From Line of Control to Line of Actual Control and that night…
India has a coastline as long as 7500 kms spanning 13 states, UTs as well as islands while the border line with 6 nations is almost the double at over 14000kms which is known as LOC, LAC as well as international border based on the relation with the particular country.
Ladakh is one region where you can move from one international border to another in a span of hours through terrains so surreal, that it feels out of the world. The road trip from Thang – northernmost village before LOC; Pakistan occupied Kashmir is a hours drive from Chushul – village on the eastern side of Ladakh close to LAC (Chinese claimed Ladakh). Both the landscapes are vivid and have a different vibe to each and what connects both is the road rarely taken.
We started from Diskit late morning and took the Agham – Shyok – Durbuk – Pangong – Spangmik – Man – Merak route to reach Chushul. The narrow passage runs through plains and mountain terrains while never letting go of the Pangong lake view making the drive more adventurous than daunting. As soon as you cross Spangmik village, you are on your own with rare sightings of gulls flying over Pangong Tso, kiangs (wild asses as tall as horses) and yaks grazing but rarely a human.
The farther you move, the closer you get to wilderness. By the time we spotted Chushul it was getting dark and we were getting restless if we were in the right direction or not. Vast lands with no sign of human life eventually get to you. Preparation for the worst is the only key to survival and our caravan is generally prepared for worse. As soon as we spotted Chushul village at a distance, there was a sigh of relief as dusk had just started spreading its gloomy wings across the valley.
By the time we made it to Chushul village, the darkness and the chill in the air alongside hectic drive throughout the day made us cancel our pitch-our-tent-where-we-like plan. All we needed was a comfortable place to stay, not fancy – just basic but cozy. As we spread out to fetch something to eat from the shops nearby, local children surrounded our cars, all staring at us. Most of the stuff at the general shops was well past its expiry date. Only after lot of looking around and being refused by a couple of locals to stay around, we realized staying at Chushul might be a challenge. The culture of home-stays is not common in the village. Thankfully, one good samaritan offered to help and made a call to one guest-house nearby. It was pitch dark by now and if the caretaker had not answered the call, we were in deep sh%$.
After waiting outside the guesthouse for what seemed like eternity, an old man walked out with a solar lamp on his head. He stared at all of us for a while and said, we need to get approval from the local authorities to be able to stay the night. Thankfully, he agreed to accompany one of our vehicles to the police station at night. Even waiting outside on plain road was difficult as the chilly wind would find its way to tease us one way or the other. When they returned with permission, our dear friend brought along some strict instructions from the local police station.
This place was a couple of kilometers from the Chinese border
Our purpose of visit to Chushul was seriously questioned
We were instructed not to roam around at night and under-no-condition with a torch (the Chinese troops kept a close watch at all night activities)
The officer joked about offering target practice opportunity to the not-so-welcoming neighbor and we were in no mood to defy his commands
As soon as we started to settle in one section of the guest house, the care-taker seemed to be in a hurry to rush back to his place. He was in no mood to share pleasantries, never told us his name and gave hurried directions on what’s kept where. He allowed us to use his kitchen at an additional charge and quickly got us two gallons of drinking water which was clearly filled from a running stream nearby. He demanded to be paid the complete amount in advance and retired for the night. It was barely 9pm, but somehow the day already seemed long.
A couple of us got into the kitchen to prepare maggi, toasts and thankfully we were keeping extra water bottles with us for odd days like this. One look outside and you would feel like you are in a completely different part of the world with grim borderlines of large mountains at a distance, a handful of stars hiding under dense cover of clouds and just one gompa completely lit-up in the middle of nowhere. We were busy talking about the day, food and time passed until dinner was to be served. The walk from the kitchen till the dining area was barely 15 steps but something was not right. It was an old low-roof structure where the passage from kitchen to dining room involved a 10 steps walk out in the cold.
The last person to enter the room felt someone walking besides him almost running through him while he was holding food in his hand. Downplaying his excitement and retaining his calm, he requested someone else to get the remaining spoons from the kitchen. The girl volunteered to fetch them and returned back to the dining room all out-of-breath and announced that she is not stepping out for the night.
It was soon clear that something about the place was not right and we all finished dinner and tried to divert attention to other subjects in whispers. Just after dinner, as we were to keep the leftovers in the kitchen, we all ventured outside with caution. It was a pitch dark night with cold wind making weird sounds. There was this little old room at a raised platform where the wooden door was dancing to the tunes to wind making a loud creaky noise. We took charge of shutting the noise as it would have made sleeping impossible. As soon as I moved my hand to shut it, the door suddenly opened completely with a loud thud and two people had to pull it and bring it close to the lock (making sure that none of us peeked inside). It took three fully grown men to control the door and tie it with a metal wire to suppress the noise.
In the entire Ladakh region, electricity is shut off at exact 11 pm, reminded one person and it was 20 minutes for absolutely no light in the area. We all retired to our rooms, this time placing our beds next to each other. It was very brave of two of us to fetch sleeping bags from our vehicles parked next to the rooms, however the few seconds long excursion left us breathless with an abnormally high adrenaline and the fear that we were being followed.
Throwing layers of blankets over us, we all pretended to sleep that night and no one said a word.
It was suddenly very bright at 5 am as if it was noon already. We had to wait for the caretaker till 0830 while I strolled and clicked a few pictures of the area seeing the vast landscapes in broad day light. It was just open lands and hills as far as the eye could see on one side and mountains on the other side. The all-lit gompa stood at a distance all pretty.
As soon as we saw the caretaker we were in a rush to leave and start our journey onwards. He demanded that we place the beds in the same order as we had found them previous night. We quickly heeded to his instructions and left the place all relieved.
Nobody looked back at the place or spoke about it, till we reached Rezang La, the site of the last stand of 120 brave soldiers of 13 Kumaoni Regiment who crushed waves of Chinese attack during the India-China war of 1962. They fought till the last man, last bullet and last breath. If not for them, Ladakh would be under Chinese control right now. For the first time in the last 24 hours, there was something sad but positive about this region.
In that moment of comfort we started discussing about the previous night. None of us could sleep properly the previous night. My bed had a slant making me pull myself back up every 5 minutes. Henna kept feeling cold and hot at sudden intervals.
She asked me why did I tap her head repeatedly last night and I didn’t try to convince her that I did not. I was feeling sorry that I pulled back my hand and slept while she was feeling scared, but she thanked me for offering her comfort and support throughout the night.
Just as were joining the dots, Achal mentioned that he did not believe in anything until he was shaken awake thrice last night. Sunanda and Rahul did not flinch their eyes for a second and kept pointing their torches towards the weird noise that kept emanating from the broken window of the restroom. While at the pass, Sunanda revealed that she sensed Chinese soldiers in the room and I had dreamt of them in my short sleep.
It has not even been a week and we are still discovering newer facts about that night. The contact number of that caretaker has been switched off ever since.