Monday, March 07, 2011

Trucks, buses and aeroplanes

A slim crescent of the moon was visible just over the top of the nearby mountains. And a countless number of stars in the clear black sky. It was cold outside. So very cold. The mountains were just silhouettes against the ever so slowly brightening sky. Just jagged lines to your eyes, telling you where the land ended and the sky began. The patches of snow that weren't blown away by the gale of the previous night seemed like ghostly patches on the mountains, glowing faintly in the moonlight. A chilly wind blew unceasing, and my scarf was not up to the job. I tried to keep my nose and mouth covered and breathe through the scarf. Which ended up fogging my glasses. In an attempt to keep warm, I started to walk up and down the road desperately hoping for the sun to come up soon. The crunch of previous night's ice under my shoes while pacing on the road was soothing, but otherwise not of much help. The shivering came in bursts. And I pulled my jacket tighter. The wind seemed to find every patch of uncovered skin and chill it senseless. I seemed defenceless, and the wait hopeless. The sky seemed to brighten imperceptibly to an inky dark blue. A pale pink glow was just visible to the east. Hope dawned, though the day had yet to. The mountainside brightened to a barely visible yellow, and the patches of snow seemed to glow. Daybreak. The stars disappeared one by one, and lengthy shadows appeared. The tops of the mountains seemed like golden crowns on their massive shadowy bodies. But the sun wasn't yet seen. And neither was the bus.

The bus was supposed to have left Kargil at five. And It was supposed to be in Mulbek by six. The bus was a half an hour late. And I had been standing on the frozen road for well over an hour. I looked longingly down the road, and saw to my surprise a distant light. Headlights! Of a passing car. And yet no bus. I waited. A few minutes later, another pair of headlights. But this time of a passing truck. I could make out the outline of the truck from a long way off, and I stepped onto the side of the road to make room for it. The truck sped by, and screeched to a halt a short distance later. The driver called out, and I was surprised as I had made no sign of wanting a lift. Where are you headed, he asked. Leh, I said, and I am waiting for the bus. He laughed. The bus? he asked. Yes, the bus that left Kargil at five in the morning and expected in Mulbek anytime soon. Do you really want to place your hopes on the bus, he asked. And even if it did come, it would be full to the brim. He dismissed with a wave of his hand whatever I said afterwards, and asked me to hop on. Well, the driver's cabin would be much better than the cold of the outside, I rationalised, and hopped on. He said that he too was on his way to Leh, and offered to drop me off there. I sat on the seat in the cabin, and it was warmer. Though not for long. As the truck gathered speed, I realised that the cabin wasn't exactly insulated. Wind streamed in through the multiple holes and chilled me to the bone. Though not much warmer than the outside, I was definitely making progress towards Leh. And that was infinitely better.

The wind picked up and blew in the dust. But we didn't mind. As Bilal vigorously turned the steering wheel to take the truck round a bend, a surprising view. Perhaps the blackest mountain I had ever seen. And next to it was perhaps the reddest one. Dry parched earth appeared to come in a rainbow of colours. A few wild goats were to be seen now and then, feeding on the sparse vegetation. All around us were tall peaks, casting a pattern of light and shadow on the valley floor. The truck passed from light to shadow to light. And as soon as the truck entered the shadow, the cabin grew cold. Only to warm up in an instant as the truck passed into the light. I felt like a rat in a maze, being conditioned to follow the sun.

We probably wouldn't have noticed the little village of Khaltse, expect that about 24km from there, the highway was closed. Blasting work, said the man at the detour. And what a detour. The road was terribly narrow and mostly unpaved. The road descended steeply down the mountainside, and with a grand total of about 18 hairpin turns in the span of a couple of kilometres, the driving appeared terrifying. The truck on average had no more that three wheels on the road. And when a small car came in the opposite direction up the road, the manoeuvres had to millimetre precise. Bilal wondered how he would climb up this road on his return with a 15 ton load. Luckily for him, the road was set to open the next day. Back on the main highway, the road curved along with the pale blue Indus river. We reached Leh with little incident, and I got in touch with a travel agent who happened to be the uncle of a friend of a friend. I was put up in a very comfortable guest house, a small distance from the main town.

