Monday, October 14, 2013

Last flight out of Ladakh: Chapter 8 - Back in Time

Last flight out of Ladakh: Chapter 8 - Back in Time

Late October, 1938

They had been part of a bigger expedition, a German army troop under direct orders from SS chief Heinrich Himmler himself, a group that was moving towards Tibet during early summer months of June-July. But then order had been wired from the SS headquarters and their party of four soldiers and one science officer, to be commanded by the second lieutenant Gustav had been formed. As fantastical as the idea to meet early-Aryans in the valleys of Himalayas that were rumored to be the mythical Shangri-la sounded, the proposition that a smaller population of Aryans lived somewhere in a small village kingdom somewhere in the Ladakh ranges of Himalayas was too. Quickly a smaller party was formed and they were rushed off southward towards Ladakh. Their mission was clear, to establish the presence of early Aryans by scientific methods of bodily measurements, physical features comparison, male potency tests and so on. Director Himmler would have it no other way. Science officer Rosso accompanied them much to his disgruntlement. They were to establish direct contact with the headquarters and report back in a period of two months. It was the end of July when the groups separated. The main group rushed off towards Lhasa, and the smaller one towards Ladakh.

In three weeks they reached Leh, the capital of the kingdom of Ladakh. Here they secured more supplies, refurbished few equipment parts which they could acquire and hired a local lad by the name Stanzin as their guide. He seemed to be quite a resourceful and energetic person, and almost took cooking duties from them for their next few weeks. The ladakh was still very unexplored region then and they had to rely on old British survey maps which were wrong most of the time. Or due to landslides some routes that existed previously had been cutoff the next year. Still the weather was good and they kept finding pockets of settlement all along the Zanskar river and its channels to buy more supplies. It was the first week of September when they reached Dha – Hanu, the twin village settlements that were spoken of by the local ladakis as being inhabited by strange looking men from the north, which neither resembled the Pathans, Uigers or the Mongols. They were a breed apart in their behavior as well. The Ladakhis didn't seeing them in their towns when they came for trade, nor were they a pleasing lot to talk to. Stanzin still insisted that he had made acquaintance with someone called Alkhan who would was one of the leaders in the village. His claim did not fall flat when six hours after leaving the German party outside the village; he managed to get Alkhan and one of the village chief to meet them. After much negotiations and payments they were made to agree to the scientific testing the team wanted to do. Their orders were clear; in no way they were to engage in any non-peaceful means. Resorting to arms was kept as the last option.

They had been camping outside Dha-Hanu for six days and this was their last day when something curious caught Gustav’s eye. He saw a group of five men, accompanying a women, all over six-and a half feet tall entering the village. Their clothes were well off than most of the villagers and they bore old British rifles, something they had seen for the first time in Ladakh region. Upon inquiry from Alkhan initially he hesitated but then told that she was the daughter of their previous village chief, and was married to the king of their tribe. And where did this king live? In a village built deep inside the Zanskar valley atop a steep cliff and much prosperous than their own. This was something that immediately made Gustav extend their plans. The idea of meeting an Aryan king, who might be of a royal bloodline linking him to earlier in Germany, sounded too good to give up. After making a secret payment to Alkhan they managed to get the location of the village drawn on the British survey maps. It was some sixty kilometers from their current location, easily reachable in three days.

They were on the foothills of the cliff within three days, but getting into the village was a different matter altogether. From below they could see a massive mud-brick structure, quite possibly a fort for the king, and houses that dotted the periphery of the cliff, hinting that the village would be quite populated. That meant trade centre and a chance to stock up more supplies. It was strange though that none of the Ladakhis or even Stanzin for that matter knew of the village before. Gustav ordered his men to guard their gear while he went along with Stanzin to try and get permission to enter the village and possibly meet the King.
They followed a trail that led up towards the backside of the cliff. After climbing for close to an hour they met the first guards. Two tall men dressed in traditional dress stopped them. Stanzin spoke in Ladakhi of their details and after discussing among themselves for few minutes the guards let them pass. The next set of guards met them at the foot of a rock face that seemed to be looming some hundred meters tall, with pairs of rope ladders falling down from the top. Upon telling their purpose of visiting the village, one of the guards went up the ropes and over the cliff face and returned after twenty minutes.

‘They are not welcoming us’ Stanzin said. ‘And they have asked us to return back from where we came and dare not speak of this village to anyone.’ Gustav was not surprised. He expected this to happen. But he also had some tricks up his sleeve. He withdrew a small wooden box the size of a pencil box from his shoulder bag, opened it for a quick second to check its content and handed it to messenger guard.

‘Tell him to take this to the village elder and ask to present it to the king, as a token from the German ruler’ he instructed Stanzin who repeated the order in Ladakhi to the guard.

Another thirty minutes later, the messenger guard returned. This time there was another person with him that appeared of a much older and higher level. He spoke to them in Ladakhi and by his tone itself Gustav knew they can go up now. Stanzin confirmed this.

As they reached Gustav had a good look around. There were lot of stone block houses, and it appeared that they were made in patterns with lanes going through them. In the background, at the end of the cliff loomed the fort like castle. Made entirely of stone bricks it was thoroughly whitewashed and painted in bright red and blue stripes on its higher levels. But what draw his immediate attention was a small Gompa in the center of the village. Painted in dark red, its spires seemed to be covered and tipped in gold. As soon as he could move his eyes from it, he saw a small party moving from the castle towards him. He and Stanzin, accompanied by the elder guard started moving towards them.

