The idyllic environs of the Adventure Camp in Sarchu could not compensate for the absence of sleep through the night. The thin air made breathing difficult and as the night progressed demons seized my mind. I started imagining ailments I had read about and it sowed strong seeds of doubt if I would be able to complete the trip. It would be duplicitous on my part if I said that I was not scared. I was, but I was equally resolute about succeeding in the ‘task’ on hand.
Power supply and communications are not available since Sarchu is habited only between May and October. Thus, the season is just for about 5 months. All life forms migrate lest they become victims of the harsh winter. I had borrowed a torch from the camp the previous night to attend to the morning chores; the genset is switched off after dinner. However, I did not anticipate the non-availability of water. When challenged, make the best use of the available resources. I ‘raided’ the dining tent and collected all the bottles that had water in them. Since 30 campers had dined in the tent the previous night I had enough water for the necessary; bathing and shaving were not part of the agenda.
After Ajay certified the start of my onward journey at 4 am I cautiously shifted gears for the road to Pang. It was pitch dark and I picked the road only with the headlights. And within about 10 kms I lost my way! My headlights picked up nothing beyond a certain patch of the road. I got down to survey the road with the help of a torchlight. What I saw was a precipitous drop into a river! Where was the road to Pang – it seemed to have vanished. I drove back a 100 metres and caught the headlights of another vehicle in the opposite direction. I stopped it as it came close and understood from the driver that I had to take a hairpin bend where I found the road missing.
Sarchu is at 4200 MSL and Pang is about a 150 metres higher. However, between the two the road passed through at almost 17000 feet. The air got thinner. I found it difficult to even get out of the car. Breathing was laborious and the landscape stark. For almost two hours of the three hour drive the outside temperature was between 1 and 0 degree. Add to that the wind chill factor and one can image how forbidding the atmosphere is. The mountains are evidence of the art that Mother Nature is capable of. The wind sculpted terrain is like no other in the country. The eco system is fragile - hardly anything grows there. To say that I felt lonely is to understate the emotions. Imagine a situation where there is no help if you want it and with no means to communicate if you had to. It is challenging; it is not untrue to state that the 80 kms from Sarchu to Pang is the most challenging I have been on in India.
I was relieved to get to Pang – just because of the proximity of life. To just know that there are others you can talk to, to seek help from, to laugh with provide relief. I imagined what Adam felt like when he awoke from deep slumber to find Eve – he must have been relieved. The snake and the apple were not on his mind then! There were numerous bikers having breakfast in the makeshift dhabas. I located the army camp – the transit camp at 15560 feet is reportedly the highest in the world. The sentry spoke to someone inside the Camp and I was asked to go to the Mess and have breakfast, while waiting for the Commanding Officer. I met a couple of JCOs while being served parattas and tea. From them I learnt more about the harsh climatic conditions in Pang – it is one of the driest places in India. One of the JCOs who had served in Siachen considered the air in Pang more challenging. Major Srivatsava was kind enough to certify as required and within an hour I was on the road to Upshi. When he came to know that I was ‘racing’ to beat a deadline he felt apologetic about the hour I lost in Pang.
One of the JCOs had described the road to Upshi in detail and I found it that way. Theer were numerous diversions through sandy desert – in many places it felt like a desert rally with sand kicking up on the windscreen and a huge cloud of dust behind. The road has to be taken during the day for there are no directions about the diversions. Nearly 60 kms of the 140 kms is in bad condition. Work is going on in many reaches. On the way I passed Lachung La and Tanglan La – the second and third highest motorable passes; the first being Khardung La at 18500 feet. The chilly winds bit into me and I only stopped for a few pictures.
About 20 kms short of Upshi the mountains become a visual delight – red, green, brown, deep yellow, grey and combinations of them made me stop the car many times to photograph them and marvel at His creations. On the bend into Upshi the first glimpse of the Indus River is equally fascinating. The ASI in charge of the Upshi check post gladly certified my entries; one has to make entries in the check post register also.
I left Upshi at 12.30 pm and belted on the road to Leh. I could have reached Leh in under a half hour for the 48 km road was very good. But, I stopped on numerous occasions to speak to the concerned in Leh for the mobile connection came alive in Upshi. Karu, the village en route to Leh, is green. Organized farming is visible in large tracts.
I ‘reported’ at 1.30 pm along with Abhinav Choubey of Muthoot Finance and Tashi Gyalson, an advocate in Leh, to the office of the Assistant Commandant of the CRPF for the certification of the end of the journey. I had done the 3811 km journey in 129 hours and 30 minutes – almost 20 hours less than the prevailing record of 149 hours and 25 minutes. The journey took me through 11 states plus Delhi and Chandigarh. The sweetness of the achievement cannot be expressed adequately in words, but this much must be said - without His care, the commitment of the Muthoot Team, the assistance of Tashi, the prayers of near and dear ones and the superb performance of the car the achievement would not have been possible.
Tashi arranged for a meeting with the PTI representative in Leh and the evening was spent settling down into the Circuit House, which was arranged by Mishra, the AC CRPF. I looked forward to good sleep to compensate for the loss of it the previous night.