The Journey Within: Discovering the Himalayas within Us

Years of programming has led us to believe that education from good institutes followed by a successful career is the recipe for fulfilling our ambition. This falacy is restrictive in nature and tends to shackle us. While one keeps growing professionally, there is a certain emptiness which engulfs most of us. We choose to either ignore it or suppress it. It happened with me too in the summer of 2013 when I discovered stretching harder has become my panacea, over the years. It was then that I decided to attempt a different stretch.

Manali to Leh highway is one of the most visually stunning, complicated and challenging routes in the world. Sharply winding with precipitous ascents, drops on the sides — a good hundred meters, rarefied mountain passes, hair-pin bends interspersed with bone chillingly cold streams and stretches of disappearing and non-existent roads, offer you one of the greatest adventures ever to be experienced. The highway straddles three of the highest motorable passes of the world with altitudes ranging from 7500 ft to 18500 ft above sea level. I decided this was my calling. Soon after speaking to an old friend, excitement and nostalgia eventually became a reality. The mighty and mystic Himalayas on a motorcycle… I was about to live my dream… Finally!

Before venturing out we realized that the mountain we were seeking to get on top of required more than just passion. It required a detailed study of the terrain and its challenges, discipline, extensive physical training and an exercise regime which would train the lungs for hard breathing. We also needed to be equipped with proper mountain gear and accessories. Mere passion without meticulous preparation could kill us.

It was a huge challenge to keep myself motivated during this preparation period. I had to handle the well-intentioned advice of practically everyone I engaged with, to avoid taking such risk at this stage of my life. Everyone amplified the risks, especially those who cared for me. I realized that, as is with everything in life, the decision to commit oneself to a chosen purpose is deeply personal, and does not come without the attendant risks. Risk of failure, life, wealth and even shame is the companion of any worthy purpose in life. Meticulous preparation and discipline mitigates it. To look for an achievement sans risk I realized was a myth.

The journey began in Manali. We headed north on the road up along the Beas river before the ascent up the Rohtang pass. As we crossed Marhi, 20 Kms short of Rohtang pass, the clouds and the fog started playing dampener to our excited spirits. The visibility was only a few feet ahead. A long journey with a visibility of only a few feet! To make matters worse along with this the roads now were nothing more than 2-4 inches of slush and mud. This made me realize that no goal or target in life can have clear visibility and a well-paved path. We were clear of the goal but the challenges along the path had to be maneuvered every meter with unwavering concentration and unflagging motivation.

After just a few minutes ride downhill, just when I was thinking that our month’s preparations would be sufficient to complete this trip without much bother, our first taste of the adventure woke me up to the risks and the danger. My friend’s bike slipped in mud slush. He survived a potentially fatal accident by holding on to the mile stone on the edge of road. Although he recovered in the next few minutes, shades of fear and uncertainty ran through every neuron in my mind. Thrill and excitement gone, it was a torturous ride downhill for the next few kilometers. I realized that to reach any summit we need to handle the slippery downhill and the laborious uphill without losing passion and purpose.

I was wondering how freak incidents change our outlook towards life. The downhill drive would have been great fun had I retained my mindset as it was prior to the slip.

I also realized that fear and fun are two sides of the same coin. Conquering fear and staying with the purpose became my new definition of fun. How meanings change so quickly? I also realized that fun can be a distraction while fear can become an incentive to focus and concentrate.

We descended from the northern end of Rohtang into the Lahaul valley, alongside river Chandrabhaga. We decided to call it a day at Jispa, approximately 130 kms from Manali. Awareness of the beauty and harmony around me soothed my frayed nerves and restored back in me the excitement and the zest for the thrilling journey ahead.

The landscape continued to stay as was after the descent from Rohtang until the road started climbing once again from Darcha, with numerous gushing streams crossing the roads. Sections of roads were completely washed away by the constant flow of the melting ice from the top of the mountains. While crossing one of the glacial melts, my bike’s front tyre slipped on a loose boulder and I came down crashing into the gushing chilled water. I was completely wet with my bike over my body. I was a bit taken aback, since I was driving extremely cautiously, at the time of the slip. With this slip behind me and the prospect of the adventure beckoning me, I quickly recovered and took control of my bike and the road ahead. At least I thought so.

