It’s time to get real. Travel is not a bed of roses (well, not for me anyway); I am not looking for comfort on the road, but for experiences – which may differ in variety and can range from staying with a nomadic tribe to trekking on rough paths to see a spectacular view. In the almost perfect life depicted on social media (instagram posts et al), the outside world believes that one can have their cake and eat it too.
One could ignore it as a passing phase but the truth is that more and more young minds are being led to believe that it is possible to have ‘free lunches’ in this world! I receive countless queries and mails each day, most of them go like ‘How to be a travel blogger?’. To which, I normally respond ‘If you have the passion and financial cushion of 1-2 years, things will usually work themselves out.’ While you may have seen some drool-worthy postcard perfect photographs in some of my posts, as a travel blogger I feel like sharing the not-so-perfect days of my life on the road.
A Comedy of Errors in the Changthang, Ladakh
It was a strange night. I was staying in a rebo tent in Debring (approx. 4600m) before Taglang La on the Manali-Leh road. The journey so far was turning out to be quite incredible, I had hitchhiked in an Indian Oil Tanker from Keylong – Darcha after missing the Delhi to Leh bus. July had began with a bang, circumstances had been conducive for me to cross the Saach Pass and successfully explore Pangi Valley & Miyar Valley. Maybe I had began to think this was a lucky trip and I could travel wherever I dreamt of.
During dinner time the previous night, three Ladakhi boys had appeared with a French couple. They had surely acclimatised well and were carrying a crate of beer and other cursory delights. It was insanely cold when the howling winds made their way through the flimsy tent. I excused myself after having my fill, to slip inside two heavy blankets in the common sleeping space. I was breathing heavily but the tiredness of the truck journey ensured I was snoring at 10-1030 in the night.
I woke up with a jolt, the mountain gods seemed angry and it was thundering incessantly in the middle of the night. Though I haven’t researched on this, but 3 am to 4 am seems to be a problematic time at high altitudes, with regards to AMS. The thunder showed no signs of abating and after a brief interruption worked as a lullaby to put me to sleep again. Everyone else had no such troubles (presumably it was the beer effect!).
The morning had a huge surprise in store for me, as soon as I walked outside the rebo tent towards the open toilet. Icy cold winds made their presence felt as there had been fresh snowfall on the nearby mountaintops. The previous evening had ended with spectacular long shadows and a clear sky. Today, the sun was nowhere to be found and it was certain that clouds would rule the day. The Changthang can be an unforgiving place, I could barely go through my morning duties in the open, and this was supposed to be summer!
Read : Leh in Winters : A Snapshot
Everyone else was up too and after a hearty breakfast, I was hoping to find a vehicle that was headed towards Tso-Kar or Puga Sumdo. The dhaba ladies had told me it wasn’t going to be so easy but I was quite gung-ho with my good luck and believed a ride would come sooner than later. And so it did; the 5 compatriots from last night at the dhaba were in a gypsy and were headed to Tso Kar. I requested them to take me along; after pondering for some time they agreed (chiefly because of the dhaba ladies’). It was around 8 am, and there began one of my most stupid days on the road.
My head spun in the open air gypsy; I was in the back and was slowly falling victim to the famed wilderness of the Changthang plateau. It wasn’t exactly AMS but cold winds combined with the altitude to start a sudden headache as we neared the villages. The salt deposits of Tso-Kar appeared to be quite lesser than earlier and even the water levels had dropped to make it seem like a small lake now. We passed the Thukje Gompa (Samat village) on our left but didn’t stop at Tso Kar.
In hindsight, I can only wonder why I didn’t get down then and there.
Maybe I had become too greedy, it was hardly 10 O’ clock and with luck I thought I could have made it to Nyoma. The recent change in rules meant there was no requirement for a permit for Tso Moriri, but a permit was still required for Hanle, Demchok, Fukche, Rongo, Chushul and other places. I was in talks with a travel agent who had confirmed about sending the permit on email, while I was in Keylong.
Puga Village & The Changthang Nomadic Residential School
I feel like an adventurer in the vast open spaces where there is absolutely no sign of life, only a fierce wind blew. We cross Polokongka La and my eyes can’t find Startspuk Tso (a small lake near Tso Kar). The strange formations near Puga village welcome us, there are rocks protruding from the ground. Geothermal activity is high in the area near Puga and it is surprising to see a geothermal hot water spring jut out of the ground while there are green meadows surrounding it. There are three iron boxes in the vast open space, the locals inform me that there used to be a matchbox factory here once.
The air smells of mixed chemicals, most likely sulphur – and the ground is a mélange of colours like green, purple, pink, maroon and other shades. Maybe it is the chemicals that make the air putrid, everyone feels the discomfort while breathing. We spot a few kids at The Nomadic Residential School in Puga, Changthang that is the biggest school in the Changthang region. The school is also called the Changthang Village School. It is a swanky new building and an attempt to spread education among the Changpa tribes (nomadic herdsmen) of Ladakh.
Puga is a small village with traditional mud homes, after that we cross the tiny hamlet of Angkung. Sumdo is one of the biggest villages in the Changthang and has a sizeable Tibetan refugee population. We make 2-3 stops to try and spot some wildlife and see if the Kiangs come closer. My head is spinning uncontrollably now; the wind has shown no signs of abating and the rough road has taken its toll. I still don’t know why I asked them to leave me at the crossroads just past the village of Sumdo; where one road leads to Tso Moriri and the straight one for Mahe bridge.
Check : A comprehensive guide to Spiti
It is 30 minutes past noon and a bird leisurely whizzes past, suddenly I experience a ‘brain fade’ and wonder about my plan of action. I have none. There is a small stream very close to where I stand, a small signboard indicates the turn off to Tso Moriri, a crumbling structure from the road I’ve come by and a towering mountain. A small colourful bird has come to say hi, I can finally smile for a brief while. The sun has decided to rise up from its slumber and results in a classic Changthang situation, it is hot and cold at the same time!
A famous statement about weather in Ladakh, ‘A person sitting with his feet in the shade can have frostbite and head in the sun can have sunstroke – both at the same time!’
I was feeling nauseous, almost an hour had passed and no vehicle was to be seen. I had also started to feel hungry, the ‘hearty’ breakfast was in reality just an omelette. My mind started playing games, I wondered if I had taken the right decision of alighting in the middle of absolutely nowhere. Anyhow, I was keen on staying with the nomadic Changpa tribe and for that even going to Tso Moriri (Korzok) wouldn’t have been such a bad choice.
It is quite inconsequential in reality to think of decisions that have already been taken in the past, and as I waited a mini-van appeared. It was headed to Mahe and I was just happy to go anywhere. At Mahe check post, the J&K Police Guy clearly told me to produce a permit if I wanted to cross the check post and head towards Nyoma, Loma Bend and Hanle. I was certain the permit was in my email and that internet connectivity would help me with a positive solution.
The Aimless and Never-ending Walk Begins!
Like a man on a stupid mission, I drank a cup of black tea at the adjacent dhaba and hitched a ride in a car headed to Chumathang. I was told that the army guys at Chumathang Army Camp would let me use the internet and printouts would be possible too. When I reached the doors of the Army Guest House, it was a different story – I was told that the civilian internet place was at Kiari, 20 odd kms away.
Standing with these signboards for company!
In reality, I could have simply chosen to take the easier way out and travel in the zones where a permit was not required. I was quite wary of going to Leh as it would be packed with tourists and would take away 1-2 days of my travel time. I was lucky to get a ride in a plush Tata Aria from Chumathang, a visiting scientist from Bangalore was coming back from Hanle and was quite kind to drop me at Kiari. It is already 3-330 pm as I got down near an Army establishment in Kiari village. The officers inform me that the Army Camp is a little bit ahead.
I am carrying a medium sized backpack and start walking again, hunger is in an advanced stage – I have only alpenliebe candy to try and make do for the time being. After some time, I reach a heavily guarded gate. There is no clarity on the civilian internet connectivity and I am questioned with concern but after much confusion and internal phone calls, they direct me to a nearby Army Brigadier office.
I start walking again, amongst the daunting maroon coloured mountains while my water bottle is almost empty. There is a nagging sense of helplessness, from being almost certain about the permit on email; now my mind thinks ‘what if’ the travel agent has been careless enough to not even make my permit. Now that would really be something, to have literally screwed my day in a horrendous manner and to end up all square.
The walk brings me to another Army Camp where I am lucky to meet the Brigadier who tells me that civilian internet connectivity may be possible at the heavily guarded Army Camp only. I want to shout and scream (not to the army guys, but on myself) but keep grounded. I am hopeful that this was just a blip and that the permit email will be waiting in the inbox folder. Every step on an empty stomach is a monumental effort, I somehow manage to make my way back to the big Army Camp in Kiari.
The officers keep my identity card and ask me to go inside the area and say that anyone will be able to guide me to the internet room. After many connectivity issues, it is understood that I won’t be able to access my email on their computer but will have to check on wifi on my phone.
My nightmare comes true, there is no permit email!
Of course, I can’t tell that to these people who have helped me, and reluctantly say that I’ve taken a screen shot, thank them, fill my water bottle and make the uphill climb to procure my identity card. It is around 5 in the evening, I briefly contemplate if I should go to Leh, get the permit done myself and then make my way across Tsaga & Tsaga La to Hanle. After all, Leh is only 85 kms away from Kiari.
