Day 4, September 2, 2014
Kargil to Rangdum (130 km, 7 hours)
I woke up around 6:15 to the gentle sounds of the Suru flowing outside the window. Another unhurried morning. There was wifi (at a price) at the Zojila Residency, our hotel, and some of us were longing to get connected on a wider bandwidth. The previous night’s instructions to be ready at 8:00am had been interpreted variously as “be ready to move,” “be ready to eat breakfast,” or “generally be around.” At breakfast eggs and toast were the most popular choices. Bhavna took out a stash of artisanal jams she had brought along. [Yes, the ones I make are sooooo much better.] Many rounds of tea later – we were the first ones there and I got to drown a good many cups of tea as people ambled in – we stepped out to line up the cars. Those who hadn’t tanked up the night before, despite Abhey’s requests, drove off to first do that.
We were finally on our way a little before 10:00, confident that today, with out collective prayers, the universe would surely conspire to lift the mist and clouds and we would see the mountains in their full magnificence, maybe even get a glimpse of the famous Ladakhi blue skies. The car temperature gauge registered a balmy 13 degrees C. With our hopes high and tanks full, we hit the road. But before leaving town we stocked up on rations for a cookout on the way. The TerraQuest team had thought of these little things that can make a trip doubly enjoyable. They were carrying stoves and pots and pans, including pressure cookers! The butcher shop was found and chicken bought. I was in charge of the vegetables and almost died when Abhishek asked me to buy a kilo of onions for chicken curry. One kilo of onions?! How many were they planning to cook for; we were only 11 people! I also bought a kilo of potatoes, some tomatoes, green chillies, and cucumbers. Haak, unfortunately, was not to be found anywhere in the market, though I saw it growing in everyone’s kitchen gardens throughout town. After three days of eating caustic ‘mixed vegetables’ I felt this intense craving for braised greens.
We stopped at Sankhoo at 11:00 for some paperwork. Bhavna and Abhey had seen to it that our papers were in order and were carrying multiple copies of necessary documents for all of us. Going through check posts was, therefore, a breeze. Our drive today would be along the Suru river. The greens on the riverbanks contrast sharply with the bare slopes. The willows were turning, as were the poplars.
The universe did not conspire after all and it rained through the day. The mountains continued to be hidden behind clouds that almost touched the ground. A cookout was out of the question. Yet, the landscape was no less amazing. The bases of the slopes were covered with alpine grasses and shrubs starting to change colour – a spectacle of the most gorgeous oranges and reds in what is otherwise moonscape. We took a short break by one of the many chortens on the way, to drink in the scenery. That is where we got the first scratch – we had pulled over by a rock and while restarting forgot it was right there by the left tire. Scroosh (or whatever).
Keeping safe distance, we continued in proper convoy etiquette, following the one in front while keeping an eye on the one behind. The way to Rangdum (Rung-doum) had its share of thrills. The road, for the most part, is nonexistent. It is built (and lost) every year. With just boulders for a road it isn’t the best surface to ride a sedan. Vijay drove with utmost caution making sure to keep the car in one piece. The trip was on till there was a machine to ride. Chalti ka naam gaadi…Our pace was slow, way slower than the rest of the group. Not only did no one complain or chide, Abhey, bringing up the rear just behind us, actually commended Vijay on his driving and his skill to push the SX4 so much and no more.
We were doing well enough till that water-crossing. We hit something and I saw a cloud of smoke rise suddenly. I panicked and asked Vijay to stop thinking the car might be on fire. I wanted to get out of the car before it went up in flames. Abhey called out from behind and reassured us that it was likely just cold water hitting the radiator. But I was already half out of the car and after seeing what I saw, I wasn’t sure if we should/could just go on. Abhey came out to take a look and soon, there was Ravi and then Anand, checking out the situation. The slightest trouble and the mates were out with a helping hand, a word of advice, or support. Or the Handycam.
Water-crossing challenge for the Mad Hatters; somewhere along we lost the front number-plate! (Video Credit: Ravi Sharma)
I forgot to mention this earlier – in Ropar TQ issued each car a walkie-talkie and, near or far, we all stayed in radio contact with the rest, something that was not just useful but, at times, essential. Chatting with the rest kept everyone in good spirits, though it took some of us a while before we were comfortable with, “Come in, Dust Collector… Copy that,” and the hardest, “Roger!” Bhavna (a better Pathfinder you will not find) warning about approaching obstacles in her always soft and calm voice made them seem mere molehills. She would give fair warning about steep, sharp turns and remind us to maintain adequate distance between cars, to roll down the windows a bit and not use heating, and to, under no condition, half-press the clutch, all in her soothing, friendly voice.
