A Narrow Escape

August 11, 2010

Almost exactly a week after Amit got on a flight out of Leh, the region was hit by a cloudburst and flash floods. Roads were wrecked, bridges swept away, buildings destroyed, and over 150 people died, with hundreds more injured. Eighty-nine tourists were airlifted from Skiu, the village that Amit stayed at the first night of his trek and where I have stayed three times since our first visit to Ladakh in 2005.

Immediately after the flash floods, Leh was cut off by road on both sides (Manali-Leh as well as Srinagar-Leh); by air, as the runway was covered in mud; and by phone, as the BSNL building was destroyed. Tourists in Leh found themselves helping in rescue operations. Although the army, air force, and ITBP were mobilized for relief and rescue operations, the scale of operations boggles the mind.

All the usual disaster management activities, like getting the injured to hospital, and setting up temporary shelters, sanitation, food and potable water for survivors, are complicated by the terrain. It must also be difficult to know where to focus and how to prioritize – whether to fix the roads first, as they are the lifelines of the region, not to mention their strategic significance; or to fix the city first; or to evacuate tourists stranded in remote villages, high-altitude campsites or along the roads first. I wonder what it would be like if you were a car or a bus on the beautiful, tortuous, endless road from Manali to Leh. I have been on that road several times. Since the rain occurred at night, nobody would have been actually driving on the road at that time, so vehicles and passengers would have been “safely” (?) tucked up at the overnight stops. But to then have to spend day after day and night after night on the road as you come up against one gigantic landslide after another… running out of food, running out of water, running out of patience as you wait to tell your loved ones that you’re alive and safe…

When we went to Ladakh for the first time in 2005, we had wonderful weather. But when I went down to Himachal a few weeks later that same year, there were three or four days of incessant rain. The Beas was in spate and elsewhere in Himachal (Kullu, Kinnaur) there were serious floods in the Sutlej river (as well as the Kosi river in Nepal). There were landslides on the Manali-Leh road and the road was closed for a few days. I went back on that road as soon as it opened, and I saw the remains of the damage firsthand. Huge boulders were scattered around at random and in a few places the streams (one aptly called Pagal Nala) still charted a course across the road surface. Corpses of cows still lay where they had fallen. We got stuck a few times where smaller, more recent landslides were still being cleared. In one instance, even as repairs progressed, a tiny rattle of stones threatened from above as everyone looked upwards anxiously and hurried out of the way.

When we went back to Ladakh in 2006, we had miserable weather. It rained every day for more than a week, and that time too, there were floods. That time too, the army was called out and people were rescued and evacuated. We saw for ourselves where the river had overflowed onto the road and bridges had been swept away. On our route, we turned and walked back without meeting any crises; but on other routes, trekking parties were stranded for days.

In 2007, we went back on the route I had been on alone in 2005. That route had seen a lot of rain the previous year, and some of the topography had changed beyond recognition. The old trekking path in places had been obliterated by landslides. I still remember walking merrily on the left of the river, heading up to where I could see a trail clearly snaking along the mountainside high above the river. Behind me, someone whistled to me and directed me to cross the river and walk on the other side. Why? I asked. They pointed further along the trail I had been heading for – the path simply disappeared under a pile of rubble! The terrain is such that there was no chance of getting across the landslide, or getting over or under it. There was now a new and much less conspicuous trail on the other side of the valley and that was the only way forward.

This was just one of many noticeable changes in the landscape. In places, the course of the river itself had changed, wiping out a path on one side and forcing you to either climb a hill or cross the water to find a path.

I’ve seen some of the TV coverage of the flood and I’ve read many of the newspaper and website reports. I can only imagine the kind of destruction it has wrought on this beautiful, barren, stark landscape. Even back in 2005 I’d heard the people of Leh complain that trees were the cause of their woes. The plants that do so much good for other parts of the planet are not good for this environment. This terrain, made of mud and dust, is not made for rain. Trees, they said, need rain as much as they cause rain. Planting trees here is wrong.

It looks wrong. The brilliant green of plant life stands out like a sore thumb in the dusty beauty of Ladakh. But whether it really is the cause of the sudden seasonal flooding of Ladakh is not for me to say.

Earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, cyclones, drought – there are always natural disasters of one kind or another going on somewhere in this world. Those that are closes to home hit you hardest. I’ve been to Leh more times than most other places I’ve visited as a tourist. I’ve been there sick and I’ve been there alone. I know the people, I know the shops, the streets, the mountain peaks. I know the bus-stand that’s been flattened, I know the village that people were airlifted from. In fact, I know all the places mentioned in the news report – Choglamsar, Nimmo, Pang, Bazgo, Skiu… My thoughts are with the family who runs the guesthouse we always stay in, and the women who run the trekking agency we always go to first, and the horsemen (and horses) who have come with us on our many adventures there and taken good care of us. I hope they are all ok and I hope they can rebuild their homes, their businesses, and their lives as soon as they possibly can…

And I’m thankful, so thankful, that Amit came back when he did and I didn’t have to spend a single moment worrying about him (any more than I already did).

A few pictures of Ladakh – not Leh itself, but the remote valleys outside. From our 2007 trek.

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To Hell With Common Sense

July 15, 2008

Amit must be a world champion at emotional blackmail. Against my better judgement, he persuaded me on Thursday afternoon to accompany him to Delhi on Thursday night (well, technically Friday early morning) and then on to Leh the following day. With the twins, of course. Insane? Absolutely. That’s why I had resolutely stuck to my guns and refused to consider carting the kids off to an altitude of almost 11000 feet, where acclimatisation takes 48 hours, there’s no natural greenery so oxygen is in short supply, flights out are always sold out and descent by road takes two days and involves crossing altitudes upto 17000 feet.

So I had unilaterally decided that taking two under-twos to Leh was a bad idea and nothing Amit said could convince me otherwise… Until Thursday, when he gave me several of those looks and piled on the pleading and persuasion and I suddenly agreed.

There followed an evening of frenetic activity as we made additional flight and hotel bookings, and packed 50 kg (!) of clothing and camera stuff into 4 rugged backpacks. It was almost 12.30 before we were done, and with the new airport being so far away, we planned to leave at 3.00 for a flight at 5.30, so of course we didn’t get any sleep. What’s worse, when we carted the kids to the taxi at 3.00 a.m., they woke up and didn’t sleep again until after lunch!

The fun really started the next morning (if you can consider the dead of night to be morning) when we again awoke at 2.30 to catch our flight to Leh. It was pouring cats and dogs as we loaded everything and everybody into a rattletrap Ambassador taxi and set off for the airport. I sat with the kids while Amit and his dad handled the check-in. Then, from 4 a.m straight through till 10.30, we made the airport lounge our home as we waited for the flight to take off. It was clear from about 7, or for the hopelessly optimistic about 8, that our flight would be cancelled because no flights can land or take-off at Leh late morning onwards. But, we had to wait for the airline to take the final decision to cancel the flight and they decided to keep us waiting a few extra hours.

Meanwhile, the kids kept us on our toes. The ran from end to end of the huge lounge, watched the aeroplanes through locked doors and grimy windows, flirted with other passengers, ate cake and sandwich for breakfast, submitted to having their diapers changed in the ladies’ bathroom, sprawled on the dusty floor and made swimming actions with their arms and legs, held hands and played Ringa-ringa Roses, and generally enjoyed themselves thoroughly and provided free entertainment to all.

It was 11.30 before we got home and by then Tara was fast asleep and the rest of us were inclined to follow suit in short order. It was a really tiring and hardly a very successful start to a grand holiday. But you can never keep an avid traveller family down for long.


Mind in the Mountains

June 13, 2007
Two weeks to departure and the countdown is very much under way. As usual, there’s too much to do and not enough time. Apart from the usual trek preparations which involve getting out our tent, sleeping bags, warm clothes, assembling cameras and tripods, taking stock of medical and first aid requirements, etc etc etc – apart from all that usual stuff, I also have to think of a birthday gift for my sister and one for my cousin sister-in-law. Not just think of, but also obtain.

And all of that is quite apart from mundane stuff like getting ahead in German, writing an assignment in Archaeology, and keeping the house running.

To add to the excitement, tax filing date is around the corner!

On top of everything else, my second (or is it third?) most ardent wish has finally been granted and I have been given some work to do in office. It’s very far from being glamorous – or even challenging – work, but it’s work nevertheless, and it’s better than nothing.

On second thoughts, though, nothing would have been quite good just right at the moment. Well, I suppose you should be careful what you wish for.