He met the king an hour later, in the palace in a small room that was richly decorated with silks on the floor and frescoes on the walls. Looking at them he could guess that the king followed both animist as well as Buddhist beliefs. Close to six feet eight inches, the king stood taller than he was but spoke softly. He had been quite taken aback by the craftsmanship of the watch Gustav had presented him, and was keen to know what such a person as him doing here was. With Stanzin acting as their translator, Gustav told him of their great heritage and his great mission, to find common ancestry and to prove that he and the king belonged to one great race, the Aryans and it was their destiny to be superior to other races. The king seemed to like this view and shook his head when Gustav praised him of his fine village in such a remote location. After their conversation was done, Gustav sent back Stanzin to bring the remaining party to the village and get them settled. He also got the permission for the scientific testing.

The next two days went in tests. In the meantime Gustav scouted around the area and made notes about the village. He was allowed to go everywhere except the Gompa. That he was told was private to only royal family, and he can only enter accompanied by the king. But he was unable to reach the king in those two days. Finally when he was able to meet the king, his request was denied saying that the Gompa is not allowed for visitors for different faith and that only royal bloodline can enter it, it has been like this since always. No one except the royal family and priest - that was the final statement.

Gustav knew he would have to sneak inside the Gompa in the dead of the night, but he didn’t knew that the unfortunate events that would follow. On the third day they had to start making their way back to Leh, so as establish contact with the SS headquarters. Gustav told his party to move out of the village, down the cliff while he had some pleasantries to discuss with the king and would return late by night. Waiting in one of the empty huts at the back side of the village, Gustav waited for the village to sleep. Even few hours before midnight there was pin drop silence. Gustav knew that only the cliff entrance was being manned by the guards and that there was no patrol in the village. Still he took precautions to enter the Gompa after scaling the back wall. This was also due to the reason that in all certainty the front gate that was more than ten feet tall would be guarded. Five minutes and he was in. The moonlight streamed through the heavy Juniper’s bushes and made shadowy patterns in the snow. He sneaked up to the front to find a guard on the inside of the gate, snoring. He thought of entering in the Gompa through the front gate as he could see that it was only bolted from outside, but then decided against it in case the door made a noise while opening. He circled around the complex and found a window that though being shut from the inside opened up after forcing from the outside, and he climbed in. The floor was wooden and made a slight creaking sound as he jumped inside. He tiptoed but then got too much caught up seeing the sight inside. There was a small chamber, much smaller than usual monasteries, but the walls were fresco-ed beautifully. What stood in the center was a statue of Buddha. Around three meters in height, it was not the statue that caught his attention, but something else. Between the eyes of Buddha, on the forehead shone a purple Amethyst crystal, the size of a hen’s egg.  In the darkness of the chamber, with a stream of moonlight trickling on it through a hidden shaft in the roof, it was magical. Gustav immediately knew that to return back with something like, which could possibly be a fortune would secure him promotions beyond his years, and quite possibly places him a powerful position. Who knows this might be something that those occultists may find to be a source of transcendental power. He double checked to find no one inside the complex and then climbed up the statue to reach for the Amethyst. He stared at it for a full two minutes and then withdrew his pocket knife thinking to use it to dislodge it from the statue. The moment he touched it, it dazzled as if reacting to the touch and fell down in his hand. Then with a huge crack sound the statue cracked in the middle and split in two. Immediately following the ground started to rumble and he heard a deep groan, as if it came from the very ground beneath. Pocketing the Amethyst, he quickly jumped from the statue, out of the window to hear the sound going louder, it was as if some beast had woken from slumber. The gate had shaken and was broken. He stepped out to see the entire village standing outside, although in a very strange state. They were all monsters, all more specifically with huge incisors, red glaring eyes and sharp clinking nails a bloodsucking monstrosity that had plagued the world – Vampires.

Suddenly with a flap of giant wings, landed a flying behemoth. With wingspans of tens of feet, the ground cracked as he stood up. It was the king, now transformed into a flying human-bat monster. The whole settlement had somehow turned into vampires and he was responsible. It was all connected to what he had done minutes ago. Gustav knew within an instant that this was the end of him. Only seconds were left. With that his reflexes kicked in as self-preservation was disregarded. He pulled a grenade from his vest and un-clipped it, letting the Amethyst fall down.

“Nooo….!!!” Cried the Vampire King.

As soon as the Amethyst touched the ground it shone brightly and immediately temperatures rose up, the entire ground was on fire, so cruel that the skin of the very bones simmered as fumes in an instant. Next instant the bones crackled, and nothing was spared. Vampires, humans, Germans all gone in an instant, evaporated. 

Friday, October 4, 2013

Last flight out of Ladakh: Chapter 7 - The Drowning

Last flight out of Ladakh: Chapter 7 - The Drowning

Prathap woke up with a sudden jolt. Or maybe he didn't wake up at all. Just his conscience telling him that there was a seething pain throughout his body, or the absence of it. He couldn't feel anything; his entire body was numb, frozen in a trance. Had anyone seen him in this stage they would have regarded him dead, being frozen in an ice slab waist below no man could survive a night in the open, when temperatures plummeted thirty degrees below zero. They would think that he has been dead for many weeks. Yet it had been only a little more than twenty four hours since the incident. And here he was, half frozen, the remaining half dying slowly and near death anytime.

