Noel Ellis's Official Blog

I wield the pen to explore the vastness of the human mind

Category: LADAKH

WATERY TALES

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I was watching a programme on water scarcity where I saw long queues of residents waiting to fill water in Simla. India may see a water crisis soon. Does this strike a chord somewhere? War for oil is passé, the next World War is going to be for water, I reckon.

Hills do have a peculiar problem where water freezes in pipes in winters. In summers tourists flock the area and consume water in bucket loads, in rainy season every drop gets washed away. So how to sustain is the question. My place has an average rainfall of 2500 mm plus per annum and all goes to the sea. Villages around are crying hoarse for drinking water but nothing is being done to harvest a single drop or address their perennial problem.

Be that as it may. I remember in the deserts I was lucky to have served in a battalion which had no dearth of vehicles and had many bowsers of 1000/3000 litres capacity. We were also fortunate enough to have our Engineer Regiment friends who used to go in advance to establish water points for us in midst of nowhere. I must also thank the Indian Government and their vision to construct the Indira Gandhi canal from Harike barrage in Ferozpur to deep inside Rajasthan, teeming with fish and delivering pure water from the confluence of Beas & Sutlej Rivers to the parched deserts. Fresh canal fish, fried to perfection with rum and “thanda pani” was ultimate during exercises.

I remember a place called “Dharmi Khu”. It was a deep well very close to the boundary of India and Pakistan. Shepherds of both countries used to water their cattle from this common well. I for the first time saw two camels pulling a huge leather bucket (MASHAK) made of one piece camel skin out of the well from a depth of about 1000 feet for water to reach the surface. The communication between the camel operator and the man at the well used the typical one finger whistle. It used to be fun to see the irritated camels come back in reverse gear grunting and blabbering their frothy tongues. I have tasted that water, it was very brackish. Normal people will spit it out like a shower but man and beast in those far off lands had to drink it. I hope “Sagarmal Gopa Canal” water has reached there by now.

The chaggal (water canvas small) and the pakhal (mule tank) were the ultimate Army water carriers. As a Mech Officer I never carried a water bottle but had chaggals tied all around my open jonga. The thin crust of ice in the chilly desert winter on canvas buckets was common. How can one forget, beer bottles were chilled in deep pits left overnight, sprinkled with water in the golden sands of Jaisalmer.

In Ladakh fetching water was fun. Though we had an engineer detachment but they were left to run the boat in Pangong Tso with a modified one tonne engine. The water point was between Lukung and Phobrang village. My “Pinja” buddy in a 3 Ton with my wife and our post dog Rambo used to hop on with a small working party to fetch water every second day. Wife, I & Rambo used to get down at the fishing point to catch Brown Trout. Rest of the party used to go to fetch water. I used to wonder why they didn’t carry water tanks. They used bring back frozen blocks of nice clean transparent ice. This also solved the mystery of why these guys carried crow bars instead of rubber hoses. Later I found this a common site in Ladakhi villages where ladies used to carry ice in baskets.

Water both in High altitude and the deserts was rationed. Our unit water bowser used to pump water in our over head tanks once a day in married accommodation at Jodhpur. Jaisalmer was equally bad where we lived off pakhals. While one was deployed in the deserts for exercises and operations one had the privilege of having an exclusive bucket of water as an officer. Men generally took a dip in the canal in case it was in the near vicinity. In my whole army life it was rarely I would have taken a shower. Today, in Jodhpur one has to store water in underground tanks and it is 1000 rupees for a tanker these days. All our lives we lived with water timings and never complained.

Most of us would never have witnessed dry cleaning of utensils. Let me tell you about a typical desert village where the utensils are rubbed clean with sand and we too did it in various exercises to conserve water for the days ahead. I haven’t seen “BARTANs” cleaner and glistening like gold after dry cleaning with sand. They will beat Vim bar any day.

A man can live without food for weeks but maximum three days without water. If water is so important, then what are my countrymen doing to preserve it? I think fauji’s can manage with rationed water can the rest of India too? I wonder!!!!!!!!!!!

JAI HIND

© Noel Ellis

MY LADAKH DIARIES

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My climate (acclimatisation) at Leh went off well and I was ready to take on the mountains. For a Mech officer to get posted to high altitude meant one more medal. To earn it, I had to spend 180 days excluding breaks which I thought would be a cake walk. The reality was way off and I shall share how tough life is subsequently.

