Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Cyclocrossing Zoji-La – 25 years ago

Exhilarating morning ride near Sonamarg, Kashmir.
Zoji-la is still two days away. (Late Sept, 1988)
“TURN BACK. It’s no place for cyclists,” bellows the truck driver inching his vehicle down the freshly bulldozed road leading from Zoji-La to Kashmir valley. The grim faces of other drivers in that convoy convey a similar warning.
     “It is a frozen hell,” insists a lone motorist sandwiched between two trucks.
     All the trucks have thick frost on their roofs. The exhausted drivers look as if they have just
been  thawed. They were all stranded in Ladakh (also known as the Little Tibet) for the past one week. For four days blizzard raged, trapping them without food and assistance. Only on the fourth day rescue efforts could start. It took three days’ non-stop effort for Beacon, the highly efficient border roads wing of Indian army, to clear the 180 kilometer stretch from Zoji La till Fotu-La in the heart of Ladakh’s Buddhist country. Naturally those coming out are appalled at the sight of  cyclists going in.(But they don't know the power and flexibility of the bicycle!)
The reassuring Beacon sign.

        We  glance at each other before pushing ahead. Four civil servants from Department of Food, New Delhi, my team mates KL Sharma, Suresh, Jagdish and I have been cycling along mostly tribal areas of Indian Himalayas on our way to Leh. By now we are indeed hardened enough for tough cycling; but "avalanche prone frozen hells" are something new. None of has ever encountered ice except in refrigerators.
     The road ahead of us now is an uneven track gouged out by bulldozers just yesterday. A week ago massive landslides ripped off long stretches of the road which had slid into the valley several hundred feet below. In these stretches new gradients had been cut with army efficiency, but these are again in the danger of being smothered by fresh falls from the slopes and cliffs above. Impossible to pedal. We get down and push.
     Far below us Sind River gushes and tumbles on its way to meet the Jhelum (which iself is a tributary of the mighty Indus) near Sringar, where we had spent a boring, rained-out week. [This is 1988. Kashmir is still superficially peaceful. First kidnapping will be in 1989.]  The dirt road to the Hindu pilgrimage center Amarnath follows the river upstream. As we proceed, the surrounding coniferous forest of kail and pine starts thinning, reminding us that we are leaving Kashmir valley.
Army convoy moving towards Zoji La. These impressive-looking cliffs consist
of such soft rocks that they can be broken off with hands and crumbled in palm

(photo source: Ministry of Defence, Govt. of India)

      Four steep hairpin bends, each a kilometer apart, take us to the notorious Captain Bend, where there is a stone memorial to a British army captain who died here. The Captain’s ghost haunts the place. Those who slow down and bow towards his memorial are spared. On skeptics like us, the captain wreaks his vengeance by appearing in uniform at the next bend and directing the driver to the deep gorge to the right. The possessed driver presses the accelerator and plunge to his doom. Quite original as far as ghost stories go.
     After the Captain Bend comes another hairpin, flanked on the left by a lofty wall of seemingly solid black rock. I yank at a piece. To my astonishment, it snaps off like rotten wood. It also feels as light as softwood. When pressed hard, it crumbles into dark grey powder in my palms. So this is the “mighty” Himalayas, a big heap of dirt! My friends and I stare up at this vast pseudo-rock face, towering a hundred feet above us. Dark grey stalactites hang down from its craggy top, as if about to crash down on us. We are unable to move as a clattering convoy of army trucks and bulldozers keep us stuck to the cliff bottom. 
     Ahead is India Gate, the witness of a tragedy in November 1986 when the pass was about to close for winter. That day (as we heard from Captain Narang of Beacon) the last convoy of military and civilian vehicles were moving out. The leading truck developed mechanical problems and stopped, holding up the convoy. It started snowing heavily and soon an avalanche thundered down. Dozens of vehicles, their drivers and passengers were swept down into a frozen grave. We can still see from above remnants of the ill fated vehicles scattered in the valley, which, incidentally, doesn’t look deep. The snow would have smothered them to death.
    Two more kilometers of mild climb along a slushy track, and we are at Zoji-la. (La in Tibetan means mountain pass.) The pass proper is a straight and flat stretch over a kilometer long, flanked on both sides by slopes clothed in snow. The southern (our right) slope rises rather abruptly from the cobbled causeway along which we are moving. A shallow valley of snow separates the causeway from the northern slope. It looks quite innocent and quiet. But we have been warned not to stay because the pass can be quickly smothered by avalanche in a few minutes in case of heavy snowfall on the southern slope.

     At 11,650 feet, Zoji-la is the lowest point in the part of the Himalayas separating Ladakh and Kashmir. It lies roughly straight in a southeast–northwest direction, permitting the  south-western monsoons winds to blow right through. Funneling through the narrow confines of the pass, the wind velocity intensifies – the reason why Zoji-la is so menacing in a storm.

