Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Journey to Tso Moriri- The path less trodden

    Day 4 of our journey was one of the longest rides during our Ladakh trip. 

The route to Tso Moriri which might seem very easy on the Google map

The guide map showing the actual route
Tso Moriri is the largest high altitude lake located at an altitude of 14,836 ft and has a 24 km expanse. It is actually known as Tsomoriri Wetland Conservation Reserve. This wetland is a protected land also called as - Ramsar site. It is 240 kms from Leh. ‘Tso’ means ‘Lake’ in Ladakhi/Tibetian language. It is a brackish/salt water lake. It is in the Eastern Ladakh region and is to the south eastern side of Leh. It is located in Changthang, which is a high altitude plateau. It is a remnant lake. This lake has a closed drainage system. Snow melts and drains its water into this lake but the water does not flow out. Vegetation is sparse and one can see nomadic Tibetian settlements there. The most common animals spotted there are sheep, Yak, Himalayan dogs and at times the Himalayan Marmot or even the extremely endangered Snow Leopard or the Tibetan Wolf. The nearest village is Korzok where you can see some habitation; otherwise most of these areas form a major part of the high altitude cold desert. It would be even difficult to spot animals or creatures around at times. If one gets stranded in such places it is difficult to even find shelter. It is just a plateau with nothing on it. The most famous, 135 year old Korzok Monastery is located in this village. Tso Moriri has been recently opened to foreign trekkers.

I am still having starting trouble in describing about our Tso Moriri trip because each time I try recalling that day my thoughts wander and I get into an extremely pensive mood. Amidst those deep thoughts, a chill runs down my spine when I think about that night. Probably the events of the night compelled me to even write a blog post.

We woke up in the morning in Leh, only to see the bright yet partly cloudy sky open up in front of us. We were ready by 7:00 AM, as planned. Dawa suggested us to leave immediately without any further ado because the weather could change any moment. He gave us 2 plastic cans to fill petrol. The route to Tso Moriri gets very isolated after a point. One cannot find petrol bunks after Karu. Karu is at a distance of about 36 kms from Leh.

We had packed well for our trip after learning from the past experience in Lamayuru. We had to keep many xerox copies of our identity proof and also fill the form with our details and the vehicle numbers. There were four major check points in our route - Upshi, Chumathang, Mahe and Korzok, Tso Moriri

At 7:30 AM we headed to our regular Punjabi Dhaba for breakfast. While we were nearing the hotel, Yd and I heard the same rattling sound coming from our bike, just like yesterday. This shouldn’t have happened as all the bikes were checked for problems, especially Yd’s bike, which was also repaired. Now it seemed that, the bike was not repaired properly. Yd was quite unhappy with the disturbing sound. He called up the mechanic and asked him to check his bike again. We waited for Yd at the dhaba while he was getting his bike checked by the mechanic from Apex Adventures. We finished having breakfast in an hour and waited for Yd.  He came only after an hour. Apparently, there was some problem with the bike’s tyre which was causing the sound, so the mechanic changed it and also checked the bike thoroughly. Yd was satisfied to get his bike checked properly before leaving for our Tso Moriri trip. Yd had always told me stories about his Tso Moriri adventure when he had been to Ladakh in 2012. I was really excited to go through the route and visualize his descriptions. It happened to be one of the longest and most adventurous journeys of his Ladakh trip in 2012.

It was 9:30 AM by the time we left from the dhaba after getting the xerox copies of our ID cards. We reached the petrol bunk which had a long queue. It was beyond 10:00 AM when we left from the Leh. It was too late to leave from Leh but we had the confidence that we could reach Tso Moriri at least by evening; that is- ‘before sunset’. A bike ride can take around 6-7 hours depending on the weather, the bike’s and the traveller’s health condition. The sun was shining bright. We were confident that it would not rain for at least a few hours. We had to reach Karu in an hour; which we managed to cover without halting anywhere, even for a minute. The pot holes on the roads while we crossed Shey and Thiksey monastery were filled with water. There was so much water accumulated after the previous night’s heavy rainfall that the rider and the pillion had to lift their legs up in the air parallel to the ground, as high as possible, while being seated firmly on the bike. Despite this effort, water splashed and wet our shoes and socks. We did not buy gum boots for this trip thinking it would not be required. It is advisable that riders and pillion must wear gum boots in order to avoid the discomfort caused by wet shoes and socks. From Karu it took about half an hour to reach Upshi , which is just 13 kms away. We couldn’t ride too fast because of the slush and also traffic because of the number of tourists either going to /coming from Manali via Upshi or going to or coming from/going to from Leh to Tso Moriri. Many bikers told us that the Leh- Manali highway from Upshi had been closed because of a landslide which had destroyed a bridged after Upshi. We were concerned about Apoorv and Tom. Multiple questions went through our head. Will they be fine? Were they stranded? Were they in need of help? According to our plan we were supposed to meet them at Tso Moriri. Since, we had not heard from them from the past 2 days and at the same time heard about a road block in the Leh-Manali highway, we were sure that they would not be able to make it to Tso Moriri on the same day. We only had chances to meet them in Leh if they reached on time.
Thiksey  monastery
Shey Palace 
We reached Upshi by 12:00 PM, where we were stopped to submit the ID proof and the permit form. It took us some time to complete the formalities and move forward. The check post officers were very clear in letting us know that they were allowing only vehicles going to Tso Moriri and not to Manali. Many tourists and their vehicles were stranded at Upshi. They were all hoping for the route to clear soon so that they could carry on with their journey further. So far, the journey had been good. The sky was clearing up, the sun was shining bright and we were back to those beautiful roads where there were hardly any vehicles. We were accompanied by many biker groups who were also going to Tso Moriri but they went quite ahead of us. The route was picturesque and beautiful. After travelling for around an hour we reached the same isolated terrains where we were followed by huge mountains with soil rich in minerals and those that changed colours with sunlight falling on them and the Indus River, guiding our path from the right. This was followed by half an hour of an extremely bumpy ride, a stretch which made our teeth clatter and made our butts numb with the continuous vibrations caused by pointed stones and yet to be laid roads. It certainly seemed like a road less travelled. There was relief only after half an hour, but the huge mountains and the jutting rocks with many stones fallen on the road made us feel more cautious while riding throughout that terrain. I was enjoying the stretch and also feeling a little normal after a terrible ride in the past hour.  Every kilometre ride seemed like a herculean task to me, although it was Yd who was riding. I really appreciate the confidence with which Yd, Saveen and Viren drove their bikes, carefully yet with a good speed along with a pillion rider in this terrain. It requires lot of mental as well as physical stamina to sit through such rides. Once the bad roads ended, we were welcomed by beautifully laid roads, again maintained by BRO. Although a lot of work needs to be done on the roads in this route. 

