The old mahogany bed is toasty warm. The tulsi chai with honey is almost a tranquilizer.The book is about Ghalib and his times. It’s the perfect start to the end of an exciting day.
Only, the wind won’t stop howling through the eerie moon-shadowed mountains crevices on all sides.
And then it starts- I can hear something rustling on the carpeted floor in the room adjoining mine. I make a weak pretense of getting up. Loud creaks emanate from the bed, and then, as I put my foot down gingerly, from the old wooden floor. I freeze. The next second my feet are curled up back inside the quilt. The rustling sound stops. Is a good thing, I wonder. A few minutes later it gets worse. It is a sound from the roof- as if someone is dragging something heavy. Eerily, the wind stops howling each time that sound starts.
I want to slap myself for not staying in a modern hotel with a cemented roof and walls that keep scary sounds out. The strange noises keep me awake for what seems an eternity, until finally the mind shuts down and I fall asleep.
It is five am, but with a nine am brightness. Daybreak happens early, sunsets leave behind a sunlight that lingers till eight pm.
It’s a new noise I wake up to- the sounds of some really heavy-duty aircrafts landing close by. Closer inspection determines they are the American Hercules. How did that mean machine get through the narrow corridor that Leh provided!
By 10 AM I have made new discoveries:
1. Yes, the mountaineer friend who said that you can’t compare any other high altitude region to Ladakh was right- Even on day two, walking for more than a few minutes results in a an urge to take a few deep breaths.
2. All the peaks around us are whiter than yesterday.
3.The natural light is brilliant beyond what the eyes are used to. Shades are a must-wear, even when it is a bit overcast.
4. Rats have eaten my stash of cheese, fruit and other goodies somewhere in the middle of the night.
And now that relief! The sound in the room was rats, so that scurrying on my roof was the sound of really big rats dragging away some carrion perhaps… It was only rats!
I feel stupid through my smile as I go over my reactions the previous night.
When I tell the local caretakers about my discovery, they look at each other and say something in Ladakhi.
I ask them to translate.
They look away.
After much prodding one of them tells me in a low voice: It’s the ‘bad wind’ that blows across close to full moon. Don’t step outside post midnight until after full moon night, even if someone calls your name.
I am full of questions. They are full of evasive looks and no replies.
I know that this conversation has effectively ruined the next three nights for me- all I can do is keep imagining ‘something’ call out to me in the midst of the howling ‘bad’ night wind.
Finally, I give up and try to pretend this conversation never happened. That doesn’t seem like it’s going to be tough- Daytime is such a beautiful fear- block.
The forty minute drive to Nimmu reveals a palette. There is no other way to describe it.
Purples melt into rusts melting into lavenders into intense blue skies into snowy peaks into mud into mustards into cobalts finally giving in to the emeralds of the languid Indus as it flows to meet the muddy brown of the Zanskar.
Unreal sound of thunder crashing somewhere beyond, and the sudden moving away of angry dark clouds- to reveal freshly painted peaks in brilliant white.
I wish we had the time to raft down the Zanskar. The crazy rapids in the Ganges above Rishikesh were an adventure; the ride down the Zanskar looks zen in its serenity.
This confluence of the Indus and Zanskar happens in the beautiful Nimmu valley.
The Indus flows over the dry Ladakh desert, almost like it’s lifeline; Ladakh receives only a few inches of rain in a year. Both take birth in the Himalayas, but in the summer months the Zanskar is the faster turgid one, perhaps gathering its speed from passing through the dramatic Zanskar Gorge, a dream destination for trekkers.
The Indus is lazy, calmer, green and meandering.
Our driver tells us that it’s exactly the opposite in the winter: The Zanskar slows down to a freeze.
Interestingly,the sold out Chadar (sheet) trek is a two day walk on the frozen Zanskar river, when the high passes are all snowed out. Meanwhile, come winter, the Indus moves fast, floating ice giving it a dangerous reputation in some parts. We gaze at it in silence.
It is picture postcard perfect.
I ask the driver about an old Shiva linga we often walked down to when we lived in Leh. All that we remember is that it was on the banks of the Indus at its gentlest, more tiny stream than a river. Finding it seems like a simple plan.
Who would have guessed that the temple quest would bring us such unexpected joys- an afternoon spent driving through bridges all festooned with prayer flags, walking through narrow lanes in the middle of Spituk- a tiny idyllic rare Ladakhi village that has the good karma of the Indus watering it through the year so even though it is surrounded by a bare uninhabitable landscape, it has fields of green and yellow, meadows of soft grass and twisted trees a hundred years old, and a smattering of Nargis flowers.
A village with pretty mud houses with Geraniums growing in window boxes and wooden gates with horse shoes hung on them.
We walked through, losing our way, finding it again, jumping across tiny Indus rivulets, getting caught in thorny bushes and the finally meeting two Ladakhi boys who lead us to the Shiva temple. It is still tiny, but it now boasts of man-made trappings of a roof and walls and other temple accessories.
It doesn’t feel the same. And then suddenly I look up and am looking at the mountain face of the Spituk monastery.
Not counted among the oldest or the finest ones around, to me it looks beautiful, like an unexpected gift on an an afternoon that started out quite ordinary.
Local stories talk of it being the same monastery that was hit by an aircraft many years ago- something easy to believe when even now, every plane that touches Leh goes past it, almost kissing it in reverence.
Nothing makes a sound that night.
No rustles, no rats, no dragging sounds on the flimsy roof and no sound of howling ‘bad winds’.
The silence is almost unreal, because here, the wind never stops blowing.
I lie down with the vision of the emerald Indus, lulling myself to much-needed sleep.
And then in the darkest hour of the night, the mystical shamans begin to play the dull steady flat beat of the dhyāngro- A sound that whispers of Himalayan secrets long forgotten, and of people who transcend the thin space between this life and other-worldliness.