Thursday, September 2, 2010

Reality dawns

Still unaware of what had happened in Ladakh, we set out early next morning for Leh following the misty valley of the Bhaga river.

Soon we arrived to the confluence of the Bhaga with two smaller rivers. This is a safe place to cross but in this season, water was extremely high and the bridge declared unsafe for crossing; traffic usually goes through the river and this being impossible, we took the risk and crossed the bridge nonetheless. I promised Soni to take some nice, action-packed photos if the bridge collapses under his Scorpio, and he (obviously very relaxed by my promise) made his way across safely. The funny thing was that dozens of other cars were standing, none of whom had the courage to at least give the bridge a try.

So far so good we thought, and made breakfast.

Now I also had the opportunity to admire one of infamous OK TATA BLOW HORN trucks from close and insde. They are dangerous, slow and polluting but without them, India couldn't exist.

This is how they look from the inside:

And this is me, playing TATA-wallah.

We continued on a deteriorating road, and other drivers told us too that the road is getting worse. But then the Manali-Leh highway is supposed to be bad.

It still had its beauty, despite the foggy weather.

It was here that we met a group of Czech bicyclists, the first and last friendly bicyclists on the road. When there was trouble ahead we usually stopped, or even turned back, to warn them - landslides and so on - but bicyclists ignored us, some of them not even muttering a "thank you". Maybe they think they are the toughest sort of travellers who have the right to be arrogant, or maybe they believed that they can always get through where people on 4 wheels cannot. Maybe that's true but not in this season, not on this highway... Anyway, Soni told me all drivers hate them because they are so slow and fragile and always in their way (probably the feeling is mutual - imagine you're toiling up to a pass at around 4-5000 meters and a TATA truck covers you with dust and noxious exhaust fumes AND horns at you till you get deaf). Besides, hitting a cow brings bad karma but if a bicylist gets hit it only means HE had bad karma, not the trucker... Anyway, the Czechs were a friendly bunch and I hope they made it through safely.

We passed Darcha, Patseo, Zingzingbar (if I'll ever open my own place it will be called "Zing Zing Bar"), made it up to the Suraj lake...

...Baralacha Pass, which was looking less Arctic than last year...

...and had a safe, if bumpy ride. The clouds were still up in the sky, although I hoped to get rid of them beyond Baralacha.

Here we had to stop and wait until a bulldozer cleaned the road from a mudslide. One of the road workers came up to us, turned out orignally he's from Gujarat; he was a nice fellow and very happy (of course) when I gave him a polaroid in exchange for taking his photographs.

Oh yeah, that's the hands who build these roads.

We didn't like his news, though. He told us something about very heavy rain and disrupted roads beyond Sarchu; we heared it before but the closer you get, the more accurate the news is, and now we were maybe 10-12 kms from Sarchu. We wanted to see it with our own eyes.

In the end, this was not necessary. A Mitsubishi Pajero from Mumbai stopped us further up the road, and although I didn't understand the drivers' conversation I could sense in Soni's voice that we're in trouble.

"So what's the news, Soni?"

"Mitsubishi Pajero, sir. Real four-wheel drive. I wish I have one."

"So do I. And what about the road?"

"No road after Sarchu. Bridges are destroyed. Ladakh is destroyed. Leh also destroyed. Too much rain."

"That's not nice at all."

At this point we realized we're beaten. Obviously we used up all our good luck last year, when weather and road conditions were (mostly) perfect. All we could do was returning to Keylong; a bitter thing to do after the hard drive up, not to mention the itinerary. It was still unclear what exactly happened in Leh (we even tried to find news on radio but in vain), and it came to my mind to spend 1-2 nights in Sarchu to wait and see if the road gets cleared. But then, after consdering all options, we decided to turn back to Keylong.

I think it was in Darcha where we stopped for lunch, or maybe just to buy cigarettes, can't remember anymore, but at least I could photograph something other than cloudy landscapes.

Close to Jispa we run into another mudslide. We had entertainment though, because a brave city car tried to play 4wheeldrive and got hopelessly stuck. Meanwhile a little mule caravan passed through the mud, perhaps to show us how vain we car- and road-depending people are.

We had company, too. I took a few shots of a lama, more accurately: Lama Palden from Zanskar (one of our original destinations); in exchange, and because he was a nice fellow, we offered him a ride to Keylong. He was more than happy to accept and while waiting for the road being cleared, we invited him for tea as well which makes him probably the only lama from Zanskar who ever tasted rooibush.