After this tiring one hour ride we were forced to halt at a very serene location. The pure, cold, crystal clear water that came from the melted snow was gushing in full force through small stones and rocks. Just above this flowing river a beautiful painting of Lord Buddha was made on a jutting rock. We couldn’t resist filling our empty bottles with this pure water that was cold and sweet. This was the first time I was drinking water directly from a flowing water body. After clicking a few pictures we decided to continue on our journey further. 

The beautiful stream

Hardly had we started when Saveen pressed his bike’s horn loudly three times. This was a signal for us to stop. We stopped and looked back, only to see a flat tyre in his bike. We had stopped near the stream so we had to push the bike to the corner so that we could allow vehicles to pass by. No one 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. We saw a Maruti van and stopped the vehicle asking for help. The kind man helped us by checking the bike and assuring Saveen that he would bring someone to take the bike to Upshi for getting the puncture repaired. He was the only one who stopped to help us out. Many vehicles passed by, biker groups and also other tourist vehicles, army trucks, local trucks, but no one stopped even to ask us if we required something. The kind man who was from the army had come to his home town for a holiday. He came back with a friend in a Camper. It is a mini truck that can allow 2 or 3 people to sit in front and there is a carrier behind where vehicles as heavy as a Royal Enfield can be put. 

Bike being loaded on to the Camper
Saveen’s bike was lifted and put in the mini truck. Yd and Saveen went in the truck to get the puncture repaired while Viren stayed back with us ( Spiti, Deepa and I). It was good that Viren was there with us as we had someone for support where there were hardly people around. The other two bikes were parked to the corner. We found two or three huge rocks on one side and managed to sit there waiting for the other two to come. There were some local construction labourers who were removing stones and trying to build barricades with them. This is done to prevent landslides and also to protect travellers from shooting stones. Thankfully there were people around, or else we would have felt even more worried. We were trying to pass time sitting there by speaking on every topic under the sun. But, the irony of the fact 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 fellow biker groups who were left behind at Upshi had all passed by. Every vehicle that crossed us did slow down wondering what would travellers be doing at this time of the day, lying on rocks and eating peanuts when the weather condition was indicating towards a heavy downpour. We could see dark clouds moving towards us. Thankfully, it was sunny while we waited there otherwise there wasn’t any place to even seek shelter. Right opposite us stood huge jutting rocks which seemed as if they would fall any moment and behind us was the powerful Indus River. I was so jobless that I started throwing stones into the river. Deepa’s shoes that were wet had also dried by then. We manged to complete a tin of dry fruits, salted cashews, two bottles of water (including the water filled from the stream), bars of Sneakers and Five Star. We were left only with hope - A hope that Saveen and Yd would come soon. We had mobile phones but with no network. Our anxiousness increased even further. We just waited and waited. In order to inspire myself I took out my dairy and started jotting down memories of our trip so far. The first one hour seemed normal because we had many things to do. The second hour was increasing our fear more and more. There were only army vehicles that were passing by from the opposite direction. It was close to two and not a single vehicle was seen going in the direction of Tso Moriri. There were only mini trucks that came and went after supplying raw materials. 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. After some unsuccessful attempts he got so frustrated that he took out a dried bark from a tree and wrote on the muddy road messages like, ‘Welcome’, ‘Come Soon’ etc… I don’t remember the rest. He also went into a philosophical mood describing about life and hope. We spoke about movies like ‘Interstellar’ ‘Eight Below’ where the wait was dependent completely on hope.  I was beginning to feel sleepy too, so much that I preferred lying on the rock and sleeping. If one imagines sleeping 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 book. It was indeed a beautiful experience but the wait wasn’t. Somehow, the nervousness, fear and anxiety did not allow us to enjoy the beauty around.

