“Take it easy” was the refrain we heard each time we talked of our Leh plans: Ladakh is treacherous. Just sleep the first day/ Don’t walk around/ Take the High altitude pills/ Report to a doctor the minute you feel pukey or feel your head going heavy or if you can’t breathe.
All of them possibilities that seemed highly likely- in just one day three families told us how Leh is a scary memory because of the above- and how close they were to dying of High Altitude Sickness and lack of oxygen when on a holiday in Ladakh.
Literally half hour into the flight we were above snow clad mountains. Unfortunately, the thick cloud cover only allowed for glimpses of the white below.
Conversation between the two male travelers in the seat behind was like this:
What kind of holiday is this yaar, eat pills so you can go back alive, alcohol isn’t allowed during acclimatization! I don’t care, I’m having rum.
1st man: Sure. You won’t care after you’re dead. People generally don’t.
Then to us: “Have you had your dose of Diamox?”
I tell him there doesn’t seem to be a need to take it just yet, but if there is the slightest discomfort …
He: Don’t wait. Have it!
They look at us with an expression of ‘Are you mad’ and go back to discussing Greece and how/ why the media is playing it down.
Out of nothing I remember that a plane that had dashed into one of these peaks, and another into a part of the monastery right across, 28 or thirty years back in time. It seemed possible even today as we sweep in through narrow corridors in gusty winds.
I’ve heard that only ex- Indian Air Force pilots flying commercial airlines are able to land on the Leh strip.
“The outside temperature is 14*C”, announces the pilot.
It will be 2* C at midnight, informs the chatty man sitting behind us looking at a weather forecast on his phone.
The wind is blowing and the chill factor is in play. I look out as we hover above the tiny airport. What an extraordinary landscape.
Sci-fi movie set. Only more spooky.
And beautiful in a desperately minimalistic way.
Even now in the summer months there’s very little green, except in and around Leh.
In almost all other parts it is barren and rugged, multi-hued mountains deeply scarred with thousands of years of wind and snowy streams cutting through them.
Why do people push to get into the airline buses- they aren’t those local Indian town buses that may leave you out if you don’t do an elbow maneuver each time you have to board.
Women do it more.
They also happily disregard queues. Perhaps it comes from a sense of entitlement that comes with age.
The airline bus could not climb the first not- even- that- steep road.
Its Ladakhi driver tinkered on, pulled at various sticks, pushed the accelerator to crazy groans, yet nothing.
Ten minutes later we piled on to the next bus. I saw some folks exchange happy sly smiles when the pushy aunty was now stuck pretty much at the end of the line, and someone said,”Karma plays out right here.”
That was not the last time I would here the K word.
The mud huts we opted to stay in were just as we left them years ago.
Built out of ghee tins cut to size and plastered with local mud, they kept the heat in.
The entrance still has a dragon with a slightly doped expression on his face; I’m guessing the painter passed down the ‘Painting the Dopey Dragon’ legacy with a great sense of responsibility.
Lack of oxygen supply and high altitude are a heady combination. An hour into lunch and the start of the mandatory two days of acclimatization, something slightly weird does happen to the head- like a small rush.
Perhaps it is psychological, I tell myself.
Sleep comes easy that afternoon, perhaps the body’s natural defense mechanism kicking in to ensure you take it easy.
The landscape changes every few minutes- shadows play games with the mountains, peaks adorn more white, and the blue palette flows into grays and ink.
We are surrounded by peaks. Its like living in a hollow carved out from mountains and undulating sand and white peaks, photo shopped every minute to change colors with changing shadows cast by fast moving clouds.
The moonlight is good enough to read a book.
Bright, white, luminous, it turns the landscape into something so surreal that no pictures or words can describe it.
Everyday things like trees and roofs look eerie, as if it was day in another planet.
Even as I write, there’s something big scurrying across the roof of my mud hut. And another. And another.
It is unnerving, to say the least. Tucking my feet under the hot-water bottle, I take a deep breath and pull the quilt closer still.
The wind wont stop howling as it escapes from the passes in the mountains enclosing us.
This will be a long night.