It is early on a Sunday morning but my host at Gondhla, Ramlal, tells me that there is a bus at 8.30 am that can take me to Keylong.
‘Won’t the bus be delayed at Rohtang Pass?’ I ask based on my experience of yesterday.
‘No, no. This is a local bus,’ he explains.
Yet this morning I have other plans, perhaps foolish plans in the light of infrequent public buses of the region. I like Gondhla so much that I walk around the place for a couple of hours. I take my time in making a drawing of the old castle. When I pick up my backpack and walk to the road it’s 11 am.
I wait for an hour for a bus. Nothing. I think I should get a ride in any vehicle that comes this way. Nothing. Not one vehicle is going to Keyong. It looks like everything is delayed at Rohtang Pass.
‘Is there anything to eat?’ I ask at the shop by the road.
‘Noodles but it will take some time,’ he replies. I see him cutting vegetables. I buy a couple of bananas instead, have one of them and store the other for later. I start my long walk to Keylong.
Keylong is a good 17 kms from Gondhla. It is an easy road with not much change in altitude. The day is hot. There is no breeze. To make things worse, vehicles which were once rare now seem to pass me frequently. They kick their dust right into my breath and on to my clothes. A couple of public buses pass me by but I have already done half the distance. I am enjoying this and I am going to walk all the way to my destination.
Even the greatest mountain scenaries may pass by unnoticed if the lighting is not right. In some cases, even ordinary scenes have the capacity to make us pause, contemplate and take our breaths away. Light makes that great difference between highlighing what is important and hiding what is only secondary detail. It is something the Renaissance painters of Europe rarely forgot. An interplay between light and shade can create balance in a landscape just as in any painting. Three scenes on this walk stand out for me.
The sun slanting at an angle on high cliffs, brought out spectacularly the grains and colours of rock. One almost witnesses in imagination the forces of their making. A little later the late sun cast long shadows of eroded pinnacles standing on the slopes. It was impossible to decide if the pinnacles made the scene special or the dark shadows that highlighted them. On the final approach to Keylong, after having followed for sometime a bunch of women in their colourful scarfs and Lahuali frocks, I stopped at a place for a brief rest. Looking to my right down the slope, in a grove of small trees, under a mesh of shivering light and shade cast by the slender branches, I saw a cluster of painted blue boxes. On closer look I saw that this was a bee-keep. The top flaps had been weighed down with stones. I walked to the bee-keep and sat under this special interplay of light and shade for a minute. I knew that this was a memory in the making.
Keylong is surrounded by mountains. In the distance snowy peaks contrast the black and brown high slopes. In the valley by which the river Bhaga flows, the locals do a lot of cultivation this time of the year. In an otherwise arid and bleak landscape, summer adds a touch of welcome green. There are the baelis, Chinese trees as I learn, the same ones I had seen in Gondhla. Poplars and pines are common. Green plots of land line the river’s banks higher up on the slopes.
Keylong town itself is a grubby tourist place. Almost every tourist stops here for the night on their journeys between Leh and Manali. Hoteliers quote high prices for basic accommodation. I had vegetable biryani for lunch for lack of better options on the menu. It was rather rich and badly spiced. My room was quite basic and had no views whatsoever, which is quite surprise in this high place surrounded by mountains. There was no water in the bathroom and only upon request did I get some. Those who had used the common toilet had left it in a terrible mess. For a town so remote, constant stream of tourists has changed its culture. That’s the inevitable price of development. I will be quite glad to get out of here the first thing tomorrow morning.