Seeing our helpless state, one of the construction workers spoke to us and asked about our situation. After wishing them Julley and telling them about our condition I asked them if we could take shelter in their house if it rained. No sooner did she hear my question than she ran off pushing her vehicle. My jaw dropped seeing their reaction and I was left with a feeling shocked. After that none of them came to us or even asked us about our plight.

Slowly, dark cloud hovered above us and we had to wear our raincoats. That was the only we could keep ourselves dry. There were few trees with needle like leaves which could barely protect us from rain. I had to put back my diary inside. We formed a queue in the right side of the road, each one looking at the curving road and trying to spot a bike coming towards us. There wasn’t even a washroom around so we had to find spots behind rocks and use scanty vegetation and the other girls as a cover. This was not just the first experience but many such instances followed where we girls marked our territories on rocks. Some places, there was nothing but barren open land and some places did have toilets which are called the open toilets there. They are so dirty that one would prefer doing it in the open. Well, we all knew this was not a luxury trip so we were mentally prepared for this and also managed to adjust to the situation.

The helpful man who brought the camper
It was 3:00 PM and there was no sign of a vehicle. After a while, the surrounding became so quiet that we could only hear a bike’s sound but could not see it. That is when we realized that Saveen and Yd had not taken their helmets and if it was going to rain, there was nothing to protect their head and also driving would become difficult. Suddenly, the rain drops became stronger. We stood under the thin trees expecting some protection but it wasn’t of much help. 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. There they were. We all split into smiles looking at each other and were thanking God that they came back safely. They were equally hungry and they had nothing to eat. Since it started raining heavily, we preferred leaving soon. Saveen told us that the mechanic took out nails from his tyre and the army personnel who helped them refused to take money for the help he had done by bringing the mini truck. They managed to pay something to the guy who drove the truck.

We had a long way to go but our enthusiasm was no less. We decided not to halt anywhere so that we could cover a large distance. We decided to go continuously till Chumthang which was the only name we remembered. Yd was somehow not able to relate to the places we were travelling by from his past trip. We were on the right track and kept following the road signs that had mentioned - Chumathang.

Beautiful route

Chumathang was about 90 kms ahead. We had a long way to go and it was close to 4:00 PM. The roads were turning out to be muddy and also slushy because of the water that was flowing from the creeks in the mountain. There were parts where the road was filled with water and mud making it extremely difficult to drive. We crossed one or two such crossings carefully. The rain had stopped and the weather was perfect. I must appreciate the stamina of the guys who rode their bikes non -stop after that halt in the afternoon until we were forced to stop at a road block. A fresh landslide had occurred and the army men were busy clearing it. In a matter of fifteen minutes vehicles were piled on either side of the landslide. The bikers also had time to rest a bit. Saveen and Yd were extremely hungry and all we had was only chocolate bars and biscuits for them. The roadblock was also cleared soon, thanks to the prompt work by BRO. We were into the open again with only our bikes passing by on the route. We were maintaining good speed so all the other vehicles were left behind. The roads were still slushy.

We were somewhere between Kere and Chumathang where we came across a large water crossing. Water had also stagnated. Saveen went first and he reached the other side safely with Deepa. Yd and Viren’s bike were quite close while crossing. That was when Viren’s bike got stuck in the puddle and he had to put his feet in the water feet to balance. His shoes got extremely wet. Yd also had to face the same situation as our bike followed behind theirs. His heavy Woodland shoes were also completely drenched. My shoes were wet and I did not have spare shoes. We stopped in a while because Viren and Yd had to change their shoes. It was close to 5:00 PM. The place where we stopped was actually an army posting area. Two army men saw us and came to talk to us. While Yd was talking to them he found out that one of them was from Palakkad and the other one was from Jharkhand. The army personnel from Palakkad spoke Tamil as well as Malayalam. Deepa also joined in the conversation while I was busy taking a video footage. Meanwhile, Viren had changed his shoes.The army men were kind enough to ask us to wait and have tea with them. A cup of tea was something which we really needed as we were beginning to feel cold. We thanked them and were about to leave when Yd offered them some of our chocolates. They took the chocolates and said, ‘ We should be offering you chocolates or biscuits instead as we have enough army supplies. You all look tired. Please stop for tea.’ Conversation continued for another ten minutes. While we were ready to leave on our bikes, one of the army personnel brought us hot steaming tea in tall glasses with hot freshly made onion pakoras and biscuits. We were too overwhelmed to refuse their help. The tea tasted heavenly. It was warm with the exact amount of milk, tea leaves and ginger. I still haven’t managed to make that kind of ‘Kadak Chai’/ Strong Tea. The pakoras were crispy and extremely tasty. Within minutes the plates were empty. They also gave us biscuit packets to carry along. This was the only snack we had had after the breakfast in the morning. Till then we had managed only with chocolate bars and nuts from our snack store which was also empty by then. We were not getting enough words of gratitude for their kind gesture. They shared a good laugh with us telling us about their stories there. They said, ‘We would love to go and live in the city if given a chance to be off duty and you are coming here from the city 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. You can also stay with us.’ They also told us that it could easily take 1-2 hours to reach Chumathang and the roads were good to go at great speed. We were relieved and thankful for the hospitality that they had provided us. We salute their benevolent nature and their fighting spirit.  They are the ones who protect us at all times bearing harsh conditions. They stay there in their camps even when the temperature goes below – 20 °C. They have special tents for those seasons and stock up on their store three months before it starts freezing.

