Leh was the final destination of our J&K trip. So despite hiccups in Kashmir valley due to culinary extravagance of Raja, we (Raja, Dabbu and myself) continued with our trip. On the way, 400 years old Mughal Gardens of Nishat Bagh were explored quickly and then we moved on to Sinagar-Leh road, NH 1D in the right earnest. The night halt was to be at Kargil, at a distance of 210 kms from Srinagar. The road to Kargil goes via meadows of gold or Sonamarg, another favourite tourist destination. Situated at an elevation of 9200 feet besides Sindhu river, Sonamarg was part of the ancient silk route. We stopped there for tea break and took some pictures. It was slightly crowded by tourists in the season.
The road to Kargil from Sonamarg onward becomes treacherous and is not for the faint hearted drivers or tourists. The margin of error is too thin and life is at stake. Though the BRO or Border Roads Organisation does it best to keep them motor-able, weather plays spoilsport too often. One also gains height sharply from Sonamarg onward. We passed the Joji La pass at a height of 11640 feet to enter Drass, dubbed as one of the coldest places on the earth! Now Raja who was not in best of shape in the valley started to feel the pinch of heights. He was getting nausea and the vehicle had to be stopped at many places along the under repair road. He vomited at frequent intervals despite pre-consuming anti vomit tablets. We were worried but continued as there was no suitable place before Kargil for the medical help. We crossed Drass also, a strategically located town on Srinagar-Leh road, dubbed as one of the coldest inhabited place on the globe!
Kargil is on the banks of river Indus at a height of 8800 feet and is very close to LOC between India and Pakistan and has a war memorial now to salute the bravery of its soldiers in war of 1999. The temperatures here goes below minus 54 degree Celsius in winters. We stayed at a hotel run by a localite. This was a decent place and looked even better after wheel spinning journey we just had. Raja retired to his room quickly and announced that he would limit himself to fruits only. Dabbu and I decided to do a stroll around the market which was getting closed by now. Dabbu decided to withdraw some money in the town perhaps to preserve the memories of Kargil War of 1999, telecast live by Barakha Dutt led team of NDTV. So, along with crisp currency notes, Dabbu kept in his purse neatly folded ATM receipt showing ‘SBI Kargil’ as a souvenir. Coming back to room we had some scotch to lighten us up and then had dinner in the restaurant sitting cross legged besides low height colourfully painted wooden tables. Over all it was a a very comforting experience given the fact that we were so close to LOC.
Next morning, Raja was feeling slightly better. This was perhaps due to his by now jettisoned policy of ‘light sa non-veg’! But he decided to see a doctor first as a safeguard to our still more strenuous journey head. We were aware that to reach Leh, we had to clear Namika La pass first at a height of 12198 feet and then the highest point on Srinagar-Leh highway, Fotu La pass at a height of 13479 feet. It was going to be a tough day today.
The hospital at Kargil was basic but decent. The lady doctor on duty examined Raja thoroughly and diagnosed that Raja was suffering not only from stomach infection but also from mountain sickness known as HAPE or High Altitude Pulmonary Edema. It is a life threatening desease. The doctor diagnosed Raja short of body fluids due to persistent bouts of vomiting day before, prescribed lot of fluids. She also decided to administer injections to him. Raja obviously got the shots at the bums again, through hands of another beautiful Kashmir Nurse. He did not smile though!
Loaded with medicines and medical advice we left for Leh, situated at a distance of 235 km from Kargil. This road passes through the town of Lamayuru, famous for one of the Laddakh’s oldest Buddhist Gompas. Raja on the other hand had his share of medicines in the morning but with the gain in height with bumpy rides along,was feeling the pinch. By afternoon his bouts of vomits had increased a lot along with an increase in body temperature. His condition was deteriorating faster than we had thought of. We decided to now locate a hospital first rather than a Gompa. By afternoon, we were lucky to approach the town of Khalasi pronounced locally as Khalste. It is a sub divisional headquarters of district Leh and had a basic hospital. We approached the doctor on duty. Yet another lady doctor with sharp features was there. Raja really was in a bad shape and the doctor after a preliminary check up, decided to administer him a drip. We knew, we were in trouble. Doctor told us that suffering from HAPE, Raja had lost much of body fluids and he urgently needed rest and medication, both. We had no option in this remotest hospital in India we could ever think of being in one day!