A faint tune filled the still air around him, someone was whistling. It was an old folk song, one that told of the two regions – the frozen Chadar that was inhabited by spirits of the water, and the rocky valleys, the mountains to be inhabited by demons that hid in the caves and only came out to drag the unsuspecting passersby in. A song that old Zanskari women used to sing to their small grandchildren, who ignored it and played happily among both, the Chadar and the mountains. Before Prathap would gain conscious enough to pay any heed to the tune, it slowly faded away and was no more heard. A wooden stick struck the ice near where Prathap was lying. It struck the ice twice, and suddenly the thudding became more regular, soon the ice started shaking and it imploded on its own, but only around Prathap. The stick was promptly kept on the ice and two hands grabbed Prathap firmly and pushed him out of the ice in one strong pull. With the contact of surface to his legs he tried to stand but his legs were out of action far too long. His condition was severe, he needed immediate medical attention. All he could remember before falling back into the unconscious state was that he was leaving the ice and climbing the mountain, on the back of a pony.

12 hours later 

It was almost midnight when Prathap woke up. He was on a wooden bed, above layers and covered by several more. A warm liquid had been poured into his throat and by the taste of it he could guess it was chicken soup. A fire was burning some distance away below, someone sitting beside it. He was inside a house, a very warm house. After he had felt all this, his thoughts went to a flashback, over what had happened and how he had got here. He remembered waking up in the snow, the end of a tune, someone pulling him out and putting on a pony. He couldn't remember getting here but he thought this would be the house of that person. Then his thoughts went further backwards, over the incident a day ago. He remember that he and everyone had a very nice first day on the trek and had stopped for lunch near a part where the river was the widest and was flowing in the middle leaving huge Chadar on its edges, with breadth as much as a hockey field. They had been playing and cracking jokes at each other when he had absent mindedly thought of drinking fresh water from the river. Before anyone could stop him, he went straight to the Chadar’s edge and with a long plastic straw tried to drink the water. At that same instant the Chadar broke and the next instant Prathap had found himself in water. Before he could react and try to come up he had been pushed brutally in the waterflow and all he could find was Chadar over his head. And the water was like thousand needles pricked into his body at the same time, extracting all his life every second. His brain would black out soon with cold, his limbs paralyze, and he would die of could even before drowning would occur. And the Zanskar river in all its might was taken him away at a gushing speed.

It really happened to him, death like it happens in horror movies.

He was back in the room, alive. He reassured himself. No this was not a dream, not a post-death story line. This was a Zanskari house and he was very much alive. Just then the one sitting by the fireside got up and walked towards him. A wind of surprise and happiness swept over Prathap when he saw his face.

“Pasang!”, Prathap cried loudly, as much as he could.

“Yes sir it is me but not the way you know.” Pasang said and smiled. “Good that you are now awake, you should eat more I will bring some more soup” he added and went back to the kitchen.

Prathap felt happy, now that Pasang was here meant that his group was nearby and he can go back. To continue the trek or not was a question later.

20 kilometers away, Tibb camp

It had been a good third day trekking for everyone and they were excited that they would get to see Nerak fall the next day. Just like usual, an early lunch at seven, followed by milk had been served. Some of the spirited ones had played cards and dumb charades in their tents and were now fast asleep. Even Raj mohun was snoring in his tent. Pasang on the other hand was sitting outside on a wide rock staring at the moon. It was a full moon night that day and Chadar shown extra white in it. In the sky you could see the milky way and countless nebulaes and constellations. It was a spectacle, only very fortunate ones got to see it every now and then. He sensed someone coming out of his tent and showed his torch. Came a reply, “Pasang ji, Prathap here just going for loo”. “Don’t go very far” he replied back.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Last flight out of Ladakh: Chapter 6 - Enter Iceman

Last flight out of Ladakh: Chapter 6 - Enter Iceman

It was the group of 24th January, the one that had started before and had been the first one to cross the icy blue terrain that season who met him first. It was on their fourth day on the trek, and things had been going smoothly well as planned, they were supposed to reach Nerak village the next day and then hike up for the Lingshed village the days following. Their group leader Rahul, a man of heavy built and in his early thirties, had quit the corporate life to make a career out of his passion in adventure sports, and had joined IndiaTreks an year ago to gain experience and knowledge in that industry. Compared to the second group which had only nineteen trekkers, this one had twenty-three including the husband-wife dentist duo. Accompanied by close to thirty porters theirs was undoubtedly the biggest group that had trudged on the Chadar since a long time. To manage them effectively, Rahul had split the group into two interspacing slow and fast trekkers at regular gaps and placing porters and his assistants effectively. He regularly alternated between taking the lead and the sweep and ensuring all the team members were moving at a decent pace to reach the camp sites well in time. He also took great care to plan out the rations and their division among the porters, thought he relegated the food menu planning to the head cook and poked in the kitchen only if required.

Thanks to Rahul’s planning they would be reaching their campsite for the day by around two o’ clock in the afternoon, and since the cook and some of the porters carrying food had been much ahead, lunch would have been prepared or would be prepared soon after the entire group had arrived. They had taken an early breakfast and had started early before Eight o clock in the morning to make this possible. Thimpa, their local Zanskari trek leader was leading the group, and was closely followed by Arindam, Jyoti and Arun, the faster trekkers of the lot. They reached the campsite by ten minutes past two, and were welcomed by steaming hot tea. A scent of steaming soupy veg noodles was thick in the air. As they finished their tea and started scrambling to look for their tents and sleeping bags, their other team mates started filling in one by one. They took were served hot tea, and by quarter to three all of them were in the campsite, including the porters. Some had already pitched their tents, put their sleeping mats and woolen linings in, while the rest were in the process. Those that were done had formed a huddle around a small campfire and were talking odds and bits about their walk and pulling each other’s legs. Stanazin, the cook’s helper had just came out of the kitchen tent and was about to make a call that the lunch was ready when he heard a rumbling sound to his back, coming from  the cliffs high above.