At last, after postponing it for several weeks, I have finally started fitness training for the trek. Currently this takes the form of running 15 rounds at the tennis courts – that’s AFTER playing for an hour. If that’s not enough to impress you, let me add that my circuit consists of two courts side-by-side. It was enough to impress Tennis Sir, who thought I was doing this to improve my tennis – of which erroneous notion I have not had the heart to disabuse him. I should have done, though, because he was so impressed to see my assumed dedication to the sport that he promptly instructed me to add crunches (sit-ups) to my daily exercise routine. My poor stomach hardly survived the first attempt, but after giving it a week to recover, now I’ve done it three days running and it’s only protesting mildly. So, there’s hope for me yet.

Two weeks might not be enough time for all my preparations, but it’s still too long to wait – my mind is already in the mountains. For a naturally slothful person who avoids physical exertion like the plague, I’m constantly amazed at how I’ve taken to trekking, where you spend hours walking every day, for days on end, with no specific purpose.

I also never cease to be surprised at how I love the rustic lifestyle of trekking. I consider myself a fairly comfort-loving person. I was brought up in an urban and fairly westernized environment, eating dinner (AT the dining table, if you please, NOT in front of TV) with three sets of cutlery and all that, and here I am gamely taking to dust and dirt, a complete lack of privacy, outdoor toilets (sometimes communal), two weeks without a bath and other such delights of the mountains, as if they were second nature to me.

Another thing I about trekking that is perverse to my nature, is the complete absence of a plan. I mean, you do need to have a plan when you set out, and your plan should include certain essentials such as food, and a place to pitch a tent in the evening – oh, and a tent, of course. But all of that is “pre” planning – what you do before you set out. Once you’re out on the trail, you don’t have to plan a thing. You just keep going, and when you find a level spot with some clean water nearby, you stop and pitch tent. The only things to think about are where you’re going to sleep, where you’re going to find sufficient privacy for toilet breaks, and when and how you’re going to get your next meal. Life really boils down to the basics. No wonder hermits through the ages have taken to the mountains.

This time it’s not so easy for me to escape the trek planning part, though. Amit’s trekking cousins are accompanying us. Since I’m the only one who’s been on this trek before, I’ve somehow been made de facto “leader” of the team. This is terrible, because I actually see myself as the least experienced and also the weakest link; the trekking cousins have been trekking twice a year for the last couple of decades. And they are looking to me for information and organization.

Unfortunately, my idea of being “organized” for a trek is to get all my/our personal equipment together and get going. Everything else we’ll buy once we reach the trail head. I’m not used to dealing with questions such as: who’s bringing the stove and pressure cooker, and how many tents will we need?

I suppose it’ll all work out eventually and that whatever can be done will be done, and whatever can’t be done will get dropped by the wayside hopefully without any adverse effects. As long as it doesn’t rain up there and nobody falls sick, it should be ok.


Ladakh – Glimpses Through the Rain

August 24, 2006
When we planned a trek in Ladakh in August, it was with the supreme confidence that in Ladakh it never rains. Or at least, it never rains much. They build their houses with sand and straw (I’m not joking!) and those structures stand for hundreds of years, that’s how little it rains. So when it started raining the night before we left from Leh to Lamayuru to begin our trek, we shrugged it off as an isolated incident; and sure enough, the next morning, it dried up (somewhat).  

It was a cruel joke. On 12 of the next 14 days that we spent trekking, it rained, and rained, and – just when you thought it had stopped – rained some more. We walked through rain, we ate in rain, we slept in rain and we woke up in rain.  

It should have been miserable, but it wasn’t. Not because Ladakhi rain is any better than any other rain, but because Ladakh is the sort of place where it’s impossible to be miserable. Here are some of the dry and happy experiences we encountered. 

Hospitable Hosts 

Although this was intended to be a camping trip and we had our tent with us, the rain drove us to seek refuge in villagers’ homes whenever we could.  

Now, in Ladakh, a village might be just a collection of ten houses and a few acres of fields scattered on a sloping hillside. And “houses” often are a pile of stones put together around an unpaved courtyard. Some villages are sandwiched between passes so high that in winter they are completely cut off from the rest of the world for six months at a stretch. And when the passes are open, it is a five-day walk to the nearest roadhead. 

In this cold, dry area we found some of the warmest hospitality you could imagine. At Lingshet, where we spent two nights, we had another trekking party in the neighborhood, and we had made acquaintance with not only the German trekkers, but also with their Ladakhi staff. One amongst the staff was an old, toothless man with two donkeys, who passed the time of day with us.  

