Ladakh Journey

It was proving to be almost as difficult to leave Leh as it had been to get there. For three consecutive days I’d entered the dirt-floored ticket office only to be met by the unchanged chalkboard announcing a 6 a.m. departure to Srinigar and the identical explanation by the imperturbable clerk: “no bus tomorrow.”

“When do you think the bus will leave?”

“Maybe next day”

“When will you know?”

“Maybe tomorrow there will be more passengers.”

After several days of this sort of exchange multiplied a dozen times, sufficient numbers of prospective departees would have stacked up and J & K Transport Lines might decide to release one of their dilapidated buses to cross back over the Himalaya to the lowland vale of Kashmir. The well-heeled or impatient might try to fly out of Leh’s 13,000 foot airport on an Air India prop job, but then they would be subject to the vagaries of unpredictable high altitude weather which cancelled more flights than it allowed. Even those who could afford to hire a private driver would still be subject to a minimum of two days of bone-rattling, rutted dirt road. There was no easy way to get into or out of Ladakh.

That must have provided at least some of the appeal for the adventure travel crowd that was drawn to the austere, all but uninhabitable Tibetan plateau for an instant dose of Buddhist enlightenment. Ladakh is culturally a part of Tibet, though politically part of India — that crazy quilt of ethnic, religious and language factions. The state of Kashmir, of which Ladakh is a part, should have gone to Pakistan at the great partition of 1948. Only the last minute vacillations of the Hindu Maharajah Hari Singh kept predominantly Muslim Kashmir with India and the two countries have been fighting over it ever since. Even China got into the game by slicing off the northeast corner of Ladakh in 1962, which has made the Indian army a permanent presence ever since. Still, the average traveler finds it preferable to visit relatively open Ladakh to the tightly controlled access that the Chinese allow to the client state of Tibet, where the only Buddhist culture on display resides in the hollow monuments of Lhasa that they allow to exist for the sake of tourism.

Though Tibet is openly and obviously occupied by a foreign invader, Ladakh’s oppression is of a subtler sort. The Indian Army is omnipresent along the main highway, with large bases hacked out of the towering mountains, ochre colored Quonset huts in barbed-wire enclosures, and bare cliffs festooned with battalion insignia. They are mostly Hindu and contemptuous of the primitive locals. But the fact remains that access to Ladakh is almost entirely due to their presence; they maintain the strategic access roads, clear the passes of snow and maintain security so that the region remains safe from attack by Pakistan and China. If the army makes tourism possible, it’s the Muslim Kashmiris who facilitate the transfer of cash from visitors to the local economy. They arrive seasonally to operate the hotels, sell the artifacts, provide the meals and even run the sightseeing businesses, which take tourists on guided trips to the major gompas, where they offer specious explanations of a culture they couldn’t begin to understand. It’s hard to say what might be left to the gentle Ladakhis if the commercially ravenous Kashmiris hadn’t already sewn up 98% of the business. Of course, there’d be no need for the Kashmiris if westerners weren’t so enamored with exotic people in general, and Tibetan Buddhists in particular. Perhaps we should hold the Dalai Lama responsible? The impact of western visitors is especially obvious among Ladakhi youth, who like third-worlders everywhere, seek to emulate the stylistic fads of the west: blue jeans, disco, motor scooters, drinking and drugs. What we go vast distances to imbibe vicariously they are in a frenzy to shed as quickly as possible, so that they too can be considered modern. Thrice beleaguered, the Ladakhis are even condescended to by their Tibetan refugee cousins, who hold themselves apart in their own communities, looking down on their hosts as rustic provincials far from the center of Buddhist culture.

The third time’s the charm as the still resolutely impassive clerk recognizes my priority, gesturing me to the head of the line, though the bus will be only half filled.

“Where to, sir?”

“Srinagar.”

“For how many, sir?”

“Just one.”

“170 rupees please. You must report at 6 a.m. tomorrow.”

I had few preparations to make so I decided to spend one last dusk at the Sankar Gompa just north of town. The air was pristine and I marveled at the light on the mountains — the craggy majesty of Tseno Hill and the ridge line of palace, Tseno Gompa and fort set against cerulean blue sky and the shimmering fields of barley undulating in the breeze like mild surf on a sheltered beach. Sankara is a modest place with no great history nor any senior lamas accorded the honorific Rinpoché in residence, but I enjoyed the ambiance of the courtyard as the birds roosted in the poplars and the monks puttered about their duties. I recognized most of them now but they paid me little heed as I absorbed the scent from the giant rose bush and studied for one last time the samsara chakra — the wheel of life — over the dukhang veranda. After a time a Hindu family arrived and I slipped away to the adjacent poplar grove to escape their chattering. There, I observed a lone carpenter in his 60s squaring up some rough boards with only an adze as a tool. I admired his patience and care in following his own rhythm as he slowly advanced a project that looked to be an annex to the main gompa.

Walking back in the deepening dusk, I exchanged a good many “julleys” with the Ladakhis I passed. Some girls took my hands and carried me along as I cut through their play; two boys took turns rolling a toy car down a slope. Far to the south 20,000 foot Stok Kangri was catching the last light of the day, a golden tinge just at the snow-covered peak, soon extinguished.

