ADVENTURE Neither altitude sickness nor snow-storms can keep BHAGYALAKSHMI KRISHNAMURTHY away

It’s taken me two years and five Chinese tents inside the LaC to write about my tryst with Ladakh. Calling it a trip would be an understatement. Of course, there are people who have experienced Ladakh more up-close than I have — bikers, trekkers and, of course, the jawans who defend the borders.

Ladakh was originally ruled by Tibetan Namgyal rulers and was wrested from them by a Kashmiri Dogra King in 1834. It became a part of India along with Leh and Kargil when the Instrument of Accession was signed in 1947.

Right from the time you sight the Himalayas from the plane, Ladakh is an experience. At 10,382 ft, the Kushok Bakula Rinpoche Airport is one of the world’s highest civilian airports.

To get acclimatised to the high altitude, we follow the prescription of minimal activity for the first 24 hours, avoiding sleeping during the day and having a limited fluid intake. On the first day, some of us are noticeably breathless and the others have a headache. The next morning, we are fine.

We begin with the Hall of Fame, a museum-cum-memorial to war heroes set up by the Army’s XIV Corps, and are thoroughly emotional at the end of it, humbled by the sacrifices of our soldiers. From there, we head to Magnetic Road, amazed as our car climbs up with the engine switched off, pulled by the magnetic rocks. At Gurudwara Patthar Sahib, we see the huge rock that legend says Guru Nanak supported on his back as if it were a blade of grass.

The river Indus

As we drive on, we spot the Indus River. Once a mere five-mark question in our history paper, it is a frothing, living entity that still nurtures the descendants of the earliest settlers. We are now at Alchi Gompa, one of the oldest monasteries this side of Tibet. At the Lamayuru Monastery, 10,334 feet high, a serenity descends on us as we hear the monks chant. But as we step out, a roaring wind almost blows us off our feet into a blue sky that seems close enough to touch. But what sets Ladakh truly apart is its high passes. La means ‘pass’; Ladakh being the Land of High Passes. By now we are acclimatised enough to brave Khardung La at 18,379 feet (reportedly the world’s highest motorable road) and Chang La at 17,590 ft (the third highest). Permits are arranged, woollens stacked on, oxygen canisters tucked in.

The soldiers tell us we cannot stay out for more than three or four minutes atop Khardung La, as we could suffer pulmonary or cerebral oedema.

Top of the world

The gigantic mountains fall beneath us as we climb up from 11,000 feet to heights we have never touched before. Here, the roads are covered with hard ice. When we reach the top, nothing we had read could have prepared us for the blinding snow and the roaring wind that makes it impossible to hear each other.

It’s a full seven minutes before we are pushed back into the car by some soldiers who notice our daughter looking pale. Within seconds, she is complaining of a splitting headache and overpowering drowsiness. Karma, our guide, insists she should not sleep and keeps her awake with with stories and questions. Once back at 14,000 feet, she begins to feel better.

It’s a suitably chastened and well-behaved group that climbs Chang La the next day, en route to Pangong Lake. This time, the vehicles in our convoy have chained their tyres as the weather is turning hostile.

Sure enough, within minutes, the weather changes dramatically. It starts snowing, gently at first and then in swirls. A few hundred yards from Chang La, with just one bend to go, Karma pronounces that it’s too dangerous to proceed. We return, driving in reverse all the way down the icy road from 17,300 feet!

Next morning, Karma tells us that a mere half hour after our descent, an avalanche struck the spot, sweeping away a fellow traveller from Bangalore.

Opinion is divided on Ladakh. Some find the scenery monotonous, the food not very palatable and the heights dizzying. It is sparsely populated and you can drive for miles without sighting a single soul. Then, there are those of us who will go back.