CLIFFHANGER 21 : OVER THE SHINKHU LA & UNDER THE IMPOSING GUMBO RANJAN

23rd August 2021

Crossing over high-passes would become a drill later in the drive-trip, but today was to be the first time we would be crossing over a pass, a high one at that. We were also to cross a few shallow rivers. These rivers swell up in the latter half of the day, so whilst the drive from Gemoor Khar to the campsite in Kargyak Valley was to be only 3-4 hours long, we had to leave immediately after breakfast.

Rajeev Kohli got highly inspired by the lovely scenery in the morning and sang paeans of glory to Banjara Camps & India Insight tours, the main organisers of this trip. Cars were loaded on the slope down from Gemur Khar while last minute pictures with views of the Bhaga river below were taken. There was a very tactical stop after 10 minutes where someone had discovered a spot where the mobile connectivity worked. Cars were parked and vaccination certificates were downloaded (you need both data AND mobile connection for the darned OTP…its very technical!) and quick trips to the ATM were made.

Passengers were assigned to different vehicles, the idea being that we should all mix around and get to know everyone. All the really nice people were in the lead car with Gurpreet Dhindsa (ahem!). This was also my first day trying my gimbal in an attempt to video record the entire trip. (It is also a good time to mention that gimbals have a mind of their own especially in the hills when the gyro goes bat-shit crazy) Everyone got savvy with their walkie-talkies as well and fun chatter flew back and forth.

The total distance to be covered from Gemur khar via Darcha check post to Gumbo Ranjan was approximately 60 Kms. But during this time, we would be climbing from an altitude of 10,500 feet to 16,600 feet at the Shinkhu La pass and then down again to approximately 13,500 feet at the camping site. The road is a good tarred road almost upto the pass. The last 10 kms or so is when the gravel road starts winding upto the pass. Even though it was late august, there were large tracts of snow all around the approach to the pass, at the pass and for a km or two after.

Just before starting the upward climb to the Shinkhu La pass, you are treated to wonderful views of a stunning valley. We chose this spot for all the cars to catch up, took some pictures and then set off on the grueling climb upwards. The snow tracts started becoming more dense, the lake puddles became more turquoise, the clouds a tad wispier and the air definitely crisper.

There were muted warnings from the experienced persons in the group to keep physical activity at the bare minimum and allow the body to acclimatize. One person in the group, did not pay much heed and jumped in the air to take Instagram worthy pictures at the pass. This person needed oxygen treatment later in the day.

When you drive up, you come upon the fluttering prayer flags of the Shinkhu La all of a sudden. There is a sharp bend in the road, but there is ample place to park the cars. We all clambered down, taking in the beauty that surrounded us. We had bought some prayer flags the previous day at Keylong. These were tied dutifully, so that the wind carried our prayers for a safe journey ahead.

Just as we were heading towards our cars, mainly because we were cold … we saw Preetam and Prabhjit in deep conversation with a biker. He seemed to be alone and lost. We established within a few minutes that we was definitely alone AND lost. He had taken the wrong turn in Jispa towards the pass instead of going to Leh on the usual route. We shall call him Akshay the Biker (name changed until we have permission to share his story)  Since, we were armed with tons of information & experts amongst us, we tried persuading him to go back and take that route as there were river crossings on the route ahead. But he didn’t seem very convinced. He asked for some drinking water and we left him at the pass trying to find Leh on google maps.

No amount of pictures were enough, but thanks to Gurpreet’s bidding, we got in again and started our descent from the pass. The ride down was pretty tricky for 10 kms or so. The road is quite narrow and the bends are tight. This meant that giving way to traffic needed skillful maneuvering. There is a tunnel being built thru /around this pass and some amount of work was going on as well. This meant going past a lot of JCBs and earth movers.

As you come to the base of the descent you are come into a very gravel-ly river bed kind of valley with small streams gurgling thru it. It was teeming with small purple hill flowers and shrubbery. Without a plan, all the cars again parked there to take in the scenery. A few bikers passed us by and we loudly greeted Akshay the Biker as he passed us by gallantly, not before Rajesh Ojha bent down to tie his laces for him and gave him a few words of encouragement. Perhaps he sensed that Akshay the Biker needed them.

As we traversed a few more small rivers, most of which will start collecting together and forming a larger river that in turn will meet the Tsarap river later at Purne, we were happy to note that there was now a small bridge over the most gushy one of them. The other river crossings were very exciting and one could definitely spot 70% of Dilshad Master Kumar out of the car window during one of these.

As we passed the last river, all of a sudden there was this large, looming, solitary, brown peak in front of us. The first sight of the holy Gumbo Ranjan would have been far more overwhelming if we weren’t distracted by the bright yellow tents just below it which was to be our campsite. So we stopped, tumbled out and took in the entire scene in with a feeling of awe and gratitude. Overriding thought “How did I get so lucky?” (under-riding thought, shucks, is that a headache coming on?)

Two of the cars did not arrive for a long time. Then they did. Preetam & Prabhdip came in last and in came with them a very wet, tired and hungry Akshay the Biker! Apparently, as expected, his bike got stuck in one of the rivulets. It was eventually left there for the night. The plan was to have him stay with us at the camp and go back to get the bike out in the morning when the water-levels were expected to be lower.

Being in the mountains makes you hungry. So the amazing spread of egg-biryani and vegetable biryani was gobbled up pretty quickly. A local donkey decided to pay us a visit upclose. Very nonchalantly he nuzzled at Rajiv Ojha’s neck, and once he knew he was suitably captured for Instagram, he proceeded to become great friends with Saira. There were also a large party of yaks who didn’t pay any attention to us and stayed on the other side of the road towards the river. A couple of Dzos played “who can climb higher on the perilous cliff” game solely with the purpose of impressing the new pack of humans.

And then the altitude hit me. I quietly went and lay down in my tent. Very uncomfortable, breathless and unable to comprehend much. I had also completely missed Pavane’s diktat of “3 before 3” (Drink three litres of water before 3 o clock) and realized I had hardly had any water all day. I made a dash for one of the zippy toilet tents and barfed out all the biryani. I meekly went to our designated doc-on-call, Sanjit Singh Bal and dutifully reported sick. Full on attention-seeking happened. Blood pressure was monitored, one oxygen cylinder was emptied into my nostrils, ginger tea was gulped, electral sachets were imbibed. Felt a bit better after all that. Others were also feeling the altitude in various ways – upset stomachs, slight headaches and general listlessness. Hot soup, constant ginger-tea helped ease everyone.

I got magical relief when Dilshad suggested I chew on garlic cloves. Sharply bitter as they were, I was willing to try anything and sure enough, boom! within half hour I was back to taking pictures and recording videos of the dinner.

The stars! The stars that night as we camped under the shadows of the Holy Gumbo Ranjan made it all worthwhile. It was my first time ever sleeping in an outdoor camp within a small tent. Again, I did not heed an input from the experts. “take off all your outer layers when you get into the sleeping bag and let your body heat warm it for you”. Wore my sweater and a light jacket and remained cold all night inspite of a nice hot-water bottle that was provided. The late night toilet sojourns was one of the most difficult pee-breaks I needed to take but that feeling of not having a headache anymore was so great that I was willing to take it in my stride.

Went to sleep that night under the stars, lulled by far away sounds of animal grunts and the flowing stream. I slept with a smile because I was finally in Zanskar Valley, where I really had longed to be. Tomorrow was to be another day!

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