I was recommended a visit  to the monastery at Hemis. A bus for which would leave Leh at about eight in the morning. Reaching the bus stand a half hour early, I failed to find the bus to Hemis. I, though, found a bus going to Karu, a town on the way to Hemis. I was told that getting shared taxis to Hemis from Karu would be easy. I climbed in, mostly to shelter from the cold outside. The windows were closed, and it was comfortably warm inside. I bought a ticket to Karu, and as the bus started on its way, the gentle rocking of the bus lulled me. I felt warm and cosy, and killed time staring at the unfolding scenery as the bus made its way to Karu. The monastery at Thiksey looked very imposing, and I made it a point to visit it on the way back. A little while later, I received a poke on my arm. It was the guy issuing the tickets in the bus. I looked up and he appeared very curious. Weren't you going to get down at Karu, he asked me. I replied yes and asked him why. We passed Karu an hour back was his reply. I had fallen asleep. And as I realised that, a chorus of giggles. Apparently the others in the bus had realised that too.

I asked where the bus was actually going. Sakti, he replied. Does this bus return to Leh, I asked. Yes, at three in the afternoon from Sakti was the reply. I told him I would pay for the ticket all the way to Sakti. The lone monastery at Sakti was closed, only to open at five in the evening. I couldn't wait that long. I took a walk to the village, and on the way passed a small glimpse of a winter wonderland. A small stream flowed merrily, and along its edges, tiny icicles. The stream was lined on both sides with trees sporting a pale yellow foliage. Apart form the gurgling of the water, no other sound was to be heard. Perhaps just the rustle of the leaves in the pleasant breeze. I entered the village and spied a vigorous game of cards in progress. I decided to be a spectator, and at a nearby tea shop ordered a bowl of Maggi and sat down to watch the game. After two bowls of Maggi, and a well earned reputation as a fearsome chilli eater, I boarded the bus back to Leh. I made it a point to stay awake, if only to see the scenery unfold in the afternoon sun.

With all passes over the Himalayas snowed in, an aeroplane offered the only exit from Leh. And the airlines were very well aware of the fact. Having paid an obscene amount of money for the ticket to Delhi, I arrived at the airport, and killed time sitting in the sun outside the terminals. After some time, news drifted in that the flight to Delhi would be delayed, and by a considerable amount of time. There was nothing else to do, but wait it out. As I roamed the grounds outside the terminal, I came upon an elderly British fellow hawking his kingdom for an aeroplane. Talk about inflation. A kingdom was once available for a donkey. A little trickery by the airline reduced the delay by a couple of hours, and a good three hours after the scheduled departure of the flight, I was issued my boarding pass. I was homeward bound. And I wasn't looking forward to it. I sat at the exit of the terminal, and a cold wind nipped at my face. I said my goodbyes to a life on the move. It was time to accept my return to still life.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Mountains and roads

You have just crossed the Jogila pass and as the cold wind drives the chill right through to your bones, you look around. To your right are rows upon unending rows of snow covered mountains. With snow so thick that not a patch of bare rock or soil is visible. The mountains stretch gleaming white as far as the eyes can see. As you turn around, to your left are mountains so barren, that the small shrubs seen clinging to precarious perches seem a physical impossibility. Not one patch of snow, no matter how small, can be seen on those mountains. Just the unending browns and the dark reds of dry parched earth. Then you hear a tiny gurgling sound. To you right, just beside the road, bubbles a small stream. The water is the clearest and brightest blue, and you are tempted to dip your hands into the stream just for a sip of the pure mountain water. Reflected in the little puddles by the side of the stream is the clearest, bluest sky you have ever seen. Not even a wisp of cloud. And a blue so intense, that you wonder if any other blues were actually possible. A blue is no blue if not the blue of that sky. Eventually you tear your eyes from the stunning vistas surrounding you and look to the road. A road so smooth and so clear that it invites you to step on the accelerator and leave the cares of the world behind, and you do. Welcome to motoring wonderland.

The four wheel drive seemed pointless. The taxi had the worrying knack of going sideways just at the bends in the road where the drop to the valley floor was the deepest. The ice on the road didn't help either. And when the taxi skidded to an undignified halt in Drass, a small town some 40km from Kargil, I desperately stumbled out and blindly made my way to the nearest tea shack. Having had nothing to eat since the previous day afternoon, and seeing a kind of bun on sale, I gobbled it down. It was surprisingly tasty. Unexpectedly found in the second coldest permanently inhabited place on this planet. I hurriedly gobbled some five of the tasty buns and bundled myself into the taxi. It was far too cold outside. Slowly, the little stream by the side of the road turned into a strong gushing torrent, and little by little, the snow covered mountains disappeared. The sandy browns of the barren mountains became the dominant colour, the deep blue sky providing the only relief for the eyes. The taxi eventually came upon an ancient steel bridge over the Suru river, crossed it and entered Kargil. I requested to be dropped off at the JKTDC office. Which was a kilometre up a steep hill from where the taxi actually dropped me off. As I entered the compound of what appeared to a small collection of rooms high above the actual town of Kargil, I found no office. Only a lone and weather beaten caretaker. He pointed to a distant building a couple of kilometres down the hillside, saying that I had to book rooms there and come back with the receipt. All this carrying my bag on my back.

