The moment I woke up, Archana still resting in bed said, ‘I am not doing it.’ And I was still in conflict. Well this is me. My stomach was making noises inside, it was not a good feeling and yet like an idiot I dressed up in my gear still indecisive, that’s me also.
Archana to her credit didn’t push me to go nor goaded me to stay. It was my journey, my decision. I had to do that. Sonam called to say he was downstairs so I went down, yup I did, Archana came with me to wish me luck. Just seeing my face Sonam knew I was not doing well. I immediately told him somehow I don’t feel it, I don’t want to put that effort. He only said why push it? The route was killing. The distance of 42 kms might look small but we were going upto 18,000 feet. First was cycling to get out of town, and then the distance to South Pullu which was a base camp for Khardungla that was 22 kms and then a climb of another 20 kms to Khardungla!
Sometimes you need that good influence you know? I saw Archana and thought, what would I rather do? Kill myself for some so called stupid glory shit, to show others I did ‘Khardungla’, or relax whole day in this beautiful room, get out to the market and spend time with Archana? So I got out of the van. No I didn’t need to justify anything, even to myself. I had a whole day to just be.
That relief and happiness came over me as I walked back to the hotel. Then Sonam messaged Archana that when he went to that hotel, Vikram backed out saying I did the Srinagar – Leh circuit, I am happy and am done 😊
The other two decided to go, good for them. It was their journey. Sonam said we could hitch a ride in the vehicle hired by the ladies for their Nubra valley trip. They would directly leave from there and anyways the vehicle was leaving from Leh at 10 am, so we might as well see Khardungla top and come back with Sonam. It was perfect!
Oh what can I say? I could finally wear something ‘normal’ for a change! We had a whole day to ourselves and we could do what we want!
We thoroughly enjoyed sitting in the lawn having chais and a good breakfast. To see ourselves relaxing like the others in the hotel felt so good and normal 😊
Around 10 am the vehicle came and with it Karma! We hadn’t seen the kiddo since we reached Leh. Archana and I wanted to tip the boy and she even asked others about it but no one responded. So we pooled together and when he got dropped off at Sonam’s office Enroute to Khardungla, we thanked him and gave him the money.
Sonam messaged Archana the ladies were no where close to South Pullu. They started at 6.30 am and by the time WE were reaching South Pullu we could still see the support vehicle! It was noon time already. No way could they make it to Khardungla, it was too late. So what Sonam did was to stop them at South Pullu and told them to get into the van. This bravado was enough. Going by their pace, reaching Khardungla around 4–5 -6 pm was dangerous. As it is in the Himalayas, anytime after noon the weather would be precarious.
Among the many worse things that I saw in Khardungla were the ‘fake bikers’. Rented bikes, rented jackets claiming to be cool bikers meandering, struggling with false machismo to take loads of pics that they have done Khardungla. Sorry but after my killing cycling journey, people coming on a motorbike no longer impresses me. It’s a goddamn motor vehicle powered up engine. Yes you have to be deft and manoeuvre it, but in no way it is killing than using your own body power to keep going.. I have a new found respect for cyclists and especially the common man who pedals kms and kms for his livelihood every single damn day. Full on respect.
I saw an idiot on a bike without his helmet and taking a live video with one hand and trying to zoom up on the route! Khardungla was notorious for it’s bad roads and that too had been fixed thanks to BRO, except a few bad patches, the route was damn good. I remembered coming here in 2016 in shivering cold. There was no one except a small shed where the army was selling Chai with a big notice board saying do not stay for more than 25 minutes. The thin air and lack of oxygen could make you sick.
Archana came way back in 2011 so imagine our shock when we saw the mela, chaos and traffic as if it was another day in city traffic! No, actually it was worse than that. At South Pullu where vehicles had to show the papers and permissions it was a traffic jam and it only got worse once we reached Khardungla. This was the height of commercialisation. Army guys stood helplessly as they watched the cesspool of people rushing, crowding chomping food creating traffic at a mountain pass that was at 18,000 feet. Wow humanity you sure can fuck nature to it’s worst ever.
Archana went up to the army men and asked them, how could they keep quiet? What was this madness? The army guys said after the crowds left, they cleaned up the trash every day until the next day the whole process started again. It was for a few months so it was ok. What could they do? Tourist influx was getting money into the local economy. It was a catch 22 situation.
No one and I mean no one was looking around at the stunning vista surrounding the pass, it was all a rush to ‘pose’ at the board that said Khardungla – the second highest motorable road in the world. Pot bellied uncles and aunties and youngsters dressed as if they were in Delhi or any city that had a spot that was ‘happening’. The garishness of it all was appalling.
In April when I was in Rishikesh and it was a long weekend and I saw the Delhi, Haryana Punjab tourists overflow I thought I had seen the worst but this topped it double. 4 minutes, yup exactly 4 minutes is how long we stayed. We started searching for the two ladies, they were in the canteen eating something, I didn’t want to meet that Swati woman but my intent was to search for Sonam and go back. Archana was like let’s finish this asap and get out!
