In Choglamsar village just 10 minutes east of Leh, I'm standing on what looks like a riverbed. There are ruined houses on either side, but this is a riverbed: stones and boulders stretching gently uphill from where I stand nearly all the way to the hills in the distance. This is a riverbed.
Or is it? Tsering Sandrup, standing next to me and next to his brother's house, points out to me the remains of the small verandah the house used to have. It projects into this riverbed. He tells me softly, there used to be houses packed tightly all the way where you see these stones. The water came down that way and took all the houses away.
It is a riverbed of sorts now. Before August 5, it wasn't.
I came over to meet Tsering because standing here in Choglamsar and letting my mind boggle at the destruction, I see dark brown mud fly out of an opening in a runied house, almost at ground level. I realize that there's a man in there, digging with a shovel at the mud that had nearly inundated the house, flinging out shovelfuls through the front door: the top of this front door is now at my knee level. That's how much mud came through, on the edge of this river of massive boulders.
The man in there is Tsering's brother, dressed in blue and panting from his efforts. So far he and Tsering and their two wives have managed to rescue: an amplifier, a TV set-top box, a carpet, two thermos flasks and a notebook. Still the brother digs, while Tsering takes a break to catch his breath.
There was light rain earlier that evening of August 5, says Tsering. Then the heavy rain, about midnight. Luckily for his family, this particular house was empty that evening: he and his brother and his sister-in-law and their kids havd gone to another village to spend the night. His wife was here though, in someone else's house for the night, and she ran before the water and all night and until 5 in the morning. He made desperate attempts to phone and come all through August 6, and was only able to find her the next morning, when someone told him she had found shelter on top of a nearby hill and someone else got through to her on the phone. By late that day, the family ha got together again.
More than can be said for many other Choglamsar families: the stories are of 100+ deaths here. Looking at this riverbed, I can believe it.
Tsering says everyone still feels frightened by the whole calamity. "Baarish ke naam se bahut dar hai" (We are frightened by even the mention of rain), he says.
As if on cue, heavy drops begin to fall on us.