The anticipation and excitement was clearly visible on the faces of the 15 school children fidgeting in their seats at the Chandigarh airport lounge. Everyone was impatient to get on to the plane and start their journey. The two teachers in charge of their students kept a sharp lookout on their wards. The flight to Leh was announced and the 10-day adventure holiday began for the ‘gang’!
Leaving the dusty plains behind, they were soon flying over the great Himalayas and Zanskar ranges. The snow-clad peaks stretched as far as the eye could see. Ravi had his nose stuck to the window pane. “Hey guys, I can’t spot a footstep anywhere. Looks like no man, animal or bird has ever treaded this path. Real eerie!”
“Ladakh is situated between the towering Karakoram and Keunlun ranges in the north and the sun-kissing Himalayas in the south,” added Mr. Mendes. The geography professor noted the abrupt change in the landscape as the barren wasteland of sand and stone rose out of the Indus valley stretched out below.
“I believe the terrain is very inhospitable and the high mountain ramparts difficult to access,” remarked Sushil. “That may be so but nature has endowed its elevated plains and plateaus with a rich and varied animal life and mountain fauna,” said Mahesh, the class ‘know-it-all’. On landing at Leh airport, the children were struck by the blueness of the sky. Mr. Mendes and Mr. Saluja gently nudged their wards into 3 Jeeps and soon they were on their way to a camping site. Time flew as tents were pitched and food was cooked while the children unpacked their rucksacks hastily amidst a lot of chattering. Living on the banks of the river Indus was indeed an adventure.
Soon, the boys grew restless and went off in different directions to discover their whereabouts. Bunny, Suraj and Ali walked across a bridge but not before being warned about going easy and not exerting themselves. Mr. Saluja had explained, “The paucity of oxygen in this dry rarefied atmosphere reduces human efficiency by 40%. We have to pace ourselves out so as not to cause any strain on our lungs and heart.” Of course Bunny was more interested in the sound of music wafting down from the hutments on the adjacent hill. He ran up while the other two were left far behind. He saw monks or lamas wearing masks dancing in slow, circular, languorous movements to the accompaniment of drums, cymbals and pipes. Bunny pushed himself through the crowd till he reached a vantage point. “We are celebrating a local festival,” whispered a young monk. “Are you really a monk? You look younger than me, you know,” questioned Bunny.
Suraj and Ali couldn’t see Bunny anywhere and were getting quite frantic. The crowd seemed to grow thicker and people jostled each other for a view of the lamas. Suddenly Ali spotted Bunny doing a funny twirl in the centre and was hysterical with laughter. Suraj joined him and together they pulled Bunny out of the crowd before he made a total fool of himself! They quickly made their way to the camp and found the others huddled up around a bonfire singing an old film song while munching some snacks.
Later, at night, the children zipped themselves up in their sleeping bags and whispered amongst them through chattering teeth…Yes! It was definitely COLD! Everyone slept well including the teachers and Lobsa, their Ladakhi guide. The only one miserable was poor Bunny whose head pounded with a splitting headache. He finally had to wake up Mr. Saluja in the middle of the night. He muttered, “This is what happens when you don’t heed advice. You just cannot afford to take unnecessary risks in this harsh terrain.”
“Sorry Sir. I wish I hadn’t run up that hill and danced…”, said Bunny.
“Danced?!” pounced back Mr. Saluja. “I just give up on you boys and your antics.” But the professor-cum-doctor kept vigil on his student for the rest of the night. Bunny was sentenced to bed rest for the following day so that he could recuperate for harsher conditions.
A visit to the monasteries or gompas was on the itinerary for the next day.
