The magic of the mountainside


As a rule, I desist from using superlatives.

There is a danger in strewing them around insouciantly. The reader encounters one, then the second superlative. By the time she reaches the third, a discontent starts brewing, like when one forces yet another sweet down though the tongue does not enjoy the taste as much as the earlier ones. If she encounters a fourth one, she starts questioning the credibility of the author’s narrative. Come on, she thinks, nothing can be that good. Now the author’s just trying to enliven reality. Another superlative, and the reader bids goodbye.

I often wonder how much I can tweak around my self-imposed limits when describing Ladakh. One day I write about the scenery in a place I visit in the most glowing terms, only to discover a far more magnificent spectacle awaiting me the next day. But Ladakh is such a place that, even unwillingly, admiration is elicited even when I think of what I’ve seen. The mind struggles to imprison memories of the munificence that nature has endowed this place. Utterly inhospitable, and yet so inviting, frigid temperament and yet generating a warmth in the senses – these incongruities seem perfectly at home.

As I sit and think of the drive to Chiling, the village we were to survey on Tuesday, a montage of images spring to mind, and a sense of peace prevails.

Having seen the same hills surrounding Leh, I longed to get out and make acquaintance with more distant ones, much like one wishes to meet a friend from another nation to prevent sameness from smudging acuity of the mind.

We set out for Chiling, which lies by the river Indus flowing through a cleft in the mountain ranges and consists of only six households, just after noon. Since we had already covered a larger village, Chiling would make our sample more inclusive and hopefully, our predictions more accurate. After winding through the roads of Leh, our Tata Sumo headed straight towards the Kargil border, the road running through the vast plains between mountain ranges, like an elastic band wound around the undulating surface.

Just like people, mountains too gift first impressions. Some of them, with boulders sprouting on their surface, seem like grouchy old men with huge warts on their faces, ready with reproaches if they are even slightly annoyed. Others, with amorphous patches of snow on them look like wounded reptiles with pus oozing out after a battle amongst them. Some seem to invite you to explore their structure, promising discovery of hidden secret enclaves, waiting for someone to seek them out. Others seem foreboding, and only thinly veil their hostility so as to not disrupt the silence of the valley.

As the car cruised along, we saw sunlight hit the mountains with different darts of light, displaying the same mountains with different shades of the same brownish hue. We passed small brick and mortar enclosures that Karma, our translator, told us were bunkers built during the Kargil war.

An hour’s drive later, we branched into a dust ‘shortcut’ through the mountains. Gone was the gentle damping of the plains, the road seemed like a cut that sliced through the earth’s entrails. Fifty foot high mud walls loomed on both sides of the road, clutching boulders of various sizes; ready to let them fall if the car even as much as grazed them. Rocks reached out above the road’s surface like gnarled deformed fingers. The road could not remain steady, and kept rising over the sides of the walls. The rock formations at the bottom of the misshapen conduit looked like armies of beasts snarling to pound through to crush intruders to dust, help back only by a mighty leash chaining them to the walls. The Sumo bounced across the dirt track and finally burst free at the banks of the Indus.

The ride from there on was a symphony of colours chosen to present contrast in the most appealing fashion. The mountains looked like regal monarchs consecrated with rivulets of purple and brown sand, with the clear green of the Indus lapping their feet. Many rocks had their outer shells prised open to reveal rashes of black and maroon lining their innards.

The road began to rise along the outer rim of the mountains, and we observed the Indus changing moods. While she was agitated and thrashed along earlier, she took on a calm bearing that became her status as one of the beds of civilization as we rose along the mountain. When we finally reached Chiling, 13000 feet above sea level, the water of the Indus shone in its purity in the afternoon light. Tinged a translucent green, the waters barely flowed over the white round stones that we could spy at the bottom of the river.

With only six households to cover, we split up into three groups and took our detailed survey of the livelihood and energy consumption of the locals. Many of them made their money through tourism – avid trekkers camped at their village before setting out for a 7 day march across the ranges.

We turned back to get past the road by the river before sunset. As we drove along, three peaks stood out in the light of the setting sun. Set closely together, but slightly away from the other peaks, the sun seemed to caress them with golden-orange light. They cast shadows across each other, as if trying to blanket them against the night’s cold.

It has been long since I have seen a sunset, and the sight in front brought a sense of peace that suffused the air; a feeling of depth that cannot be navigated by words.

The sight lasted only a few minutes, but it etched its impact through the rest of the journey. I was silent. Silent, contemplating on so many memories that I had imprisoned and which suddenly seemed liberated. The ecstasy I felt when I first learned to bicycle. The pain of losing a loved one and a gradual acceptance as life moved on. The excitement of joining my first job. The enrichment when listening to particular strains of music. The sense of despondency when life did not seem to follow my rudder. The calm when I look back and realize that it is better life turned this way.

Each of us would see the same mountains differently.

But for me, the mountains evoke a sense of respect. Just for showing how rich life can be.

In 2006, I spent the months from March to May in Ladakh. Six of us from SPJIMR had chosen to do our summer project there, working on understanding and forecasting energy demand and supply for the region. It was an incredible experience. As part of the project, we travelled across Ladakh for primary surveys. The posts below were written during the visit.

I couldn’t, however, get Ladakh out of my mind. I visited Ladakh again in 2009 with friends to enjoy the now-discontinued Confluence music festival. The post on the second visit:

Read all my travel posts here.

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