Yes, this is an adventure story. But this is also so much more than just an adventure story. This is the story of what happens when a bunch of adventure lovers, many strangers, gather to do something amazing together. As a volunteer photographer in India’s first inclusive cycling expedition in the Himalayas, I observed these people, talked to them, spent time with them and saw first hand, why it makes so much sense for able bodied folks and people with disability to hang out together. When they hang out together, they are able to go beyond viewing each other through just the lens of disability; they are able to look and interact with each other as different human beings with different worldviews and different strengths & weaknesses. This story is not here to inspire you so that you can clap. This story only wants to leave you with an experience, that I think is important to have, for everyone out there.
Chapter 1: the background story.
A year ago, D had become the first blind person to cycle from Manali to Khardungla.
It’s a distance of over 500 Kms, with several high altitude mountain passes to be climbed. Khardung La is claimed by many as the highest altitude motoreable road in the world.
A tandem cycle was used for the journey, one where two people sit on two adjacent seats and pedal together. Gagan, his captain (the one pedaling from the front seat) was a perfectly able bodied cyclist – so navigating was not an issue. What this feat required was a decent level of fitness, enough practice and a belief in oneself – all of which they very much had. I was with them throughout this expedition and had made a short film on it – ‘Roads Unseen’. The film went on to win an award (in India’s first mountain film festival) and got seen by many.
D had not done this to make any records.
His intention had always been to first prove that something like this could be done and then, once proved, help as many other people with disability explore this adventure, as he could.
India has about 1.3 billion people (2016 figure), of which roughly 2% have some form or other of permanent disability* . This translates to over 25 million people with disability – more than the total population of Delhi (world’s second most populated city). Visual impairment and disability of movement account for approximately 20% each – that’s 5 million (the entire population of Kolkata) each. And yet, up until D did what he did last year, not a single one of them had cycled in the Himalayas. Why was that? Was it possible that none of them cared about adventure and outdoors? Of course not.
*Census 2011 (Indian Government data)
India has over 25 million people with disability. That's more than the total population of Delhi, world's second most populated city. And yet, up until D did what he did last year, not a single one of them had cycled in the Himalayas.
After last year’s success, D was now ready to lead a group of two more tandem cycling pairs and two amputees. He was riding again too. He had a new captain this time – Christopher, a wealth-manager from Pune, who had run into D four years ago, in a marathon stall.
“Hopefully no one will fall sick”, D said.
High altitude often makes people sick. Both D and I knew that. In 2009, I had cycled this route myself. I was young and carefree. I had done it without any backup, carrying all my luggage on my cycle. I was lucky nothing serious happened to me. It was relatively safer for D & Gagan last year because they had a support vehicle that carried all their luggage and food and water. And if any of them had fallen severely sick, we could have taken them to the nearest hospital. Thankfully, it never came to that. One day, we did need to give Oxygen to Gagan from a cylinder that we had been carrying all along. That was as far as it went down, health-wise.
“Someone WILL fall sick. We both know that”, I said. “What you should be saying is, ‘this is what I will do when that happens'”, I continued.
“Well, I hope no one falls sick, but if that happens, I do have plans in place”, D assured me. I believed him. This time, we didn’t just have two support vehicles but also a doctor who would be with us throughout.
Masterji was the guide in chief for this expedition. He was a local from Ladakh. He showed interest in my life and wanted to know what I did for a living. “I live in Goa with my wife and do photography and film-making across India”, I answered.
“What does your wife do?”, he asked.
“She teaches dance”, I replied. “Ah so she makes money too. That’s good”, he commented. I smiled.
I left my salaried job in 2012. Princy (my wife) left hers few months afterwards. We both moved to Goa shortly thereafter to start a cute married life together. After leaving my job, wedding photography had became my main source of income. For the first few years, I kept getting enough assignments, from across India, so money never became an issue for us. Princy became a dance and fitness instructor (she was into PR consulting earlier; I was a business consultant). There wasn’t much money to make from teaching dance & fitness, when she started. But she was passionate about it and we thought that sooner or later, we should be able to figure out how to make money from it too. Unfortunately, that had not yet happened. What had happened was that my wedding photography earnings had begun to dwindle. As a result, the overall household income had taken quite a hit, since over a year now. From the short-films that I made, I never made much money (most were just passionate personal projects, that I did because I cared for the stories).
In spite of the not-so-great financial situation, I wondered if I should spend my own money in hiring a motorbike for ten days.
That way, I could ride independently of everyone else and do a better job of making images from this expedition. I walked out of the hotel to find a motorcycle renting shop. I found one. The ongoing rate for an Enfield 300 was 1200 bucks a day. So it would be 12,000 bucks for ten days, plus few thousand bucks for fuel and then another ten thousand bucks to get the bike transported back to Manali (I was flying out of Leh after the expedition, so could not bring back the bike myself). First I was not making any money (from this cycling assignment) and now I was contemplating putting in my own money! What was wrong with me?
I went to another shop and bought a bottle of Old Monk. Dark rum should help me think straight, I thought. I passed on a two thousand rupee note to the shopkeeper. The bottle cost 500 bucks. “Sorry, I don’t have change”, said the shopkeeper. “Fuck it, there is nothing worse than a 2,000 rupee note”, I said to myself.
“Will you have change if I take two bottles?”, I asked the shopkeeper. He opened his cash drawer, had a look, then looked up at me and nodded. I returned to Mountain View hotel with two bottles of Old Monk. The next day, the doctor announced that alcohol was not allowed on this trip. “Just kill me God”, I said to myself. “Fuck off”, said God.
