The journey to Leh, Ladakh was manic.
We started from Kaza, capital of the Spiti-Lahaul region of Himachal Pradesh, at 5:00AM. It was a very uncertain morning though. We weren’t certain how we were going to reach Keylong at all. We had just finished our trek the previous day and asked around about taxis and buses but the responses weren’t helpful. The only choice we had was a taxi which would cost us around ₹1, 000 - 1, 200/- per person or the bus which would be as cheap as ₹300/-. It was a no brainer of course but the uncertainty was that the bus might be full.
We got to the bus stop at 5, an hour before departure, and what do you know, it was full. So we went and asked a taxi booth and they quoted us the same price. We had reached an impasse. What do we do? Pay that amount and go? I know it doesn’t sound like much but we were travelling on a tight budget and every penny counted since each of us were not professionally steady (freelancers and contract workers people, times are always hard!). ultimately, we came to a decision when one taxi man approached us. We would bargain and at least bring it down to 800/-. But get this: he asked for ₹1, 200/-, for the three of us. He said he would drop us off at the junction called Gramphu from where we would need to take a bus to get to Keylong. We tried exceedingly hard to contain our excitement at the price and within a few minutes, we were back on those harsh roads that had now become so familiar. The journey to and from Spiti leaves you speechless and anyone who’s been there can attest to that. It doesn’t get as cliché as this but it truly is another world on its own.
Seven hours and 130kms later, he stopped and told us that was where we needed to get off. We thought he was joking but he was deadly serious. “This is your stop, this is Gramphu” he said and went to pull out our bags. Gramphu was nothing. There was no sign, no bus stand, nothing. It was a junction sure but that was it. That point, that 50-meter part of the road, that was Gramphu. The weather was also taking a dip and the wind was threating to blow us away. There was another girl, who basically drove us mad without sleep from Kaza to Gramphu in the taxi with her endless singing and loud '90s music, who got off with us and Sarju and I just refused to communicate with her. That just left Debbie to be nice. She learned from her that we needed to catch the bus from the nearby village of Koksar, 45kms away. And how did we get to Koksar? We hitchhiked with a Border Roads Organization (BRO) truck that was heading there. We waited in Koksar for less than half an hour. Debbie continued to chat with the singing girl on our behalf because Sarju and I were behaving our worst. “She refused to let us sleep” was our reason for annoyance and we were also pretty sure that deep down, she was fuming at us. And we sure had a good laugh about it.
Starting off at 3:00PM, and paying less than ₹200/-, we reached Keylong by 5:30PM and we headed straight to the bus stand to book our tickets for Leh. The counter wasn’t open yet and with a couple of Brits, a French, a Spanish and an American backpacker, we waited. We were dirty, tired and hungry. My hair was forming dreadlocks. We hadn’t checked in anywhere yet so while Sarju and I waited for the tickets, Debbie went looking for a place to stay. I struck up a conversation with the other backpackers and the French girl said that she got a dorm bed for 100/-. But that was it. Seemingly there was no water or the bathroom was just namesake. Trust me when I say I am all for roughing it any where, any day but that day, I desperately needed water. I didn’t care hot or cold, but I needed water. There was no way I was going to hack off more hair that I had already done. Debbie came back and she said she found a place “it has a working wifi!” she said and Sarju and me knew that that’s what sealed the deal for her.
We got the tickets which was basically a booklet, put on our rucksacks and climbed back up again. As much as we enjoyed the trek, we were so done with uphill climbs that any sight of a hill brought out a unison of groans and a stretched out noooooooo. the hotel was ₹900/- for three of us and as basic as it could get and because we were just grateful to get a roof over our heads, filth was the least of our concern. With the basic dhaba meal we had, we were overtly satisfied and by the time we had all taken turns to use the washroom, it was close to 11:00PM. The reporting time for our bus was 4:00AM so the few hours of rest we were aiming for was quickly dwindling.
As groggy as we were, I was happy to be leaving the hotel. I was up later than Debbie and Sarju and I heard a lot of noises and also what sounded like an argument from downstairs and I even went to check the lock of the room. We didn’t see any other guests and it got me thinking about what I would’ve done if it were me alone. It reminded me of my short trip to Kolkata in 2015 when I was travelling along and the hotel (not even worthy of calling it a hotel to be fair!) was located in such a dodgy building and lane that every night, I would push the table and the chair against the door even after I locked it. ‘Paranoia will kill ya’ said someone but sometimes, it becomes your best defense.
