Saturday, September 1, 2012

All good things come to an end...

Kargil to Leh

It was a feeling of been here, driven past. And though there was nothing new along this road, the scenic beauty never ceases to impress.

The green valleys...

The curving roads admist barren mountains....

The high-altitude passes...

The picturesque monasteries...

The miracle of human endeavor - BRO working hard to maintain these roads

Made all the more enjoyable by the company of friends :)

The Stok Kangri trek and this biking/hitchhiking trip was a fantastic three weeks in Ladakh. I almost had withdrawal symptoms when I came back to Pune! And now that a month has passed already wondering when will be the next trip to the hills. Am I addicted to the Himalayas? I think my family is going to check me into rehab! :P


Back on the bikes

Rangdum to Kargil

After 2 days of very eventful hitch hiking we were reunited with our bikes!. We left Rangdum very early. Good decision! There was hardly any water on the roads and we managed to move without much problems, albeit at a very slow pace. The morning sun made the valley appear even more beautiful!

After almost 2 hours of riding we came to the next village, Parachik. From here on there were random settlements at regular intervals.

Finally we re-joined the good road a little before Sankoo. What a relief!

A quick stop for food at Sankoo and we were set for the last leg of the ride to Kargil. From here on the road surface was good. There were many turns and that made riding here all the more fun! The temptation to race here was uncontrollable and I made a mad dash to Kargil! What a ride that was! :)



Friday, August 31, 2012

The day with all the drama!

Padum to Rangdum

If yesterday was full of unexpected and unimaginable adventure, today was one of the most dramatic days of travel I have ever had.

I wasn't much impressed with the natural beauty after entering Zanskar Valley. Maybe we didn't give Padum a chance to impress us. Since we reached only in the evening yesterday, we could not spare time to visit the monasteries around. We were thinking we would do it today morning but inquiries revealed that all vehicles from Padum towards Kargil leave in the morning. We decided to skip the monasteries and get back to Rangdum by whatever vehicle we could find.

By 8.30 am we were in the main square at Padum inquiring about vehicles going towards Rangdum. Sadly there was none. The only chance was if we hired out an entire vehicle. That would be too costly. After half an hour there we started walking away just to test if any of the jeep drivers would call us back to negotiate. Sadly none did. However a suspicious looking man approached us. He looked something similar to this guy... Just that he was a foot shorter and a foot wider!

Later we came to know his name HN, and the short thin bechara looking guy with him was MZ

HN offers to take us in a Xylo for Rs. 1000 each! Steep but given the paucity of options we agree. He asked us to wait till he gets the vehicle. Almost a hour later we are still waiting. We walk around and see him again. He takes us to the vehicle. There a gang of 4, is arguing with HN and MZ. HN is the owner of the Xylo and MZ his driver. HN had agreed to a Kargil-Padum-Kargil trip for the Gang-of-4 for Rs. 8,000. Now he felt he had undercharged and is arguing that Rs. 8,000 was for a one-way journey only. Same arguments continue for a while. We walk back to the main market square to look for some other mode of transport. Half an hour later we spot 2 guys from the Gang-of-4 negotiating with a Sumo driver to take them to Kargil. We offer to join them and pay the same amount that we were to pay HN. Six of us get into the Sumo. A quick round of introduction follow - AD, SR, KS and KJ.

I ask they why are they paying this guy Rs. 8,000 when HN could have perhaps agreed for a lower amount. KJ: "We have paid HN only Rs.1,000. If he doesnt take us back to Kargil we will not pay him the balance!"

Score: HN:0, Gang-of-4:1

As we leave, our Sumo driver, SQ stops at the market square to collect some parcels that are to be delivered to Kargil. HN senses one last opportunity and comes back pleading the Gang-of-4 to pay him. SQ comes back. As he is about to start the Sumo, HN climbs up on the roof! Sadly for him a police vehicle is passing by and the Gang-of-4 wave it down. Enter Panga R, the police SHO of the area. He has fondly been given the title Panga for his iron hand in handling all crooked matters. From the minute, SQ told us this story, Panga R started resembling inspector Kekada in my head!

Now the fight is out in the open. Soon almost the whole of Padum gathers. The Gang-of-4 and HN take turns to plead their case.

HN: Sir, taxi union ka rate 9,000 hai sirf drop ke liye. Mai 8,000 mein return kaise ja sakta hoon...
Panga R: Tum union se kam rate mein aaya? Union se aaya ya chori se aaya?
HN: hmmm.... hmmmm...
Panga R (raising his voice): Union se aaya ya chori se aaya? Driver kidhar hai?
MZ (comes out from the crowd): Sir
Panga R (in even higher voice): Union se aaya ya chori se aaya? Union se aaya ya chori se aaya?
MZ (barely audible): Chori se

The crowd are lapping it up. Now everyone is gossiping about who is right and who is wrong and what should be done. Amogh and I look at each other - Kab Rangdum pahuchenge?

