We follow Acho Dorje and Tundup -into a strange, dark and mysterious place of wonders.
Acho Dorje is busy gathering things.
I can hear his light feet shuffling about in a dark room beside the kitchen. It is 9 am and cold outside; about 4 degrees and extremely overcast with pale grey clouds hanging low and dense.
In the far end of the kitchen are Acho Dorje’s children, pouring over their notebooks, finishing home work. Bright white light pours in to illuminate their pages. Outside the kitchen’s large windows, I see slivers of a gigantic mountain range reveal itself through a mass of pale clouds.
It is very quiet.
I can hear erratic scribbles of pencils, I can hear their slow, deep breaths and pauses. Somebody behind me clears their throat. It takes me a while to realize my friend, Tundup, is here too. I have been staying in his home for the last couple of days. He has his hands crossed and legs outstretched on the floor. His round hat rests in his lap as his eyes wander the ceiling. I assume he is, like me, nervously pondering the hours that will follow. It is his first time.
‘Milk?’ Acho Dorje walks in with two large glasses. ‘It is very fresh.’ He informs us. Tundup and I gulp down the milk from his Dzomo (A mix between a Yak and the domestic cow) wordlessly.
‘It is going to be very dark in there. It can make you mad.’ He announces. His tall, slender figure is silhouetted against the white light streaming in. ‘I have this torch with me. It is bright enough and reliable; enough for all of us.”
‘I have two head lamps and one more LED torch… just in case.’ I reply.
Acho Dorje puts on his cap and sunglasses and walks to the door. We follow him out and put on our shoes. Acho Dorje’s son brings out a walking stick and hands it to his father.
We are now ready. To wander into a mysterious, deep, dark hole glaring out of a desolate mountain.
Acho Dorje and Tundup have a pair of what I call ‘Mountain feet’ – They scamper up a hill nimbly in their browned sports shoes. I fall behind almost immediately. Conversing busily in Bodhi, they turn back now and again to check if I am close behind.
I am told the next hour or so is going to uneventful; time just enough to answer a simple question – How did I get here?
More than a year ago, while working with the Snow Leopard Conservancy, Ladakh, I found myself visiting Acho Dorje and Tundup’s little village in the Zanskar region to interview the local populace for general information about their obscure town.
One particular question generated a varied responses – Is there anything that is little known or unique in/around your village?
Some of them replied, ‘Yes. A mountain in the shape of a Holy Fish.’
Some said, ‘Formations of ‘Om Mani Padme Hum outside the village.’
But one particular answer stood out: ‘Yes. A mountain cave.’
That was it. I became curious at once.
When I probed further, they spoke about it in the way legends are spoken of – I heard incredible accounts of dark hallways, impossible escapes and unbelievable adventures.
When I heard them speak, wide-eyed with wonder, I found the lines between lore and actual occurrences blur,
Never before had a cave been discovered in Ladakh. When the winter ice melted away and made a visit to Zanskar possible again after 6 months of inaccessibility, I swore I would come back and see for myself.
And here I was. With two good men who had today, not reported to work at their monastery, where they were building a wall and instead agreed to accompany me to this mysterious cave.
The first time Acho Dorje and Tundup stop, it is to caution me, ‘Listen, we are in the presence of bears. They are shy creatures. But if you happen to startle them, they’ll take you down immediately with just a single blow.’ Warns Acho Dorje, speaking forebodingly of the Himalayan Brown Bear, native to Zanskar.
‘Stay close.’ Says Tundup. ‘If there’s any one in the mountains that dislikes surprises, it’s the Dimo!’ He exclaims. ‘We’re going to let it know we’re around. We’ll walk slow and scream out often.’
‘Hawr, Hawwrr!’ they bark out loud every ten yards or so. I keep my eyes open, very eager to spot the feared creature, possibly from a safe distance.
The closest we get to the Dimo (Ladakhi term for Bear) is when we cross a little stream and see a huge, wet pug mark on a rock. ‘We’ve missed it by minutes! The Dimo knows we’re here. It’s like a game of hide and seek!’ chuckles Tundup.
We stop for tea. Acho Dorje and Tundup reach for items in their bags.
The trek becomes harder now. We push through waist deep brush.
Navigate slippery ice shelves.
Squeeze through cracks in the ice.
After some time, we enter a valley and tread gravel ridden, slippery slopes. One step wrong and we could fall into a raging river beside us. It becomes impossible to pull out my camera without losing my footing. Acho Dorje cautions me against having the camera out. I do as he instructs.
Another two hours of trudging along the valley floor has us crisscrossing the river dozens of times, seeking safe banks on either side. I cannot feel my feet anymore. The ice cold glacial water numbs us to the bone.
Then I hear a voice. It is Tundup. He is holding up Acho Dorje’s walking stick, pointing at something.
‘There… there it is!’ screams Tundup. I hear his voice loud and clear, over the rush of the river.
There it was indeed. From where I stand, I see a sinister, gaping void peering at us. It seems as if we are staring into the eye of the mountain; dark and wondrous.
Tundup and I excitedly scramble over the ice cover to reach the mouth of the cave. Acho Dorje is already there. ‘We eat lunch first. Then we go in.’ he says.
We quickly finish lunch. It is another impressive spread with lots of tea. Sitting at the mouth of the cave, I grow restless in anticipation. We leave our bags outside and carry only lights and a camera.