When I had first met T & D (last year), I had thought they were husband & wife. It was only few days into the expedition that I had discovered they were not. It was very embarrassing. I was sharing this with Vineet one day. And he said he committed the same mistake. May be there’s something about these two, that others can see but they themselves cannot! Or may be they don’t want to! Or may be both Vineet and I see more than one should. Who is to say!
Vineet was visually impaired with only 10% vision in his left eye (the other eye being blind).
After tenth grade, the eyesight reduced and it was a struggle to finish school and college. Vineet ran into an amazing group of teachers who specialized in training visually impaired kids for CAT*. He secured the highest ever quant percentile and got admitted in IIM Bangalore.Currently,he is working with Future Retail Limited ,directly with the CEO and leading various projects.
*CAT = Common Aptitude Test, an examination that you have to write to get admission to the top MBA colleges in India. They are very competitive and difficult to get into.
“How did you manage to attend classes in IIM without vision?”, I asked Vineet. “It wasn’t much of a problem”, he said. He uses technology to figure things out that his eyes can’t see. As an example, he showed me an app on his phone that used AI to describe any picture to a visually impaired person. It worked pretty well.
Vineet & General Suri were one of the three tandem cycling partners. General Suri had retired from the Indian Army as the chief of staff, southern command. There are only six army commands in India. The only rank that he could have been promoted to, had he not retired, was the Chief of Staff, Indian Army (the highest rank in the country). He was as humble as a person can get. “Ask me anything but don’t ask me if I have ever killed a person”, he said one day. “Well, I think you just answered that”, I replied.
T worked for the NGO that D had founded. She was originally hired to run the marathon vertical (blind / visually impaired holding sighted runners, and running as pairs) and then for some reason, this tandem cycling thing happened and T took care of it as well.
I poured myself some Coke and rum and called Princy to ask her what she thought about my idea of renting a motorcycle.
“Go for it”, she said. I told D about it later that evening. He was cool too. He also said he could get the motorcycle transported back to Manali for me, after the expedition got over (in one of the support vehicles that anyway had to to return to Manali, for a second batch to begin). That effectively saved me ten thousand bucks. We were all set to begin the expedition. I wanted to know more about all the people who were participating in it, as cyclists or otherwise; as able bodied or otherwise.
Chapter 2: the beginning!
First day’s plan was to reach Marhi, a distance of ~35 Kms, 100% uphill.
There was a small flag-off ceremony in Manali. We had managed to invite the SDM for that. There was some press too. The Indians and Israelis sang their national anthems. And then they took off on their cycles.
“I might be slow
but I will keep my flow.
I will not stop.
till I reach the top”, Vinod said.
I liked his passion but I wasn’t sure he was going to pull this off after he told me he had not been able to practice much. “I met with a motorcycle accident just some time back”, he explained why he couldn’t practice much. This was at least better than what Joy, the only able bodied solo cyclist on this expedition, had to say.
“I have practiced on the gym-cycle”, Joy told me in Manali.
This twenty one year dude from Mysore had not even bothered to practice cycling on the roads! And he was here to cycle from Manali to Khardungla – one of the toughest terrains to cycle! I prayed for both him and Vinod.
Vinod, 43, was a gangster once.
He had even spent time in jail. He lost his left leg when he was six (truck accident), but could be amputated only when he was 27. He had shared in a group conversation earlier that he had been in MTV Roadies – a TV show. I got curious and Googled for him (we still had internet in Manali, that wouldn’t be the case for most of the trip). I couldn’t find the Roadies video* but did discover a Youtube video that captured the crux of his life. The video was a bit dramatic but it conveyed the story – of how he lost his leg and what he loved to do.
*I was able to find the Roadies video too later. They were not on Youtube though.
“How did you find out about this expedition?”, I asked Reuven, the 68 years old masseur from Israel.
“Through a friend”, he answered. I was super impressed by what he could do at his age. He was visually impaired but was active in cycling and running and triathlons in Israel – even coming first in several competitions. None of his buddies were willing to travel to India for this cycling expedition. Until Sophie heard about him.
Sophie lived in a different city in Israel. She was used to volunteering as a captain to visually impaired tandem cyclists. She had found out about this cycling expedition independently of Reuven, and had been looking for a visually impaired cyclist to team up with. Someone who knew both Sophie and Reuven discovered their complimenting needs, and connected them. These two could practice together only once before heading off to India. And yet, if you saw them, they looked like a couple that had known each other for a long time.
It was a pretty rainy day in Marhi. Reuven would later tell me it was one of the most challenging days for him. Everything was wet and nothing would dry. He also had an upset stomach.
“Can you swap me with Joy’s room-mate?”, Ron asked me.
Ron and I were room-mates in Manali. But I guess Ron didn’t like me enough. Or may be he liked Joy so much that he wanted to move in with Joy. These two were the youngest of the lot. I could understand why they would bond better. I told Ron I was absolutely okay with the swap. And that’s how Vineet (Joy’s room-mate) moved in with me.