He was long forgotten by the time we reached Photoksar on our way back, thoroughly wet and disgruntled after walking six hours through rain. We stopped at the village, hoping for a roof for the night, and the donkey-man greeted us like a long lost brother. He welcomed us to stay at his house, and was so eager that we hadn’t the heart to refuse.

When we reached his house, he showed us proudly into the “guest room,” clearly the best room in the house. It had a bare earth floor, with three dusty carpets covering lumpy mattresses on the floor. The walls were bare and cracked. There was a pile of very heavy, warm, extremely rough, and disgustingly smelly blankets along one wall. He grabbed the thickest and softest of these and spread it along the wall to provide a comfortable backrest. The one window had a significant piece of glass missing. And, by far the most ominous sign, there was a thoroughly filthy bucket in the middle of the floor, catching the worst of the leaks from the flat ceiling. In other parts of the room, the ceiling leaked directly onto the floor, whence, possibly, it continued on to the room below us. That night, it would clearly be a challenge finding sufficient dry space to sleep on. And the mouldy blankets looked so forbidding that I decided I would unroll my sleeping bag after all. (In spite of which, I somehow managed to get flea-bitten twice in the course of the entire trip.) 

The room was so dismal that we would have preferred to set up our own familiar tent, albeit in the rain, but the man was so happy to be our host that to do so would have been positively inhuman. We settled ourselves down carefully, avoiding the drips as much as we could, and trying not to wet the bedding with our wet clothes. Tea was pressed upon us. Unnerved by the squalid air of dirt and poverty, we refused several times; but when our host had reappeared the fifth or sixth time to enquire whether we would like some tea, we gave in and consented; whereupon we were decorously served tea – quite good tea, actually – in delicate china cups complete with saucers and all! 

Some time later, when the rain had let up, we wandered out on to the open veranda and stood gazing idly at the rather lovely view of the valley and distant hills. Promptly, the old man appeared and, like a magician, with great delight produced a pair of binoculars with which to better survey our surroundings. What a pair of binoculars it was – an original Carl Zeiss Jena probably dating back to the Second World War, all polished brass with everything in working order down to the lens covers! 

The old man had been in the army, he told us, and somewhere he had picked up half-a-dozen words of English, which he tried out on his with some enthusiasm. “Problem” was clearly his favorite English word, which he used at least once every 15 minutes to enquire whether all was well. At some point he had lost most of the teeth in this mouth, which sometimes made it difficult to understand what he was saying, but “problem” came through all right and as long as we shook our heads and replied “no problem” all was fine.  

At another village, Skyumpata, another old man was almost as proud to be our host. Though he had possession of all his teeth, and a few more words of English, he was more difficult to communicate with because he knew no Hindi whatsoever. His daughter-in-law knew Hindi, but her Math was a little weak; so it was the bevy of grandchildren who acted as cashiers and interpreters in our negotiations. All evening, as we sat in a room somewhat less sordid than the one at Photokasr, one or another of the children would come and stand at the door and stare silently at us, as though we were some strange other-worldly creatures. As night fell, their numbers swelled and later the village women banded together to troop upstairs and examine us. One woman showed me her child, who had a sort of rash on his back, and asked for medicine. Another wanted a cure for her toothache, which she had thus far treated by sticking two band-aids on her cheeks. The others just wanted to look at us. The old man wandered in around dinner time, examined my toothbrush and toothpaste, and then took me to the world map hung on the wall and quizzed me about all the major landmasses shown on it.  

In this room, for the first time since leaving Leh, we found a TV. Most of these villages have no electricity, but a lot of houses have a solar panel and a good-sized battery (in some villages, these are provided free by the government) with which they can operate lights in the evening. Apart from lights, I had not seen any other electrical appliances. I would not have been at all averse to watching TV for one evening – we had already been cut off from the world for over a week – so I asked one of the grandchildren whether it worked. It would, she said, and they had a DTH (Direct to Home) connection, but it hadn’t been set up yet.  

Next to the TV, by way of entertainment, lay a well thumbed book by Enid Blyton. Nobody can say she doesn’t get around! 

Herding Together 

At Photoksar on the way out, we spent a rest day, waiting for it to stop raining (an exercise in futility, as it turned out). In the afternoon, as we walked along the river, a bunch of village women descended upon us. They had seen our cameras and come to take a look. Ancient, weather-beaten, toothless, and dirty as they were, I was horrified at the thought of their grime-encrusted hands all over my precious camera. And yet, they were a rather shy, simple lot, easily pleased – how could I refuse? I allowed them to peek through the viewfinder and they giggled and went away thrilled.  

