It was a cold morning in Diskit with colder water to brush our already numb teeth. Despite the fact that we had to reach North Pullu only after 1100 hrs. the Crazy Old Man woke us up in the middle of the night. The evening before, we had learned the hard way that water heated for half an hour would reach to a temperature that would be referred to in Mumbai as saadaa paani. So without fussing over the numbing experienced by us at both the extreme ends of the alimentary canal, we got ready.
We assembled at the hotel dinning room with empty water bottles and equally empty stomachs. A brand new day and a brand new beginning. The host served us omelettes and parathas and we continued to live up to our tradition of exhausting the food supplies of every place that we ate at. We were also served a rare speciality beverage - warm water.
Water bottles and stomachs full, we started our journey back to Leh. The route was scenic and wound around endless mountains, valleys and rivers. North Pullu was a three-hour journey. Onwards, we would be passing Khardung La, the highest motorable pass in the world at 18380 feet above sea level. A day earlier we had clicked pictures there in the snow standing around a board, which clearly mentioned “No Parking”. It sure must be lonely at the top. From Khardung La, we had to reach South Pullu and then a one-hour drive to Leh.
We reached North Pullu at noon. The Army convoy from South Pullu was expected any minute. Needless to say, till it did arrive and pass us, we would have to wait at North Pullu along with other buses and trucks. Quite a few roadside establishments, which partially hid a clear flowing stream, were offering instant noodles for ready consumption. It was almost lunchtime and the singing had made us hungry. Surprisingly our stomachs had enough place to accommodate two to three plates of Maggi Noodles.
The Army Convoy was yet to arrive and it was already 1500hrs. We had passed time eating, drinking water from the stream, chatting up random military personnel and were suddenly out of interesting activities. I decided to play some fast songs in the bus and the group responded by dancing to them inside the bus, the driver responded by switching on the coloured lights in the bus and a large crowd gathered outside the bus wondering why the bus was gyrating like a car in some condom advertisement.
At 1700 hrs. we were informed that the Army Convoy would not be coming as it had snowed heavily near Khardung La and that we could now pass along with the other vehicles at our own convenience. Our bus travelled for less than an hour only to be stopped on the narrow road. The trucks ahead of us in line had stopped for reasons unknown to us. Possibly stuck by excess snow on the road. We had gained considerable height and were thereby drinking lots of water and eating sweets to fight altitude sickness.
By now we had gained expertise in over-eating but the water we drank was beyond our control. The snowfall made it worse and we had to relieve ourselves every few minutes. Soon we were out of water and some of us started showing symptoms of altitude sickness. Headaches, drowsiness, breathlessness, the works. Maybe we’d find some wood to burn outside the bus. The facts of the case were as under:
1) We were around 17000 feet to 18000 feet above sea level;
2) It was snowing;
3) Rocks and three feet of snow covering the road were the only things visible in torch light;
4) It was dark; and
5) The road was hardly 10 feet wide.
So … no firewood.
The bus drivers had a stove and a cylinder. They were glad to be of help and set it up in the aisle. A first batch of two to three guys donned their jackets and gloves and headed out with our empty water bottles to bring snow to melt into water. But the snow solidified in the bottles to form ice. Tiffin boxes were then used to get more snow. The snow was transferred to a partially cleaned steel vessel and heated over the stove. The first batch of warm liquid snow with a lot of impurities and a distinct rubber odour was consumed as fast as a tequila shot.
At the same time we decided to distribute chocolate for to the gang in order to get their energy levels up. The chocolate slab was so cold that it refused to break using bare hands. We had to strike it on the bus handlebars to each time we needed to break a small piece of chocolate. Eating chocolate and drinking water had by now initiated movements in the guts. Nine of us had to go take a dump in the snow. That experience is a separate story in itself.
We were out of water very quickly. I volunteered to go collect snow. I made sure that I collected snow from only the highest places possible to avoid human waste pollution. I was required to make three trips in that cold freezing night. After that I cooked us some water. Somehow it tasted less funny now. Maybe the vessel got cleaner. Maybe the previous team had collected snow from a much lower height. Just drink the damn water and stay alive!
At around 2230 hrs. we heard a knock on our bus door. Apart from the driver’s door and my last seat window, that door was the only opening in the bus that was not jammed due to frost. Two heavily clothed Army personnel informed us that they had come walking from Khardung La and efforts were on to restart the traffic movements. They also informed all guys above 18 years of age to be ready in case the bus needed to be pushed out of the snow. They even sarcastically called Ashwin a ‘Hero’ and asked him to wear some warm clothes and he promptly agreed and did the needful.
The traffic started moving in an hour. Slow but moving. We reached Khardung La at about 0130 hrs. and made it a point to wake up everyone who had wished to visit the souvenir shop on their way back. Our intentions were good but what could we do if the souvenir shop was closed at 0130 hrs. in the morning?
An officer of probably the Ladakh Scouts got into our bus and kept talking into his walkie-talkie. He was to accompany us to South Pullu as our hotel in Leh had alerted the authorities about the delay in our return. The road from Khardung La to South Pullu had absolutely no signs of snow, not even rains. It was much warmer than the other side of the mountain.
After dropping the officer at Sorth Pullu, our driver took us down to Leh by driving straight down the mountain and bypassing the winding road completely. We reached our hotel in Leh at 0400 hrs. Before sleeping the COM informed us that wakeup would be at 0830 hrs. A whole new day would begin in the next four hours.