“No easy love could make me feel the same, but it’s the love of the strangers in a strange land, in the most strange way, that makes this love so easy.”
Let’s pretend I am your friend and I am narrating this story to you where I am at my utmost comfort zone. To begin with, I haven’t been able to put things in the right perspective with you when it comes to explaining or speaking my heart out. But here I am, doing this which I had to, because life is too short to not tell our own little stories. I began this journey with a blank canvas, somehow I couldn’t imagine how I would react to the nature that I was travelling towards.
We give all our time and energy for the world that someone else made for us. I am not advocating to rebel or make a move against it, sometimes that’s how it is, I haven’t been able to confront myself everyday in the same mirror. I go lie down in my bed thinking about all the things that I could do, all the places I could visit and all the stories that I would know. A conversation or a mere picture brings back that memory back to you, the memories which last forever in your mind, the ones that bring smiles to your face.
I’ll tell you a story about a place that I always dreamt about, I never thought it would be as it turned out to be. I can’t put down the whole journey in words, I like to have some secrets and memories buried in my head. Don’t we all do that?
11th AUGUST 2018, I woke up to the excitement of driving up to Ladakh. Everything was in order—my backpack, some food and lots of lollipops. I drove straight to my friend’s place to pick him up. For the next 7 days, we were together, whatever the conditions might be.
Nabeel, my friend, had a disagreement with his family over something. Probably, going out for so long is always the reason to have a disagreement. It’s quite common everywhere. Parents always care and worry. I tell my mother to calm down and promise to come back.
The event had already been flagged off on the shores of Dal Lake. And I, as usual, was late in reaching there. There were families who had come to see-off. Emotions were running high with everything that was building around it. This expedition was organised by Moto Explorers Club, a motorsport club from Kashmir.
There were 16 cars ready to drive upto Leh and beyond. I was in one of those cars, waiting to leave this chaos and reach my destination of silence and high breeze.
Sonamarg, the Golden Nest of Nature; a perfect mighty glacier around lofty peaks subdued with eternal greenery. It was morning still, a cup of Nun-Chai with some bread for breakfast, a few laughs to share, and sheer excitement on our faces.
The convoy left for Zoji La Pass 3,528 meters (11,575ft) above sea level, a mountain pass between Srinagar and Leh. Given the legend it carries, it still is one of the most difficult passes in the Western Himalayas.
The greenery faded away with every mile we surpassed. My heart grew more around this excitement with the changing geography.
The mountains were getting barren as we moved forward. The stream flowed along the road; different faces at different villages. It was happening way too fast. But that’s how the demography and the topography of Kashmir is—so much culture, so much variation, and so much to learn.
We had reached Kargil; surrounded by mountains which are dry, with a river flowing in the middle of it. Kargil was all over the news during the war fought between two countries, India and Pakistan. You could see huge walls made of rocks, which have holes the size of a small car, scattered around the place.
We tried to look for some food but could only find one eatery. Las Vegas was the name and it served meat balls (Ristas) with other Wazwan delicacies.
The thing with driving together in a convoy turns every head on the street to see who these people are and talk about where these people came from. We’re just wanderers who want to get lost and travel the road less travelled.
It was evening already and we still had a long road to cover. When on such a journey, refuelling is a task. Kargil was our first point to refuel our gas tanks. And here we were on the road again.
At an altitude of 3, 700 meters (12,139 ft), Namika-La (Pillar of Sky) was our first high mountain pass in the Himalayan Zanskar Range. The sky was blue, with mountains made of mud around; black tarmac and us sitting in the shade waiting for one of our cars to show up.
A most common fault that happens with motor-vehicles in such a terrain is “Over Heating”. The best way to avoid it is to not accelerate much, and always check the vehicle properly before leaving for such long journeys and in such altitude and terrain.
Good thing about our club is that we have people who know how to fix cars during an emergency. Every time any car breaks down we gather together and try to fix it.
The serpent roads continued. The sky kept changing the colour every passing minute. It seemed as if we were transported to the surface of moon.
