It all started with one moment of decision making under the influence of alcohol. Someone said, ‘let’s go to Leh’. I said ‘sure. Why not?’ Without thinking, as you do in such circumstances. It was only much later when I was asked to shell out not an unsubstantial amount of money for the trip, I started to look a bit more closely with the trip.
“Let’s do some charity work”. ‘Get involved with Utsaah’, Arun said. Again, I said yes without thinking. It was much later while researching into the trip that I realised what I was getting into. I did not know Leh was up in the Himalayan mountains at a height of over 3400 meters and the mountain sickness starts well before you reach that height. I wanted to avoid the dreaded altitude problems ever since I went almost blind on top of Kilimanjaro all those years ago. A little man inside me kept saying ‘it won’t happen to you. Not this time when you are nowhere near the height of Kilimanjaro.’ Extensive research into the sickness did not bring much joy as it was filled with contradictions to shame the United Nations. There was anything from ‘Nothing will happen in Leh’ to ‘you might die’ with a wide range in between.
After a lot of soul searching, I paid up the charges and started preparing for the trip. As soon as friends found out about the trip, the prescriptions of what I must do, and I mustn’t do came thick and fast. One good-hearted friend said, ‘first few days, you don’t move a muscle. Take a lift even for first floor.’ It made me laugh thinking about the preparation for the Kilimanjaro climb. It was over 20,000 feet compared to 12,000 feet of Leh.
Journey Begins: Laughs and lights of Delhi.
We landed in Delhi late night on a Saturday with an uneventful flight through London. The Taxi driver was full of politics of India, which I am sure would be fascinating if you knew who the proponents and opponents were or at least know some simple basics of the shenanigans going on. He had said it will tale ’20 mins only sir.” After sitting in the sweltering taxi for about an hour struck in what appeared to be peak traffic at around 1 am, he said, “we are almost there sir.” It was only another half an hour later that it disgorged the huge suitcases and four passengers at the Hotel Claridge’s – an ornate looking colonial mansion turned hotel. Four starving guests were fed by the helpful hotel staff with ice cream and yoghurt and we were upgraded to a “superior room.”
We had twenty-four hours to kill before starting our adventure in Leh. We decided to make the best of it. With our good friend navigating, it too us twice as long to find the National museum. It had been improved beyond recognition from my previous visit a few years earlier and we were not disappointed. The artefacts had obviously been re-catalogued and mounted on the walls and display cabinets to an excellent standard. We thoroughly enjoyed the visit and learnt a huge amount of our ancestral history. The afternoon and evening were spent in wandering around Chandni chowk – filled with thousands of seedy restaurants, street hawkers as well as some branded shops. It seems to be a melting pot of what Delhi had become – a cultural amalgamation of peoples of all religions, colours, sexes and other wise. The Aloo tiki from the ‘world famous bakery’ to Rabdi with hot ‘Jalebi’ from ‘old famous Jalebi Wala” to “famous Paranhte Wala” in Paranthe Wala gully.” Went down a treat if you did not notice the open sewer flowing next to it or a jumble of open electric cable just hanging loose overhead. We turned a blind eye to hygiene and risk of being electrocuted and tried the delicacies with mixed results. Either by luck or design, none of us fell ill and made it safely back to the sumptuous quarters of the Claridge’s Hotel.
Day One: Journey into life.
The following morning, we loaded the little Maruti van with five of us and enough luggage to sink a tanker and were at the Indira Gandhi Airport well in time for our flight. Everyone wanted to sit at the window. We had been told the vista of the Himalayas from air is worth dying for by everyone we spoke to. And they were not wrong. We were lucky to have a clear run to Leh and once we reached the mountains, we could not keep our eyes away from the window. At last we saw the tiny town of Leh from the air where the airstrip dominated the landscape and landing the huge plane down into the Indus valley was nearly as fascinating as the flight over the Himalayas itself. We were welcomed by two Ladakhi men with a permanent smile on their faces. We had to drive through the centre of Leh town to reach the resort. It was one of the nondescript towns, which you pass through on any highway in India and forget the minute you pass them.
The resort itself was fascinating. Built by two intrepid Ladakhi mountaineers, many years ago as a cluster of tents on one of the slopes outside Leh, it had mushroomed into a beautiful resort of mud-built villas, spartan and yet luxurious with all the modern amenities you can think of a wood-burning stove in the middle. The use of mud, straw and wood for heat conservation was impressive. Nothing it seems was allowed to go to waste. The vegetable for the restaurant was grown on site using organic methods with no use of pesticides and fertilisers.