Vineet and I shared a tent /room for rest of the expedition. He would tell me one day how happy he was to move away from Joy. “He kept playing music till late in the night”, Vineet explained. I liked Vineet a lot; even when he kept playing music too. Vineet’s was a different kind of music of course, one that’s played from one’s rear end and affects not just the audience’s ears but also their nose. It’s a good thing I have a weak sense of smell that gets further diminished in the mountains. While during the night, I lived through Vineet’s music, it was General Suri who braved his musical notes during the day. The General even went ahead and coined a nickname for Vineet – ‘Rocket’. It took me few days to realize why. General Suri had a great sense of humour of course.
Chapter 3: it’s a picnic!
When we woke up in Marhi on the second day of cycling, it was all damp and foggy. Masterji advised everyone against cycling to Rohtang La.
It was decided that everyone be taken cross the pass (Rohtang La) in Yumthan’s bus. The group ended up cycling only twenty odd kilometers of the fifty that it had to. I was glad Gagan (D’s captain from last year) was not around this time. He would have been extremely frustrated. I would have been extremely frustrated too, had I not been allowed to cycle the very first pass in the route. How did it matter if it was foggy? I could not understand the logic of not cycling. Many in the group though, had absolutely no problem with this. The only person on whose face I could notice a clear sense of disappointment was Sophie. She was upset but she kept quiet. “This is a picnic”, I said to myself. And then I said to few others too I guess. “Don’t keep saying that”, T interrupted. “The purpose is different this time no”, she tried to explain. “The purpose this time is a picnic”, I said to myself. And then I did not say that to anyone else. I followed the bus on my motorcycle, as it crossed Rohtang La.
The bus crossed the pass, and then kept going down and down.
It just wouldn’t stop. Both Sophie and General got pretty agitated. “We are here to ride cycles, not travel in a bus”, Sophie had a point. Masterji convinced them they should go further down till the roads became great. “It’s a picnic”, I kept saying to myself. After a point, I had to go over to Masterji and tell him that everybody in the bus was getting really upset that they were not being let to cycle even on the goodamn downhill, bad roads or not. He listened to me. The bus finally stopped. Everyone ended up cycling, even if just for twenty kilometers.
“Hey, look above, what is that?” Kamila sounded excited.
I looked above. It looked like a rainbow. “It’s a rainbow Kamila”, I said. “But aren’t rainbows supposed to be arched the other way round? This is an inverted rainbow. I have never seen an inverted rainbow”, she said. “I have never seen an inverted rainbow either’, I said to myself. Let me take a picture of it, I thought.
Since there was very little to cycle, everyone reached the campsite pretty early. The weather was finally great and the location beautiful. We let our wet clothes dry. And as the clothes dried, we chatted with each other to know more about our lives.
“I wanted to make my body and all that when I was young”, Vinod said. “So I would do dumbells. I was afraid of my dad. ‘You are going to hurt and break your other leg too, if the weight falls on it’, my dad would yell at me. But when people don’t want you to do something, you always want to prove them wrong”, he shared. We chatted some more and then the day was over.
When we woke up the next day, the weather in Sissu was still great! Good for us!
Kamila found a pair of abandoned shorts as we were packing up to leave for the next destination – Jispa. I told her I could take a picture of it and show it around so that the shorts owner could recognize his / her clothing and collect it.
General Suri was the first person to whom I showed the photo (on camera). I was lucky. The shorts belonged to him.
“Have you had any interaction with any person with disability before”? I asked General Suri. He said he had a job once in the army that needed him to go give pep talk to the soldiers who had lost their hands or legs. But it was not at a personal level, he told me. “What I have with Vineeet is personal”, he added.
Sushil (above) was the other amputee cyclist. Vinod had told him about this expedition and brought him here. Sushil worked at bars in Jalgaon. Six years ago, he was about to travel to Singapore to join a cruise, where he had secured a job. A day before, he fell from a train and lost both his legs.
“I could hold bones of both my legs in my hands. I knew I had lost them forever”, he said.
Nobody came over to help him get up from the tracks as he lay there. He took out his cellphone, called up his friends and then they came and moved him to a hospital. He remained in the hospital for six months.
Ron, the videographer, often rode with me, on my motorcycle. That was good for him because he could get different shots of different cyclists, something not easy to pull off if you were stuck traveling in the bus or Masterji’s Bolero (the two support vehicles). It was not the best thing for me though. Every time I stopped my motorcycle to try getting a picture, he would either get in my frame or end up spending more time in that location than I desired to.
So yeah, it was not an ideal situation but I didn’t know what to say to him. He was just doing the best job that he could do. At one point, after dropping him off, I told him I would go a little ahead to find a good spot for me to make an image. As I moved ahead, I realized there was no great spot close by. The bus was behind us, so I thought if Ron didn’t find me, he would get back to the bus. I kept driving ahead till I found a decent location. And then once I was done taking few pictures there, I kept moving ahead. In my mind, it was not my job to transport Ron. I had to do whatever needed to be done to make the best possible images.
When I finally met Ron, he was pretty upset with me. “You left me on the road dude. I kept walking to find you but you had gone”, he complained.
I just made a weird face. I wanted to say sorry to him but couldn’t bring myself to say so. A part of me actually wanted him to not like me so that he didn’t bother me for the rest of the expedition and I could make my photographs with peace.
“How did you become a masseur?”, I asked Reuven.
