It was four of us; Poth, Chachan, and Ringo ( read as not important) besides myself. Chachan has already been to Ladakh a year before. He was planning to give the trip a miss this time, as he was still recovering from a knee surgery. Nevertheless, after repeated emotional blackmail and badgering (and a promise of taking full responsibility of his fragile knees), we managed to get him on board.
The whole idea of the trip was to give Poth a memorable send off before he leaves India to pursue higher studies in Germany.
Delhi airport was our meeting point. On 18th September 5.30AM, we boarded the flight to Leh. All of us opted for the window seats to get a good view of the majestic Himalayas. Half of the seats in the plane were empty. I smiled to myself thinking the date of the travel turned out to be perfect. The season just got over and the tourist footfall was tapering off.
I don’t like crowded places, and ‘tourism businesses’ more often than not kill your holiday mood. Choosing this time of the year to travel meant, I could, we could, do away with many such inconveniences.
The view of the Himalayas from up above is equally breathtaking as it is from the ground zero. Make it a point to get a window seat, if you ever fly above the Himalayas. It’s a view you don’t want to miss. I peered through my window and the morning light cut through the heart of puffy clouds to touch the peak of Himalayas. I could see the icy rivers snaking through the valleys lined with frozen lakes. We couldn’t see any road or a living creature from up above. I thought to myself “Which part of Himalaya will be this. Will I be riding through these valleys? I wished I had wings as the blue sky filled my eyes.
We touched down at Leh at 8am. The airport is small. We met Mehboob Bhai- a local tourist guide, who runs own business outside the airport. He arranged a room for us.
We had breakfast and started to chart our course for the following days. Opinions came from all quarters, especially from Ringo. Literally, he had a ‘killer’ plan in his mind. I sensed danger. OK! The alarms started going off. The guy wants to achieve the impossible; cover all the places in 6 days.
Meanwhile, Mehboob Bhai gave us a map of Ladakh and advised us to start with Tsomoriri lake. Hearing this, Ringo said,”Yeah, we can add the lake too”. I threw a sideways glance at Poth. Our eyes met. His eyes said ‘Roger’. Message received. The seasoned Chachan explained Ringo about what lies ahead: the curve balls road can throw at us. He briefed us on his last Ladakh trip and how it ended up as a racing competition. Made sense to me, after all, we’re not here for a bike rally.
The night ride is not advisable in Leh as the roads are in poor condition and the terrain is unfamiliar. Moreover, we’ve not experienced riders.
I believe every trip is an opportunity to forget your routine and unwind with your best friends. How would you feel if you have to get up at 6 am for the ride for the next 6 days? One or two days are fine as we have ground to cover, but every freaking day? I just don’t see the point. It feels like the alarm is setting the itinerary for us. I wanted to turn the alarm off. This isn’t right. I threw a look at Poth; he was indulging another selfie. (%^&*er)
Leh greets you with nipping cold and splitting headaches, and in my case, it was throw-up (say the day). Acclimatization blues. Dog tired from the previous day’s ride, everyone slipped into a peaceful sleep. We woke up in the evening and had our dinner. Then we proceeded to the Leh market for thermal wears.
The market was chock-full of tourists and monks. Women ran about 60% of shops around here. Mehboob Bhai said women in Leh deserve the credit for keeping the market in pristine order. Reminded me of the quote: “The most effective tool for development is women empowerment”.
We picked up some beer and a bottle of wine for the evening. Mehboob Bhai had already arranged bikes for our ride. The bikes were OK. Chachan said it’s best to go for a good bike, even if it comes at a premium. Mehboob Bhai also told us not to take the bikes if we are not cent percent positive about the beast’s health.
Next morning we went for bike-shopping at Leh market. Mehboob bhai had given us a few references. We took two 500 cc bullets and one classic 350. Then Ringo weighed in with his expertise,”don’t take three bikes, take just two”. We all wanted to ride alone, only Chachan was allowed to ride pillion because of his condition. The bike guy was charging 1,100 for 500CCs and 900 for 350 CC. Besides, he wanted us to ink the deal for the whole 6 days. We didn’t agree to it, as we weren’t sure about the bike’s condition. Just before we were about to shake on the deal, Chachan pulled another rabbit from thin air. He found a bike dealer who was ok with our conditions. I felt bad for our bike guy, but Chachan consoled me, “Ït’s all in a day’s work”.
