, crackling under your feet as you walked across the little plateau to the tea-shop.
Everything is hardy and tough here; even in this sunless, frozen, barren land, life finds a foothold - however hard it may be - and survives. Lichen, growing on bare rock, living off the ice. The touch of green that said to the universe - Do your worst. I live.
We spoke with a jawan there - Rohan, from Rajasthan - who was on recovery duty. Recovery? Here? Yep - his last posting was Siachen. These guys are posted there for three months, most of which is completely sunless, filled with howling wind and bitter cold. The best equipment fails and falls short. It begins with a killer 3-day climb to the top of the glacier, to the camp, to acclimatize themselves; then three months of turbochilled hell. When he returned, he said, for a long time, he would find his arms and legs spontaneously shaking, trembling with the memory of that bitter winter when warmth would vanish into the void and all that would be left would be the grey, snow-drifted shivering. It sets into your bones, that cold, into your psyche. Yet they do it, all the time, stationed there and losing fingers, toes and skin to frostbite, an implacable, omnipresent enemy far greater than the one they had been officially sent to fight. And most of us never even know about their struggle, let alone acknowledge it.
Next time you look northwards, remember that - somewhere in the distance, at an unimaginable height, someone is slowly dying in a land never meant for human beings to survive. And he's there, so that you can stand in the sun and live the life you have. Remember that.
Our next destination is another famous landmark - Pangong Tso (which Rc insisted on calling Lake Pang-Pong throughout his entire trip).
We look out through the jeep windows at a battered, broken windscape, a land of frozen geological violence; unchanging even as it twists itself into tortured new shapes. It's a world of impossible scales, where distance and time recede out of our comfortable frames of reference; It's big, it's old... it's implacable. It stuns you, all the time.
Reality, if one spends enough time here, starts getting distinctly shaky.
A last patch of green, rough scrub grass on which wild(?) horses were grazing in the far distance, playing, running free...
It's the highest saltwater lake in the world; 134 km long, extending two-thirds into China. Freezes in the winter. No vegetation; dramatic, bare rock, and water in shades of blue, grey, aquamarine, green, and everything in between. The sky's breathlessly clear, between glaring-white clouds that scud across the sky, too fast, too close; it's like watching a special effect. The mountains are completely denuded, raw, dramatic rock. The lakeshore is rough gravel and pebbles, and the lake itself is smooth, but just sufficiently breeze-ruffled to not be a mirror surface; and somehow, I feel that's good. otherwise it may have been too... filmi? This is more real. Greyed skies, mist-shrouded horizon, pebbles underfoot, and the constantly-changing colors of the lake...
When we arrive, there's already a group there, a couple of Innovas parked at the lakeshore; fortunately, they leave soon. Serenity comes as the growl of their engines fades, and we stand for a while, watching the edges of Tibet lost in the faraway mist.
But sometimes, in places like these, when confronted with this beauty, you can get caught up in capturing it on camera so much that you forget to capture it in your mind... and all the best-in-the-world pictures become meaningless, images with no memory attached. You have to remember how it felt, how it touched you. I take what pics I want, and spend some time sitting there, walking around, just... looking.
RSS promptly goes for his gold flakes, but finds it hard going; cigarettes don't stay lit in the thin air. in fact, he's finding it tough keeping himself going.
The water is crystal clear, and as I wade in, so cold that I lose feeling immediately knees downwards. Rc actually manages to strip off and swim, though how he managed to do that, I'll never know. The thawing rush of blood back into your feet as you come out, dry off and get back into your shoes is indescribable; it's like a whole new set of feet is growing, coalescing out of hot blood from the numbness. It feels like being... not born, but created.
There's a brief patter of rain, a bitter, freezing wind rising. Time to start heading back; on the return route, the Pagal Nala will be rising. It's a stream of snowmelt; too late in the day, the sun's heat swells it to proportions that are sufficient to overturn trucks and sweep away cars. We will just about making it, skidding and sliding.
Pangong is - ethereal. Dozens of shades of blue water, under a stark sky in a martian landscape; the eyes scream for green. Every color in the spectrum glows, and a couple of shockingly-white gulls wheel over the water. An alien land.
Stopover for lunch at a tent dhaba on the way, hot omlettes, parathas, bread, tea... and archery practice.
Another stopover near Changla where we relax for a bit in the snow...
...and I leave behind an impression... at least for a few hours. Until the snow melts, softens the outlines, gets covered in the next fall... a part of me stays behind.
Thanks to the Border Roads Organization, the Ladakh roads have personality. They keep chatting with you - coquettish, nughty, nerdy, Smokey the Bear, serious, tongue-in-cheek, and sometimes, profound. At regular intervals, there are little yellow concrete plaques with a one-liner. Watch for them.
This evening, we head back into Leh, for a seedy bar tucked away in a corner of the market. It's filled with foreign tourists, guides, and some locals. The bar is raucous and blazing while the rest of the city shuts shop, goes tight-lipped, quiet and dark; this is another face of Leh, a miniature model of what Leh itself is. Just as the city defies the Himalayan night, this little bar defies the city with light, warmth, music and song. In a dozen languages, from a dozen countries.
Usually at the same time.
Mr. Fulsok has been visiting this bar regularly for many years now; he describes how these are the times when we see it at it's loudest. In the non-season, it's just the locals, who will sit and wait for the summer in grimmer, alcohol-blunted quiet. He owns a book shop in Leh, and he leaves with an invitation to drop in anytime.
By the time we leave, the cabs have all packed up (and the occasional few that pass have a single message - "No space! No space!") and everything is closed; it's a long but pleasant walk back to the Kaal.
Next: Basgo, the ghost capital; Likir monastery, and Pathar Sahib Gurudwara