After that water crossing, all obstacles paled, and we enjoyed the view that surrounded us – stark mountains cradling a misty alpine wetland, and not another soul for miles. Rangdum is as remote as remote can be; Padum even more remote but it had to be dropped from the itinerary on account of inclement weather.
We reached Rangdum village, a settlement of a few hutments and a couple of tea shacks, by 3:00 pm. The ‘mixed vegetables’ had finally taken their toll and Vijay had no appetite. The rest of us dug into plates of Maggie noodles (a staple, in these parts) and rajma-chawal while we waited for thukpa. The thukpa turned out of be a damp squib but we appreciated the warmth- and energy-bestowing qualities of all these hot brothy-dishes.
We reached Rangdum monastery at around 5 in the evening. We stepped out of the cars to a temperature of 6 degrees C with rain and wind for additional coolth, and I wondered why anyone would choose to live in such harsh conditions in the middle of nowhere. Of course, I have little idea how harsh it really gets. The tiny monastery sits perched on top of a small hill with a flat valley all around. Halfway up that hill is the camp-site which will be our shelter for the night.
We were looking forward to tea and snacks in the dining-tent. We picked dry spots at the two tables to drink our tea. The snacks were not pakoras we had hoped for but biscuits. It takes a few moments for city folk to really understand what it means to live in a place that is almost inaccessible. You cannot quite step out and and just buy whatever you’ve run out of, be it onions or besan, or cooking gas.
The camp-site with the 20-odd tents and the caretakers’ building is the only tourist facility here. We were allotted our tents and informed about the tin-sheet toilets further down. With the wind, the rain, and the cold outside, I wondered if we were going to get warm enough to get a good night’s sleep.
As darkness fell outside, we fidgeted inside the tiny tent debating whether to sit on the bed on get under the covers. The generator had been turned on for a short time and we put the wireless-set to charge. I was beginning to get cozy and drowsy just when Bharat called out to us to join everyone in the caretakers’ cottage. We trooped out to the cottage clenching our jackets against the rain and chill. The dripping tent had been abandoned in favour of the living quarters of the two young caretaker boys. Rum and whiskey bottles were out and we got comfortable atop the mattresses on the floor.
The cook had planned a dinner of, you guessed it, mixed vegetables, a dal, rice, and roti. We still had the chicken we had bought for the cookout. Ravi offered to get into the kitchen and cook it. The caretaker lads were happy to have some animal protein added to their dinner tonight. We drank rum-and-coke and listened to music on Bharat’s Bluetooth speaker. When dinner was ready, the boys insisted that we eat in the tent. Reluctantly we dragged ourselves to the tent outside where they had laid out the dinner buffet.
Dinner comprised a clear soup, ominous-looking mixed vegetables (there is no getting away from this!), Ravi’s chicken curry, chana dal (good, I ate lots of it), with rice and roti. I passed on the strange-looking warm custard. Gelusil was the dessert of choice. Vijay hardly ate anything other than salad.
It was time to make that dreaded trip to the toilet before retiring to the tent for the night. The toilet-door was secured with twisted-wire ‘hooks’ and only prayers kept it from flying open in mid-act. I read a bit before going to sleep. With the tent zipped the wind and cold were shut out, and under all the layers (heavy quilt+blanket) I slept soundly.
Day 5, September 3, 2014
Rangdum to Alchi (290km, 13 hours)
My body-clock sets to 6:15am as wake-up time when I am traveling and today was no exception. I stepped out and found the stubborn clouds still hanging around. I thought I would go and checkout the monastery before breakfast. Vijay was going to stay tucked in; he thinks if you’ve seen one monastery, you’ve seen them all. And, he was planning to skip this one. Rangdum monastery was just a short climb up from the camp but I reminded myself to walk slow and respect the rarefied air. We were handling the high altitude well, with no one having complained of headaches or any other symptoms of high-altitude sickness. The 5 minute uphill walk had me breathing hard.
