Some people never learn and my friend and I are lifetime members of that club. Scarcely, 4 days after our adventure at Sela, we started on our way to Shungatser Lake from Tawang. The weather was deceptively sunny and given that it was our last day at Tawang, we wanted to make the most of it. We knew for a fact that the road to Bumla was closed but the lake seemed to be accessible. With the promise of sighting golden ducks at the lake, we began our adventure bright and early. It didn’t take long for the landscape to change from predominantly green to nothing but snow white.
The scenery was poetic in fact, and my friend and I soon forgot the world below. In some places the road almost looked celestial with the clouds on one side, the snow clad mountain on the other and the road seemingly leading into the clouds ahead. We passed by smaller lakes and though we could have stopped at or PTSO lake, we didn’t because we were simply too excited to pause.
We slowed down at Y junction where the army has set up a coffee shop. Our driver asked about the road conditions ahead and with the confident go ahead we received at the check post there, we set out on the road towards Shungatser Lake. Less than ten minutes down the road, we felt a weird scarping feel from the underbelly of the car and a moment later came to an abrupt stop in the middle of the road. Let’s pause here and recollect all the amazing car commercials we see. Most advertisements demonstrate how the beast of a car tames the wild badlands. We watch jaw dropping stunts with cars coolly rolling down sand dunes, splashing across rivers and tackling untamed forests and gliding across high altitude roads. Reality check; our car sat like a duck in the snow because its underbelly was not high enough.
If there was a manual somewhere on what to do when stuck in the snow, we never read it, so we just wandered around helplessly on a slippery deserted road with absolutely no help in site. Just as my friend and I stopped giggling and started realizing what kind of trouble we were in, a lone army jeep came by from down the valley. Our driver was still hanging on to the hope that his car would grow legs and simply walk out of the snow, but being realists, we asked for help. Not that the jeep’s occupants had much choice. Unless they moved us, no other vehicle could pass by on either side. By the time we got around to figuring out the problem, three other civilian vehicles came by. Thankfully, they sensibly stopped way behind at the bend. After using much of our engineering brains, which was next to nothing to begin with, we started shoveling the snow around the car and under the car. With no choice but to turn back the way we came, we tried making a ramp of sorts with the snow so that the tires can get some purchase out of the slippery frozen sheet of ice covering the road. It worked for about half a kilometer before we got stuck again. Meanwhile, more and more army trucks had queued up on either side.
Imagine that you are finally promised a hot meal, human company and heating after being locked up alone for three days with no TV, no heating and nothing except uncooked canned food. I know I would turn into a rampaging elephant if anything dares stand between me and the promised meal. Thankfully though, somewhere in the universe, soldiers around the world are told civilians will be stupid and they don’t taste good eaten raw, so the worst we got from the soldiers was a bit of grumbling accompanied by weary painful sighs. But these men are not soldiers for nothing and so they rolled up their sleeves and got to work clearing the snow and pushing the civilian cars out to even ground. The light reflecting off the snow was blinding and it was so difficult to breath, obviously given that we were at 14,615 ft. above sea level. Most of the civilians started trekking back to Y junction’s empty coffee shop. But my friend and I were fascinated by the whole rescue operation, so we stayed back and cheered the men.
After four hours, one by one, the cars were pushed out of the snow with nothing but raw human strength. I have never seen men lifting an entire car before and when that happened, I couldn’t help but cheer and clap my hands like India won an Olympic gold. By the time the rescue operations got around to our Innova, the car was sadly beginning to fuse with the landscape. It had to be reluctantly towed out screeching and skidding uncontrollably by an army truck. We thanked the soldiers for their help and started our trek towards Y junction on foot as the car had been towed beyond the junction to a better terrain. The adrenalin that had been keeping us going for over four hours slowly started draining and we realized how weary we were. Half blinded by the snow,and gulping as much air I can drag into my lungs, I walked through the slippery sludge towards Y junction. Somewhere in the middle, I realizes that I couldn’t hear the trucks behind us nor could I see or hear anyone ahead. In that moment, it was just us and the elements. I felt like I was held in the palm of a monster waiting for it to fling me aside like I was nothing.
A word of caution to fellow women, high heels and ice covered roads don’t work well together. Another advice to anyone who dares climb snow clad mountains, please take your sun glasses. Watching sunlight reflecting off the snowflakes is like staring at a billion diamonds glittering in the Sun; believe me it’s blinding. The deafening silence and the bone numbing cold on our way down reminded me of Sela but at least there was no other road block. All I remember is getting into the car, when I woke up, we were crossing treacherous Sela once again in zero visibility but this time with the added effect of rain. The driver literally held a torch on one hand and drove the car with the other. I was too tired to panic but I certainly wished I hadn’t woken up just then. To my exhausted mind, the howling wind sounded like the mountains were warning us to hurry along. By the time we reached Baisaki, it was well past 9.00 PM and all I remember is hot rice, panner butter masala and a weird heater called Heatking Bukhari before blessed oblivion.
I woke up to conjunctivitis and severe snow burns the next day, but thankfully, I got treated at an army hospital for free. As we got down the mountains and drove towards Tezpur to catch our flight to Guwahati, I wondered how many before me had made this trip. Maybe a thousand years ago, some merchant, noble or farmer had attempted to cross these mountains on horseback. Maybe solitary Buddhist monks made their way to Tibet through these mountains. Or even before that, perhaps our Neanderthal forefathers crossed these mountains bare footed. If the mountains could speak, would they tell us the stories of civilizations gone by? We will never know, but if I am a rock on one of these mountains I would laugh at the men who are fighting over these lands. Because nations will fall and civilizations will eventual decline and die out. Someday, the human race itself will be gone but the mountains will still be here perhaps the last thing they witness will be the world blowing up like a supernova. In the end, it’s obvious that we don’t own these lands, rather these lands own us.
We spent some time in Shillong and finally made our way back to Chennai, where it all began months ago as a simple suggestion from an army officer’s wife. I got home not just exhausted but forever changed at heart. And if there is something I want to tell myself again and again, it is this:
Explore places around the world where man is nothing but an insignificant pest. Pause long enough to feel your heart thud in fear. Feel the blood rushing in panic within your vein and arteries trying it’s best to keep your body functioning. Ignore the signals your mind is sending asking you to step back into the comfortable known world. Stand amidst ruins of civilizations, untamed wilderness and unfathomable mysteries and devour everything you can sense. Let your mind fire up by instinct, open your senses and let go of all that you know. Then take a moment and just feel. Feel yourself standing there with no shell that guarantees safety. Watch the insignificant you, struggle to get your bearing. And Most of all, remember to remember everything.
Won’t this mean that I will carry a part of that world with me till I myself become part of the Earth? I do not know how worthy an endeavor this is, but it’s certainly better than obsessing over the rationale behind my appraisal or wondering if my colleagues are conspiring against me behind my back.