It is that adrenalin rush which keeps proding you to touch the peaks, the clouds and be a part of that rider’s group which rode through the highest and the toughest road tracks through the mountains. I too, had been smitten by this bug for a while and finally decided the time had come to give in to it. Planned during the night, we were already on our motorcycles the next morning at 4 am, with the essentials loaded to zoom through a stretch covering five states, including Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Himachal and Jammu & Kashmir, along the few international borders with our neighbouring nations.
We rode our motorcycles along the rumbling Suru River after having spent a night at a hotel in one of the most haunting districts of the Ladakh region. It was the 11th day of our expedition, which started from Delhi and we had come across a long, thick wall made of rocks on our right side. This wall was blocking our view of the river for the first time during our entire ride. Why was the army concerned about these few meters of the entire 500+ kilometer highway from Leh to Srinagar, was the question abrading our minds? With no readily available answer we decided to continue riding slowly, digesting the varied shades of the mighty and youthful Himalayas.
This district we were riding through had been the most unwelcoming terrain in our entire journey so far, with every pair of eyes passing dreaded stares at us and no exchange of silent pleasantries. Hesitantly, we had to stop for the night because we had been warned that riding in the night to reach the next station, Dras, through the unpredictably meandering path up and down the mystic mountains was the most life threatening action one could commit to. Another fear which had been pricking our minds was the accidental ride, in the dark across the border into the Pakistani region. Would we be turned into yet another set of prisoners who become mere vegetables traded between the two countries over the next 20 years, when we would anyways have given up on our lives, dying to kiss the hangman’s noose of death?
As our motorcycles tumbled through the rocky landscape intervened by flawless roads, I could already feel the chilling breeze alongside the rain drops which had seemingly decided to be with us till our next station, we were striving to stop for the night in Srinagar. While the nature around us redefined beauty, I was still trying to unravel what kept me sleepless the previous night I spent in Kargil. Was it the heavy blankets loaded on us by the hotel owner or was it the horrifying memories of the Indo-Pak war we had read about years back? It was getting chillier as we crossed Dras but my mind had simply turned into a battleground wanting to find the answers to what had been the 2nd sleepless night after the 1st experience at the highest army transit camp in Pang en route from Manali to Leh. While friends from the army attribute my 1st experience to a lack of oxygen and dryness in the air at a height of 15500 feet, I still believe there was much more to it than just the weather.
While I tried to recall my experiences of the previous night, I was once again reminded of the horrifying stories I had heard at the army café at the entrance of Kargil. Stories which relate to the tales narrated by the truck drivers at Pang – anyone whose soul is not allowed to rest will keep troubling those who search for peace in the mountains.
One of the truck drivers named Amar Singh told us about the death of a helper who was run over by his driver, while reversing the truck. The driver absconded seeing him dead because of which the helper’s soul still haunts the travellers a few kilometers before Pang. No wonder passers-by leave behind cigarette packets, water bottles and lot more at his tombstone. While I rode further, I could once again see those amoeba-shaped shadows of the army men who have given away their lives on the border, walking behind me. It makes me wonder why two countries which were entwined in togetherness have become such bitter enemies that they sprinkle blood over the naturally red soil in the region, fighting tooth and nail to keep their respective territories intact. Isn’t it the reason behind the fact that the restless souls of the soldiers who died fighting for such a baseless cause are still fighting in the Kargil air, not with each other but with themselves and the newcomers in the region? They still want to know “why”, which leaves behind pungent stares of animosity for all those who travel through this town.
We were about to start our ride to the Zoji la pass after having crossed Dras which seems to be cake walk at a height of 11575 feet after having touched the Baralacha la (16,043 feet), Tanglang la (17,480 meters) and the highest Khardung la (17,582 feet) in the last week. Our self proclaimed view about Zoji la completely changed during our short halt due to the rain at an army barrier. We were told that Zoji la has experienced the maximum landslides, causing the most road accidents across the region. As the rain slowed down, we once again started riding towards Zoji la. The path was greasy and the slowly falling droplets caused slippage on the track. The terrain had turned muddy and the tyres of the motorcycle were not braking as easily on the zigzag path up the hill. After having slowly crossed the most difficult path, we finally saw some green patches in the valley down under which told us that we were about to touch Sonamarg. A 150 truck strong army cavalcade was about to pass and there was a portion of the road which was being re-laid for safer passage. The entire trail of private vehicles had come to a standstill. I was once again left wondering why there was so much fear amidst the most peaceful and sacred abode in the world, the Himalayas - a place where even the gods have united in togetherness.
The road finally opened and we were heading towards Srinagar. There were army men on top of every roof on our way and along the road after every few kilometers. We were told that the fear of landmines, bomb attacks, firing and lot more was always in the air. As we stopped to ask for directions to our hotel in Durganag, we were told that we were on the highly sensitive Bandipora Road which is unsafe and that we should cross the area as soon as possible before dark. We decided to race through and finally reached our hotel after crossing Lal Chowk and Hazrat Bal.
Having stayed two nights in Srinagar, gone boating on the Dal Lake and visited the Shankaracharya Temple and the Chashm-e-Shahi under the strangulating army scanner, we started our ride to Jammu the day after. As we rode through the valley, we were once again a witness to the men in green marching along the road both on feet and on a fleet of army vehicles through the valley.
I have physically reached Delhi a while ago. Back from where I still am. I am pondering, what should I call them – the blazing Himalayas or the bleeding Himalayas? Even after covering 3400 km, I am in two minds.