Early morning we started in a 1ton for Tangtse. It could take 6-8 hours, I was told. All was going well till we passed by a canal. I saw huge layered ice slabs neatly piled like files in a rack. A thought passed my mind, that why they want ice slabs in such weather. I looked at the Indus which was smoothly flowing, shimmering and meandering in the valley below but got no answers. Then I thought they must be transporting ice to Leh. Such weird thoughts get sorted out very fast. I got to know later that the canal had frozen in winter, ice was still melting and water goes to the Stakna hydel project. How stupid I must have felt. Bloody mechie come down to mother earth, I told myself.

As we were crossing a causeway near Karu, my excitement knew no bounds when I saw a BMP near the Indus river bed. My imagination started running wild as the valley was broad enough to take a Combat Group. I had also heard that a Mech Battalion and an Armoured Squadron were located there. I was on home turf kinds and without even reaching Tangtse, I was already making plans to take on the Chinese with anti-tank missiles.

Karu onwards the climb started getting steep. I, who had driven a 1 Ton up every sand dune of Jaisalmer District, now started to feel the presence of the mighty mountains. The scene was barren but sublime. The drive was bumpy and kept getting bumpier. Soon the road disappeared and converted into a track. Our vehicle started skidding. The sound of the engine in constant low gear was telling me something. Sitting behind, I was not able to see the valley below but when suddenly our driver braked and we started to slide backwards and the damn thing turned away from the mountain wall. My instinct to jump out was at its peak. Luckily the tailboard hit the vehicle following us & we came to a halt. All of us jumped doing a kind of obstacle course as the vehicles were kissing each other.

My heart skipped a beat when I peeped over the side into the valley. There were more than 10 odd vehicle chassis crumpled and crushed half buried in a graveyard of sorts. My goodness Lord I said, today we would have been minced. Our driver quickly got out, put a rock under the tyre and opened the tool box. He pulled out some chains. They were very funny looking things and I assumed that they would be for towing but to my surprise I found them to be anti-skid chains. Water had frozen and made a thick slate of ice on the track. Every year I was told that one odd vehicle goes down this slope. Frankly, I got the shivers down my spine. Whatever parts can be recovered from the vehicle is recovered and rest is destroyed in-situ. I shuddered but put up a brave face. The cold now started to grip me; I wore my coat Parka thereon.

I was shocked to see two drivers trying to burn their vehicles by lighting cotton waste under fuel tanks of their 3 Tons parked on one side. I almost shouted at them but I was told that the diesel has frozen in the pipes, as they must not have put anti-freeze in their tanks. I would have arrested them for destroying government property.

We reached Changla, it is 17,586 feet above mean sea level. It is the second highest mountain pass after Khardungla. The GREF teams keep it open but in the thick of winters it closes for weeks together. People told me that kindly pray before you leave or else Changla Baba will keep calling you back. The driver knew that I was a novice; he opened the glove box and handed over a pack of Parle-G and an aggarbatti to me. I thanked him as my “batti” was really band for obvious reasons.

The toughest part was yet to come which was down hill to Zingral. I could see the TCP but the road was multiple Zs, a zig-zag kind of landscape. On the first hairpin bend I saw a 3 ton in its grave. The officer sitting next to me narrated the story that it was a 3 Ton carrying CSD stores of a regiment which went down. He was part of the rescue mission. They told me that day every local Ladakhi they met was drunk. The reason was this vehicle was carrying about 150 cases of the most precious liquid on the other side of Changla. All bottles broke on impact and the liquid froze. The local fellows, after rescuing the men got busy sucking on ice and carried chunks of frozen liquor home. The drink was definitely on the rocks. In Jaisalmer one craved for ice, here one just needed rum and a glass.

It was close to dusk when we rolled into our battalion. The welcome board said “Second to None” with Snow Lions painted on its sides. I looked up and thanked the Lord and also said Changla Baba ki Jai in my mind.

I was cold, fatigued, disoriented and dizzy with a slight headache. I just wanted to have a hot cup of tea and I wasn’t disappointed as a jawan said “TASHI DELEG” & poured piping hot tea from a Chinese thermos in steel glasses. I rolled the glass vigorously in my hands. With one sip, I was already feeling better.

How many such trips would be needed to please Changla Baba? I wondered!!!!!!!!!!

JAI HIND

© Noel Ellis

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