“At about the age of 50 or 51, my eyesight deteriorated so much that I had to leave my earlier job. I was into information systems and programming. First few months were not easy financially. Out of interest, I attended a short course on massaging, that was specially designed for blind and visually impaired people. I liked it so much that the for the next three years I kept learning different forms and styles. These other courses were for everyone – not for people with disability as such. But I survived. And then, I got a job as a masseur in a hospital. It’s been around fifteen years now. I work there for only about one day in a week. I have my other source of earnings from rents that I collect from some properties that I own. Rest of the week, I am busy championing various causes for the blind and visually impaired community in Israel. When I am not working for legislation, I am doing all kinds of physical activities, from trekking to running to swimming to cycling. I am busy all the time”, Reuven shared his story.
Sushil had a girl-friend when his accident happened.
He did not tell her about the accident. He didn’t see why she would take any interest in him anymore, now that he had lost both his legs. But she found out. And she stuck with him. That’s when their love truly blossomed. Within a week of the day that she turned eighteen, Sushil married her. “It’s because of my wife’s love, support and encouragement that I took up running and trekking and now cycling, after losing my legs. I wasn’t into outdoor stuff much, before my disability”, he shared his life story.
At a place called Tandi (before Jispa), there was the only petrol pump between Manali and Leh. I got my motorcycle’s tank filled in there and bought additional seven litres and stored it in a can. “I am putting this petrol can on the back of your vehicle”, I told Masterji. “Ok. Ok”, he said. He would tell me few days later that I had not placed the can properly and it had slipped and some petrol had leaked! Brilliant!
Chapter 4: the personal stories.
I hated sleeping in the sleeping bags, mostly because I was not prepared for it.
Last year, when D and Gagan had cycled, we had stayed in the semi-permanent tents, spread all along the Manali Leh highway. You could enter them as soon as you reached. They were warm and you could immediately slip inside the blankets and rest. A bed typically came for 200 bucks a night. And you could order basic food like parantha, chawal-daal, Maggi etc.
This time it was different. Masterji’s team would setup tents every day. Often, the tents were not ready by the time we reached a site. And that meant, nobody could rest immediately. It was especially bad in Marhi, with the all night drizzling and all that.
To our delight, in Jispa, we got to stay in a proper hotel – on beds, tucked inside blankets. The bathroom had warm water. Both Vineet and I showered twice, once on reaching in the evening and again before departing in the morning. “Who showers so early in the morning?” T asked us. “We”, we replied. This was the last shower we were going to have, before reaching Leh.
Next day, all the cyclists prepared themselves for a 40 kilometer uphill ride.
Reuven learnt that day that like him, Kamila knew how to do the Paso Doble dance. They danced. And then they decided they should dance every time Reuven summitted a pass. Reuven knew how to celebrate life.
Reuven was in his late thirties when his wife gave birth to their third child. Within a week of the delivery, she was diagnosed with brain cancer.
His life turned upside down. Every day, he would first to go to his office, then return home to check on the children (the grandparents were helping with the care), then go to the hospital to check on his wife, sleep in her room in this hospital, get up the next day and go back to work. He did that for three years. And then his wife passed away.
“Roads teach us a lot”, Joy shared one day with everyone. “Roads are like life. Sometimes they go down. At other times, they go up. But no matter what, you have to keep moving forward”, he was proud of his theory. Joy had lost his dad when he was very young. He was the youngest child of his mother and belonged to a business family. “I am a pampered child”, he knew himself.
It started raining soon after we left Jispa. The rains continued pretty much all the way to Zingzingbar. Vineet and General were mostly ahead of everyone all through the route. Vineet was happy for his ‘jugaad’. On the other hand, I got all wet and kept suffering through the annoying cold weather as I waited for cyclists at turn after turn. None of the pictures that I made in the rain, came out good enough.
T & Ron shared their life stories in the evening, over soup.
“My step-dad was a Navy guy with serious issues that aggravated so much that one day my mom and I had to literally run away from him. We were in Goa then”, narrated Ron.
Chapter 5: I want to quit!
Sophie felt uneasy and Vineet even cried.
Ascending Baralacha La the next day was tough for everyone. Only the tandem cyclists tried climbing it. The weather was back to being foggy. It also got very very cold. General Suri got really psyched out when he noticed that Vineet was crying. “Why are you crying Vineet”?, he kept asking. “Nothing sir, let’s move”, Vineet kept answering. Vineet stopped crying soon and sure enough, they moved.
General+Vineet and Sophie+Reuven cycled all the way to Baralacha La top. At the top, Reuven danced with Kamila, just as he had promised. D & Chris tried to cycle too, but eventually gave up and were carried to the top in a support vehicle.
From the top, Sarchu – the next campsite, was all the way downhill. Vinod & Sushil felt comfortable in cycling at least this part. Joy chose to skip even this; he did not cycle at all the entire day.
“Did I tell you I got into a fight with the doctor?”, Joy asked me.
“Yes I heard but don’t know the details. What happened exactly?”, I asked. They were both traveling in the bus during the morning. Joy had eaten something and thrown the wrapper inside the bus. The doctor saw it and objected and that led to a verbal fight. “Wouldn’t you throw a wrapper in the bus too?”, he asked me. “No, I wouldn’t”, I replied.
“The bus gets cleaned at the end of every day anyway, so what’s the big deal? I didn’t throw it out of the window, did I?”, Joy rationalized what he did. “I would still not throw it in the bus. But you are not me. And I am not you, so that’s okay”, I shared my perspective with Joy.