Now before we get into the details of what exactly happened, we need to understand the geography of ‘Tibb’ campsite. Built on a bifurcation of a minor off-stream from the main Zaskar River, it had a trisection of a valleys. In terms of safe locations to pitch tents there were two – one, right at the intersection inside the mouth of the smaller valley, and the other one a little bit further down the valley alongside the river where there was a dry bank of silt. Also there was the huge cave, blackened by the years of usage by the Zanskaris as a shelter where they built huge fires and camped with families, perched right above the second campsite. The smaller valley is much deeper cut as it descends downwards from the level of the main river. The mud much loose, rocks much eroded. Locals have been known to take a path through it to arrive at highway connecting Leh-Kargil side, but not much public knowledge of it is available.

The rumbling sound that was coming made Stanzin jump away from the path instinctively and head clear away of the campsite. He had seen far too many landslides in his days and dashed as fast as he could, pushing other trekkers and asking them to run as fast as possible from the campsite. Huge boulders the sizes of an elephant’s head were rolling downward were dragging in a lot of mud and gravel from the top along with them, creating a cloud of reddish brown dust with in. What ensued was a frenzy of mad scramble; people running in all directions, some even went towards the riverside that was still flowing albeit a very small stream and the rest of it frozen, some headed back on the path they had come from earlier that day and the remaining went inside the valley. For the next two-three minutes there was dust everywhere and no one was able to see what happened exactly. As it settled people shouted across, somewhere someone was blowing a whistle, there was sound of ice breaking and someone falling in it and shouting for help before vanishing from the scene, sound of metal crampon spikes on rocks and on hard snow, and much more.

Rahul was running wildly in the dust cloud without caring for himself, he needed to help, that was his primary instinct. First he came to Ruby, who was lying on the ground with a huge boulder over her left leg that had broken in half and her femur bone was jutting out at a very odd angle. He tried pushing the stone away, only to see another one fall over her shoulder, hit her on the back of her head and splattered it like a tomato. He turned away and saw Ahilya who had fallen into a small ice crevice in the river and was trying to get up; she tried once and on the second try fell back in the river and got taken away in the flow. Rahul saw her madly trying to grasp the slippery ice puddled before she went under the full ice chadar with the river flow. He heard Thimpa’s whistle and saw him leading four trekkers away from the center of campsite to safety. He also heard Arindam calling out to him, asking to help Jyoti who was dead already. He then helped out Arindam out of the campsite and the dust cloud, and went in back again. What he saw was gut-wrenching, porters and trekkers had been battered apart, cracked and maimed and were struggling to free themselves from where they were stuck in. He tried helping as many as he could.

Two hours later, Rahul was standing on the second campsite, the one below the cave. Together with the porters and trekkers who were unharmed, he had erected seven tents, which housed the fourteen trekkers who were hurt badly. Some with minor injuries had been patched up together, those with more severe breakage had been tended to as much they could be. Nine trekkers and eleven porters were missing. Rahul was discussing with Thimpa what could be a possible next step. The Nerak village was another fifteen kilometers, and it wouldn't be surely having medical facility to treat all the injured. Going back to Leh was impossible; it was more than fifty kilometers walk, followed by car drive of about forty more kilometers. They needed an evacuation, as many of the trekkers might not last the night in the condition they were. It was decided that Thimpa and three of the porters would make to the Nerak village in the dark, and use the only means of communication it had – a satellite phone booth and try getting an army helicopter evacuation. Thimpa and the porters left at quarter past six. The sky had darkened to a graying blue by then. Rahul took made one more round of each of the tents, tending to the injured as much he could. Then he went to the kitchen tent to see if any food could be prepared since the cook was missing too. He thought that if they could last this night, they should be able to get help by tomorrow morning; army is known to be very helpful.
Little did he know that the trekkers won’t last through the night. Even he won’t. Someone high atop the cliff opposite their campsite was watching them. Someone who had earlier started a landslide and had brought them to this plight. Someone who was planning a slaughter, a cold blood-bath.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Last flight out of Ladakh: Chapter 5 - Day 2

Last flight out of Ladakh: Chapter 5 - Day 2

By the second day of the trek the group had acclimatized quite well, in spite of the subzero temperatures and harsh winds. No one complained of sickness, loose stomach or even a case of cold. All of them came down for the morning drill and they all seemed more joyous on that day’s walk – an eighteen kilometers uphill path in the frozen river valley, along the half frozen Zanskar river from Matho Doksa to Tilat Sumdo. At some places the river was completely frozen giving a full ‘Chadar’ or ice sheet to walk on, or at some places it was just frozen at the edges and trekkers had to cross carefully. Sometimes there was no ice at all, that’s when the trekkers had to climb up the mountain slope and come down when they found a stronger Chadar again to walk on. The amazingly created vistas changed at every turn and corner, and the color of ice at their feet changed from white to pale blue to turquoise to sky green. The photography enthusiasts were having the time of their life and the rest of the group happily obliged and posed along the spectacular terrain. Starting at eight o’clock in the morning after a hearty breakfast, they stopped for lunch halfway near a sunny side in the valley, where calm waters and a lot of playing space abounded. It was there the incident the unfortunate incident with Prathap occurred. But he survived, and was joyously welcomed back.

