A slim crescent of the moon was visible just over the top of the nearby mountains. And a countless number of stars in the clear black sky. It was cold outside. So very cold. The mountains were just silhouettes against the ever so slowly brightening sky. Just jagged lines to your eyes, telling you where the land ended and the sky began. The patches of snow that weren't blown away by the gale of the previous night seemed like ghostly patches on the mountains, glowing faintly in the moonlight. A chilly wind blew unceasing, and my scarf was not up to the job. I tried to keep my nose and mouth covered and breathe through the scarf. Which ended up fogging my glasses. In an attempt to keep warm, I started to walk up and down the road desperately hoping for the sun to come up soon. The crunch of previous night's ice under my shoes while pacing on the road was soothing, but otherwise not of much help. The shivering came in bursts. And I pulled my jacket tighter. The wind seemed to find every patch of uncovered skin and chill it senseless. I seemed defenceless, and the wait hopeless. The sky seemed to brighten imperceptibly to an inky dark blue. A pale pink glow was just visible to the east. Hope dawned, though the day had yet to. The mountainside brightened to a barely visible yellow, and the patches of snow seemed to glow. Daybreak. The stars disappeared one by one, and lengthy shadows appeared. The tops of the mountains seemed like golden crowns on their massive shadowy bodies. But the sun wasn't yet seen. And neither was the bus.
The bus was supposed to have left Kargil at five. And It was supposed to be in Mulbek by six. The bus was a half an hour late. And I had been standing on the frozen road for well over an hour. I looked longingly down the road, and saw to my surprise a distant light. Headlights! Of a passing car. And yet no bus. I waited. A few minutes later, another pair of headlights. But this time of a passing truck. I could make out the outline of the truck from a long way off, and I stepped onto the side of the road to make room for it. The truck sped by, and screeched to a halt a short distance later. The driver called out, and I was surprised as I had made no sign of wanting a lift. Where are you headed, he asked. Leh, I said, and I am waiting for the bus. He laughed. The bus? he asked. Yes, the bus that left Kargil at five in the morning and expected in Mulbek anytime soon. Do you really want to place your hopes on the bus, he asked. And even if it did come, it would be full to the brim. He dismissed with a wave of his hand whatever I said afterwards, and asked me to hop on. Well, the driver's cabin would be much better than the cold of the outside, I rationalised, and hopped on. He said that he too was on his way to Leh, and offered to drop me off there. I sat on the seat in the cabin, and it was warmer. Though not for long. As the truck gathered speed, I realised that the cabin wasn't exactly insulated. Wind streamed in through the multiple holes and chilled me to the bone. Though not much warmer than the outside, I was definitely making progress towards Leh. And that was infinitely better.
The wind picked up and blew in the dust. But we didn't mind. As Bilal vigorously turned the steering wheel to take the truck round a bend, a surprising view. Perhaps the blackest mountain I had ever seen. And next to it was perhaps the reddest one. Dry parched earth appeared to come in a rainbow of colours. A few wild goats were to be seen now and then, feeding on the sparse vegetation. All around us were tall peaks, casting a pattern of light and shadow on the valley floor. The truck passed from light to shadow to light. And as soon as the truck entered the shadow, the cabin grew cold. Only to warm up in an instant as the truck passed into the light. I felt like a rat in a maze, being conditioned to follow the sun.
We probably wouldn't have noticed the little village of Khaltse, expect that about 24km from there, the highway was closed. Blasting work, said the man at the detour. And what a detour. The road was terribly narrow and mostly unpaved. The road descended steeply down the mountainside, and with a grand total of about 18 hairpin turns in the span of a couple of kilometres, the driving appeared terrifying. The truck on average had no more that three wheels on the road. And when a small car came in the opposite direction up the road, the manoeuvres had to millimetre precise. Bilal wondered how he would climb up this road on his return with a 15 ton load. Luckily for him, the road was set to open the next day. Back on the main highway, the road curved along with the pale blue Indus river. We reached Leh with little incident, and I got in touch with a travel agent who happened to be the uncle of a friend of a friend. I was put up in a very comfortable guest house, a small distance from the main town.
I was recommended a visit to the monastery at Hemis. A bus for which would leave Leh at about eight in the morning. Reaching the bus stand a half hour early, I failed to find the bus to Hemis. I, though, found a bus going to Karu, a town on the way to Hemis. I was told that getting shared taxis to Hemis from Karu would be easy. I climbed in, mostly to shelter from the cold outside. The windows were closed, and it was comfortably warm inside. I bought a ticket to Karu, and as the bus started on its way, the gentle rocking of the bus lulled me. I felt warm and cosy, and killed time staring at the unfolding scenery as the bus made its way to Karu. The monastery at Thiksey looked very imposing, and I made it a point to visit it on the way back. A little while later, I received a poke on my arm. It was the guy issuing the tickets in the bus. I looked up and he appeared very curious. Weren't you going to get down at Karu, he asked me. I replied yes and asked him why. We passed Karu an hour back was his reply. I had fallen asleep. And as I realised that, a chorus of giggles. Apparently the others in the bus had realised that too.
I asked where the bus was actually going. Sakti, he replied. Does this bus return to Leh, I asked. Yes, at three in the afternoon from Sakti was the reply. I told him I would pay for the ticket all the way to Sakti. The lone monastery at Sakti was closed, only to open at five in the evening. I couldn't wait that long. I took a walk to the village, and on the way passed a small glimpse of a winter wonderland. A small stream flowed merrily, and along its edges, tiny icicles. The stream was lined on both sides with trees sporting a pale yellow foliage. Apart form the gurgling of the water, no other sound was to be heard. Perhaps just the rustle of the leaves in the pleasant breeze. I entered the village and spied a vigorous game of cards in progress. I decided to be a spectator, and at a nearby tea shop ordered a bowl of Maggi and sat down to watch the game. After two bowls of Maggi, and a well earned reputation as a fearsome chilli eater, I boarded the bus back to Leh. I made it a point to stay awake, if only to see the scenery unfold in the afternoon sun.
With all passes over the Himalayas snowed in, an aeroplane offered the only exit from Leh. And the airlines were very well aware of the fact. Having paid an obscene amount of money for the ticket to Delhi, I arrived at the airport, and killed time sitting in the sun outside the terminals. After some time, news drifted in that the flight to Delhi would be delayed, and by a considerable amount of time. There was nothing else to do, but wait it out. As I roamed the grounds outside the terminal, I came upon an elderly British fellow hawking his kingdom for an aeroplane. Talk about inflation. A kingdom was once available for a donkey. A little trickery by the airline reduced the delay by a couple of hours, and a good three hours after the scheduled departure of the flight, I was issued my boarding pass. I was homeward bound. And I wasn't looking forward to it. I sat at the exit of the terminal, and a cold wind nipped at my face. I said my goodbyes to a life on the move. It was time to accept my return to still life.