My decision to travel to Leh-Ladakh for nine days with a bunch of random strangers had many beginnings. There was the first, half-minded decision to do it, followed by the second, more serious decision to actually do it, and then the third long beginning, composed of paying for the trip, shopping and packing, and mentally preparing myself to do it.
There were a few things which bothered me; like what will happen to my dark oversensitive skin when the direct UV rays of sun would fall on it, then there was worry about acclimatization, the horror stories of how average people like me find it difficult to adjust in such high altitude with limited oxygen supply.
Like a well trained corporate employee, I asked my supervisor if the dates of my travel would suit our work calendar and he said, “Go ahead” in an instant. I felt unprepared for the trip but decided to do it anyway.
And the Journey Began
A day before I was ready to fly, I medicated myself and started preparing my body to acclimatize quickly.
I boarded the 9:35 am flight from Terminal 1D of Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi. “Boarding complete”, I listened the announcement and the flight took off.
It takes hardly an hour to fly to leh from Delhi. The aura of magical Leh started flashing through the window of the flight. The view of snow covered mountains from 35000 ft above the ground was a privilege.
The sky was clear and blue like the one I had seen in books and not in real life. A couple of seconds before the landing, I was surrounded with mountains. The variety of their brown color was so overwhelming that they even surpassed the beauty of the snow covered mountains I saw from flight window.
Landing and Drive to Home Stay
As I landed, the brown mountains grew taller, and bigger, and opened the view of a grayish valley with a lining of greenery around it.
Leh Airport, now known as Kushok Bakula Rimpoche is a simple airport with a common terminal for both arrival and departure. After collecting my luggage, I proceeded to the exit gate with my trolley bag and found a warm and smiling Ladakhi gentleman holding a placard with “The Bing Bang Trip” name written on it.
I boarded the tempo traveler and the fifteen minutes drive from the airport to the home stay seemed quick and easy. I wasn’t feeling any altitude sickness as yet which gave me an instant boost of confidence.
I dragged my travel bag to my room situated on the second floor of the house. I started panting on the first floor itself, a little more than usual. I felt tired as if I was carrying a thousand bricks on my shoulder.
After meeting the trip organizer Chandrabhan, I went straight to my room where my roommate Shweta was lying on bed like a log. “Hey,” she said in half sleepy tone. “Hello,” I replied back in excitement. “I am sorry but I am too sleepy, I had a long flight,” she said, and went to sleep.
I felt tired too, and tried to rest, but couldn’t do so. I came out of my room and the open terrace area gave a clear view of mountains and a water stream flowing within walking distance to our home stay. The view felt like as if the valley was embracing me.
Meeting the fellow Trippers
After some time, one after the other, the follow travelers came out of their room; met and greet each other. The group of ten strangers formed small clusters and started talking to each other.
After that there was a formal group activity where everyone introduced themselves which served as an ice breaker for us. Each tripper was unique in its truest sense.
There was this girl from Punjab, Saru, who loved making customized gifts for her friends, the fitness freak girl “Yash Babbar” who talked about her dream of opening a restaurant and how she managed to survive with a name which sounded like a “guy’s”. My roommate Shweta, was an “NRI”, living in Dubai and who flew down especially to do this trip.
Then there was Sumit, an IIT and IIM passed out high pod, who could play thirty five musical instruments. Then there was Kamlesh, who talked about his journey from being raised in Mumbai and then moving to California and then coming back home. Another tripper Sagar, was a twenty three year old photographer and aspiring film maker whose first short film was already features in different parts of the world.
Chetan Soni, another co-founder of the big bang trip was a publisher and believed in being “jack of all trades.” The collaboration partner of the trip, Sonia, ran a NGO called “Goodwill Tribe” talked about her motto of spreading happiness in the world.
After the introduction got over, we all went near the water stream. The noise of the flowing water felt like silence to my ears merging perfectly into that beautiful evening.
The trip had just begun.
Hall of Fame
With a bag full of excitement, we boarded the tempo traveler and formally started our trip by visiting Hall of fame complex the next day.
The quotes on the walls rightfully described the purposeful life our soldiers live; one of the quotes which gave me goose bumps: “How can a man die better, than facing fearful odds… for the ashes of his fathers and the temples of his gods”.
A full wall inside the museum displaying complex photographs of young and fearless soldiers during Kargil, and other wars moved me beyond feeling just proud of them. My heart was filled with gratitude for the soldiers which I expressed in a letter that I wrote for them.
Leh being a war prone area due to its closeness to Srinagar had many army camps and circuits. It was really exciting to see the military vans and trucks, and the soldiers dressed in army printed uniforms, with pride in their eyes and machine guns in their hands.