They first saw the German on the second day of their trek. Dressed in bright green color jacket with a brown mountain cap, he was immediately labelled as ‘Tota’, the one dressed as a parrot. That day while the group was setting their camp at Tilat Sumdo, he passed them with his group of porters and guides, totaling around ten to twelve, which seemed a lot to everyone in the group as they had that much for a group of fifteen. That night he set his camp a little further than them, but the next day his camp was quite closer to theirs and that’s how some of them finally interacted with him.

Somewhere in his eighties and with a mountaineering experience boasting several Himalayan peaks in Nepal, Alpine peaks and the great mountains of Kazakhstan, to the group he seemed like a quite satisfied person having a nice easy time on this one. He told them that this was his seventh trip to Ladakh, the first one being in 1970s, and that things had changed quite a lot since then. He was affluent, with custom gear and expensive North Face tents, all pointing to his healthy mountaineering years. Some people in the group made jokes about him being a ‘Nazi supporter’, while some revered him like a saint.

It all changed that night, on the second night of the trek. As usual everyone in the group had taken an early dinner by around seven-thirty, and while some played dumb charades or just told each other old time stories, it all quieted down by around ten o’ clock. Vikas was woken by a gurgling sound in his stomach, twice. Had it been close to the dawn then he would have tried to hold on, but the clock only read one AM. Even though it was twenty degrees below zero degrees Celsius outside, he told his almost asleep tent-mate Vinay and went outside. And that was the last anyone saw of him. Also the German guy and his troop was nowhere to be seen the next morning. He and his porters had packed and left before sunrise. It was Stalin who spotted him a day later, he was climbing a high mountain pass with his porters and guides. Viewed through a telephoto zoom lens his parrot green jacket was impossible to miss. His straying from the trek path seemed odd to everyone in the group, but what really worried them was the two fresh burial mounds that they came across. These belonged to him, and clearly these were not token mounds made in memory of those lost to the icy cold water. Their bodies were very much buried there as well. In those parts accidents were rare, happening only because of nature’s fury.

Little did the group know that they were being watched by the German guy in return as well. He knew that they posed little danger, but being outnumbered by them he knew that if he wanted his mission to be successful, he should not draw any unnecessary attention. Be there, act, mix, but not reveal anything for substantial value. A lot was at stake – years of planning, research and funds, losing family and friends and himself almost in the attempt, getting to the treasure was something he had made his life’s goal, and now he was so close, thanks to tip received by a monk in Hemis monastery, and old British survey maps that helped him narrow down its location. Also the greed of locals now overtook their reason, as so many were happy to join him along for his course, no questions asked.

A third pair of eyes was also watching both the groups, those of the spy. He was all alone, and on a mission. Sitting high atop than both of them, he knew of the standard trekking route that the group they were taking and that didn't interest him much. No, he was behind something else, following the German undetected and making plans as he went along. He could sense that this time the German knew where he was going and that what he was after was big, so the spy would not miss it. The memory of their last encounter was still fresh in his mind, even after close to ten years. Had it not been for that lucky shot from German’s pistol that got lodged in his right leg, this would all have been over then itself. An year back when he got to know that the German was back on the radar; it had taken him killing a lot many people to find what the German was after, and now a considerable effort to do this trek without any support, carrying his own food and essentials in this harsh terrain. But he knew this was his last chance, if the German got what he was after, this time he would disappear for good.

The village knew about all of them. Frozen as much in time as the air that inhibited it was, it had been more than thirty years since anybody human had set foot in it, but this time a lot of people were coming. It needed to prepare itself, for its survival – the raiders would be after the treasure, of which there were many. They would be knowing about the treasure, which would lead them to the caves. And when they get to it they would find the creatures. Or the creatures might find them. The village wondered what the world might have become in all those years, should it be welcomed after such a long time, or should the creatures be sent in advance to welcome the raiders and keep itself a secret once again. About that, the village was yet to decide.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Last flight out of Ladakh: Chapter 4 - Day 1

Last flight out of Ladakh: Chapter 4 - Day 1

The first day of the trek started with shivers. Shivering people crowded around the small bonfire in the wee hours of the morning. Actually it was not very early, it was close to 8AM, but the sun shone a little less bright through all the clouds. The ice around them aggravated the effect. They had all slept the night in tents, which had an insulating layer of foam at the bottom and blanket on top of it. Then they had slid inside their thick sleeping bags, with a woolen layer, and had two-three layers of woolen inside. Some even kept a leather water bottle inside with hot water so that it keeps them warm. The problem was not for those that had a sound sleep, but for those that felt urinary pangs in the middle of the night. Some tried to control it, but those that did get out for relieving themselves found themselves agape at the dazzling starry sky, a riot of glittering jewels more that mankind could ever fathom.

