It was before dawn, and the darkness had just started fading out of the sky. The paleness increased towards the eastern horizon, only to be terminated from view by the silhouettes of mountains standing against the sky. We had stopped at a small tea shop by the side of a mountain spring, at one of the bends of the ambages.
We got down from train and took to the roads from Chandigarh when it was dark. A few hours later, we were on the mountain roads towards Manali. We were deprived of sleep, and we were in need of tea.
It was 2015. I had just finished college. I had a job in my hand and was yet to receive my joining letter. I was spending time at home writing poetry and painting, and occasionally travelling around with my parents. It was an idyllic time.
We were on a trip to Ladakh, and Jammu & Kashmir. During those times, there was no war, there were no infectious viruses floating in the air. I stood in front of the shop with the paper cup in my hand–white fumes rising from it, and I watched the mountains, breathing fresh air into my lungs.
I had been lucky.
It was my second visit to Manali. This time, Manali was our starting point. We were to rest in Manali for a day and set off on Manali-Leh highway early next morning.
When we arrived at Manali, I was pleased to notice that nothing had changed much since my last visit in 2003. The time of the year was different, and therefore it was a little warmer. The snow was scarce on mountain tops. Light woolens did the job perfectly.
We visited the ancient Hadimba temple, cocooned inside a forest of cedars. I saw people posing for photographs riding on the back of a Yak. I recalled the time when I was 11 years old and had ridden a Yak for a photograph. I looked quite funny in it. My elder sister still tries to pull my leg about that photograph of mine!
We visited Van Bihar National Park–a deodar forest with park-like arrangements. It had swings, benches and a pool of water for paddle-boating. The trees were mighty high, and the cicadas chanted like a constant hum of prayers in a monastery.
We also visited Himalayan Nyinmapa Tibetan Buddhist Monastery. Inside the monastery was a large, golden idol of meditating Buddha, and a calm, tranquil atmosphere. The walls outside the main temple were lined with prayer wheels. It was an island of peace in the middle of the cacophony of the markets of Manali.
I bought a wooden prayer wheel from a shop outside the temple. A little schoolgirl with pink cheeks was sitting in the shop– probably her mother had asked her to sit there and had gone to run an errand. She was smart and smiled brightly, when she packed the prayer wheel and gave it to me.
We browsed through the shops at the mall road and bought thick fluffy jackets, gloves and woolen caps. Ladakh was supposed to be much colder than Manali.
We packed our lunch and were off towards Leh. On our way we visited the famous Vashistha Ashram. The carvings on wooden walls and roofs of this Ashram was something to marvel at.
We had our lunch under the trees, and washed our hands in the water of a spring. When we reached Rohtang pass, I could not believe it was the same place I had seen 12 years ago. We were there when the entire place was covered with snow. Now it had only grass, and some little colourful flowers. It was a different season, and the snow had melted away one or two months ago.
The temperature, the trees, the surroundings changed rapidly with the rise and fall of altitude. Each turn of the road surprised me with a different form of a breathtaking view. The most beautiful perspectives, I would say, were given by the passes. Those were the topmost points, where the road crossed one mountain and went to the other. Those places were generally flat, surrounded by snow capped peaks in full view.
I remember one place quite clearly. It was near a point where the road had diverged into two ways. One led to Leh and another went towards Spiti valley. It was a grassy expanse, with tiny white flowers and a puddle of water at a distance. The sun was bright and the air was crisp and cold. The magnificent Himalayan peaks stood around us. It was a moment when time stood still, and you could hear your own breath and heartbeats in the silence.
Chandra river, which ran by the side of the highway, was changing colour from golden to silver as the sun went down and moon came up on the sky. A full moon was just a few nights away. In the moonlight I saw a waterfall roaring down the mountain with full force, white like a glowing angel.
We reached Keylong at night, and had nothing else to do but to sleep. We were all tired after a day’s journey. We had our dinner ordered to our room and slept early.
We didn’t have the chance to see anything at Keylong. We got ready by 7am next morning to start our journey again. On our way we saw a flock of sheep blocking the roads. The driver honked. The shepherd was nearby. He kept leading his sheep away as we slowly moved forward. He was climbing uphill with his sheep.
‘These shepherds spend months with their sheep, wandering around these mountains’, the driver said, ‘Their life is queer!’
The landscape was changing. As we got closer to Ladakh, trees were getting scarcer. What looked like patches of colours on the mountains from afar, were actually flowers of different colours clustered together. The mountains were saffron and the sky was pure, unblemished blue. The mountains gave me the impression of ancient sages in deep meditation.
Green patches were visible near the rivers. Some places had no green at all. We could see strange rock formations. Sometimes it felt as of we were not on Earth, but travelling around in another planet–possibly Mars!
We crossed Gata loops–a series of 21 hairpin bends, and reached Nakee La, which was one of the highest mountain passes in the region. It was a funny experience. You keep turning frequently, along the zig-zag way, and reach higher and higher with each bend, until the landscape down below looks tiny. If you have a tendency to become nauseous at bends, take extra precaution before you cross this place.
We saw a couple of benches under a roof supported by pillars at the side of the road. We decided to have our lunch there. The wind was so cold, that it was quite difficult to eat anything. The food that we had packed had gone ice cold. My fingers ached as I held my first serving of food–as if I was holding ice.
We struggled to eat in vain. We gave up, and finally had some dry snacks and fruit juice to fill our stomachs. At a small roadside shop, we had some biscuits and tea later in the afternoon.
When we crossed Tanglang La, we found snow covered mountains all around us. The sun shone over the snow and bathed everything in a pure, sacred beauty. In that moment, I felt humbled, and profoundly grateful.
The little villages in ladakh had houses painted white, with colourful window frames of intricate patterns carved out of wood. Almost all the villages had white Stupas.
It was dark again, when a conglomeration of little dots of light came into view. Slowly the lights grew bigger and the number of houses by the roads increased. We were entering the pretty, quaint little town of Leh.
(To be continued…)