Ashwini and I were getting to know each other well. The furtive calls. The waiting. The disappointment. Now, over the phone, in twilight hours, the airport duty manager was making promises he knew I so wanted to hear. ‘You are my priority-exacerbated passenger, maam, I will make sure that you will be the first person on the first morning flight to Leh.’ In the skies, the Sun God and Fog God continued to wage their battle. The next morning, I embarked resignedly on my third trip to the Indira Gandhi airport in 24 hours. But Ashwini kept his promise, breezing through a murderous crowd of stressed passengers to hand me my boarding pass as soon as I walked in through the doors.
On the plane a passenger thundered at me. “You are in my seat”. “Yes, I have taken your window seat. I was hoping, you wouldn’t turn up,” I wanted to say. Instead, I moved to my allotted seat at the end of the row. I did manage a glimpse of what looked like gargantuan cotton balls with pencil tips sticking out on top. And then, as the plane dipped, the mountains. The breathtaking mountains. From my peephole, my mind stretched all the way into the horizon.
It is common knowledge that two days in Leh are mandatory for acclimatisation. Your lungs have to get used to running on lower levels of oxygen and therefore your brain on less fuel. But we were one day behind schedule. Hardheaded metropolitans, we assumed our thick skulls would protect us. Over the next few days, we would experience the excruciating feeling of our skulls gradually tightening around our brain, crushing the faulty cells out of existence.
A few people in our group had cancelled at the last moment. So when only the three of us arrived at Spituk to begin our trek, we were met by four assistants and 12 ponies! Strapped to the ponies were provisions for the army at Kargil. I could imagine what the foreign trekkers ahead of us, their supplies in the rucksacks on their backs, were thinking.
The first part of the journey was stark. Mighty mountains rose bare and brown into the sky. The sun scorched my pale skin to a parched but sexy deep brown. And I got my first glimpse of the Indus River. It was muddier than any river I had ever seen.
Tensing, our guide, taught me the word ‘jule’, pronounced as ‘joolay’. “Magic word”, he said. “It will get you anywhere with anyone. It means hello, goodbye, please and thank you.” I wished other languages were this sympathetic.
Anu and Jateen were my companions on the trek. Anu, also from Delhi had trekked in these parts before. She would take off in the wee hours of the morning while Jateen and I were still sleeping, tucked inside our thermals, monkey caps, woollen socks and two sleeping bags each. Her conspicuous absence at breakfast made us feel like bad, bad trekkers. Jateen was from Mumbai. Whenever he introduced himself as “From Mumbai”, a reverential silence followed.
Four hours after we left Spituk, we reached Jingchen, our first campsite. As we stretched our limbs by the river, the boys unburdened the beasts. The ponies swiftly rolled over, swaying sideways, rubbing their raw backs feverishly in the sand. The first day was just the warm-up. The next morning, we scrambled up scree slopes for three hours to Rumbak in time for lunch.
After an hour’s rest, I started the remainder of the trek with a lot more energy. Chatting and laughing with Tensing all the way. Not smart. By the time we got to the Yurutse campsite, my breathing had almost stopped altogether. I crawled into the dining camp on all fours. Anu was ready with her broth — steaming hot garlic soup. After three cups on an empty stomach, my insides took their revenge. I threw up the rest of the night. I found out later that Lonely Planet considers the Markha Valley trek “demanding”. Well, actually it said “moderate-demanding”, but I dismissed the former as a misprint. ‘Moderate’ was what my earlier treks in Uttaranchal were — the seven-hour scenic trek from Govind Ghat to Gangaria and onward to the Valley of flowers.
However, morning cometh, and to everybody’s disbelief, I started walking. Today, of course, we had to cross the Ganda La Pass, 16,300 feet above sea level. After climbing for 30 minutes in the biting cold, my knees began to tremble. Another thirty minutes later, I was beginning to lose control of my motor senses. Jateen tossed his male ego over the edge and climbed onto his pony, indicating that I should follow.
“Me? Don’t be silly! I’m fine!” I shouted back.
My ego was all I had left!
A feminist till I die!
Where’s the nearest cliff?
I did make it to the Ganda La Pass. On foot. From here, I could see the Zanskar range and the distant summits of the Himalayan range. I could also see the relief in Tensing’s eyes. He didn’t need a dead girl on his hands. It would have been a pity to have to roll me off the mountain, leaving the Lammergeiers to tidy up.
After a well-deserved nap, we crossed the fields of Shingo village, which descended into an enchanting wild rose-and-willow gorge through which we reached the Skyu campsite where we were staying for the night.