Breakfast was served at quarter past 8’o clock, parathas and piping hot chole bhaturas, breads and eggs with tea. The trekkers stocked up to their satisfaction and then the group started by 9AM, Rajmohun reprimanding them for delaying excessively on the first day and telling that next day it would be an hour earlier they would have to start. The first day’s walk was from Matho Doksa to Shingra Koma, close to 10 kilometers. They all moved at an easy pace, taking breaks to stand and stare gingerly at the vistas around them, framing and capturing shots and drinking hot water that they were carrying. Since not many knew each other, they were also chatting casually with each other and getting acquainted. While the serious guys kept to themselves, the more people loving ones starting passing around jokes and lightening everyone’s mood. By 12 noon they crossed the Hot Gates, a passage through the river valley where the two sides comes so close that two people can join hands and touch the two sides. More snapshots followed. Soon after that they broke for lunch in an area where the ice had parted to gushing waters of the Zanskar while there was still a lot of icy Chadar on the bank sides. Hot mushroom noodles and ready to eat tomoto soups was served. They were all joking how cold the waters would be and would it be possible to take a bath in it, when Prathap decided to drink it and check. He had a long straw in his bag pack, one used for connecting to water bottles directly which he took out and strolled alongside the river bank. No soon had he leaned down and dipped the straw in the water, he heard a faint sound as if a mirror broke, and the next instant he was in water. His reflexes were fast enough that he held onto one of the side of the ice Chadar, and somehow that didn’t break. Porters rushed in to help him out. He was seconds close to getting washed away in the icy waters, which would take him to an other-world covered with an icy roof, never to surface again. Everyone was shaken but soon the mood got lightened up as he changed his wet clothes and started cracking jokes. The group finished their lunch and moved close to 2PM.

In the second half they started coming across waterfalls that had been frozen due to the temperatures and gave the illusion of towers carved out of pure marble by nature herself. The Chadar was not always a uniform walkable surface, at some places it was several meters thick and all they could see was depths which trapped air bubbles of many seasons, and at some places it was a slush pool which had icy water and semi-frozen particles floating in it that could be inches or sometimes several feet deep. They learnt to follow the instinct of Pasang, the local trek leader and move in his steps, or learn to understand the sound that the icy was making under their feet to change their steps to more solid surfaces if there was a doubtful one. The ice beneath them changed colors, from pure white carpets of freshly soft snow fallen only days ago, to hardened ice, to greenish blue pure slabs of ice, to inky blue slush pools, and to bluish white newly formed Chadar. And at some places it was absolutely transparent, and they could see the water flowing beneath them. When they walked by the river, they could see small block of ice flowing across and occasionally come across pools bearing lotuses of the ice, a rare phenomenon.

Close to 4PM they all had reached the campsite, where the tents were already set up by the local porters who had moved faster than the group and had also prepared the evening snacks. Everyone settled down, relaxed and feasted on them.


“Let me tell you a story”, Pasang said with an eerie voice.

They were all around the campfire, some sitting, some half kneeling and some standing but all very tightly together to not feel the chilled wind blowing that evening. Everyone was tired after first day of trekking and clicking so many pictures of the beautiful vistas surrounding them, so hot tea and pakodas were being passed from kitchen and gobbled up in no time. They were all telling each other anecdotes from their past trek experience and accidents they had come across. From there the conversation had steered to ghost stories that people had seen or heard about. It was then that their local guide, Pasang had walked in the congregation, heard them for some time and when everyone was silent while munching pakodas announced that he was telling a story.

Pasang spoke, “Once upon a time there were forty monks from the Alchi monastery standing where we are now. No, they were not going to Lingshed Monastery like us or to other Zanskar villages. They were on their annual pilgrimage to a very special monastery. In a village where there was a castle long ago. The castle that was burnt a long time ago and the village abandoned. But that is a different story.

As the legend goes, only these forty monks knew the location of the village. Every year they made this trek in the winter on their own, without the help of any Zanskari, carrying their own food, fuel and tents and taking great care that no one follows them. They didn’t even talk to anyone of us if we came across their path. It had been always like that since I had known, and my father and their fathers. Forty monks came from Alchi to perform yearly prayers at a sacred monastery in these hills, year after year. And then something happened, something really bad.

In 1972, I remember I was 12 years old then, on the first day of their journey on Chadar, it cracked and took them all in. It was not a thin layer that cracked, the monks were far too skilled to distinguish the even the slightest signs in the ice to foretell a disaster. A thick part of the Chadar which might be more than ten feet thick cracked, and swallowed them all. We got to know about this from one group of Zanskaris who had camped at Matho Doksa and had seen the monks passing in the morning. They were behind the monks that day, maintaining a safe distance not to disturb them but still seeing them when there was a clear line of sight. They heard the deafening cracking sound as if a demon had pounded a huge hammer into the ice itself, as if a thunderbolt had struck in bright daylight or as if the land itself had parted itself.

Since that year, the practice to pray at the sacred monastery was discontinued. There was no one at Alchi monastery left who knew the location of the village, with its monastery and the castle.”

Everyone was quite for a full minute even when Pasang had stopped. No one had interrupted him, and it was as if the story played like a visual, a projection into their very minds.

Prathap broke the silence and asked, “You mentioned it was their first day on Chadar just like us, so did we cross that spot where they all like went in?”

Pasang looked at him and smiled, “Yes it was right in front of us, where we had our lunch today. Exactly the spot where you fell in the water.” He responded to Prathap.

Another half a minute of silence and stares into each other followed.

Stanzing, the cook’s helper came in chanting, “Dinner ready, dinner ready”, and everyone rushed to get their plates and cups. Everyone was glum with the story and then with the anecdote on today’s ominous incident. After the dinner rice kheer was served and people cheered up a bit. Some did star trail shooting after it, some got into tents and played dumb charades, while most got into their tents and called it a day, the air was getting colder and soon it hit -35c.

Aazaad Chronicles: Prologue

Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?

