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 the Shiv mandir (temple of Lord Shiva) on a hill top. I wanted to return back to Leh that same evening but by the time I got to see the entire place, the departure time got delayed. Still, I wanted to visit the temple and hoped to return back quickly for the six-hour return journey to Leh. Three army men escorted me to the temple. Being a high-altitude region, the oxygen level here is very low and drinking plenty of water keeps the body hydrated. I hadn’t carried the water bottle with me to the temple. A mistake!
Severe weather had completely destroyed the once well-laid steps to the temple. We had to climb our way through rubble and loose rock. It took me more than 30 minutes to reach the temple after stopping every minute, gasping for breath. I wasn’t able to breathe through my nose and my throat was completely parched from a lack of water. 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. I had got to know that he had returned from the Siachen Glacier some days ago and was missing his family very much. I realized it too from his sad demeanour. The soldier asked me if I could visit the dargah too. The other two soldiers wanted to accompany him but 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 with the climb to the dargah. So I told him that I would stay back but the other two men would go with him.
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 rapidly, 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. It so happened that the man on the road was the driver of a 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 from the car to check the situation. I saw them pushing the car which refused to budge. One of them returned to tell me that the only option was to pull the 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 back to my SUV, one of the army men said to 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, 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 us to stop 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 the army man 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 thick fog made it difficult to see any approaching vehicle. 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!
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” …