The next day, as we hiked through the high-altitude grazing pastures of Narding and Chalak, Anu sighted the rare alpine Ibex standing on a cliff-face. I didn’t see it. At the time, I was not inclined to gaze wonderingly at a goat when there were bigger animals grazing in dangerous proximity. Anu could saunter past the yaks if she liked, but I would be more respectful. I nodded graciously, as I passed. (Thanking them in advance for not eating me.)
Then came the desolate ruins of a fort on a hilltop, and suddenly, without warning, an oasis in the desert. Markha valley — the prettiest part of the trek. And the most green I had seen in these parts. The broad green valley floor ringed by the Ladakh and Zanskar ranges, the daisies, and the rainbow spreading its colours across the sky, were picture perfect. The secret garden! I had found it. I wanted to spend the remaining three days right here. I was outvoted.
It was the lull before the storm.
The next morning demanded the mother of all river crossings. The Markha River was in spate. The various guides of all the groups on this trek came together, forming a human chain so that the rest of us could cross to the other side. One by one we stepped into the roaring river that rose treacherously close to our chests. We made our way over the loose stones on the riverbed, with the undertow tugging wildly at our feet. A German woman slipped and got swept away. Jateen was one of the first to jump in and save her.
We trekked through the tiny settlements of Hankar and Umlung before reaching the Thochuntse campsite. The next day, the trail steadily ascended to a series of grassy ridges before opening up to the vast, green, high-altitude Nimaling plateau. As we crossed it, a huge peak loomed ahead. The Kongmaru La Pass. At almost 17,000 feet. The highest pass in the trek. A formidable two-hour climb to the sky.
As I laboured to the top, many images passed through my mind, many conversations, thoughts, fears that I had held on to tightly in the past. And now, suddenly, inexplicably, I could let go. I had even become friends with my headache, which had promised never to leave me.
My feet found new rhythm. Whether it was the rarefied air that had cleared the cobwebs in my head or the steep ascents and descents that had forced me to cast off the burden in my heart I do not know, but I was not trying to get anywhere anymore. Now was all that mattered. The songs played in my head: U2, Walk on; Supertramp, Take the long way home; Pink Floyd, Wish you were here.
A universe of snowy peaks. The spectacular Eastern Karakoram ranges merged into the horizon and China at some indistinguishable point. On a clear day, I could have spotted the pyramid of K2. On the other side, I could almost reach out and touch the towering Kang Yaze peak at 20,200 feet.
I ran down all the way. And out of the Valley.
That night at Kongmaru La base camp was our last together. Bhupin- der, our chef, conjured up his finest: a three-course gourmet meal. The other boys fixed a bonfire. Karma, who forcefully unzipped our tents every morning and thrust a cup of tea in our faces, sang traditional Ladakhi songs in a surprisingly soft voice.
A few hours after sunrise, we made our way out of the Kongmaru La Base camp, past Chogdo to arrive at Sumdo where the cars were waiting. We got a day and a half in Leh to acclimatise for Delhi. Browsing through the many shops in Leh market, I spotted an SBI ATM. Needless to say, I cleaned it out.
Our trip was organised by Great Indian Outdoors. The agency, which has offices in Gurgaon and Bangalore, took care of everything from the time we landed in Leh till our drive back to the airport. The trip cost me Rs 17,500 (for details call 0124-4081500; 080-51253024 or log on to www.greatindianoutdoors.com).
If you’re on a tighter budget, you will find plenty of trekking agencies in Leh that will offer you packages that include food, a guide, a cook, ponies, tents and cooking equipment at cheaper rates. You could try Splash Adventure Tours (9419178883, 01982-254870). It arranges all the above and rafting expeditions as well. If you really want to rough it, buy a map, buy your own food and medicine and rent camping gear and ponies. A guide costs Rs 250-300 per day while a pony comes for Rs 300 per day.
How to get there
Jet Airways (www.jetairways.com) and Indian (www.indian-airlines.nic.in) operate flights to Leh from Delhi. Indian also operates flights to Leh from Jammu, Srinagar and Chandigarh. But leave an extra day in your schedule for likely delays because of unpredictable weather in Leh. By road, Leh is 1,047km from Delhi, 473km from Manali and 434km from Srinagar. The road to Leh from Srinagar, via Kargil, is open from June to November. The road from Manali to Leh is open from mid-June to early October, but check before leaving. Both drives are dramatic, through towering passes and glorious scenery.
Where to stay
Leh has guesthouses and hotels to suit most budgets. Prices for rooms vary from Rs 150 for a basic single room to Rs 2,500 for a double during peak season from June to August. Log on to www.leh.nic.in for a comprehensive list.
When to go
The best time to travel is from June to October. You will need two days in Leh to acclimatise. Carry extra cash as you are bound to find something irresistible at the Leh Bazaar. Be prepared to drive a hard bargain.