It was past midnight. And cold. Biting cold. At minus 7°C, Satyen Das, who was dressed in a pair of trousers, a cotton shirt and a long jacket, shivered as he pushed his rickshaw up the steep road that snaked through snow-covered mountains in Ladakh, in northern India.
In the moonlight, the road appeared spooky, but Satyen was not worried. His quest was to become the first man to travel by rickshaw to the top of Khardung La pass, one of the highest motorable roads in the world, located at an elevation of 5,602m.
Although panting because of the low levels of oxygen at such heights, Satyen trudged on. It was Day 112 of his journey from the Eastern state of West Bengal, and he had covered close to 3,000 km.
‘There was a full moon lighting the way so I continued up hoping to see an army camp or a shelter where I could rest for a while,’ says the 46-year-old rickshaw puller from Kolkata.
Suddenly he heard a movement in the distance. ‘Then, from behind a clump of bushes, I saw a snow leopard emerge.’
Satyen says that the first thing he did was switch off the torch he was carrying. ‘Then I just froze, and the first thought that crossed my mind was that I would not be able to finish my mission.’
The leopard stood there for a few seconds staring at him, then began to advance towards him. ‘I was immobile with fear and did not know what to do,’ says Satyen. ‘When it was barely about 20m away, it stopped, then as though it changed its mind, quietly sauntered off into the darkness.’ When Satyen could move he parked his rickshaw by the side of the road, locked it, and sprinted down the mountain road to the safety of an army camp that he had seen earlier in the evening.
But the next morning he returned to his rickshaw and continued his journey – and realised his dream two days later on June 11, 2014. As the first man to travel by rickshaw to the top of Khardung La pass, he was awarded a Guinness World Records title in the Challengers section.
‘Of all the experiences I’ve had on the road during my mission, this one truly shook me,’ he says. ‘I was sure the leopard would attack. I guess I’m lucky to escape.’
Satyen, like any of the other 50 or so rickshaw pullers in his locality, earns around Rs300 (about Dh16) a day ferrying people around the city of Naktala, a locality in south Kolkata.
A resident of South Garia, Champahati, he lives with his wife and 11-year-old daughter in a one-room thatched house that lacks a toilet and electricity.
‘My dream was to visit Ladakh – conquer it with my rickshaw,’ says Satyen. ‘I wanted to challenge myself and when I stood on top of Khardung La pass I felt at peace. I had finally achieved what I’d wanted all my life.’
Frail and with unassuming looks, Satyen hardly looks like a man who embarked on his first road adventure at the age of 19.
‘I set off on a 13-month tour of India on a bicycle,’ he says. ‘I’d always wanted to do something heroic. I wanted to do something that would make me famous.’
In 1994, he sold his rickshaw for Rs3,000, borrowed a bicycle from a friend and set off on unknown roads from his village.
‘I love travelling. But since I didn’t have the money to go by train or bus, I decided to do it on a bicycle,’ says the high-school dropout.
The only preparation he did was to learn to read maps from a friend. ‘I know three languages – Hindi, Odia and Bengali and a smattering of English. So I felt it would be enough to see me through my adventure.’
Satyen says that wherever he went with his cycle strangers were warm and welcoming, giving him money, food and shelter. ‘I was invited to people’s homes and shops, given a hot meal… some even allowed me to spend a night in their homes. I had no major troubles en route except for one time when an inebriated man I met in Imphal, a city in north-eastern India, mistook me for a militant and attacked me.’ The attack left Satyen with a painful black eye and severely cut lips. ‘I sought refuge in an army camp where an officer tended to my wounds and allowed me to stay in the camp until I recovered.’
After his two-wheeler trip, which lasted more than a year, Satyen returned home and continued ferrying people in a rented rickshaw – but yearned to set off on another adventure. ‘Luckily for me my wife Minoo, who works as a maid in a house in Kolkata, thinks like me and she too expressed her desire to see the sea in Puri,’ he says.
Too poor to go by train, he decided to take his family – wife and then two-year-old daughter Sukanya – in his rickshaw.
Pedalling 500km from Kolkata to Puri in Odisha, Satyen says it was another amazing trip. ‘I had to first get a clearance from the local police station to travel with my rickshaw on the highway,’ he says. But after that it was a smooth ride.
