Finally in Leh
Day 11th, 22nd June, 2013
We finally got ready to ride to our most awaited destination, Leh-Ladakh. We got ready. Loaded the luggage on our bikes. Soon the smiles and excitement on our faces vanished. Avinash’s bullet just wouldn’t start. Avinash, Rajesh and I gave many trials but finally it started with a few more attempts from Rajesh. Our excitement came back with double force. We started our ride.
The road leading to Leh was very scenic and beautiful. We jumped with joy when we saw the board “Welcome to the first view of the Ladakh Valley and Indus river”. Soon we arrived at a junction from the road that was divided in three directions. We were at the “Shaurya Chakra RCC”. We had brunch there and left for Leh which was merely 49 Kms from there. The road had many twists and turns. We saw many army camps, Buddhist schools and monasteries on the way. We were looking for a garage owned by Mohan Sharma. He is a famous Bullet mechanic in Leh region. Ironically Rajesh’s Bullet broke down just 1/2 kms before the garage. Me and Avinash pushed his bike for a little distance and asked him to roll down his bike downhill to reach the garage. It was an illusion like that of a magnetic hill. The road that we believed was going downhill towards Mohan Sharma’s garage was actually a flat road and the patch at which we pushed the bike was an ascend. Avinash ran ahead and helped Rajesh to get his bullet till the garage.
Sight seeing in Leh
Day 12th, 23rd June, 2013
Me, Avinash and Maithili had decided to go for a sightseeing in Leh today morning. Rajesh and Kinjal had to stay back as their Bullet was not in good condition to ride. Rajesh was to go to Mohan Sharma to get his bike fixed.
Three of us set out for our sight seeing ride. We first visited Shey Palace which also was a monastery. It was built in the 17th century. We parked our bikes on the edge of a lake and started climbing the steps of the palace. On the right side of the steps there was a series of praying cylinders. These cylinders had many mantras carved on them. It is believed that when we rotate these cylinders, our prayers are listened to by the supreme soul. We followed the tradition and kept on rolling the cylinders as we climbed up on the steps. After about 10 mins of climb we arrived at the door of the palace. The door was wooden and the room beyond that door was dark. We could see a beam of golden sun-rays coming from a small window near the roof and illuminating the wooden floor. We had to wait outside the door for a long time as we noticed a very long line of people carrying some heavy stuff in a piece of cloth on their backs. We soon came to know that they were carrying the holy scriptures of Buddhism. These people one by one came out of the dark room and took a right turn to move to higher stories of the palace. I noticed local ladakhi people bowing to the people carrying the holy scriptures. Once everyone was out of the room, we removed our shoes and entered inside.
As soon as I entered that dark room, I felt as if I time-traveled back to the 17th century. This room had traces of the modern civilization. The only thing that looked new was a photo frame of the Dalai Lama. The entire room was built using dark-wood and was decorated using flower bouquets. On the right wall there was a big bowl which was filled with oil and in the center of the bowl there was a flame burning. There were a lot of oil bottles kept around this bowl which were the offerings from the visitors. We came out of the room and back to the modern world. From there we climbed up to the higher grounds of the palace. As soon as we came out of the room there was a huge red colored praying cylinder. On the higher ground there was another room which had an entry fee of 20 rs. each. Outside the room there were similar bowls of burning flame enclosed within a glass casing. We paid for the tickets and entered inside. There was a huge statue of Buddha with his eyes half shut, deep in meditation. Local people were offering their prayers. I noticed a small statue of goddess Saraswati in her Kali avatar. This made me realize that Hinduism and Buddhism share a deep connection with each other.
From there we walked to the outer edge of the palace. There were a series of monuments. Each monument looked like a pile of square blocks arranged on top of each other and there was another cone like structure. According to Maithili, there monuments were tribute to the five elements i.e. earth, water, fire, wind and electricity. Avinash and I walked towards these monuments to have a closer look. Maithili stayed back as she was afraid of heights and the path leading to these monuments had no barricades.
