Then suddenly we were there:
up in the high Himalayas.
Our route took us over the Khardung La Pass: at “18,380” feet above sea-level, claimed to be the highest motorable road in the world.
While I was bemused,
Robin was ecstatic: he had never seen snow before!
This was a place of blindingly bright light, heavy military presence, snow-chains and a recent deadly avalanche.
All experiences new to me, as well..
Pictures taken on the Khardung La Himalayan Pass, Ladakh
The last time I landed in the Himalayas was a trifle disconcerting.
Instead of snow-capped mountains, we were greeted by vast acres of flat green tea estates.
Arriving in Ladakh was very different.
As the captain’s voice issued reassuringly formal instructions to his crew, I glanced at the windows to see gigantic mountains peaks pass unnervingly close-by. It was like a scene from “Lost Horizon“.
The pilot managed these daunting challenges with great skill and made a smooth landing.
We emerged from the plane into a frozen landscape of browns, greys, and whites; totally unlike tropical Kerala.
We had reached an environment apparently devoid of greenery and warmth.
This was Leh airport, at over 10,500 ft above sea-level, the world’s highest, “open-all-year” commercial airport.
Having collected our luggage from the smallest baggage carousel I have ever seen, we were met and taken to our hotel.
Check-in, passport formalities, hot Tibetan tea and a chance to rest followed:
Our definitive driver was booked to arrive at three in the afternoon.
He would introduce us to Leh, and some of its intriguing photo-opportunities.
Pictures taken in Leh, Ladakh.
We had spent two amazing weeks travelling from Kerala, our home-state, to Delhi, Agra, Sikkim and North Bengal.
It was now time to return.
Sanjeez drove us from Darjeeling back down into the plains of Badogra.
From there we flew to Delhi, then Cochin.
Our journey had taken in some of the greatest and most iconic sights of India:
The Red Fort;
The Taj Mahal;
I had celebrated my 59th birthday during this trip
and it was one of the happiest and most fascinating holidays I’ve experienced in all those years.
The disaster struck just three days after we were safely back in Kerala.
The Himalayas were hit by an earthquake measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale.
Its epicentre was Gangtok, where we had spent the first three days of our Himalayan adventure.
The devastation wreaked on the mountain communities and roads was immense.
Well over one hundred people died.
We were booked to stay in Pelling for two nights:
An area renowned for its staggering views of the high Himalayan peaks.
Before leaving Kerala, I had seen this picture on the hotel’s website:
Unfortunately, our arrival coincided with poor weather.
Awakening the next morning, I could hear no rain. I drew back the curtains with great expectations.
And was greeted by this:
Alternating dense mists and heavy rain persisted for the duration of our stay.
The hotel was not set up for wi-fi broadband and, in this high mountainous terrain, my mobile could find no signal.
No views, no email, no sms.
We sought the consolations of the flesh:
Sikkim cuisine was sampled,
And I seem to remember we took a couple of Hits…
Until I visited India, my concept of its geography was flawed.
I imagined it sat like an inverted triangle, pointing down into the Indian Ocean.
This is not the case.
India is shaped like a diamond whose top has met with mishap:
Perhaps a telling metaphor for Partition; Britain’s farewell gift to the subcontinent.
The triangle I envisioned was the southern half of India.
A northern landmass of almost equal size sits above that, its apex still pushing inexorably up into Asia, giving rise to the Himalayas.
Because of this geography, to reach north-east India from Delhi, we would be travelling south-west:
over 1,000 km south-west,
The state of Sikkim lacks its own airport so we flew from Delhi to Bagdogra, North Bengal.
We travelled with Kingfisher – surely the only airline owned by a brewery.
Rather disappointingly, they did not serve beer.
But it was a comfortable flight, made even more pleasant by a cabin crew of charming air-hostesses
Wary of cold weather, I had come well prepared not only for alpine vistas but also for a cooler climate.
As we stepped onto the tarmac I scanned the landscape, waiting to be awed by my first glimpse of the mighty Himalayas.
There was nothing.
Not even a small hill.
The surrounding countryside appeared utterly flat, and the temperature positively tropical.
But there was no time to ponder such matters.
Our bags should soon emerge on the luggage carousels and, hopefully, a new driver would be waiting to greet us..
Photograph taken on-board the Kingfisher Airbus. Map of India taken from the web.