Two hours into the journey, the weather took a turn. It was freezing. It didn’t matter that every window was shut. It was a chill that was unbearable. The fog looked heavier, there no sign of sunlight, there was snow and sheets of ice and there was light rain. We weren’t prepared for it. Except Sarju with her puffy Northface jacket. We mocked her but boy, at that point, we were envious. The journey post a breakfast stop turned pleasant and before you knew it, it even got hot. The change in topography was evident. The mountains were more rugged and rough, the water was sparkling blue, the colour of the rocks and soil were in unfamiliar shades and the sun looked closer. One of the backpackers even began suffering from light AMS. The view on both sides were a stark contrast. One side would be lush and green while the other side was just a barren desert. The roads were for most parts well-made not like the Spiti roads but it didn’t mean that there were no bumps and knocks. In fact, it became a game for a bunch of people sitting in the last row to let out an “eyyyy” every time we hit a bump. We basically levitated.
The bus was nothing fancy if you’re wondering. It was a Himachal Pradesh government bus and the tickets cost ₹545/- per person so that meant picking up anyone on the road, travellers as well as locals with gas cylinders. Getting off and on the bus soon became a skill we had to master on the spot if we didn’t want to stamp on people’s bags and kids (really). The 13-hour journey was beginning to get on our nerves especially since we had been hopping on and off buses since the previous day so when we finally saw that we were entering Leh, we let out a sigh of relief.
Was it eventful? Immensely. Memorable? Exceedingly. Tiring? Excessively. But those two days of non-stop journeying created a thrill in the greater scheme our entire trip. We even had a supernatural scare in the middle of the trip which resulted to a nightmare for me. I wasn’t planning on recounting this story because… well, I doubt you’d believe it. But considering this created a certain tone of tension during our two-day passage, I might as well narrate it.
During the stop at Gramphu, Sarju and I were sitting across a bunch of bikers on the other side of the road and Sarju recognised the model of the bike and really liked it so she took a few pictures. I took some too, not of the bike, but of the whole scene in general. During the bus ride from Koksar to Keylong, Sarju was going through her pictures and suddenly let out a gasp. The picture she took of the bikes had an unwelcomed visitor within the frame. A man dressed in black. I would’ve normally said that she didn’t see the guy but I was there with her and clicking the same frame and there was no one from what I remember too. It was just the bike. We zoomed in to see the mystery figure and it wasn’t just our imagination. It WAS a man. The question was where did he come from? I should mention here that Sarju’s phone was recently fixed so we even thought that maybe there was a glitch and her phone was making stuff up (weak excuse but our tired selves couldn’t deal with supernatural things on top of everything else).
The pictures definitely gave us goosebumps and just made us feel uneasy. Was this some kind of omen? Was this a warning? Was this a sign that we shouldn’t be going forward with our trip? I think we each had some thoughts but refrained from sharing too much not wanting to scare each other more. We didn’t bring it up till we were at the hotel in Keylong. We decided to airdrop the pictures to my phone and see if this apparition would be seen on mine. It was clearer on my phone (because Sarju’s screen had an issue) and zooming in further, we could see that there was no face and because of the lighting (we assumed!), it created some deception in what were his eyes. It was just pure evil looking back at us. We weren’t terrified but it was just strange and that let us to deleted those pictures instantly. We just didn’t want it hovering around us, making us troubled and anxious. I get nightmares often so I wasn’t shocked when I got one in those few hours of sleep. I wouldn’t lie that I was uneasy throughout the trip after that. I tried blocking it out but till I reached Delhi, my guard was up. Nothing happened thankfully but I suppose sometimes your senses just plays tricks on you and there’s nothing you can do. I came to the conclusion that maybe I wouldn’t have been as careful had it not been for that incident. Debbie says that sometimes I’m just reckless and go looking for adventure which is masked as ‘trouble’. I think she may be right but considering that we were going to be separated after a few days, it was a warning for all of us to be extra careful.
I’m chalking this one down as experience for now but if I had a choice, I’d like to leave the supernatural out of any more travel experiences.
JULY 03, 2016