Tso Moriri sits nearly 15,000ft above sea level. Oxygen levels are low, the weather is unpredictable and this day saw a few people in a poor state of health, including me. Now I’ll admit I’m a lazy man but it’s never taken me hours to get myself out of bed. The altitude leaves you light-headed or gives you a headache, so I spent till noon just resting. Also, apart from the weather, what made it difficult to get a good night’s sleep was the local wild asses that choose to bray their favourite thrash metal tracks every 20 minutes through the night.
Paracetamol pill popped in, I joined the group at lunch time where we were treated to some momos, soup and an assortment of Indian food. Even at noon, the temperature stayed low, and moody as the climate is in these parts, you never know what to expect. In minutes, we shuffled between bright sunlight to rain to, finally, snow. This was a very light amount of snowfall but the first one I had witnessed in my tropical life. Bucket list item ticked then!
A few of us then proceeded to a view point located amount 2km away from the campsite. It was quite a vantage point to look at the diversity around. On one hand, you have a lake reflecting the most beautiful shade of turquoise, nude mountains behind us and completely snowcapped mountains in the far distance. “Just behind those mountains is China.” Our host Tashi said, and I appreciated the strategic significance of this quaint little town as I saw an Indian Army camp on the opposite bank. Later that evening, I got a snippet into the darker side of our defense personnel’s life.
Remember the air force pilot I mentioned in part 1? Well, his brother, him, the friendly neighbourhood neurosurgeons and I (this is not an intro to a “walk in a bar” joke) spent the evening kicking back in the tent and exchanging stories. It was a memorable evening and people who knew each other for less than a week spoke as long lost friends. One funny story was when as a young officer, the ex-air force man tagged along with his compatriots for a trip to none other than the Siachen Glacier, carrying no warm clothes while wearing just a shirt and a pair of pants!
Remember Siachen? It’s where rifles have to be thawed as temperatures drop to -50 degrees Celsius. It’s where a hot water bath is an evasive luxury and it’s where some of India’s most talented helicopter pilots support the troops with vital supplies, battling strong crosswinds and terrain that leaves no margin for error. He wasn’t aware of this and left the senior officer who came to receive him shocked and infuriated. He recalls trying to wash his hands and the water literally freezing his hand for a few minutes. It was also an eye opener to learn that special arrangements have to be made to dispose of the biological waste generated here, as the temperature and altitude aren’t conducive for decomposition!
It was good fun and a good session of learning and laughing, until he narrated the second story. In 1995, he was posted in Assam. One night, three other cadets and he decided to ride out at night on two scooters for some leisurely exploring. A few kilometres into their ride, a Maruti Gypsy approached them. “DL 4C with the other characters scratched out.” He recalls. The occupants were staring the riders down but soon passed them and drove up ahead. All seemed ok but a short while later, the same Gypsy came to a sudden halt. The riders watched as two AK47s came out of the windows, while two men with pistols jumped out and ran towards them.
While they made a U-turn to retreat, the assailants with pistols opened fire. It looked like they belonged to the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), a terrorist group known for targeting the Indian Army. “Three shots were fired. The first two missed but the third hit me” the now retired wing commander narrates in an eerily calm fashion. He was sitting pillion and it wasn’t until they reached a small nursing home nearby that the trio with him knew he’d been hit. The bullet went in the lower back and exited after brushing the urethra, leaving him bleeding profusely. The nursing home wasn’t equipped to treat the injuries and he needed to be moved to a hospital fast. A 30km journey on a metal stretcher in the back of an Omni ambulance on inexistent roads later, he was admitted to an ICU.
Investigations revealed that the terrorists were former ULFA operatives, who would kill innocent citizens, plant arms on them and claim the victims to be ULFA guerrillas to get the government’s cash rewards. Officials, including those from the administration and police, were allegedly involved in this scam. It was a haunting story that left us in disbelief and gave a whole new meaning to ‘enemies within the country’.
As we walked out of the tent to have dinner, every inch of the Tso Moriri skyline was filled with stars. It’s a sight you can only get when you leave our polluted cities and as we appreciated nature’s beauty, we also had a new sense of gratitude for the armed forces, our minds heavy with the knowledge of the sacrifices they make even unintentionally.
This would be my last day of the trip and with the weather giving us the first hot day in the past week, it was like nature was preparing me to get back into the daily grind. As our drive for Leh progressed, we passed by landscapes that we couldn’t appreciate in the darkness when we drove in. It was almost like we were in a Photoshop file, given how the scenery changed from jagged mountains to ones that were carved by centuries of wind erosion. Even the colours changed from brown to green to purple, making me wonder if the low oxygen levels were playing with my mind.
Soon, though, even the beautiful scenery leaves you jaded, so to keep spirits up, Bijoy ran an automotive quiz on the intercom. It was a rare occasion where Mahindra as a brand was even mentioned during the drive and it was nice to see that the experience was a far cry from a brand plug.
The rest of the drive remained uneventful, save for the lunch stopover at the Chumathang hot springs. This place is blissful even when the weather’s cold, but unless you have a personal vendetta against your skin, don’t touch the water.
As our drive took us closer to Leh, the air got a little richer with O2 but I found myself suffocated. After days spent driving through desolate, open spaces where nature showcases her best work, civilisation makes you cringe. “Ugh, so many humans!”, I thought to myself as we drove through the peak season-choked lanes of Leh. We parked up in the hotel and bolted for the hot showers that awaited. The evening was spent exploring the local cafes and street food and while this was my last day, the rest of the convoy would make its way to the Nubra Valley and Khardung La in the days to come.
The Mahindra Monastery Escape is an experience worth having. It’s a safe way to explore a region you must see before dying and great fun too, especially if you’re with your family. However, convoy driving comes with limitation viz where you can stop and taking pictures when convenient to you. It’s not the best way to explore the territory completely but it’s still one that’d have you come back for more.
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