I realize the entrance is much smaller than it seems from afar. Acho Dorje crawls in first. Tundup follows. I enter last.
The moment I enter, I want to leave. It is a darkness like I have never experienced. Tundup’s shoes are no more than two inches from me and I still cannot see them. I wait for my eyes to readjust but that does not happen. Claustrophobia begins to set in. I decide to crawl back outside and orient myself.
A light comes on.
It is Tundup’s torch, illuminating the roof – barely three inches above his brimmed hat. I turn on my headlamp and crawl after Tundup. After about 30 feet of worming through the tunnel, we are able to stand up. The tunnel has opened up to a small room.
‘Welcome!’ Says Acho Dorje, holding his torch light up to his beaming face.
It is now, as he leads us deeper into this lightless cavern that Acho Dorje decides to recount tales and legends surrounding the cave.
‘That this cave exists, has been known for centuries.’ He begins as we prepare to crawl through another tunnel.
‘Our elders have visited often. For long, they have sought to find where it ends, or begins. They have returned to the village and narrated their experience. By doing that, they have kindled the curiosity of those who haven’t ventured in.’
We reach another passage. Here where see large, round ice spheres fallen from the ceiling. I am amazed by the formations.
‘The first time I came here was thirty years ago, when I was a little boy. Brought here by my uncles, I was fascinated by the wonders this place held. We set out determined to find the end of the cave and could not manage it.’
Acho Dorje shines his light on the ceiling. Another upward passage is revealed in the roof. One would require a ladder to approach it.
‘If you move ahead, you will at times find yourself scraping against the floor to push forward and then suddenly this will open up to a large hallway and then another larger hallway.. and this goes on and on.’
‘There is a dense network on mazes ahead. You could easily lose yourself and perish in your attempt to return. The ice shelf outside the mouth of the cave? When it melts away in the summer, the river beneath it is in full flow and you can never get in. Only in the cooler seasons is it possible to enter.’
We come across a spectacular formation hanging from the ceiling. It seems otherworldly. Tundup and I observe, awestruck.
‘There was a war some decades before today. The people in the village feared our monastery would be invaded and plundered by the neighboring army. So it was decided that some valuable artifacts and our holy books be hidden here for safekeeping… the war ended and thankfully, our village was untouched. The men returned to retrieve the monastery’s possessions. All the belongings remained where they were left, except for the ancient, holy books. It was believed that the entity that was the cave had claimed the holy books. And for that reason, these caves have come to be considered sacred.’
‘When the elders came across multiple passages, they would plant colored flags that they carried along at the entrance they had chosen. On their way out, they would simply collect the flags.’
‘I have returned here many times. Every time, I have gone home without finding the end. The further you go, the less oxygen there is and more mazes you will encounter. Some people have had to be brought out because they have lost their minds.’
‘Don’t be mistaken. I don’t return here every time with the sole intention of reaching the end. I have just happened to return. Because every year, there is somebody who has grown up enough to be brought to the cave. We just accompany the youngsters on their first ever visit to the cave. You could call it a sort of handing down… of an age old adventure.’
We reach another passage and here we find knee deep water. It is unbearably cold.
Acho Dorje checks the depth with his walking stick and wonders if we should go ahead. Tundup is eager. He suggests, ‘Let us cross this passage and see if the floor is submerged there too.’
They wade through to investigate while I watch on. Tundup leaps up with a yelp, nearly hitting his head against the ceiling.
‘It’s too cold! I cannot go any further!’ he squeals and starts to prance back to a rock sticking out of the water. Acho dorje is there before him.
‘We must return. The tunnels ahead will be flooded. We are lucky we got this far, in this month. If you wish to return, you must come back in November when the river starts to freeze.’ He proposes.
Tundup and I agree, only mildly disappointed that we cannot go further. On our way back, we come across evidence of previous visits:
Nantak – 1997’ is painted proudly in bright red across a rock.
‘That’s a school teacher from the Monastery.’ Informs Acho Dorje as we slowly make our way back.
Tundup requests for photographs he can show his family. A quick photo session follows.
On our way back late in the night, we are waylaid by the village folk. They are curious to know if we reached the end of the cave. At first they don’t believe we made it to the cave.
‘Yes, yes. We did. The ice shelves were intact and we could walk across!’ assures Acho Dorje.
One man grabs the camera from me excitedly and scans through the photographs. He sits hunched on the floor as a crowd gathers him.
As they do this, I begin to see how the cave has been an incredible pursuit of adventure to the people here for centuries. I see how they are all fascinated by it and wonder who will make it to the end.
Cave explorations today are possible only with the aid of oxygen tanks, climbing gear, inflatable canoes, underwater apparatus and other sophisticated equipment. The purpose of my visit here was to take a first look and return to explore its depths next year, fully equipped.
But now as I watch these men pouring over a little screen on a camera, eager to see if the mystery has finally been solved, and if somebody will finally be able to proudly claim to have traversed the mazes and found the origin or the end of this great cave that mystifies them, I humbly accept my presence there as a trespasser.
For I believe, somebody from their own village deserves to be that man, whenever that maybe.
I believe, this adventure belongs to Acho Dorje, to Tundup, these men before me, and to just about anybody in the village who is simply curious.