The army men posing with us
Feeling a little energized after the short break and snacks we left for Chumathang. As told, the roads were extremely beautiful. Long stretch of narrow and broad roads, at times meandering, at times taking us up the hill, sometimes bringing us down the hill, sometimes roads 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 and it was just 6:00 PM. The clouds were playing with us. It was dark as well as bright. There was ample time for the sun to set but it could become dark earlier too depending on the increasing number of dark clouds. Our gloves were also 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. Mine was a woollen glove and Yd’s was a leather glove which was half open at the fingers. Our hands were freezing cold. As we kept moving closer to the higher altitude it was becoming difficult to resist the freezing cold air. One must always carry water resistant gloves when travelling to such places apart from woollen gloves. Once hands are wet there is nothing one can do to keep them warm because even the jacket is wet. Cold wind was hitting my nose and mouth. I had protected my eyes with goggles but couldn’t wrap a scarf around my face. Putting a thin scarf around the face and also covering the eyes is important since the extremely cold air can cause severe skin burn and rashes .With the sun still being up, one can suffer a sunburn. Even sunscreen gets absorbed into the skin after a while. In such a situation one cannot even halt anywhere and dab a sunscreen lotion.

The guys were extremely courageous and sportive enough to continue biking despite the tiredness and the extremely cold breeze that was actually hitting the face. They had their helmets on so their face was covered. We girls, the pillion riders had helmets which did not have a front cover. It was a little difficult because even the scarf was getting wet. I had forgotten about capturing video or a photo from the past one hour. I was just carefully protecting my camera from the rain. The saddle bags were also wet by then. Being the pillion, we were facing more difficulty in sitting on the bike without moving here and there because helping the rider maintain balance is important. There were also petrol cans in Yd’s and Viren’s bike which added on to the weight. I had to keep checking in between if the petrol can was leaking or not. Petrol leak in a moving bike could be potentially dangerous. Preferable to carry strong petrol cans because the impact of the ride can cause a dent on the petrol can. I kept praying for the rain to stop but it didn’t. The route we were crossing through seemed extremely beautiful but none of us had the interest in admiring the beauty around. The journey was long and we kept driving fast. At 6:30 PM we were the only 3 biker couples on the road. There was not a soul to be seen around on the route till Chumathang. We couldn’t even spot animals. Finally, the rain slowed down and stopped for a while. We reached Chumathang when it was close to 7:00 PM. Everyone was in a tired state yet energized by the continuous uninterrupted ride we had for the last 2 hours. We had an option to stay at Chumthang because this was the only place where we could find accommodation apart from Korzok village.There were one or two hotels to stay but we had to take a call. I was not in a state to say yes or no to the idea of staying back as my hands were freezing and my back was also hurting. I left everything to Yd. I told him to assess his physical condition before driving further. Deepa had suggested to Saveen that we should stay back in Chumathang for the night. Korzok village was still 60 kms away and we had to reach Mahe Bridge first, which was around 20 kms from Chumathang. Chumthang is known for its hot water springs, which we certainly couldn’t see at that time. We continued on our journey from there thinking that we could cover 60 kms easily in one or two hours. Yd just informed everyone that from his previous experience he had learnt not to travel to Tso Moriri in the dark. We had to maintain good speed to reach Korzok village before it became dark. We reached Mahe Bridge by 7:30 PM. We had to take a right at the check post of Mahe Bridge to go to Korzok village. We submitted our permit papers there and moved ahead. The person at the check post informed us that it would take us another 1 hour or more to reach Korzok village and it would difficult as it was getting dark and there were no street lights anywhere. We were all beginning to get worried thinking about sunset. The sun could set any moment and we had a long way to go. Yd was also not able to estimate the distance that was left to be covered based on his past travel experience.

Finally, what we dreaded did happen. We were just halfway after crossing Mahe Bridge, the place which cannot even name because we didn’t know where we were. The sun had set and it became dark. The sky was cloudy and there was no sign of moon or the stars. The headlights of the bikes were the only source of light to move forward. It wasn’t raining heavily but the weather was turning pretty cold. We encountered a water crossing. It was a stream of water coming from the mountain. We crossed it carefully and within minutes there were one or two more. We were practically moving around in a place which we did not know of. There was no one to even tell us about our path. Considering that there was only one route leading to Tso Moriri after Mahe Bridge, we moved ahead. There was not a soul around. It was becoming darker and darker. We were at a stage where we could neither go back to Mahe Bridge nor stop there. With our spirits still high we kept moving forward, slowly and carefully assuming that we had covered a lot of distance to reach Korzok village.

