Live And Almost Die

This is a shorter excerpt of a much longer trip that my family and I took to Ladakh, India. I’ve been to over 15 countries, but Ladakh still remains one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. It’s a kind of beauty that you can’t really describe, but only gape at when you see it. Its absolutely raw, parts of which probably haven’t been set foot upon by humans in our entire existence. And this is what made this particular story interesting.

A little bit of of an overview for those who don’t know Ladakh. It is one of the most sparsely populated parts of India, right up there at the northern border with China. It’s nestled among the Himalayas and is of extreme strategic importance. That is why you would find a heavy military presence here, around the year. To get from Leh (district capital) to Srinagar (capital of the State of Jammu and Kashmir) there is a single lonely road named National Highway 1D. It is a treacherous road that crosses two of the highest mountain passes in the world: Fotu La and Zojila. This road serves as the lifeline for Ladakh, connecting it to the rest of the country.

My story starts out in Dras, the closest town to the general area of the Kargil War. There is a lovely memorial, built there to remember our matyrs. We reached there early in the morning and just spent a few hours, walking around, paying our respects. There are points where you can hear nothing but a light breeze blowing. Mom cried here, and she never cries. We were so caught up in the serenity of the place that we paid no heed to our guide’s warnings about leaving early. We found out soon why.

On the route that day was Zojila, the second highest mountain pass on that road. Its placement was precarious and the road built on it was extremely difficult to maintain. There was a single-lane dirt road, barely wide enough to squeeze two trucks through. It had no barriers along it’s sides and therefore, you stared down a 10,000 ft drop if you looked over the side. As I mentioned earlier, NH 1D was the lifeline of Ladakh. There are hundreds of trucks crossing this pass everyday. Because of the one lane issue, the army allots different time slots for alternate directions of moving traffic. From Dras to Sonmarg (the town on the other end of the pass) the traffic closed at noon.

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Top of the Zojila Pass

 

This is where we screwed up. We reached the beginning of the 9 km stretch only by 11:00 am. Our flight out of Srinagar left the next day and we couldn’t afford to miss it. We somehow managed to convince the guard to let us through and all was well for a while. About 20 minutes into the pass, our rear left tire went flat. Bad luck right? It happens. We quickly got out the spare from the back and put it on. We were cutting it pretty close. Traffic from the opposite direction would be onto us any minute now and once it reached us, it would be EXTREMELY difficult to make our way further down. We got in and pushed off again. 5 minutes later the same left, newly replaced tire, goes flat again! The whole thing was absolutely ridiculous! Somebody had really given us the evil eye. We were now stuck.

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That Entire Road is One Way

Our driver parked us onto a partially constructed side road, so as to not impede traffic when it came the other way. Our guide, bless his soul, decided to walk down to Sonmarg almost 10 km away, to get the puncture fixed. That left us and the driver waiting on top of the pass. My dad and I placed ourselves on a bulldozer, nearby. You could see the whole valley from up there. That’s where I’ve had the most well placed nap of my life.

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Sonmarg Valley
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Bulldozers Taking a Break

I’ll fast forward to about 10:00 pm that evening. The Dras-Sonmarg traffic was being allowed through after 6:00 pm. Along comes a vehicle carrying it in an IPS officer (Indian Police Services). On seeing our situation as he passed by he stopped to help, eventually offering to give us a ride to Sonmarg with him! Dad decided to stay back with the driver whereas us kids with Mom would go ahead. We thought this was our lucky break!

Turns out, it wasn’t. A truck going the opposite way had gotten stuck in the mud and held up a significant amount of traffic behind it. It hadn’t made it out of the pass in its designated time slot, just like us. Therefore, the single lane road down hill, now had a stream of trucks along its side. We decided to go ahead, slowly. It was slow progress but it was going well, until we came across a truck carrying cylindrical metal beams inside it, right on a bend. Now, these beams were longer than the truck itself, so they stuck out the back by almost 3 meters. There was a flat sharp foundation at the base of these beams that looked like little square plates, at the end of the cylinders.

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Stupid Stuck Truck

We moved to the outside edge, to allow it to pass us. Just as it was turning around the bend, one of the beams broke in through the window of our jeep and anchored itself to the window pane. I was showered with broken glass. The truck driver hadn’t even noticed and continued moving forward, pulling the whole car along with it. As I’d said, we were right on the edge, so one of our wheels almost immediately went off the edge. We were dangling over the side of the road over the vast chasm of the Sonmarg valley. The guys who were directing the traffic nearby noticed us and started screaming for the truck driver to stop. Fortunately, he heard them and hit the brakes.

With the help of another truck, they pulled our jeep back onto the road. All of us were shocked to our very core. Nobody spoke the rest of the way down, which took another hour or so. We thanked the IPS officer for everything. He seemed in a hurry to get away from us. I wouldn’t blame him. We waited at a nearby restaurant. The electricity to Sonmarg had been cut off due to some weather problems so we ate and fell in and out of sleep in silence under a flickering oil lamp. We were joined by Dad, our driver and guide only by around 3:00 am that morning. The poor man had walked 20 km with that bloody tire!

We reached Srinagar Airport with 15 minutes to spare that day… It was one hell of a ride to catch a stupid plane.

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