March 3rd, 2011
Unlike other places where you drive to reach a destination, in Ladakh, the journey itself is the destination. The road goes through such breathtaking vistas (and life-taking as well if you aren’t careful enough) that it is impossible not to be impressed by beauty of such magnitude. However, things aren’t rosy all the time. At high altitude, weather plays a crucial role in shaping up the day. This story is about one such drive when the weather was gloomy and we had very little time in our hands to afford the luxury of staying at Tangtse for an extra day.
When I woke up that morning, I felt fresh and the song Mazhai Thuli (rain drops) was playing in my mind. Almost instinctively I had a look outside the window and it was drizzling. I heard that Ladakh was a high altitude cold desert and that it doesn’t rain much. So I convinced myself that some clouds might be moving around and sprinkling some water on the way . The usual blue of the sky was missing. The horizon had a few black clouds as well. Determined not to let go of the day, we got ready quickly. Ram P and Suresh started first on Ram’s Pulsar 220. Some time later, I followed.
I was well protected. Thermal inner wear, jeans, rain pant for the bottom and for the top, it was again thermal inner wear, followed by a t-shirt, fleece jacket and leather jacket. For the legs and feet, it was cotton socks, woolen socks and then ankle length leather boots. For fingers, I wore woolen gloves and Cramster’s leather gloves. As I started the ride, I was thinking that if it had rained a little here – at 14000 feet – would it snow at 15000 feet and above? That day we had to cross India’s third highest motorable pass known as the Chang La at 17000+ feet … in inclement weather. A light cold wind was blowing too!
After 7 km I came to a fork in the road. Right fork led to Durbuk and the left fork led to Chang La and then to Leh. I took the left fork and few minutes later, the ghats started . Drizzling stopped this time. But it was cloudy and the slight drizzle had wet the roads considerably. As soon as I crossed the first few hairpin bends, I saw the sight of a lifetime. The winding road with its various hairpins wound down to the plains at 14000 feet and then went to the fork in a straight stretch. Another fabulous straight stretch took the road to Tangtse. Both these towns were visible from this vantage point.
After clicking couple of pictures, I was on my way. Rest of the gang weren’t visible yet. Since I was on a 125cc bike, I wanted to start a bit early so that by the time my bike climbs, the heavier bikes can come quite fast and catch up. In most places, the roads were quite steep. The altitude was climbing steadily. I was well acclimatized and hence didn’t feel the pressure of oxygen. The drizzle came down harder and visibility was going down. Soon, I crossed the magical 15000 feet and crossed a heavily puffed up rushing river – over a fragile bridge 😀 . At many points, roads were joined vertically through off-road trails. Four wheel drive cars managed to climb up and down very easily while I was watching them from my 125cc!
At about 15150 feet, I could feel the chill on my fingers. The warmth was long since gone and they were fast becoming cold. Feet were doing good so far. Suddenly, my jacket was no longer watery. A gray layer was forming as I was driving. I quickly realized what it was! It was snow! SNOW FALL. Snow was coming down real fast and it was being blown all around. Until then, when snow had come in contact with us, it would simply melt and wet the jacket. But that day was different. Snow fell on my jacket and it froze, becoming ice.
Within minutes, visibility was reduced to mere meters. Few minutes later, visibility was zero. Bike was wobbling slightly. I couldn’t see anything. Immediately I realized what had happened. Snow had fallen and frozen on my helmet visor, thereby taking out the visibility. I stopped the bike and took a minute to clean my visor. Snow was falling down hard and fast & it froze. It was not possible to drive with the visor on. Roads were steep and slippery. Hence, wearing the visor wasn’t an option. I started my bike again and took off. Soon, those tiny fluffy particles of snow started hitting my face and were pricking my eyes. Unlike rain, snow particles are really small, come in huge numbers & take a good helping of the skin! It was similar to a swarm attack.
