Rite of Passage

Trekking through Ladakh -the Diary of a procrastinator: Day 4

Waking up inside my tent on Day 4 was a surreal experience. The bells on Namgyal’s horses had kept jangling through the otherwise cold and silent night, reassuring me even as I slept fitfully -being claustrophobic, it took me a while to get used to the confines of the tent. When dawn broke, I peeped out to find frozen dew on the tent and grass – it must have snowed high up in the passes during the night. The thought made me happy. I guess snow has a special place in my heart considering I live in a city that experiences almost eight months of summer each year, with temperatures peaking to just under 50deg C in May. And then, watching snow fall is on my list of the top ten romantic experiences one can ever have.

When I crept out of the tent to stretch myself, I felt a bit overwhelmed. Despite preparing for six long months, it took time for it to sink in that I was now in a tent in the middle of a valley in Ladakh . . .with just four people and five horses for company! I inhaled the fresh mountain air and took a short stroll by the rivulet before the others woke up and got busy with their respective chores. Having deposited me in the care of the trekking crew, Stanzin and Jimmy left for Leh early. George and myself packed up our stuff, had a quick but hearty breakfast and set off in the route explained to us by Tashi. The others would follow later, after cleaning and wrapping up things at the campsite.

And just like that, I was on my maiden trek!

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My trekking route in red with pit-stops marked in blue

Thanks to the ‘camping style’ trek I’d chosen, I didn’t have to carry my heavy backpack – the horses would do that for me! So, I set out with a smaller day-pack with some bare necessities and water, trying to match George stride by stride. The first few kilometers were easy enough. I was fresh, energetic and raring to go and we mostly walked on a road in-the-making. On either side, there were nothing but tufts of grass and a lot many pebbles in the foreground while much farther away was a pleasantly undulating horizon in all directions. P1020636 (2)As we walked, George filled me in on the previous half of his trek and gave me tips on tackling tiredness, the most important one being not to ever sit down to rest -that would make it several times harder to get back to trekking. An ideal scenario would be to just place one’s bag and trekking pole down and stand for a while before resuming. I followed his advice . . .for a while. But somewhere around 10kms into the trek, I was itching to park my bums somewhere. That’s also when a stream materialized out of nowhere, giving me a pretext to take a break. So I removed my shoes and sat on a rock with my tired feet dipped in the cool waters. Wow . . . was that Bliss or what!p1020641-e1535224101315.jpgWhen we resumed our trek after the unplanned indulgence, I noticed that the terrain had completely changed. We now had rows of reddish-brown rocky/sandy hills on one side while the plains stretched for miles on the other. P1020643That’s when I also came across the first bit promised by the trek description – Changpa nomads grazing their sheep and Pasmina goat. Although there weren’t many of the latter -George had encountered many more during the previous leg of his trek – I was happy enough for a chance to see them.P1020647Tashi and gang had caught up with us by now and even overtaken us. They would reach the next camp site and set up the dining tent well in advance so we could have something to eat as soon as we reached. As we continued trekking, the sun moved to the top of our heads and was shining rather brightly, even as cold winds blew mercilessly. It reminded me of the folk-tale where the Sun and the Wind quarrel over who is mightier and the matter is settled when the heat from the Sun forces a farmer to remove all his clothes. The terrain also changed subtly, with the mountains closing in on my right, wearing different colors -light orange, red, turquoise blue . . .and of course black. They weren’t close enough to figure out what gave them these colors but few days later, I realized that every mountain in the region was covered with a different type of stone and it was the chemical composition of these stones that gave them the unique colors. I even saw a beautiful purple mountain later that seemed like an illusion but was in fact very real!P1020648 (2)We’d covered over 15kms in 5 hours by now and I guess tiredness was starting to show on my face. So George, a seasoned trekker, decided to give me a pep talk. He said every trekker has to undergo the Rite of Passage – that moment when he/she completely breaks down and then rises up to the challenge with a renewed resolve.  He also warned me this was only the beginning and that I should brace myself for the passes that would be the real test of strength and character.

Despite the talk, my pace reduced drastically during the last leg of the trek. George was still as fresh as when we started out, so I told him to go right ahead and not wait for me. With him walking several hundred paces ahead of me before disappearing at a bend, it felt strange to be walking alone in the valley. It was alternately pleasant and punishing – the former because of the sheer beauty that surrounded me and the latter because of my own sagging stamina. But then, I realized that trekking, as are the most challenging situations life throws at us, is all about listening to the body even as we control /manipulate our mind. So, I talked to myself and became my own motivator over the last few kilometers. And you have no idea of the relief I felt when the tip of the blue dining tent made an appearance in my cone of vision! Soon as I reached the camp site, I kicked off my shoes, put down the trekking pole and lay down flat on the grass. With closed eyes, I replayed the experience of the entire day and figured I’d not done so badly for a first time trekker!

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That’s orange juice in the kettle – not tea!

Siddhartha soon beckoned with hot orange juice and noodles that I devoured like never before. We then chatted for a long time as he prepared dinner.That’s when I learned that he is a trekking guide back home in Nepal where he takes trekkers along the Annapurna Circuit every year. It is only during off-season back home that he comes to Ladakh and since he’s not eligible to work as a guide here due to certain regulations, he accompanies trekkers as a cook. I was mighty impressed because he does cook marvelously well! That evening, he made some bhajias followed by mutton curry, rotis, rice and dal. It was a joy to watch him work deftly as he cooked all of this on his twin kerosene stoves with some help from Namgyal.

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Siddhartha at work . . .

I had an early dinner that day and just around the time I’m typing this out on my computer today – 6.32pm, I retired to my tent, pushing away the idea of lying on the grass and watching the stars to another day. And soon as my head hit my fleece-jacket pillow, I slipped into a deep, dreamless sleep.

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