Now he has stamped permission letters from 100 police stations all over India, papers that stand testimony to his travels. Bitten by the travel bug, Satyen then decided to take his family to the famous Vaishno Devi shrine in Kashmir. But not content with the trip to Kashmir, they continued touring more states in northern India – Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh.
‘We traversed through the deserts of Rajasthan, the snow of Manali, to the Golden Temple at Amritsar… all in my rickshaw,’ Satyen says, beaming.
His wife too is an avid travel lover and can pack up and leave at short notice. ‘Fortunately there have not been any major incidents on the road to put me off travelling,’ she says, ‘except one time in Lucknow when our rickshaw met with an accident after a lorry sideswiped it and we toppled over, with the rickshaw landing up on top of me.’ Luckily she escaped with just a broken rib. ‘And after taking a painkiller shot in the hospital we moved on,’ she says.
Six months later they returned to Kolkata and Satyen quickly returned to his job as a rickshaw puller. ‘I struggled to make ends meet but that did not stop me from dreaming about my next travel adventure – conquering Ladakh.’
But finance was an issue. Luckily for him, Partha Dey, an interior decorator by profession and a traveller by passion, turned out to be his saviour.
Partha, the joint secretary of Naktala’s Agrani Club, which organises blood donation camps or offers medical help for the local people, believed Satyen could do it. ‘When he expressed his desire to go to Ladakh, I told him I could help him,’ says Partha.
‘The cost of his journey was around Dh6,000. We club members got together and footed it.’ By the time Satyen embarked on this trip, he had become a celebrity of sorts in his village. ‘A man I met on my travels stopped to give me money and told me he had read about my expedition in the local newspaper. Everywhere I went people gave me money, including schoolchildren from Leh. I collected around Rs50,000 on this trip, which I used to pay off my debts.’
When Satyen reached the Jawahar Tunnel, which is 2.85km long and links Srinagar to Jammu, there were some permission issues. ‘Satyen had the army personnel call me and I explained to them his reason for being there,’ says Partha.
‘The army stopped the traffic for Satyen and gave him 15 minutes to cross the tunnel, which he crossed in 12 minutes. Once he crossed they called me to say they were impressed with Satyen’s speed!’
The only time Satyen felt he might not be able to continue the trip was when he started facing severe breathing problems in Drass, one of the coldest inhabited places in India. ‘It was tough and I struggled. But I was reluctant to give up,’ he says.
The scenic beauty of Ladakh is something that Satyen says will always remain etched in his memory. ‘No camera can do justice to what I have seen on this trip. I was travelling in an area that was so close to the Indo-China and Kargil border, and not many army camps could host me because of strict regulations. So on this trip I slept on benches at tea stalls often or just used my sleeping bag to retire for the night in the open.’
Despite all the hardships, difficulties and snow leopard encounter, Satyen reached the top of Khardung La. ‘It was a strange feeling when I stood there. I felt at peace finally.’
Satyen’s appearance on former cricketer Sourav Ganguly’s Bengali reality TV show Dadagiri has given him further recognition. A man living near his village called him to say that he was bedridden for months because of a rare disease, but he pulled himself out of bed after he saw Satyen on Sourav’s show. ‘The thought that I could inspire him to take a positive step is good enough for me,’ Satyen says.
Last year, Satyen was invited to the University of Calcutta to share his experiences with students. While he spoke, video footage of his trip was shown in the background. ‘I just couldn’t believe it; they touched my feet according to Indian tradition and took my autograph. I welled up seeing the respect they accorded me.’
Satyen is now a regular speaker in schools. He is invited as a chief guest to various functions and inaugurations, and has been felicitated by local clubs and at book fairs.
He met National Award-winning film-maker Buddhadeb Dasgupta at the Sonarpur Book Fair recently. ‘He asked me to write a book on my adventures. I intend to some day,’ says Satyen.
Talks are on with sponsors keen to fund Satyen’s next trip. ‘I want to do a Nepal-Bangladesh-Bhutan trip this year. That terrain will definitely be easier compared to Ladakh, but will give me an experience of cycling abroad. My ultimate dream is to do a Europe tour in my rickshaw.’
Satyen hopes that TV channels like Discovery or National Geographic would be willing to tie up with him.
His eyes light up. ‘If it is a Discovery tie-up, I can do the Ladakh trip all over again’.