Abstract Inspirational Thriller
‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I….
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.’- Robert Frost
‘Viren, have you packed everything for the journey?’ Saveen asked while adjusting the saddle bag on his Royal Enfield 500 cc Thunderbird.
‘I am almost done with the packing. Once Spiti comes down, we will be ready to leave,’ Viren said as he wiped the water droplets out of his bike’s seat.
‘The sky seems a bit clear for the ride today. I think we should leave before the weather conditions change,’ Yd said looking at the majestic blue snow while clad sky.
‘You all are still here? 7:30(AM) is too late to start for Tso Moriri. You should have had breakfast and crossed the Leh city borders by now. The weather has been quite unpredictable from yesterday,’ said Dawa worriedly.
Dawa was the owner of the Hotel Druk, where we were put up for our week long stay in Leh, Ladakh. The weather during mid of July was supposed to be good but Leh city had experienced unpredictable rainfall the previous evening. We were quite worried if we could make it to Tso Moriri, the largest high-altitude lake approximately at an altitude of 14,836 ft. The nearest village is Korzok, where we were supposed to camp for the night.
Everything was packed and we were ready with our protective gear (jackets, gloves, helmets, knee cap, boots) camera, GoPro attached to the helmet, some snacks like dry fruits, chocolates and most important- water bottles, empty cans to fill petrol and first aid kit to tread on a path less taken by travelers who visit Ladakh. The journey to Tso Moriri was expected to take around eight hours if we drove without taking many breaks during the journey. We were advised to reach Korzok before sunset.
Yd and I were the last to start the ride among the three couples. After driving for a while, our bike started creating a weird rattling noise.
‘Archie, something is wrong with my bike. I feel as if some stones have lodged into the wheel,’ Yd said. After driving for another five minutes he decided to get it checked with the bike rental mechanic because the ride was going to be a long and desolate one with no trees, no phone network, no people, no animals- just miles and miles of mountains.
While Yd was getting the bike rectified, we five ordered hot parathas and waited for him. The tasty and hot parathas were served quickly as we were in a hurry. We had completed eating two rounds of serving but still there was no sign of Yd. We couldn’t call him as all our phone networks were not working in Ladakh. After about an hour or so, Yd came. The bike’s front wheel tyre was replaced just to avoid any further problems.
‘We should have crossed Upshi which was 45 kms from Leh. Should we continue with our plan? Saveen said doubtfully looking at his watch.
‘I think we should go to Khardung La instead.’
‘There is still a possibility that we might reach on time, provided we ride continuously till Chumathang,’ Yd said pointing at the route map. We all peered into the map and hoped that from then on, we could stick to our plan. The sun was smiling brightly at us as we moved slowly through the puddled pot holes on the road. We reached Upshi at 12:00 PM. We were all in smiles as our bikes crossed each other during the ride. The sky was clearing up, the sun was shining bright and we were back to those beautiful roads where there were hardly any vehicles. The route we were travelling in had some of the most picturesque scenes that made us want to stop and keep clicking pictures but we did not have much time at our disposal. After travelling for an hour, we were welcomed by the isolated terrains followed by huge mountains covered with soil that changed colors as the clouds moved over them, just like the peacock feather changes colors when viewed from different angles and the Indus River was guiding our path from the right. It certainly seemed like a road less travelled. The huge mountains and the jutting rocks with stones fallen on the road made us feel more cautious while riding throughout that terrain. Riding every kilometer forward seemed like a herculean task to me, although it was Yd who was riding and taking up the strain of driving on rough roads with a pillion and heavy saddle bags. The confidence with which Yd, Saveen and Viren drove their bikes, carefully yet with a good speed along with a pillion rider in these tough roads was appreciable.
After this tiring one-hour ride we were forced to halt at a very serene location. The pure, cold and crystal-clear water that came from the melted snow came down gushing in full force through the cracks in the rocks. We couldn’t resist filling our empty bottles with this clear, cold and sweet water. This was the first time I was drinking water directly from a flowing water body.
‘I can’t explain how good I feel,’ said Deepa as she splashed the cold sparkling water on her face.
