Altitude plays an important role in ascertaining the travel time in mountains. Besides, NH 1 is literally carved out of the Himalayas and landslides are a common occurrence. There are some patches that are narrow and allow only one-way movement of traffic at a time. Also, Army Convoys, in view of their strategic importance, are always allowed to pass on priority, halting the movement of civilian traffic for some time. All these factors impact your journey time and meticulous planning is a must.
Our return to Srinagar involved a halt at Baltal – one of the base camps for Amarnath Yatra. It is in a valley, near Sonmarg and reaching here involved tackling Zoji La once again. Taking cue from our adventures of Drass – Leh journey, we decided to leave in the afternoon, a day earlier than scheduled and travel at least upto Lamayuru. By doing so, we covered more than a fourth of our total journey.
Lamayuru is a quaint, little village, nestled in the mountains. Our halt here being unscheduled, finding accommodation at the eleventh hour could have been a challenge. But this was Ladakh. In a heart – warming portrayal of Ladakhi hospitality, the staff pulled out their sleeping bags and went to sleep in the lobby, thus vacating an extra room for our group.
The next morning, we bid adieu to Ladakh and I realised that the past few days had been magical in so many ways. The varied landscape and the serene Gompas of Ladakh had taken away our breath; the Ladakhis with their warm smiles and a jocund “Julley” had taken away a piece of our heart; and in spite of being deprived of these life-essentials, we were very much alive, rejuvenated and transformed to the core.
Once we reached Baltal Valley, we found ourselves amidst a human tsunami, which was refreshing after almost a week in Ladakh. Of course, the security protocols were in place and the entry was regulated. But barring that, the atmosphere was fully charged. River Sind flowed across the boundary of the camp and beyond which there was a helipad. All day, the helicopters flew the Yatris to and from the Amarnath Cave.
The tents were bustling with people; people who were a cross section of India’s populace in every way. They were from different walks of life, mingling together forgetting their differences, braving the severe cold, overcoming their own fears and facing the challenges head-on; their only desire being a glimpse of their Barfani Baba in his abode. I have witnessed similar scenes during the Chardham Yatra. The extent to which people are willing to push their personal boundaries is incredible. Their faith is boundless and their spirit is contagious.
If you are willing to overlook the chaos and observe deeply, you witness humanity in all its glory. There were huge langars, serving freshly prepared delicious meals to thousands of devotees, round the clock; the numerous palkhiwallas or ponies with their attendants who offered to take Yatris upto the Amarnath Cave and malishwallas, providing relief to the tired Yatris after they returned from the Yatra. Last but not the least, the Indian Army, safeguarding the people. It was as if the camp never slept.
The Army’s presence here was a result of Amarnath Yatra being targeted in the past by terrorists. On one hand, there are people immersed in devotion, people selflessly serving others and people choosing to undertake the most difficult journey with sheer will-power; and then there are others who don’t even blink an eye before killing these harmless souls mercilessly and deceitfully. The knowledge of these incidents affects you deeply. Like when we heard the sound of blasts from somewhere up in the mountains. We relaxed only after an assurance that those sounds were from road-work happening near Zoji La. But then, any restlessness or unease seemed quite unnecessary in those surroundings and was painful.
Anyway, with Baltal we concluded the adventurous part of the tour. Although homesick and fatigued, we left with a promise to return. As we began the last lap of our tour, the beautiful Shikaras and awesome Gondola awaited us!!!