Raja now on a proper hospital bed got one more shot in his bums. We were nervous now and deliberated whether we should inform his family back in Lucknow?. What if something went wrong? Dabbu and I had many anxious rounds of the hospital corridor. Raja meanwhile comforted by medicines and drips went on to sleep. We finally decided not to call and panick the family backhome and instead decided to wait more. After about an hour, we discussed with the doctor about the prospects of his being discharged any time soon. We wanted to reach Leh anyhow by late evening. The doctor told us to review the situation only after the drip was over. The drip on the other hand was calibrated to finish off too slowly. We were told that the faster drip sometimes leads to the shivering of the patient. Dabbu and I were getting anxious and therefore after waiting for some more time, decided to take a little liberty. Just as the nurse went outside to chat (whatsap was not then!), I rolled on the drip regulator to get it faster inside Raja’s vein! To safeguard him from shivering I covered Raja up to his shoulders by two blankets. The result was now quick. By the time nurse came back to see the patient, the drip was through and Raja was still sleeping. The nurse was little perplexed and looked at the drip first and then towards us. We looked other way. We again went to Doctor and requested her to review Raja’s position and discharge him as soon as possible. Our over persuasion paid off and Raja was discharged and we were relieved. But not before being loaded with all types of pills and capsules and SOS solutions! We heaved a sigh of relief and rushed to Leh. In this rush we could not concentrate on some very beautiful sceneries outside.
We arrived Leh around 8 pm and we settled in our hotel room comfortably. This hotel built around a garden on the Leh Manali road was run by one affable lady, Dolma. She was a person of immense calm and composure and seeing the condition of Raja offered herself to cook some khichadi for him. On our part like friends of three idiots decided to focus on dinner. We celebrated our safe travel by raising a toast to Raja’s health. Raja joined us too, but we rationed his quota. We retired to bed afterwards as next day we were slated to visit Hemis monastery and some other local sightseeing. Raja helped by Khichadi, decent rest and some medicines was in a better condition next morning. He came along with us for local sightseeing. Our first stop of the day was at Hemis Monastery situated at Leh Manali road. This was one of the biggest monastery there. It had a well stocked museum too containing valuable artefacts of Buddhist culture. It is a centre of Buddhist learning and one can see the students in colorful dresses walking around you, We also witnessed the flag changing ceremony.
Raja was also enjoying the trip along with us and we took pictures here and there including while turning Buddhist prayer wheels. After spending some decent time there we moved on for lunch to an army officers’ mess. The army is known for living in discipline and in style so even at this height of 11000 feet they had a well stocked bar with fancy horse back bar stools. We could not resist this and buoyed by our comfortable stay in Leh till now raised a toast to Raja’s health. We had some delicious lunch and after thanking our local host came back to our hotel room and decided to have some rest before evening stroll.
We went to see the local markets in Leh and had planned to have dinner there only. We stepped out to select souvenirs for our families too. I bought a traditional Laddakhi gown for my daughter. But we could proceed further, Raja perhaps fatigued by his day outing and due to worsening HAPE called us to go back as he was vomiting and feeling cramps. We offered him water etc but finally decided to beat a retreat. Coming back to hotel Raja fell on the bed and we gave him all the medicines, we could think of. We were again taken aback by the circumstances. Next morning we had planned to visit the famous lake of Pangong Tso made famous by the climax scene of Hindi movie, Three Idiots. Raja was in no position to move. We decided to take a call in the morning after judging Raja’s response to medicines and to rest.
The morning brought no surprises and Raja was feeling no better. Pangong Tso lake is situated at a height of 14270 feet and to reach there one has to clear the Changlang Pass at a height of 17586 feet! It was too much for everybody and for Raja would have been a killer actually. So now the question was what to do? Raja though not in a god shape advised Dabbu and me to go ahead with the plan while he would take some more rest. Our affable and now venerable Dolma Didi came to our rescue and said that she would take care of Raja and we could be back by evening to take care of him again. Though it was a tough call and we were feeling awkward to leave Raja in not so good condition for a tourist trip, we finally decided to go ahead. The way to Pangong Tso lake is via Chanlang Pass and on the way to it one can enjoy the most breathtaking scenery of life time. Its unbelievably beautiful and only those who have been there can understand what a nature’s gem it is actually. We stopped on few picturesque view points and used our camera liberally. The Changlang pass at 17586 feet was covered with snow in the month of June and for a short span there was snowing too. We were feeling like in heaven. The army post here offers tea to every passer by and they dont forget to remind you that stopping at this height for longer period can cause nausea and headache to the most stout even. We took some pictures and left for the lake after some time.
