Thursday, July 11, 2013

Day 7 : Streets of Philadelphia - Bruce Springsteen (Pangong Tso)

It was one of those really early wake up and get out of bed mornings that I just love to hate but for the first (and last time) on our entire trip we were not supposed to be riding at all today as our destination was Pangong Tso which is Tibetan for long, enchanted lake. I know, I know, the question on your mind right now is – Tso what? Ridiculously poor jokes aside, the organizers had arranged for two Xylos (MUVs) to take us from our hotel to the lake while our intrepid Australian biker, unofficially known as the Man who should have played Bane in the Dark Knight Rises (on account of his frankly massive biceps and scary physique) despite his wonderfully warm and friendly nature, and one of our guides hit the road on their bikes. 

Our first stop was for breakfast at Karu where we walloped down hot parathas and washed them down with tea as more than a handful of local dogs looked on in puzzlement and waited for some crumbs to drop their way. Well, we weren’t just any normal tourists, no siree! One half of My favourite couple of all time even went through all the trouble of feeding the dogs tasty biscuits until they, like us, could eat no more. This mutt didn’t seem to be too impressed though, he probably wanted chocolate cream biscuits or something. Fussy, I say!

Though we only had 150 kms to cover one way, it was a long drive and the company was quite frankly excellent. I had my favourite couple of all time, the Lady who could single handedly break down a Bullet and the other half of our Australian couple, the Lady who always seemed to skip dinner, along with me and we had quite the enjoyable drive as we went through multiple “Judgment Time” questions. What’s that you ask? It’s a set of questions that you ask other people with the disclaimer that whatever answer they give will be the basis of your eventual judgment of their character and taste (or lack of either as might be the case). It is actually a great ice breaker of sorts, not that we needed it given that we were into day 7 of our trip and by now we had more or less figured out one another with a fair degree of accuracy. The miles just kept rolling but we were blissfully unaware of this as we kept driving past mountain after mountain, all of them part of the Himalayan tricolore.

We had to stop a couple of times for the bikes to get checked and minor repairs to be done as well as for leak breaks. Now the good thing about travelling in the Himalayas is that you don’t have to really worry about taking a leak while you are on the road because the rest room facilities are present everywhere. Now I know you’re rather surprised because India isn’t really known for its rest rooms while travelling infrastructure, it’s something that has slowly improved over time but is nowhere close to what it really should be. You see, the reason why it isn’t a problem, is because out there, restrooms are known by another name “Into the wild”. 

While the name might be made up, the situation isn’t as you really have only one option and that is to look for some jagged rocks and go behind them to pee or if you are a highly shameless Indian guy you just stand by the side of the road with the least bit of regard for passing vehicles and their inhabitants. It’s obviously trickier for the women folk of course and on one of our stops they went off leaving us guys in the car with their colourful attire lying around. I was just starting to recover from the beating that my eyes had taken from the loud as a pack of wolves socks from day 3 when I saw this. Argh my poor eyes!

Now I thought I had prepared for this trip quite well but I learnt that there was quite a difference between what a guy considers to be essentials and what a girl considers to be essentials especially on a ten day outing like this. Take a look at this skin care kit that made its way out sometime on the way to the lake, in comparison all I had was a moisturizer and a sun block!

Pangong lake was finally within our sights but before we could get there we caught up with our bikers and were given a ringside view of Man who should have played Bane in the Dark Knight Rises standing up on his bike while he did a little jiggle with his bootie for his better half who was in the car with us! Despite all their protests, we know what we saw and stand by our story and have christened it the act of Brooming. It was a sweet gesture and I wouldn’t be surprised if we have Bollywood heroes brooming to and vrooming away with long haired lasses in upcoming Indian flicks. As we were just about to reach the shores of the lake, someone in the car exclaimed (with an air of finality too I might add) that the place wasn’t as blue as she had seen in the movies. Now now folks, get your heads out of the gutter!

Eventually though the cab did make its way to the right side of the lake and boy were we spellbound by how extravagantly the Man up above decided to grace this place with natural beauty. Pictures cannot and will not do this place justice. Not even in the least bit. The brilliantly blue lake and even bluer sky, the snow capped mountains that provided the perfect fodder for reflections (both of the visual and the spiritual kind), the flock of birds that were content with swimming around on the lake while being photographed all combined to make one absolutely brilliant visual masterpiece. 

While this place has become really famous after being featured in the climax of one of India’s most popular movies in recent times, what you see on the big screen for once has come close to translating the real beauty of this place which nonetheless has to be seen to be believed. Of course the fact that the camera crew used filters to enhance the ‘blueness’ of the whole place needs to be taken into consideration as well…. Just as we were leaving a large joint family came in and on spotting one of our bikes, an attractive young lady told her sister / cousin / friend “If only I could find a nice guy who would bring me here on a Bullet, I think I would totally fall for him”. All this while I stood not five feet away while clicking a photo. Life! 