We were welcomed with a ginger and lemon concoction which went down very well among the guests. After brief introductions we were told to rest and get acclimatized by the organiser of the trip, Sunil Chauhan, a veteran mountain man. The evening saw a group of divergent people, ranging from teachers, social workers, Psychiatrists, entrepreneurs, IT specialists and scientists bundled together in a quaint wooden hut with a large image of Buddha in the corner. Sunil started the ball rolling with a brief introduction to the project and aims and objectives. It soon became clear to me that I may be the odd one out with no clear idea how I can be of any use to the project. The time table of Sunil, had us meeting a wide range of people over the following days. I could only hope that things might become a bit clearer as the days progress and I might find my place in the group. Dire warnings of consequences of being too enthusiastic too soon were being repeated at every opportunity. I wasn’t going to do anything to repeat the experience of Kilimanjaro where I nearly died near the Gilman’s point at 18,300 feet. There were a few already feeling the effect of altitude even though we were only just above 11500 feet.
The Ladakh Sarai resort just outside Leh was idyllic set among the tall poplars and colourful apple trees. The construction impressed me with the building of structures around the existing trees rather than cut them down. The food was amazing and many dishes which I had not tasted before.
Day Two: Lesson in history
This was the first day of the activities of the project. I woke up to the chirping of birds and tranquil haze over the Stok Kangri facing our window. I watched as the sun came up around 6 in the morning as a golden sheen over the tips of the mountains covered in snow. A small blob of white cloud sat on one of the peaks smoothing out the harsh edges of the peak. The play of light and shadows over the mountains as the sun came up was fascinating to watch. The shadows deepened in the crags to make the snow look brilliant white. It was a magical scene to watch from our bedroom window. I had to force myself away from the window to get ready for the day’s activities.
The morning saw a Mr Shaikh, a sprightly octogenarian scholar-writer-historian with numerous books to his credits sharing his experience and vast knowledge of history of the Ladakh going back to the stone age. His chronological memory of thousands of years struck everyone in the room. He spoke of the silk-road and the trading caravans of the central Asia and Anatolia. I could almost see the lumbering carts pulled by bullocks along the high mountain passes as he described the traders in caravanserai of Siachen, Gilgit going down into the Swat valley. His description of rock inscriptions of Brahmi, Kharosthi and Pali along these trading posts took me back in time of Ashoka. The progression of Buddhism into the region and attempts to get into Tibet, eventual movement of Islam into the mountains, the struggle of the Ladakhi kings over the centuries and the eventual downfall of once powerful Ladakhi royalty was heartrending.
Day Three. School with a difference
We were driven to a school with a difference straight after breakfast. To call it a school would be disservice to the concept. I couldn’t think of a term for rebuilding of broken lives and careers of budding youngsters. It had a waiting list for admissions and was one of the sought-after schools in India. Not because of its academic accolades of Ivy league or first-class amenities of the expensive boarding schools with riding stables and swimming pools, which had sprouted across India. They took kids who had failed in their schooling or school dropouts and turned them into citizens of the world. What we saw at the school was nothing short of a miracle. There were no posh riding yards/swimming pools or state of the art IT systems. The buildings were spread out over an expanse of desert land on the banks of river Indus. Being in a rain-shadow region, they get a few inches of rain every year. Nothing grows there apart from on the banks of rivers Indus and Zanskar – almost like a string shaped oasis on either bank of the rivers. This particular part was even drier with sandy soil. The students along with volunteers had turned it into an oasis with vegetable patches and fruit orchards with apples and apricots. They produced their own electricity using homemade solar panels, Bio-gas for cooking, buildings made of mud, straw, waste paper and salvaged wood. They had built their own refrigeration system to keep their vegetables and milk using nothing but a fan, bucket of water and hessian sack. The students were made to take responsibility of different systems including accounting and finances and they virtually ran the school with the help of a few teachers and volunteers. The churned out 75 school failures and drop outs into full-fledged citizens every year.
The discussion about the project drew fair amount of praise along with a few criticisms from the visitors. The project inspired majority of the visitors and one or two of them were considering volunteering until they found out that the school gets around 5000 applications every year for volunteering. The day ended with booking two Enfield Bullet motorbikes to ride around the next day. I offered to ride pillion as it was over 40 years since I had ridden a motorbike. There were hoots and go for it calls from everyone at the table. I was persuaded by the idea of a gentle try out of the biked over a couple of hours and be back by lunch time.
Day Four: Open roads.
I was looking forward to this day with mixed emotions. Excitement of riding the open mountain roads and an apprehension of sitting on a bike with a stranger on the infamous Indian roads. There are no traffic rules as no one follows any traffic rule. There is only one rule – go forward, no matter what. People, animals, other vehicles or any other obstructions are just there to be pushed aside and the traffic lights are ornaments of the road. My friend was ready in his bright red riding gear and I had my thermals and weather-proof jacket and gloves. A borrowed helmet was too tight and too late to get it changed. Two black Bullet motorbikes arrived on cue at around 9.30 and we set off on what promised to be a memorable journey.