They flocked around the tea-stall nearby, talking and laughing. Then, they headed off across the river to gather up their flocks of sheep and goat, who had been grazing on the other side. What a sight it was! Long tunics waving, arms flapping, hair flying and voices rising they hounded and chased the poor critters into seven distinct groups. How they knew which group each sheep and goat and lamb belonged to I have no idea, but they were all quite clear about it. They grabbed them by the leg, by the scruff of the neck, by the ear, by the tail, by any part they could get hold of, all the while flailing at one to shoo it away, rounding up another, and holding a baby lamb in one arm. The animals themselves seemed to have no inkling which family they ought to be with, which is strange considering that they should be used to this routine by now. 

Once a couple of women had got their flock together, they started trying to herd them across the river. The animals were most reluctant, as the river was swollen and they had significant stretches of water to cross at either end of the bridge. The women had very definite ideas about the path the goats should and shouldn’t take to cross the water and the goats also had quite definite ideas, which, unfortunately, did not coincide. To complicate matters, as one herd of goat and sheep were sent across, the second herd tried their best to follow, which was not at all to the liking of the herders of the second herd. They tried their level best to hold the second herd back, while at the same time not allowing them to go wandering off to graze or, worse, to mix with any of the other five herds waiting to cross. It really was a circus. At 14,000 ft, such acrobatics would have had me gasping for breath, and watching the acrobatics had me almost rolling with laughter! 

Wool Weaver, Carpet Seller 

At Lingshet, the last stop on the trek before we turned around, at a secluded corner of the rather spread-out village, we wandered across a wool weaver. He was sitting at his loom – literally a “hand loom” consisting of a motley collection of wooden logs roughly fitted together – working on a partially-finished roll of woolen fabric. This fabric was not the heavy, coarse material blankets are made of, but the lighter and less rough material used for clothing. The roll, once completed, would fetch Rs 2000 in the village, he said. If he worked at it all day, he would finish one roll in one day; but he worked at it only in the afternoons and tended to his fields in the daytime. The fabric was not colored; that would be the buyer’s prerogative.  

At the other end of the spectrum from this plain, rough woolen fabric were the exquisite (though dusty) wool carpets that we found in even the poorest homes. In Leh, in one corner of the bazaar were clustered four or five carpet shops. At one of these, we stopped to look, buy, and chat. The carpet seller belonged not to Ladakh, but to Benares. The carpets were made in Benares, he explained, and he and the other carpet sellers brought their stock up to Leh when the tourist season started around June each year. From June till the end of December, they stayed in Leh, selling carpets not only to tourists but to the local residents as well. Towards the end of each year was the Ladakhi festival Lhosal, and at this time they sold almost all their stock. Amongst Ladakhis, carpets were considered a traditional gift for all occasions, he said, from weddings, to festivals, to deaths. People even used them on their animals. Those who could not afford to pay for carpets traded sheep’s wool, which the carpet sellers would take back to Benares for the next year’s supply of carpets.  

While dispensing tea and gossip, the carpet seller also made an earnest sales pitch, which involved ripping apart one carpet, pulling threads from another and all but setting fire to the one we had selected, in an effort to prove that it was genuine wool and a superior product (unlike the others) that we would not regret buying. It was fully washable, he assured us, and was all set to pour tea on it to demonstrate his point when we decided to put an end to his antics by buying it. 

Lassie Goes Home 

Though there are plenty of sheep and goat in Ladakh, we did not see any sheep dogs. In fact, at higher altitudes and in remote villages we did not see any dogs at all. But as we headed back and left the high passes behind us, early one morning a lovely collie-type mongrel came bounding along the path towards us. He nodded at us in a friendly manner, sniffed about like a busybody, and disappeared back in the direction he had come from. We waited, expecting his owner to appear, but his humans, when they did appear, turned out to be another trekking party. “Is he with you?” I asked, quite surprised that anyone would have brought their dog along for a trek. “He is since last night,” was the answer. Apparently the dog had joined their camp near Honupatta, appeared to have come from Photoksar (over Sisir La!) and looked all set to adopt them for the moment.