“Did anyone notice how precariously balanced a typical Ladakhi monastery is?” asked Mahesh. “Very observant,” remarked Mr. Mendes while the other boys groaned inwardly. “You will always find gompas in a solitary place, along the Indus and its tributaries and on steep slopes of hills or tops of craggy hills or the ends of ridges or in the niche of cliffs,” added Lobsa. The rest of the day passed in a whirlwind seeing the biggest Buddha statue in a sitting posture at the Shay gompa. The enchanting Thiksay monastery was full of statues and religious paintings or scrolls called tankhas. Kim and Vikram found the Hemis gompa awesome. It was by far the most beautiful and also richest monastery visited. Bunny got to hear the vivid details of the visit from his closest buddy Sacra and therefore did not feel so left out at the end of the day. He had rested well and was feeling fit and fine now.
The next day went in discovering Leh, which is described as an oasis in the side-valley of the Indus. The place is a strange mixture of old and new structures, of large buildings with narrow window openings and clusters of stupas or chortens. “The most impressive sight here is the massive stone castle and the old mosque,” explained Lobsa. The boys spent the afternoon blissfully window-shopping in little shops with antiques, masks and ethnic curios. Little knick-knacks were purchased at the last minute from a roadside market to gift to family and friends. Here the wares were all displayed on the road and most of the street was blocked with the local’s yaks, dzos, donkeys, horses and mules. Sabeer stared at the dzos and said, “What on earth are these?” “My dear friend, these are a cross between a cow and a yak!” explained Mahesh with an arm around Sabeer.
Mr. Mendes made the boys aware of the fact that the Ladhakis were very open, friendly and hospitable people. They all greeted them with a “Joolay” and a welcoming smile. Later, sitting in a restaurant or sarai Bunny cracked some jokes and Arjun mimicked a few classmates while the local food was prepared. Everyone gorged on momos and thupa. The teachers tried some chang with Lobsa and liked the flavour of barley beer.
Driving from altitudes of 9,000 ft. to 19,000 ft. was exhilarating and the boys managed to see wild yak, blue and marcopolo sheep and a queer looking fuzzy animal called ‘Marmot’. The most memorable visit was to Khardung-La (Pass), which is the highest motorable road in the world. “The endless peaks and ridges belong to the Zanskar range,” pointed out Mr. Mendes. “Doesn’t the road finally lead to Kargil?” questioned Suraj. Lobsa gave an affirmative nod.
The boys were fortunate to see the extensive lake system here and the numerous hot springs. Pangong Tso, the largest lake in Ladakh, is 136 kilometers long with crystal clear water that reflects eight different shades. Mahesh quickly said, “This is the largest brackish lake in Asia and is bisected by the international border between India and China.” The drive through Chang-La had everyone mesmerised…the cold, penetrating winds and the freezing air chilled everybody’s bones. The boys were delighted to touch the thick glacier forms along the side of the road. The jeeps skidded occasionally in the icy slush and once or twice hearts pounded seeing the deep gorges and ravines on the side. Lobsa was full of tales of the terrible accidents on these treacherous roads. “It is no easy matter for our army personnel who live in these altitudes and move to and fro throughout the year,” said Mr. Mendes. “No wonder we are so in awe of them and give them the highest respect,” added Lobsa. “I am definitely joining the army,” stated Ravi. ‘Me too,” chorused a few others.
The cherry on the cake was that it started snowing and nothing could wipe the smiles off the faces of the boys after that. The snowflakes dazzled against the sun and the sight left infinite impressions on the bright minds of the youngsters as they recalled their emotions on seeing the above. Watching the multitude of stars in the sky that night, the boys whispered their observations and experiences. They already felt nostalgic about their last night in their sleeping bags, having never felt so close to nature before this.
Mr. Saluja summed it all by saying that the simplicity of its inhabitants and their joie de vivre produce an unforgettable impression on every visitor. “A haven for poets and artists so hopefully Bunny and Kim will have some fantastic inspirations on our return!” added Mr. Mendes with a twinkle in his eyes.
What a trip this had been for all of them. One that they would treasure for a long, long time.
- languorous: slow
- rarefied: (of air, especially that at high altitudes) of lower pressure than usual
- joie de vivre: exuberant enjoyment of life