Saturday, August 11, 2007

Days 10 - 13: The Long Journey Back Home

Days 10 and 11: Moonstruck

We left in the wee hours of the morning (a pattern to repeat steadily in the next 4 days) for Likir. The route is the endlessly shown "Leh" in all Bollywood movies. Flat stretches of brown landscape on both sides with brown hills a few hundred metres away and a straight road just dividing the brownness with its harsh black. We crossed the famous 'Magnetic Hill' where the car is supposed to go uphill in neutral (which I understood as no horsepower) After many childhood myths (of the Boogeyman, the Wicked Witch, the tooth fairy and Fairy Godmother being broken!) its hard to believe in miracles. So yes, it was an optical illusion :) We crossed the famous "Indus-Zanskar" river confluence (which has made a significant appearance in the latest 'Bingo from ITC' ad with the bumbling fireman in it) We visited a lovely monastery at Likir. It had a great museum with a painting that had an ancient form of snakes & ladders on it! Many of the artifacts had been brought to India in risky conditions across the border. Ladakhi Buddhism also has traces of an earlier religion prevalent in that area (called 'Bon') the remnants of which are skulls of humans and mountain goats at entrances of several monasteries (interesting, ain't it?)

We stayed that night at a local Ladakhi lady's household. Oh! I can write a book on the stay there. First of all, the village is barely 300 human beings strong. The house was 'manned' by a lady, her husband was in Leh, working as a teacher. Ladakh is are really forward in some of their customs. Men and women can get married and choose to live in the man's house or the woman's! So you bring home a bride or a groom! 2 of her 3 sons chose to be "given away" in marriage, and 1 of her 3 daughters decided to "bring home" a groom! Marriages are occasions for feasts in the entire village (thrown by the person to whose house the new entrant is coming in!) It involves the bride wearing a heavy head ornament with a line of turquoise stones being added for each generation of brides. Of course I 'HAD' to try it! Attest to its weight for sure! Not only did the two of us lasses try it on, we even ventured to dance with the women there. A corrupted dance form drawing liberally from Ladakhi folk dance forms and Bollywood inspired kitsch!

A second talking point is the Ladakhi kitchen. The vessels are kept GLEAMING and are displayed for visitors to show the prestige and status of the family, rather the economic well-being. The kitchen is the 'gathering room' of the house. The radio has a place of honour in this room. Kids study here... etc. Anybody can literally barge into anyone's house and will assuredly be served butter tea, chang (if they desire, and they do usually!) and dinner. The concept of 'athithi devo bhava' is at a totally different level here ( Imagine, for a saturday evening plan we spend multiple tens of rupees on calling and confirming, and re-confirming the timings and dropping into someone's house without prior warning is actually bad manners! How much we've lost, thanks to technology....sigh!)

We were given two rooms for our stay. We had to use the Ladakhi loo. Have to describe it (!) Its a raised room with a small roof and a door and a hole in the centre. In the corner you'll find a heap of sawdust and sand mixture and a shovel. No running water. If you are smart you'll learn how to balance a toilet paper roll and a torch. And no, it doesn't smell! The compost that naturally forms below the loo is used to fertilize the fields (am guessing!) The crops that grow abundantly in this area are barley, mustard and other crops that I didn't recognize. The crops literally surround the few village houses. Water is usually through a mountain stream that gurgles its way through the village as well (and provides for pleasant company through the night!)

We left the next day with heavy hearts towards Lamayuru. We passed the 'moonland' in Ladakh. The beauty of Ladakh is that the terrain is really different with every third turn you make. The mountain-scape here apparently resembles the topography of the moon. I agreed wholeheartedly, except for counter questions on how I knew whether the moon does look like that! The brownness and silence of the moonland is eerie. Felt like a budding astronaut as well :) We stopped at a few more monasteries, notably Lamayuru, the oldest monastery in the Ladakh area. It had the loveliest wall paintings ever and a pleasant monk-guide. That night we stopped at a guesthouse at Mulbekh, our hearts heavy. We were on the Ladakh-Kashmir valley border and would leave this lovely district behind in a few hours.

Ladakh is home to a few peculiar customs(like all places I guess. Your comfort zone vs. someone else's?). In the mountains, people leave three stones one on the other to indicate that 'they had been there'. In olden days the piles were really useful both to inspire and indicate that human presence in that area was not new and was possibly nearby. The practice still continues.

As if to counter it, the border roads organization has these really 'funny' road signs all the way to Kargil. One really funny one was 'Darling, I like you, but not so fast'. Another one - 'Overtaker fit for Undertaker' and 'One more drink for the road or tea at home' (or similarly) But the one that most confounded us was the one in the pic. Pls be kind enough to tell me what you think it could mean!