The National Highway One, built by the Borders Road Organisation, which oversees all border roads was excellent and may be one of the best roads I have travelled on anywhere in the world. It winds through the majestic peaks of the Himalayas, skirting the Indus River before peeling off towards the frontier town of Kargil. It was exhilarating to ride along the open road with hardly any traffic enjoying the vista. First port of call was the confluence of the two rivers – Indus and Zanskar. A distinctively greenish blue Zanskar empties into the majestic yellowish green Indus in a deep valley measuring a kilometre across in places. The Indus emerges from a deep gorge eroded by the river over millennia. It is so deep that it is hard to see the river from the road at places. After taking on the Zanskar, it continues in a deep valley towards west.
We peeled off the Highway towards Likkir monastery, about sixty kilometres from Leh. This was where fun riding began with hairpin bends which almost worked back on themselves. The road was windy and steep along the slopes of the mountain range going slightly north by northwest. It was a tarmac road, which was just wide enough for one vehicle. I kept wondering what would happen if a truck came from the opposite direction. Luckily, we came across very few jeeps and managed to slip on the side. There were several hair-raising moments where I thought we weren’t going to make it. The roads were built on steep slopes with an odd barrier here and there. The tarmac had been washed away in several places leaving dirt tracks for roads. One mistake and you don’t stop till you reach the bottom several hundred feet below into a gorge.
Breath-taking scenery of the mountains and the valleys broken only by an odd oasis of green willows and poplars along a stream was worth the jarring ride. The lower slopes were mostly greyish brown rocks and scree with conical mounds of purple avalanches at regular intervals. The scree was so fine places it may well be a snow avalanche if not for the colour varying from pale mauve to deep purple. Higher slopes had steel grey, somewhat harsh granite appearance with deep bluish peaks capped with snow. Every now and then a dark green patch would catch our eye. Entirely different to the alpine peaks I was used to. There were no pine forests and hardly any deep greenery to speak of. Short purple heather dotted around in places and the trees concentrated mostly on either side of the streams and several minor rivers. The trees were mostly Kashmiri Willow and thin, tall Poplars. There were a few Junipers in the Hemis valley.
We reached the Likkir Gompa Monastery as the sun peaked and it was quite warm. It was a small monastery set up by a monk around 1065 AD and developed by one of the Ladakhi kings a couple of hundred years later. It had grown under his patronage and still attracted a fair amount of Buddhist pilgrims. We saw the golden statue of Buddha sitting on top of the monastery from the top of the valley glinting against the sun. It was a quaint little monastery with just over a hundred monks in residence and an active monastic school where any visitor is offered black tea. Unfortunately, the museum was closed for the day. It appeared to be completely deserted apart from a couple of visiting monks and us.
The fun started after leaving the monastery. The road became narrower and steeper with large segments of tarmac missing in places. We reached Hemis-shukpachan, the only town with Juniper trees. A sleepy little village with a single track road, which was probably tarmacked at some time in the distant misty past. I was later informed that the road was “new” and Hemis could only be accessed by a four-hour trek from the Monastery ten years previously. Our guide asked a passing villager for shop, who just nodded and beckoned us with a crooked finger to a box shop with shutters down. We bought a bottle of water and a sachet of mango juice from the only shop in the village, which was opened by the random passer-by. Our guide decided to take a bypass. To call it a road would be an injustice to all those roads world over. It was a rough-hewn path with loose soil and rocks marked on either side by stones. The only reason we could say that it was a road was because it was fenced off in places from a deep gorge on one side. It did not seem to bother our young guide, Thani, who scoffed at the danger and just opened the throttle a bit further around some of the twists and turns. My friend behind was having trouble with the surface and fell a couple of times. I had to run back every time he fell to help him up which did not do any good for my breathing. Every time we stopped to rescue him and the bike, he would ask our guide, “How many kilometres more before we reach a road?” There was consistency in his reply – “about twenty-five kilometres.” We did reach the tarmacked NH1 highway about two hours later much to my relief. We must have prayed to all the known and some unknown deities.
We reached Leh just as hundreds of trucks were queuing up to enter the city at the toll gate. We had to pay a princely sum of rupees 20 (about 20 pence) to enter the city and by this time it was very dark. My friend was following us behind and for some inexplicable reason switched his allegiance to a romantic couple on a different bike. Easily mistaken in the dark and dust of the roads. When we could not see him following us at the last turn into the resort, we were worried. I sent the guide back on his motorbike to look for him and waited at the circle watching hundreds of cars and trucks whizzing past. Luckily our guide found our friend waiting at an Enfield showroom asking for directions to a non-existent place. We were welcomed quite late at night to guffawing laughter of everyone at the resort. I was glad that some of us were happy with our plight of the day.
