Our daughter Neerja (Nanu), son Gaurav (Sheri) and his wife Shefali are frequent travellers. They have travelled abroad so often but wanted to travel with in India, mystic, remote and lesser travelled mountainous region but in no way that should be the Kumaon or the Garhwal Himalayas. So I suggested them to explore Ladakh and they got passionately concerned driving down from Noida and back.
They had one leave restriction as in private sector one could not ask for a leave beyond 2 weeks. They left every thing on me- planning entire route, night halts, bookings, sight seeing, servicing of the Neerja’s diesel SUV up to the extent searching out 4 dumped sleeping bags from old cupboards for emergency. The final tight itinerary schedule was got finalised after endless mobile talks, smsing and emails, kind courtesy Maj Gen Nawnit Kumar, SM Commandant, High Altitude Warfare School(HAWS) ,Gulmarg and Lt Gen Bobby Mathews ,AVSM**, VSM ,the Colonel of the Regiment (COR).
My special thanks go to Lt Col Suraj Nair, COR’s SO and Col Ravi, commanding Divisional Ordnance Unit (DOU) at Pattan across Srinagar ( s/o Lt Col Sawinder Singh (Retd) my die-hard Berari colleague). On 18 May Gaurav arrived in late night at Noida from Chennai while his wife Shefali and our grandson Aahaan flew to Amritsar.
On 19 May both Nanu & Sheri left Noida at 0700 hrs for Gurdaspur, their first leg of the tour covering over 515 km in 8.30 hrs. At Gurdaspur, they all stayed in Col Ahluwalia (my Samdhi & Shefali’s father) palatial ancestral farm house and visited Jalian Wala Bagh and Golden Temple at Amritsar in the evening both located close by. As they entered the temple dome with their heads covered with a scarf, they were fascinated with the Golden
Temple amidst giant Amrit Sarover.
Both Sheri and Aahaan visiting the temple for the first time were mesmerised by the serenity, courtesy, service and cleanliness of the entire complex. After Parikrama of the Adi Granth, they were blessed with Kara Prasad and reluctantly left missing the Guru Ka Langar as they had from the next day onwards long journey ahead.
Next morning after breakfast and much emotional fare welling Shefali’s old aunts, uncles and their siblings, they all left for Chandrakot – Headquarters of the 11 Rashtriya Rifles (RR), near Ramban for the night stay driving down via PathankotJammu- Udhampur-Patni Top enjoying the scenic beauty, covering nearly 265 km in 7 hrs. The serpentine road in the narrow Ramban valley with the Chenab flowing with full force along the national highway (NH) were very refreshing and soothing experiences for their tired minds, bodies and souls.
On 21 May morning, they left Ramban crossing Pir Panjal range for Gulmarg- a popular skiing destination to stay at HAWS, courtesy General Nawnit Kumar, SM covering nearly 197 km in about 8 hrs with tea and toilet breaks in between
reaching there by evening and for the first time they realised that though the tourist taxi traffic was very high, there was no mobile net work available putting folks at homes in great spin. General Nawnit had laid a grand mini Kumaoni get together in Gulmarg where surprisingly they met General & Mrs Marwah as well.
Next day they enjoyed cable car ride to Gondola built by French Company Pomagalski, horse riding, snow sledding and the scenic beauty of the meadows. The sudden rise to around 4000 meters height for the first time thro the hour long cable car ride in few stages, had all of them suffer from high altitude nausea and severe headache controlled by the Paracetemol tablets but they were so engaged with Alpine like nature that they hardly felt their discomforts. Incidentally, the high inflow of the tourists is adversely affecting the fragile eco-system of the
Gulmarg surroundings, Srinagar valley and Ladakh.
On 23 May they left little late for Kargil. The drive up to Sonamarg was heavenly and with no mobile network in the high altitude pine jungles. They enjoyed river rafting for an hour in the Indus River and were cut off from the rest of the world thereafter putting families and friends on tenser hooks. Zoji La (La means pass)crossing was filled with dangers over the gravelled road surface as land slides and boulders came hurtling down at reckless pace and the terrain was bad and tough on the vehicle, the driver and the passengers.
Beyond Zoji La as they progressed on tough terrain in low gear and snail speed with terrible traffic jams and snarls in-between as the forest cover started getting thinner and snow peaks were visible on either side with the melting edges in the bright summer sun of the road hugging fast flowing crystal clear Indus River deep below in the narrow valley.