Hardly had we started after this pit stop, when Saveen pressed his bike’s horn loudly three times; it was a signal for us to stop. His bike had a flat tyre. None among us knew how to change a bike’s tyre and neither did we have adequate tools to check for a puncture or fix it. The only option we had was to ask for help. Among all the vehicles that passed by, it was only a Maruti van that stopped when we we asked for help. The kind man, who was from the army said, ‘I would bring someone so that you can take your bike to Upshi for getting the puncture repaired.’
Later, many vehicles passed by, biker groups and other tourist vehicles, army trucks, local trucks, but no one stopped even to ask us if we required something. He came back with a friend on a camper vehicle where Saveen’s bike was loaded. Yd and Saveen went in the truck to get the puncture repaired while Viren stayed back with Spiti, Deepa and me.
We sat on rocks in one corner and waited for the other two to come. We were trying to pass time while sitting there by speaking about every topic under the sun. But, the irony here is that time was not waiting for anyone. We all knew that it was getting extremely late according to our travel schedule and at this rate we wouldn’t be able to reach Tso Moriri before sunset. The weather condition was indicating towards a heavy downpour and we could clearly see dark clouds hovering in the sky and moving towards us. We were left only with hope - A hope that Saveen and Yd would come back soon. As I lay on the rock looking at the sunny sky, Deepa said, ‘We are in the lap of nature with the beautiful sky above, powerful river flowing by, mountains standing tall in front of us, it could be nothing less than a dream come true or a description out of a poetry. I always wanted to get lost in one such place and never go back home. But reality isn’t as exciting as I had thought.’
Viren stood in the corner looking at the meandering road which was coming in our direction. The moment he heard any vehicle’s horn he would strain his neck and look at the road to see if it was our bike. It was 3:00 PM and there was no sign of even one vehicle. After a while we could only hear a bike’s sound but could not see it. Slowly, the faint bike’s sound grew louder and we could see a bike coming towards us. It was not very clear but as the bike approached the sound of the horn and the thunder of the engine increased. We all split into smiles looking at each other and thanked the Almighty that they came back safely. We decided not to halt anywhere from then on so that we could cover a large distance in a short span of time.
‘90 kms more to go!’ Spiti exclaimed looking at the milestone.
The roads were becoming slushier as we rode forward because of the melted snow water that was flowing down the mountain. Soon, we were forced to stop again at a road which was blocked because of a fresh landslide. Thankfully the BRO men cleared it soon and we could move forward. We were somewhere between Kere and Chumathang where we came across a large water crossing where the water level was up to knee level but the bikes went effortlessly into the water, which made me feel that the Enfield was probably born for these terrains. By then, our shoes were dripping wet which forced us halt again because travelling with wet shoes in this cold weather condition was not advisable. Two army men saw us halt suddenly and came forward to talk to us. Yd offered them some of the chocolates that we were carrying with us. They were the energy boosters that we had kept in sufficient quantity to help us sustain for long hours of starvation. They took the chocolates and said, ‘We should be the ones offering you chocolates or biscuits instead, as we have enough army supplies. You all look tired so please join us for some tea.’ We were a little reluctant to wait for some more time but the idea of having a warm sip of tea tempted us. While we were contemplating and considering whether to leave or to stay back, one of the army personnel had already brought us hot steaming tea with freshly made onion pakoras and biscuits. We were too overwhelmed to refuse their help. The tea and pakoras tasted heavenly and it was like a boon for us hungry souls as this was the only snack we had had taken after breakfast in the morning. They also gave us biscuit packets to carry along thinking that we would be requiring them during the rest of the journey. We were too overwhelmed by their gesture and we not able to find the right words of gratitude for their kindness. They said, ‘We would love to go and live in the city if given a chance to be off duty and you all are coming to this place, away from the city, just for a holiday. Anyway, all the best for your trip and in case you need any help while returning from Tso Moriri please don’t hesitate to drop by here.’ We saluted their benevolent nature and their fighting spirit and moved ahead.