Hardly few kilometers uphill, while trying to maneuver a sharp curve, on a washed away road section, I slipped again. This time it was a vertical fall and a hard landing on the ground. My head, protected by helmet, banged on a big boulder. Although the entire impact was absorbed by the helmet I had severe bruises and sprain on my left hand and knee. My badges of honour for having undertaken this adventure!

Next came the shooting pain in my shoulder and ankle. With my legs shaking badly, refusing to take my body weight even for a few steps, I somehow managed to walk, with the help of my friend and support staff to a bigger rock, for some medication and rest.

It took almost an hour for the pain relief tablet and spray to suppress the pain to manageable levels. I decided against shifting to support vehicle and restarted my bike. At every stage there is a justified reason to quit; at least for that moment. I was very clear that I will not allow physical injuries to interrupt my journey. I reconfirmed my intentions and decided to drive cautiously. I had not come this far up the mountain to let the bruises and even the sprain to deter me from fulfilling my purpose. This slip too will be put behind and the journey will continue!

The uphill drive to the Baralacha pass, at close to 16,500 ft, with walls of snow, rising up on either sides of the road, completely blew our minds away. The descent from Baralacha La brought a complete change in the landscape. The dull grey over cast skies before Baralacha La gave way to bright sunny ones. I was happy with my decision to continue riding. Staying on course and trying to enjoy the route helped me regain my confidence. Like with the scenery, the changing sights and the senses make life such a contrasting experience. I discovered a new insight that pain is the path to pleasure; only if you do not give up too soon.

How important and difficult it is to be steady and enjoy life despite all the challenges that come on the way! It struck me that the journey is the achievement and the pleasure, and not the culmination of the goal. How often we miss the sense of achievement and pleasure journeying because of our obsession with the goal? What a misplaced definition of achievement and experience!

As we descended into the plains of Sarchu the roads became tarred and straight. Tsarap river cuts through the plains forming a wide and deep canyon. Close to the end of the plains is the temporary settlement of Sarchu, with few tents providing basic accommodation and food at a height of 14,000 ft. . We had covered close to 220 Kms by now and despite the early reservations about the journey, post the freak incident at Rohtang, we were craving for more adventure. Confidence comes back at lightning speed, if you decide not to quit.

Contrary to our assumption of a relaxing and rejuvenating night sleep in quiet surroundings, our body started showing the first signs of caving in to the rarefied air and the excruciating chill at such heights during the nights. Both of us could not sleep even for a minute due to numbness and body pain. I was further struggling with severe pain in my ankle and knee, inflicted by the slips during the day. We were more worried about how this sleeplessness will affect our next day’s drive.

To our surprise, few minutes of early morning nap refreshed and recharged us.

As we continued further ahead on the road to Leh, we rose to the challenge of Gata Loops – a series of 21 hair pin bends that took us up another 1,000 ft above Sarchu before culminating at the Nakee La at 15,500 ft. The descent from Nakee La, however, was a short one as the road climbed up once again to take us another 1000 ft above to Lachulung La at an altitude just above 16000 ft. However, as the road descended down the pass a change of scenery was again in order. This road lies in the middle of a canyon with mountains in the shape of ant hills and the stream flowing parallel to the road on its left. Eventually it leads to Pang, another settlement similar to Sarchu at a height of 14000 ft above sea level.

It was here that during a break I suddenly felt a sharp numbness in my head and lost sense of direction within the next few minutes. I was probably ignoring signals of altitude sickness for the last few hours and here I was lying flat on the roadside. I was immediately shifted to a service vehicle with an oxygen mask on my face.

We had driven and ascended through heights faster than recommended. Is this not true with our life and business as well? I realized the importance of modulating our life and was struck by the insight that otherwise nature forces a hard stop, which we repent and regret if we are lucky. Any hurried and steep accent I realized creates first a lightheadedness, followed by brain numbing immobilization.

The road out of Pang climbs once again and leads us to “More plains”, a 40 km long and 20 km wide plateau nestled among small hills (place where the famous training sequence from the movie “Bhaag Milkha Bhaag” was shot). It is a place to just sit and marvel at. We were completely overwhelmed by the journey till here and the wonders within and around us which we had discovered. We were at the same time humbled by the vastness, the great heights, the ebb and flow of the streams and rivers, a feeling of timelessness and that nature had been kind with us to this point.

We decided to take a detour of 80 kms to Tsokar Lake; our night stay location on day three.

