The flight to Ladakh lasted only a breathtaking 40mins. But its 5am departure time meant that i had to spend a sleepless night at the Delhi airport, reading the latest installment of Christopher Paolini's Brisingr and watching the clock tick ever so slowly. I arrived at Leh a bit tired and dazed. Since it was an military airport, i was not allowed to take any pictures of the bright red planes on the tarmac with the stunning mountains and clear deep blue skies in the background. A little disappointed but heartened by the fact that i'll have numerous such photo opportunities in Ladakh.
I collected my luggage, a big backpack and my trusty NGC camera bag and proceeded to the tourist information center to get some maps and find out about guest houses i could stay at. I especially wanted to find an homestay around Leh. The Ladakhi lady at the information counter was very helpful and marked out a few places for me on the map.
As i was waiting in the queue for a pre-paid taxi, a young kashmiri approached me and offered to take me to his hotel. He was a tout, but unlike in other parts of India, he was not pushy but polite. I told him that i wanted to stay in a guesthouse and showed him the place on the map. The guest house was on Fort Road and he said that his hotel is on Changspa road which is nearby. He offered to give me a ride in his van and drop me on the way. He seemed, nice and sincere enough so i accepted his offer and went and deposited my backpack on the roof of his van and sat inside. There were just two other people in the van, a honeymoon couple and it seemed like the driver was waiting to pickup some more customers. So we sat and waited..
My general policy with people is to trust until that trust is broken. But as i was sitting in the van, i started wondering what his game could be. "nobody's that nice", i thought. Especially since he was tout for a hotel and has nothing to gain by giving me this free ride. With my suspicions gradually growing, i suddenly jumped out of the van, grabbed my backpack and went back to the pre-paid taxi counter.
I got a taxi and as i was entering it i realized that i did not have my camera bag with me!!. Calmly, I thought i must've dropped it at the taxi counter but it wasn't there. Then the realization dawned on me that i must've left it in the hotel van that i abruptly jumped out of. PANIC !!, the prospect of losing my camera and lens collection was a little too much for me to digest. I didn't know the name of the guy i was talking to nor the name of the hotel he worked for. As i wandered around, slowly resigning to the fact that i've lost all my photographic equipment, i spotted him by the edge of the parking lot chatting with his buddies.
Hope trickled in.Â I told him what had happened, and he immediately offered to help find the bag and got in the taxi with me. We went to the hotel, but the van had already left. I talked to the honeymoon couple and the owner of the hotel but none of them were aware of the bag. Hoping that the bag might still be in the van, we set off to find the taxi driver. We drove around Leh, visiting one taxi stand after other. All the drivers that we spoke to on the way were very helpful but we just couldn't find our guy.Â
But my new friend, Maqbool, was not about to give up, he asked me to rest and he set off searching. I checked in at the hotel. The name of the hotel was Mehek, located in the Changspa road. The owner tried to reassure me by saying that in Ladakh nobody will think of taking something that did not belong to them. If the bags were misplaced, then they would remain there or be handed over to the authorities. No one would run away with them, atleast not the locals.
Not very reassured, i went up to take a nap. After a couple of hours, Maqbool returned, bringing the taxi driver with him. He had gone all the way to his village on the outskirts of Leh and gotten hold of him. But they did not come bearing good news. The bag was not in the taxi and he did not remember seeing it at all.
Last attempt: So now what ?? As a last ditch attempt i decided to go to the airport and check with the authorities to see if anybody had turned in the bag. The chances seemed pretty slim, but i had to know for sure that i explored all possible options of getting the bag back. As we reached the airport gate, i saw the lady whom i met at the tourist information center. On seeing me, she immediately rushed up to us and told me that i had left my bag back at her office and that he was very worried that i might not come back to check at the airport. It is a wonderful feeling to find something that you think you've lost for ever. I couldn't thank her enough.Â
We met the officer incharge, Mr.Bakshi from the plains, maybe Calcutta. After the customary verification he handed over the bags to me. In return, he wanted me to write a commendation letter saying how much i appreciated his help. I was so thankful on getting the bags that i happily obliged.
Its a bit funny that out of all the people involved in this little incident, Maqbool the Kashmiri tout, the taxi drivers who patiently drove me around without ever asking for money, the Ladakhi lady at the information center who first found my bag, the one who played the least part was the one who openly expected something in return. But as i said, i didn't mind and i wrote him a nice thank you letter.
As for the other 3, i gave them 1000Rs and asked them to split it among themselves. And as for me, it left a lasting impression of Ladakh and its inhabitants, the Ladakhis and the Kashmiris. And this admiration and respect would only grow over the next two weeks as i traveled across this magical land, sometimes remote and desolate but mostly warm, welcoming and breathtakingly beautiful. I could not have asked for a better start to the trip.