I have always been a firm believer that best of the trips happen when you dont really plan them, when you have the freedom and time to take the path that unfolds itself to you.
It was June in 2005 and I was supremely depressed during my 15 day leave, coz I was not able to do the “Chasing the monsoon (CTM)” trip. CTM was supposed to be the highlight of my adventurous life wherein I would drive up the western coast of India from Kerala to Gujarat & then cutting into Rajasthan & finally Delhi. My co-driver had to opt out at the last moment and I was left with 15 days of break and no exciting travel plans. All I managed to do was get myself on a flight to Delhi so that I could spend the break with family.
But my easily-bored self realized that I needed to go out somewhere soon. I was online chatting when my friend Vijay, told me that his friend had just returned from an amazing trip to Leh. It was like I had found my inspiration. I called this friend of his to get a better sense of what options lay ahead and at the end of that 15 minutes call had decided that I would fly into Leh (rather than do the road trip via Manali) and take it from there.
I went to the cyber cafe and was booking my ticket for the very next day. I was so excited, that in this hurry and excitement forgot to note that I had booked myself in the business class :-). By the time I reached home there was news about a blast in Mumbai & in Srinagar and my family was strictly against the trip. It took a lot of convincing and some help of maps(to show how far off Leh was from Srinagar) for them to finally let me go ahead on one condition- I was supposed to call them & update em on a daily basis.
And so the next day found me at the IGI airport, waiting for the early morning trip to Leh.While waiting for my flight I stuck up a conversation with a lama who asked me if this was my first trip to Leh. On hearing my affirmative he advised me to take it easy on the first day and to drink lots of water to avoid any altitude sickness.
The flight into Leh was short & sweet…with some of the most specatular views of the Himalayas I have ever seen , TV included. But alas i had packed my camera in the check-in luggage.
I landed at Leh, took a cab to just take me to the central part of town so that I could have a look around and decide where to stay for the rest of my trip. I called my folks from the bazaar area and told them that in this part of the country my own cellphone would not work (those days no one was allowed to be on roaming in Kashmir Valley). After asking around I realised that there was a guest house quite close to Shanti Stupa – which was away from the hustle bustle of the town center and had a nice family as its hosts.
So off I went to this guest house, which was almost 1 Km away from the nearest restaurant/shop, to have my own spot of peace in this beautiful place.
Over the next couple of days I traveled & hiked in and around Leh and saw the regular tourist spots.But my secret desire was to do a 5-6 day trek across the passes & into the really remote valleys. I spent a lot of time negotiating and discussing options with the tour operators and had almost zeroed on one when it suddenly rained. Yes, it rained in Leh- it was one of those rare moments when you feel that nature’s being evil. Coz this rain meant snow in the passes and that meant no trekking for atleast next 7-10 days. So here I was watching it rain, in a place that sees very little rainfall throughout the year. In fact the land is so barren due to altitude and lack of rain that you hardly see any vegetation.
In the evening, I was having a cup of tea with my host, watching the beautiful mountains gradually fade into the night’s darkness when a walker passed us by.
He suddenly stopped and asked me very abruptly -“How come you are staying at this place”. Not knowing if this was him being rude to my host or genuine curiosity I let the truth prevail and told him its cos this place is the farthest from the market- meaning it was the most quiet & serene place.
I think my answer got him by surprise as he told me that in all of 5 years of him walking this stretch almost every season, he had never seen an Indian staying at this guest house. So while my host went in to get him a cup of tea, we started talking. He told me how he was now with RR (in the army) after being injured and how he was still happy to be posted in this place- which many take as a punishment posting.
I wasnt in such a thankful mood so when it came to me, I just cribbed about how the rain had spoiled my whole trekking plan and blah blah blah……
The Colonel then told me ” If you find Leh beautiful, wait till you see Kargil“. I told him that I am not sure if its safe to travel that part of the valley esp after the bombing incidents. He replied “If theres been an incident today, nothing will happen for the next 3 months…take my word for it and go!”. He then showed me some snaps on his cell phone taken from a road trip done last week… Looking at the snaps I knew this was where I was headed…. Kargil. And while I ran around figuring out the bus timings, getting a ticket, asking for a cab at midnight and settling the bill with my host….. I was just thinking if it had not rained I would be hiking and Kargil would have been left.
I was no longer cribbing but thanking the stars for this army-man-on-his-evening-walk to help me make the best of my trip. Even my Lonely Planet wouldnt have come up with such a great recommendation.