Rain! And not just any rain, torrential rain! The sky was laden with dark, angry clouds, which were growling and thundering menacingly, threatening to stay put. I remember admiring the twinkling stars just the night before- the sky spotless and inky blue, the Milky Way crystal clear in the thin atmosphere of the high altitude. And overnight, this army of clouds had come swarming up from nowhere.
It was the day scheduled for the visit to Khardungla, the highest motor able pass in the world- the pass where there had been a landslide just a few weeks before our visit there, blocking around 400 tourists from the cities on either sides and forcing the army to execute a rescue mission. We stayed put in the hotel’s lobby, crossing all the fingers and toes we owned, hoping against hope that the warmth of the sun would finally win the battle against these black tufts of vapour.
A bleak ray of sunlight finally broke loose through the layer of the closely woven clouds, and in a wink, we were on the road… Driving on the highest motor able road in the world. Halfway there, we were stopped at a small army camp, South Pullu. There was a landslide just a few kilometres ahead, and the BRO (Border Roads Organisation) was trying to clear it up. All that rain and sleet had loosened the rocks on the surface, and was causing landslides everywhere, making it very dangerous for the vehicles on the road. We waited there for the path to be cleared, when… It started snowing!!
My first ever experience of a snowfall. Small blocks and cubes of ice, hitting everything under its spread, settling on the various exposed surfaces, till the world turned white in just a matter of minutes. It was just so exciting to sit inside the car, dressed cosily in four layers of clothes, watching the world outside freeze. But the adrenalin rush that the snowfall caused was soon neutralized by the news that we would not be able to go on further, as it was too big a risk to take. Disheartened from not being fortunate enough to visit the world’s highest motor able pass, we crawled through the now dense fog, which covered the narrow road and the abyss beyond. We spotted a lot of pieces of rock that had rolled down the slopes, onto the road, and just thanked God that we weren’t hit by any.
After a huge meal in a nice little garden restaurant, to make up for our downcast hearts, we decided to pay a visit to the Alchi monastery that evening. Of all the monasteries that I have visited, this is the oldest and the purest- Purest because it is completely untouched. Built around a thousand years back (A.D.1000), not a single drop of recent paint has touched the walls since the time that they were built. Though the landscaping around the six temples there is very modern, with nice little gardens and smooth lawns, the inner sanctum of the deities are untouched.
Paint peeling, and the walls eroded so much in some places that you cannot really make out the shape of the frescos, it is a very peaceful place, which literally transports you back a few centuries. If you really explore all the corners, there are a lot of hidden small caverns, where if you squeeze your head through, you will see a huge opening on the other side. These are the actual caves in which the various Buddhist saints sat meditating. I was really taken aback when I looked into the first cave, saw two huge feet, and on looking up, the sinister face of an 18 feet tall Padmasambhava growling down at me!!
On our way out, we met a very old lady, who was sitting on the side wall and saying her beads. She beckoned to me, and asked my dad to take a photo of us together. She was then so excited when she saw her own self in the camera, that she said a string of sentences in Ladakhi, bumped her head on mine as a symbol of blessing, and disappeared. We looked all around, but she had slipped quietly into some alley or the other.
Having no place to stay now, as we were supposed to spend that night at Nubra valley, a place beyond Khardungla, we waited with our fingers crossed to get some accommodation. Two of the flights from Leh that morning had also been cancelled due to the bad weather, leaving a lot of other people stranded in the city. Finally, we were put up in the same hotel that we had stayed the previous night, in one of the spare rooms that they had. Though exhausted and disappointed at our bad luck, the charm of Alchi had taken away most of the wrinkles of worry from our foreheads, and the thought of the snowfall slowly lulled me into a deep slumber…