The tourist officer was a quiet man. As I went in, preparation was in full swing for the imminent visit by a local minister. He looked up from his busy work and asked my why I had chosen to come to Kargil in the winter. He told me that all the water pipes had frozen up and there would be no running water in Kargil till spring. Satisfied that I was prepared to put up with these discomforts, he asked me what my plans were. I said I planned to stay in Kargil for a couple of days, spend one day heading up the Suru valley and maybe visit Mulbek. The chamba, or the statue of Buddha, in Mulbek was described as being carved with "esoteric Shivite symbolism". On reading that description, there was no way that I could not visit it. After which I planned on going to Leh. The officer thought for a moment and suggested that I spend just that day in Kargil, take the drive up the Suru valley early the next day and head to Mulbek directly. There was a tourist bungalow there, where I could stay, and catch the only bus to Leh the day after at an early six in the morning. It seemed like the perfect plan. Dumping my bag in the room, I headed to the bazaar in search of a taxi to drive me as far up the Suru valley as possible. I finally found a driver willing to take me as far as Sankoo, and drop me off at Mulbek by around three in the afternoon. The only catch was that we had to depart before six in the morning. Having agreed on a price and the time to leave, I headed up the road leading away from Kargil. On the way I passed by a huge tear in the hillside through which the floods of August had entered Kargil and caused much damage. As I climbed higher, the town slowly came into view. A tiny town clustered around a bend in the Suru river, surrounded by the mighty and beautifully desiccated mountains. I was hungry again.

Wanting a local delicacy, it was the thukpa I was after. I asked the caretaker of the bungalow where I would get good thukpa. He gave directions to a sort of shady place near the councillor’s office where he promised I would get good thukpa. I reached the place and found two hotels matching his description. I entered the first one, and asked for a thukpa. He said he didn't have it. I went to the next place and saw in the back the noodles for the thukpa getting prepared. I asked the fellow, when it would be ready. He said it would take time, and recommended that I come tomorrow. But I was headed to Mulbek tomorrow, I replied. He thought for a while and said that the thukpa would be ready in two hours. He promised. Very well. I went back to the room, put on more layers of clothing and killed time watching the sun set over the mountains. After exactly two hours, with the freezing temperatures outside, I walked down the steep kilometre from the room and went to the hotel where the thukpa was waiting for me. I arrived at the place and found it dark. It was then I realised that though he had said that the thukpa would be ready in two hours, he never said anything about hotel being open so that I could eat it. The hotel was shut tight and padlocked. I had to settle for dal and rice at a nearby place.

The taxi the next day was driven by a very talkative Mr Rizvi. The drive in the early morning sunshine was perhaps the best so far. We stopped first at the imambara in Tresporne, which was conveniently closed. I had seen the interiors of the place in some photos and wanted to take a look myself. As it turned out, the caretaker had left for the week to a village about 20km from Tresporne. We headed on. Stopping now and then to take pictures, we eventually ended up at Sankoo, where the chamba was precariously located. And trying to get a good look, I tripped and fell into a freezing stream that flowed beneath it. Which was uncomfortable. And my shoes were thoroughly soaked. At about midday, Rizvi invited me to his home and fed me a very tasty combination of naan and tea. Rizvi's grandfather was preparing for a trip to Karbala in Iraq, and the the whole household was busy making preparations. We left as the afternoon approached and after a dusty drive, arrived at Mulbek. The tourist bungalow was a small building located at the end of the village. And it appeared I was the only guest in a few months. Rizvi and me exchanged byes and I headed off to take stock of the "esoteric Shivite symbolism" of the chamba there. Finding it esoteric enough, I decided to take a small hike up the surrounding mountains. From the very top, I could see far down the road leading all the way to Leh.

Friday, March 04, 2011

A welcome of empty streets

The crowded taxi sped on towards Banihal. The road snaked its way though a large construction site. Half built pillars leading to a big hole in the mountain side. The beginning of a long tunnel. The taxi lurched to a sudden halt in front of a check point. And another gaping hole in the mountain side. The tunnel under the Pir Panjal, the road into the valley. The road stretched out in front of us, sparsely lit by yellow lights, dark and strangely quiet. Now and then, the rush of a passing truck would fill the tunnel with noise, and then the quite would return. Greeted by sunshine after a good fifteen minutes, the valley beckoned.

