Stage 11 – India: Western Himalaya [2/2]
Having made the stunning and exotically beautiful journey to Leh by road, in the company of new-found travel partners, I would continue exploring the region before taking the eastbound route out of Ladakh, crossing into Muslim Baltistan, descending along the Line of Control, the de facto border with Pakistan, into the green mountains of Kashmir.
On the 14th August 2008, Matjaz, Ana and myself make a journey to the nearby village of Taktok where there is a traditional Ladakhi Buddhist mask dance. The local Ladakhis are gentle, good spirited people, always bellowing the Tibetan greetings Jule! or Tashi Delek! when encountering another person, local or visitor alike. And the local religion, Buddhism, is in my opinion by far the most appealing of the major faiths, with its lack of dogma or outdated social prejudices. However, the rituals and architecture of Buddhism, a school of thought which in essence shuns ritual and material attachment, have never moved me in the way that for instance large communal evening prayers in open-air Persian mosques have. I leave the immediate area of the festivities and wander around the village, where I meet Nao, a pretty Japanese girl who accompanies the three of us back to Leh, where we spend the evening together.
Next day, Matjaz, Ana and I head east once again, toward Pangong Tso, another of Ladakh’s breath-taking high altitude lakes. Leaving Leh, we pass Taktok once more, beginning a long climb to cross the Chang La, which like Khardung La lies at a staggering altitude of 5,350 metres. On the far side of the pass, we help some stranded German hippies whose minibus has broken down at around four thousand metres, and don’t make it to the lake until the following morning. Making use of the cars, we leave the track and cross some steep and sandy dunes to find our own secluded lakeside campsite. We’re battered the following day by strong winds and rain, though on the second morning we wake early to see the lake as a perfect calm mirror reflecting the black, grey, buff and white hues of the mountains beyond, and the white clouds which start to boil from the damp hillsides. We sit out on our chairs drinking real coffee and smoking, looking out to the far end of the lake, which spreads east across the Changtang into disputed Aksai Chin. It’s not the first time in Ladakh that I sit back and think that I’m in the most beautiful place in the world.
During our third and final rest-stop in Leh, Christopher, the German cyclist, and Nao, both catch up with us, and the five of us head west, to the edges of Ladakh. After an overnight stop in the village of Alchi, where we camp in an apple orchard, we say goodbye for the last time to Christopher. We spend two days at the beautiful gompa in Lamayuru, whose building s spread up an entire eroded hillside, before following the Indus downstream as far as is possible, just twenty kilometres short of the Line of Control (cease-fire line), to the village of Dha. The Brokpa people of Dha look noticeably different from their Ladakhi neighbours, and linguistic similarities to ancient Vedic scriptures suggest that they may be remnants of the original Indo-Aryan settlers of India. The Brokpa are one of a number of distinct ethnic groups who are linked loosely by language, and are scattered across the Hindukush Mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and here in Ladakh. These people have been termed Dards, and include the Nurestanis of Afghanistan, and the Kalasha people of Pakistan, who form an area known as Dardistan. Though the Brokpa have converted to Buddhism remnants of ancient pagan deities remain in their pantheon, and their villages of stone-walled houses are noticeably different from the Tibetan-style adobe houses of the Ladakhis. Their true origins remain an intriguing mystery.
Returning from Dha to the main highway, we say farewell to Matjaz and Ana who have opted not to follow the road down to Srinagar in troubled Kashmir for security concerns. I’ve had some amazing experiences with the two Slovenians, and in their company have for the first time on the trip fully made use of the abilities of the car, both as an all-terrain vehicle, and as a home. Happily, I will meet them once again in Iran next February.
Nao and I cross two low passes on our way west into a stark and remote corner of Ladakh, and we’re reminded once more that centuries ago this rough provincial track was one of the great trade routes of Asia. In the village of Mulbekh, opposite one of the western-most gompas in Ladakh lies a huge rock-carving of Maitreya, the ‘future Buddha’ who will come to Earth as a successor of the original to teach the Dharma at a time that it has been forgotten. Dating most likely from the 8th century and set on an ancient trade route, generations of people must have passed and been moved by the grandeur of the sculpture, which through a dozen centuries has sat here and survived local shifts of empires and borders, and a transition from Buddhism to Hinduism and more recently to Islam. Soon the settlements begin to change in appearance; gone are the Ladakhi villages of whitewashed adobe houses amidst golden barley fields, apricot orchards and poplar tress, replaced by more austere villages of unadorned houses. Schoolgirls in white headscarves, colourful mosques and even a rather incongruous advertisement of Iranian Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khomenei sprout up as we enter the Muslim region of Baltistan which spans the contested boundary, extending well into Pakistan and occupying the very western reaches of the Himalaya.
The drab town of Kargil is the first settlement of any size on the road, and with its endless rows of small shops and bearded men, feels very much like Pakistan, albeit a little cleaner and more orderly. Beyond Kargil, the road hugs the Line of Control, following the Dras River through a steep-sided valley, with the cease-fire line lying atop the cliffs on the far side of the road. At the roadside, a large yellow sign reads ‘WARNING – YOU ARE UNDER ENEMY OBSERVATION’. This rather inhospitable and windswept valley has a feel of military tension, and not long ago it was the site of full military deployment during the 1999 Kargil War with Pakistan. As we climb and pull away from the border, the landscape opens up into a beautiful, rather Central Asian scene of yellowing grasslands grazed by horses in the golden afternoon light, which picks out soft multicoloured mountains along the meandering river.
After stopping for a night in the town of Dras (which claims to be the second coldest town on Earth having recorded a temperature of -60ºC in January 1995), we cross the last ridge of the Great Himalaya via the rough Zoji La and descend into a wonderful green, wooded landscape reminiscent of Pakistan’s Swat Valley. Kashmir today is a name which in the Western mind conjures images of warfare and terrorism, but prior to the division of India, was an area renowned for its benign, alpine beauty. Since the mid 19th century, when the Sikh rulers of Kashmir were forced to join the British Empire, ‘Kashmir’ has referred to a far greater region, incorporating territory currently claimed and administered by India, Pakistan and China. Today it is one of the world’s most divided regions.
This princely state incorporated all the areas I have recently passed through since leaving the Spiti Valley, and a large swathe of northern Pakistan. At the time of partition in 1947, the incumbent on the Kashmiri throne, Hari Singh was given a choice between joining Pakistan or India. With a 77% Muslim population, the obvious choice was to join Pakistan, however when Singh hesitated, still clinging to dreams of maintaining an independent state, Muslim guerrillas infiltrated Kashmir from the Northwest Frontier, and a terrified Singh appealed to India for help. The Indians came to his aid on the condition that he accede to India, and in doing so he triggered the outbreak of the first Indo-Pakistan war, where army units on each side which had earlier in the year been part of the same force, took up arms against each other. With a history of feudal exploitation of the largely Muslim populace by Hindu landlords, Kashmir has remained a tense and volatile place since the birth of India it’s status awaiting a referendum which the Indian government has no desire to see happen.
In crossing the Zoji La, we have entered the real, historical Kashmir, or rather the Vale of Kashmir, a beautiful fertile plateau on the banks of the Jhelum River ringed by forested mountains. We stop in the small town of Sonamarg for lunch, finding that almost everything is closed due to the latest round of civil disturbances and army intervention which have placed the state capital Srinagar under curfew. We find an open restaurant where we are the only patrons, which is run by an ebullient Kashmiri with striking green eyes and a mullet. Kashmiris are renowned among Indians for their avarice and wiliness, and among foreign visitors for their promotion of vastly overpriced excursions to unseen houseboats on Srinagar’s Dal Lake, regardless of the current state of militancy in the city. It comes as no surprise then that he tells us of his houseboat on the lake, and of course it’s safe, it’s a lovely time to go to Srinagar, and that we mustn’t worry about the curfews / shootings / shops being closed, if only we’d care to pay him a deposit…
Sonamarg is a deeply beautiful place; not in the way of Ladakh’s sublime high-altitude lakes, or of the highest snow-capped peaks of the Himalaya, but a gentle, comfortable greenery. Large wooden two-tiered houses with sloping roofs and balconies look strikingly European, as do the fair-skinned Kashmiris who have strikingly Aryan features. Scents of the pine forests send my senses reeling back to childhood summers in the Black Forest, and as we descend slowly through forests and sleepy villages of ripening maize and clear blue rivers, it’s difficult to believe it is India around us, and not the Carpathians. Near the village of Gagongir, we camp in a cool and fragrant forest clearing next to the Sind River, whose gentle burbling is interrupted only by the frequent army traffic. Occasionally, large family groups of nomads pass us as they move down from the mountains towards the plains. These deeply Aryan-looking people, their women wearing colourful headscarves, leading horses loaded with their tents and all other possessions, are like a vision of the original Aryan tribes who settled the bountiful plains of India millennia ago.
