Humbled by the snowy peaks: A bike ride to the mountain villages of Ladakh
'Come, let us go and try it. Why dream about it?'
Why Ladakh? One of the most sacred destinations in the wish lists of every traveller. Why does it draw people towards it? Is it the exotic, surreal view of the rugged desolate terrain surrounded by the snowy silver bright peaks of the Himalayas? Or is it that the man, who is embarrassed and shaken by the human culture which throws up more confusion than solace, finding the ultimate peace of going back to his abode of Genesis while in this land? Not sure. Because the great Himalayas never give answers to any of these questions. It levels down even the most piquant questions to end with a period which never seeks an answer. The questions and doubts raised by each traveller to the Himalayas shower down like the incessant snowfall in the mountain ranges, only to be dissolved eventually.
The journey up to Srinagar had been pre-planned. The sweaty cities dreamt of cold winter while soaking in dust and melting in the sweltering heat. The roti and sabji ( Indian bread and vegetable curry) tasted good, even though it was served by a soiled dusty hand. The highways lay ahead endlessly. As the heartbeats of the rider resonate with the thud-thud of the bike, you feel the even pace as though it is stillness. In the night, your room welcomes you to a warm embrace. And, dreams of the paths traversed keep sleep at a distance. And the sleep, drunk by fatigue, wards off the dreams.
It's a month-long journey. It means the luggage to be organized diligently so that you can take them whenever you wanted them, without hassles. The tools of the vehicle, clothes, food, water, petrol, and numerous other things from scissors to the rubber band. And you need to know exactly where those things are kept. Riding doesn't give you the luxury to search four pockets to dish out your mobile phone. On day-9, the travel through the plains ended. The vehicle—my companion who didn't make a grumpy murmur not even once throughout the journey— was taken for service at Udhampur.
The first thing that awes you in the journey from Udhampur to Srinagar is not the beauty of Kashmir valley, but its wilderness; steep mountains, narrow roads, and incessant flow of trucks that go up and down. Down, in the river, the carcasses of vehicles that slipped into the gorge. Everybody gives way to a bike rider and soldiers give their warm salutes and wishes on the way.
A hearty breakfast of thick Kashmiri roti and chicken curry from Ramban, a small market on the way followed an equally heartwarming Kashmiri welcome by Mehmood, the owner of the eatery. Mehmood came out of the building to give us the welcoming shake hand. As he ushered us in, one could instantly feel that it was not a businessman's show of friendship to woo customers. Kashmir has its own warmth and bonhomie that keep you close to it, brushing off all the strangeness. We had booked rooms in Srinagar. So, it won't be a problem even if we reached there late. And we can now afford some time, relishing the hospitality of Mehmood. "Want to taste our own tea," our host queried. What he already had was 'normal' tea. Now, he is offering us Kashmir's own salty tea. "Why not! Why didn't you offer then," I asked? He said he thought Keralites may not like the salty version. His smile through that long beard and hospitality gave a good start to our journey over the valley. The market was covered in soft snow. Mehmood didn't charge for Kashmiri tea and cigarette.
As Srinagar gets near, the presence of army personnel become more evident. There were no checks though. They seemed to just hang around, cracking jokes and chattering loudly. Some of them appeared curious to see a Kerala vehicle passing by. Some asked us not to mind the queue. A few others jointly lifted my bike in their hands and moved it across the railway track. Seeing this, kids cheer us up, sitting in cars, "Chalo Ladakh, Chalo Ladakh!" For them, every Bullet rider with that heavy baggage is heading towards Ladakh for sure. Where else would they go!?
More Ladakh travelers could be seen on the roads now. The moment the army men see the bikers headed for Ladakh, with all those big backpacks and riding gears, they give them away without any inspection. As I reached near Dal lake, I received the phone call from Nazeer, the owner of the houseboat I had already booked for the night. He was waiting for me on the banks. I left the bike in the parking lot and followed Nazeer to a Shikara boat. The boat waded towards Nazeer's houseboat where his family lived. The houseboats of Dal lake do not move. They just float in the sprawling lake. Of the three rooms, two are occupied by Nazeer and his family and the other is for guests. The rent for a night's stay with food is just Rs.700. The tourists were scarce. Hence, the rooms were cheap. Nazeer's houseboat carried the name Kenya, a throwback to the old times when tourists from Kenya used to flock Dal and Kashmir.