Day Five: Not all supermen wear cloaks.
By contrast, this was a day of sombre reflections and revelation of heroism of unprecedented scale. We were taken to a rather humble looking building, sparsely decorated but very clean amidst what appeared to be a ramshackle building site. We were welcomed by a pleasant lady with a typical welcoming Ladakhi smile and ushered into a large room with cushions on the floor. First thing I noticed was a gentleman in the corner precariously perched on a wheel chair in the corner – Mr Iqbal. He may not have any control over any of his shrivelled limbs but did appear to have control over his own life and several other disabled people in the unit. Despite being born with severe spastic paralysis, he refused to let it beat him down and was fighting tooth and nail to get ahead in life. Not to get riches or luxuries, but to get the luxury of respect, inclusion in the society and all the things we take for granted in our daily life.
Simple things like acceptance as an equal and to be given a chance to lead a normal life becomes important only when you don’t have them. There were several inmates, some five of them living in the hostel accommodation within the unit and some outside. They were taught skills in arts and crafts which were sold in the local market to sustain the unit along with some donations from a few donors. Their only wish was to grow big enough to be self-sustaining.
Our eyes were opened to the heroism of their leader as well as the inmates of the unit. They were fighting against a tide of social bigotry and apathy of the society and trying to keep their head above water with sheer determination of their leader, Mr Iqbal. I could see that many of our team members were deeply moved by what they saw and Vanessa, the itinerant Geordie of our team, particularly seemed to hit it off with one of the inmates. We browsed through their products, which included handmade note-books, wool purses, scarves, socks etc and everyone bought something or other. We were served lovely tea and biscuits and left the place happier than when we had gone in. The team was a lot quieter on the way back, each to his or her own thought. Mostly moved by what we had just seen and deeply thankful for what we have.
Day Six: Day of reckoning
Yet another freezing cold day, started with a beautiful sunrise over the Himalayan peaks. We were driven to a group of four metal Nissen huts on a slope on the outskirts of Leh. Once upon a time this apparently was a village bustling with people and their little huts and houses, kids playing in the streets. One fateful night in 2010, a flash flood had wiped the slope clean of everything that was in its path. Hundreds of people had died, and the few survivors were left penniless and with just the soggy clothes they were wearing that fateful night. Almost all the working men had died leaving distraught women and children. After several protestations, the government had built a couple of rows of metal sheds for people to live in. Tsering Dolma, entrepreneur, social worker, arts and crafts expert, dancer, actress – I could go one for a while – came in to help the women who were made homeless and destitute. The sorrow of losing the loved ones was deep and the scar was obviously still painful. We were introduced to the women folk who had survived the tragedy and living in those four huts. A distinguished lady was pushed forward to tell us about their story. The lovely lady who was showing the art of making dolls out of waste wool was asked to tell us her story, broke down when she had to recant her experience of that fateful night. Tsering was on her feet like a shot and had her arms around her.
Tsering with help of some of her own money and her husband’s, had set up a little unit to bring all these disenfranchised women under one roof, taught them the skills of making woollen products and sell them in her shop in town. She had hired a German expert in the art to learn and teach the others. Unfortunately for her, a disgruntled functionary in the local government took a dislike to the project and sent in bulldozers one night to raze their home to the ground. She had gone to the Deputy Commissioner and protested until he agreed to let the survivors move into what was left of the sheds. Now their unit survived in a group of four broken down metal sheds and they seem to be perfectly happy in it.
We were given a brief preview of the current situation of the unit by Tsering. She appeared somewhat ambivalent at where she wanted to go from here. She did not want the hassles any expansion would bring and at the same time she wanted a secure and larger place for the unit to continue. A pause for thought, I am sure. Our group was again moved by what they had seen and heard. There was intense discussion about how we can help.
Sunil, our man in charge had decided to let us have an easy afternoon. A short drive took us to the confluence of the mighty River Indus with Zanskar and was yet another feast for eyes. An ochre and green Indus comes out of a deep gorge gouged out of sheer mountain to grab the blue waters of the feisty Zanskar and move westwards on its majestic way to the plains of Pakistan. The confluence at the bottom of a deep valley takes your breath away.
Day Seven: A day of learning.
The temple situated within ten minutes’ drive of our resort was simple and elegant. The monk inside was anything but simple. Extremely erudite gentleman widely read and had published over 35 books to his credit. He had travelled widely during his training period, from Sri Lanka to Tibet. He gave us a brief expose of the Buddhism and there were quite a few questions about Buddha and his teachings from our team members. One or two of our team appeared to be interested in Tantric part of Buddhism. His description of the life cycle was impressive, and I could see how the imagery must have been used to teach the common man in the centuries gone by.