We had to halt in our next step because of a water crossing. It was a flat land, may be a plateau but we had to check the depth of the water so that the bikes did not get stuck there. Deepa and I got down from the bike. If the headlights were switched off it was so dark that we couldn’t even spot each other. I took a twig fallen around and dipped it into the water crossing to check its depth. I could feel the twig hitting a rough bottom. It wasn’t deep. Saveen and Yd crossed the water crossing from the corner first, followed by Viren and Spiti. Deepa and I waited on the other side. Saveen came again to bring Deepa to the other side and later Yd came to take me to the other side. This was the time when Spiti freaked out. It was extremely dark and for a moment she couldn’t spot me or Deepa.

We kept moving ahead in the hope of finding some source of light or a place to even halt for a while. Yd kept telling me that he did not remember travelling through this terrain in 2012. He was only looking for an open plateau with multiple routes leading to Tso Moriri. This was nothing close to it. We were now on a road. The only sign board for us was a Y shaped junction where there were many Buddhist prayer flags. We moved ahead not able to find any sign board. It was close to 9:00 PM when we reached a long stretch of road with some shiny, water body like thing to our left which many couldn’t even make out and totally dark plains to our right. There was nothing to be seen except a few meter distance in front with the help of the headlight. We were practically moving into nowhere. Suddenly, we spotted one small light, as good as a twinkling star. Thinking it could be a lantern we moved ahead trying to go closer to it. As we moved further, we spotted more such neon like lights. I was sure that the water body beside us was Tso Moriri and the lights were from Korzok village but Yd told me that it was not Tso Moriri. No one was there to even tell us what it was. We crossed the area where we had seen lights and again moved into darkness. We were totally blinded by the darkness. Thanks to the headlights, we spotted another water crossing. Saveen moved in front and tried to check the stretch of road beyond the water crossing but was not able to. The bike headlights all combined together also could not spot the route beyond the water crossing. We did not know what to do because if we moved towards our right thinking the water crossing was not deep we could land into deep trouble. Bike could get stuck; the road could just end from there or could also lead us to the edge of a cliff/ a mountain. Not able to decide further, we decided to turn back and go to the place where we saw few lights. We reached there to find nothing but just one or two lights. The lights were seeming like a mirage at night. There were also few tents pitched around with no one to be seen. By then, the intensity of rainfall had also increased and we were all freezing in the cold weather. It was more because of the rainfall. We reached close to one of the tents and put the bike headlights around. There was a huge barricade made with stones and we could see horns of animals which smelt like sheep. The smell was unbearable. The first thought that came to my mind when I saw the moving horns of the sheep and also the noise made by them was about Snow leopards. I remembered reading the news about Snow Leopard hunting sheep that were kept in a confined place like these.

Meanwhile, hearing the thundering sound created by the bikes one or two people came out. A man and a woman came out. They hardly understood Hindi and only told us that this was not Korzok village. We understood that Tso Moriri was further up from the place we were in. We hadn’t lost our way but the distance to be covered was unknown. Saveen and Yd tried explaining to him about the water crossing and requested him to come along with them on the bike and show the route to Tso Moriri from there. That man indicated in the conversation that there was a route after the water crossing that will take us to Korzok. His wife was also around. For ten minutes they both stood staring at us, not able to understand our intentions. They must have surely thought, ‘Which fool will come here at this time?’ They might have also suspected our intentions but seeing our helpless situation that man agreed. We all waited while the other two went with the man. Yd also gave him 200 rupees and also assured him that they would bring him back to the same place. They somehow convinced him to show the route.
Once they left, Viren, Spiti, Deepa and I waited there , out in the open, completely drenched, shivering , teeth clattering out of fear, tensed and a sense of unknown prevailing within. The smell of the sheep flocked together was nauseating. We tried searching for that lady so that we could get some shelter till then. I waved the torch and tried to call out but there was no one around. I waved again and shouted- ‘Koi hai, Koi hai’ in desperation. The torch light moved into nowhere. It was just pointing at some mountain which was too far. Suddenly, Deepa and Spiti spotted a small animal like thing scurrying around. When we pointed our torch light we were shocked to see a small baby running around in tattered clothes, without warm clothes or even rain coat. Here we were wearing double layers of warm clothes with a rain coat, shoes and a helmet, yet we stood there shivering. Soon, her mother- that man’s wife came out and looked at us quizzically. We requested her in Hindi and asked her to give us shelter in the tent till our friends were back with her husband. She took us inside immediately. We went inside to see a carpeted floor on either side fenced by cloth bags and rugs around. The tent was made of cloth and was held only by a single pole in the center. All the corners of the cloth forming the tent were tied to stones that were kept around. We were too relieved to find some shelter. We shivered and also freaked out thinking about our plight for the night. It was close to 10:00 PM. 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 in Hindi and seeing our helpless state she could only offer her pity to us. She was also just wearing an overcoat over her traditional gown with a scarf wrapped around her head . She kept staring at us as we spoke to each other describing our fear. There was a stone kept inside the tent where she sat, simply staring at us. I think she was empathizing with us but she did not know how to express. She also lit up a mini fireplace in the center. It was her stove. She offered to make tea without us asking anything. We were so delighted to even hear about the offer. She started preparing tea immediately. Everything was happening in that small tent. The kettle was put to boil and dried goat shit was used as a fuel for the fire .She had two bags full of them in the tent. She wasn’t shivering or feeling cold. Spiti and Viren were also feeling too sick because of the extremely cold weather outside. We all tried to keep ourselves a little warm with the fire. Deepa had become very quiet by then. She also sat in one corner and kept her fingers warm with the heat from the fire.