Everything looked brilliant and dead at the same moment. We had reached Lamayuru-the eternal monastery, the moonland as it’s called. It did stand for it. The place seemed like on the surface of moon. And it seemed as if it hadn’t rained there for ages. But the breeze was there, and a monastery in the middle of it only added to the brilliance of Lamayuru.
It was night already and we were still driving towards the next stop. Amidst all of this, Nabeel shouted in shock that the gear lever of our car broke down, and so did I, in laughter. It was a unique thing to happen. We were left with just 20% of the original lever and had to shift gears with that thing and the laughs.
Driving into darkness, with a feeling of being breathless, given the altitude we were at! There was a different kind of worry, which had a bit of excitement too. Excitement to see a place that you’ve always seen in pictures, and it always has been beautiful.
It was around 22:30 hours when we reached the place. Everyone seemed tired, high on altitude, and driving in extreme terrain for over 475kms. Reaching somewhere during the dead of night is always mysterious, one doesn’t know how it looks. We had arrived into darkness and abyss.
Next morning I woke up to the noise around, the noise of being late. I looked out of my window and there she was. I’ve no words to define how it looked!
You have woken up in a place surrounded by rugged, naked mountains, with lofty wandering clouds, against a majestic blue sky. I was awe-struck but I had to run and get ready for the journey ahead. It had just started.
A quick car repair, and like a tourist, I was in a store buying water and more lollipops for the next 6 days. An ascent led us to the road to Khardung-La; the highest motorable pass in the world.
I could feel the shortage of oxygen that my vehicle required. Personally, I felt I was acclimatised to the altitude, but the mind plays games at such altitudes.
Car by car we drove towards the pass and each turn or slope proved to be a task in itself. We had reached 5,359m (17,582ft). It was cold and dry, with less oxygen around. Everyone was busy with selfies and taking pictures with a stone which read “Highest Motorable Pass in the World”.
It made me wonder how small a human is when shadowed by the grandeur of nature.
Regardless how difficult the place was, we were excited and happy to reach our second pitstop. A few quick pictures, a cup of tea, and we were back in our cars, ready to drive down. It was snowing already. Snowfall at such an altitude is a usual thing to happen.
Driving down was a task now. It was raining at a lower altitude which made our track slippery and the area prone to landslides. I could see the mountains afar shining under the sun hidden in the clouds. It was one of the best drives of the entire expedition. There were clouds above us and the mountains ahead shone like diamonds.
I could see a desert surrounded by snow capped peaks, and the most amazing sunset of my life.
Usually we have a big red circle descending behind the mountains of Kashmir. But here we had golden bright light, all across the horizon which looked endless.
A straight never ending road ran in the middle of the desert. All I could see was that magnificence, and all I could hear was the beautiful voice of the engine roaring. Nabeel had sunk into this bliss, so was I. We wouldn’t say a word except for the deep longing breath, and Leonard Cohen playing on the stereo.
That sunset will never leave my mind.
By night we had reached Hunder sand dunes. I always dreamt about laying down on sand, and watching the stars above.
We had decided to stay back at Hunder. Camping is always fun, especially in a huge group. We camped near a stream which flowed parallel to the river Shyok, literally “The river of Death”.
Now, I have seen gushing waters in the remote parts of Kashmir, but this was different. I haven’t seen anything so fierce and mighty in my life before. The river when seen from the mountain ledge seems like flowing sand, cutting through Nubra and Shyok valleys. A tributary to the monstrous Indus River, Shyok originates from the Rimo Glacier, one of the tongues of Siachen Glacier.
An amazing fact about the river Shyok and Indus is that they both deposit thick Quaternary sediments. What it means is that the sediments are 2.58 million years old. With such history around, I shouldn’t be held wrong if I say the mountains are old enough to have seen the evolution of mankind.
The feeling of laying down on sand which has been there for so long now, and the great Milky Way above, and all the stars around is unexplainable.