He accompanied us to Thickshey, where we had sumptuous lunch before moving on to Hemis Monastery. First impression of the monastery was as if the cluster of white washed buildings with red borders had been stuck on to the steep slopes of the mountain. It is huge. Probably one of the biggest and richest monasteries in Ladakh with over a thousand monks under its roof. Our Monk, who had accompanied us explained the history of the monastery and took us through the temples within the monastery and the massive museum. It hosted artefacts dating back to 5th century AD, including some of the statuettes of Buddha dating back to 5th and 6th centuries.
Our host, Sonam had organised three bicycles to be brought up to the monastery on a jeep. Three of us decided to cycle down to Stok, our next stop. The first fifteen minutes of going downhill at speed round steep corners was exhilarating with cold breeze biting through our cheeks. We weren’t doing too badly on the relatively flat bit either when, we were stopped by the fading light. We had to load the bikes back on to the Jeep halfway to Stok rather reluctantly. It also made sense, as we did not want to be tired out for the snow Leopard trek the next day.
Day Eight: An elusive Snow Leopard
The homestay in Stok village gave us a flavour of how the local Ladakhi people lived. They were extremely generous hosts and couldn’t do enough for us. We had to be up before dawn to set off at five in the morning in pitch darkness with our headlights and torches. Our hosts were up an hour earlier preparing our breakfast. Our guides, a group of four men, armed with powerful mounted binoculars were ready at the start of the trekking point. The leader gave us a briefing before we started, and the trek started slowly everyone following the torch light in front. The group was excited at the prospect of the climb, mixed with some apprehension made us a little more talkative than usual. The ascent in the beginning was gradual and by the time the sun broke through over jagged the mountain rim, it had become quite steep and some of us were struggling to keep up. By the time we climbed to the top of our first observation post, most of us were concentrating on preserving our breathing, as it was getting harder as we climbed. First of the observation post was set up soon after sunrise and we had our first glimpse of the blue sheep. It was a bit of a misnomer, as they were neither blue nor sheep. They looked more like goats and they did have a bit of blue tinge over the neck and rump.
I am sure everyone welcomed the first stop for breakfast on the banks of a rocky stream with many ancient willows with stunted trunks. Our hosts had overtaken us with hot breakfast and had a fire going to make piping hot coffees and teas. I soon realised that they could climb twice as fast as any of us. Our hostess turned out to be an ex-mountain guide who had climbed the steep Stok Kangri peak several times. As we followed the valley up towards Stok La and the Stok Kangri base camp, we sighted many blue sheep, but unfortunately no Snow Leopard. The ruins of the old fort of the Kings of Leh came into view as we turned yet another corner, perched precariously on top of a steep ridge. We wondered how anyone would build a fort at such an inaccessible place, when our guide explained – “They would trek up here to escape the marauding enemies when the going got tough.”
Some of the sections were quite steep and found some of us having to climb on all fours. We stopped at one of the camps en route to Stok Kangri and decided to turn back. We had climbed to just over 14500 feet by then. I was disappointed to find out that we were barely two hours away from the base camp at 16300 feet. We could see the snow-covered peak of the Stok Kangri in the distance shining against a sun that was starting to go down. The spot was well chosen for an out of this world vista. We were in a steep curve of the valley as it climbed inexorably towards Stok Kangri, with almost vertical cliffs on one side and jagged clines on the other. A lone eagle was flying in between the clines looking for its prey. We feared for the blue sheep on the far side of the valley, who were peacefully grazing on the steep cliffs.
We again stopped soon afterwards for a well-earned lunch. Our hosts had hauled up the food and when we reached the shaded grove with many stunted willows and bushes among the gently flowing stream, a cauldron was on a roaring fire. Our hosts were busy washing the vegetables in the sparkling clean stream and chopping them away. Hot coffees and teas were ready, as the group collapsed to the ground around the fire. It was not long before hot and amazingly delicious pulao was ready. It is an experience of eating such a delicacy at nearly 14000 feet, never to be missed. We followed the stream through the winding valley down the mountain. There trek down was strewn with rounded pebbles and one had to watch every step. It was dark by the time we reached the bottom and Stok village.
The day was not finished yet! The entire team was invited to the house we were staying in for a party! Our hosts had returned earlier than us after feeding us on the mountain to prepare a sumptuous dinner. It started off with the local drink, Chang. Brewed from local Barley, it went down quite well among the guests. It is an acquired taste. We also tasted the Yak Butter Tea churned by our hosts in the wooden Gurgur. The ladies got up and started dancing after dinner to the Ladakhi folk. It was lilting and beautiful and the dancers were so gentle and swayed like the barley plants one would see in the plains. It was with a sense of guilty relief that we went to bed that night.
