It was close to 2 in the afternoon and hunger had kept knocking on the doors of the stomach but to no avail. And there wasn’t exactly a choice to stop as I liked; for I was hitchhiking in a truck from Darcha in Lahaul. We stopped at the check post in Sarchu and I rushed toward the first dhaba on the left and gobbled some food as fast as I could. The truck driver had told me to make it quick.
Our truck had sneezed and spluttered on the climb to Baralacha La and had even stalled once; I was in one of the Indian Oil Tankers that carry fuel from Ambala to Leh. We were an entourage of seven trucks and an unspoken camaraderie prevailed among the drivers. He had looked at me with probing eyes and had decided to let me travel in the truck at the behest of the police guy at the check post in Darcha.
The truck ride was rough and slow and even before we had made it to Sarchu my body pained in places I didn’t know about. There is always adventure in the heart on the Manali-Leh highway and the adrenaline rush kept me from thinking of other alternatives. Anyway there are few choices that this road gives you, we are over 4000m and only climb higher and higher.
The hum of the engine that corresponds to the happiness in your heart are the only things that matter on the road.
I had heard this story earlier and heard it again from the driver after spotting empty water bottles at Nakee La. Here you go, a story from many years ago, the legend of Nakee La (just hope that you aren’t narrated this story while the vehicle stalls on the 21 hairpin bends of Gata Loops!) :
It was the start of the winter season and the passes would close soon. There was a truck that had broken down on one of the bends. It was going to Leh and was the last truck to pass Rohtang Jot before the pass closed due to heavy snow. There were no vehicles that would pass them. Since the driver knew that fact, he decided to walk to the nearest village to get help. We all know that the nearest village is a long distance away from Gata Loops.
The cleaner stayed back since the truck was loaded with cargo and someone had to guard it. After walking for miles, when the driver arrived at the village, there was no mechanic there. While he was at the village, there was heavy snowfall and he was effectively trapped there. When the weather finally cleared after several days they hurried back to where the truck was stranded, only to find that the poor cleaner had died of thirst and exposure to extreme cold. It is said that the body of the cleaner is buried at the same spot on Gata Loops where the truck had broken down.
Since that time, many travellers who cross this stretch claim to have met a man begging for water. Now hold on, those who did offer him water say that the bottle dropped right through the man’s hands. I almost have the chills every time I hear that.
To appease the thirsty spirit, the locals have built a small shrine on the cleaner’s grave, and people leave sealed bottles of water there. It is close to the prayer flags of Nakee La at 4915m and is a mighty surprise to see a sea of water bottles in the arid wasteland of Gata Loops.
There are two dhabas just before the 21 hairpin bends begin and the road climbs non-stop and goes like a merry-go-round. We have had a breather at the dhaba, to prepare the truck for the non-stop ascent. Even that doesn’t help; we keep stopping every now and then to let the engine breathe. At one point of time, the driver jumps out and opens the window of the engine to try and work out a long term solution before the climb to Lachung La.
I had spent considerable time in the high altitude valleys of Pangi & Miyar before coming to Keylong and thought that I had acclimatised well. I was absolutely ok on the entire drive and even at Nakee La and Lachung La. The air in Ladakh seemed to have other ideas though, my head had started getting heavy. It was at the dhaba in Pang that I felt a little bit of unease. I chatted with the Changpa owner from Changthang and drank some butter tea and black tea to ease my troubles.
P.S : Excuse the poor quality of the pictures, they were clicked from a moving truck!
The shadows were getting longer and we were on one of the highest plains of the world, the Morey plains at some 4700m. The seven trucks roared like beasts on the wide open black tarmac and mine screeched to a halt as I wanted to alight in Debring.
I danced, while my heart did a double dance. Changpas roamed wild and free with their yaks and pashmina goats and sheep. I would stay with the Changpas while wandering around in the Changthang for a week.
The wind ushered me inside the rebo tent before it snowed in the night.
The heart had found reasons anew to be happy.