A spectacular show of astronomy and those who love poetry and silence. These mountains seem like they have been weeping for too long now. Their tears have dried awaiting their own beloved — the beloved that stood witness to the grandeur of God’s own show.
I woke up to splashes in water by comrades, bathing in that stream. There was sand, there were us and there were the mountains. We left for Turtuk 70kms ahead of us, the mountains had changed. It didn’t seem like in Himalayas anymore, sharp black peaks with no greenery around. Karakoram range is about 500km in length, and is the most glaciated part of the world outside the polar regions. The range is one of the world’s most geologically active areas, at the plate boundary between the Indo-Australian plate and the Eurasian Plate. The Karakoram glaciers are slightly receding unlike the Himalayas. Most Karakoram glaciers are covered in a layer of rubble which insulates the ice from the warmth of the sun.
It seemed so different but somehow so known to us, given how its history had evolved us where we are now.
After driving along the river, crossing suspended bridges and all the rough terrain around, we saw a green patch of the land which was the village itself. Turtuk had arrived, so much so into it- from the war between two countries or the Baltis who have lived here since ages and ages.
Reclaimed by India in the war of 1971, the village was not accessible to the commoners for few years now. There’s a deep culture within the village. It seemed a different country altogether, belonging to the region of Gilgit-Baltistan which is few kilometres from there.
Before we stepped into Turtuk we decided to drive ahead to the LOC (Line of Control) which was around 15 kms ahead. The village is called Thang, the Northern Most village of India, read a writing on a huge boulder. Another one read, “You are under Enemy Observation”, which obviously was in bad taste. An Indian Army Personnel greeted us with a grim grin and started describing the place to us.
So basically, all the mountains in front of us (some hundred metres) were held by the Pakistani Army and the village across the concertina wire was a Baltistani Village. We all were in awe and excitement to be so near to the other side.
I asked a local man to get me few apricots and some more for back home. I walked with him to his village, the last frontier of Indian side. It was an experience in itself when you walk in the streets which had no name. Beautiful houses and most beautiful gardens I had ever seen. We reached Abdul Qadir’s orchard of apricots. He asked us to pick as many as we could. With a laugh he asked us not to cross over as the place ahead is filled with land mines.
I sat down for a while and stared at the village on the other side. It looked the same earth, the same green and the same people. “I have my family which lives on the other side,” said Qadir with a heavy heart. “I have to travel thousands of kilometres to reach the other side which is few hundred metres away from the place I was sitting at.” How painful was it for those who knew nothing but of love and care, the war between two countries have left many divided.
I picked apricots from his trees and from the land that seemed so close and yet so far! The most sweetest apricots that I’d ever taste.
With a population of some 3000 people, Turtuk is culturally rich and tourist friendly. A stranger in Baltistan trying to figure out what food to eat, it did seem a task for me but I did find some finger licking food. Walnuts and mutton with the local bread, rain outside, strangers around with smiles on their faces! What more would you have asked for?
Some of us had left already towards Pang Gong. I was still munching and hopping around the town of Turtuk. I wanted to stay back for the night and see more of the place but the group had decided to leave for Pang Gong. I had boarded my car but deep down I was sad, for not spending some more time there.
News came in, that there has been a major landslide on our way back. The members who had already left were now stranded God knows where! Some of us decided to drive down and check on the members who were stranded. I along with Nabeel and other friend decided to stay back and find us some a home-stay. I was smiling from inside. I know it doesn’t sound right but sometimes God helps in the most unusual way.
Nabeel found a carton of juice in our cargo bed which attracted children who were already amused to our presence. I think they were more inclined towards our cars than us. Nevertheless, we started distributing packs of juice amongst children and in no time we were surrounded by many children—even adults as well.
Elders peeked through windows and laughed at our smiling faces who were trying to tell children: Hey, one piece per person!
Life is made of small moments, the juice packs won’t last forever but the joy and happiness those children gave us will always resonate in our minds. And within no time the carton was empty. I sat on a boulder with my hands on my head trying to be a joker. It made me funny for the first time.