Panga R (to HN and MZ): Aise kaam karte aur phir mere paas aate ho?
Panga R (to Gang-of-four): Aapas mein mamla sulza lo. Kisi ka pet nahi katna chahiye

A compromise formula is reached. HN will take all of us and will be paid the initially agreed sum.

KS (to Panga R): Sir, hume iske saath nahi jaana. Raaste mein taklif dega toh?
Panga R: Aap fikar mat karo. Raste mein kuch bhi problem hua toh police ko mera naam dena. Yeh lo mera number. Paise Kargil pahunch ke hi dena

All agreed. As we are to disperse, SQ jumps in to claim his pound of flesh.

SQ: Sir, yeh union ki taxi nahi hai. Yeh passenger leke check post ke paar nahi jaa payega
Panga R: Baat toh sahi hai. Tu inhe le jaa and HN se paise lena

Its agreed that HN will pay SQ 2,000 for taking us beyond the check post 20 kms away. As we are leaving, HN starts grumbling again. Panga R hits his parting shot

Panga R (pointing to MZ): Yeh sayana hai
Panga R (pointing to HN): Yeh laalchi hai
Panga R (to Gang-of-4): Agar yeh checkpost pe taklif dega toh seedhe SQ ke saath nikal jao!

Score: HN:0, Gang-of-4:2

<just beyond the checkpost>

HN again starts to renegotiate and we are back to square one! MZ tries to make HN understand, 'abhi phir se zhagda kiya toh ek rupaiya bhi kamayi nahi hogi'. But HN is beyond logic! Finally Gang-of-4 will go with SQ and dump HN. HN gets wild.

HN: Khuda ke liye aisa mat karo. Tum hamara paisa nahi dega? Tume khuda ki kasam. Tumhari m** #@%$#*&#

Suddenly AD, who is sitting in the front seat of the Sumo starts shouting a la Sunny Deol. 'Gaali deta hai? Maa ka gaali deta hai!' He comes out, picks a rock and charges towards HN! The others intervene and avert a confrontation. We all get back into our respective vehicles and leave. MZ speeds away in the Xylo followed by us in the Sumo! AD is now calmed down and claims he was in control, this was just a pressure tactic! Pressure tactic or not the score reads

Score: HN:0, Gang-of-4:3

AD is quite short, a little over 5 feet, moustache and normally has a serious brooding look. Put in this display of anger and you get the picture... Dedh Footiya!

<1 hour later>

HN has parked the Xylo in the middle of the road. Its a very narrow stretch and there is no way we can overtake. We have to stop and negotiate.

AD makes a smart offer to wriggle out of the situation

AD (to MZ): Gaadi side mein laga de aur hamare saath Kargil chal, yeh HN waise bhi gaadi nahi chala sakta!

For a minute HN is stunned. Luckily for him MZ does not consider the offer

Score: HN:1, Gang-of-4:3

Again arguments start from the very beginning. KS calls Panga R to tell him about the situation. Panga R speaks to each party involved and gives them a piece of his mind! Observing HN's expressions I wonder whether he will end his conversation with Panga R by saying 'Sorry Shaktimaan' :P

Its agreed to revert back to the original agreement.
HN will take all of us back.
Gang-of-4 to pay HN 7,000 at Kargil
Amogh and I to pay HN 2,000
HN to pay SQ 2,000

This time everything is written on a piece of paper and everybody signs. Finally we shift to the Xylo and SQ, with an amused smile on his face heads back to Padum.

As the Xylo starts moving,
SR (to KS): KS, kiska sign kiya?
HN: *#@$#*@$%

The situation in the Xylo is quite amusing to us as neutral persons. HN is scared that they wont pay him in Kargil, so he is trying to be aggressive and after every few minutes hurls some abuses. The Gang-of-4 is worried that he may create problems along the way, and so they are trying to ignore his rants but also not appear scared!

Small exchanges keep on happening. One bag from the overhead luggage falls down. Its KJ's bag. As KJ gets down to pick it up, he realises it has alcohol bottles which have started leaking. He takes them out and leaves them by the road side.

HN: Jaante ho iss mulk mein sharab laana kitna bada jurm hai?
KS (in a very calm and relaxed voice): Phek diya
HN (in a more irritated voice): Jaante ho kitna bada jurm hai?
KS (in the same voice): Phek diya
HN (in an even more irritated voice): Kargil jaake tumhara poora talashi karvayega

Could we have asked for more entertainment? :P

<Around half an hour before Rangdum>

HN, sitting in the front seat suddenly pushes it back. The seat hits AD who is sitting behind him.
Immediately AD launches a tirade, spontaneously joined by KS

teri @#%*^%#@, tera &^%&*%#@, ********, #######......