There are 700 houseboats in the vast 300 sq.km lakes, said Nazeer. All the boats are beautifully decked and most of the owners pitiably dependent on tourism. There are shops in boats and they too don't move. When children go to shops in shikkaras, the homemakers and old people from houseboats would ask them to buy some sugar or biscuits for them too. And the kids never fail them; on their way back, the children dutifully throw the grocery ordered by each one to their houseboats. As in a routine, the neighbours in the houseboats catch the things thrown to them from shikkara's with amazing skill.
The lake was neat and tidy; not even a scrap of paper could be spotted anywhere in the water. Everyone knew each other there and the houseboat-neighbors trusted each other. They never lock their houses, day or night! What a magical place!
Nazeer and family shared their dinner and breakfast with me. As I was having food with them, I noticed that except for the room for guests, no other rooms had any furniture. The children studied and used laptops on the beautiful rugs laid on the floor. Small but royal rooms made of wood kept the cold away. In the night, my hosts shared their stories. The children mingle fast with guests. They get new guests almost every day and they treat each one of them as their own family. Besides four languages, Nazeer's younger son Shaheed knows all the nations in the world. The class-6 boy took me for a night ride in shikkara.
Srinagar is the real starting point to Ladakh ride. It takes two days to reach Leh via Sonamarg, Drass, and Kargil. Gumboots are a must, Nazeer reminded. I had read in travel guides that there are water crossings on the way. The roads will be full of mud as well. I tried to resist buying a gumboot, saying I was not used to it and that it won't be comfortable to ride with those on. But Nazeer was insistent. He showed me the gumboots tied to the bags of riders in the parking lot. Not just that, he even bought a pair for me for just Rs.200. He didn't surprise me this time, as I knew from the chat over dinner at Kenya that Nazeer treats every guest to his houseboat as his own family.
I started my ride thinking that I could reach Kargil in the afternoon. Military trucks dominated the road. Drizzling came along with piercing cold. Two jackets were not enough to keep me warm. The climb was just starting. After the beautiful town of Sonamarg, the road turned heavenly with snowcapped mountains on either side. If hell is sweltering hot, will the heaven be cold, always? Through the snowy valleys, soldiers clad in black move uphill like ants. Road repairing was taking place at many points. Rivulets danced past by the road, giggling all the way.
In the novel 'Haroun and the Sea of Stories,' Salman Rushdie picks up a few interesting traffic boards found in Kashmir valley. In the wanton loneliness of the valley, these boards unleash laughter that lingers in the memory. 'Whisky is risky when driving,'warns one board. 'Chance takers accident makers,'reminds another one. 'Don't be a gamma in the land of the lama,' resorts to a hilarious rhyme while 'Feel the curves, don't hug them,' gives the boards a sensuous twist. 'Hug your child at home, in the car, hug them with a seat belt,' goes another. With these roadside pearls of wisdom, you may forget the thought how these silver-capped mountains stand still in the freezing cold; or you can feel ashamed of yourself by realizing on how men are making fools out of themselves through literary bombast in front of natures unparallelled grandeur.
Drass and Kargil are the preferred stopovers on the way to Leh from Srinagar. Zoji La Pass, the most dangerous stretch of mountain roads— nine kilometres long and 3,500 metres above sea level—is before Drass. The Border Roads Organization works tirelessly, day and night, to keep this treacherous stretch which changes shape with frequent landslips, rain, and snowfall, motorable. It took one hour to cover the pass. I reached Kargil, the second town in Ladakh after Leh, by evening. The whole town is under military cover. Even the children go to schools in military trucks. It's quite a scene to watch boys and girls happily hopping in and hopping off the trucks.
I got a room in a wayside hotel. The people there were very humble. Kashmiris like talking. As I sipped tea in the hotel, a few Kashmiri youths whom I had just befriended, shared the story of the salty tea. Earlier, Kashmir had to wait long for supplies from down the plains. And most of the grocery was costly. In those times, sugar was a luxury. So, people started to add salt, instead of sugar, in tea. Later, it became a routine. To make the tea more attractive and to give it a deep red tint, they also add soda powder. Sometimes, butter is also added to tea. Thukpa is the ubiquitous dish. It is the soupy noodles, a trick to keep you hydrated in the cold. You can also savour Tibetan momos everywhere. Everything was very cheap. The tourists can decide the room rent. It was low season and the hoteliers were happy with whatever you gave.
