Wednesday, August 19, 2009

10 Years Later...

As I watch the TV on 26th July, flipping channels, the headlines are the same, Remembering Kargil, the war that happened in my lifetime, affecting my country. The images shown now are of barren hills and clear skies, of forgotten heroes and forgotten times. However, over all the discussion of the current status of the army, its soldiers and machinery, what struck me more was the discussion of the terrain and weather there. Somehow, I could envision what Nature would have looked like then, mainly because of the holiday to Leh-Ladakh from which we had returned just a couple of days before. A life-changing and humbling experience that showed me that Nature just can't surprise one enough.

The last few days of Practice School were a whirlwind what with personal commitments and the trip to Leh looming faster than the comfortable pace. However, more than a few late nights went by and 16th July dawned. Rushing some 20-odd kilometres in the morning, I submitted my reports and the final documentation of my project to start packing for the evening flight to Delhi, our stopover on the way to Leh. I breathed easy only when we got to the airport, tight as the timeline was. The journey went without a hitch and Delhi welcomed us with a blast of hot air late in the night.

We must have taxied for about 15 minutes before coming to a final halt. An old friend, living in Shankar Vihar, the Army Housing Colony, nearby, put us up for the night. Interestingly, it might have been easier to have asked the pilot to drop us on the taxi-way as a jump of the airport compound would have brought us to our home for the night. We tried to get as much sleep as was possible as it was already past midnight and the flight to Leh was at 6:15 am. Don't ever think you're going to catch sleep on the Delhi-Leh flight. The tiniest clarity in viewing would just take one's breath away. One think I found out was the reason the crown of our country is called Himalaya - Abode of Snow. Some time into flight and food was served as usual. However, for the first time, no one seemed interested in eating. Anyone with a picture capturing device was too busy hogging windows and clicking away to glory. The perfect start to a holiday.

From perfect skiing slopes with zero access, to small deliciously green lakes, to chocolate brown cones with vanilla icing we saw them all. Waves and waves of endless mountains glinting in the sunlight and peeking from the foam factory created by the clouds. The flight sorely seemed to be too short. So, imagine my delight when the pilot announced that a defense aircraft was going to take priority in the landing order. By now, of course, the field of vision was consumed by the majestisity of the world's youngest ranges in all their glory, barren and brown, imposing themselves on the tiny white aircraft trying to reach the burst of green in the valley below - Leh. And I was already thanking my parents for getting me a camera of my own for my last birthday.

The one thing I had to thank God for though was the fact that, this day had the clearest skies I would see through all the days spent in Ladakh. Curiousity mounted as the plane descended, on how this new landscape - a cold desert - would look like, how the holiday would go and how well I would be able to handle the high altitude and low oxygen. As we deplaned, I took in deep gulps of refreshingly clean air but could find the slight light headedness. It disappeared almost as soon as it came, making me wonder if it was just imagined, who knows? As per medical advice, we each took half a Diamox pill used to treat altitude sickness. A car was waiting to take us to our hotel. The scenery around Leh was breathtaking considering we had Delhi to look at about 2 hrs ago. Leh, the valley, is surrounded on almost all sides by mountains, I mean mountains of mountains. They just don’t end and redefine how BIG big can really get.

Ten minutes later we drew upto a hotel built in a traditional style where the roof and windows are buffered with bamboo shoots between wooden/cement blocks. We were welcomed with the traditional silk scarf sacred to Buddhists and had some tea and cookies. Small talk with the manager and people working there revealed to us that almost all of them were non-natives. Just before Leh closes down, they move to Goa or Kerala to continue to work in restaurants and shacks there. Hence, they manage to work through off-season as well. As per advice we decided to rest for the better part of the day in an attempt to acclimatize to the altitude by sleeping it all off. The food at the hotel was predominantly vegetarian thankfully. We ventured out towards the evening.

First stop was the Shanti Stupa founded in 1985 by the Dalai Lama himself. It is located on the hilltop of Changspa and is one landmark seen even as a flight lands into Leh's airport. A short climb brings one to a small prayer hall flooded with colour. We were greeted with the monotonous thump of a drum and what I think is Japanese chanting that went like so: 'Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Gen Ke'. A further climb flattened out into a huge plane base for the statue. Endless climbing it seemed on that day, but the stupa structure was finally reached. Colourful pictures adorned the perimeter including one with the Buddha turning the Dhamma wheel and the symbol of the Ashoka Chakra. Coming down from the stupa, the panoramas afforded at the base were simply breathtaking. Almost all of Leh with the gorgeous mountains were laid out at our feet. From the stupa, we moved onto more worldy things like a tour of the market and some shopping and scouting of other items that could be brought after further comparisons. Tired, we soon returned back to the hotel and after a quaint dinner (the altitude succeeded in reducing my appetite quite a bit), we hit the sack. That day was just the trailer, the next day would be the start of the movie.