Day Nine: Ride of our life
The day we were supposed to cross the second highest motorable pass in the world at Chang La, started with some disappointment. The “Inner Line Permit” to visit the lake was secure with Sonam. Heavy snow the day before had closed the pass. Our inimitable host, Sonam was however very reassuring. He loaded all of us into five jeeps and set off. We were not sure how he would take us past a closed pass. We were soon to find out when he made us sit in a roadside restaurant in Karu. It turned out to be a truck stop, mostly for the Indian army. Some of our team found a roadside café serving delicious hot paratha – a far cry from the deep-fried stuff we had tasted in Paranthe wale gully in Delhi. The news came around 11 that the Chang La pass was open, and we can set off. The Indian Army engineers obviously had been working hard to keep the pass open.
The drive up the mountain towards the pass was breath taking and, in some places, scary with entire sections of road missing. We were stopped well before reaching the pass by a long line of military trucks, busy attaching snow chains to the wheels. Our drivers took their chains out from the boot and did the same. It was soon apparent why the cumbersome chains were needed. The road ahead was treacherous and icy despite the fact most of the snow had been cleared by the army just that morning. Our drivers were expert in negotiating steep curves while trying to avoid slipping on ice into the abyss below. Sections where the tarmac road was missing was the hairiest with rubbles instead of helping made it even more treacherous to drive. Thanks to Padma Jorges and his team of expert drivers, we reached the second highest pass in the world without an incident. Chang La stands at 17590 feet and almost permanently covered in snow. Chang La means Northern pass in Tibetan language. We stopped at the only café for a drink to find oxygen cylinders for hire for those coming down with altitude sickness inside the café, not too far from the roaring fire of the stove!! Our Health and Safety officer would have had a fit! The usual advice by the health department is not to stay more than twenty minutes at this level to avoid getting altitude sickness. The nearest settlement is the remote hamlet of Tangtse and the only medical facility is with the Indian army in one of their camps.
The drive down to the Pangong lake was picturesque and as our jeep turned the last corner to the lake, the driver slowed down. There was a sharp intake of breath from everyone in the jeep. The early afternoon sun shone on bright cerulean blue waters of the lake, which seemed to go on forever. Cameras were out clicking away furiously as we skirted the lake for the next half an hour on our way to the resort. The lake appeared to change colours at will from different shades of blue to turquoise to green. The mountains on the other side of the lake tried to compete with the colours of the lake from a pale yellow to ochre and brown to deep purple with bluish green patches thrown in now and then. Some of them, particularly on our right were snow-capped.
We reached a cluster of white huts after crossing yet another boulder strewn stream. They looked like something you would see in a desert rather than the frozen Himalayan slope. I wasn’t impressed at first and thought we had turned up at the wrong place and stayed inside the warmth of the jeep while our group leader went in to a ramshackle group of buildings alongside the huts. It was freezing cold outside with sub-zero temperature made worse by the wind blowing across the lake. I couldn’t believe that these huts could be warm. They soon came back to the jeeps and announced we were in the right place and it was quite warm.
All of us got down with a great deal of reluctance and reticence and were quite surprised to find spacious, comfortable and warm suites. Ladakh Sarai was very impressive and served some of the best meals in Ladakh. Some of our hardy friends went outside after dinner to look at the sky. The Milky way was in its best with clear skies. The stars and planets I could so easily identify in Newcastle was almost impossible here as they were buried in trillions of stars that cluttered the sky. It was a sight to die for. Unfortunately, none of us had cameras good enough to capture the beauty of the Himalayan night sky.
Day Ten; Heavenly lake.
The next morning saw a crisp sunrise over the lake as the sun came over the mountain ridges on the far side of the lake. I was up early as usual and out for a brisk walk along the lake shore. It was bitterly cold with the arctic style wind slicing through the skin. I was grateful for the thermals and layers of jumpers and jackets with woolly hat. The sight of plastic bottles, bags, an odd slipper, paper plates and an odd life jacket strewn along the shore made me cringe at our fellow humans’ disdain for nature. I started to collect the rubbish and with the help of few of my team mates, managed to clear up nearly 3 kms of the beach that morning. It was an impossible task to clean the entire lake side. It was an abject lesson of how we humans are hell bent on destroying the only planet we know of that is habitable. I suppose Ladakh was paying the price for increasing the tourism. It also brought the destructive behaviour of the inconsiderate human beings in the guise of what can only be described as arrogant and inconsiderate rich tourists.
By the time we got back to the resort, news came through that the Khand La pass was closed with heavy snow. We were due to leave next morning to Nubra valley via the highest motorable pass in the world. While the news was slightly disappointing, we were not entirely unhappy. It meant that we had to stay an extra day at the lake. We could not have enough of the most enchanting lake anyone had seen. There were talks of climbing one of the smaller peaks by the younger lot, which soon fizzled out as tiredness set in due to high altitude.