On the way we found some local natives with Yak and even at this unimaginable heights we were offereda glass of warm yak milk at Rs 20 only! What a life! While dabbu hesitated, I decided to give a try to Yak milk for the first and only time of my life. Its taste was not bad either. We moved further to the lake. We were also continually thinking of Raja and his condition back at leh and honestly were having some guilt too in entrusting him to Dolma Didi. We reached at the lake around 1 pm. The lake spread over an area of 604 sq km is divided along line of LOAC between India and China. It has for brackish water and hence no fish etc. It has some crustaceans though. Bar Headed Goose and Brahmini ducks are seen here too in summers. The lake however is known for changing colors of water. It is surrounded by some colorful barren mountains and the beauty of the place can only be seen and not be explained.Perhaps only lucky most can be a witness to its beauty. Its Jannat in truest sense of the word. We had great pictures and then after lunch at an army maintained canteen retreated back to Leh.
Though Dabbu and I had decided not to abort today’s trip to the lake, inside we were having some genuine guilt about not being with the friend at the Leh hotel. We had left him to the care of Dolama didi, who looked like an angel then. So as soon as we entered the mobile signal area, we called Raja. Raja after few calls responded with the faintest voice. We were shocked. What happened ? Rraja told in an emotion laden voice that he was at the hospital. What, Hospital? How and why? We were now in panic mood. All the fun of serene lake had evaporated in seconds like drops of water on a hot tawa. We rushed back even faster and came to know that Raja was now in the tourist ward of Sonam Norbu Memorial State Hospital. We reached the hospital and for the shock of life found Raja lying in the ward with an oxygen mask and drips!. It was too much to bear now. Our guilt hit the ceiling. Our claim of being decades old friends lied shattered in front of us. Besides him was Dolma Didi, with a flask of tea and a casserole used to carry Kichadi to feed Raja! Now we realised that lady was the angel in true sense . She said nothing. I did not say either. The eyes were moistened. Raja too seeing us got emotional and tears rolled down his unshaved cheeks. We could not utter a word. It was and is still perhaps the most emotional friendship moment in our 25 years old friendship.
Our next day trip was originally planned for Khardungala Pass, the highest motorable road in the world. We had three more days planned for stay in Leh. But now we had lost the motivation. We could not leave Raja behind and enjoy the trip. The trip to highest road in the world if proceeded could have been our lowest friendship deal. We consulted the doctor first., She told us that Raja was suffering from HAPE. She told that Raja needed recuperation in the hospital and finally the evacuation to lower heights. Nothing else could be risked as his life could have been in risk. Dabbu and I looked into each other’s eyes and came outside to call our travel agent to get us first flight tickets our journey back to Lucknow. No price barriers!.
We got the confirmation soon. We went back to see Raja again and announced that we were terminating our trip immediately and would fly back to Lucknow via Delhi next morning. Now Raja choked. The tears rolled down his unshaved cheeks again. He knew that his friends were aborting the plan midway, a plan which was the long cherished goals for all of us and now the circumstances forced not only Raja but his friends to drop it midway. Dabbu and I had no confusion and were clear and focussed now. Few drops of tears had washed our lenses better and we could see everything very clearly. Now we called on the doctor. She had few reservations about our plan as Raja was still on bed. She said the patient may need to wait more. But finally we prevailed and got her agreed to our rescue plan. Relived now by our clear pathway to implement our rescue plan Dabbu and I decided to visit one more 3 idiot venue, the Rancho’s shop. This is the place where the climax shot of Phunsuk Wangadoo’s school was picturised and which unfortunately was destroyed in the Leh floods of 2010. Afterwards, to preserve the memories of association with one of the most popular hindi movie, a board was put up there besides a small coffee shop.
Next morning we reached the hospital very early in the morning and got Raja force discharged literally but not before the hospital got a written commitment from us that we were doing it at our own risk. We reached airport thereafter. Raja was still very week and was limping. He was helped by both of us to somehow get to boarding area. We did the formalities and accosted him to the plane with difficulty. We were still nervous that if something went wrong during the flight or afterwards, we would be shattered. The flight took off on time and we were air-borne, with Raja in a slumber mode. I saw the barren and snow clad mountains down below from the windows of the plane and thanked God and Dolama didi. The flight reached Delhi airport in about 75 minutes. We were still tensed and were thinking of getting a wheelchair for Raja for carrying him on the long terminal building of Delhi airport. But much to our surprise and in fact shock, Raja had started feeling better immediately as the plain landed at the Delhi airport. He got off the seat swiftly and walked with comfort towards our connecting flight to Lucknow. The mountain sickness caused by high altitude had evaporated like summer snow. Now it was our turn to curse him literally for improving so fast and so soon! Everybody smiled though. We thanked the God and Dolama Didi for being kind to us and for saving our Raja from the wrath of the mountain Gods. Raja learnt a hard lesson and so did we.