Some of us have often heard stories about a road trip our friends took from one corner of this vast country to another. There are a hundred and one memorable stories, anecdotes, photos, videos and souvenirs that mark these sojourns.
Some undertake them on motorbikes, cars or even cycles. However, imagine what it’s like travelling over 3000 km from Kolkata to Ladakh on a cycle rickshaw.
This is what Satyen Das, a cycle-rickshaw puller from the Naktala neighbourhood in South Kolkata, did in 2014. Today, a documentary film ‘Ladakh Chale Rickshawala’ detailing his journey from Kolkata to Ladakh is the winner of the Best Exploration/Adventure Film at the 65th National Film Awards in the national capital.
Das, meanwhile, continues to ferry locals in his neighbourhood.
What particularly stands out about his remarkable feat are three things—his insatiable love for adventure, incomparable endurance and courage to complete this perilous journey, and the fact that he shot his own footage on a Handycam.
Although Das had undertaken cycle rickshaw journeys to Puri (Odisha) and other destinations across North India earlier, a journey to Ladakh was always on his mind.
Days before leaving for Ladakh, however, Das had a chance encounter with Indrani Chakraborty, a television producer from the same Naktala neighbourhood, who hailed his cycle rickshaw on her way to work.
In the course of this short journey, Das told her of his impending trip to Ladakh through Jharkhand Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab and Srinagar, and showed pictures of his earlier trips. Sensing a unique opportunity, Indrani decided to shoot his journey and turn it into a documentary film.
“I didn’t have the money to follow Satyen Das on his entire journey to Ladakh, so taught him to shoot on a Handycam. However, it was tough when it stopped working after he crossed Benaras and someone from my team had to rush to where he was and get it repaired. Two of my associates and I met him on the final leg of his trip in Ladakh,” Indrani told the Times of India.
With monetary and logistical assistance from his neighbourhood club the Naktala Agrani Sangha, Indrani, and his regular passengers, Das undertook this improbable journey.
“I drove my wife and daughter to Puri and North India and was inspired to take my rickshaw to Khardung La mountain pass, the world’s highest motorable road, 39 km from Leh. I got help from Indrani-di, a few of my passengers and members of Naktala Agrani Sangha. There were many challenges; every day, someone or the other would ask me to return to Kolkata. ‘You can go till Srinagar, not beyond,’ they told me. But I didn’t budge,” recalled Das, talking to TOI.
Speaking to The Indian Express in 2014, Das said that he undertook this journey to promote the cycle rickshaw as an eco-friendly means of transport and world peace, although one could guess that adventurers like him do not need that sort of motivation to undertake such sojourns. As many travellers will tell you, it’s really all about the journey.
Apart from the Handycam, Das was armed with maps, food, clothing, and other equipment, and set off on his 68-day journey, which culminated in crossing the famous Khardung-La Pass in Ladakh on August 17, 2014.
Food, the lack of oxygen as a result of high-altitude (Leh is at 11,500 feet above sea level), and unpredictable/inclement weather posed serious challenges for Das.
“I carried basic ingredients like rice and potatoes. I would either have aloo chokha-bhaat or instant noodles; it was more of a fight for survival,” he tells the Times of India.
Despite the tough nature of this journey, Das recalls two particularly difficult segments of the trip. The first came when he reached the Zoji La Pass, the high mountain pass between Srinagar and Leh, which is perched at an altitude of over 11,500 feet above sea level.
“The roads were rough, and there was no way that I could carry my belongings on the rickshaw and cover the 8-km stretch. I would offload everything on the road drive the rickshaw for a few metres and return to carry the things on my shoulder. It took an entire day to cross that stretch, but I didn’t stop. I wanted to create a record of sorts by reaching Khardung La,” he told the publication.
One cannot stress any further how difficult the above-described task must have been for Das. The lack of oxygen tires your muscles out a lot faster than they would otherwise.
Your breathing takes a hit, and it’s remarkable that a man from the plains with no experience of these climatic and geographic conditions manages to complete his journey without any medical emergencies.
It’s a remarkable show of endurance, any which way you look at it. In Ladakh, Das was joined by a three-member camera crew to help him document this special part of the journey.
“From thereon, there was no looking back. I returned to Ladakh again in 2017, this time with the message of fighting global warming. I also sprinkled 5,000 date seeds along the way,” said Das.
The second difficult segment came during his ascent to Khardung-La from Leh. Perched at an altitude of over 17,500 feet above sea level, this was once considered the highest motorable road in the world. At moments when the road sloped upward, Das was compelled to get off his rickshaw and pull the vehicle up with his hands through the unforgiving mountain terrain.
“It was very tiring, and it took a lot of time. But the view of natural beauty you get there makes you forget everything else in life,” said Das.
You can watch this clip featuring Satyen Das on his 2017 trip to Ladakh below: