FIRST DAY IN LEH
I was posted to a new battalion on deputation based at Durbuk, (Tangtse) in 1990. It was in high altitude. Cold, frozen, snowing and icy was the impression in my mind. I was told it has a rear near Leh. “Rear” had a very different impression in my mind.
I was posted in Jaisalmer then and having measured the hot & sandy deserts by all means of transport available in the army including by foot I was looking forward to this change.
Zozila pass had not opened so I had to travel by air from Chandigarh to Leh. I was shoved into an IL-76. I saw this huge aircraft up close for the first time. It had been converted into a double Decker and I got a seat near the tailboard. Engines started and that whine was getting to scare me a little. We rolled off. With the first “jhatka” when the brakes are released I almost fell off. Soon the ears started getting blocked. I kept praying not realising I shall be jumping with parachutes from this plane later in life.
A 45 minute flight was an experience in itself. Then there was a thud, it was touchdown at Leh. We taxied and parked and as the tail door opened I saw a mountain of sand. I said to myself, hope I have landed at the right place. A very smart looking NCO with a red beret received me. We were off to a transit camp in a very shinny one tonner. We reached the site and I was taken inside a mess.
One had to bend to get in. Two odd bulbs were glowing in that room, flickering with the fluctuating voltage. They used to go dim and then flicker and then suddenly emit a bright light. I saw four people sitting on the table playing bridge. A few Gorkha looking people wearing torn sandow baniyans and combat pants were serving drinks and snacks. The bar man had a weird haircut with locks of curly hair over his ears. He was also chewing gum, unheard of in messes I suppose. I was not used to the “Pinja” way of life. I wished the crowd, they acknowledged as if saying one more “murga” has come and continued playing.
I was feeling cold in the month of April and watching those waiters in sleeveless baniyans I was getting the shivers. My feet were getting cold too and I was itching to go to the loo. The waiter guided me to a bathroom where I saw the Indian style thing. The door latch was a wire cable which one had to hook to a nail. No flush and I also noticed that the window glass was actually a transparent plastic sheet with which we used to cover maps. Water was freezing; sinks were there but without taps. Boy, I was in for adventure. I looked up to God, as I was closer to him by 11000 feet and asked him to bless me.
I came back and took a seat when someone said “saab ko drink lagao”. I said it’s too early, he said how you dare disobey the commanding officer. The waiter was already on my head with a whisky-pani. I asked for soda and he gave me a dirty look as if such things were never heard in these valleys. My mind floated back to Jaisalmer where Naik Padmasanan L our unit soda factory NCO could be hauled up for not filling adequate gas in the soda bottle.
I was a rum drinker so got it changed, took a swig and felt a little warm. In the mean time I found one waiter lighting up a contraption which I later came to know is called a “bukhari” (Kerosene heater). My feet were as cold as ice as the sky was overcast. The rum gave me a little pep but the bukhari boosted my morale. I was in summer uniform and constantly getting goose pimples which I think the mess Havildar noticed and from somewhere he brought an outer of a “coat parka”. I wanted to stand up and kiss him for his thoughtful gesture.
The barman was refilling the glasses without anyone even saying a word. I was already feeling little tipsy by midday. The CO got up to take a leak & shook hands with me. He told me to enjoy my drink and left. Bridge continued. At 1.30 pm a person came with soup. It smelt good and I had a sip and it tasted really good. I asked the waiter what soup it is. He said “Haddi ka soup”. I was taken aback, “kis ki haddi ka soup”. Later I found out it was chicken soup.
Lunch was laid and I was feeling glad already. I ate well but the foursome had their “saunf” on the bridge table itself. We exchanged pleasantries during lunch. They told me to do as the Mess Havildar tells me to do. Then they got glued to their dealt hands with toothpicks stuck in their teeth.
I was taken to my room and given a sleeping bag. The mess Havildar said saab “aap sho jao”, dinner will be served in the room. I being from 17 Mech Recce and Support and that too Tracked was taken aback that in JA-SALE-MER even in midst of summers, we were told to report in suit and tie to the mess. Mess Havildar replied Sir; aap ka “climate” nahi hua hai is liye. Baki shaab log climate kar chuke hain. He meant to say that you have walked the earth more than you had to on the first day of acclimatisation in Leh, others are old hands. I thanked my stars and knocked off in deep slumber.
This was on first day of my posting to high the altitude desert. The next stage was at 13000 feet in the battalion after four days. The foursome also said “In the Land of Lama don’t become a Gamma”. What did they mean? I kept wondering!!!!!!!!!
© Noel Ellis