I took my bag and vanished into the streets of Turtuk, a brazier (coppersmith) engraving a name on a spoon and a foreigner, few elderly men sitting and speaking in Balti at the centre of town, women passing by- hiding their faces, children running around my legs and their laughter, water gushing from a stream which runs through every house, apricots on the streets and the muezzins call. I was a long way from where I was, where I need to be! This is how life is supposed to be, when you look at someone’s life from his window you understand how yours is.
Mine was chaotic and a race when I compared my life to theirs. I am not at peace most of the times, but here I am- a stranger in a different country in complete submergence and peace. There was a different universe swirling around me, and I wanted a piece of it- some souvenir, some rocks, some pictures and some stories to tell. It seemed surreal to even see yourself surrounded by this place. I wanted to be a poet that day and live forever in the lands of Turtuk!
A wooden bridge in the middle, there were young men and kids standing on it watching the stream and all the talks of the eternity. Elders sat on the corner of a street, and in the middle of the street ran stream that ran through every house. The two streams running into each other. It was as if the minds were flowing towards each other- the young and the old. We crossed the bridge to a cafe on the ledge of a mountain, ordered some tea and hot potatoes.
It was cold and sunset in the mighty Karakorams. We sat on the ledge and sank into the setting sun. The transient stages of life, the working mind of ours- how we wish to be. The beautiful evenings at strange places with us being the strangers for tonight.
Amidst the silence I remembered a soul who would leave all the woes to itself and smile with the kids around. Someone who lives between time zones and traverses from one heart to another. There are few people in your lives whom you’d think of at such places. The thing about nomad souls, they would never ask for much but return in greater good. The tea with the sunset and that person had me comfortably numb on the ledge of that mountain.
“Electricity is switched on from 1930 hours to 2200 hours every day and that’s about it,” said Salaam with a big grin on his face. For a population of 2400 people, they have one DG set to provide electricity. I, as a city dweller, was pretty much hit on the face after hearing this. Chicken was marinated and rice was cooked. The task was to do this before Dear Electricity was gone. Candles, food, friends and Turtuk was the prettiest theme that night.
There was an old mosque in the centre of the town. Now I’m not much of a religious person but this time I wanted to step and bow down in complete submission around absolute peace of mind and soul. There I was a stranger amongst strangers. I prayed with them and there was no difference between us — the same heart, and the same intriguing quotient to know more about each other.
“We are more connected to the people of Kashmir than Ladakhis,” said the priest Shahbaz. “There’s a road from here which connects to Kargil direct and to Baltal ahead, but the people who hold the power don’t let it happen. Maybe because it will decrease the flow of tourists to Ladakh.”
I cross-checked it and he was right. The whole journey from Srinagar to Turtuk would be covered in 6-7 hours! I had no words to reply at his query. I didn’t know how to make him understand how the dynamics of politics work even in the field of mountains where an hour late would mean your death, if not reached at the right time.
It was a long, cold and dreary night filled with millions of stars and happy faces around. The journey had come to an end. I had reached a place that I had longed for a long time now. I was no more the same person as I was. There was calmness and peace swirling around my head. The simple life of the people in Turtuk had made me realise how important it is for us to be patient and resilient at the same time. With no modern technology around, they were still happy and considered this their part of the universe.
We have heard about the stories of men like Alexander the great or Ghengis Khan himself. These are the same lands where they traversed leaving a piece of theirs.
Now all said and done, the reason for us to wander is to look for those answers which keep resonating in our minds. The reason of our being, the reason to explore and the reason to be! The quest to Mighty Karakoram remains unfinished and undone.
The road to K2 is sealed with human intervention. My heart yearns to see the side of it, to sit beneath the foothills and wail in my own. I shall narrate my piece of misery to the King itself, how my land had become. The mountains of Karakoram, so old and so much in awe of their own beloved, waiting to be seen and explored.
I always wondered what Leh was like. I found it a place with weeping mountains. It has aged with time awaiting its beloved. That’s how I see it.