Long stretch of narrow and broad roads, at times meandering, at times taking us uphill, sometimes bringing us downhill, sometimes the roads we were on a plain making us parallel to the mountain peaks; the journey was wonderful and at the same time thrilling and scary. It started raining when it was somewhere close to 6:00 PM. The clouds were playing with us as there was ample time for the sun to set but it was seeming that it could become dark earlier too. Our gloves were wet because of the continuous rain. It takes a lot of courage for a biker to continue riding in such weather conditions and with a pillion it gets a bit more difficult. As we kept moving closer to the higher altitude areas it was becoming difficult to resist the freezing cold air. I kept chanting the very famous Tibetian prayer ‘Om main padre hum’ wishing for the rain to stop but, it didn’t. We reached Chimichanga when it was close to 7:00 PM.
‘Can we stay at Chimichanga for the night as this is the only place where we can find accommodation?’ Deepa proposed the idea. But Yd, Saveen and Viren decided that it was better we continue our journey instead of halting. The sky was cloudy and there was no sign of the moon or the stars. The headlights of the bikes were the only source of light for us to move forward. We kept riding ahead in the hope of finding some source of light or a place to even halt for a while. There were stretches in between where there were water crossings whose depth we could not anticipate. For that the pillion riders had to get down, use a stick to measure the depth of the flowing water and then allow the bikes to cross solo. Later, one by one the bikes came back and took us to the other side. This was all possible only because of the headlights. If the lights were put off, it was dark and scary. One could not spot even the person who was around them.
After driving for a while in pitch darkness, we spotted a small flickering neon light, as good as a twinkling star. The headlights of the three bikes were concentrated on one area so that we could have a clear picture of the place we were in. So, we went ahead for a while checked to the right and left by turning the bike’s headlight towards the ground. We though the road was about to end as there were only a series of flowing water streams glistening in the dark. We couldn’t fathom the depth of the streams and even if we took the effort to measure the depth, we did not know if there was a road ahead for us. With the limited visibility provided by the headlight, we thought it were better to avoid the risk. We returned to the same place where we had seen the flickering light a while back. There were few tents pitched around with none to be seen around them. There was a huge barricade made with stones and we could see horns of animals which smelt like sheep. The first thought that came to my mind when I saw the moving horns of the sheep and the noise made by them was about Snow leopards. I remembered reading in the news about the highly elusive Snow Leopards that frequently came down from these mountains to hunt for sheep that were kept in a confined place by the locals.
Meanwhile, hearing the thundering sound created by the bikes a man and a woman came out. They hardly understood Hindi and with their language we could decipher that this was not Korzok village. We hadn’t lost our way but the distance to be covered further was still unknown. Yd and Saveen convinced the man to come with them on the bike and show them the route to Tso Moriri, while we waited for them.
Since it was getting cold and raining, I requested the lady, ‘Will you give us shelter in the tent?’ She immediately took us inside their tent which had a carpeted floor on either side fenced by cloth bags filled with sand probably and rugs around. The tent was made of cloth and was held only by a single wooden pole in the center. We shivered and freaked out thinking about our plight for the night. It was close to 10:00 PM when all this was happening. While we tried to sit, we found that the carpet was wet, at least we were free of our wet shoes and socks. Water was dripping slightly from the corners but sitting inside was such a relief for us.
The lady asked us a few questions and seeing our helpless state she empathized with us but she did not know how to express. She also lit up the mini fireplace in the center. ‘Shall I make tea for you?’ she asked. I think that was goat’s milk which she was using to making tea but who cared about the milk when we were all freezing inside. We were kept a little warm by the fire she had lit up in the center. Yd and Saveen returned with the man after a while. They said that there was a route which we could have taken but because it was dark we were not able to make out the path clearly. The path to Tso Moriri was towards our left and we were trying to move towards the right.
‘Shall we leave now?’ Saveen asked everyone as he sat inside the dripping tent. Viren suggested, ‘Let us stay back in the tent. It is raining heavily and everyone is feeling extremely cold.’ We squeezed ourselves inside the tent and sat facing each other in a horrified and helpless state. If was suffocating inside but we had no other choice. Life was throwing different challenges at each step. We were too grateful to have been even offered tea.
Since the tent was dripping wet because of the penetrating rain water, Yd asked them if they could take us to another tent. That man readily agreed and took him out in the rain with a torch light. After about 15 minutes, Yd was back with a horrifying look on his face; It was a strange look of helplessness. ‘The tent which in we were about to stay in has collapsed because of the rain and the strong wind,’ Yd said with a forlorn look. ‘This is the only tent which is intact and we all have to stay here. This man and his wife are going to sleep in some other tent. I have requested them to allow us to stay in this tent for the night. They have readily agreed and given us their tent for the night,’ Yd said.