Getting down at Anantnag, I asked around for the railway station. People I asked wondered why. To ride the train! I said. But the trains aren't running, they said. And with the tracks being damaged during protests near Baramulla, they haven't been running for over a month. With no other option left, I got into a shared taxi on its way to Srinagar and beyond. As the taxi stopped now and then to let off people, I wondered where I had to go. I had no idea where the taxi was actually headed. Just that it would be passing via Srinagar. Eventually, the driver asked where I needed to go. Not knowing the first thing about the city, I asked to be dropped off at the bus stand, hoping there would be a main bus stand. Unprepared as I was, the driver then asked me which bus stand. For want of a better answer, I asked for the bus stand from where buses to Kargil departed. He immediately came to a halt, pointed to a street, and told me that the bus stand was a few minutes down that road. The chill creeped into my sparse clothes as I stepped out onto the street. The area was surprisingly quiet. I saw not one car or bike on the street. The few pedestrians walked quickly huddled in thick winter garments. After a slow amble of a few minutes, I reached the bus stand. Probably the only central bus stand I have been to where I could hear the rustle of the leaves in the wind.

The owner of the houseboat was a bit of a grouch. With a very unnerving way of getting straight to the point. After being paid for the two days I wanted to stay, he left me in the company of his son Wasim and his droll humour. Wasim ran the boat and looked after the guests. The surrounding Dal lake was covered in a wispy layer of mist gathering slowly in the late afternoon sunshine. As the wind picked up, I realised the inadequacy of the warm clothing I had packed. I went inside and, in the comparably warm interior of the boat, started to root around in the bag for something resembling a warm jacket. Finding none, I settled for multiple layers of clothing. The boat was very well appointed, and quite a bargain given that winters in Kashmir were not exactly peak tourist seasons. Feeling really chilly, I asked for a hot bath, and Wasim opened the tap in the tiny bathroom for the cold water to run out. The hot water would begin to pour out of the tap in a few minutes, he told me. After a good wait of a fifteen minutes, and not finding any hot water in the tap, I turned it off and went back to the porch. A few minutes later, Wasim returned to tell me that supper would be served at around eight. He asked if the water was warm enough. There was no hot water, I replied, and I closed the tap instead of wasting so much water. He laughed. There is no shortage of water in Kashmir, he said. Since there is nothing much else left in Kashmir anyway, we might as well use the water before that too runs out.

Finding transportation in the middle of a general strike was hard. And it was a perfectly beautiful day outside, with the sun just rising above the mist shrouded mountains. After a very comfortable sleep the previous night, and wanting to stretch my legs, I decided to take a walk. The six kilometre hike up the hill to Shankaracharya was filled with spectacular views of early morning Srinagar. The road, lined with trees sporting their brightly coloured autumn foliage, did not feel tiring. Though my camera was taken away from me at the top by the security. My wish to take pictures of the city from the very top remained unfulfilled. Walking down, my next destination was the Moghul gardens. A good five kilometres away atleast. But, the streets were empty, and the pace leisurely. After roaming the gardens, I realised that the walk to the gardens along the peaceful tree lined avenues of Srinagar was more enjoyable. The road along the banks of the Dal lake especially. With early evening approaching, I walked towards the city, towards Lal Chowk and onwards to Hazratbal. Before I left in the morning, Wasim had pointedly warned me to avoid Lal Chowk in the morning. Evening would be better he had said. Lal Chowk was deserted. All the shops were closed and with very few people in the streets. Hazratbal though, was filled to the brim. And with my camera having been taken away by the security even before I approached the main entrance, I had to satisfy myself with staring at the shrine from outside. Tired after a long day, and planning to take an early morning shared taxi to Kargil, I decided to head back to the boat. A very tasty supper awaited me.

The taxis have all left, the man said. And there would be no more for the day. Waking up unreasonably early and walking to the taxi stand had been a waste. With the strike showing no sign of being lifted, I decided to go to Gulmarg. After a small lunch at a hotel in which I was the only guest, I hiked for a few hours among the silent pine forests of Gulmarg. I had to be back in the village before three in the afternoon to catch the last taxi back to Srinagar, which left me plenty of time for a small nap in the forest. The taxi back was driven a pleasant fellow named Mushtaq. Who shattered the pleasantness of the drive by narrating a gruesome tale involving nine terrorists, the army and villagers caught in the middle. A story which ended with a man being dismembered and his body parts strewn along the main road. Back in Srinagar, I decided to stay at the JKTDC hotel by the main bus stand. The next morning, in my hurry to catch the lone taxi to Kargil at six in the morning, I forgot my towel back in the room. As the taxi sped away from Srinagar, the prospect of a bath in the cold of Kargil seemed remote. The towel wasn't missed.