Throughout that day, we saw him off and on, as he kept pace with his adopted trekkers. He trotted, in a thoroughly composed and self-assured fashion, all along the 14-km path to Wanla. At one stage when he had passed us and gone ahead a bit, he came upon three donkeys grazing by the road. Apparently they didn’t like the look of him, because they lined up and brayed at him in a most threatening manner. He didn’t like the look of them either, and he paused at a safe distance and looked back at us, as if to say: “Why don’t you come and guard me against these terrible animals? I can handle one or two of them, but three’s a bit much, don’t you think?” 

Having got past the donkeys, he went on his merry way again, catching up with some trekkers far ahead of us. When we reached Wanla that evening, we spotted him at the campsite, alternately begging and foraging for food. Our donkey man, a local of Lamayuru, told us that he belonged to the Lamayuru Gompa. What on earth was he doing out at Honupatta then, I wondered. It was a good 30 km away, with a small pass on the way to boot. And yet, he didn’t seem very put out by it at all. 

By Pass

The usual trek along this route runs from Lamayuru to Padum (~10 days) and then, for the brave-hearted, on to Darcha (~20 days in all). Even before the deluge hit us, we had decided that we would not go all the way to Padum, but would cross all the high passes on the route and then turn around and cross them in the other direction. That way, we hoped to see the best views twice.  

As it turned out, we did not get to see too much, what with all the rain, but we sure as hell had to do all the hard work twice. The passes we crossed were, in order of appearance, Prinkiti La, Sisir La, Singge La, Khyupa La, and Netuke La. The last two passes, on the way to Padum, Hanuma La and Purfi La, we gave up on out of deference to the rain. 

Singge La was the highest (~16,500 ft), and Sisir La, being towards the north, was in the most arid region, where oxygen deficiency is felt most profoundly (there’s more greenery towards the south, even if in the form of shrubs), so both those passes were memorable in their own way. But in my opinion it was Khyupa La on the way back that was clearly the worst. It was a strange pass, Khyupa La, because it was an extremely gradual ascent from one side, and an amazingly steep ascent from the other. Of course, going down the steep side was a lark, but when I turned around and saw the steep ascent from afar, I almost decided not to go back! It would take me four hours to do the climb, I thought, but in the event it took a mere gasping and panting 90 minutes.  

If the passes took one’s breath away due to the steepness and altitude – and they did – the gorges took one’s breath away out of sheer beauty. I had already listed the walk from Lamayuru to Wanla as one of the best I’d ever done, but this time I found that the walk from Wanla to Honupatta was, if anything, much better. Here the river gushed along between two towering rock walls, twisting and turning like a ball of wool unraveled. At one point the water actually disappeared under the mountain, and emerged on the other side several feet away. It was the land of fairytales. 

Toilet Travails

At Lingshet, we were witness to an interesting toilet incident. Before the tale proceeds, it is essential to understand how toilets in Ladakh function. Typically, there’s a toilet cubicle built into the hill, such that the doorway is at a higher point on the hill than the lowest level of the building. Inside, there’s a hole in the floor, and if you’re lucky (and you’re not, always) there’s a door or at least a curtain across the doorway. And that’s it: no soap, no water, no electricity, no toilet paper, nothing except a smell.

So, back to Lingshet. We were sitting outdoors sunning ourselves (it was one of the two days when the sun actually won the battle against the clouds) when we noticed our neighbors making repeated forays into the toilet, with a torch on their foreheads. This was curious, because normally the last thing one would want to add to the delights of the Ladakhi toilet is unnecessary illumination.  

Then things got curiouser. In front of us was a barbed-wire fence, and one of our neighbors came over and began to attack it with his bare hands, trying to twist and break one strand! This was completely inexplicable and we all exchanged glances but didn’t have the nerve to ask what on earth he was trying to do. Suddenly one strand of barbed wire came away in his hand, and before we could say anything he marched off with this in the direction of the toilet, still wearing the torch on his forehead.

A while later, his wife emerged from the toilet, wearing a disgusted look and shaking her head. From her, we extracted a brief explanation: her husband, earlier that morning, had gone into the toilet with his watch attached to his belt (don’t ask me why) and had emerged without it, leading to the conclusion that the watch had found its way to a place it really shouldn’t have. Hence the barbed wire and torch approach. 

A few minutes later, the man emerged with a satisfied air, minus the barbed wire, and we all at once noticed the watch dangling from his belt. Ugh!