That kind lady asked, ‘Will you have dal-chawal?’ We wouldn’t expect this hospitality even from our close ones at times. While we all sat hungry, forlorn and depressed, she prepared our dinner in the cooker right in front of us. We couldn’t have that dal-chawal completely as it had a distinct flavor due to a spice powder mix added to it but we gulped it down because there was no other source of food for us. Yd was the only one among who relished this dish and to our surprise, he even asked for a second serving. I am sure that would have been very glad to give him the second serving. Post dinner, we had to take paracetamol just to be on the safe side.
The husband and wife duo looked at us helplessly trying to find a solution for the leaking tent. We had to leave this place or find another sturdy tent for shelter. During our conversation I asked them an extremely impractical question which turned to our benefit, ‘Do you have a car or any vehicle?’ ‘Yes,’ he said to our surprise. It was not a car but a camper which his cousin Namgyal owned. We were all excited thinking that we would be able to reach our camp in Korzok soon. We planned to leave the bikes there and take our luggage along.
Namgyal said, ‘I will take you to Korzok.’
We agreed to what he said and follow suit, as there couldn’t have been a better solution at that time. Viren and Spiti were also not feeling well because of the cold and damp weather. My hands were refusing to warm up and my teeth were still clattering. Yd and Saveen were the only ones who managed to stay calm throughout, despite their tiredness. They were also feeling equally cold and sick but they acted as our support system. Deepa was praying for the rain to stop so that we could get some relief. These events were happening at around 11:30 PM in one of the remotest place in the Himalayas. Before leaving the tent, we gave some money to that lady and the man for their help. Again, she did not expect money for all the help and hospitality she had provided. She quietly took the money and kept it near the photo of His Holiness - The Dalai Lama. There life was nomadic and living in tents was normal for them. They did not have multiple thick layer of clothing like us and even their children were left exposed to extreme weather conditions. They adapted to the weather conditions and to their uncertain life. The only thing that they had was their mobile tent, their herd of sheep, clothes and the blessings of His Holiness. They moved in small groups during winters and everyone staying around them was family. They were not related by blood but by the bond that they shared as nomads.
We had a vehicle to take us to our camp, what more could we have asked for? Half an hour passed and we were still travelling. The cold breeze was making us freeze. Our luggage was thrown quickly at the rear of the camper. We hurriedly made place for ourselves inside the vehicle. There were two in front with the driver and the rest four were cramped in the back seat. It was a great sense of relief when the van started moving away from this place and kept moving for a while without any problems. Suddenly, the rain drops became huge and intense. They were falling on the glass screen getting stuck and making it difficult for Namgyal to see. The wiper of his van was not working so he had to manually clean the glass on his own to get proper visibility. The windscreen had become an opaque white soon and only when Namgyal strained his head out to clear the screen did we realized that it was snow. Within ten minutes it grew thicker and thicker. We were amidst a snowstorm. Namgyal had to practically drive the camper with his head outside the window most of the time in the chilling snowstorm so that he could see the path ahead. We were all dead tired but Yd and Saveen were the only ones who struggled to be awake just for Namgyal.
After a while, Namgyal stopped his vehicle and told us that it was not possible for him to take us further as the snow storm had increased and the roads were going be blocked soon. He told us, ‘We should go back. As further up, the intensity of snowfall would increase and we might be in a tougher situation.
But where do we go back to? We told Namgyal that we did not have a place to go to. What he told us next left us feeling surprised and shocked. He said, ‘I will take you to a home-stay which is further down this village and if you find place you can stay there or else I’ll take you all to my house.’ Those words seemed like they were spoken by a God sent angel. We knew then that humanity still existed in this world. The road was narrow and on a 45 degree up-slope, which made it difficult for him to even reverse his van. He somehow struggled and reversed the van perfectly even in that weather condition. We were completely dependent on Namgyal to take us safely back. The home-stay where we were supposed to stay in was closed, this left us with only one option, that is to stay in Namgyal’s house. There was one such moment when Deepa and I held hands and we were almost in tears but we managed to stay calm. All we wanted at that time was a shelter to prevent us from the cold, rain and the snowstorm.
