Beauty of Leh and its hospitals!

Nishat Bagh outside Srinagar

Nishat Bagh outside Srinagar

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 Repairs along Srinagar-Leh Road

The Road Repairs along Srinagar-Leh Road

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!

Drass before Kargil

Drass before Kargil

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.

Kargil War Memorial

Kargil War Memorial

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.

Author at Fotu La Pass on Srinagar-Leh Road

Author at Fotu La Pass on Srinagar-Leh Road

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!

The Buddhists Flags and the Mountain on  Srinagar-Leh

The Buddhists Flags and the Mountain on Srinagar-Leh

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.

Picturesque views along Kargil Leh Road

Picturesque views along Kargil Leh Road

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.

With Monastery students

With Monastery students

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.

Flag Changing at Hemis Monastery

Flag Changing at Hemis Monastery

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.

The Chang LA Passs

The Chang LA Passs

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.

Pangong Tso Lake

Pangong Tso Lake

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!.

Raja, the day before Hospitalisation at Leh Market

Raja, the day before at Leh Market

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.

The Rancho's shop!

The Rancho’s 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.

 

Kashmir and ‘Kuch Light sa Non Veg ‘!

The Paddy Green Kashmir Valley

The Paddy Green Kashmir Valley

It all happened in the summer of 2011 on a rather spontaneously planned trip with friends to the valley of Kashmir. The plains were simmering under the fierce summer heat of June and the promise of some relief in mother natures lap tempted all of us to hit the deck. Raja, Dabbu and I, had a ‘Dil Chahata Hai’ type trip in mind. Inspired by beautiful descriptions of this paradise on Earth heard over the years, we decided to explore Kashmir in right earnest . We wanted to enjoy everything Kashmir offered particularly its great landscape and the authentic Kashmiri food. Our first halt was at a military base in Udhampur that offered some fine hospitality topped with free flowing scotch. Next morning we left for Srinagar and reached ‘Peera’ by lunch time. It’s a small town on Jammu- Srinagar highway and was suggested to us by our hosts last night to relish mouth watering Razama- Chawal. Laced with dollops of desi ghee, this was really a treat to have. In fact realising that we would not be doing the return journey on this route, we over ate and happily too. The entry into the Kashmir valley after passing through Khooni Darrawas an amazing experience. The Kashmir valley is one of the biggest valley I have seen and one can speed more than 100 Kmph for a considerable stretch before you reach Srinagar ! With paddy green fields on both sides of NH 1A, I can vouch that Jahangir was a true connoisseur of beauty ! Kashmir is unbelievably beautiful. It’s bliss. I can also say that the entire world populace can be broadly classified into two categories, first those who have seen the Kashmir and second, those who have not! Reaching Srinagar by evening, we  were now in the first lucky lot.

leh trip june11 032

In Raja’s (left) Company

The real action started here in the valley.  One of our friends, Raja, is really fond of non-vegetarian food. He had been on many trips with me and was apparently physically fitter than the most. He loves to play, see places, enjoy life and if time still is there, to teach his students. A ‘Raja’ in true sense of terms. Right from the start of journey, he had fixed his priorities and had stock full of booze as well. The previous night ably led by Raja, we had enjoyed drinks and food at the officers’ mess and now as soon as we checked  into our hotel at Srinagar, Raja started to enjoy the evening in right spirit(read high spirits, pun intended). Though none of us is a saint, he perhaps had a little too much of the sparkling liquids. Once full, Raja decided to lead us from front and we moved out on to Dal facing main road in Srinagar  in search for authentic Kashmiri food. Nestled in the arms of Himalayas, Kashmir is heaven especially during summers and many tourists, besides us, knew this and when Indian tourists decide to see a place en mass, it’s a scene to watch ! At 10:00 pm at night, in insurgency hit Kashmir, there was a queue at a famous restaurant and a mandatory waiting period of more than 30 minutes ! We could not believe this actually. After waiting for some time we decided to get our Kashmiri food packed. Raja agreed to this offer as he could have some more scotch in the room with Gushtaba and Rogan Josh with Kashmiri pulao. We came back to our rooms. The food was soul stirringly delicious, Gustava in particular. We still can’t forget the fragrance of spices used in the food. Raja too had it all and then we retired to bed.

The Gulmarg Snow Heights, Raja and I

The Gulmarg Snow Heights, Raja and I

Next morning our dear friend Raja was little uncomfortable. He had a little too many visits to the lavatory. Then he emptied few sachets of time tested Eno to tide over this mini crisis linked perhaps to over eating and somewhat over drinking. We still got readied ourselves for our trip to Gulmarg and for the first time on our food-fueled journey, had a ‘light’ breakfast. The 52 kms trip to Gulmarg was characterized by great views along the way. This popular skiing resort at an elevation of around 9000 feet was a favorite of Jahangir too.  But Raja, fatigued by the road journey, had started to feel nausea. The gain in heights was also creating problems for him. We reached at the base of snow covered hills and though there was again a huge queue, we decided to go on board the second highest Gondola rope way in the world. We reached at the top and were mesmerized by the breathtaking views of snow covered hills. It was more beautiful and alluring than shown in recently released movie, Haider. Here while Dabbu, realizing the steep snowy ascent decided not to move up the snowed hills, I moved on to take some pictures. It was a tough trek. Drawing upon all the available oxygen in air, I over pushed myself to reach the top and behold the surreal majesty of the Great Himalayan Range. To my utter surprise I found Raja trailing behind me, as he too wanted to take some pictures with snow in the backdrop. Raja was panting though. We took some pictures. But Raja could not pull it off for long and decided to beat an early retreat. I got some pictures clicked and walked down carefully. When I reached down to the base, Raja was having some bad nausea and an upset stomach. We waited for him to recover a bit and started moving back to Srinagar. We were a little worried by now as we had spent just two nights in J&K and as per original plan had almost a week more for Kashmir and Leh.

