LADAKH IN WINTER

Source: The Hitavada      Date: 23 Dec 2018 11:44:39


 

By HEMANT KATARIA

I n travelling to Leh from Bhilai, we realised we were covering roughly half of the vertical length of the country. What is it about Leh that keeps drawing us again and again? The stark, unembellished landscape, the simple people, sparse population or simply the return to basics. In travelling to Ladakh in winter, it is experiencing Arctic conditions. Fortunately, our tour operator had given precise instructions about the gear to be carried, based on his experience of exposing ten thousand persons to the delights of Ladakh.

This stood us in good stead and there was nary a thing that was excessive or fussy. On day 1 itself, he distributed items that we had not even imagined-sachets containing camphor to be inhaled in case of breathing difficulties etc., homeopathic medicine to acclimatize better, and the previously unheard of ‘Warmees.’ We had no means of ascertaining what the ambient temperature was, but could be sure that it was in ‘minus’, since the different traces of water were in various stages of freezing over-splashes on the ground in sheets that crunched when stepped on, edges of the stream in slabs of ice and icicles getting formed where there were drips.

The key to surviving in this weather lies in wearing protective gear in layers-with layers easily added or removed as per requirement. With only five hotels open in all of Leh, it seemed like a real luxury to stay in one that had running water, no, running HOT water. Tremendous planning and effort goes into ensuring that the pipelines don’t burst, and the water flows out as per requirement. The storage tank is fifty feet below ground level, and the pipelines have three layers of insulation for the purpose. Supply of electricity itself is a concern, as the water flow at the electricity source has got diminished, and electricity produced during the day is strictly rationed out for a few hours in the night, to provide both illumination and the highly required warmth.

We headed towards Pangong, with great hopes of seeing the mighty lake completely frozen over. However, this was not to be. As we reached Kaaru, the snowfall started-initially like a light dusting of talcum powder, but gradually increasing in intensity, to the equivalent of a downpour. The military officials said that we could certainly proceed towards Pangong, but there was no assurance that we could return the same day, given the inclement weather conditions.

Changing our destination, we decided to head towards Chumathang. The drive along the Indus river is scenic to say the least, and a delight to observe the forms that water has taken along the way-sheets stacked one above the other in one place, icicles along the edge at another and blocs drifting slowly down the course at yet another. In travelling to Chumathang, we could make a comparison of the landscape between the summer and winter months.

The hot water spring here lies in dirty squalid conditions. But it is a rare sight to see the three states of water-ice, water and steam together in the same place in their natural condition. This was followed by walking on the frozen Indus river.

It was our great fortune that it had snowed heavily only two days earlier, and the previously flowing river had two-and-half to three feet of ice to walk on. Each footstep was greeted with a crunch, and one could only hope that the ice would hold one's weight, and not give way. The festival marks the end of winter, and people return to their homes. Where else but in Ladakh could you simply board up everything and go away.

This was the first time so many people were seen in Ladakh. They were out in their traditional finery, and bubbling with enthusiasm. Since Leh Airport is right next door, we were in the direct line of the flight. I was scared of a stampede, but the local people were extremely patient, bearing the crush without the slightest murmur.All day long, folk dances were being performed. The music and the steps remained the same in successive performances, only the costumes and get up changes.

The highlight of the trip was to be a daylong trek on the frozen Zanskar river. However, there was a blockade on the river five kilometres long, with the looming threat of a natural calamity. We did not get the requisite permission from the Govt. authorities to proceed. Groups which had travelled earlier were being evacuated through helicopter. In a way, it was a relief not to have to undertake the arduous journey. In Ladakh, it is important not to make very rigid travel plans, as the weather can send them all for a toss. We got the most amazing views from the flight on our return. Our earnest prayers for clear skies had been answered!!