At eighteen thousand three hundred & eighty feet above sea level, my lungs protested at my every movement. I fumbled through my backpack to get the camphor. My lungs, which were fighting to get oxygen from the thin mountain air at Khardung La, eased a bit when I sniffed the camphor.
In spite of wearing two overcoats, hand gloves & woolen cap I was shivering as cold wind blew. I should have been scared, but I was bubbling with excitement. I couldn’t believe that I was actually standing on the highest motor able road in the whole world!
The colorful prayer flags fluttered everywhere, the wind carrying the message of peace & well being to all the living beings. Snow melting from the mountain tops trickled down towards the valley. Bikers stopped by to have a hot cup of tea. Armed soldiers observed the comings & goings of the civilians. The Indian flag waved in the wind, filling warmth in the hearts of the Indians around.
On our way to Khardung La, we were greeted by couple of landslides. In spite of the cold & the harsh sun, the laborers toiled hard to remove the boulders from the road. Their skins were red due to sun burn. They wore single jacket, whereas we were shivering under double jackets. The oxygen was low. And yet they carried on with their work. They used hammer & chisel to break down big boulders into small stones. I was on the verge of tears looking at their hardships.
The melting snow brings rocks & mud onto the roads due to which the roads must be repaired all the time. Hats off to the hard working laborers of Border Road Organization, who maintain the roads even at such harsh conditions!
After seven hours of traveling across gigantic Himalayan Mountains peppered with few poplar & willow trees here & there, little did we imagine that we would find ourselves among sand dunes replete with camels in Nubra Valley! Those camels were not the usual type. They were shorter than their Rajasthani counterparts & had double humps! They had a thick coat of fur covering their humps as well as their well muscled short legs. As per our local guide, Nubra Valley was part of the Silk Route, which was used by traders from Afghanistan & those camels are the descendants of Afghan camels.
When we saw a tree full of yellowish orange fruits, we never realized we were actually seeing an apricot tree. That is because till then we had seen & eaten only dried apricots. I will never forget the sweet & tangy taste of the apricot that we ate freshly plucked from the tree!
A year ago, if someone would have told me that I would be spending a night in a tent in the remotest valley of our country, I would have laughed & asked that person to have a mental health check up done. It was thrilling to sleep with only a thin layer of cloth protecting you from harsh cold winds & hungry wild animals at Nubra Valley. Though I didn’t hear any howling of wolves or growling of snow leopards (I was not at all disappointed by it), but I did hear a bird like chirping all night long. No matter how hard I tried I failed to figure out what it was.
While watching Kareena drive the yellow scooter towards Amir in 3 idiots, I didn’t know nor imagined that one day I would be taking selfies at the same spot! What a spot it was! Pangong Lake hypnotizes you with various shades of blue. I was mesmerized by the lake’s changing colors (the colors changed due to the shadows of moving clouds). It was fascinating to know that the other half of the lake was in China! We met our soldiers camped near the lake. I tied a rakhi on the wrist of one of the soldiers (He resembled MS Dhoni). I was so overwhelmed with emotions that I couldn’t speak. I managed to say a simple thank you to him. Though I didn’t speak much, I compensated by taking a gulab jamun & stuffed it in his mouth. And in true brotherly fashion he fed me too! It will remain one of the most cherished moments in my life!
On the way to Pangong Lake, there was a gut wrenching moment when we saw charred remains of three Army trucks lying on the mountain side below. Apparently, they were landslide victims, reminding us how helpless we are against the might of Mother Nature.
We mostly spend our 15thAugust holiday by getting up late & watching patriotic movies. But celebrating Independence Day with cute rose cheeked Ladakhi children under the watch of armed Indian soldiers at an altitude of eleven thousand five hundred feet above sea level is something which you can never forget. We later visited Hall of Fame, which is a war museum. It houses a memorial for all those soldiers who set out to serve the nation’s cause but never returned. There were thousands of names engraved on the wall and cement blocks around the memorial. My heart was filled with profound sadness thinking about the sacrifices made by so many of our country men.
The trip to Ladakh was no ordinary vacation tour. It had been an adventure & that to a life changing one! The low in oxygen air of Ladakh didn’t allow us to run or exert too much. It forced us to take it slow, to cherish each moment & live it fully. Even though the air had less oxygen, it was pristine & pure. There was not much vehicular noise or machine noise. It was so calm & peaceful that I could hear every breath that I took! All these years I was simply living. After being in Ladakh, I understood what being alive is like!
After experiencing some of the symptoms of altitude sickness, I now understand the hardships our soldiers have to endure at high altitude battlefields like Siachen. I am in awe of the hospitality of Ladakhi people. During my seven day stay, I never came across any person who was rude or arrogant. They would greet us with smiles & “Julley“. I love that word because it can mean many things like: Hi, bye, thank you, congratulations, welcome etc. depending on the situation.
Even after writing more than one thousand words, I still feel I haven’t fully described what Ladakh is like. I am running out of words! And then Ladakh is not supposed to be described, it is to be experienced!