Monday, July 08, 2013

Day 5 : War - Edwin Starr (Leh)

Aaah, now this was more like it. The trip organizers had given us a break of sorts from all the riding and a whole day lay in front of us in which we probably had 20 kms to cover, if not less. The plan for the day felt like a proper mini vacation that ironically lay in the middle of a rather tiring but long holiday, at least by my company’s not too lofty leave standards. The Man who tried to beat sunburn mentioned that the very sound of the thump of the Bullet’s engine had his posterior automatically send warning signs to his brain. I would like to christen it the Bulleted Numbed Bum syndrome but I’m sure there a scientific name for it somewhere. It was in many ways, his body’s silent equivalent of the “Danger, Will Robinson” quote from the 1960’s television show Lost in Space.

Breakfast was a languid affair, the sumptuous spread was more than adequate and our stomachs were left with no reason to complain whatsoever. Given that it was a nice warm sunny day, we decided to laze around outside (after having applied copious amounts of sunscreen that is) and we enjoyed just sitting out there like basking in the sun with not a worry on our minds as we talked about the whole trip so far and what lay ahead. There always seemed to be a helicopter from our armed forces somewhere in the vicinity and the noisy rotors were something that we would hear quite a few times while we stayed in Leh even if we didn’t always spot them. 

Soon someone hit upon the idea of playing dumb charades and as more of the group tricked in after their late morning wakeups, the fun quotient started to pick up. We settled for movies, an area that would have both our Indian and foreign riders equally at ease and started off with fairly easy ones that were guessed within a few minutes. Of course, not everyone was proficient at the game, which meant that some of the actors spent half a minute or so to think after they had started, which the guessers naturally thought was part of the acting. Hence we had names like “The Statue” and “The Stone Man” as some of the not too illustrious guesses. Things became a lot harder once we assigned movie names to the chosen actor with a list of terms and conditions including their inability to use certain clues that would give away the movie names easily. Oh yeah, this was one of those T&C apply* games. 

Eventually though the warmth started getting a bit too much and a few of us retired to the cooler confines of the insides of the hotel lobby. Some of the organizers had gone into town in the first half to arrange for all the required permits and finalize the paperwork and we waited for them to return so that we could head out for a late lunch. The restaurant that we were taken to had an interesting menu and quite the assorted crowd, something that we hoped was more a testament to the quality of their food and not the lack of decent food outlets in Leh. It didn’t disappoint one bit (except for the sample of yak cheese that tasted quite like regular cheese) and we walked away with quite the sense of satisfaction having spent the afternoon walloping down good food that was enjoyed with even better company. By now we were all well on route to becoming thick as thieves and it wouldn’t be an unfair statement to say that we had a ton of fun everywhere we went. 

After returning to the hotel, we freshened up and after our first round of group photos (unbelievable considering how many photos we would have clicked so far) and hopped onto our bikes to visit a few local attractions – Shey Temple and the Kali Mata mandir (a temple dedicated to Kali, the goddess of death). One thing that you will notice while riding through Leh is how blessed it is in terms of being surrounded by nature’s remarkably raw beauty and while I have talked about magnificent views and jaw dropping sceneries in my earlier posts, there was something different about Leh. In some ways it felt as though the Man up there decided to take a break, took a fancy to this middle of nowhere place that we humans would one day call Leh and decided to grace it with by far his best work in a while before he moved on to completing the rest of the world with creations that weren’t as inspired as this.

On our way to Shey Palace, we crossed the War Memorial and some of us made a mental note that we needed to visit this sometime the next day. The board by the Archaeological Survey of India (Mini Circle Leh) at the base of Shey Palace was rather informative but it ended with the following half completed sentence “In the month of summer two festival…”. Seriously! Surely we aren’t supposed to imagine the rest of the history lesson, now are we? The bright evening sun (something that I was still to get used to) gave Shey Palace and the adjoining shrine a wonderful feel but the highlight of the visit was us quietly walking into the inner sanctum that contained a copper gilded statue of Lord Buddha that was three storeys tall and then having the calming silence broken by the ringing of the cellphone of a monk who was till then sitting motionless and hence off our radar. Gave me quite the fright! 

