May 2, 2016 Siddharth Tanti

Romancing the Indus

The idea of a romance has always appealed to me in a way I have seldom managed to define. It holds a special fascination for me, fills me up with a strange longing that nothing else can. So when I dreamt of Ladakh, I did not envisage that it could hold something for me that would take me away to that faraway place that this wanderer’s heart had always imagined. But, to my sweet surprise, it did, and then a bit more.

I had never been to Ladakh, only heard, seen or read about it – in biker diaries, in pictures, in dreams, in tales and in the eyes of the hopeful. But this time it was a bit different; it was me in the picture, in the story, in the dream. My life on the road began on 29th August – my sister’s birthday. My phone refused to wake up to the call of need, and my wishes and love for sister dear had to be communicated through a friend’s phone, who was soon to leave in a way that was unexpected, but that’s a different story. So, there we were, all ten of us Rocky Feet, and one conscience: Project Conscience.

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We started off from Leh onward to Spituk, the last road head on our long walk that would take us to what was some kind of Shangri La for me, Kang Yatse. It was to be my to-be-first attempt at scaling a 6000+ meter mountain, to be the hero atop the mountain, to take my maiden stab at being one of the greats. I was as excited as my heart would allow me to be, and I was accompanied by that vague feeling of inexplicability that grips me every time I have decided to heed the mountain’s call. Mandatory phone conversation with Maa and Pa done, I was now a part of the army now, and I was off to battle, one that I didn’t know would change a part of me, or give birth to a new side of me.

We start walking at 9:15 am, clearing up garbage of the plastic kind as we walk; Project Conscience has come to life by the roadside of a remote Ladakh village. We are what we call Rocky Feet, a bunch of mavericks, some real, some want-to-be-real, who want to make a difference to this world. The how might be a bit unclear, but the why is undoubtable – we want to be who we are; not answerable to the call of the urban world, not bound to belong. What is heartbreaking to notice is the amount of colorful plastic waste by the wayside, a color that these mountains don’t need. Humans have left their mark everywhere, not as explorers but as plunderers of this pristine land.

What started off on Day 1 soon took us to Day 6, winding through five days of breathtaking sights and otherworldly smells, unfailing experiences and unforgettable lessons. River crossings, ragged scraggly mountains, dry arid valleys, unending walks, almost-at-the-edge-of-sanity states of mind, and sore feet are constants in an ever changing landscape of rock, sand, sparse vegetation, and wild colors. I have never seen such captivating scenes of clouds romancing each other, of making my mind dream of the one who I never thought I would dream of, and I know I’m in love.

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The Day Numbered 7: A Day I Write About in Special Mention

4 September 2012, 12:32 am: An iconic day; for I was to get a little closer to the gods in a while from now. Summit day starts suddenly at 11:45 pm of 3 September, when we are awakened in our tents; it’s time to get ready for the final assault on the mountain. I stumble out of my sleeping bag, put on my head lamp and peer out of the tent. The camp’s suddenly come to life in the middle of the night; the kitchen tent is buzzing with activity as our cooks put together our tiffins for the 13 hour walk that lay ahead of us. Outside, in the bitter cold, we ten get ready. There is an air of tenseness around me, some kind of a silent uncertainty, but a palpable feeling of veering into the unknown. For me what lies ahead is some kind of a great unknown, a great big void of darkness; but somewhere out there lies a part of the truth puzzle, a part that is important, a part that I know nothing about yet.

We set out at 12:32 am; I am wearing and carrying everything that I had memorized the day and night before – my warmers, gear & equipment, food, water, and some faith. As we walk, I see the lights of the ones ahead of me and the ones behind me – their headlamps glowing eerily in the dark. We walk, and one by one seven members fall away, some from exhaustion, some from lower morale. Three of us keep going; in the night’s darkness, the mountain is silent, the snow reflects the moonlight and we keep conversation to minimum, spare a word asking how each is doing. It’s biting cold and the wind is blowing, as we keep pushing towards the top. We hit the snow at 5:45 am, rope ourselves up and take on the steep slope that leads up to the summit. As the last in line, I look down below and I feel the first pang of fear. This is another place, another life for me: as I kick in my feet into the snow and walk along the footmarks that the ones ahead of me have made while walking through the snow. We climb, take a moment to rest after ten steps to catch our breath – walking in snow is an exercise that you will not know of unless you walk it. My mind is blank as I keep walking; the only thing I can think of is the top, the next ridge, the next challenge. As we near 6000 meters, the unexpected happens; Void and Sayantan say no, no more. We decide that this is as far as we go, shy of 200 meters but still there.

From the top, the world is like a blanket of white down below, the ground is far below, and my spirit is flying up in the sky. Eagle not, but close, and without wings…

We start our descent in mixed feelings as dawn breaks and the sun creeps up the sky, bathing the landscape in pure, mellow rays. I somehow didn’t want to hang around there anymore, I wanted to come down, and I did. I descend to reach base camp in two hours, I look up at the mountain that I almost had, and then slowly the day segues into a elaborate tale of our efforts, feelings, experiences and sorrows of the previous night, as the other folks who had come down earlier crowd around. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6…

Three more days follow as we wind our way down to civilization; through Nimaling, a valley of mind-numbing beauty, and an endless sense of space; through Kongmaru La Pass at 5200 meters, down to Choskurmo to Sang Psunmdo, and then on to Leh. We feel like lunar walkers who have landed among earthlings again…

 

Ladakh is a place like no other, an affair to remember, a muse that refuses to let go, a love that refuses to leave your mind. Its people, its places, its voices, its faces are all that I have with me now, captured in my pictures and seen through my mind’s eye. It was a dream that I have lived through, walked through, danced through. It was as though my romance with the Indus has found a new life, a new hope, a new entity, a new eternity…

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