Our man Mohammed Ali has requested us politely but firmly, to be ready to leave by 7 in the morning for Hunder. This is the one where we go via Khardungla, the highest motorable road in the world! Sridhar is out of his wits with excitement, me with apprehension!
Early starts are never a problem for the two of us, we are up, bathed and breakfasted, me carefully sticking to toast and tea and of course, the apricot jam, whose glories I sang paeans to earlier! Carefully to take care of a travel-sick tummy. We take some pics, say goodbye to a family from Coimbatore who insists on calling us aunty and uncle! This, as we shall see, is going to become the dominant note of this trip, with everyone from Ali, the driver to the very polite staff at all the places we stay in, adopting us avuncularly and….auntistically?!
Long drive to Hunder, with some interesting adventures on the way. Really bad roads for several kilometres out of Leh, barely any road in fact! I congratulate myself on my foresight in desisting from anything other than toast!
The higher we climb, the thicker the banks of snow either side of us…never having seen snow earlier, am completely unprepared for its blinding whiteness! The snow is beautiful and as we look upwards at the mountains, I begin to get some sense of why religion was invented ….how could man, mere mortal, knowing his capacity, conceive of how such stupendous glory as these Himalayas could have been created….he had to, perforce, create some distance between his own puny self and such beauty. That distance was whatever god figure he came up with…it is unfortunate that today, we have come to where we have with regard to religion…
A while later, the roads become better and we start to climb, quickly. Due to an unusually heavy snowfall, the roads are slippery and we have some “moments” of ahem, apprehension, shall we say, as the car slithers around! Ali senses it and is quick to reassure me, “aap phikar mat keejiye”, leaving me to wonder what level of slithering he would consider phikarworthy!
There are about half a dozen cars, all in a similar predicament, ahead and behind us. Everyone gets out to help one other put snow chains on the wheels. Setbacks do not seem to trouble anyone too much. I climb out for a few seconds to take some photographs and clamber back in gratefully to a warmer car! The guys working on the wheels, on the other hand, do not even have gloves and are clad in t-shirts and a sweater or a light jacket at the most! About an hour and everybody revs up and takes off, cheerfully waving to each other. We skid a couple of times more but nothing to phikar, as Ali insists!
Higher and higher we climb, the metres (altitude!) just seeming to get swallowed up, fifteen thousand, sixteen…and finally, suddenly a few tin huts and a nondescript sign saying Khardungla, 18380 metres, the highest motorable pass in the world! Sridhar gets down, squealing in excitement and wearing nothing more than a shirt and a denim jacket! He runs up to the top, under the sign….I am rather excited for him but…struggling to breathe a bit and mildly sick from the altitude and I have to go!
I am directed to a loo, perched a few above the road. After many hours of sitting and being jolted, I get down and attempt to climb. Inevitably I am sick, heaving great gasps of breath, snatched away by the wind and the cold! The loo is three walls and a door, the door covered with barbed wire! I know that this is all army protected area and so on, but a tiny loo?…to protect it with barbed wire seems to be rather overdoing it a bit! I am directed to another place, three loos in a row…make my way there…the loo doors are wide open..because they are frozen up to their mid sections in ice!
Giving it up as a bad job, I oblige PS with a few selfies, in all of which I look blue with cold and then clamber thankfully back into the car. My regard for my husband goes up several notches…for someone brought up in the heat and humidity of Madras, to be able to run up and down icy roads and promontories with impunity, clad in what I consider barely enough for maybe Bangalore weather…quite amazing!
A few miles further on, we have climbed down to16000 feet and find another loo….dirty …better to find an open place! Waves of nausea and breathlessness overcome me this time and I lean on someone’s vehicle for support. Someone gets me a cup of hot, sweet tea and life begins to look up.
We drive further down and get stuck behind a rockfall. Now we are seasoned veterans at this…no phikar and anyway with the mountains to glory in and an empty bladder, life is very, very good! It is cleared in about an hour…the guy operating the excavator gains my respect. Loads of rock to be removed to the edge of the road and tipped over, even operating the thingummy looks like hard labour. Added to that, he has to know exactly where to stop so that the wheels….the thing that looks like tank wheels….stops just short of the edge of the road so that he doesn’t go over with the rocks! We move…one more rockfall but not so long this time…and finally drive to Hunder.
Beautiful camp with shiny white tents pitched around a little clearing with a babbling brook running through the centre…we take a little stroll outside, surrounded by towering poplars ( earlier, I had asked Ali for the names various trees around us…his stock answer to anything I point to is ” yeh, madam, poplar hai”!!! Till I figure out what a poplar actually is!), pebbled mountain streams, winding paths and nothing much else…we go to bed with the sound of the water chuckling away to itself outside our tent.
There is no power so we are provided very welcome hot water bottles. The night gets bitterly cold and I wake up at two to the sound of dogs barking and a cow in distress….lie awake for a while wondering a snow leopard has come to attack a cow…get up once and peek out of the tent window to a landscape which is nothing short of a bleached white moonscape! The moon is a very satisfying silver, not the baleful yellow that I see in Madras…I have always maintained that silver is the correct colour for the moon to be and am pleased to be vindicated!
Early start again to Turtuk…
Recipe to be posted soon – watch this space…