Sleep didn't bless me in that cold below 2 degrees. I went out for a walk on the road. I noticed a bike parked there, a Duke. I had noticed it all the way from Udhampur to Srinagar. Sometimes it went past me or it was behind me. Across the road a branch of River Sindhu roars past; and in the roar, we forget the cold. "Where does the cold disappears in high-pitched sound," someone wondered loud from behind. Rishabh from Noid. He's a stargazer and computer engineer who moonlights as a tour organizer. Any job is good for him and travelling is his main motive. Moreover, he's a Duke lover and anti-Bullet.
That night, sitting on the roadside in chilling cold, we decided to continue on the journey together. Each of us had planned the itinerary using maps, but we were almost certain that we cannot make it alone. So, we may be able to complete at least halfway, if we went together, we thought. There, on the roadside, in the glimmer of a mobile phone, we redrew our route on the map. Together, we decided to forgo highway to Leh from Kargil. Instead, we will take a long route by the LOC. That means, it takes two days to reach Leh, that otherwise could be reached in 24 hours. Dah village is on the way. A village inhabited by the people who sincerely believe in their real Aryan lineage. Among the many Brokepa villages in the Leh district, only two allows in tourists. Dah village is one of the two. Hence, we couldn't afford to miss the visit. We reached Dah, without taking the inner line permits to enter inner parts of Kashmir. In the rush of enthusiasm after finding a new destination, we had forgotten to take the permits from Kargil district office. The soldier, a native of Tamil Nadu, at the army check-post was very considerate. He gave us tea and boiled eggs made some calls and allowed us to go the village, even without the permit.
Only 600 people live in Dah village. When they heard the sound of bikes, children ran towards us. Everyone wants a ride. Kids perched on the front, back and on the luggage and we maneuvered through the bumpy road full of boulders and across the rivulets and above the hillocks. Those children knew no fear. There is a school in the village and just one teacher. If the teacher is engaged otherwise, the school will remain closed. And, the teacher will be busy with other things, almost every day. The naughty children of the village look forward to the travellers, who come by once or twice a month.
The village has two guesthouses. But one of them is inaccessible by bike and you have to go a long way carrying all the luggage through the forest to reach there. We decided to stay in the nearby one. The owner of the guesthouse will only be back in the village by evening. Till then, we spent time in a common area surrounded by houses. All the older children want to take their photo sitting on the bike. They took our mobile, went somewhere and took turns to check the gadget. Old ladies brought us tea while children climbed up trees to pluck sour cherry fruits to treat us. Everyone was in a festive mood. There is a Buddhist prayer wheel in the middle of the common area. Majority of the villagers are Buddhists and as they move past the wheel, they just rotate it and move past.
The children were busy unpacking our luggage from the vehicles. They carefully carried the things to the guest house. Nine-year-old Kashippamu is the leader of the army of kids. Even though we protested, he insisted that he carry the heavy bags on his back to the guest house 100 metres away to show off his strength. He graciously allowed other children to carry only the small bags. His younger sister Panmanangyal was always with him, like a shadow. He asked her to clean the bags.
What if I hadn't met Rishabh, I thought. He must have thought the same.
The owner of the guest house showed up by evening. It was a warm and beautiful room with rugs laid on the floor. He cooked rice, vegetables, and omelets. The village slipped into sleep before the stroke of eight in the night.
Next morning, on our return, the troupe of children accompanied us till we reached outside the village. They put the luggage on our bikes fastened them. They happily shared the dry fruits and dates we gave them. We offered them some pocket money, which they declined with a shy wink. The women in the village also forbade us from giving money to children. After all, what would they do with money, they quipped. It takes another day to reach Leh. On the way back, we met the officer from Tamil Nadu at the check-post. He gave us tea and warned us about the tricky road ahead. Rocks may fall on the road from hills above, he cautioned.
Rishabh had booked a room in Leh. I can share his room. Travel guidebooks suggest you spend at least two days in Leh to get a hang of the weather. I had stocked medicines. At an altitude of 3,500 metres, Leh is as high as Zoji La Pass. We had planned to go to places as high as 5,500 metres from Leh. The risk of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is always there and we may have to cut short the trip anytime. Eat good food and lie on the bed for two days. That is the only way to make yourself adapt to the high altitudes. Subin, a Malayalee friend of Rishabh, is also coming to Leh on the same day. We went to pick up Subin from Leh Airport. Back in the room, we spent two days, sharing stories. Rishabh is an experienced rider who has travelled across India. He had visited Kerala twice. This is the first trip for Subin though.