“Ok, fine, let’s say I made a mistake. But the doctor came over to me and said something very offensive that he shouldn’t have said. No one should talk like that to anyone. Especially not someone who is as respected as a doctor”, Joy shared his unhappiness. I had interacted with the doctor enough to realize that there must be more to the story. Over the next few days, the two of them would move over this tiff and become friends again! As of then, Joy rode my motorcycle for me so that I could sit behind and make some images.
We were approaching Sarchu when Ron said he wanted to ride with me on the motorcycle so that he could take tracking video shots. “I want to take pictures too. I would have loved to help you but it’s a conflict of interest here, you see”, I explained my situation to him. “Yes, I understand”, he replied. I suggested he hop onto Masterji’s Bolero and try taking tracking shots from there. “I had shot like that the entire time last year”, I told him. Ron decided to give that a shot. He would tell me later that Masterji drove like a rally driver and he couldn’t shoot anything. I felt bad for him.
Once in Sarchu, Joy and I didn’t drive to the campsite right away. We took a short break in one of the semi-permanent tents. We knew that our tents at the campsite (few hundred meters down the road) wouldn’t be ready if we went there right away. Even after spending enough time eating Maggi and drinking coffee and all that, when we finally went to the campsite, our tents were still not ready. This was very inconvenient. Cycling time was up and everybody needed to rest. Everybody had to rest in the open.
A guy named Krishna from another cycling group came up to me and asked if he could ride my motorcycle for a bit. I had to politely decline him. I felt bad doing so. But there was only so much fuel that I had and the last thing that I wanted was to run short of it, before reaching the next petrol pump in Leh.
General Suri asked me in Sarchu if I could check with Vineet whether he felt he was being pushed too much.
“I don’t think he is being frank with me”, General said. He was clearly still psyched out from that crying incident. I told him I would do the needful. Vineet was very hungry and tired and wanted me to take him to the Maggi-wali place. I took him there. He had hot food till his heart’s satisfaction and even slept for some time.
It was warm and cozy and we wondered why we should sleep inside sleeping bags when we could sleep on beds, under blankets just for 200 bucks. Most cyclists had paid around fifty grand for this expedition. It was a cycling expedition. What was the point of suffering after cycling was done for the day? I was with Vineet on this. I told him he could definitely sleep there itself.
I decided I would inform D and T about this change in sleeping plan for Vineet and I. “No, I will speak to them. Our tent today is too windy and it’s very uncomfortable there. There is no way I am going to sleep in there. This place is so much better. And that too for 200 bucks!”, Vineet was firm. “Sure, you speak”, I had no problem. I then asked him the question that General Suri had asked me to ask him. Vineet said he didn’t think he was being pushed.
“Why did you cry then?”, I asked him.
His answer surprised me. He had cried because there was this chance to have hot Maggi during the day that he had to miss. It was one of those cafe-tents on route, that was kind of at a high altitude. General Suri didn’t want him to spend too much time at that altitude as Vineet was not feeling strong in the first place. What General Suri did not know then was that Vineet was not used to having cold lunch. that day, while climbing Baralacha La, all the cyclists had been given packed lunch, which was cold by the time he had it. Thus, missing the opportunity to have at least hot Maggi, on such a tough day, made him so much emotional that he ended up crying.
Vineet and I returned to the campsite. We had our dinner. And then Vineet shared the new sleeping plan with T. She did not know what to say. She went to D and asked him if that was okay. D said that was not okay. And then T repeated what D said. And then the two of them just wouldn’t let Vineet go to the semi-permanent tent. “But it’s very cold in my tent today. I don’t want to sleep inside it. Why don’t you care about my comfort?”, Vineet argued. “We have the doctor around here. What if you fall sick in the night in that semi-permanent tent? Who would take care of you? You are our responsibility in this expedition. We can’t let you leave the group, even if Amrit goes with you”, they argued back.
I felt bad for Vineet and tried to jump in to explain his case. “Why are you speaking on his behalf, he is an adult”, D and T shut me up. And that upset me very much. It upset me so much that I felt like quitting the expedition then and there. But it would have been very inconvenient to carry all my luggage on the motorcycle, all the way back to Manali. Afterall, I had not come prepared for a scenario where I would wish to leave. I hadn’t even planned to ride a motorcycle initially. So I just zoned out and went silent. It took me about a day to finally feel like talking to T or D.
It was proposed that Vineet and I sleep inside the bigger kitchen tent that night, as it was relatively warmer. The kitchen tent was warmer indeed. I still had an unpleasant sleep.
Chapter 6: the evacuation.
Gata loops start soon after leaving Sarchu. I flew my drone to capture an aerial view (above). What the above picture does not show is how every loop is higher in level than the previous one. It’s a killing uphill climb. Sushil didn’t even try to cycle. Vinod and Joy, the other two solo cyclists gave up after just few loops. Only the three tandem cyclists showed the strength to finish all the 21 loops. I was not surprised.
The loops were almost over when Kamila came up to me and said that she had accidentally dropped her cap somewhere near the bottle temple. The bottle temple was few loops below. Myth had it that a local truck driver had died at that spot many years ago. And if one left a bottle of water at the site, the ghost of the trucker sipped it during the night.
Bottle temple was few loops below. Myth had it that a local truck driver had died at that spot many years ago. And if one left a bottle of water at the site, the ghost of the trucker sipped it during the night.