Met our new friend in Ladakh
From there we came straight down to our bikes. We did little more sight seeing and then headed straight to our hotel as we were feeling very hungry and thirsty. All five of us had brunch at the garden area of our hotel. Our hotel manager informed us that our permits won’t be ready as the DC office is going to remain closed today. That meant we had more days in Leh.
Maithili’s father works in All India Radio a.k.a “Akashwani” and had asked her to visit Leh Akashwani. So we decided to go to Akashwani office in Leh to spend our afternoon. Little did we know that this visit to Leh Akashwani was going to be one of the finest experiences of our road trip. We parked our bikes outside the radio station and went inside. Got our names written on the register. Then we walked towards the main building. I noticed radio antennas shaped like radio telescopes and pointing towards the open blue sky. I could see a beautiful view of the mighty Himalayas far in the distance behind these radio antennas.
When we entered the main building it seemed deserted. We only noticed Indian Army soldiers patrolling outside. We took the stairs and went to the first floor. We assumed that the office must be deserted because it was Sunday. As we reached the first floor we noticed an office cabin which was lit from inside. This cabin had a wooden wall in the front and a big glass window in a typical radio office style. We noticed a movement behind this glass window and saw a man with a fairly huge body frame wearing a light blue polo t-shirt and pouring water in a glass. Avinash asked Maithili to go ahead and make an inquiry. Maithili hesitated to go ahead and said “Let’s not go there, we’ll go back from here”.
“What’s the point in returning back after coming here so long to visit the radio station?” complained Avinash. While we were having this conversation the guy behind the glass window noticed us and gestured to us to come in. He was wearing a big and welcoming smile on his face. We entered his cabin. Anyone could die to have a office cabin like the Mr. Radio guy had. His cabin was spacious. It had two big glass windows in front and back. The front window is the one through which we could see a passage where we were standing a few moments ago. And the back window was what made his cabin so special to me. One can have a fantastic view of Leh town with snow capped Himalayan mountains in the backdrop. Pitch blue sky filled the remaining empty space of the view.
Mr. Radio guy had a live radio telecast audible in his cabin. He asked us to sit. He must have guessed that we were bikers by looking at the riding jackets that we were wearing. He asked us where we are from, which places we’ve been to and how we got here. When we learnt that we’ve been travelling on our bikes he seemed pretty impressed. We then introduced ourselves and he introduced himself as ‘Norboo’. He told us that he has retired as a radio station manager and has worked in Akashwani for more than 33 years. Currently he is working in the radio station on contractual basis because the radio station requested him to come back and handle the station. His expertise in the field must be very helpful for the radio station as well. Very soon four of us indulged in an interesting conversation. A person who was a stranger to us a few minutes ago, now appeared as a long lost friend. Mr. Norboo was in his 60s and three of us were in our 30s but this age difference made no difference at all in our conversation whatsoever. Mr. Norboo told us that there is no single village in Ladakh he hasn’t walked to. Yes he has covered every corner of Ladakh on foot. When he was young he had to roam around Ladakh for various reasons like taking interviews, covering some extra-ordinary activities taking place in any village and public awareness program on radio. During this he visited many villages and he came to know the problems faced by local villages. In these villages, people were surviving only on available livestock such as milk, butter, curd, meat etc. They had no idea about farming. Due to lack of vegetables in their food they suffered from vitamin deficiencies and a common problem among villagers was joint pain. Mr. Norboo taught the villagers how to cultivate crops. Now there are many villages in Ladakh which have experienced green revolution, all because of Mr. Norboo. He even told us that once he had walked to Leh, all the way from Darcha. We three were shocked after hearing this. We’ve experienced how difficult it is to travel from Darcha to Leh even on our motorcycle. We wondered how Mr. Norboo would have covered it on foot.