Raja in centre and Dabbu on Right.

Raja in centre and Dabbu on Right.

On reaching back to our hotel in Srinagar, Raja immediately dashed to his medicine bag and, in true Indian self medication style, popped in as many medicines as he could. He flung himself into the bed and pulled over a blanket, covering himself up to his head with just a little peep in window to get fresh breath. Dabbu and I too retired for some rest after tea. By late evening, I was ready to roll again and so was Dabbu. He had probably started catching a cold but was still fit enough to see the markets and go out for dinner. Raja however was still asleep. We nudged him. He moved a bit and said he wasn’t feeling well enough take food let alone a walk beside the Dal Lake. We felt a little worried but did not want to miss the evening stroll or the dinner. Raja too had not eaten anything since morning. We knew that his stomach was upset and the rarity of oxygen at these heights was taking a toll on him.

Gulmarg Gondola

Gulmarg Gondola

As a middle path, we asked him what he’d like to have for diner, which could then be brought to the room. He just murmured to us that may be, we could get him some “light food” as he was not feeling well. The next question from us was” which light dishes will you like to have?” The options possible were like Daal- Chawal type or may be some fruits. We also suggested out of our sincerity that he could have some bread so that his stomach may get some rest. Raja listened to us patiently with his blanket still on up to his face. He repeated his suggestion of some “light food” again. He did not disclose any cuisine or specific preferences still. We were little perplexed. Dabbu and I were putting up some conjectures, but none clicked. Now much exasperated, we just asked him to specify. He now murmured something which we could not believe. Shocked, we pushed him to repeat. He repeated, “kuch light sa non veg!”. What ? Light sa non veg for dinner  for on the bed Raja? We were shocked. It was the most unexpected request from a person lying in the bed and who had had more visits to the  loo by now than to the panoramic views of the Dal lake ! This man was down and out for a considerable period of time and was having fever since morning and had gulped sachets altogether of all flavors of Eno and a dozen different medicines with lightning frequency and now “light sa non veg?”  Can Non Vegetarian food be light? We had known our friend for no less than 22 years. But my God, kuch light sa non veg in these conditions and for him! Phew! After few seconds we all started laughing but my friend in bed was not in a position to even laugh freely lest  he might get spasms and the resultant visit  to the lavatory again. He just smiled faintly and closed his eyes. Dabbu and I were aghast and left the room with a sense of piquant bemusement.

The Remedy?

The Remedy?

We strolled in the market and kept on discussing his choices for “light sa non veg!”. After strolling besides Dal Lake for a while, we reached a decent looking restaurant. We asked the man at the counter, to suggest some ‘light’ non veg options they had at the restaurant ?” He saw us top to down and with a smile. He said, “Are you serious?” We realized pretty quickly that we were looking funny with our demands. Now I took charge and decided to call a spade a spade. I asked him to pack up whatever best non veg he had. In no time he packed Gushtaba and  Rogan josh and murg mussallam. We paid the bill and came back to the room. Raja was still there in bed. We announced our arrival and asked him to join at the table for dinner. He nodded but asked if he could be given his light non veg at bed itself. We complied. He checked the recipes and without uttering a word, polished off a decent amount of non veg food but not before washing it all down with a patiala peg of scotch. Dabbu and I were shocked even more. We looked at the whole sequence of affairs with bewilderment and having no clues about what was happening, retired to bed.

The Raja's Choice!

The Raja’s Choice!

Next morning, we had to proceed to Kargil en route to Leh. Raja was in some trouble but he seemed to amble along with slight effort. That was a little unexpected but something that gave us significant relief and a sense of puzzled wonder. Either the medicines or last nights dishes were working some incomprehensible magic. Our wonderment however lasted only so long. As the journey progressed, we realised that Raja had bitten more than he could chew! Our next few days therefore were spent in clinics and hospitals in the remotest Himalyan reaches including the war famous Kargil ! He  was treated by all including some very beautiful Kashmiri lady doctors. Their treatment perhaps alleviated his agony. Though he never complained, in that short period of acute ailing, his bum-injection-count rose exponentially enough to beat his life time tally. He even got hospitalized for high altitude sickness, first in Kargil and then in the tourist ward of Sonum Norbu Memorial Hospital at Leh! We eventually had to plan and execute an entire rescue operation to get Raja’s health back on track but that is a story for another time. This was an unique experience  altogether but was certainly enjoyable in the hindsight! Raja’s die hard love for “kuch light sa non vegetarian food” eventually made our visit more memorable than we could have ever planned ! I would like to know, if you have ever encountered a similar uncontrollable urge to satisfy your palate against all odds and if yes, how has that really turned out for you?

 

Kargil en route to Leh

Kargil en route to Leh