In a flash HN takes the seat ahead again!

KS rubs it in 'Tumhe kya laga hum gali nahi de sakte?'

Score: HN:1, Gang-of-4:4


We are finally here! We get off. The rest get off too to have a cup of tea. The driver climbs on the roof to get our bags. He looks around and finding HN far away tells us, 'Kargil pahunch ke mai isko chabbi de dega aur bolega nahi karna hai yeh naukri! Customer se aise baat karega toh kaise chalega?' Killer!!!

Score: Knockout!



The day with the free travel... almost

Rangdum to Padum

By 7 am we were at chacha's restaurant with our bags in the hope of getting a ride with some vehicle going towards Padum. Breakfast done. Still no vehicle. After a couple of hours, 4 tourist vehicles came in quick succession but none of them had any space for us. After a while a couple of trucks came along - one said we could travel on the roof if we wished. We said 'no thank you!' It was past 11 am when a goods carrier 207 came along. The driver reluctantly agreed to let the both of us and another local sit at the back with his luggage!

The roads ahead were really bad. Every time the vehicle went over a bump we would be tossed up. By the time we reached the Pensi La pass all our bones were rattled. We were glad that the driver decided to take a small break there.

The awesome views continued till the Darang Durung glacier. It was a sight to behold - the glacier stretches almost right till the road. Despite being very unstable at the back of the vehicle I somehow managed to capture some snaps

We were now in the Zanskar Valley. The landscape changed from the predominantly green one in Suru Valley to a relatively more barren one. To bide time we clicked ourselves :P

Don't we look like the snap in the first post!

After almost 5 hours on the uneven roads, all bones rattled and some muscles numbed, we were back on a tar road! And then he stopped. He had reached his destination. Padum was still 8-9 kms away. We got off and went to the driver to offer him the fare for getting us there. To our surprise he refused to accept any money! He was going to his home in that village with his family. Since this was a personal visit, despite our insistence he refused to take any money.

We thanked him, washed our faces in a nearby water stream and started walking towards Padum.

After we had walked for 1-2 kms, a truck came along. He agreed to take us if we climbed up. Chalo yeh bhi kar lete hai! Up on the truck there were already some other people. It was damn scary, especially when the truck crossed over a narrow bridge! Somehow balancing myself I managed to click one snap from above the truck

And just then... there was a loud noise... the front left tyre of the truck was punctured! We had to climb down. Padum was still 2-3 kms away. We offered the truck driver the fare and again he refused! So we started walking on. Padum was only about a kilometer away when an empty Sumo jeep came along. We got in. This guy charged us Rs. 10 each for that distance. Finally we had to pay!



Now we know why!

Kargil to Rangdum

We left Kargil early in the morning, before 8 am!!! Tanked up the bikes and we were on the way to Rangdum.  Rangdum is not very far in terms of distance - around 120kms but given the reputation of the roads we left early.

The initial part of the road was perfect. Greenery all around. The Suru river flowing right next to the road. Mountain peaks in the background. And the perfect morning sunlight. Somehow we resisted the temptation to stop at every turn and click more!

We stopped for breakfast at Sankoo wondering what was all the fuss about! The roads were perfect for riding.

After Sankoo the roads were good for a while but post that they started deteriorating... and soon the roads were nothing more than land flattened out by the plying of trucks and jeeps! Lots of small rocks and pebbles making it difficult to speed. The views though continued to be fantastic!

After a tough 5 hour ride from Sankoo covering just 80-odd kms we finally reached Rangdum. Towards the end of the ride the water levels on streams we crossed had risen enough to warrant attention. Weren't we happy that we had started early!

On reaching Rangdum, we went straight to the J&K Tourism Dak Bunglow. In a while the caretaker arrived and we were allotted a room. Rangdum is a small village of not more than 15-20 houses. With mountains on sides, the views from here are awesome.

Sipping chai at chacha's we were wondering what to do the next day. Riding a bike here was not just a test of the rider's skills and endurance but also his luck! Conditions were so conducive to something going wrong... and then if that happens you are doomed! No mechanic in a 100 km radius atleast. At max, 20 vehicles passing along the road during the entire day. Even a small problem such as a puncture could cause great hardships. We were unanimous that we shouldn't go ahead on bikes. After some deliberation we decided to leave the bikes and hitchhike onwards to Padum!