“I think I was destined to visit the temple, that’s why my cap fell there of all places”, Kamila said. She had been travelling sitting atop the bus and could not make the bus stop when the cap fell. She asked me if I could take her to the spot on the motorcycle, so that she could find and pick up her cap. I was concerned with the fuel situation but didn’t feel like saying no to her. I took her there. It was not too far. We found her cap lying on the road, just next to to the temple. “Go, place yourself between the bottles and I will make a picture of you”, I suggested. She agreed and I made a picture of her.
Kamila was from Slovakia. She had studied psychology in Europe and was learning how to use group expeditions and outdoor camps as a means of therapy. She also planned to solo cycle in the second batch of the expedition. In this first batch, her job was to support T & D.
We returned to the top of the loops where I spotted an interesting cliff and decided to shoot “cool” pictures of anyone who was willing to stand on the edge. And then I asked the doctor to take a “cool” picture of me too.
There was an uphill climb of few more kilometers to Nakeela pass. Chris and D gave up. D was feeling sick. Sophie+Reuven and General+Vineet cycled / walked the entire distance.
By the time we reached the camping site at Whiskey Nallah, D was seriously sick.
He had to be given Oxygen. That helped him somewhat and he went to sleep.
I had a mild headache and was feeling sleepy myself.
The tents were not ready yet. I slept off in the open for sometime. I felt better when I woke up. I noticed that many others were tipsy, especially Ron. Soon enough, Ron caught on a massive headache and had to be given medicines and stuff. Both D & Ron kept sleeping for a long time. Others were slowly starting to feel better.
I poured myself sum rum and coke. I shared some with Vinod. And then Christopher invited me to dip my feet in a stream that flowed behind our tents. I accepted the invitation. So did T and doctor. They even did a yoga pose at the stream.
“Did you know anyone before D, who had any disability”? I asked Chris. He said he didn’t.
“So how does hanging out with a person with disability change a person?” I asked again.
“It makes you more compassionate and more tolerant,” he answered. I agreed with him. When I tried asking him which was the most challenging day for him so far, he said every day had been challenging. “But I am glad to have met and bonded with so many different individuals. That’s the best part”, he added. I agreed with him again. I could have said the same for my experience.
Later that evening, as I was sleeping inside my tent, I heard a lot of movement outside. “What’s happening”? I enquired. “Ron is being evacuated to Sarchu where the Army hospital can treat him. He is very sick and he is not recovering. There’s water in his lungs”, somebody answered. That night, D, Dotor, Kamila, Ron and Masterjee left the campsite in Masterji’s Bolero. Just before they left, I took out my petrol can from Maseterji’s vehicle.
Chapter 7: the confusion.
When we got up in Whiskey Nallah the next day, we did not know if Ron was okay.
Phones didn’t work (most of this route has no network). General Suri proposed that he and I travel to Pang, about 40 kilometers in the direction of Leh, on my motorcycle. There was a military transit camp in Pang from where he could then connect to Sarchu transit camp to find out what was happening with Ron and others who had left with him.
I poured all the fuel from the can into the motorcycle tank. The tank looked sufficiently full now. I prayed the fuel didn’t run over before the next petrol station (still 200 Kms away). Whiskey Nallah to Pang was an hour long drive on the motorcycle, with breathtaking views throughout. I had seen the views earlier (twice in fact). I still enjoyed them. General Suri was seeing them for the first time. He enjoyed them even more. “It would have been lovely to cycle on these roads”, he said. “Indeed”, I agreed. He also told me how in the Indian Army, promotion to the highest rank was not based on merit but based on seniority of age. “In effect, the promotion to the Chief of Staff, Indian Army, is decided based on the date your parents chose to conceive you”, he tried to put the logic in perspective. Vineet would later tell me that had the General been few months older, he might have become the Indian Army chief.
The promotion to the Chief of Staff, Indian Army, is decided based on the date your parents chose to conceive you. General Suri
Upon reaching the military transit camp in Pang, General Suri was immediately put in touch with the transit camp in Sarchu, via satellite phone. We were relieved to know that Ron was stable. But the army doctors in Sarchu had advised him to move to an even lower altitude – to Keylong (in the direction of Manali). The entire party had already left for Keylong, we were told. Again, because there was no phone connectivity, we had no way to communicate with D and party. We had no idea by what time they would reach Keylong and how long they would be there, before they returned! Confusion. Chaos. Uneasiness.
In the mean time, rest of our group arrived in Pang (on the expedition bus) and joined General and I. Sitting inside the Officer’s mess, we sipped the Army coffee, munched on the Army biscuits, used the Army washroom and contemplated on our next move.
There were many questions but few answers.
With Masterji gone (in his Mahindra Bolero camper), there was now only one support vehicle with us (Yumthan’s bus). Also, there was no doctor anymore; or even the oxygen cylinders (the doctor had carried all the cylinders with him, while evacuating Ron). So should the cyclists not ride till the doctor and Masterji returned? When would they return? What if D didn’t return with them? Without D, who would Chris ride with? What about Ron? Was he well enough to return? If not, who would stay with him and who would return?
Confusion. Chaos. Uneasiness.
Most of the distance from Pang to the next camp-site in Tso-Kar was a gradual downhill over the fabulous More plains; basically an easy ride. But there was a short uphill stretch of few kilometers to reach the start of the More plains.
Sophie wanted to start cycling right away. Chris wanted to do the uphill part in the bus.
He felt it was unsafe to cycle uphill without access to a doctor or oxygen cylinders. “I have a degree in first aid and emergency nursing, don’t worry”, Sophie tried to pacify Chris’ concerns. Chris wasn’t sure.
