In April 2000, Thane adventure cyclist Rajesh Khandekar, 36, rode to Kargil in Kashmir and then took the road up to Khardung La in Ladakh. He’s recently finished a global cycling trip.
Almost a year after the Indo-Pak Kargil war, two of my trekking companions — Santosh Kadam from Pune and Deepak Dalvi from Thane — and I decided to pay a tribute to the war heroes. We collected greeting cards and letters from school students for the soldiers and planned a 43-day expedition to the mountains that I had never visited earlier.
We started our ride from Delhi on our Hero cycles, which had to be modified a bit to suit mountain biking. After 10 days of cycling, we reached Srinagar and soon managed to make our way to Baramulla.
We requested the Indo-Tibetan Police Force in Baramulla to let us spend the night in their camp one evening. They refused, saying it could be risky, but allowed us to stay in a bus that was parked inside their camp.
Once we settled in, I started planning the next day’s schedule, my companion decided to pen down the day’s experiences in his diary, and our third teammate was already deep in sleep. Suddenly, we heard gunshots. We had expected such encounters between military forces and terrorists, so we weren’t scared. We went to sleep soon after the gunshots subsided but woke up to chilling news the next morning.
The military officers told us that terrorists had killed 15 brickmakers, who lived just 3-4 km away from the campsite. Had we not been allowed to stay the night in the bus, we would probably have taken shelter at one of the brickmakers’ homes. I shuddered at the thought that the death toll figure could have been 18 that night.
Undeterred, we continued on our way to Kargil, visiting the Amarnath temple mid-way. From Kargil, we pedalled our way up to Leh. And from there began our journey to Khardung La, the world’s highest motorable pass at 18,000 feet above sea level. Riding up on this road was very difficult. The path was unpaved, narrow and covered with snow. We were out of breath very often because of the lack of oxygen at such high altitude. Usually, I can ride for more than an hour without a halt, but at Khardung La, we stopped every two kilometres and gasped for breath. One of my friends encountered breathing problems and we had to take him to the military dispensary.
But when we finally reached our destination, we forgot about all our problems. We were on top of the world.
As told to Susamma Kurian