Kashmir – Part 1

By Johnie Jonker


Shambala is the title of a song we used to listen to on the school bus during the mid-seventies.  It was originally performed by BW Stevenson (who sadly died whilst undergoing heart surgery at the age of 38) and later covered  by Three Dog Night.

I never knew where/what this Shambala place was, and whether it really existed or was merely a substance-induced state-of-mind, but it sounded like a happy environment, with the lyrics going: “Everyone is happy, everyone is kind, on the road to Shambala”.

Only when I got to Kashmir I understood the words, where it was explained to me that “Shamba” means paradise and “La” means pass, in the local language. So literally, “Paradise Road”. And it was indeed.



The Journey

Leh is easily reached from Delhi by plane. What is difficult is getting the weather to be sufficiently clear at the destination on any of the four days per week that a single flight is available. This is necessary in order to miss the Himalayas – which surrounds the basin where the airport is situated –  during landing. The ability to land purely depends on the visibility the pilot has, as the plane descends into the Indus River valley, makes a u-turn between the mountain ridges and then returns for the final approach and landing, always uphill.

The second difficulty is finding an airworthy Boeing 737 in Delhi. Let me explain a bit about these clapped-out planes, operated by Indian Airlines. As you board, you notice repairs that had been done to the fuselage. You notice this because the paintwork has been touched-up with a brush rather than a spray-gun. Once inside you notice bits of trim missing, and you wonder what other – more important bits – are perhaps also missing.

Due to poor destination visibility, the flight had been cancelled the previous day, and we were put up in a hotel for the night. Early the following morning we boarded a taxi – no need for air-conditioning this time of the day – to try again. The procedure is simple: Arrive at the airport before dawn, hang around in the departures lounge until – if at all – it is announced that the flight is on. This could take a number of attempts, but this day was fine.

We first boarded the wrong flight. How this could happen with 5 people checking our boarding passes and how they knew it was the two white guys amongst the 118 Indian passengers that were on the wrong flight, I will never know, but when the air hostess started beckoning from the door just prior to take-off, we somehow knew she was talking to us.

So off we went, boarding the correct plane this time. Shortly after take off, one could sense the engines being throttled back and we levelled off, made a wide turn and landed again. It turns out that a bird was ingested by the starboard engine during take-off, and it was decided to return to Delhi and check for damage. The aircraft being quite low to the ground, the technician hopped into the front of the engine intake and started visually inspecting the turbine blades for damage. In the meantime us passengers had disembarked and were also standing in front of the engine to see an expert at work. Now I do not know much about turbine engines, but judging by the chips at the tips of MANY of the turbine blades, a number of birds had been through there previously. This extra bird was therefore merely a formality, and the technician declared that it was safe to fly – mind you, he was not on the passenger list – and we again took off after boarding.

Around half-an-hour into the flight the Himalaya Mountains start passing underneath. Having flown over the Alps between Germany and Italy, I thought that if ever I was a commercial pilot operating in Europe, this would be my preferred route, as it was indescribably beautiful. It just looks so right and impossible to become boring, even as a daily commute. The Himalayas just takes this sensation one level higher.

We landed uneventfully – after doing the obligatory zig-zag down/up the Indus River and skirting an annoying little koppie that obscured vision to the runway – at Leh, which is 150 km from the – at the time – India/Pakistan flashpoint, Kargil. Both towns are located in the province of Ladakh, one of three provinces in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, of which 1/3 belongs to Pakistan, and the larger part to India, as allocated by the British. Refer to the maps.

Out on the apron, I expected security to be quite strict and assumed that photography would not be allowed. My suspicions were confirmed when I raised the camera to my face and saw the security officer approaching through the 24mm lens. It was explained to me that photography was prohibited; I apologised and duly put the camera back into the bag. Thankfully, I had preset the focus to the hyper focal distance prior to getting off the plane, so by the time the security officer reached me, I had already taken the photo.

Had I realized the full extent of the security situation, I possibly would not have pulled this stunt. I only learnt this during my departing flight, though.

Acclimatising to the altitude

Being at an altitude of 10500 ft ASL, meant that the air pressure is only 68% of that experienced at sea level. The hotel manager, owner and base commander all duly issued warnings to the effect of resting for two days to acclimatise, and were genuinely alarmed that we ignored this on our day of arrival and walked from the village where the hotel was situated, to town. The only physical ill effect that we could detect was a bit of wheezing after walking the 2.5 km uphill. Apparently the after effects of this folly could still hit us a week or so later after our return home. We are currently waiting patiently. Possibly in our favour was that we arrived there from reef altitude, so we only experienced half the pressure drop the locals did, as Delhi (although far inland) is practically at sea level.

Military pilots arriving at Leh from elsewhere at a lower altitude are not allowed to fly unpressurized aircraft until at least 48 hours have elapsed in order to acclimatise. Even after this period of acclimatisation, the helicopter crew still breathe oxygen during flight as low as 3000 ft AGL. This rule delayed the start of the flight trials – the purpose of our visit – by two days.

The low atmospheric pressure has a further, more everyday effect, and this is that any carbonated drink goes flat very soon after it’s poured into a glass. So drink out of the can, quickly!  A single beer (500 ml) on an empty stomach is also enough to give you a headache real soon.


It becomes immediately apparent that, regardless of where you looked, you saw something pleasing. Although the mountain peaks are covered by snow permanently, initially the lower slopes look barren – after all, this is high-altitude desert – but on closer inspection you notice that the pinkish tinge is not geological in nature, but caused by vegetation. On even closer inspection you notice that there is indeed green plant material also present.

The tall thin trees remind one of the poplars in the Eastern Free State, and the Indus River itself is beautifully clear. For those not so geographically informed, the Ganges is the “dirty” river in India – the one with the funeral pires, dead bodies, laundry and ablution facilities all rolled into one. The Indus is a different kettle of fish, and is where India gets its name from. During the holiday season all sort of trekking expeditions – on donkeys – and white river rafting is practiced along it. It also has an almost surreal blue tinge.

Part 2 to follow



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