Day Eleven; A reprieve of sorts.
This was the day of relaxation and exploring the lake. The entire day was spent wandering around the lake and enjoying the sumptuous meal that our resort chef cooked up for us. We must have clicked a few thousand snaps during that day from different angles. Couple of team mates were expert photographers, who took out their expensive equipment and made good use. Pangong is an endorheic lake at a height of around 14,500 feet and is vast. It is probably one of the remnants of the Tethys ocean from the Mesozoic era. Two thirds of the lake are in China and about 40% is on the Indian side. It is one of the highest salt water lakes in the world. It is about 134 kms in length and over 5 kms at its widest. There are several inlets along the course, but no outlets which explains the distinct lack of fish in the lake. Apart from a couple of types of fish in the Chinese end, the only life in the lake are some crustaceans. It also explained the lack of birds over the lake. There were some ducks and gulls which fed on the sparse greenery on the beach. Even though water is brackish with high salinity, it did not stop from completely freezing over during winter allowing the villagers to cross the lake on foot. There is no boating allowed on the lake on the Indian side due to security reasons.
The beauty of the lake is to be seen to be believed. None of the hundreds of photographs we took did justice to the colours of the lake. The light played on the lake caused it to change colour almost constantly and it was mesmerising. A cloudless sky reflected the colour of the lake with a deepest hue of blue that I have ever seen. We wandered around the lake shore for most of the morning and felt sad to leave a truly magical place. The entire place was deserted with the tourist season having ended a couple of weeks earlier. Only hardy souls like us would go so high up in the Himalayas when the lake was starting to freeze over. Most of the inlets had already started to freeze with thin layer of ice on top. We had to say good bye to the lake and make our way back down the mountain towards Leh through Chang La pass.
Day Twelve: Good bye.
The last day of our stay in Ladakh saw us meeting all the great souls who had opened our eyes and felt good to be alive. It was an emotional evening filled with stories, laughter, singing and dancing around a great log fire. There wasn’t a dry eye around the fire by the time the evening ended. We said good bye to some amazing individuals who had fought against all odds and continued to fight despite hurdles. The trip would be remembered for many things, not least of it the stark beauty of the Ladakhi mountain ranges, the majestic Indus river, a magical Pangong Tso lake, fascinating monasteries or never-ending strips of winding roads. But most of all the ever smiling Ladakhi men, women and children. We will definitely be going back.
“The Team UTSAAH has grown and is growing at the end of the trip”
This is what did some of the team members had to say about the journey;
“The conscious journey in Ladakh over 10 days is the most exhilarating experience I have had so far. One of the reasons this trip was phenomenal was the shared sense of purpose to learn from the people we met over 11 days. Another reason was to learn how to thrive (not just survive) with nature in all its glory. Ladakhis are truly remarkable people and I would want to take a lot more winter wear the next time or return during summer months; either way, another trip is worth every dime and minute spent on Ladakh. The best way to summarise this trip is it’s a sensory treat for the 5 senses (taste, touch, smell, eyes and ears) as well as for our brain. Remarkable journey with a wonderful after-taste to return and collaborate with Ladakhis in the future.”
“The journey to Ladakh was primarily a learning trip for me. I have volunteered for various organisations in the UK and wanted to learn about NGOs’ challenges and successes in India. The trip was a perfect combination of education and tourism for me. I learnt that despite numerous issues including a remote environment and, at times, inclement and dangerously cold/wet weather and little funding, Ladakh is full of generous and resilient people who relentlessly give of their best to improve the lives of their community. Ladakh is also 360 degrees of stunning scenery. Juley, Ladakh!”
‘The climb speaks to our character; the view to our souls’
This sums up my feelings about the Himalayas. Ladakh Conscious Journey’s Part 1 was being planned since mid-2017 under the UTSAAH umbrella. The idea was to take on a meaningful conscious journey to the mountains with a twofold purpose: (1) To interact with various charities and social entrepreneurs to determine the areas where they need help and how we could collaborate with them from the UK, and, (2) To experience the culture and way of living first hand.
This has been the most enriching experience of my life. We met many inspirational individuals on this journey. For E.g.: Tsering Dolma, a very dynamic and inspirational leader who started Ladakh Rural Women’s Enterprise. The women in this group lost everything in the floods of 2010, but today they are standing united in grief and making something good out of a terrible life changing tragedy.
Mr Iqbal, who runs PAGIR (Peoples Action Group for Inclusion and Rights). He is differently abled and has to rely on help for his everyday existence. Yet the strength of mind and a ‘can-do’ attitude to make not only his life, but the lives of many such people around him better makes me wonder who is differently abled here? A man who has striven to make a positive difference in people’s lives, despite every obstacle life could have thrown at him, or people like us who have so much to be grateful for, yet we often feel crippled with the challenges of life? Just as we left PAGIR, Mr Iqbal said, ‘I wish you all a lot of happiness and joy in life, May god bless you all’. The words settled in the air between us while I stood there in awe.