Call in the Marines 

Two weeks from the day we set out, we were back in Leh. After two weeks of trekking, all we could think about was a hot bath, and a hot meal – in that order. But almost before we had set our backpacks down, in marched Colonel Lakshminarayan. “I’ve been instructed by Military Headquarters to locate Amit and Anamika Mukherjee,” he announced portentously. My heart plummeted: what bad news had merited this visitation? Apparently, nothing more than a few scattered news reports of floods and rescue operations in Ladakh, which had set off a panic attack among the family echelons. After assuring Colonel Lakshminarayan that the said Amit and Anamika Mukherjee had indeed been located and found fit and fine (if rather smelly and noxious-looking), we put the baths on hold and headed out to phone family and assure them that we were alive and well.  

Having returned from this onerous task, we devoured samosas and hot tea that our landlady/hotelier had thoughtfully provided gratis (bless her!) and resumed our earlier intentions. I had progressed as far as unearthing all the appendages necessary for bathing, and had bundled fresh clothes, bath towel, soap and shampoo into my arms and was heading purposefully towards the common bathroom, when my progress was arrested by an unfamiliar voice speaking my name. This time it was a couple of gents from the Intelligence Bureau, seeking intelligence about a certain Amit and Anamika Mukherjee. This really was getting a bit much. Was the entire countryside crawling with government personnel searching for Amit and Anamika Mukherjee? And were they all going to track us down before either one of us had managed to so much as step into the bathroom?


Back from Ladakh

August 21, 2006
Got back from a three week vacation and found that we both had forgotten all computer passwords!!! Three weeks can be a very long time…

Trip report – here’s the short and sweet version. Full, formal account and photographs might happen some day (0r not).

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The entire experience can be summed up in two words: damn rain. We trekked for two weeks and were blessed with two days of sunshine in the middle. Meanwhile, all around us were landslides, flash floods, bridges washed away, roads closed (including the leh-kargil road) and much excitement. A foreign trekker reportedly fell off a pass and broke a leg and a horse reportedly fell off another pass and lost an eye. According to alarmists, 800 foreign trekkers were air-lifted to safety and numerous treks turned back mid-way as the rivers were overflowing and impassable.

Unblissfully aware but unconcerned, we trekked from Lamayuru to Lingshet over five passes, the highest at 5000+ m (close to 17000 ft), then turned around and crossed all five passes in the opposite direction. Of the three donkeys who were accompanying us, one was seriously unwell and his load had to be carried by his owner all the way up the last pass!

Thankfully, amongst the human company, there were no serious ailments apart from general morbidity due to the weather. With the last pass behind us, holding back the worst of the rain clouds, the weather improved sufficiently for us to enjoy the last two days of trekking. We did see some spectacular evidence of landslides along the path, notably just outside Wanla, where there is an untarred road. Here huge rocks, as big as houses, had rolled off the hillside and onto the “road” – what a sight it must have been!

Due to clouds and mist and rain, we did not have the great views that we had travelled so far to find. Nevertheless, we had some great experiences, particularly with the local people and also with a local dog who had undertaken a solo trek from Lamayuru to Photaksar (3 days, 42 km) and joined us for part of the way back.

The only other matter of interest was the road journey back to Manali (fourth time for me, but still spectacular), which was followed by an exhausting taxi ride down to Chandigarh. After a hectic time meeting family in Chandigarh and Delhi we caught our flight back to Bangalore on Sunday night, and got straight back to work Monday (sigh!).


Going to Ladakh

July 24, 2006
I’m oscillating between hope and despair in the final few days before leaving for Leh. The reason: I’ve been down with a virulent viral since last week. Over the weekend, the fever came and went and I was not averse to spending long hours lying in bed and doing nothing – most unusual for me. Now the fever seems to have gone, but I’m left with a cough, stuffed nose and heavy head. Nothing unusual for a cold.

Trouble is, it was a much less potent cold last year, which, followed by a trip to Leh upgraded itself to Pulmonary Edema in short order. Not only is Pulmonary Edema potentially fatal (as opposed to a common cold that only makes you feel like death) but I also managed to ignore it long enough to bring matters dangerously close to critical.

So, naturally, it is with misgivings and in the face of some concern from near and dear ones, that I prepare for the departure to Leh this weekend.

My state of mind is not improved by the news from my would-be publishers, who recently announced that they would rather not be.

So, with these various slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, life goes on.

For news from Leh, watch this space after 4 weeks.


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