He told us that when him and his friend crossed the Tanglang-La and reached the base of the mountain, they were supposed to be escorted by a car which would take them to Leh. But it was the winter season and due to heavy snowfall the car could not make it in time, They were stuck there in the deserted land. They had carried enough food to last for only a couple of days. Eventually they ran out of food. The first thing they did was to make a shelter for them to survive in a snowfall. They gathered some bricks lying around and made a shelter. The next problem was food. They walked around in search of food and they came across an Army base camp. This was the same Army base camp where we had spent a few hours during the Avinash-Maithili rescue situation. This base-camp remains abandoned from October to April-May as temperature in those months drops to -30 to -40 degree Celsius. Mr. Norboo and his friend found some vegetables such as carrot, onions thrown in garbage by army soldiers. They collected it and brought it to their shelter. For two days they survived by boiling these vegetables with snow and making a soup out of it. After two days the weather cleared up and the car arrived to pick them up. Mr. Norboo told us that he and his friend still talk about it as it was the best adventure of their life.
Mr. Norboo is currently very socially active. He volunteers for many social services. He is actively involved in an orphanage run by Lions club. He told us about a couple from Pune and Hongkong who sponsored the education of 2 kids from the orphanage. Upon this Avinash and Maithili told him about our group and how we also take part in social services. They acquainted him with our past activities. We told him that we would like to help him in his mission. We took his contact details and decided to plan some kind of help once we reach Mumbai. We were really impressed by Mr. Norboo and the things he has done and achieved in his life. I told him that we consider ourselves very lucky that we got to meet him that day. He smiled very humbly on this. He continues by saying, “The route you have taken for your road trip i.e. from Manali to Leh is extremely difficult and it takes great deal of courage to ride on this route. I really appreciate it. The one who travels, learns a lot in life”.
Mr Norboo then took us for a tour of the radio station. We visited numerous studio rooms such as music room, live recording room, interview room. This was the first time we visited any radio station and saw all the recording facilities available there. While we were in a music room, I spotted a Mandolin and picked it up to play but it wasn’t tuned so I kept it back. Mr. Norboo showed us local Ladakhi musical instruments which resemble Dholak and Mridung. We then walked towards a huge window and were admiring the views of the mountains. Mr. Norboo pointed his finger towards one of the highest mountain peaks and said, “That’s the highest mountain peak in Ladakh and just a few days back I went for a trek on it.” He said that he started the trek at night and by early morning he was at the top. We could only imagine it. After finishing the radio station tour, we came out of the main building and then out of the Akashwani premises. As the photography was not allowed inside the premises, we requested Mr. Norboo to let us take a photograph with him. He joyfully agreed. We took photographs and while saying goodbye, Maiithili just inquired about the orphanage which Mr. Norboo had mentioned during our discussion with him. He said “The orphanage is close by, at a walking distance. Do you want to see the kids? We were surprised that the orphanage was so close by. So we happily agreed. We walked with Mr. Norboo on a road adjacent to Leh Akashwani. While walking we noticed some kids playing football on an open ground. Within 10 minutes we were at the orphanage. We saw many small kids playing around the orphanage. They noticed our arrival. Kids looked at Mr. Norboo with respectful eyes and at us with curiosity. Mr. Norboo introduced us to a small girl whose education was sponsored by a couple in Pune. We met many other kids as well. They all greeted us in an authentic ladakhi way by saluting and saying “Juley”. We greeted them back in the same way. We were served Mango juice and we sat on a bench in a mess hall of the orphanage. Avinash, Maithili and me offered our words of praise to a great man we had met.
“After hearing about the things you have done in your life, I really feel as if you are a one man Army. When we were in Mumbai, we felt as if Ladakh was calling us, as if we have some kind of a connection with this place. After meeting you this connection has grown even stronger”, I said to Mr. Norboo. To this Mr. Norboo just smiled humbly. He seemed to be a person who doesn’t like being praised so much.
” Can we get to talk to any Monk, spend time with him or have a conversation?” Avinash asked Mr. Norboo. Avinash, Maithili and I had been looking forward to meeting a monk in our Ladakh journey and talking to him because we share a keen interest in Buddhist philosophy. Mr. Norboo replied, “I can arrange a meeting with a person I know. He’s not a monk, he’s a professor and has done a deep study on Buddhist philosophy. He can definitely answer your questions. You do one thing, when you guys are back from your trip to the Pangong Lake, just give me a call. The next day early morning I’ll take you to a Buddha statue. We’ll spend some time there, have a cup of tea then you can have your question answer session with the professor.” We liked the plan and agreed on it. After spending some more time in the orphanage, we bid goodbye to the kids and Mr. Norboo and came back to the place where our bikes were parked.
