You’ve probably never heard of the Gata Loops unless you’ve been on the bone-jarring, but stunningly beautiful, road from Manali to Leh, high up in the western Himalayas.
Twenty one hairpin bends up a mountain on the Himachal Pradesh-J&K border make for a good panoramic shot, but Anil, our driver, was rather fidgety while I pottered about, camera and tripod in hand. Pictures taken, I was reaching for my cigarettes when he said “Sir, please don’t smoke here. I’ll stop further on up the road.”
“But why? We’re still at low altitude, aren’t we? Besides, up the road is a 17,000-foot pass!” I grumbled, getting into the jeep.
“It isn’t the altitude, sir,” Anil said “it’s the place. No one stops unnecessarily on the Gata Loops. I’ll tell you why later.”
Sure enough, a few bends up the road, he pulled up at a spot which was, frankly, an eyesore in the middle of the pristine landscape. There was a pile of plastic mineral water bottles dumped in the middle of nowhere. A small temple, flag fluttering atop, sat amidst the trash.
Years ago, it seems, a truck broke down on the same bend. The driver, mindful of the cargo he was carrying, told the cleaner to stay with the truck while he walked to the nearest village to get help. Off he went, trudging the forty kilometres of mountain roads that separated him from inhabitation.
He got there, totally spent, to find no help in sight. A storm on another pass had closed the road, there were no mechanics to be found in the tiny village and, even as the driver waited, the weather closed in. He was stranded in the village for over a week before a mechanic and a vehicle came by. By the time the party reached the truck, they found the cleaner dead, felled by exposure and thirst, high on the bone-dry mountainside. Rather than carry a decomposing body home, the rescuers buried it close by.
Then, things started happening. Travelers stopping on the loops started meeting a man who begged them piteously for water. People who refused were soon writhing with mountain sickness, and some even died of it. Those who obliged, though, saw the bottles they offered drop through the man’s hands, while he kept pleading for water. Terror struck the region and only subsided when the locals set up a memorial at the site and made offerings of water to placate the ghost.
So saying, Anil picked up a bottle of Bisleri, leaned across and threw it onto the pile before the memorial. As I pulled out my camera and made to open the door, he put a restraining hand on my arm.
“Just take a quick shot from where you’re sitting, sir.” he said, quietly.
No one stops unnecessarily on the Gata Loops.
UPDATE: I just came across more photos, taken by an intrepid cyclist who actually got off and visited the memorial. You can see them here