Days 12 and 13: Jannat yehaan hai!

We left early to join the convoy to Srinagar. We crossed Kargil at an eerie 4.00 a.m. I can't tell you how my heart almost burst with the joy at how courageous our army was. The road is barely 100 metres from a series of hillocks that had been occupied by insurgents from Pak. A local tea-stall owner told us that they(P) had even built cement bunkers there, but our intelligence had failed to notice the activity until one patriotic (?) sheep ventured there. Its loving owner searched for it and found army bunkers with Pak flags flying, realized all his sheep were in danger, and rushed back to tell the local army battalion. The rest is well-recorded history. The entire road, the only link from Srinagar to Leh (and therefore to other sensitive army outposts) was the target and today is protected by a thick cement 10 metre high wall that runs along the road for a long distance. We reached Drass at about 5.00 a.m and stopped for chai. We had a really funny encounter there. The driver and guide took off for their morning routine I suppose and we were pretty sleepy. But the men decided to brave the cold and get us chai. We women decided to stay put in the taxi. The 'azaan' for the morning prayers were being called (and sounded lovely in the dead-quiet) After the prayers a bunch of men came shouting loudly in chorus 'Subah ho gayi hai, utho utho, Allah-ho-akbar'. They came right outside our taxi and peered inside (looking determined to wake up the sleeping male offenders) When they realized that the bundled up figures there were women, it was amusing to see their expressions change (they were genuinely sorry to have peered inside the window!) They quickly dispersed, and even stopped chanting their 'wake up calls'! Am guessing Drass residents that day had reason to thank us :)

The entire way upto Sonmarg and even upto and in Srinagar is highly patrolled. Military everywhere. You feel really safe and as a tea stall owner in Sonmarg told us "a few free teas to military personnel is a small price to pay for the future of my daughter!" Howzzat for perspective? Sonmarg hurt our eyes with its greenery and beauty. After the stark terrain of Ladakh, Sonmarg was a refined green Kashmir-of-your-dreams in contrast. I have to commend the J & K tourism board for the way they've developed Sonmarg. Nothing short of resorts in Europe (umm, at least Scotland!) Well marked paths, clean mountain side, dustbins everywhere, information centres, clean loos with running water(ah! we'd missed civilization!) I made a note to return sometime in life! Would give the Alps a run for their money any day (if you manage to ignore the military presence reminding you of the tension in that area)

We reached Srinagar. The other couple chose to leave that day, but for sentimental reasons we decided to stay put (we had come to Srinagar for our honeymoon a couple of years ago!) We slept the whole morning, washed our dusty hair in warm running shower water(bliss!) and ate non-aloo food (after 12 days!!) Visited the dal lake in the evening (just like that) Went on a lovely shikara ride, ate 'nadru yakhni' (a lovely vegetarian dish with lotus roots in it, i HIGHLY recommend it) and opened a bottle of wine to celebrate our holiday. Oh, the other lovely drink we had was 'Khawah' (also pronounced 'kahwah') A lovely Kashmiri chai, with dry fruits chopped into it. Left the next day with a heavy heart, headed back to the rainy mess called 'Mumbai', arrived late and tired to a musty unwelcoming home and now, after a month, our entire trip seems like a dream.

The biggest lesson learnt? People live in amazingly inhospitable terrain with nary a complaint and if my maid doesn't turn up for a day, I lose my temper and good humour completely. The military live in cold(really cold) inhuman conditions to protect us (without proper food, and backsides frozen off most times) and here I am, complaining about bad roads or an eyebrow shaped slightly wrong (like by 0.0001 mm) This holiday really put things in perspective. About how to keep one's sanity intact, and not freak out about small issues. And that there is more to life than bad bosses or a bad hair day or ill fitting clothes or a grumpy husband. Keep smiling, life is short, enjoy it!

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Leh: Gompaaaah!

Days 7 & 8- Leh, Day 9 - Tso Kar

After the strenuous journey to Pangong and our health-related misadventures, we decided to take it easy the next couple of days. We decided to do some local sight-seeing and SHOP :)

To sight-see as much as our hearts desired, we set off early. We decided to catch the Buddhist monks chanting their morning prayers at Thiksey monastery. It was a wonderful experience hearing them chant together, but what is really cute is the duty roster for the little boy monks. The kids, at a mere glance from their headmaster, run to fetch pails of butter tea(a typical Ladakhi concoction that is made with oodles of butter and salt, and is no where close to tea! Its like soup actually) and is served during the chanting at regular intervals. Ladakhis drink butter tea with 'sampa', a barley powder. This concoction preserves heat in the body and is favored by natives of the area especially during the harsh winters. It requires some effort to get used to, but hey, you persevered with (yucky) beer, didn't ya?!