Before seating on our bikes, three of us glanced at each other and said, “Wow”. We were surprised at the way in which the day unfolded unexpectedly. Who had thought that a visit to a radio station could turn out to be such an important event of our road trip. Three of us felt that we were destined to meet Mr. Norboo. I told Maithili to thank her dad on behalf of me for suggesting us to visit Leh Akashwani.
We came to our hotel room. Took a rest for a while and in the evening we stepped out to meet Sarfaraz. He was my colleague who had left the corporate world, came back to his hometown i.e. Ladakh and started a travel company. Sarafaraz had proposed to take us to Shanti Stupa. Since Rajesh’s bike was not in good condition, he rushed again to the mechanic. Kinjal stayed back in the hotel room. Avinash, Maithili and me went to the heavily crowded market area on our bikes. We picked up Sarfaraz from his office. I met him after many years and was happy to see him again. He sat on my bike and showed us the way to the Shanti Stupa. We first took a diversion to visit Sarfaraz’s cousin’s hotel. The hotel was beautiful. And once you are there, it is hard to believe that it is situated so close to the market. Sarfaraz’s cousin had set up a small farm in the front yard of the hotel. Avinash asked Sarfaraz’s cousin which vegetables he was growing in this farm. Sarfaraz’s cousin was standing on a higher platform of the front yard, from there he pointed out to various regions of the farm and told us which vegetables are being grown in that respective area. We took stairs and came to the lawn area of the hotel where Sarfaraz’s cousin was waiting to greet us. We shook hands and introduced ourselves. Sarfaraz’s cousin asked us to sit. There were four chairs positioned around a square bamboo-stick table and this setup was under a big beach umbrella. All of us sat there. We then got to meet Sarafaraz’s nephew and his sister-in-law who offered us hot tea. We saw a small tent setup on the lawn. Sarafaraz’s cousin told us that his foreigner customers like sleeping in the tent sometimes. They also like sipping hot coffee sitting inside a tent. We all then had a good conversation. Sarfaraz’s cousin told us about various aspects of Ladakhi lifestyle, his mountaineering expeditions, life on the border of India and China. During our conversation we told him about our meeting with Mr. Norboo. We came to know that he also knew Mr. Norboo. We realized that Mr. Norboo must be quite a famous and respected figure in the locality.
We left from Sarafaraz’s cousin’s hotel and rode towards Shanti Stupa. We were riding through narrow roads which had a similar impression to that of Goa due to the colorful shops on both the sides and all the hippie foreigners walking around. Soon we were out of the crowded Leh town and we were riding on the road which was passing through a plateau. Soon the road started ascending. We had a clear view of the Shanti-Stupa now. We reached the Stupa, parked our bikes and went up in the main monument. At first we came across a large hall which was a meditation hall. We saw a big Buddha statue on the opposite wall of the hall. Some people were sitting there idle, deep in meditation. The hall was dimly lit, giving it a very relaxing feel. We went further up and found ourselves standing on a huge open terrace. At the center of this terrace stood the famous Shanti Stupa. There were two staircases leading further up to the stupa. At the confluence of these stairs was a Buddha statue. On the other sides of the stupa were different events of Buddha’s life carved in the form of beautiful statues. We came down from there and strolled around the open terrace. We observed some waist length pillars which had red colored arrows on the top and a metal plate giving information about the place the red arrow was pointing at. Since Shanti Stupa was fairly at a good height, our sight could stretch till horizon and we could observe the entire Leh town in a single glance. We went to each red arrow and observed places like river Indus a.k.a. river Sindhu, Leh Palace, Khardung-La (Highest motor-able road in the world). At Shanti Stupa a silent chanting was being played. This chanting along with the accompanying music left us mesmerized. We could have spent hours sitting there in such a spiritual environment. But just as the celestial nymph Menaka broke the meditative form of sage Vishwamitra, our hunger pangs broke our short spiritual journey. We called it a day and left for our Hotel.