Mountains, Music, and Friendship
“In the mountains, stillness surges up to explore its own weight in the lake, movement stands still to contemplate its own depth.” The most incredible part of this whole Leh Ladakh trip for me was making mountains my home. Being in the presence of mountains, without much trace of my real life back home was overwhelming. I spent hours in our traveler just looking out without talking to anyone.
I wandered and wondered when I looked at them – How does these mountains look in winter, all covered in snow? How could these mountains be so certain of themselves? Do these mountains ever feel lonely? Who keeps them company? Do landslides is a way in which these mountains express their anger?
I felt connected with mountains on the first day of our trip itself, the sort of connection I didn’t feel with anything or anyone in a really long time. I felt sheltered in their presence, like they were protecting me. Protecting me from what? I couldn’t say clearly. I wanted to be like those mountains; beautiful, calm, certain, still, full of contentment, and yet so strong headed.
Cherry on the cake was music and noise of chit chatting in the background, which helped me stay connected to the real world.
The music of the trip was mostly played by Saru whose playlist comprised of songs ranging from lame ones like, “tamma tamma loge” to Rahman’s “patakha guddi” and the popular English numbers like, “Despacito.”
In between the music and the travelling, whenever someone played any Punjabi song, Saru (funjabi girl) turned to Kamlesh (California guy) to tease him if he has understood the meaning. In turn, Kamlesh never missed a chance to ask her if she knew what “Despacito” means whenever she moved her neck to the beats of that song.
Soon their arguments became frequent, sometimes funny and sometimes annoying. Yet whenever Kamlesh needed sun block to protect his sensitive skin, Saru offered to help in her classic taunting in the background style. I knew Kamlesh from before but soon I developed an instant liking towards Saru due to her bright smile, quick wit, funny one liners and “always ready to help” attitude.
I bonded with Yash for the first time when we all were sitting in the lawn of Pather Saheb Gurudwara, peeling pees as a part of “sewa” we offered after having tea and Boondi. We talked about our whereabouts, cooking habits, and love for travel. She came across as a sensible, well read girl, and I liked her too. By the end of the day, I had two new friends in the kitty.
My roommate Shweta (Dubai NRI) turned out to be a mixed bag of emotions. She talked less and abused more. She didn’t like loud people and asked them to shut up in the highest pitch of her voice. In fact, my first conversation with her ended up with she telling me to “shut up” because I tried to be courteous to her on the first day of our stay together.
As restless as she sounded first, sharing room with her was quiet easy. She was expressive and I liked that quality. After three days, we were up till late night sharing stories of past relationships and ex-crushes. But till the end of the trip, she stayed a mystery for me, who sometimes talked like a wise person full of sensibilities, and sometimes as a kid wanting to grow up quickly.
Star Gazing at Nubra Valley
On the third day of our trip, we left for Nubra valley after passing the Khardungla Pass. The journey was a little too exciting, especially for me. First our traveler broke down in the middle of the road and then as soon as we reached the pass, I started to feel uneasy.
The uneasiness didn’t reduce even after I sipped two cups of hot tea. I was feeling difficulty in breathing and an annoying headache started taking me over.
I headed towards the army health camp along with Kamlesh, Chandrabhan and Sonia. As soon as I took a few steps, I almost fell on the ground. I blanked out and had no energy left in my body to walk any further.
Kamlesh helped me got up and I reached the army camp staggering. Sensing my panic, the army officer consoled me casually that it’s nothing but lack of oxygen in my body. I was immediately made to inhale oxygen from a machine and within ten minutes, I started to feel better.
The army officer inquired about our whereabouts and complained about the demanding army job. He really wanted to go home for a few days but his job didn’t allow it. I saw Khardungla pass from a distance, covered with snow and colorful prayer flags. I wasn’t able to click the compulsory Khardungla pass picture which still makes me sad.
The stay in Nubra valley was unique, with only four hours of electricity and an hour’s hot water supply in a day.
After the moon set late, we came out to encounter the view we have been waiting for, and what Nubra valley is famous for – “star gazing”. I looked at the sky with an open mouth, trying to absorb the view of the space and the stars, the greatest mystery of human life. The stars looked like millions of tiny miracles spreading magic. The view held me, longer than I thought. I couldn’t take my eyes off the vastness of that scene.
“Shooting star,” someone shouted and I looked closely but missed seeing it. My eyes searched for another one and there it was, another shooting star, spreading shades of gold. I didn’t feel the need to join my hands, close my eyes and ask for a wish; just being in a part of that moment and learning how small my existence was in front of that universe, seemed like a wish coming true.
On the sixth day of our trip, we headed towards Pangong lake. It was a long six hour trip from Leh. I was sitting next to the driver’s seat and in between the trip, driver pointed to one of the Ladakhi squirrel like animal called, Marmot. Everyone rushed to click a picture of it, and everyone laughed like a maniac when Sagar complained about the Marmot turning its back towards his camera.
