In July-August 2010, I was visiting the heavenly destination of Ladakh in the state of Jammu & Kashmir in the northernmost region of India on a two-week holiday. I got unimaginable lucky on this trip, spending three incredible days in the august company of the Indian Army. Among other things, I got the opportunity to see the country’s Line Of Control (LOC) with Pakistan, the Bofors guns on field and the most memorable experience – a visit to the Siachen Base Camp! This is the place from where the Army mans the operations of the Siachen Glacier – the highest battlefield in the world, where the temperature goes down to -50 degrees C during winters.
Siachen Glacier lies immediately south of the great watershed that separates the Eurasian Plate from the Indian Subcontinent in the extensively glaciated portion of the Karakoram sometimes called the “Third Pole”.
At the Siachen Base Camp…
I was taken around the Base Camp and shown the black snout of the Siachen glacier, the war memorial, the soldiers’ training area, the facilities and equipment, etc. The programme also included a visit to a hilltop Shiv mandir (temple of Lord Shiva). I was to return to Leh that same evening. But I was already running behind schedule after covering the entire base camp. Still, I wanted to visit the temple and then start on the six-hour return journey to Leh. So, accompanied by three army men, I drove to the hilltop temple.
Severe weather had completely destroyed the once well-laid steps to the temple. We had to climb our way through rubble and loose rock.
Being a high-altitude region, the oxygen level here is very low and drinking plenty of water keeps the body hydrated. Unfortunately, I had left my water bottle in the car. I wasn’t able to breathe through my nose and my throat was parched. The three men got worried.
Inside the temple I sat cross-legged on a stone slab in front of the beautiful idols of Lord Shiva, his consort, Goddess Parvati and their son, Lord Ganesha. I did meditation for some time followed by the deep-breathing exercise, Pranayam. It helped and I felt better. One of the soldiers was a Muslim. He wanted to visit the Maula ka dargah near the temple. He had returned from the Siachen Glacier some days ago and was missing his family very much. He asked me if I would like to accompany him and the other two soldiers to the dargah. They couldn’t leave me alone because they were responsible for my safety. I was hesitant. I was dying of thirst and I didn’t want to tire myself again by climbing all the way to the dargah. So I told him that they could proceed without me.
While I sat there alone inside the temple, my conscience started pricking me. In the Indian Army, a soldier is not a Hindu soldier or a Muslim soldier…he’s an Indian soldier. I didn’t want to hurt any soldier’s religious sentiments. I had never been to a dargah in my life and since there was a first time for everything, I thought why not at Siachen! I got up immediately and climbed up to the dargah where the three were standing at the door, just about to leave. Since their backs were facing me, they were not aware of my arrival. When they heard me, they swung around in surprise.” I thought Maulaji would get angry at me so I came,” I said to the Muslim man. He laughed. “Nobody can get angry at you.”
By then, we had spent more than an hour and the men thought that the descent would take another forty minutes. The delay would mess the return journey. I assured them that the descent wouldn’t take long. The loose rocks made it a bit difficult to climb down, so much that I had to hold the hand of one of the men. He led the way for a few minutes while I was left thinking about my assurance. And then it happened…at some point I don’t remember I climbed down ahead of the guy holding my hand and leading the way. I kept moving down, almost dragging him with me while the other two men cautioned me to go slow as they tried to keep pace with us. We reached ground in almost 10 minutes and had to wait for five minutes till the other two joined us!
Somewhere away from the village of Sumur, on the return journey back to Leh…
We saw a Ladakhi man waving at us on the road. The driver of my hired SUV, also a Ladakhi stopped the car and a conversation ensued between the two locals. The other man was the driver of a stranded SUV carrying three foreign tourists, two of them women, and a local tourist guide. Their vehicle had got stuck in the loose, wet sand in the surrounding area. They had tried pushing the car out of the sand but to no avail. When we reached the place, the men got down to check the situation. I saw them pushing the car which refused to budge. The driver of my SUV returned to tell me that the only option was to pull the stuck SUV out of the muddy ditch and for this my car had to get closer to it. This meant running the risk of getting my SUV stuck in the mud too. I got out of the car. I refused to take the risk because I had to reach Leh that same evening and getting stranded in an isolated place was not something I was looking forward to. I told the others that we had try pushing the vehicle again. The general feeling was “if the seven of us couldn’t push it, how can your joining us help?” But they had no other choice as I was adamant. “You’ll see for yourself that when we push, the car will move.” The driver got into the SUV and we positioned ourselves to give the car a hard push. On the first push itself, the car moved a bit. We pushed again and much to our joy with a sharp sound the car sprung out of the mud. There were loud shouts of happiness and the two women started dancing. “Where are you from?” asked one of the women. Returning to the SUV, one of the army men told me, “Madam, there’s magic in your hands.” He was the same person whom I had almost dragged down the hilltop with me from the Shiv temple.
Driving through the Khardungla Pass in darkness…
An hour later, after dropping the army man at his destination, we continued on our journey. Earlier the middle-aged driver had on more than one occasion told me that he was feeling unwell. He wanted me to make a halt at an Army camp for the night and start the journey the next day because he didn’t want to drive through the Khardungla Pass (at 18,380 feet, the world’s highest motorable road) in the dark.
The narrow two-way road was prone to landslides during bad weather and we had experienced rain showers on the way. But I had to reach Leh that same day. I told him we would make short halts for Ladakhi tea on the way to refresh him. He thought that my army escort would be able to make me change my mind because the latter was trying his best to dissuade me from continuing with the journey, suggesting that we halt at an Army camp for the night. He must have tried his luck at least ten times but his efforts were wasted on me.
The road had become wet and slippery and the thick fog made it extremely difficult to see approaching vehicles. Huge rocks and loose stones on the road had already made it difficult to drive.
Dusk had fallen. There were many tense moments as we drove in the dark in silence. Chances of getting stranded in the mountains till the next morning were very high. Still, I assured the men that we would soon reach Leh safe and sound. And we did! The icing on the cake was the beautiful sight of the amazing starlit sky and the scenic view of Leh dotted with lights far below. It was a feast for the eyes. The driver who had been tense and nervous earlier was very happy that he had accomplished something he had never done before – covering the longest distance in his life as a driver, driving in the dark through the Khardungla Pass and the best of all, getting an opportunity to visit Siachen Base Camp!
As for me, I had one of the most amazing experiences of my life in Siachen and Ladakh.
And it’s all thanks to my belief that “IF I KNOW I CAN DO IT, THEN I CAN DO IT” …
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