If there is one thing that is not helpful right now, it is the altitude. The perennial error everyone is prone to when traveling at higher altitudes: ascending too high, too fast. The body does not acclimatize fast enough to do the same amount of work with lesser oxygen.
As a result, my head spins around in mild circles. It isn’t alarming, at least not yet.
The view, though, distracts us. There is something magical about being able to see land above the clouds. Or birds flying below you.
The butter tea helps, it is a popular high altitude drink made using Yak’s milk. Rohit grins as he asks me if I needed another cup. I nod slowly. He enlightens me with the patience of a storyteller who has who has repeated the same tale hundreds of times. “You will be okay,” he says. “It gets worse during January, no one comes here.”
An occasional blast of sun rays, denuded of chill, is a reminder of the destruction global warming has caused to a village at over 12000 feet in the Himalayan range experiencing no snowfall on a late December afternoon. Climate change has shrunk glaciers and made weather patterns even more unpredictable in the Himalayas.
But as evening approaches, predictably, the dry chill coupled with sub-zero temperatures starts playing with our heads.
Everything else was still. The interpretive center – a tavern incongruous in such a diminutive, isolated village – did little to shed light on the advertisement making feeble attempts to scream out loud on its walls highlighting tours through the Old Silk Road to Zuluk. Too crowded, we had assumed. Too touristy. And rightfully avoided beforehand.
Everything else seemed to suggest that Gnathang – offering little to do, but plenty of solitude – was an excellent choice, far away from the prying eyes of the world wide web that brought in legion of tourists.
A gravel street runs past an Inn, a provisional store, and a stretch of wood-framed houses with metal roofs that perch on stilts lying on rocky slopes leading up to a stream. At a distance, the landscape stretches to the horizon until it merges with the clouds that lazily caress the iridescent blue skies overlooking the valley while barely a stones’ throw to the east lies an arid sea of rock and mountains that separate India from China. A rocky pathway disappears into a muddy swirl. We were told not to follow it. “There are landmines,” Rohit had warned.
“But what do the locals do?”
He points at the army check post at a distance, we had crossed through it the previous day to enter Gnathang. “They work for the army,” he says. “We help them build roads. A good month fetches us 15000 rupees.” When they realize there is nothing much else to do, they do what Gnathang does best – nothing.
Despite the residual buzz of a potential Chinese infiltration, Gnathang presents itself as an intriguing, sleepy village oblivious to the existence of an international border. As the saying goes, ignorance is bliss. The valley seems to typify that, despite the Indian army check-posts keeping a watchful eye over proceedings.
With the light fading and the percussive trill of army vans silenced, we could hear the insects gossiping as the star-lit sky slowly plays hide-and-seek with the moon. Focusing on a particular moment becomes difficult with each passing minute, as the temperatures drop further, and the dry air envelopes our necks – as though intending to choke us to the point of speechlessness.
Soon enough, we begrudgingly accept that perhaps the laws of high altitude just aren’t meant for us.