Lunch was at the oddly named Pangong Peaceful restaurant that overlooked the lake and comprised of instant noodles (which apparently took a lot of time to prepare) or fried rice or chowmein. The highlight of our lunch though was the waiter who we were convinced was a zombie with his gnarled toes and really strange way of speaking. I kid you not!

By the time we had finished lunch one of our cab drivers told the guys that with the strong sun, there would be a lot of melting of the ice on the way and hence there probably would be small streams that would be difficult to cross. Now why the cabbie decided to tell us at the last minute is beyond me, however our guys were convinced that we needed to leave immediately to be on the safer side but we had to wait while the group from our van freshened up in the rest rooms (this for a change being the type that included walls). Soon we crossed the sign that we had seen on the way to the lake and which is something that just had to go up on this blog.

With the early morning start and all the clowning around at Pangong lake, exhaustion overtook us as we all caught some shut eye on the way back. Soon though we had to stop as our driver informed us that the cab had overheated and it needed to cool off. Not that much of a problem when you are on a road on a really high altitude mountain but funnily enough the engine refused to cool down even after five minutes of leaving it to run at idle. After checking the coolant level, I asked the driver to switch off the vehicle for some time to help it bring its temperature down but even that didn’t help. We physically checked all the hoses once again and cleared them before trying to start the car and proceed but five minutes later it began to heat up dangerously and we had to pull over once again. The other cab was supposed to have been behind us and should have caught up by now but it had in fact gone ahead and with no phone signal we couldn’t reach them to tell them about the engine problem.

We spent more than half an hour trying whatever we could to get the engine cooled and finally resorted to pouring some of our drinking water into the coolant bottle to fill it up. Even more worryingly though I noticed that both the rear tyres were dangerously low on air but our driver was confident that they would fill up as we kept driving. Errrr yeah, I’m still scratching my head on that one. We had expected the tour operators in the other cab to return and check where we were but there was strangely no sign of them anywhere. Memories of the tourists that we had seen who had been stranded overnight on one of the initial passes flashed through my mind but there was nothing we could do if it came down to it and we would just have to hope for the best.

"I was bruised and battered and I couldnt tell what I felt
I was unrecognizable to myself
I saw my reflection in a window I didn't know my own face
Oh brother are you gonna leave me, wastin´away
On the streets of Philadelphia"
Streets of Philadelphia - Bruce Springsteen
Eventually though we were good to go but I wasn’t sure that was a good thing as the road conditions were atrocious (we had slept through it on the way in) and we were tossing and turning around like a bunch of fruits thrown into a high speed blender. My left shoulder took the beating of lifetime and not wanting to risk any further damage I had no option but to sit without a seatbelt and bounce around even more. After what seemed like an eternity we managed to reach smooth roads and we even encountered some sheep that steadfastly remained rooted to the center of the road despite prodigious honking from all the vehicles. Someone joked that they were probably shell shocked by our two fast riders that had sped past them and the fright of their lives meant that they couldn’t move even if they wanted to.

As we drew nearer to Leh, it dawned on us that we were really late with the whole over heating delay and that we still hadn’t even received a phone call or a sms from the tour operators to find out where we were and whether we were safe. Given that there were three women in our cab, safety ought to have been their first priority but it turned out that they just returned to the hotel and waited instead. Again, I wasn’t a big fan of the it - will – work - itself out mentality (second time that it was happening) and some of the others were even more ticked off and rightly so. Fortunately everyone’s sense of humour hadn’t deserted them and we had another round of Judgment Time questions which was brightened up by the arrival of orange candy, the sort that I hadn’t sampled in around 15 years!

After reaching Leh, the organizers weren’t spared by some of our contingent and in the middle of all this the rest of the group that was patiently waiting for us thought that we had made alternate plans to head into Leh and shop for ourselves. Confusion Central! After sorting it all out, we hired cabs to take us into Leh once again for some last minute shopping before the market closed. We regrouped by around 21:30 and went back to the same place that we had gone to for lunch when we arrived in Leh, hoping that the good food would improve the moods of some of us. It turned out to be a big mistake as they took over an hour to deliver a couple of items and the Man who tried to beat sunburn got so frustrated by the delay that he stormed out of the place and went to the bakery below to treat himself to a massive donut and cheesecake before returning to his fresh out of the kitchen dinner. The day just seemed to have a never ending supply of drama!

We returned back to our hotel, some of us grateful that it was a comfortable bed that we were going to sleep in and not the back seat of a cab in the middle of a desolate mountain. It turned out that each time they stopped, the tour operators in the other cab kept seeing a cab that looked just like ours, many hairpins behind them and assumed that it was us all along though it never struck them to call and check why we were so late if that was the case. A grim reminder that anything could and would happen on this epic Himalayan adventure. 

Click here for Day 8 - Leh to Tso Moriri