After about an hour, close to 2:00 AM we reached Namgyal’s house. It was a small house made of mud. Our bags were covered with a thick layer of snow which we had to bring inside after dusting off the snow. The room was muddy and wet because rain water had seeped in through the roof. The roofs there are made of mud which cannot hold water. The roof started dripping again. Thankfully, the corners were still dry but in the center of the room there was a huge patch of damp mud which had fallen in the center of the room. He gave us warm blankets which we needed badly then. Namgyal went to sleep in his camper instead. We requested him to stay back and sleep in the same room but he decided to sleep in his truck. The most important take home message for us from the day’s event is that there are selfless people still existing even in remote corners of this Earth. No one asked for money or demanded anything from us. Had it been in some other place, I doubt if someone would have been so helpful without expecting money first. We all prayed for the night to end soon and were desperately waiting for the sun to rise.
We were woken up by a jolt with Saveen’s voice in the morning, ‘Let’s get out of this room quickly. The mud roof has just fallen.’ We were in deep sleep and this loud sound with Saveen’s timely warning just jolted us out of our sleep. All houses in these villages are made of thatched mud roofs. When it rains and snows heavily, snow deposits on the roof and makes the mud weak. That’s what had just happened with the roof of the house we were in. We woke up with a start only to see the clear sky from the hole in the center of the room.
The moment we rushed out with our belongings, we were welcomed by snow clad mountains which had thick layers of fresh snow after the snowstorm from last night. Our bags were dripping wet after the snow covered on them from last night had melted. Thanks to those plastic covers in which we had wrapped our belongings, we were able to put some dry clothes on.
Namgyal took the same route back to Thadsang village from where we had come back. Well, in remote places it is a boon if there is one proper route! The place where we had stayed last night for a while looked mystical and beautiful. We hadn’t felt this the previous night though as our situation was not a comfortable one. When we halted near the tent, the first thing that Yd, Saveen and Viren did was to go check if the bikes were fine. They had been exposed to extreme weather conditions the previous night and they quietly stood abandoned on the field. The snow had melted down leaving just the tank and seat a bit wet. Yd tried to start his bike just to ensure it was capable of riding us further. That’s when another commotion started. Saveen started frantically looking for the bike keys in his pocket and his bag and to our dismay he was unable to find it. He asked Deepa to check in the other bags meanwhile. After a thorough search they couldn’t find the key. Saveen’s face was perplexed and confused while he tried to recall the events from the previous night when he had left the bike outside. There was a possibility that it could have fallen outside Namgyal’s house for which we would have to retrace those 100+odd kilometers again. The rented bike would remain in a remote village without a duplicate key and we would have to pay a penalty for losing the keys. Hearing the continuous chatter outside the tent, the same lady came out and to our relief the first that she did was hand over Saveen’s bike keys. We had not explained about the situation to them and neither did we shout for keys. We wondered as to how she got to know that we were looking exactly for the same! It was as if Dalai Lama has whispered in her ears to help us out and she was waiting for us all this while to just give the keys. We concluded that probably the key would have fallen when we were loading our luggage’s.
We requested Namgyal to take us to Tso Moriri because after taking all these troubles we did not want to miss seeing the beautiful lake(Tso) Moriri. He readily agreed and promised that he would take us back safely to Leh city. We assured him that we would pay him for the travel expenses but he wasn’t concerned much about money. He also planned to put the RE bikes on the trucks while we sat inside. The entire Thadsang village with the Tibetan nomads had come to help us load the bikes on the camper van. We did visit Tso Moriri but couldn’t enjoy the trip much as the exhaustion was clearly visible on our bodies. After spending a few hours there we were on our way back to Leh.
It was the longest and most adventurous night of our Ladakh trip and in our lives so far. Finally, we reached Leh city safely only because of the Himalayan angels. Sometimes, life throws certain unforeseen situations in front of us when we lose the ability to think wisely and feel that there is no light at the end of the tunnel, that’s when an angel comes and holds us our hand to show us the right path. This is exactly what we call- faith and hope!