After passing through the spectacular mountain views, which became a part of our everyday journey, we stopped near a tea shop for a quick break. The two TBBT founders turned into Captain Rajesh and Captain Suresh and talked about their hidden strategy behind turning up late every morning and their goal of getting the Pangong lake back from China.
Pangong, was a big beautiful lake but a bit corrupted by commercialization. The movie 3-idiots completely stole its thunder with Kareena’s scooter, the bum shaped stool, and other props used in the movie lying by its side.
The lake water seemed cold at first but became bearable after some time. I walked in the water along with Saru, Yash, and Shweta, and relished the time trying to hold some yoga poses taught by the girls. After having lunch in Rancho’s café, we went inside the bus, and resumed music and chit chat.
During the course of a long brainless joke, we discovered that Panglong lake was actually green in color because Yash disposed some ten thousand green tea bags as a part of her secret job of advocating Tetley green tea. Whenever there was food, there was Yash asking for hot water and then dipping a green tea bag into it.
Leh Ladakh, the Monasteries & Us
Buddhism in Ladakh is ancient and influenced by Tibetian Buddhism, where Buddha is worshiped as a deity who has attained Nirvana. Various incarnations of Buddha, known as Bodhisattvas, are also worshiped in monasteries.
As a part of our itinerary, we visited many monasteries, Diskit in Hunder (Nubra valley) being the first one. Located on the hill of the mountain, it was a beautiful and colorful monastery who also had a giant Buddha Statue at the back side of it with direct rays of sun reflecting on Buddha’s face in the background of blue sky makes is an absolute treat to watch.
When I got inside the monastery, the thing which stood out for me was the silence of that place. Silence is rare these days. No chanting, no talking, no hassle, absolutely nothing. You can just go, sit for some time and close your eyes.
A few days later, we went to Shey Monastery and sitting outside an empty prayer hall on the second floor, I heard the trippers discussing learning from Bhagavat Gita, and Quran depicting the richness of our culture and the acceptance level and respect we had for each other, even as a small group.
Besides all this, during our visit to one of the Tibetian temple, we ate freshly dropped apricots and discovered that “Life is an apricot.” Saru, while saying the phrase didn’t came from the background of giving any intellectual meaning to it but when I deep dived into it, I could draw some similarities. Apricot is a fruit of several species and life is an mix of many emotions, apricot is sometimes sweet and sour, and so is life; apricot has a seed inside of it which gives birth to other apricots, and similarly life is capable of bringing back another life into this world. Hence proved, “Life is an apricot.”
Last Day and the Letter Writing
Each night before calling off the day, there was a group activity planned by Sonia that involved talking and expressing ourselves. I wanted to skip the activity planned on the last day of our trip partly because I was tired and partly because I just wanted to start detaching myself with the group. I knew we all had to go home the next day, and it made me sad. But since the activity was related to writing, I decided to come out from my room, and check out what it was about.
Sonia handed me a print out which had names of three people and a descriptive paragraph against each name. She told me that their NGO had received letters from random strangers, who themselves, or someone they knew, is going through tough times in their life and we had to write letters to them in order to motivate them.
I found the idea absolutely awesome and this whole activity gave me a sudden rush of energy. Those weren’t complex problems but real problems that we all face in some point of our time. Problems like how to follow your passion without family’s support, dealing with low self-esteem, getting over the death of a parent, which path to take when you don’t know your destination.
After we wrote letter to those strangers who now shared a part of our life; we wrote letters to each other which Chandrabhan had assured that we’ll receive in six months’ time.
Each one of us on the last night of our trip, was suffering from the holiday withdrawal symptoms, not wanting to go home, not wanting to leave the group, not wanting to sleep, but we all came back to our rooms around 1 pm. After fifteen minutes, I heard a knock at the door. Yash was standing outside our room.
Shweta, Yash and I talked for another hour while I packed my bag as slowly as possible. It was funny how the presence of the two girls who were merely strangers some days back ago felt so familiar and comforting to me.
The last day ended with a box full of memories. In the last nine days, we shared the same home, same car, same mountains, same stars, and same life.
Back to the grind
As I entered my home, I felt a sense of disorientation. Somewhat the sufficient supply of oxygen, full mobile phone networks, and hassle of city seemed alien. It took me many days to adjust back to my normal city life.
I missed the uncomfortable traveler ride with music and noise in the background, I missed the lack of oxygen, I missed the sound of laughter which echoed in my ears even when the trippers weren’t around, and above all I missed mountains the most. Those big, firm, and strong miracles of nature which took my heart away and never gave it back to me.
It was nature that connected me to myself, and to others; in Leh Ladakh and outside of it.
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