The next morning I’m surprised to find I’m joined by Mike, the ex-fireman from New Jersey, who I’d met at Phyang Gompa earlier in the week. We’d spent that afternoon together walking and hitching back to Leh where I got to hear him try out his Punjabi on a couple of Sikh drivers, neither of whom admitted to understanding him. Mike’s favorite expression was “just out of curiosity,“ which he prefaced every question with. He’d been in central Asia so long, including a serious stint in Pakistan where he disguised himself as a local to avoid anti-American hostility, that he’d lost his job when he allowed a six-month leave of absence to expire. Mike struck me as slightly squirrelly and when he revealed that he’d recently fractured his skull in a motorcycle accident coming into Srinagar, I accepted that as the explanation. Kalsten, a German mechanical engineer, joined us in the back row where we traded marginally greater leg room for being on the wrong side of the rear axle, subject to the vicious pounding of the rutted road with no mediation by even worn out shocks. The J & K buses were notoriously ramshackle and there seemed to be no distinction in road worthiness between the long distance vehicles and the local shuttles. Each was as likely to overheat or slide off the road on bald tires.

Other than us three travelers, there was a Dutch couple that kept to themselves and about fifteen Kashmiris and a sprinkling of Ladakhis with some business in Srinagar. Our route would take us up the Indus valley, hugging the cliff sides high above the river; needless to say, there were no guardrails. I was once again seized by the absolute sterility of the landscape. I knew that it was a desert but in my familiar American southwest we got 10–12 inches of rain in a year. Ladakh gets three or less and most of it evaporates before hitting the ground. For six weeks I awoke every morning with a sore throat from the dryness of the air. With that small amount of precipitation and the intensely cold winters it shouldn’t be surprising that the mountainsides are absolutely devoid of vegetation. No wildflowers, no weeds, no brush, nothing except perhaps some lichen that had escaped my notice. That makes the intermittent valleys, fed by rivulets of glacial melt, all the more precious. The Ladakhis have taken those icy cold ribbons of life and dammed and diverted the waters to irrigate the only arable soil in the valley floors: where there is water, there are green fields; where the water ends, there is bare rock. No gradual diminishment; the demarcation is green and not green. They use that same water to nurture groves of sturdy poplars in a land where no native trees grow. The trees are carefully husbanded and gradually harvested to provide roof joists for the mud brick buildings.

Within a few hours of departure some Kashmiri businessmen have engaged us in conversation. They want to know about pornography.

“You have seen these movies?”

“Sure,” I take the bait. “I’ve seen some.”

“And they show a man and a woman doing…?,” completing his query with the international gesture for coitus. Their eyes are suddenly greedy for further elaboration, which I frustrate.

“They don’t show them in theaters anymore. You have to rent videos.”

“Ahh, yes,” they assent. Videos they know.

If its not sex, its alcohol with these far from pious Muslims. My own host, Ali, in Srinagar has asked me to bring back a bottle of whiskey for him from Ladakh. The situation is awkward for this primarily commercial class of Kashmiris, whose country has been hijacked by the ascendant fundamentalists who have imposed a cultural crackdown under the very nose of the ostensibly in-charge Indian Army. They’ve closed down the movie theaters, forced women to wear the veil, and eliminated all sources of alcohol even for non-Muslims. These merchants aren’t interested in dogma; they want to make money, and if they indulge a little in the pleasures of western society what’s the harm? Yet they can’t go against the mullahs, and even exhibit a little guilt about preferring the secular military occupation to a religious state, their religious state. They need the tourists, after all, for their livelihood. And who would want to visit beautiful, storied Kashmir if the killjoys were in charge?

As we climbed out of the Indus valley past the majestic hilltop gompa of Lamaruyu and on up to the Fatu La, 12,700 foot gateway through the Himalaya, the bus inevitably overheated and all of us passengers disembarked while the driver re-filled the radiator. The pass controls any road access to Ladakh and remains a priority for the army to clear as early as possible for the short summer season. When I’d come the other way in mid-June the snow drifts on either side of the road were easily 14 feet high and the heavily iced roadbed was more suitable to a sled than wheeled vehicles, though road conditions never deterred any turbaned Sikh bus driver from giving it a go.

About an hour later we made a brief stop at the desolate hamlet of Mulbekh where the grimy chai stall was hidden underground to protect from the howling winds and fierce cold. We were still in Ladakh and the locals were clearly of Tibetan ancestry but the bare mud walls were covered with Muslim iconography and even a portrait of the Ayatollah Khomeini. The tentacles of proselytizing Islam were plainly meeting little resistance from the defenseless Buddhists.