My speed had come down to about 15 kmph. Through all this, I suddenly realized that bike stopped again. Reason? I couldn’t shift the gear. My little finger and ring finger were screaming in pain. They had frozen hard. I was at about 16500 feet now. Everywhere on the road, the milestones mentioned about the remaining distance to Chang La, Leh and the altitude. I was hoping there would be some place where I could have a cuppa chai 😀
Ten minutes later, my wish was granted. I saw an army camp at Tsultak at 17000 feet. Along the direction board, there was another board which announced the facilities of the place & the one that caught my eye was the “Mess –>” direction board. I drove straight to the mess. My fingers and feet were pretty much frozen now. Any effort with them required enduring pain. Two army folks appeared from the mess.
Me: Mujhe thoda garam paani chahiye (I need some hot water)
Army dude: Pehle, helmet kholo (Remove your helmet first)
Me: (after fiddling with the helmet lock) – tried talking in Hindi (didn’t work out) – Please remove them yourself. Fingers are frozen.
Army dude: He smiled and then removed the helmet. I was called inside the small mess.
One guy was a Mallu and the other guy was a Tamilian. Seeing my TN registration plate, he asked in tamil, “Neenga yengendhu varinga (Where are you coming from?), for which I answered “Chennai.” I was damn happy to hear a guy talking in Tamil at 17000 feet. Apparently, they were from the Madras regiment and they had just returned from a posting on top of Siachen Glacier!
A huge cauldron of boiling water was in the middle of the mess. With almost no effort, he lifted the cauldron from the stove and moved it elsewhere. I was stunned at his strength. Then he increased the flame and got a chair for me. He also helped me remove my shoes. Both my socks were wet. Toe edges had become white. Fingers were frozen. As the flame increased, I thawed them, massaged them and brought them back to life. In an impulse, I put my bare feet on the ground and felt the chill sending a shiver up my spine. The army dude then inquired about the bike trip and said that winters in that place were truly horrible; with temperatures reaching -10 during day time itself. As we were discussing about his life and my trip, he asked how many people were we. I said 13 and then he asked whether we’ll like corn soup!
I pinched myself. What? Corn soup? At 17000 feet with snow wrecking havoc around? Before even I could reply, I thought “WOW! That’s dulcet” and then I said “Yes! We would love it.” By that time, the rest of the gang had come in and they were getting toasty in the visitor’s room. Soon, the soup was ready. Everybody took large helpings of the soup. As the hot soup went down my throat, I could feel life surging back in my limbs and body. Various parts of my body along the oesophagus started to absorb the warmth. As the warm soup splashed my stomach, it was nearly orgasmic. After warming up sufficiently, we headed to Chang La. It was few kilometers from the army camp.
The army guys warned us that we were about to enter avalanche zone and that not more than one bike should cross the zone at anytime. Since it was also snowing, the risk of avalanche was higher. We bade them goodbye, thanked heartily and then went on our way.
Seeing the prayer flags flap in the chill breeze was a HUGE relief. I felt happy from the inside for coming that far. I was thinking of how folks would feel when I narrated the story to them after getting back. My mind drifted to Chennai. Then, it was time to savour the moment. At Chang La, the Indian Army gives free tea to everyone who makes it there. After couple of group pictures and a funny dance (am trying to find the video), we bought some mementos and then started to Leh. We crossed snow fields and some more avalanche zones.
Weather was showing some improvement. Though chill winds were blowing, it was not snowing. Through winding roads and more splendid views, we reached the beautiful village of Sakti and then reached the outskirts of Leh by around 4 PM. Paari and Arul went to Hemis Monastery. Rest of the gang, caught on the football fever, found a ground to play. I went to Thiksey monastery and then drove to Leh. Due to an earlier adventure that’ll be described in the next post, I missed Leh Palace before. So I drove to Leh.
Sunset at Leh
It was around 6.30 PM by the time I reached Leh. Sun was setting and I was offered a splendid view of the sunset from the top of the Leh palace. I made friends with the Buddhist monks there and they were telling their stories. I wanted to climb to Castle Tsemo opposite to the Leh palace. But unfortunately, it was becoming cold quickly and it had already become dark. So I thought Castle Tsemo was for next time and then went back to our home stay.
The day was absolutely brilliant and it was one that I would never forget in my life! Even months after coming back, that day is still fresh in my memory. I can recollect every detail even now. I can’t stop talking about the beauty of Ladakh.
See you soon on the next adventure post!