Her name was Meera. Meera Richards if you wanted to check out her details. Short, fair, and slim with an English officer for a husband, mentioned the school principal. She was the dance teacher, in a school for Indian children. In ordinary circumstances I would have asked for more details, but now was as extraordinary as it could be. She was the one inside the college auditorium used for dance practise, along with twelve more children. And of course the Caped Crusader, Aazaad. He was known to be on time with calculated moves and meticulous plans; all worked out to last details with alternate plan B’s and C’s to spare. But this time he seemed a little too early on the would-be crime scene. His arch-nemesis, The Trap had given him a 24-hour deadline to show up and enter his live-trap, a public school for Indian children. And he had turned up within three hours. It would seem a little off putting to ask, but would he have turned up so soon if this was a school for English children? Oh yes, he would have. Children are children, whatever be their skin’s color.

More than four hours had passed. It was time for the police to go in. We all prayed that it would turn out fine and Aazaad would save everyone, but deep down I knew something serious had happened. “Rajiv!” yelled Buttonface Mike, “Call in the boys. I want two teams, one going with us and the other coming in from top” he said. I nodded and crackled the same on the walkie. We went by the main entrance, past the laboratories and the library to the further back of the school where the auditorium was situated. The school had already been emptied of the children and other personnel.  Padded though our boots were, there was a thudding echo following us as we went rushing in. If he had tapped in the security feed, he would be able to see us coming, the Principal had told us. “Then let him”, Mike had grunted back. Bracing ourselves on the sidewalls, we signaled the boys. Smash went the ram and in three powerful knocks the gates were cracked open apart. Mike signaled me to follow and went in first. I counted till three, strained hearing hard that there were no cries or gunshots, and followed. At first it looked like a network or huge tubes, mechanical contraptions filling almost half of the auditorium and spiraling to an end at the stage situated at the center of the auditorium. This was one of those rare auditoriums that followed the old stage design having the stage in centre. Mike let the boys in first in the metal tubes, as a precaution if there were still any live-traps left. Chains, levers, switches, gears, motors, shafts and what not were carefully fitted at regular intervals, and almost all hidden from normal view. I had seen their pictures from case files and even watched movies made on them while growing up. Here it was all of it. Thankfully Aazaad had cleared them for us; though we were still very cautious while making our way across to reach the center stage. I wonder what this Caped Crusader had done now that he hadn't in past ten years to bring The Trap from his retirement. If this was the real Trap, he would be over seventy years now. Maybe all his bounty money for killing the second Aazaad been over, and he was after the five million pounds on this one’s head. As soon as we came out, a sharp smashing sound of the ventilation shafts announced that the second team had joined us in too. They would have to come through the tubes though, so much for the surprise alternate route. I quickly joined Mike who was standing near the base of the stage staring upwards, mouth gaped. A huge contraption resembling a beam balance stood towering over, a huge cage with spikes all around at one end and an equally huge metal box at the other end, tightly closed shut. And there lay Meera at the base of the balance, on the stage, all bloodied and unconscious.  

Days later Meera would wake up in a hospital, vaguely remembering what had brought her in such state and then getting terrified at the thought of it, filling her ward with shrieks and cries. After much consoling, she would go on to tell us how she was teaching ballet to a class to the grade fifth students, how she was just done finishing her second rhythm when a strange smoke started emerging from the exhaust vent just below the stage enveloping her and her students. She had then woken up to find herself strapped to a huge metal shaft, some forty feet off the ground, missing the ceiling by a few feet. She was taken by panic, to find her entire class mouth gagged, stuffed inside a huge metal cage that had spikes jutting out all around. Her panic would be multiplied seeing a known figure on the other end, Aazaad with his limbs pinned down by metal hooks, bleeding badly from a deep cut to the right of his stomach and a metal shard jutting out his neck. Before she would start to think about her own condition, a voice in the speakerphone would start telling her of what she was about to do, or should do next. She belonged to one of those rich Indian families, who prospered trading well with the British and bribing them enough to be well protected as well. Those who are only born in India, but keep their first steps out in London, knowing not the plights their fellow countrymen have suffered for centuries at the hand of British. She might not have heard of the first Aazaad’ – the more humane one, but of course of the second, who had a habit of continually making it to international headlines by his acts of barbaric violence. If not for both of them, she must have known the third, well who didn't these days in India. The voice in the speaker phone had told her that she had a choice - to either save the lives of her students or of the Caped Crusader and she had sixty seconds to make that choice.  Also whichever choice she makes, she would end up falling from forty feet as she had to dislodge a metal piece from above her and fix on one of the side of the balance, the one she wanted to save. She could even have saved herself, by not making a choice. After telling her why she had been chosen for this task, the voice went silent and the countdown began. At first she didn't do anything, for the first fifteen seconds she was too shocked to act. Then she dislodged the metal piece and almost dropped it once. Looking apologetically towards the unconscious Aazaad she placed the metal piece in a groove on the side of the children in the cage. She then covered her face with hot tears rushing down her cheeks. In the last moment she peeked and saw the Caped Crusader turning a bit, and in a moment of extreme grief thought of changing her decision. Then it happened, the timer ran off and the thick metal panel to which Aazaad was pinned started folding, smashing his bones and flesh to pulp with blood gushing out from everywhere possible. And then she fell down too.

