The 600km walk from Turtuk to Leh to Manali on foot would be incomplete without telling you about Rohtang. Not Rohtang the last peak of our walk before we reach Manali. Rohtang the dog, who was one of the strangest companions I have ever witnessed. As soon as we entered the last settlement before the ascent to Rohtang peak, a street dog walks straight up to us. I am very exhausted from todays walk and have no energy left to give him any attention. Regardless he decides to follow us while we walk up and down in this settlement to search for a room. We always have the choice to sleep in our tent. Yet we experienced by now that bricks keep the night’s cold in the Himalayas much better away than our 2,000 Rupees tent. Our (good) sleeping bags do a lousy job in keeping us warm during the night. It is September and the first people start to close and leave their tent settlements to relocate to Leh or Manali before this entire path will be closed from October onwards. This part of the World becomes completely inaccessible during winter and is only open during a few summer months each year. For the past two weeks during our walk we have encountered the first snowfalls and fast dropping temperatures. It is undeniable that the Himalayan winter is approaching. So a room is our preferred choice for tonight. The few dhaba owners who we asked for an accommodation assume this is our dog. He just doesn’t leave our side. And note well there is no bribing with food or affection involved here.
The next day while we leave this settlement in the early morning, we have forgotten about him. It is only when we pass the end of this village that the dog sits on the side of the road and seems to wait for us. Once he sees us, he walks straight up to us again. “Isn’t this the same dog from yesterday? This is crazy,” I say to Sachin. We try not to give him any attention so that he won’t be encouraged to follow us again. We are aware that we are about to leave ‘the shelter of dhabas and humans’ and do not want him to be led into the wilderness. But he seems determined. Initially we are sure that he will eventually turn around at some stage, but then realize it’s not going to happen. “Go back. You can’t follow us. We will be going over Rohtang peak. You can’t come with us”. He ignores us. “Go back!” we become more expressive. He still ignores us. So we forge a plan. At the last tiny chai shop we wait for a moment he is distracted and try to sneak out quietly to quickly disappear behind the next curve. Our plan didn’t work out. He excitingly runs behind us. So we give up. While Rohtang peak is significantly lower than all the previous peaks we climbed (3,890 mtrs), it is the change of height within one day that is a tough task ahead. And as always we search desperately for short cuts. They are not easy to see at all from below. One cannot know where there is a cliff and where there is a path that can be walked. Our new made friend doesn’t seem to be bothered. He contently walks along with us and more so often shows us the way. At this point I observed that he instinctively knows the best way to take. The intuition of animals is really incredible. I watch which stones he chooses to climb and feel humbled by how easy and quickly he jumps ahead of me. Whenever he reaches the next ‘layer’ he sneaks his head over the wall of stones, looks down and waits for us. This is the game we play for the next many hours. With time I can internally observe a growing bond with him. By now he feels part of us, of our newly formed two people and one dog clan. “Let’s call him Rohtang” Sachin says while we stop to catch our breath. Till now we never gave him any food or affection. I can see his tongue hanging wide out by now. He is equally getting tired like us. I only have one small bag of cookies for this entire days journey. And so our ‘new clan’ shares total six pieces of cookies equally between the three of us. Two cookies for each.
First slight rain, then heavy rain and eventually a proper snowfall greet us. It is impossible to find any cover to hide and despite quickly putting on our raincoats we are getting properly soaked. Our sight of the path to the peak is greatly diminished due to the weather. “Where is he?” I ask Sachin. I look everywhere but the dog has disappeared in the storm. I am concerned for him but there is nothing I can do. I start to shiver because of the cold. And so we keep walking and try to move forward with lack of proper sight. My face is downwards to the ground, so I am not aware why Sachin, who is slightly ahead, shouts “Come this way”. Eventually I see the faint lines of a human standing in the far distance. He is shouting something. Again he shouts. What, wait, did he just say coffee? No way! I must be dreaming. I see a single human standing in the heavy rain and fog offering me a warm drink. At that moment while I squad down in the rain I still don’t understand why there is a miracle man offering a warm drink. It is only once we continue our journey that we realize how very close we are to the peak. Eventually we reach and see tons of tourists taking selfies in heavy rain and fog. And more people who offer tea, coffee and small snacks. Ahhh! Well, I still like my miracle coffee man experience! Finally standing infront of the Rohtang sign, the official declaration that we reached the peak, the last peak of this journey, shoots up an indescribable feeling within me. I veil this brief moment of emotions, also from Sachin. I don’t know why. There are so many people around. Perhaps I wanted to keep that moment for me or look composed. Or maybe I did not have any energy left to even express emotions. It felt as if I reached the end of our journey, because I knew from now on it goes almost only downhill to Manali. Because I knew six high altitude peaks from Lasirmour La (5,550 mtr), Tanglang La (5,350mtr), Lachulang La (5,079mtr), Nakee La (5,050mtr), Baralacha La (4,890mtr) and now Rohtang (3,890mtr) are behind me. Because I knew from now on the indescribable physical and mental pain of this journey is almost concluded.
Shortly after we cross the peak, the dog appears again as well and runs with full speed up to me. “Rohtang. He is back” I shout to Sachin. I was happy to see him. “Once we reach I will get you a proper meal”, I tell him. Yet the moment we reach the next settlement after the peak the dog leaves us as well, resettles in the new village and never walks up to us again the following day. I really wanted to keep my promise to give him food and search for him. The next morning I finally find him infront of the temple and place the food infront of him. But he isn’t hungry. A street dog that isn’t hungry! “I did see him chasing cars with his new dog friends in the evening before, so yes he is a dog”, I silently reassure myself. It is one of the strangest companionships I have witnessed. The last few days from Rohtang to Manali are really enjoyable. It is downhill and both me and Sachin start to laugh, play and joke around. My mind starts to envision a proper shower, clean clothes, warm bed, dropping the bagpack and not putting it back on my shoulders for a very long time. Patiently for the past six weeks I have waited for that day to come.
Writing these words to you now, three months have passed since I completed the walk. I am still internally processing the event, what it really meant and how it has impacted me. I am feeling unsatisfied with the first blog I shared with you right after I returned home. It was too early to write about it. And it is still too early even now. Slowly I reflect with more depth about each encounter and experience, external and internal. This journey was blessed with meeting many kind souls. From soldiers, who made sure we receive juice, snacks and advise. To villagers who tell us the best short cuts over the peaks. To the kindest construction workers who don’t want to let us go without chai and a meal.
And my favorite two people from this journey, an elderly Ladakhi couple. We stayed with them in their home near Hemis Monastery. In the evening they shared how they humbly build a small temple in their old house. “Really” I ask with curiosity. “Can I see it please?” It is dark outside already. And so equipped with a torch we head out to reach small stairs that lead up to one of the cutest temples I have seen. A small lamp is lid inside, with deities of Buddhism gracing their altar. I fall in love with it for I admire their sincere devotion to their path. Yet perhaps what struck me most, while we walk back in the dark through their garden, they try to lighten the ground infront of them, before each step they take. They walk with awareness. “We shall not step on an insect,” they explain. “You never know, it may have been a relative in a previous life.“ They truly live what they believe in. What they think, say and do is in alignment. And that is what makes them so pure. That is the Dharmic way of living. When I ask him why he follows the path of Buddhism, what he seeks or rather finds in his daily prayers, he simply replies, “We all know what we think” and continues to rotate the small Buddhist prayer wheel in his hand.
While I reflect on and share my personal journey through Ladakh in these three blog posts, somehow for the past days what remains as a message to myself: only if we are honest to ourselves first, can we be honest to others as well.