Leh is a busy town. There were numerous bikes of riders who came from far and wide to visit Ladakh. Next ten days, we will take rides through the remote villages nestled in the Himalayan peaks. The heart of Leh town is a sprawling street where vehicles are banned. Subin needs to rent a bike. We also need to take inner-line permit from the district office to visit Kashmiri villages. Our first destination from Leh was Nubra Valley. Khardung La, the world's highest motorable road is on the way. Always under a blanket of snow, Khardung La is quite a sight. Further from there stands Diskit Monastery, the largest and oldest gompa built in the 15th century. Ladakh is spotted with numerous Buddhist Gompas. Those amazing structures built atop picturesque peaks stood there as if they are engrossed in deep meditation. You might even feel that they are unreal. You tightly close your eyes and look at them again, to make sure that they are real. Many of these monasteries are the treasure troves of rare Thanga paintings, murals, and scriptures.
The sights of Hundar desert tucked between snowclad mountains are breathtaking. Double-hunched camels of the desert is another attraction. We stayed in the beautiful house of Salim, an Urdu teacher at Diskit near Hundar. Rooms with flowing window curtains and neatly carpeted floors and carefully nurtured garden in the front make the house even more heartwarming. Salim also didn't insist on rent. He was happy with whatever we paid. In the morning, Salim's wife served us Kava, roti and goat cheese. She stayed there, filling our plates without allowing them to go empty. Kava is unlimited, Salim said, sporting that sparkling smile. Don't hesitate to ask if need be.
Where did Kashmiris learn this hospitality of treating even strangers as their own? Salim's daughter is an MBBS student in Srinagar. The house will open its doors to tourists for four or five months. Salim doesn't know to bargain. Even if you give Rs.400 or Rs.500, he and his wife will be happy. Salim called in the Diskit monastery and informed them that we would be visiting there the next day. He also arranged a guide to show us around the monastery.
Our next stop was Pangong Lake near China border. The map showed 230km by the banks of river Tavisya to Pangong from Diskit. Guidebooks warned against taking that route as a travel by the banks of the river could be dangerous. The ride will also have long deserted areas and much of it through the river itself. But when I told him about what the guidebooks had cautioned, Salim dismissed it and encouraged us to take that route. With flasks filled with Kava tied on to our bikes, we rode ahead, sometimes through the river, on the boulders and then through the vast stillness of the Tavisya valley. Just as in Kurasova's renowned film 'Dreams', we felt like riding into a painting on a broad canvas. Every one of us fell slipping on the boulders. The one who rode in the front had the most fall. So we took turns to go in the front. At last, our wobbly ride which started early in the morning ended by evening. In a tent on the banks of Pangong, in temperature at 3degree below zero, we slept with the humming of the Himalayan wind.
A day's journey back to Leh and on the next, Subin returns home. Rishabh also parts ways. The celebration of unexpected friendships ends. From there, I take a lonely ride to Manali. The route was planned so as to reach the destination in three days. Rest in a grandma's house at Upshi village. On the way, soldiers in an army truck ask me to stop. As I stood wondering why one of the soldiers hopped off the vehicle with a big packet in hand. He said he stopped me because he noticed the Kerala registration number on the bike. He handed me the packet—Some burfis. Keep the burfis, you can have them on the way, said the officer from Kollam, Kerala.
I gave some burfis to the grandma at Upshi. She gave back an innocent smile, "I'll deduct in your rent."
Next day, another grandma in Sarchu rented her tent for just Rs.100 a bed. Her family and children are living in the village above. There she has sheep and a farm. Come tourist season, she sets up tents by the road for the travellers. If you want noodles, roti or rice, she will arrange it in half an hour.
From Sarchu to Manali the next morning. The road from Kashmir to Himachal Pradesh is through Rohtang, a mountain pass that means the pile of dead bodies. With steep climbs, slopes, boulders, and dust, the path is treacherous. Whenever I fell slipping on rocks, everybody stops and comes to my aid. There are no strangers on a Himalayan path. Men, creeping like worms on the mountain roads, share everything—food, water, oxygen for those who gasp for air and thermal pads for those who shiver in cold. By treading those mountains that touch faraway clouds, humans try to forget their silliness. On day 20, my climb down ends at Manali. Now, back to Kerala through the plains.