June 21st-27th, 2017
The purpose of the entire trip was to reach Leh, Ladakh, and when we finally did, after our drivers braved the difficult mountain roads, we felt victorious. This is where the 3 Idiots school that so perfectly represents the Lend A Hand philosophy is based. And, because Leh is not an ordinary weekend outing, we were sure to plan some sightseeing as well.
On the way from Kargil to Leh, we stopped at the highest point on the Srinagar-Leh highway, Fotu La (La is Tibetan word for “Pass”), at 13,478 ft. The “Fotula” board stood next to a fence that was covered with Tibetan prayer flags, a famous symbol of Ladakh. For a bit of information about the significance of these flags, read this.
We reached Leh at night, through a road that is entirely unforgettable. The roads up in the north are entirely unforgettable, and we moved under the night sky, where the Milky Way spun with us as we zig zagged up and down mountains.
Our first full day in Leh was one of much-needed rest. After a late start, the team set off for a bit of exploring. We quickly and unfortunately realized that Leh market is completely catered to tourists. You can buy your semi precious stones and your pashmina shawls and even a shirt that says “I got leh’d” at unreasonable prices (and yet, people still pay, because they’re in Leh).
But, separated by a line of overpriced stores, we could see old Leh. Dusty and painted in shades of brown, it was a chaotic beauty of architecture, and we wanted, above all, to find a way to get there. That will be a feat for next time.
On Day 2, we began with our school visits. This was the zenith of the trip, and when we rolled onto Druk White Lotus’s beautiful campus, it was momentous for Lend A Hand India.
The school’s principal, Ms. Stanzin Kunzang was really enthusiastic about the multiskill program. She claimed that in Ladakh, people with such skills are paid extremely well due to the difficult terrain, and education in this field is lacking and necessary in the region.
Because of 3 Idiots, the school has become a tourist attraction, and the wall that was used for the scene with the clever but unfortunate spoon joke has now been painted. There is even a “Rancho’s Café” with picture of scenes from the movie hung up on the wall.
After Druk White Lotus, we went to the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL), an alternative school for students who failed 10th standard. The school helps those students get skills that they can use for their futures, and the entire campus – from the toilets to the walls – is eco-friendly.
In 3 Idiots, Aamir Khan signs the contract at the end of the movie as Phulsuk Wangdu, and at SECMOL, we met with the real life Mr. Wangdu. Sonam Wangchuk is the brains behind SECMOL, and he has had many other accomplishments as well. Meeting him was an honor, as he is a pioneer in skill education in the country.
After SECMOL, the team drove up to Shanti Stupa. Stupas are dome-shaped structures that are important shrines in Buddhism, considered representations of Buddha himself. Shanti Stupa was built as a peace symbol in the early 80s. We visited at night, and took in the stunning view of Leh and the surrounding Himalayas.
We had one more school visit before taking the bus to higher places. In the morning, we visited the Government Boys Higher Secondary School and then the bus began its climb. We wanted to take it to one of the highest motorable roads in the world on Khardung La (La is the Tibetan word for “Pass”), as an accomplishment for the bus and also for Mukesh. After a few hours on a road that successfully shook up the contents of our stomachs, we reached Khardung La Top – at 18,380 feet.
This is when Leh’s mountain roads defeated the bus. On our way to Pangong Lake, the bus’s clutch failed and it wasn’t going any further up the mountain. After journeying up for two hours, we stopped at the side of road, put a few rocks under the bus’s tires, and waited as Gaurav and Mukesh went back down the mountain to find a mechanic.
On a Sunday.
We sat under the bus’s awning and played cards for hours. We threw stones at a bottle (and then, discreetly, at each other). We waited for hours. We took naps on blankets outside. And finally, the three students, Sumit, Raj, and Sunanda went onwards to Pangong Lake while the rest of the team stayed back with the bus. The bus had broken down at 11 am and Gaurav and Mukesh finally returned to pick up the rest of team at 7 pm. We were red-faced, basically sun stroked and out of minds because there was nothing to do.
The team was scattered today. Some were at Pangong. Others were waking up under an incredible sky, out in the mountains, but also out in the cold. And others were stuck in Leh city, taking over café chairs and sofas, sitting over their cups of coffee and tea for hours.
Group 1: The students, Raj, and Sunanda – They visited Pangong Lake in the morning. The students dressed up in Kareena Kapoor’s red lehenga and took pictures in front of the famous lake. The road to Pangong was muddy, narrow, and too treacherous for the bus, so it was actually good that the bus broke down a bit earlier, on easier roads. Getting the bus out of the higher roads would have been disastrous.
Group 2: Keshav and Mukesh – They had slept overnight in the bus and had woken up under a sky that everyone else could only imagine. Mukesh apparently climbed the adjacent mountain at the crack of dawn, only to leave Keshav concerned, but only for a moment, as Mukesh had the habit of disappearing every morning to go for runs and hikes.
Group 3: Gaurav and Shantanu – Shantanu had the only working phone in the team, so to keep everyone connected, he and Gaurav went to find a mechanic, take him to repair the bus, and to bring Keshav, Mukesh, and the bus back down to Leh.
Group 4: Kanan, Abhishek, and Sanket – Sanket had a case of altitude sickness and dehydration and we had taken him to the doctor the night before. Today, he stayed in Leh city and slept on café couches while Abhishek and Kanan ensured that he was drinking enough ORS. We did have the most amazing Tibetan food at lunch though, and it successfully lifted his spirits.
The team reunited in the Leh market later that evening, stayed in Leh for the night, and the next day, everyone set off for Manali.