Our next stop was at the local mechanic in Leh to get one of the bikes checked which is where we spotted these young ones on a cycle who were obviously learning about commuting on two wheels the old fashioned Indian way – with three people on board. Now this is something that we have all done in our childhood and if you haven’t, you really don’t know what you have missed. Definitely not recommended on motorized two wheeled transport! 

Kali Mata mandir was next on our agenda and the nice short ride there was sufficiently long enough to keep the bikers in us happy but also short enough to keep our slowly recovering bodies free from complaints as well. Once again we crossed multiple army camps before we rode up to the mandir and the view from there was just astounding. The snow capped mountains in the background, snow free ones in the foreground and a lit up small town enveloped by a gorgeous blue sky looked more like a surreal painting that had come alive in front of us. There were a ton of prayer flags at the temple and we spent a good amount of time trying out some crazy angles and weird poses that will hopefully never see the light of a social media day. I can only imagine the scandal it will create! 

From our relatively high vantage point, we could spot choppers circling around Leh, their persistent drone a constant reminder of the fact that our brave men and women in uniform are protecting our nation around the clock while most of us are blissfully unaware of the sacrifices that they make. 

"War, huuh, 
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing"

War - Edwin Starr

We were riding back to the hotel in a single file and I was following My favourite couple of all time when I realized that they had missed the turn into the lane that led to our hotel (to be fair to them it was a pitch black sky and the only lights we were our individual headlights and that of the rear lights from the bikes in front of us) because they ended up following the rear lights of a scooter that had crept into our line and continued riding past the hotel. I stopped to let the others know that they should continue into the hotel (seeing as they were like 50 metres from the front gate) while I left to catch the couple. I went ahead and instead found the scooter turning into a nearby house. 

Now I could’ve sworn that it was a Bullet that was in front of me but there was no sign of them anywhere and I couldn’t see the light of their bike on the road ahead either. Puzzled, I moved forward until I reached a T bend and went down the right but there was absolutely no trace that they had been on that deserted back road at all. I slowly returned back to the hotel and found that My favourite couple of all time was actually missing though for the life of me I couldn’t figure out where they had gone. Suffice to say that I wouldn't have made it onto the Three Investigators - Leh'ing In Wait series. And no, before you search for it, that's isn't a real TV series. 

One of our guides went off in search of them after I described until where I had gone but returned empty handed 15 minutes later. By now I was starting to get more than a little worried as the roads were completely deserted and we had tried reaching them but there was no response. Our guides felt that they were sensible enough to find their way back and we needn’t worry (not that I would ever doubt the capabilities of My favourite couple) but I disagreed cause I felt that this wasn’t the sort of thing you would leave to chance and wanted them to go back out to search but fortunately they rode in a couple of minutes later. Seeing the smiles on their faces, it almost looked as if they had gone on a little joy ride to get away from all of us! Hmmmm I wonder  ..... 

Over dinner we heard about how one of our foreign riders was hit by a case of food poisoning while riding and how fortunate he was that he had an open face helmet. What I heard next by a fellow foreign rider has to be the undisputed single greatest line I’ve heard in a very long time (and this is including what I myself say so you know its up against stiff competition!
He isn’t a fan of curries anyways and it tastes much worse when it goes out as compared to when it goes in....

Post dinner I sat down with the organizers for a while as they were telling me about how their group would get split the next day with some of our international riders heading off towards the lovely Nubra valley with a guide and back up vehicle while the rest of us would be in Leh and then begin our return to Manali. We had the world’s highest motorable pass on our agenda for the next day and despite the relative inaction for the day, the dreamless deep sleep, overtook me before I even knew it. 

Click here for Day 6 - Khardung La

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