They crossed Dras, the world’s second coldest place, moving due east with sun setting at their backs, turning snow peaks from white to golden, then crimson and finally merging with darkness of black night and the distant twinkling odd lights in the sparsely populated villages looked like shining stars close by. The scene was straight out of the Jungle Book, a dense forest teeming with insects, birds, mountain goats and sheep and dwindling human population with the Indus River flowing with majestic speed creating deafening roar in otherwise peaceful eerie mountain silence.
When they had not reached HQ 121 Mountain Brigade Officers Mess by late evening, there was a mini panic in Noida, Gulmarg and Chennai as I bothered immensely General Nawnit and Lt Col Suraj Nair- SO to COR to trace them. Much
to the relief of all, they finally reached Kargil by 2200 hrs and after quick meals hit the beds tired and exhausted. The next day morning they paid respects at Kargil War Memorial, purchased some War Memorial souvenirs, saw Kargil war zones en route covering over 215 km in 7 hrs and reached Leh where they stayed in HQ 14 Corps Officers Mess.
As they crossed Kargil, the landscape became barren, with hills turning from green forests to light brown and darker shades. They saw many fruit orchards en route and purchased apricots, plums, apples and walnuts. Also, the population demography quickly changed from the Muslims to the Buddhists denomination. Fifteen Km east of Fotu La, they crossed Lamayuru Monastery situated at 11,520 ft above the sea level.
Incidentally, both the Kargil and the Leh accommodations were arranged courtesy COR & they were grateful for the care and hospitality at both the military establishments. The next day they ideally spent visiting local Leh market, sight seeing various monasteries and for the young Aahaan it was most thrilling to sit in the cockpit of the Chitah helicopter at the IAF Base Leh which is life line for the troops manning the Siachen glacier and other posts around Nubra Valley, Chushul and Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO).
On 26 May, they left for Panang Tso on way to Chushul but due to snow fall and heavy winds, driving car without skid chains late in the evening in slushy tracks was fraught with danger and they were advised by CO 19 Kumaon to stay put in Thikse Officers Mess of the Rajputana Rifles (Raj Rif) Bn. The PangongTso in Tibetian means ‘Grassland Lake’ which has salt water and nearly 60% of the lake is in China and rest within India. The lake freezes in winters inspite of the salty water content. Crossing the Chang La- a high mountain passes having the third highest motorable road in the world.
The climb is very steep and requires a careful drive. The descent from Chang La towards Tangtse or Darbuk is
again very steep. Incidently, I had joined my Battalion 53 years back on commissioning in Darbuk, which is located on the bank of Shyok River. Then it had more military population than locals but now there are star hotels and guest houses. They also realised that the human beings and the vehicles needed as much oxygen to keep going in high altitudes.
Our grandson was thrilled to see several rare and endangered species like wild sheep, goats and some Lynx, Shapo
(Ladakh Urial), chakors while locals told them about antelopes and snow leopard to scare them a bit. Also, with the tourists’ influx, thousands of cars, taxis and buses ply every day up and down and with construction of roads, bridges and tunnels vast forest lands are being deforested adversely affecting fragile ecosystem in the entire J& K state.
On 27 th May they drove back, a bit dis-heartened as they could not visit Chushul and pay respects at 13 Kumaon’s Rezang La War Memorial. There night halt was arranged at Sonamarg but they were advised rightly that they would not be able to make over the distances. I contacted Lieut Col Amod Chandna, once our neighbour in Noida and friend of Sheri and now posted in the Directorate General Quality Assurance (DGQA) Pune who arranged accommodation in 6 Assam
Officers Mess located in near Kargil. Nothing thrilled more Shefali and the Battalion to learn from me that her father was commissioned in 6 Assam, which made their night stay very memorable. Col Ahluwalia later went to command 5 Bihar and that becomes part of the story later.
Next morning they drove back to Srinagar and Col Ravi Kumar was kind enough to arrange boat house for the night stay in the Dal Lake at concessional rate as the local Kashmiris like any other Indian business communities in hill stations are experts in fleecing tourists demanding exorbitant prices. They enjoyed the home cooked like Kashmiri dishes served by the owner of the boat house and Dal Lake in the pitch dark night looked like a beautiful bride wearing twinkling lights that looked like golden jewels.
On 29 May they drove down to Pathankot and Col Ahluwalia- Shefali’s father had fore warned 5 Bihar the Battalion he commanded nearly 3 decades back to accommodate all of them. The CO ensured the escort was sent to drive them
down late night and after a small bonhomie they slept like logs.
On 30 May they drove back to Noida with lunch break at Udham singh Ka dhaba near Ambala and tea break near Murthal. Till Sheri, Shefali and Aahaan left back for Chennai on 1 Jun, Aahaan was a chatter box explaining the knitty-gritty of their adventurous stress buster sojourn in Ladakh and back.