Once daylight disappeared, there wasn't much to do. No electricity! Just one solar lamp in the room. Tired from the day's ride we slept early. A couple of hours later I was woken up by someone banging fanatically on the door. I fumbled to locate my spectacles and switch on the solar lamp. By the time I opened the door I saw ZB rush out with the driver of the neighboring room's occupants. ZB and ZN, a couple from Mumbai were also doing a bike ride along the same route as us. I had briefly met them at one of the road blockages on the Leh-Kargil highway. Today they had started late from Kargil. Hence they encountered the water crossings at their worst. To make matters worse the bike's rear tyre got punctured. Feet drenched with chilling glacier water, soggy shoes and the biting night cold  - certainly not an enviable position to be in! Thanks to some help from a good natured truck driver, they somehow managed to reach Rangdum. ZB had come to the guest house to see if someone could take him back to fetch some of the luggage they had left behind. Finally they came back with all the luggage and were very generously accommodated by the D (the guest house caretaker) in his own home, since the guest house was already full!

Now we knew why no bike rental shop in Leh was willing to give us bikes!



Suru & Zanskar Valley

After the trek, Amogh and I had kept another week to travel around. The plan was to hire motorcycles and head to the Suru and Zanskar valley.

We scouted the entire market. Every bike rental shop welcomed us... and when told them our destination they politely refused to give us bikes on rent. Apparently the roads are bad so no one wanted to take the risk. Finally Planet Himalaya guy explained to us - this region is so remote and the roads so bad, that if someone left the bikes there, it would be very costly for them to get the bikes back. He agreed to give us the bikes if we kept a security deposit with him. We were a bit apprehensive whether he would return the deposit even after we got the bikes back. But he was equally straight forward then too and promptly returned our deposit at the end of the trip. We had taken a Bullet 350 and a Hero Impulse. Both the bikes performed very well. Would highly recommend Planet Himalaya, both for the quality of bikes as well as their transparency in dealings.

Next day morning we picked up the bikes, went to the ATM and then the long queue at the petrol pump. All this meant that we left quite late - almost 10.30 am. The initial road to Kargil was good. We were cruising along. After Lamayuru the road condition deteriorated drastically. There was a thick layer of dust on the road. This made the stretch prone to skids. Also every time a larger vehicle passed it left behind a dust  storm! By the time we reached Kargil we were fully covered with dust. We looked something like this...

Kargil to Rangdum

Rangdum to Padum

Padum to Rangdum

Rangdum to Kargil

Kargil to Leh

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Looking back...

Well, if you have read the posts before this obviously I am going to rant a bit about the disappointment of not making it to the summit. Though I was disappointed at not making it, never did I regret turning back. Not once did I feel that maybe there was even an iota of strength left somewhere within me. My mind had dragged my body as far as it would go... maybe beyond. So in a sense it was a wise decision to turn back :)

I was very happy though that I managed to get that far. The hard work had paid off. Hopefully I will now maintain a higher level of fitness going forward, so that I do not start from scratch 3 months before each Himalayan trek. Apart from my hard work credit also goes to Indiahikes for the route selection. Many agents in Leh offer a 4/5 day Stok Kangri expedition. (Leh-Stok village-Manokarno-Base camp-Summit and back). Unless you are well acclimatized from before, AMS is very likely on this route. The longer route that we took not only worked wonders in terms of acclimatization but also took us through a very scenic trail. Almost every day of the trek, I felt I had exerted a fair bit but just enough to recover after a good night's sleep.

Trekking with such a large and diverse group also gave me an opportunity to meet interesting people, make new friends, with whom I hope to remain in touch and maybe travel/trek again :)

Since it feels odd to have a post without photos, here are some from the flight from Delhi to Leh (does anyone know which lake is seen in the first snap?)

Note to self: However disappointed and frustrated you are with anything, do not miss photographing the beautiful sunrise, the lovely mountain ranges and the most unique landscapes, which you may never see again!

The Long Walk Back

Day 8: Stok Kangri Base (16,300ft) to Stok village (11,800ft) and drive back to Leh

I remember an old advertisement. It said 'Children walk to school but the run back home'. In case of trekkers I think the reverse is true. Trekkers climb with enthusiasm but they trudge back!

On the last day we had a small presentation ceremony where everyone was given certificates. Post that we had our group photos

Finally we wound up everything and were ready to leave. Everybody had different information about the duration of today's walk. Estimates ranged from 2 hours to 6 hours! Initially we made good progress and were soon at Manokarno. From then on the landscape changed. All around we were surrounded by barren vertical mountain faces with sharp cuts and a reddish tinge. I was still sulking from yesterday's failure and did not bother to click. Thankfully Amogh did!

Whenever the river came too close to the mountain we had to climb a bit to proceed. There were 3-4 of them and each one made me feel progressively more irritated. By now everyone was walking at their own speed and for most part I was alone. After what seemed like eternity finally I could see Stok village far away. As I reached there, there was a Sumo waiting to take us back to Leh... back to the comforts of the guest house :)