Hemis monastery is located around 50km from Leh on the Leh-Manali highway. The largest monastery in Ladakh follows Tibetan Buddhism. I have zero knowledge about Buddhism and the only thing connecting us to the fourth largest religion in the world is that we share the same country of origin. We all wanted to visit the monastery and know more about Buddhist traditions and rituals. I could never have the same excitement while visiting a church, a temple or a mosque. We are all on our Karma trip. And what better way to seek the path than make a beeline for a Buddhist monastery. I don’t believe in god but I am curious about the inner workings of religions across the world.
Meanwhile, inside the Buddhist temple our focus shifts to the prayer wheels. The prayer wheel is an ingenious invention. It sounded way better than the colorless hallelujahs.
Hemis monastery shone like a beacon celebrating the biggest festival of Himalayas- Naropa. Thousands of monks were milling about in their saffron robs.
The ‘Kumbh of Himalayas’ happens once in 12 years. People from all over the world, including celebrities from the film world, attend the festival. I heard that 2,500 nuns had come from Tibet in bicycles. The six born ornaments of Naropa was on display along with the 60-foot tall silk embroidery of Buddha Amitabha. We visited the monastery and the nearby shops. Many had set up camps close to the monastery. Most of the old guys care armed with praying wheels. We thought ourselves to be lucky to attend the festival.
One of the volunteers told us that the ornament on display is ‘crown’, one of the six ornaments and the rest is in a locker as they are only displayed during the opening ceremony. The crown is believed to be made from the hairs of tooth fairies.
We went to the main stage behind monastery where the cultural festival was taking place. The front rows were reserved for VIPs and monks. We were only allowed to sit in the back rows. Without knowing that, I moved to the front row but somehow wasn’t stopped. Thanks to the DSLR I was carrying, I was mistaken for a press corp. I started clicking pictures amidst media photographers.
The cultural programs included traditional dances and songs by local people and followers. Shanker Ehsaan Loy was scheduled to give a performance in the evening. All on a sudden, I realized that my friends must be looking for me as I had drifted away from the group a while earlier. But I didn’t want to leave the spot because it offered the perfect view. Then I saw Chachan going to the back of the stage and chatting with the volunteers. He was heading for the announcer deck to look for the missing friend.
I took his pictures too. Then I followed him in tow. At first, my friends were irate, but the photos I managed to click made them happy. We stayed back for a while listening to the music. Then Chachan told us about Thiksey monastery and said we can attend the prayers at the shrine. Thiksey is one of the main monasteries in Ladakh and the architecture of the monastery holds quite an appeal. It is located 20km away from Leh in the Leh-Manali highway. However, we couldn’t make it to the prayers. We went to see the monastery premises. The monastery bears resemblances to the architecture of Potala palace in Lhasa, Tibet- the former official seat of Dalai lama-(Thus the name ‘mini potala’). While turning the giant prayer wheel at the entrance of the monastery, a foreign monk pointed out that we are rotating it in the anti-clockwise direction (against the usual practice).
She told us one rotation of wheel equals tantamount to chanting the holy mantra ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’. The mantra is etched in the wheel.
Poth got so attached to the praying wheel that every time he saw a wheel he put it in motion. The mantra seemed to have worked its magic on him. The shop near the monastery had a variety of traditional items. While we were browsing the curious, my friend pointed out to singer KK in the shop. Seeing our riding gear, KK asked about our trip and we had a small chat with him. He had come for Naropa festival. We said ‘Alvida’ to KK and headed for Leh.
We already told our room boy, Javed, that we will be having dinner from outside. We went to Leh market. The market was brimming with shoppers. Chachan told us about the famed mutton stick Kabab in a local restaurant. We decided to give it a try and we weren’t disappointed. The delicacy had us all (craving for more).
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