A trip to Leh is incomplete without its uncertainties and vagaries – only to be finally caressed by the peaceful mountain breeze and the hope of twinkling stars
It was in June 2014 when my brother was visiting home, after two years of studying with two of his friends in New Zealand, and we decided to take a trip to Leh. What was so great about this trip other than the location? It was completely unplanned. There was no itinerary, no pre-booked place of stay, we didn't know what awaited us – five travellers with just four confirmed train tickets to Jammu.
There were so many cherished moments during the journey that even after two years, they remain etched in my memory. It took us a while to truly begin the journey. While we did manage to reach Jammu via train, the drive from Jammu to Srinagar which is usually an eight-hour ride, took us almost 24 hours. Renovation of the roads had caused a traffic jam that did not allow anyone to even crawl through and we had to spend the night at a dhaba in a small room with three beds. Thankfully, we were more tired than frustrated and immediately fell asleep.
Early next morning, the journey began again and we finally reached Srinagar – the first phase was over. Phase two was about finding a place to stay. Luckily or unluckily, as we found out later, we met a man willing to rent out his houseboat at the tourist centre. He also promised to arrange a car and assured to personally accompany us to all the tourist destinations in Srinagar. Turns out, all tourist spots in Srinagar are gardens overcrowded with people trying to grab a picture with the next firang they see. Though we fell for it, I strongly advise you to take a walk around Srinagar rather than visit the "tourist spots". The only saving grace was the Dal Lake – the water is murky and the shikaras are dirty but the stories our guide told us about the Dal Lake, was worth reminiscing. In front of us was not just a lake but a witness to Indian history, muted by the present.
Once we left Srinagar, after a hefty rent was levied on us, our next stop was Kargil. Again, the best part was that we had nothing planned for the journey ahead. This is how the story unfolds – we ended stuck in another line of blocked cars. This time around, in a small village on the way, some college students had announced a strike, blocked the roads and declared a curfew. Cars were mobile, shops were shut and the ones which were open refused to sell anything. Oh, did I say it was mid-afternoon and our supposed lunch stop was still an hour away from the place where we were being held. We had no water, no food and frankly, no one cared.
The one lesson you do learn while travelling is that 'you' do not matter – how you play with this thought can actually change the world around you. Anyhow, after sneaking in through the back of a restaurant's kitchen, we managed to eat something and by the time we were done, the roadblock had been mercifully cleared.
Of course, this shook our whole schedule and we decided to spend the night in Kargil, which, by far, remains the most peaceful place I have ever seen.
Tip: If planning to go to the Kargil Memorial, remember to wear full pants.
Right before we left Kargil the next morning, our eccentric little driver invited us to his uncle's place for tea, after being almost two hours late to pick us up. Nevertheless, we decided it did no harm and went along. It was a square house with carpets for seating. Two of his nieces got tea for us, giggling as they would during their wedding ceremony. One of the two was extremely pretty but every time I pointed the camera towards her she'd shy away. It was only while we were bidding them farewell and I was still trying to get a picture that she held her pose for a minute, gave me what I wanted before walking away.
Eventually, after Jammu, Srinagar and Kargil, we reached Leh. We stayed at a cosy motel which had a bookshelf right outside our room and was a five-minute walk away from the main market of Leh. On its terrace, they had an innovative car seat decor and the view overlooked the Leh Palace. We did take a trip to Pangong Lake and Nubra Valley, but one thing that stood out for me as it stands out for almost everyone, was the night sky and the stars that twinkled (yes, they really do twinkle) and the air always smelled fresh.
Tip: Don't try to waste your time bargaining with the shopkeepers. They know what you want and the exorbitant price to sell it at.
It was not over yet. There is one more destination that we decided to drop by on our way back to Delhi and that was Manali. As our tradition for this trip called, we were stuck in another roadblock caused by a landslide for almost 24 hours in a small RTV bus at Rohtang Pass while it snowed. That is until we made the bold move of crossing the landslide affected area on foot. What we did not know was that the water which flows out of mountains after a landslide is in full force and cold as ice. Moreover, since the road is destroyed, the only thing you will step into is debris. Yes, we did not know that, so we made our bold moves in socks and chappals.
Tip: Do not cross a landslide affected area.
We managed to make it through, forming a man-made chain among ourselves and pulling each other out but it took the whole night for my feet to get warm again.
I'd say if Srinagar-Kargil-Leh was a three-tiered cake, Manali was the cherry. From exploring hidden waterfalls, attic-shaped apartments, secret walks through the forest that connects New Manali to Old and the graves of 'Rose Mary Marlo' to staying at the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute of Mountaineering and Allied Sports, Manali bid us goodbye with a huge sloppy kiss.