Travelling in a service vehicle, for last few hours, was extremely frustrating. I was cursing myself for not being able to handle the altitude. I wanted to be back on my bike desperately. Unfortunately few medicines, hours of oxygen and rest are the only solution. I realized that as quitting is not an option so too rushing was not. Sometimes in life giving yourself time to recover and recoup for the journey ahead, especially after a brain numbing rush to the top, is prudent.

At the end of “More plains” the road again starts winding up leading to Tanglang La at a height of 17000+ft. This is the highest pass on the Manali-Leh highway. From the top one can watch the “More plains” and Indus valley on the other side.

How small your challenges and problems look like, the moment you take a balcony view.

As we descended from Tanglang La and reached Rumtse, all of sudden we started feeling energetic and enthusiastic. The kids were shouting out waving their hands or holding them out for a high five. High fives were richly deserved after the challenging journey we had traversed over the last few days. Equally demanding were the black top roads with River Indus roaring alongside challenging you to beat its speed and its roar.

We accepted the challenge because we knew that over the last few days we have enjoyed the beauty of this region as well as the harsh test of the terrain. I just parked my bike on the riverside, closed my eyes and let the wind ruffle my hair, wondering what was in store further ahead in this land of high mountain passes — Ladakh.

Leh is at an elevation of approx. 11,500 feet. And Khardung La is at 18,500 feet. The distance between the two places is just 40 kms. So one gains an immense amount of altitude in a very short span of time – the fastest way to get altitude sickness. Considering the pain I had gone through two days back each one of us popped a Diamox (altitude sickness med) and crossed our fingers. The view was breathtaking with the air getting thinner and thinner. The roads were pretty decent till South Pullu, but after that it was the highway to hell. By the time we reached Khardung La, the highest motorable pass in the world (sure felt like it!), some of us had started bearing the brunt of it — nausea, throbbing headaches, and breathlessness. We had already crossed few of the highest passes in the world in last few days, but Khardung la was the ultimate test. The last leg is always the toughest for it finally tests your resolve and whether you are worthy of being up there. The experiences of the last few days had hardened us not to be bothered by challenges and enjoy the ride kilometer by kilometer.

Every challenge becomes easier when there is a purpose and a positive mindset. Accepting and not complaining about the downhill challenges, the uphill breathlessness, the occasional brain numbness of the mindless rush and the stomach churning nausea is the only way up to the summit. There is no VIP or a priority pass to this pass.

Nature floored us that day: First, with its ferocity, and then with its beauty. We witnessed the might of the human spirit too. So many people were cycling up their way to Khardung La. I was in awe of the level of pain and strain that our mind and body can endure, if only we are uncomplaining and stay the course for reaching our purpose.

After what seemed like forever, we finally started for Nubra Valley. The moment altitude decreased, ears popped and sanity was restored. We spent the night at a camp in Nubra. Good food and comfortable tents. The one thing that stands out about Nubra is sand-dunes, right in the middle of those snow-capped mountains. It’s such a jaw dropping sight!

The last leg of our journey was crossing the third highest pass of the world – Chang La, to reach Pangong Tso (lake). It is a high altitude lake at 15,000 feet. The lake is one of the largest brackish water lakes in Asia stretching across India and Tibet.

Our return journey was fabulous as well. The mountains, the desert, the sky, the rivers, the clouds, the punishing, harsh, unforgiving terrain and above all the journey through all these with alternating pain and pleasure, fear and exhilaration and finally a sense of fulfillment has become a beautiful collage forever preserved in my panorama of memories.

We had passed some of the most beautiful places in the world in the last few days. However, undoubtedly, the journey to these destinations was more fulfilling than reaching to these locations. In the end I realized that every journey to somewhere begins and ends within oneself. I also realized that there is no journey which does not knock you down time and again. This adventure taught to me the importance of picking myself up time and again, putting the bruise, pain and even loss of sense into the perspective and continuing with the journey towards the original purpose.

All of us need one such journey to discover ourselves and put into perspective the many journeys we undertake in life. This was my quest for leadership.


About the author:

Bharat Sharma currently heads Wealth Management business for ICICI Bank. He has been part of retail banking journey of I Bank for the last 12 years, handling varied assignments ranging across liabilities, Assets and SME banking. He was part of the team that managed the merger of the Bank of Rajasthan with ICICI Bank.

A cricket enthusiast and keen follower of game, he loves exploring through travelling and meeting people from varied sections of society. This write-up has been reproduced with his permission and is a voluntary contribution as a friend & well wisher of KMPH Trips.

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