There are many such incredible stories of strength and resilience.
People of Ladakh have won our hearts with their attitude of sheer resilience, warmth and wonderful hospitality. Be it Ladakh Sarai Resort or the Home stays or Pangong Lake staff, we were welcomed with open arms and big smiles everywhere and thoroughly enjoyed the hospitality. Wherever we looked, we got incredible majestic views and smiles all around. The more I overserved these people, the better I understood that one doesn’t need a lot to be happy!
I warmly cherish the memories I made with our group of 15 amazing individuals. We had an interesting blend of personalities, cultures and professionals from different walks of life. I am grateful for the love and care I received from them. I came back with a bagful of memories for a lifetime and I hope to make many more in future.
As UTSAAH trustee, I am genuinely hopeful to carry on this dialogue further with a view to knowledge sharing, collaboration and making a meaningful contribution.
“Heroic humans and marvellous mountains – this is Leh / Ladakh! It is a place of dizzying dichotomies – fragility and strength, humility and pride, and real warmth… when the temperatures outside were sometimes below at times below freezing.
Our journey took us beyond ‘place’ and the usual tourist fare and connected us with real people from a range of community-led organisations who, with candour and zeal, explained the challenges they face and the opportunities they perceived to overcome these issues and improve the quality of life for the beneficiaries with whom they worked.
With each organisation we encountered, I was impressed and inspired with both the vision and commitment, and the ingenuity of practice and collaboration of all those involved. From SECMOL, with their progressive approach to empowering and educating ‘failing’ students using a syllabus that was relevant, holistic and applied in focus, to PAGIR, with their inclusive and positive practice in supporting differently-abled people, delivering real impact and tangible improvements to the quality of life of those who we met.
No one expected a handout. No one expected sympathy, or complained at the lack of government support, all were focused on what could be done and were busy doing it, rather than lamenting about what should be done but wasn’t.
The connections we formed were priceless. Language and culture were no barrier to connecting our hearts and minds. We shared a common moral purpose. We also shared our love for laughter and music; we sang and danced together and created memories I will treasure.
My commitment to volunteering and supporting organisations to create positive change, already at a level high enough to quit my job and come away for one year to India, increased immeasurably – such is the power of each human story of triumph over adversity.”
“Ladakh made a very special impression on my mind. The stunning landscapes and high mountains have created some very resilient individuals in Ladakh and they displayed the highest levels of community cohesiveness. Their humility is inspiring.”
An Ode to Ladakh
It is heavenly to see the sun rise
Over the blue mountains yonder
The mighty Himalayas rise
Majestically to compete with the stars
The ridge at the top covered in snow and ice
A lone eagle flying high on the thermals
A gentle stream flows down betwixt
The smooth stones of different colours
The cline rising up to the heavens
Filled by the many gentle ravens
Are the lofty mountains blue?
Nay they are purple and mauve every grain
The slopes of scree of every hue
Not of the rainbow, the noble mountain
They choose their own colours
Sienna, umber, crimson or even sap
The slopes covered in all flavours
For the Yaks, sheep and goats to tap
The God’s best artist at work
Crying out silently at our work.
And the gentle Poplars swaying in the breeze
The valley winds its way down from the top
An oasis in the lunar desert that freezes
A line of green and turquoise from the top
Ancient Willow, snarled and twisted in freeze
Gentry of noble ilk swaying with the breeze
Swirling through the branches twisted
Telling a story of thousand years feasted
Of the saints, Buddhas and the sages
Those that walked them through the ages
The Ladakhi, gentle and yet powerful
Soft and yet as determined as the mountains
Fight the ravages of time and the people
Make do with smile a land bountiful
People that have not been kind to
The gentle folk of Ladakh in time of need to
Hear stories of flash floods washing
Away an entire village taking everything
The wrath of the Gods for no reason
Treat by the fellow man with treason
It doesn’t deter our Ladakhi women
They get up, dust off the rubble of disaster
And fight back to stand on feet their own
With no help from fellow man or power
They rebuild their lives from dust
To stand on their own two feet they must
The proud and beautiful Ladakhi women
They dance to the song of Aliya to lai
Have some tea swaying to the music and men
And a disarming smile on their faces; Aliya to lai
They are the doughty people of the Gods
Chosen by the Mountains to be their guardians
Living the life of the mountain and the Gods
The lovely people of the mighty mountains
My salute to you, oh the men of the skies
Thou make us mortals feel so humble
And yet make my heart fly the blue skies
Like that elusive snow leopard that searches the bubble
Of the faith and strength of the mighty Ladakhi
The noble singing and dancing Ladakhi.