Eventually, a decision was taken to drop the cyclists at the start of More plains in the bus. From there, those who were willing, could pedal till the approach of the next campsite, a distance of about 40 kilometers, without the doctor, or the emergency oxygen cylinders or the second support vehicle. As a safety precaution, everyone was checked up by an Army doctor in the Pang transit camp. Everyone’s result showed them fit and fine. We also left a message for D and team so that whenever they reached Keylong they would get to know about our plan, and hopefully catch up with us in Tso-kar.
Sophie hated traveling in the bus, especially when she knew she could cycle. “Can I come with you on your motorcycle, till I get to cycle”? she asked me. “Sure”, I said. “Chris is just lazy, does not want to cycle”, she shared her disappointment. I dropped her to the start of More planes. The bus dropped everyone else there. Finally, everyone was ready to cycle. Then Joy said he was not feeling up to it. “You ride my motorcycle then, and I will sit behind you and take pictures and fly my drone”, I proposed to him. He immediately agreed.
It was an easy ride for everyone. Nothing went wrong. Soon after we reached the Tso-kar campsite, General and Chris borrowed my motorcycle, drove to a nearby village where a phone service was known to work, and returned with a solid news. Ron, D and that whole group was on its way to Manali where they planned to leave Ron and return to our camp site by night. Ron was stable but had been advised to not be on this expedition any more. This was good news. The only worry that I had at this point of time was whether my motorcycle had enough fuel to last till the petrol pump in Leh.
“I just ate raw Yak”, Vinod said.
“What do you mean you just ate raw Yak”? everyone asked him. He said there was a small tent cafe nearby where he went looking for food and they said they had Yak meat. It was not cooked meat, just sun-dried. The cafe lady offered him a piece to taste and he ate that. T was disgusted. T said she was a vegetarian who only ate prawns. “Can we not talk about eating raw meat, please”? T requested. Vinod changed the topic. “There are many marmots in this area. I should go try and hunt some. Their meat must be tasty. Yum. Yum”, he fantasized.
Chapter 8: horse power.
“I grew up with horses”, Sophie told me.
She grew up in France. Her family was Jewish. They moved to Israel when she was 14. Sophie did not like it at all. “Between the age of 14 and 18, I hardly spoke to anyone”, she remembered how she suffered through school, more so because she couldn’t speak Hebrew. Having grown up in wide fields, amidst nature and with horses, she hated living in an apartment in Israel.
When she grew up a little, she left her family and returned to France. But France didn’t feel like home anymore. Things had changed. And this was sad. She didn’t know where she belonged to. Eventually, after volunteering for the Israeli Army, she could finally call Israel her home.
“I wanted to do something meaningful with my life. I became a paramedic and worked as one for some time. But something was still amiss. I quit my job and went backpacking across the country. I would find part-time jobs as a care-taker of horses and that went on for some time”, she narrated her life story. Over the next few years, she developed the skills to use horses to help others in dealing with emotional issues. She became an animal therapist. Eventually, she chose dolphins over horses. They were easier to find in the sea, where she lived. Over the last 27 years, Sophie had been using dolphins to help children (and sometimes adults) with all kinds of issues, from autism to speech impediment.
“What’s the most challenging thing about your job as a dolphin therapist”? I asked Sophie.
“Controlling my expectations”, she answered. “I know that every child will take his / her own time to heal but every time I take one to interact with dolphins, deep within I am always expecting them to heal immediately. I have to try very hard to let go off my own expectations and just focus on the process”, she explained.
It was a beautiful evening. “The moon looks lovely”, Vineet observed. Vinod nodded. “The moon has so much light, no?”, said Vinod. I explained to him how moon did not have its own light and how it only reflected sun’s light. “I know I dropped out of tenth grade in school, but I thought I knew enough History & Geography. Never knew moon did not have it’s own light”, Vinod was surprised to learn this. I wondered if he thought I was just kidding. It was difficult to read his face. May be, he was just thinking about hunting a marmot in the moonlight. I slept early, without waiting for D and party to arrive in the night.
We woke up to a clear weather in the morning. D, Doctor, Masterji and Kamila were back.
Taglangla is a grueling uphill climb.
The solo cyclists didn’t even bother cycling to the top. This didn’t surprise anyone anymore. Since D had spent the past 24 hours traveling all the way to Manali and back, we didn’t know if he was fit enough to climb Taglang la. The last time he had cycled, he had to be given Oxygen.
“I will try cycling and see how it goes. If I feel any discomfort, I will get dropped at the top in the bus”, D decided. “Yes, even I want to ride only as long as I feel like”, Chris was with him. I was sure they were going to give up mid way. One cannot climb the Taglang La unless one is fully determined to go all the way up. 17,000 feet is really really high. I was soon proved right. D & Chris gave up early on. Eventually, General+Vineet and Sophie+Reuven were the only two pairs who could ride all the way to the top.
Even those who couldn’t cycle to the top – got their pictures clicked. Vineet would later tell me that General Suri found this very amusing, especially posing with your cycle at a landmark, where you have not cycled to reach in the first place. He said that if his men did something like this in Army, he would have court-martialed them. But these were not his men and this was not an Army expedition. No one was court-martialed.
Chapter 9: in the end.
Those who had taken a lift on the bus to reach the top, had enough energy saved. They played with snow and got pictures clicked. “The purpose is different this time, no”, T’s words echoed in my ears. I understood that. What I didn’t understand was, why was the purpose different this time?