Sonam wanted to have a cup of chai but it was so bad out there, we decided to leave. We helped Sonam by pulling and carrying the ladies luggages to the other van, the faster the better and Swati’s baggage was so heavy, my god this lady wouldn’t make a good backpacker besides so many other things.
And the moment I dumped her baggage in the other vehicle, I gave a short tight hug to Dhanya and turned back. Goodbye Swati. That’s it. And a wave of relief went through me. It was her journey and her life, as long as I didn’t cross paths with her I am ok.
I am not for maintaining decorum and say fake hi’s and bye’s just for the sake of it. Been there, done that. You got to earn and deserve respect, and there are few out there whom you should give it to, the genuine ones and in today’s world, they are rare. So when you see one, you give time, that’s when it’s worth it.
Our ride back was peaceful now that it was just us. Archana was talking to Sonam about his kids, their education the life here in Ladakh and it’s realities and I listened in on and off. He said how for the youth too, they took things for granted. Just open a motorbike rental for a few months, mint money and then enjoy. There were no ethics, no principles nor caring or being responsible for one’s own land. Tourists came and trashed, drank and fought, so what? They got their money. While people like Sonam were old school. Honest, hardworking, saw life, took the onus of loving and being responsible about their place, and sad at the outcomes in Ladakh. His was the oldest bicycle tour company in Ladakh. He must have seen so much through the years.
After he dropped us back to the hotel, I thanked him. I wouldn’t see him again. I wouldn’t do another cycling circuit like this, certainly not a tough one for a long time to come 😊 But his and Karma’s presence made a big difference to our trip. They were caring, money was just a part of the trip, what they wanted was us to have a good experience.
We reached the hotel and it was almost 2 pm and blazing hot outside, I thought we could order in but Archana said we had enough of hotel room service so let’s get out. We both wanted proper Roti and dal. And yup we walked to this small place which we both remembered. This tiny punjabi place that had the best samosas and gulab jamuns. It doesn’t have more than 4 tables, that’s it and you have to wait, 30 minutes to 1 hour it didn’t matter. And so we did. They were serving roti combos and I it was the best lunch we had!
Archana and I enjoyed thoroughly the fresh kulchas with chole and dahi! While she ordered a cooling lassi drink I had a salted version and it was so good! It was also the company. It matters a lot. We were comfortable together chatting and eating away. Post that we walked back to the hotel post lunch bliss and rested up.
By now Archana was having second thoughts about staying here for another two more days. Leh was so unbearably hot that one couldn’t spend wandering the whole day. What would she do here? There were a couple of monasteries but Archana had been there a few times, it was her 5th or 6th trip to Ladakh.
I was leaving the next day and the moment I left Swati and Dhanya would be back that afternoon. She had two more days. So Archana decided, to hell with ticket pricing she would go back the day after I left. She spoke to Dhanya because they booked their tickets together, she was also ok with it.
After we got good rest we got out at 7 pm, yup it was that bright and still bright! We would see some twilight around 8 pm only, that was Ladakh summer for you. We shopped at a couple of stores, fast and quick! I was amused as to how similar we were in our approach 😊 Like something? Pick it and leave! It was nothing much really.
I got 3 postcards and sent it to the three people I truly wanted to give to. My buddy Bhim, my soulful always laughing friend Pankaj and these two men by the way are family to me and of course my wonderful friend Bhavik whom I met during Kashmir Great Lakes. He was the only bright spot besides another guy Sanskar in that trek that was filled with morons.
Later we went back to the same punjabi place for dinner, there were no other options except those maida filled pizzas, burgers or those momos and noodles elsewhere. My stomach was still not there yet but eating those rotis and dals made it better. We walked a bit in the market and found a tailor who stitched logos and words on T shirts. So we gave the tailor the entire trail of the route we did in this circuit. Archana would pick up ours next day and courier it to me later. She also asked the ladies if they wanted one but I think they wanted to ‘see’ discuss whatever. It was upto them.
You would wonder where was Vikram in all this. We saw him last the day we finished Leh. He was in his own zone. Catching up with friends, getting around. And that was it. No formal goodbyes, see you again. Just as he came, silently he was gone out of our lives too. I asked Archana so is this how he was? She said yes, in fact after 12 years they had met now. She had first met him when they did the Manali – Leh circuit, they kept in touch but that’s it. And when this trip came up, she asked him and he was in. Archana said something that had a deep impact on me. She said friendships shouldn’t be complicated, it should be simple. Everyone has a boundary and you respect it. Not too close neither too distant.
Isn’t that true? We will always have that one or two that are the closest, the rest were all in and out of our lives, that’s it.
We relaxed in the lawns for sometime and it was time to hit the sack. It was an awesome day to end my trip here.
The last blog for this series tomorrow 🚴♀️🚴♀️