She had taken to roller skating at a very early age while studying in London. But then she had been called back home as one of her brothers had been suspected of participating in an underground anti-British movement. Her family had been blacklisted and their trading license suspended indefinitely. Her life had been a downward journey since, except for her husband. Though an Englishman, he had little family fortune, but being an officer was able to maintain a fairly well living standard. She had a lifelong dream to see the world, go backpacking across Europe, on cruises to islands across the oceans and to lie on Californian beaches. Maybe because of that she had taken up teaching dancing that was one other thing she learnt other than skating. And that was what had made all the difference, putting her in the decisive role, of deciding not only the fate of a Super Hero or a masked vigilante, but a nation. It was year 2004 when the third Aazaad, the Caped Vigilante who represented fluttering flame of freedom India yearned for since centuries, died. Did our dream to be independent from the British rule died with him too? Or will there be another savior, another Aazaad? How many more Aazaad will it be till we are really aazaad?

 Rajiv Nehru, Senior Detective, Allahabad Police Department, Jan 11th 2004.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Last flight out of Ladakh: Chapter 3 - Day -1

Last flight out of Ladakh: Chapter 3 - Day -1

A day before 

They were doctors, dental surgeons, husband wife, the Nayaks – Arun and Ahilya. They had been long into trekking. Through high passes and treacherous crossings, through dense forests to knee deep icy lands, they had waded all of it together. Both hailing from Mumbai, their passion for the mountains had been the permeating thread in their life and both of them actively kept finding and planning more trips. They were in their tenth year of marriage when they decided to go for the Chadar trek. That’s brought them to Leh, about to join the second batch of IndiaTreks going for that trek. This was their third time in Leh, having done Markha valley and Hemis valley trek before, but first time during winter month. And that was true for most of the trekkers there. 

Arun had two passions, trekking and photography, especially wildlife photography. Having won many accolades in local and national magazines, he always had a keen untiring eye and patience to wait for hours to get the perfect shot. In his last trip in the Kaziranga, he had got some rare clicks of baby rhinos and National Geographic had paid him a hefty sum for a picture storyline. He knew he was getting quite good and lucky as well, but still liked to retain his day-job as a dental surgeon as that was something he could always bank on. He kept on thinking of taking photography more seriously but kept shrugging the idea off no sooner had it come. But this time was different. Arun had stumbled upon something that had been the stuff of legends and old mountain tales. Something that had only been talked about but never been proved. No, it was not the Himalayan snow leopard. He was after something far more elusive. He knew that this being his first trip there in winters, might not give any concrete results but he still wanted to give it a try. Even a small proof like a footprint might keep him hooked that his pursuit was not futile. After much thinking he had let in Ahilya on it as well. She had initially doubted, but knowing how passionate Arun was and how much he needed such a chase in life; kept the doubts to herself.

They had arrived three days earlier to the departure of the group, and were getting acclimatized to the heights as well as the cold. The other day they had gone on a sightseeing trip to PangongTso Lake, seeing it frozen in winters and driving an SUV on it is a thrilling experience in itself. Just layer of ice having questionable thickness separated you from the depths of hundreds of meters of icy cold blue waters. Upon returning in the evening, Arun told Ahilya that he needed to get a package, some additional equipment that was coming via flight and would be going to the airport. She was a little curious, and he had agreed to show her when he gets back.

He waited in the biting cold on the runway; the temperature was fifteen below zero degrees, and a small chartered flight was going to land. It was not the Leh airport but a private airstrip a little bit out of the city. In precisely three minutes it made a touchdown, took a much shorter time to slow down but the engines kept running. The plane hadn’t come to an absolute halt when the door opened and a man, tall dark and bald peeped out. He shouted over the sound of plane’s engines whirring, “Dr. Arun I have a package for you from the Chief”. Arun replied, “Yes, I am Dr. Arun, I will take the package from you”. The man tossed out an orange colored bag, it was quite heavy around ten kilos felt Arun as he caught it. The man made a small salute sign and closed the door, the engines gathered noise and the planet started moving. In another five minutes it was back in the sky. The time was quarter past six o’ clock in the evening.

Arun was sitting in his room with the orange colored bag, thinking how to tell his wife while he waited for her to return from bathroom. Suddenly there was a knock on the door. Arun got startled for a bit but then got back into his usual calm, “no one knows, not yet”, he told himself and answered the door. A middle aged man, well-built stood there. He told Arun that he was from IndiaTreks and that he was leading the first group to Chadar trek that was about to leave tomorrow. There had been two drop outs in the group because of poor health issues and if Arun and his wife would like to join his group and leave a day before. Arun wasn’t able to answer right away so he asked if he could tell in sometime. Rahul, the group leader told Arun that he can take his time and tell him even by tomorrow early morning.

By the time Arun closed the door, Ahilya was out of the bathroom. Seeing the orange bag she had figured that this what her husband had gone out to get. She expected that he would tell her the truth, and made no attempt to open it herself, but waited. Arun walked in and told her the first news, which Rahul the trek leader just now told him. And then got down on the floor and opened the bag. In it was cage made of transparent fiber and which had reinforced metallic frame. Two small green cylinders were fitted inside on the corners, and the rest of the space was empty. Before Ahilya could fully understand what this was for, Arun lifted one more object out of the bag, a tranquillizer dart gun pack. More ammunition cases lay in the bag. He explained her that the last person to see what he was after had described it to be small enough to fit in the case, but powerful enough which required the case to be strong. The dart gun was for the hunt, to catch a specimen alive. Ahilya protested, but Arun pacified her telling that getting a specimen was not mandatory, even a photo would do for a start. But if in case, just in case there was a possibility then it could change their fortunes. Ahilya was silent and thinking.

The next morning there was a knock on Rahul’s door. Arun was standing and he told that they would be going with him. The first batch had more chances of coming across things unseen, Arun thought. At around 9AM Arun and Ahilya left the Leh city, and started towards Zanskar valley with the first group.