Saveen and Yd also came in a while with the man. They all came inside the tent. In that small tent there were 8 members now. We sat crouched there. I was literally kneeling and sitting on my toes because the carpet was wet. That man had showed them the path from the water crossing. Actually, the route was to our left and not to our right. Yd and Saveen said that they had travelled quite a distance to check the route. They were deciding whether to go ahead or not when Viren suggested we stay back in the tent. It was already raining and everyone was feeling extremely cold, so we all came to a conclusion that there was no point going further in the rain. Yd and Saveen however were very confident to move up further, go to Korzok and get help from Yak Camp. Then they would come back and take us. But seeing the weather they also stayed back. We squeezed ourselves inside the tent and were almost sitting crouched, very close to each other. Water had started dripping more and more. It was falling right on Yd’s head and on Viren and Spiti’s head on the other side. We sat facing each other in a horrified and helpless state. Viren and Spiti had to open an umbrella inside the tent to keep off the water falling on them. There were so many people in the tent and so much carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide was generated by the burning fuel that at one point of time I wasn’t able to breathe. I just couldn’t inhale air inside. I was close to feeling suffocated. It made me even more nervous. Finally, when I went out to relieve my distended bladder I breathed fresh air. That lady was kind enough to hold my hand and take me out in the open. There are many firsts in life. I have never done this ever in the open, not even knowing what is around me , where I am, in pitch darkness and in a high altitude region with a complete stranger woman standing there to protect me in the night. Life was throwing different challenges at each step. Once I felt a little normal, I went in, again wet and shivering. Tea was ready by then. We all had the hot tea, apparently made from goat milk. Who cared then whether it was goat milk or cow milk or camel milk? We were too grateful to have been even offered tea. I gave her some money for helping us. She smiled and looked at me quizzically not knowing why I was giving her the money. With all the help that she did for us, she demanded nothing in return. I had to force her to take it.

Saveen in a pensive mood

That helpful Tibetian lady

The helpful couple

The only opening to allow air circulation

The only log of wood holding the tent

Spiti and Viren under the umbrella

We never fail to pose with a smile 

A helpless and terrified Yd
We requested them to allow us to stay in this tent for the night. They readily agreed and gave us their tent. They also told us that there was another tent where they would stay instead. We were feeling extremely bad for having taken their tent. If only someone could see the other tent, we could shift there as this tent had started leaking. Everyone looked at Yd who was standing in the corner. He took a torch and went with that man in an umbrella. He was extremely nervous going with a complete stranger into darkness. Yd said that the man was showing the torch everywhere pointing towards a tent but there was nothing to reflect the light back. It was pointing again into nowhere. To their dismay the tent had completely collapsed and on being asked he told Yd that, it was that tent he had been referring too. The last hope that Yd had was also shattered. He was extremely disappointed and also shivering after he came back seeing the collapsed tent. I could sense the disappointment on his face. We had no other option but to wait there. I was ready to sleep in that tent provided the rain stopped and water was not leaking. Yd was shivering so much that his teeth were also clattering. That kind lady offered to make dinner for us too. She asked us, “ Will you have dinner?” We wouldn’t expect this hospitality even from our close ones at times. She said that she could make dal – chawal for us. We readily accepted as we were too hungry. We all sat around the fireplace, warming our hands, feet and also face. That lady was cooking in the same tent. She cut onions and added dal chawal in the cooker and cooked our meal there while we all sat wondering what to do next. The husband and wife duo looked at us helplessly trying to find a solution for the leaking tent. They seemed upset seeing water entering the tent. While dinner was getting ready, we had tea. Yd and I were ready to pop pills for fever and body pain as we started feeling symptoms of cold and fever. In the same small tent I even managed to remove my contact lens and wear my glasses. Thankfully, our luggage was brought inside by Yd and Saveen. Deepa had started feeling sick by then. She was also very hungry and was also having acidity. She had suddenly turned quiet again.  We were all in a helpless situation. No one was having the energy to even move out of the tent. Then, something happened. That lady was trying to move some utensils around when her hand hit the pole that was holding the tent. The entire tent shook and more rain water fell on us. She put it back to rest on the stone immediately and held it upright but we realized that this tent could also collapse any moment. The cloth was also not water proof. We had to leave this place or find another sturdy tent for shelter.

I don’t know what struck me that time. My mind was clouded with fear while at the same I was realizing that the people there had such a good heart to help us out and offer food when we didn’t ask for anything except shelter. We were all able to understand that even in such a remote corner of the world, nomads who did not speak or understand our language much were ready to help us out. I was continuously thanking the lady and asking her to help us out further. I was repeating this again and again. Probably it was also a symptom of altitude sickness- talking too much. We only had our words and money to thank them. Even that wouldn’t suffice for the help which they had provided. She looked at me with a smile without being able to understand my thankful gestures. She only looked helplessly at us and later looked at their leaking tent. None of them were clad in waterproof clothing. It was probably a normal day for them. During our conversation I asked them a question which might have seemed extremely stupid and impractical then. I did not even remember that it was me who asked this question. Only when Saveen told us later that he was extremely pissed off listening to my stupid question at that moment, did I realize that it was my idea to even ask that lady. I asked her, ‘ Aapke paas koi gaadi ya car hai kya ?’ Despite having the knowledge that they were nomads and they could not own a vehicle. They were shepherds and poor people who stayed in tents and here I was asking if they had a car.