After Taglang La, it was a joy ride for everyone. The roads were buttery smooth. Within no time, everyone reached Lato, the last campsite before Leh. Vinod had a minor accident and hurt his nose. Kamila borrowed my camera and took few pictures, including that of me.
Everyone was fit and fine. We had a bonfire in the night. Masterji sang songs and I played the harmonica. I was really really itching for a hot shower. I wanted to be in Leh as soon as possible. We were almost there. It was decided that the next day, the tandem cyclists should swap their partners. Everyone agreed it was a good idea!
Lato to Leh was about 40 kilometers downhill and then 20K uphill. Everyone rode only the downhill. Sophie captained D, Chris captained Vineet and General Suri captained Reuven.
Everyone was transported to Leh once the downhill was over. I could finally have my hot shower. It felt like heaven. There was just one more day to go.
Leh to Khardung La was going to be the toughest uphill ride for all.
I was sure only two cyclists were going to make it to the top – the usual suspects. I decided to not ride my motorcycle on the last day. I travelled in the bus.
Joy was the first person to give up cycling. “My nose is bleeding”, he complained after cycling for may be five or seven kilometers.
Soon thereafter, Sushil & Vinod gave up too. Nobody was surprised.
D and Chris surprised me though. I expected them to give up next. But they did not. When they could not cycle, they walked. But they didn’t seem to be giving up.
Sophie and Reuven were the first ones to reach the top. “Today was my kind of road to ride”, Sophie said.
“In this expedition, I felt proudest on two occasions”, Reuven would share the next day, “one on the first day when we sang Israel’s national anthem during the flag-off ceremony. And then yesterday, when we held our flags at Khardung La top”.
Masterji had carried me and Kamila to the top in his Bolero. While I was taking pictures, I had passed on another camera to Kamila so that she could take videos (given that we didn’t have Ron with us anymore). After we were done shooting Sophie and Reuven, Masterji loaded their cycle in his vehicle and the three of them left. It was not considered safe to stay at that high altitude for too long. Kamila and I decided to stay so that we could do the photo, video job for the other cyclists who were yet to reach. We hoped they wouldn’t take much time.
It took General Suri and Vineet another twenty minutes to reach the top. Kamila and I congratulated them and took their photographs and video. Vineet even did a little bhangra at the top. But he was not feeling too well. The two of them rolled down soon, on their cycle. Kamila and I stayed.
After about another ten or fifteen minutes, we saw Chris walking towards us, without any cycle. He stood there at a distance. Then we saw Vinod. He had chosen to cycle the last 100 meters to the top; how convenient!
I didn’t follow Vinod all the way to the Khardung La landmark where everyone gets a photograph clicked. I wanted to wait for D & Chris so that I could shoot all of them together. Running back and forth at that altitude would have been an unnecessary risk. I realized later that Vinod got offended because of this.
D showed up soon, where Chris had been waiting for him. They rode the cycle and reached the landmark. I followed them.
At the landmark, Chris & D tried all possible poses. I shot them for a while and then went to find Vinod. I saw that Sushil had arrived too. They were surrounded by a small group of newly made fans from Mumbai. Only when I asked Vinod & Sushil to come for a group photo, I realized that they were pretty upset that they had not been invited earlier. I really wanted to get done with the shoot and go down as soon as possible. It had already been around 45 minutes or more for Kamila and I at the top. Staying there for this long could make us sick any moment.
Eventually, Vinod and Sushil did join the group for a photo or two. But when they tried to get their solo pictures clicked (so what if they had not cycled), T and D got really agitated. “Amrit and Kamila have been waiting here for very long now, let’s not spend any minute more, let’s sit in the bus right away and go down”, they screamed at Vinod and Sushil. A heated argument ensued that continued even in the bus. I did manage to take few solo pictures of these two anyway – it didn’t feel right to not do so.
“They were firing a gun from your and Kamila’s shoulder” Vinod told me the next day. “If they were so worried about you and Kamila, Christopher and D should not have taken that long to reach the top, walking all the way and even stopping to play with snow and all that. When they saw Masterji returning with Sophie and Reuven, they already knew you guys were not in the vehicle, so you must be waiting for them at the top. Why did they not hurry up then”? Vinod had a point.
Eventually, everyone was friends again. I am not sure how that happened. I didn’t ask; didn’t matter to me. I was just happy to see Vinod and Sushil back to being happy again, and talking to D & T.
Badi badi duniya me aisi chhoti chhoti baatein to hoti rehti hain (small things keep happening in this big world).
As we drank and ate in the Pangong restaurant on our last day in Leh, what mattered was that no one was being defined or being categorized based on the working condition of certain body parts. We only saw each other as different adults, with different traits, skills and stories, who had just spent two weeks together, on an adventure that we were going to remember for a long time. And that is what this expedition was ultimately about!
Reuven and I shared our flight till Delhi. He remembered the story of my financial struggle.
“Amrit, I remember you were telling the other day that you had financial problems, right?”, he asked. “That’s right”, I acknowledged. “If I have to gift you some money, say one thousand dollars, how do I do that? Can you give me an account number or something?”, he asked me. I was moved by the gesture. I told him how much I appreciated the gesture but how I would never accept money from him. “Do you want me to find it out from your wife, then?”, he joked. I laughed with him. And together we laughed over the last two weeks of madness. A journey had come to an end. I was poorer in terms of money, but so much richer in terms of life experience!