Driving through Khardung La, one of the highest motorable passes in the world

Some trips are impromptu & fun, and some need immaculate planning that starts from booking your plane tickets at least three months in advance, planning your leave so that it doesn’t coincide with any program launches or business reviews at work & designing the itinerary to have a fulfilling experience (which means not miss anything important :D). Travelling to Leh Ladakh was such a trip that needed quite a lot of prep. On top of that, Ladakh isn’t your regular fun trip wherein you book tickets, take leave from work, pack your bags & head out. Ladakh demands a tax from all travellers. For all the ethereal, scenic views that you enjoy for free in this country, the place demands that you live out your vacation days like locals – enjoy the nature, bear with the altitude & breathe in a low-Oxygen atmosphere. For a place like Ladakh, this is a small price to pay. At least that’s what we think!

Ladakh, at its best!

No matter what our fitness levels are, we dream of riding (or pretend to ride) the Yellow scooter at Pangong Lake, thrashing the sand dunes at Hunder, visiting the many monasteries situated in the region, paying our respects to Indian Army at Kargil and getting our photos clicked atop the highest motorable pass in the world. Did I say the highest?! Well, technically it’s one of the highest…but it’s still referred to as the highest motorable pass by many. 😀 Oh, we love to brag. Dreaming about all this is free, but making it all happen isn’t as easy as it sounds. It demands a certain discipline. Only those who regularly exercise or acclimatise well survive these altitudes to realise their dreams. The rest end up with Oxygen cylinders, or Oxygen bags.

There’s this thing about me: I attract gossip. Either I am being gossiped, or I am gossiping. Either way, I am part of it. So naturally, I had heard all the altitude sickness stories. At any given point in time in 2018, I knew who all in my office, in my friends circle & in my neighbourhood have gone to Ladakh & fell sick. Yeah, not kidding! I really knew all this.

Surprised? 😀

What can I say?! I attract gossip.

Three months before the Khardungla Trip:

Tickets booked. Leave (almost) approved. No big launches happening during my leave. Itinerary (almost) planned. We were ready to explore the mountains, the lakes & the culture of Ladakh.

One day, I had to take stairs at work. I took them and realised the real state of my fitness. I was finding it difficult to catch my breath after every flight of stairs. It became clear to me that I won’t survive the high altitude of Ladakh easily. So, I started working towards making it easier by thinking to exercise every morning, taking stairs at work at all times, watching my diet & sleeping on time. I made a good plan, bought everything needed to regain my fitness and became anxiety-free.

One month before the Khardungla Trip:

One can do a lot in 30 days: find a new role, serve notice, find someone special, get married, get fired, celebrate birthdays, travel to a different continent, write a book, host a show, gain weight, shed weight and build fitness. Yes, I could still work towards a better lung capacity. So what if I hadn’t been able to exercise much in the last 3 months, I could still catch up. So I did. I used my Kettle Bell on most mornings, took stairs during lunch hours, tried to wake up early, if not sleep on time & ate healthy in the last few days before the trip.

Did I achieve the desired fitness?

I must have because I was feeling awesome and ready to fly over the Himalayan range to reach one of my favourite places in the world – Leh Ladakh.

en route to Ladakh!

In Ladakh, Day 1:

We took the GoAir flight, landed on the airstrip and reached the airport in a bus that was finding it difficult to breathe. Little preview! On the airport, they were making announcements about altitude sickness, educating the visitors on the symptoms and advising to ask for immediate help if needed.

I was absolutely fine. I met my school friend who had helped us a great deal in planning our Ladakh trip. There’s this thing about meeting your school friends; they remind you of your own younger self. I reached the hotel thinking about my school days, and took the stairs to the first floor where my room was. As I entered my room, I started feeling dizzy. My heart was beating fast. This wasn’t good. I was falling sick. To recover, I needed time off to acclimatize. I sat in the balcony of my room, overlooking a nearby monastery, sipped ginger-lemon tea & kept telling myself, “All is well”. By evening, I was fine. At night, I started throwing up & feeling dizzy again. I had a bad headache too. It became scary. I wasn’t ready to fall sick on Day 1. Maybe on the last day but not on the first. I tried everything that I knew could work, but nothing helped my health.

At last, I started calculating the money that would get spent on this trip in total. If I fall sick, all of this would be a waste. With these calculations, I drifted off to sleep & caught some rest.

In Ladakh, Day 2:

Day 2 was beautiful. We had planned for a monastery tour – Thiksey, Hemis and Shey Palace. In between, we also visited the school that featured in the popular movie, ‘Three Idiots’. Popularly known as Rancho’s School, the actual name of the school is Druk Padma Karpo School.

By Day 2, I have adjusted a little bit (at least I thought so), enjoyed a day sightseeing & went to bed thinking of Diskit, Hunder & Nubra Valley. I was travelling there the next day.

From Leh to Hunder through Khardungla, Ladakh, Day 3:

When I woke up on Day 3 to get ready for the travel to Nubra, I didn’t feel like it. My energy levels were low. I had little zits on my face. On top of that, I had no interest in breakfast or tea. I went up to the dining area, saw the delicious-looking food, could smell all the aromas that filled the place but didn’t feel like eating. Somehow I packed my bags and sat inside the cab to reach Nubra (we had to pay for the taxi anyway).

For a while, I got busy watching the mountain peaks, the beautiful patterns made by the falling sunlight on the mountains, the vast landscapes & the road leading us to altitudes. I forgot everything else and found company in the mountains. In an hour or so, we reached Khardungla. Our cabbie had to park the car outside the parking space because the whole place was crowded.

All sorts of fashionable people were standing on top/ by the side of the signboards that confirmed that they were indeed at Khardungla. All kinds of noise were coming from the nearby cafe/ canteen. People were drinking tea, eating maggi, checking out the many prayer flags that adorned the area, and waiting for their turn to click photos with the Khardungla signs. The energy at that place was so high and intense that most of us felt the need to participate & experience it. I felt it too along with the headaches & dizziness. I also felt a strong need to survive this trip to be able to experience many other trips in my lifetime. Hence, I spent exactly 10 mins. in Khardungla and asked my cabbie to make the move soon after. As we started descending from Khardungla and ascending generally (because the altitude was getting higher), I started feeling uncomfortable. My heartbeat was high. The SPO2 app on our phones was showing low levels of Oxygen, but there was nothing to worry really. I was handling it. I started taking deep breaths and thinking of a hot cup of tea. In another one hour, I would enjoy this cup of tea with a pack of Parle G Biscuits, I told myself.

Perhaps the idea of a cup of warm tea worked, because I had got my energy, my smile and my quirkiness back by the time we reached Nubra. When I checked into my room, I opened my bag and noticed the pack of Diamoxine. I had kept it with the intention to take it & avoid altitude sickness. Fortunately, I didn’t need to take it. Mathematics, a cup of tea & a pack of Parle G Biscuits were enough to keep me breathing & smiling. Or was it the company that I had on the trip?!

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