To everyone’s surprise, that man understood my question and said yes. Saveen told us later that he was left shocked when that man told yes to my question. So my stupid question actually gave us a ray of hope. It was not a car but a camper which they called 404/407. Apparently his cousin/brother/friend, someone whose name was Namgyal had a 404/407. That man left immediately to call his brother and get a vehicle for us. 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 only take our luggage along. This was also depending on the space in the camper.That man came with Namgyal soon. Namgyal spoke in Hindi and also understood about our condition. Initial plan was that, Yd and Saveen would go with Namgyal till the Yak camp in Korzok and get another vehicle like Innova or a mini truck and take the others back. Namgyal interrupted saying that there was no need for another round trip as he could accommodate us in his truck if 4 members tried to adjust in the seat behind. We readily agreed. There couldn’t have been a better solution. Namgyal was almost half asleep when he was woken up. He was also ready to help us just like the other two. Our dal-chawal was ready. It smelt heavenly at least for me and Yd because we were so hungry and exhausted that every smell around seemed to be masked by the aroma of the rice cooked there. Yd appreciated the lady for the tasty food and also enjoyed a spicy powder which she gave to mix with the rice. His appreciation was genuine and we both actually had two servings of that rice. I asked her the recipe also for this awesome rice that was cooked. Even in that helpless and lost state I managed to strike a conversation with her. That was the only meal we had in the entire day after breakfast. Deepa was not even able to complete the food as she was feeling nauseated because of the smell around. Viren and Spiti were also not feeling well because of the cold and damp weather. They were practically tucked in one corner shrunk into each other. My hands were refusing to warm up and my teeth were still clattering. Yd and Saveen were the only ones who managed to do everything even in the rain. They stayed 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. 

As we completed our food and left from there, our bags were put behind in the truck by Yd and Saveen. This was all happening at around 11:30 PM at night. Before leaving we gave some money to that lady and the man for their help. Again, she did not expect money for all that she had done. Even Namgyal did not demand money. His only concern was that his truck’s wiper was not working. So he said that he would go slowly in the rain. We had a vehicle to take us to our camp. We required nothing more. One by one we entered squeezing inside the truck. Saveen and Yd sat with Namgyal in the front seat while Deepa, Viren, Spiti and I sat in the seat behind. We were still wet. Our shoes were still soaked and few things that we were holding in our hands were also wet. In the truck’s carrier behind all our clothes, saddle bags were kept which were surely wet because of the rain. All we wanted was to reach our camp. My hands were freezing cold but with Deepa’s help I tried to keep them warm in her jacket.

Half an hour passed and we were still travelling. We had also crossed that difficult water crossing which was actually nothing. The roads seemed pretty okay but we were discussing that it was good that we did not take a chance and drive through it. The journey was getting longer and longer. Viren and Spiti were fast asleep. Deepa and I were also not too comfortable. Deepa just kept quiet. Yd and Saveen kept doing a status check in between. Yd was continuously having a conversation with Namgyal , most of which was extremely boring and irritating but it was enough to keep him awake. He kept telling me too not to fall asleep. The rain had slowed down. Deepa was a little relieved. It would help us reach Tso Moriri faster. The cold breeze had not stopped though. It was freezing cold. Exactly as I describe. We were almost freezing.