We descend further through more delightfully bucolic and un-Indian looking villages, until the valley starts to widen and fill with bright yellow-green paddy fields which produce the world famous Kashmiri rice. Here the villages become less attractive than those in the hills, with large, unfinished brick buildings which typify much of lowland Kashmir. Here also, the trouble starts. The area is under curfew, and the Indian Army – a force I have come to regard as being of unparalleled incompetence – are out on the streets, armed. Our presence is something of a shock to them, and each time we are stopped I must explain that we have come down from Leh, that we are tourists, and that we were unaware of the curfew, before we are waved on, only to be stopped minutes later. In one small town where all the street shop-fronts are boarded-up and barricaded, we are stopped three times in perhaps a kilometre. Passing a stranded Indian Army truck, I am about to nudge one soldier – who is standing oblivious in the middle of the road – with the front of the car to break him out of his trance-like stare, when one of his comrades pulls him out of the road and I merely clip the barrel of his rifle. It’s rather terrifying to be around such fools who are armed and loosed in the streets.
The current episode of tension stems ostensibly from a sacred Hindu pilgrimage site, the Amarnath Cave where a huge conical ice-stalagmite is worshipped by Hindus as the linga (penis) of the god of destruction Shiva. In granting a swathe of land around the cave (which lies in the upper reaches of Kashmir) for the annually visiting Hindu pilgrims, the authorities stoked the fires of separatism which (allegedly) erupted into civil disorder and violence. It’s difficult to separate fact from fiction in this region, but in the eyes of Kashmiri Muslims, is just the latest example of a long history of their domination by a Hindu majority. As well as the usual economic disruption, the district-wide curfew has a – perhaps premeditated – disastrous effect on the Kashmiri tourism industry.
Eventually we roll into the streets of Srinagar which is a city under a twenty-four hour curfew. The streets are ghostly-empty, devoid of traffic, all the shops closed, no shoppers. It’s very odd to be the only car on the streets, to drive around a completely dormant Indian city, though a unique and memorable experience. The atmosphere is tense, and we’re frequently stopped by the army and asked for curfew permits, which inevitably gives rise to the following conversation:
SOLDIER: ‘Where is your curfew permit?’
AUTHOR: ‘I don’t have one, we have just arrived from Ladakh’
SOLDIER: ‘You must obtain a curfew permit’
AUTHOR: ‘Please point us in the correct direction to obtain one’
Thus we slowly make our way across the city. We have no intention of course to partake in the bureaucratic ordeal of obtaining a permit, and so ask a civilian to direct us to Dal Lake. Upon arrival we are of course besieged by offers of accommodation on one of the lake’s iconic houseboats, and eventually take a room aboard the Long Melford, named after a Suffolk village.
The tradition of houseboats dates back to the end of 19th century when the Maharaja of the princely state of Kashmir, despite formally being part of the British Empire, outlawed the British from purchasing land in Kashmir. Kashmir was a land coveted by India’s colonial rulers for its European beauty and specifically as a cool summer retreat from the stifling heat of the plains. The British circumnavigated this restriction by purchasing houseboats – literally floating homes – on the tranquil waters of Dal Lake. As Collins & Lapierre describe in their epic novel Freedom At Midnight, the retired colonels and civil servants lived ‘…[an] untroubled existence in a paradise of sunshine and flowers, where a man could live the dream of the Emperor Jehangir on thirty pounds sterling a month’. The Long Melford harks back to this age, and though the current craft is a 1980s reconstruction, the owner of the boat, a mild-mannered Kashmiri who seems exasperated by the endless conflict and near death of the tourist trade, shows us a folder of letters of recommendation and appraisal which go back as far as 1914. Old black and white pictures show elegantly dressed sahibs and memsahibs relaxing on the boat, and the current owner’s forebears decked out in gleaming white turbans and smart uniforms; today the owners (and clients) are considerably less well-dressed.