We arrived in Kargil — our overnight destination — about 6:30, early enough to get a visual confirmation of what I was only able to smell on my eastbound journey. It was a shithole. The principal feature was a dusty main street lined with dingy shops and nameless “restaurants” interspersed with far too many butcher shops fronted by piles of sheep’s heads and tangled entrails. The mangy dogs seemed to be well-fed, anyway. A non-stop procession of commercial trucks screeched through town belching clouds of black diesel exhaust in the narrow street, heralding their progress with repeated blasts of horns. Mike, resident authority in cheap accommodations, led Kalsten and me to a flea bag of a hotel he had apparently stayed at earlier. We waited a while for the promised clean sheets before defaulting to the sleeping bags we would have used anyway. The group shower seemed to double as open sewer, so we stepped around the mounds of feces while freshening up in the cold water. None of us complained, not with any real enthusiasm, since our discomfort would make it all the easier to arise at 4 a.m. for another twelve hours of punishment by road.

Kalsten proved to be a thoughtful traveling companion and we talked about world affairs and our experiences in Asia. He’d spent time in some of the more untouristed countries like Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, always traveling solo. Whenever I’d previously run into Germans, even in Australia, they’d always traveled in packs, speaking only German and interacting only with each other. Strangely, the nationality most like the Germans in Ladakh were the Israelis. Each seemed infected with a sense of entitlement and spread obnoxiousness wherever they went. Of all tourists, they seemed the most prone to make a show of dressing up in local costume to abet some absurd fantasy of assimilation. It reminded me a little of the ones I’d seen in Arizona who, desiring the full southwestern experience, dress up in cowboy garb from head to toe.

The Dutch couple disembarked a few kilometers before we even got to the city, where they were met by the houseboat people they were to stay with. Kalsten naively asked why they had come out to meet them.

I filled him in. “It’s going to be pretty bad at the bus stop and they were likely hoping to avoid the hassle. You were probably still in Pakistan when the four Israeli tourists were kidnapped and didn’t hear about it. And then one of them got killed trying to escape so the city is probably just about deserted. Nothing worse for tourism than killing tourists.”

“It was hard to get any news in Pakistan. I don’t know any Urdu and besides, the Pakistanis hate the Indians and wouldn’t report on anything happening here anyway.”

“It was bad before I left Srinagar in June — hardly any tourists at all since Rajiv Ghandi got assassinated — but it’s got to be much worse now. Before there were 100 Kashmiris to each tourist and it has to be at least 500 to one now. They’ll definitely be after us.”

As the rickety bus banged round the western perimeter of Dal Lake in central Srinagar it grew emptier stop by stop until only a handful of Kashmiris and us three westerners remained. I was hoping we’d have more reinforcements of any nationality to run interference against the expected mob of touts, cab drivers and rug merchants I anticipated would be waiting for the bus to arrive. Kalsten had certainly seen some hairy stuff in northern Pakistan where travel was exceedingly difficult and crossing the border nearly impossible. The open weapons bazaars of Peshawar and cross-border warfare made the nightly automatic weapons skirmishes of Srinagar seem minor in comparison. Still, there was bound to be some excitement at the bus station where hundreds of frantic Kashmiris would be waiting to solicit our business.

Mike, whose oft-repeated stories I’d grown weary of, was the last of us to abandon the creaky bus just short of our final destination. He got off at Nagin Lake, adjacent to Dal, where he’d stashed his motorcycle. Knowing him, I’m sure he’d found the cheapest lodgings in the whole valley. Up ahead a crowd was already visible at the station; a station only in the sense that the dirt lot provided a place for buses to depart and arrive and a tiny kiosk to sell tickets. The mob swarmed around the bus as it lurched into the lot, parting like an oil spill that continues to surround a moving object but does not disperse. The wildly gesturing Kashmiri merchants encircled the bus ten deep, each waving and shouting as if they expected to be picked out of the mass solely on the basis of their superior enthusiasm.

Kalsten, the veteran world traveler, surveyed the intimidating scene wide-eyed, looking for an avenue of escape where none existed. The few locals remaining scattered quickly, ignored by the mob which prepared to engulf the remaining two moneyed passengers. Entering the maelstrom, we worked toward the back of the bus in close file, tugged at by hands grasping at whatever clothing they could reach. Kalsten clambered up the ladder to the roof rack where our gear was tied down and lowered it to me while I attempted to keep the crazed Kashmiris from spiriting it away. Bound together we crab-walked to the street side where the auto-rickshaws were parked, buffeted all the way by the grabbing and shouting representatives of the hundreds of unoccupied houseboats on Dal Lake. One of the mob, resigned and bitter at losing the business, disparaged the rolled carpet I had brought back with me. We only wanted transportation out of the chaos and quickly negotiated a rate of 5 rupees with one apparently indifferent driver. Other offers quickly came in at “four rupees, two rupees.”

While we stowed the backpacks, the driver was set upon by a frustrated gang of the more vigorous pursuers who seemed to object to a bystander hauling off the prize they’d fought so hard for. The ensuing fist fight provided the necessary diversion for the last two tourists in Kashmir to fling their bags into an adjacent vehicle and speed off, trailing dismayed losers. The hard sell continued as we sped away in the gathering dusk: “I am Raffi. You must stay with me. My family has the best accommodations. We will show you the gardens, take you on shikara tour, find the best carpets.”

Within a half-mile Kalsten had bailed at the Pala Palace. I continued on to my appointed rendezvous with Ali at the Houseboat Little Fairy Queen.

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Steven Hahn

Steven Hahn

Ponderer of trends, enemy of gophers.