A typical monastery would have an assembly room, where the monks gather and chant, hold meetings, discourses etc. This room would also contain Buddhist scriptures arranged in 4 levels - the highest level is for the enlightened masters, the one below for experts of Buddhism, the third level for people with some knowledge of Buddhism and the lowest for people like me, whose knowledge on the subject is negligible. A small room behind the assembly hall is a 'Pure Room' that houses a version of the most important deity and is usually not accessible to the public. Another room houses 'Protector Deities', sometimes their eyes are blindfolded so as to protect the common man from getting intimidated by their fierce expressions.

And then of course a separate living quarters for the monks. What is amazing in Ladakh (and possibly Buddhism) is the way the monks are part of the society. Coming from the South of the country, where holy men are put on a pedestal and on some days of a month women not allowed to meet them and a million other rules imposed, I was stunned by the 'accessibility' of the monks here. Yes, they are respected, even revered, but they do not hesitate to eat and drink at a local hotel(for instance) or flag a car for a lift or pose for a photo (unsmilingly sometimes!) and participate in archery competitions(yes!)

We proceeded then to Hemis monastery, which is easily the most-photographed gompa in Ladakh. A lovely place with a huge statue of Guru Padmasambhava.

We then drove to a place where we could dip our feet in the river Indus. Oh! it was heady, the thought of dipping my feet in the waters of the river that gave its name to our country. And yes, brrrr! def chilly even in the hot sun. We drove through fields to reach a Ladakhi home for lunch that day. We were offered butter tea(which strangely I quite liked) Being in good health that day, we decided to give the local 'spirit' a 'shot'.. 'Chang', made from barley tastes like fermented buttermilk (yes, difficult to imagine, fairly difficult to like as well!) Imagine me turning down a second drink (that was a first for me!) Food consisted of a dish made of radish leaf in milk with saffron thrown in for good measure, rice and 'sku' (a sort of stew with balls of barley dough) I was the only one who loved the experiment (all the men attacked the next tea shop for plates of 'maggi', talk of 'adventure'.. bah!)

To cut a long story short, over that day and the next, we also visited a local ladakhi palace or two, a stupa built as a symbol of friendship by the Japanese and a couple of other monasteries, which were also colorful, spiritual and beautiful.

On the second evening, we returned to Leh early to commence our shopping expedition(raison d'etre et al!) . G1 and I left our respective partners behind and ganged up with my friend R. The three of us bought earrings and beads till we were tired of seeing any more turquoise, jade or yak bone accessories. We also bought a 'singing bowl' used in incantations, a lock, some printed 'thankas'(paintings), t-shirts... basically the entire flea market. (Locally ladakhis feel that they are more scrupulous than the Tibetans who've set up flea markets EVERYWHERE!) Anyways, with our purses literally empty and our hearts happy, we had a wonderful dinner at 'Summer Harvest' (the best restaurant in Leh), walked back sated, little knowing the horrible adventure that 'leh' ahead.

The next morn, we decided to go to Tsokar, a lake about 3 hours away from Leh, popular for the salt deposits on its shores and some Brahmini ducks(which G insisted that he wanted to shoot). You guessed right, the weather turned the 'worst ever' that we had seen. By the time we hit the second highest pass (which we had to cross), we'd given up on reaching Leh alive. For the first time, we saw the guide and driver grim (and obviously it didn't add to my spirits at all) The last stretch of the road was HORRIBLE. We reached a huge field with just one tent and a man beckoned us inside - our own St.Peter showing us heaven, and he offered us hot black tea (read 'manna') We were shivering crazily. Barely could hold the hot glass without our hands shaking. With the tea inside, G1 and I decided on a crazy adventure, we decided to go out in the freezing snow and rains, to pee. Remember what Forrest Gump says? "when you gotto go, well, you gotto go". With that philosophy we bravely bore 'frozen backsides' (ye women of the world, do empathize!)

Stayed in that tent next to a kerosene stove for all of 4 hours till the rains decided to well, 'go away for another day'. As we sat there getting warmer, we bonded with teh simple villagers selling hot tea in the tent. Even danced to some vague Ladakhi music, much to their amusement! G in his foolishness decided to shoot the ducks. The ducks? Ha ha ha! Anyways, we left the minute we could. But to date, I thank that chappie in the tent, with his two consorts who saved my life and soul for another adventure another day with his hot black tea!!

Once we returned we packed our stuff. We had to leave Leh the next morning on our long journey to Sringar, through Kargil. More on that soon. Watch this space!!

In tough times, simple acts of kindness seem overwhelming. Little Acts, Great Joy!