We had to wait long and to bid our time, I picked up a stone and asked him to bless it, so that I have a lucky stone; he did and did it seriously, praying for twenty minutes, sometimes with an expression on his face as if he would be fighting demons. He also gave me a necklace with a Buddha pendant and assured me of the magical power of the blessed stone; as a matter of fact I did try it once and it worked. Now, I'm not a very gullible man, especially not in India where religion is less spirituality than a way to keep people content and calm (imagine if all the 800.000.000 people living off less than 20 rupees a day would march to Delhi and demand rights instead going to their temples), but after Lama Palden got out of the car at his destination, we could still literally feel his presence in the car; usually we made dirty jokes, talked about women and like that, but not this time. For half an hour we drove without him, but still in his presence. A very strange feeling whch I can't attribute only to India, all the more because we carries other holymen later and - with all due respect to them - they didn't left behind their presence like as the lama did.

Anyway, on the other end of the mudslide at last a nice suprise was watng for us: another car from Rajasthan 4W Drive, carrying a Belgian family with a father of Hungarian origin - what a coincidence. It turned out that the company manager, Mr Sinha, tried to call and warn us but we were beyond reach, so he sent the other car after us (or something like that - probably they also wanted to try their luck at Sarchu). Now we learned the full extent of the disaster.

Pedal to the metal, we drove to Tashi Delek Hotel in Keylong, hoping to get there in time before all the returning tourists book all the rooms. We were lucky. Seeing the images from Leh on TV made us realize how lucky we were indeed. If we don't return after our first attempt at Rohtang Pass... if I don't stay in Keylong to treat my allergy...

We all watched the breaking news in shock and sorrow. Funnily, when I wanted to take a photograph of the sad faces and people realized they're being photographed, suddenly everyone started to smile. Almost everyone, that is. And then looking back to the TV screen and sad again.

My feelings were mixed... There was that very human feeling of selfishness, the feeling of relief over having avoided a calamity. I remembered a few genuinely friendly people I met last year in and around Leh, like the lady from the netcafé, the schoolgirls outside her shop, the girl in a yellow dress with whom I bargained so hard - and with so much fun - for some jewellery, the smiley old monk who reminded me of my grandfather and who was the only person I ever met there knowing the difference between hungry and Hungary. I was deeply concerned for them. But there were also the suckers - the Muslim shopkeepers trying to act like Ladakhis selling Buddhist stuff, the greedy people in the hotels, the whole taxi maffia with their stinking old jeeps and exorbitant prices, their threats to punch our tires if we dare to drive with our own car to Pangong Lake and Nubra. For their fate I couldn't care less, I even hoped it hit them hard.

And then, of course, the regret of not being there to document all this with photographs, not being able to help despite being a strong and brave man carrying enough medical supplies to stock up a small pharmacy. I heard the news about many foreigners desperate to leave Leh and felt miserable. Why couldn't I be there and join the few who stayed and helped, whatever way they could? That night took a serious toll on my whiskey reserve.

Luckily, later Dominique showed up and at least I could share one of my two bottles of wine with him. We listened to Burnng Spear and George Harrison, feeling like two old hippies out of place and time, and I took care to keep my depressed thoughts to myself.


Marie said...

Reading your blog with great interest. Hope you are well.


nicoleta gabor said...

szervusz Balazs.nem reg vettem eszre hogy mar nem vagy az tagja.nekem nem hianyzol,mivel kovetem a munkadat,onnan ,viszont hianyzik a te tiszta,nyilt es objektiv elolvastam az erre vonatkozo bejegyzesedet,tetszett.orulok hogy aa ugynevezett lejobb fotooldal a neten,lehetoseget adott hogy megismerjem a munkadat.nekem ez a legfontosabb.a fotografia nekem kellemes kenyszer,nem ez a munkam,statikus vagyok,de imadom ha elvarazsolnak es a te munkad elvarazsolt.koszonet erte.minden jot kivanok , varom a kovetkezo elmenyeidet a nagyvilagbol.nicole

Pataki Balázs said...

Dear Marie and Nicoleta, thanks for checking out my blog and encouraging me. It's good to know that somebody is actually reading all this :))

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