Suddenly the rain drops became huge and intense. They were falling on the glass screen and refusing to move from there. They were just getting stuck there making it difficult for Namgyal to see. To me they seemed like pigeon shit falling on the glass screen and refusing to go away. Only when Namgyal strained his head out while moving the steering with his left hand and with his right hand removed the slick we realized that it was snow. Within ten minutes it grew thicker and thicker and Namgyal kept repeating the same act without bothering about snow falling on him or even cold affecting him. I remember he was just wearing a jacket for protection. No head gear, no goggles, no gloves or no rain coat for protection. He was comfortable and happy in helping us out. We had to cross a herd of sheep on our way which were not visible in the dark but we could hear their sound clearly. We could only see something from the front glass which was getting cloudy every second. We were amidst a snowstorm.
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. Driving would be dangerous in this weather plus he was not able to see anything in front. Snow, being opaque does not allow light to pass through. It was difficult for him to see anything and this exercise of removing snow each time and driving further up was difficult. He told us that if we moved further up, the intensity of snowfall would increase and we might be in a tougher situation. He suggested that we should go back. But where do we go back to? May be the tent where we stayed would have also collapsed because of the snow water would have entered completely?  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 told us in Hindi, ‘I will take you to a hotel, if you find place there you can stay or else I’ll take you all to my house. It is near Mahe Bridge.’ At that moment his simple act of humanity seemed like words from spoken by an angel. We knew then that humanity still existed in this world. He was just like a God sent angel.
Now that we decided to go back, he had to reverse the vehicle. The road was so narrow that it was difficult for him to even reverse his truck. He somehow struggled with it, moving his vehicle back inch by inch and looking carefully outside. We were not able to see anything but the people sitting inside. He was also doing this very carefully. Anything could happen at that moment if he missed a ditch or he reversed the vehicle up till the edge of a mountain/cliff. Any wrong move of the vehicle could put our lives at risk. But he was very careful and reversed the car perfectly even in that weather condition. All this while, snow was falling completely over him as he was dusting it off every time. I was too scared to witness this and in an attempt to close my eyes I dozed off. I did not know what happened after that but I heard Deepa speaking in between and asking if I was awake. I replied to her and again closed my eyes. I was hanging between reality and sleep. We were all completely dependent on Namgyal.
Saveen and Yd were still talking about something to Namgyal. I remember the point when I woke up for a while. The vehicle halted and he spoke something in his language. Apparently it was a hotel where he was telling us to stay. No one opened the door. He kept calling names but no one came. The next option was to drive around 20- 30 odd kilometres to reach his village which was near Mahe Bridge. We couldn’t have asked for more. The journey was never ending. I woke up in between, looked at some faint light in front and again closed by eyes. Viren and Spiti were also awake for a while but they again went back to sleep. Deepa was mumbling and also asking Saveen about the time it would take. She was extremely affected by the weather, altitude, having  food at an odd hour, acidity and mainly the smell of sheep and diesel. She was holding up for a very long time trying to be calm. I was also woken up when she asked me if I was alright. I was still shivering and my nose was cold. I was having difficult to breathe but I managed to remain calm. 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 we reached Namgyal’s house. I was asleep for the past one hour. I was woken up by Deepa telling that we had reached his house. It was not snowing there when we came but it was raining. Not heavily though. It was close to 2:00 AM when we reached his house. It was a small house made of mud. We couldn’t see anything around. I only remember being told to get inside the room fast. Namgyal helped us in getting into one of the rooms. Yd and Saveen were busy bringing the luggage inside the room. All our bags were covered with a thick layer of snow. In that extremely cold weather they cleared out the snow and brought all the bags inside. Viren and Spiti managed to get a place to sit in the corner. They were half asleep and too weak to talk or respond to what was happening around. Deepa and I were forcefully woken up from our dazed sleepy state  when we stepped on the soaking wet carpeted bed. There was no place left dry for us to even stand. The room was muddy and also wet because rain water had seeped in through the roof. The roofs there are made of mud which cannot hold water. They get damp and eventually start falling. We told Namgyal that the carpets were soaking wet. He told us to go to another room but there was no light. We were shifting into the other room when Deepa had severe vomiting. She felt even more nauseated after entering the room. She lost a lot of fluid. Namgyal was extremely kind enough in giving her a bucket from his house. When she looked around to wash up and drink water, there wasn’t any. In a hurry we had left all our water bottles in the tent. Namgyal had some water stored in a can which was only sufficient for Deepa to wash her face and rinse her mouth. She did feel a little better after vomiting but loosing fluids had made her extremely weak. We both went to another room which was totally dark. We both sat on two carpeted beds in different corners. Thankfully they were still dry but in the centre of the room there was a huge patch of damp mud which had fallen from the room and water was trickling from the room. Namgyal went to help Saveen and Yd with the luggage and for a minute Deepa and I were left in pitch darkness. We couldn’t even see each other’s face. A thin ray of light escaped through the crack in that room’s door. I could see some movement happening outside the room and was able to hear Saveen’s voice. He was really worried about Deepa’s health condition. Yd also came in a while and kept our luggage there. We only had to keep a track of all our bags. We had no clue if our mobile phones and wallets were safe but we knew that they were somewhere inside one of the bags kept safely.
I felt relieved only when Yd came and sat beside me. Namgyal gave us warm blankets which we needed badly. We kept our rain coats aside and decided to sleep. Spiti and Viren also joined us. The place where they sat had also started leaking. Namgyal was very worried looking at the condition of the room. He was feeling bad that he couldn’t do much to help us. He had warm blankets for everyone. With both the rooms in his house occupied; one by us and one by rain water, Namgyal went to sleep in his camper. We requested him to stay back and sleep in the same room but he decided to sleep in his truck instead. We wondered at his helpful and kind nature.
The most important part of the day’s event is that no one asked for money or demanded anything from us. They were doing everything out of humanity. Had it been in some other place , I doubt if someone would have been so helpful without expecting money first. We had only few hours left before daybreak. That was the time when we all prayed for the night to end soon and were desperately waiting for the sun to rise. That was the only solution to all our problems. It was the longest and most adventurous night of our Ladakh trip and in our lives so far.


Unknown said...

Phew! What a night indeed. Glad you were all safe an got such help.

Power of Words said...

Yes Sandy!!! We were too lucky to have found help then.

Unknown said...

Wow Archana! This was such a detailed blog post....i could visualize the entire trip in my mind while reading it. Ur writing is flawless!:) So glad there were people who helped u out...i would have freaked out for sure! Looking forward to more travel adventures from u :)

Power of Words said...

@Vinita - Thanks a lot :-)