Though it may now lack the pomp of the bygone era, staying on the houseboat is a uniquely relaxing and decadant experience. Meals are brought to us three times a day, which may be enjoyed in the bedroom or on the boat’s open terrace. There’s little else to do, as one cannot venture into town at any time, save for an hour in the afternoon when everyone flocks the streets to shop. Our Kashmiri friend in Sonamarg seems to have been right; with the curfew in place, now really is a great time to visit, as the natural tranquillity of the lake is complimented by the lack of a background of city noise. Lying in our bedroom, looking out onto the mirror-like waters of the lake which are dotted with stationary houseboats and smaller shikaras which locals paddle round for transport to the lake’s far shore, one becomes positively serene. One hears only the gentle sounds of life on the lake; small craft floating past, sometimes containing whole families, snippets of caught conversation, the squawking of wheeling seabirds and fish eagles which hover above, and the distant clamour of the mosques, from where the sound of singing wafts across the water from dawn until sunrise and again in the evening. All these sounds come to life without the usual Indian sounds of manic traffic, horns and the hubbub of throngs of people; even the dogs seem to have given up their incessant barking. How wonderful India is under curfew!
The inevitable time comes however, after three of the most relaxing and restorative days of my life, for us to move on. Say a fond farewell to the Long Melford and her owner, we head back onto the tense streets and make our way across town, always on the pretence of being on our way to the appropriate office from which to obtain a curfew permit. Resuming our journey south, the roads are once again quiet though the traffic increases slightly with distance from Srinagar. The roads are full of police and army, and lined with people hoping to hitch a lift; one wonders how long they have been waiting for the curfew to be lifted and for normal life to resume. Leaving the southern edge of the Vale of Kashmir, we start to climb into the Pir Panjal Range, from where the vale spreads out in a magnificent tongue of textured, vivid green rice paddies. Passing through the unlit two-and-a-half kilometre Jawahar Tunnel, we leave Kashmir proper and wind down through quite heavily populated rolling green hills. After the magnificence of Ladakh and Kashmir, the hills are rather uninteresting and views are once again obscured by the last of the season’s monsoonal clouds. We roll out of the last outriders of the Indian Himalaya on a long descent, finally re-joining lowland India in the unexciting town of Jammu, just thirty kilometres from the (formal) Pakistani border. The town is not under curfew, but there is a general strike of the predominantly Hindu population.
Next morning I’m awoken by the sound of explosions, which turn out just to be firecrackers from some demonstration or other. The police have set up a number of roadblocks at the edges of the city, and it takes some time (and a penknife to cut through one roll of barbed wire blocking the road near the hotel), and a few arguments with the police before I find a way out. We don’t get far before we’re delayed for several hours by the Indian Army, who are trying to organise a roadblock at the city’s edge in anticipation of a VIP convoy. It’s not until evening that we reach the city of Pathankot, just over the state border in Punjab, where we spend our final night together. Tomorrow Nao will leave east for Dharamsala, the home-in-exile of the Dalai Lama, and on to Delhi to obtain a Pakistani visa, whilst I will head more directly back to my favourite country, where we hope to meet next month.
Without the responsibility of a passenger, my final drive in India, an almost straight one-hundred kilometre dash across the Punjabi plains back to the city of Amritsar, is an orgy of automotive aggression in which I have a final chance to vent all my frustration at India. I use the full potential of the truck’s size, muscling into the heavy car traffic from a side road, and overtaking lorries straight into oncoming motorcyclists and bicycles. As I force one motorcyclist to hit his brakes and leave the road, clinging onto his machine for dear life as it flies over the rough un-made surface, I catch the look on his face. It’s not one of mortal anger – as it would be were I in his shoes – but a smile. It’s as if he is vindicating my recklessness, an admonition that I have finally understood the philosophy of driving (and more) in his country.
I spend four days with my friend Alvin in Amritsar, staying once more in his comfortable hotel suite just as I did very nearly six months ago upon entering India for the first time. My journey has taken me to the very far edge of the subcontinent and back, a great swathe of people, cultures, landscapes, religions and ideas. While India can be frustrating – strangely far more so than Pakistan, Bangladesh or Nepal – it is a staggeringly diverse and fascinating place. Although at this time I feel I’ve seen more than enough of the country, deep down I know, sooner or later, I will feel the urge to return; to the outer states of the north-east, the strongly Muslim region of Gujarat, which borders my beloved Sindh, and the tribal states of the central Deccan. Firstly however, I will continue my journey through the mountains, before moving back towards Europe as the year ends.