     The Beacon's Colonel who reluctantly permitted us to move ahead, had extracted a promise from us to keep going till Gumri, the first safe point after the pass. “Your department wrote to us  and I am responsible for you. But if you do get stuck in Zoji-La in a blizzard only God can save you,” the Colonel had told us. But when we see snow all around us for the first time in our lives we forget all that and have a full hour of fun in the snow, right in the middle of the pass.
     Then a wind starts. With diabolic suddenness dark cumulus clouds appear from nowhere; within minutes it is snowing. Our first experience of live snowfall. We look around. No living or mechanical thing is in sight. The down convoy had gone hours ago and the up convoy has not yet started coming.
     “Maybe they won’t send it today now that the weather has packed up,” says Sharma, the only married person in our group and so understanda
Dangerous pastime at Zoji la.
bly cautious. We all panic. There is only one thing to do – jump on our saddles and pedal for our lives. In order to cross the pass early we had started at dawn without proper breakfast – a mistake. The hunger and the effort of cycling on a bouncy cobbled surface in a rarified atmosphere, exhaust us quickly. But the wind helps us on by pushing us from behind and luckily it doesn't get too strong. But the snowfall continues.
     After a while the situation improves. The road road has taken a down turn. The surfacing also becomes better. While freewheeling down the slope we notice with relief that the mountains on either side of the pass are gradually receding to a distance. No danger from avalanches now.
     The terrain widens into a plain. Through the falling snow we see the outline the Beacon Camp, Gumri. We prop our cycles against a wall of snow, barge into one of the barracks, show our IDs, and say without formalities, “Hello, we’re starving. Do you have some food?”
     The soldiers grin at the four cycle loonies and hurry to alert the camp officer. We are escorted to the office of Major Bharadwaj, a relaxed looking individual. The lunch is sumptuous, served by liveried orderlies. Man! Army life is good!  By 3 pm an early tea is announced in our honor and we are joined also by the camp doctor, a young man from Tamil Nadu. We are evidently honored guests as indicated by the gold bordered bone China tea service. We keep drinking cups after cups of tea under the benign gaze of Major Bharadwaj. The Major tells us about the day the blizzard started – September 23.
     “It was so sudden. We were safe here, but outside it was terrible. The first time in my experience the blizzard was so strong and unexpected. Luckily we were able to rescue all trapped people. Not like 1986." Even the Major cannot help but grimacing as he recalls that ghastly accident two years ago when dozens of vehicles were swept away by an avalanche near India Gate.
     Major Bharadwaj’s men have rescued two American cyclists last week. A man and a woman. The Beacon rescue team found them near India Gate huddled inside their tent in shock. We would be meeting them soon.
     “They were lucky they didn’t get frostbite,” adds the camp doctor who gives us strips of tablets for for possible high altitude problems. We will be going higher and higher in the next few days. Our next pass will be Namik-la at 12,000 feet and then Fotu-la at 13,200 feet. They are days away.


Into Ladakh, the Little Tibet

We are invited to stay at Gumri but we had always dreamed of spending a night at Dras (reputed to be the second coldest inhabited place in the world. We get back to the bikes. They have disappeared under a blanket of fresh powdery snow. Unfamiliar with snow, we are surprised to see that it is not wet and easily brushes off. We resume pedaling. The road is well surfaced now. There are only a few smooth hairpin bends, down which we zoom. Down to our left is Gumri Nallah, a stream completely covered with ice. The sky is overcast and dark. Even though it is only four in the afternoon,
     There is hardly any vegetation anywhere to be seen. Only some moss-like growth clinging to the bare surface of the black rocks projecting here and there out of the snow. Within a few kilometers we cross the Gumri Nallah via a small iron bridge. Beneath the snow there are some specks of green. Cultivated fields, the harvest lost.
     Sure enough there is a village nearby – Matayen. It is a cluster of small mud houses. Flat roofs are not meant to take heavy snow. But we find very little snow on these roof tops. Evidently the villagers have been busy clearing the snow as fast as it accumulated.
     There is hardly anyone about in the streets. Then we meet a youngster – Muhammad, who confirms that the village is indeed inhabited. The totally unexpected blizzard and snow have just destroyed their crops and damaged their houses. It is going to be a bad winter and Muhammad is hoping that some help be provided by the army. But then army itself is going to be hard pressed for supplies this winter as all supplies will have to be  brought in from outside Ladakh in about one month. The pass will close in November in any case.
As we stand talking more boys arrive. They stand around quietly as we try to cheer them up. What is crucial for them right now is survival through the winter, not making conversation.
     We continue to follow Gumri Nallah along a practically straight road gently sloping down. We are at about 10,500 feet now, 1,000 feet below Zoji-la. It is dazzling white everywhere, though there is no sun. There are high rocky outcrops on either side of the road, their sheer dark brown faces partly free from snow giving them eerie majesty.
     The telegraph poles  along the road have been completely laid flat by the blizzard, all in the same direction – east. Their wires are scattered everywhere, some on the road. They can be dangerous, as we find within a few minutes. A military truck which had passed us just half an hour ago has skidded on a bunch of cables and has slid into the shallow Gumri Nallah. 
    Gumri Nallah has been gathering tributaries and by now it has become a respectable river. Sure enough, from here our map labels it “Dras River”. It will join River Suru and eventually into the Indus, like all rivers in Ladakh.
     By 6 pm we reach Dras. We don’t feel it is any colder than Gumri, though. Maybe we are getting used to cold and ice. Dras is of strategic importance because it is the first real plain ground after Zoji la. All the Indian military and paramilitary forces have their permanent camps here.
     We go into Beacon’s camp and they are awaiting our arrival. The camp is much smaller than the one in Gumri and the camp in charge JCO Gopali is waiting for us. Strong and stout, he hails from Lucknow, but has been working in Zoji-la area for the past several years. He claims to know every inch of the pass. He does have the gift of gab in abundance. His account of the 1986 tragedy is much more blood curdling than the matter-of-fact narration of Captain Narang and Major Bharadwaj.
     It is October 1st today. Tomorrow is Gandhi Jayanti. According to our original plan we were supposed to reach Leh tomorrow. At this rate we'll make it only by 6th. That is fine though -- havent made this far? Gopali tells us that the rest of Ladakh won't be a problem except for the risk of altitude sickness at the highest pass, Fotu-la. 
     The diesel bukhari (stove) in our room burns throughout the night, making us forget that we are in the second coldest inhabited place in the world.


  Creative Commons License
This work by Sajjeev Antony is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
All photographs (except the one credited to Ministry of Defence) above are the joint property of Sajjeev Antony, K. L.Sharma, Suresh Kumar and Jagdish.