I entered the monastery. It was quiet and I saw no one around. I continued into the central courtyard and entered what looked like the main prayer hall. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness I saw a lone monk chanting on one side. Seeing my hesitation he motioned with his hand for me to enter and sit. I sat there with my eyes closed listening to his rhythmic chanting and wondering what he sought in this tiny haven surrounded by wilderness. Buddhist monasteries, just like highly revered Hindu places of pilgrimage, are located in places hard to access – the arduous journey itself becoming a means to direct thoughts away from the worldly to the metaphysical, to shift the focus inward.
I also wondered why ancient religions seeking enlightenment in isolation and austerity, valuing self-discovery over everything else, are today showing signs of violent rebellion.
I stepped back into the small courtyard and entered a doorway that lead to the kitchen. There I found this ancient-looking lama setting about pots and thermoses. “Gur-gur chai,” he said. The large wood-burning stove had a small fire going on one end on which sat a pot. The fuel was not even wood, but dung chips. Where were you going to find wood in this tree-less landscape! I spotted some yellow yak butter lying around. Must be for the tea, I thought. We couldn’t talk to each other. He spoke Ladakhi. Shortly, we were joined by another, younger, monk who cracked the window a little to let more light in. And he stood there waiting for the tea to be ready. I left. It would be a while before the tea would boil on that heat-source.
Outside the monastery I stopped to take in the view of the vast landscape with no sign of human activity as far as the eye could see, took a few pictures on the phone-camera for remembrance, and walked down to the camp.
No one seemed about. The dining tent was empty. So much for breakfast at 7 for an early start to what was surely going to be a very long drive to Alchi. I decided to wash-up and pack-up and come back for breakfast. The make-shift toilets had running water; as if anyone would dare to take their clothes off leave alone pour cold water on themselves!
The cook had quite a spread for us this morning, which included – brace yourself – freshly made pancakes with honey! There was also jam, peanut butter, and toast, and paranthas. A late start, at 8:30, was going to cost us some fabulous views in the evening.
On the way out we lined up on the straight road in the riverbed and took a photograph, and then we were off to Alchi, retracing our route till Kargil. The mists had lifted some and we were able to see more of the mountain bottoms than we had the previous day. On the return journey, Vijay didn’t even register the water-crossing-challenge of the previous day and we argued for some time whether we had crossed it or not. I was right; he had sailed through without realising.
Ah, but there was trouble in store for SUV#1, The Pathfinders’ Scorpio! They hit a boulder and a loud clank brought them to a alarming halt. On inspection it turned out that the bolt securing the front suspension had broken. The only option was to drive slow, reach Kargil where repairs might be possible. We were no longer the slowest car.😉
At last, Bharat was allowed to drive unrestrained so as to get to Kargil town as fast as possible and arrange for the suspension-bolt. He arrived in Kargil an hour before we did at around 1:30 or so. Zojila Residency was chosen for lunch and I opted for breakfast – bread and omelet! Washed down with a couple of cups of tea, it was an excellent choice too. We had no luck with the garage in town and The Pathfinders would have to maintain their slow progress till Leh the next day.
We left Kargil after lunch, around 3:00 or so. There was much halting and picture-taking on way though I tried to restrain myself within the car most of the time. Light was fast fading by the time we reached the 8th Century statue of the Maitreya Buddha (the future Buddha) carved into the hillside by the highway at Mulbekh. These would be the last pictures of the day. The rest of the drive to Alchi village was covered in darkness and we lost out on a scenic drive.
By the time we reached Alchi village night had fallen and we took time finding our way through the darkness to our hotel. It was a boutique hotel built in the traditional Ladakhi style (not a home-stay as per claim). We dumped our bags in the clean rooms and regrouped in the front veranda. Ravi took out the special quality single-malt he was carrying, and there was more rum-and-coke for those who like it less fancy. I brought out some munchies and we had ourselves a party. We tried not to make too much noise – it was late and the other guests were fast asleep.
They called us for dinner at 11:00, not willing to keep the kitchen open longer, and we trudged across the yard, across the street, to the adjoining building that housed the kitchen and dining facilities. There was soup (which I skipped) and Indian-Chinese fare: manchurian balls! Of course there was the mandatory mixed-vegetable dish but it looked less ominous. Vijay stuck to the salad, more or less. I skipped the chicken-curry-from-nowhere and instead had some rice with the Indo-Chinese manchurian curry. On request they brought in a dish of noodles too and I might have had a bit from that. The dessert course was warm seviyan kheer and it was good. Then we ran back across in the rain and went to sleep. Another rainy day had drawn to a close.