A sane part of my brain (I wonder if I have any left!) gets activated and tells me to somehow salvage the day by not making any more errors. I gobble up some alpenliebe candies and quickly decide to go in the direction of Chumathang again. Imagine, after a day where I walked without any reason for long periods of time – my possible victory now was in the simple pleasure of finding a place to stay and having dinner. The further plan of action could be decided on the next morning. After all, today seemed to be a day where I could do nothing right.
When the stomach is full and the heart is happy, these colourful mountains and azure blue skies seem enchanting. Alas, when the stomach is empty and the heart has sunk, the same settings feel like a video game you are designed to lose.
Check : A Photo Essay from Ladakh
A pick-up van is empty and agrees to give me a ride to the next village of Nurnis. It is 630 in the evening but the sun is still shining bright. I spot a small monastery on the left side of the road and beg the dwellers to let me come inside. They decline saying it is not a homestay. There’s a signboard a little ahead – ‘Public Health Centre’, a small stream flows past on the right side. Its a cluster of homes; I want to end the day as soon as possible and try my luck in finding a home that would let me stay.
Its a pretty village but all the white houses seem to be locked. My cries of Jullay-Jullay go unanswered, instead some dogs gather and decide to trouble me. I somehow gather my wits and come back to the main road unharmed. The guy who drove me to Nurnis is also nowhere to be seen. Apparently, it is the Dalai Lama’s birthday and thereby all the villages across Ladakh are celebrating it by drinking Chhang and dancing.
The one litre water bottle has approx. 300 ml of water left; Chumathang is 15 odd kms away, I decide to walk. After all I have to save the day by finding a place to stay and eat some food. I don’t go far and the road starts ascending, the sun has finally gone behind the high mountains and the sunrays are slanting across and creating pretty patterns. The small hamlet’s homes interspersed with green fields would have made a fantastic end to the torrid day, but that was not to be.
I keep looking behind my back, more in hope than anything else. My shadow is the only thing that accompanies me, I’m happy it doesn’t ask for water though. After climbing a tiring section of the road, my spirit takes a beating when I see another uphill climb ahead. Even my restrained drinking of water hasn’t helped and I realise the futility of it all.
I want to cry but tell myself there will be time later for the crying. First the goal is to find a place to stay.
How I wanted the earth to swallow me up in that moment! My hara-kiri ways haven’t ended yet, I decide to turn back and fill water at Nurnis village. Water is life everywhere, even more so in Ladakh, and +1 to that in the Changthang. The clock shows 645-7 pm, and before I reach Nurnis, I spot three army jeeps on the road. They stop to talk to the madman who has been walking the entire day. Apparently the drivers and officers recognise me from the road and very kindly ask me ‘What is going on?’.
One of the officers gestures for me to get in the back of the gypsy, I instantly start crying in the show of kindness and relief. One officer gives me biscuits, another one helps me with water. I suddenly realise I can’t eat. The officers are all going to Chumathang, they ask me where I want to go. I gather my words and tell them to help me find a place to stay, it hasn’t been a good day with regards to decision making. They console me and the officer tells the driver to drop me close to the restaurants and hotel near the hot springs of Chumathang.
Darkness is about to take over, I am thoughtless for the moment. What a day it has been! Imagine the scene as I reach Chumathang : Three army gypsies stopped outside the 2 dhabas, the villagers think some VIP dignitary has arrived. I say my goodbyes and thanks to the army people who ask me to stay strong and not give up. The stairs lead to the hot springs and restaurant-hotel.
Three locals walk with me to inform the owners about my ceremonious arrival. I feel like collapsing when they show me the comfortable bed.
I ask the lady owner cum cook of the restaurant to give me some lightly sautéed vegetables for dinner. Keeping with the travails of the day, it was not to be. She somehow manages to overcook and burn it! Haha, I manage a grimace but she was very kind and makes delicious potatoes for me later.
Fast forward to December end in 2016; the Indus is frozen and staying close to the hot springs of Chumathang is supposed to be one of our last stops before reaching Leh and flying back to Delhi. A hitched ride from Nyoma brings us to Chumathang this time, in bright sunshine at 9-10 am.
Most of the shops on the road are closed, a wave of nostalgia hits me as I walk down the stairs.
I see people standing and staring at me, and then when I enter the restaurant-hotel place – everyone sheepishly asks ‘Aren’t you the crazy guy who had walked all day here and there and was brought by the Army to Chumathang‘ earlier this year?
Therefore I travel. To realise what is, is, what isn’t, isn’t… and it really does not matter.
Did you like reading about this ‘failure’? Would love your comments for me to make this a long term series.