-By Jessica Passah
September 1, 2017: “To travel is to live,” said Hans Christian Anderson and this is exactly what one woman from Shillong intends to keep doing. Wara Kharkongor, an educator in one of Meghalaya’s best schools–Pine Mount School has found her second home in Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir. The teacher with a wonderfully animated personality has spent almost all her vacation days in the Northern state of India. Since 2009, Mrs.Kharkongor has been travelling to Ladakh annually with adventures that would fill any soul. Ever since she was a little girl, she had always had a fascination for mountains and dreamt of the mountains of Kazakhstan and the beautiful horses. Talking to TNT-The Northeast Today, she reminisces how immediately on getting up in the morning she would climb on top of the roof of her family home in Risa Colony. She felt at ease in open spaces and longed for them whenever indoors. She would climb tree tops in the nearby jungle and study there when she was just a young girl. She always felt at home in the midst of nature which is why her multiple journeys to Ladakh seem to naturally fit with her outdoorsy personality.
A student of St. Mary’s School she would spend her time looking out at the mountains and be completely fascinated by them. As it normally happens in life, Mrs. Kharkongor settled down and got married but after her husband passed away in 2008 and the children had left the house, she found herself wanting to explore the mountains and decided to go to the Himalayan mountains. There she did the usual treks and explorations from Sikkim to Bhutan and so forth. Although she greatly enjoyed herself in these places, she however had a longing to go to Tibet. However, after parking in Kathmandu for ten days, she did not get a visa. She tried again once more after that but after twice being rejected she has since stopped.
On the advice of her brother, she decided to take a trip to Ladakh and on reaching there; she felt a sense of déjà vu! This was the place she had seen in her dreams and she felt complete. Ever since then, she keeps going back and always on a solo trip. What is different about her trips is her sense of adventure. She does not stick to any itinerary and finds herself wandering the mountains with nomads and sheep herders. Fearless and living life in the moment, she immerses herself in their lifestyle—living exactly how they live and doing exactly as they do. With howling wolves which curl the blood, Mrs. Kharkongor’s adventures seem to come right out of a novel.
The Chadar trek is one of the most difficult treks in India which takes about 14 days to complete and the second time she went to Ladakh, she embarked on the trek –again solo with just a guide and a porter. Her guide has now become a very good friend and she even helps with the education of his children. Walking 2 weeks straight with 5 kilos on her back and all her technical gear, she managed to manoeuvre the extremely difficult terrain with sub zero temperatures.
Mrs. Kharkongor has many tales about the mountains and she talks about how she met her guide on a night when there was a huge blizzard and all she saw was a thin man walking on the road. His gait was so confident and in her mind she thought, “Wow! This man walks like a mountain goat, not slipping at all on the icy streets.” On the Chadar trek, she mimicked and followed his every move because with one wrong step and a momentary lapse in concentration, the river would have sucked her in. Mrs. Kharkongor is full of life and talks animatedly of her experiences. She doesn’t go to Ladakh like every other tourist but actually lives in the caves like the tribals there.
However, recently her focus has turned to preserving to the villages there. On her last trip there she went to meet Stanzin Dorjai’s sister who is a shepherdess. Stanzin Dorjai is the director of award winning documentary “The Shepherdess of the Glaciers.” The documentary is based on his sister Tshering who raises and herds over 400 pashmina goats. Mrs. Kharkongor stayed with Tshering for 3 days and had to trek over 4 to 5 mountains to reach her. Her stay with Tshering was a very memorable one and the place where the shepherdess stays is highlighted in the documentary. During the stay, Mrs.Kharkongor heard a wolf attack where they took away a young colt. Thankfully, they were safe inside the hut and on getting the colt, the wolves went away. Snow leopards are also a common sight and many lambs have fallen prey to the mountain cat.
Stanzin and his sister come from a tiny village in Leh called Gia which is an entirely organic village which is possible only because of the pashmina goats. It is of concern to the elders of the village that the numbers of goat herders are dwindling with many from the young generation entering different professions. The village is located in a very arid region so manure comes directly from the goats and with the numbers decreasing, planting their crops such as barley will be extremely difficult. Everything organic is recycled in the village; even the water used to wash faces is being recycled. The influence of the rest of the world doesn’t seem to affect the village and the dreamy place seems like something from a hundred years ago. Even mobile phones aren’t available and there doesn’t seem to be any want of it. The only available phone is a PCO.
Mrs. Kharkongor has explored so many villages and spends at least one to two days in a particular village interacting with the local people. She’s even been fortunate enough to go up to the first battle ground in Siachen. Apart from this she’s also met the last remaining tribe of the Red Aryans, which is an endangered race. Their main income comes from apricot farms and they are mainly settled in the villages of Dah, Hanu, Darchik and Garkon near Kargil.
On her way from Kargil to Zanskar, she is one of very few people in the world who has seen ice flowers. The ice flowers do not come out every day and temperature and moisture has to be perfect. The white flowers on the stony mountains are a sight which she remembers vividly and describes as a “fairy land.” Her stories are innumerable which cannot be put into one article but the tales leave one spellbound. She immerses herself in the culture and in no way tries to dilute the experiences by making her trips more comfortable like most tourists.
The adventures of Mrs. Kharkongor are some which most of us can only dream of. From her foot frozen with ice to breathtaking views after a long hard trek, she continues on her journey and this winter, Ladakh will once again see more of her.
-The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org