Kashmir – Part 2

By Johnie Jonker

General Observations

The Town

Electricity availability in Leh was sporadic, and generators were widely used as back-up. The electricity supply was cycled geographically during the course of the day, e.g. barracks early morning, officers mess midday, and after dark, the town. The best level of mains supply measured, was 180 VAC, generated via a pumping scheme further upstream in the Indus River. Huge variation between the town houses – upmarket – and the small-holding dwellings – basic – exist.  All the smallholdings have been terraced level in order to produce crops.

The amount of work that this must have taken boggles the mind. These people simply does not take no for an answer.


Legal tender here is the Indian Rupee and US Dollar. No credit card facilities exist – neither VISA nor Mastercard – not even at The Bank of India. Due to the acclimatization delay in the start of the testing – Rudi had left before me due to prior appointments elsewhere in India – I was running short on cash. I eventually had to make my concerns known to my hosts from India Army Aviation, and they allayed my fears by offering to help me out should I run short. I managed to just make it, but literally left Leh with only small change in my wallet.


Buddhism is the major religion in the region, introduced by Japanese monks that came here on pilgrimages centuries ago.

Two major religious structures are used, namely a Stupa and monasteries.

A Stupa is not a building one can enter, but is basically a solid round structure with 4 alcoves depicting Buddha and the temptations he had overcome.

All over town – not only in the monasteries – you find prayer wheels of various sizes.

This is a mechanical device which contains a book of Buddhist prayers which is automatically paged as the wheel is rotated. I.e. the wheel “prays” for you.

At the Tiksey monastery two rows of smallish prayer wheels lead from the corner of the main building. Once you start spinning any wheel, you HAVE to spin them all, going round the corner to complete the action. I do not know what happens should you miss one.

Similarly, prayer flags are strung between buildings. The prayer is written on the flag, and the wind then prays for you as it blows the flag to and fro. Even on vertical flag posts this is common practise. Neatly packed stone walls in town and throughout the countryside also have a religious connotation, as the rocks on the top layer have been painted or engraved with prayers.

A large number of monasteries, mostly constructed on hilltops, are scattered across the region, for example at Shey, but especially the one at Tiksey, which is of Tibetan origin. It is almost like a Mediterranean village packed into the hillside at an altitude of 11800 feet ASL. The road there winds through a beautifully green countryside abounding with water, and passes by many rock paintings and engravings, all with a religious significance. It is at Tiksey where the well-known two-storey tall sculpture of a seated Buddha rises through two floor level, enabling you to only see half of it at any time.

Accommodation for the senior monks was basic – similar to a cave, really – with a room with a bed and then an adjoining “kitchen”. The more junior incumbents shared a dormitory of low beds. I possibly discovered the origin of the Asterix character, Cacofonix the Baird, while visiting this monastery.

The Buddhist musicians would sit motionless in complete silence and darkness in a room – a 5 second exposure was required to register an image on film – and all of a sudden, as if by pre-arranged invisible inaudible signal, let rip, each with his own instrument, generating a wall of sound, typically used to flatten the walls of cities in the olden days (Jericho comes to mind).


A large percentage of the really good handcraft – especially carpets – sold in India and the Middle East, actually come from Kashmir. It is extremely difficult to exit one of these shops without at least buying something. Items were priced reasonably due to the fact that the tourist season had officially closed, and if you consider the detail in the craftwork, worth it.

Thursday is paraffin day. A tanker would come round, and the locals would then bring their containers and buy the quantity required, carting it off on a wheelbarrow or simply rolling the drum home.

And it looks like it’s exclusively a woman’s job. Also in town, an open air market where locals sell their – mostly clothing – wares.

Daily Activities

So what do the people do here? Farming – yes, if you have land. Becoming a Buddhist priest or temple official is regarded a career here. It is difficult to say whether people age prematurely due to the bright light reflected off the mountains, perhaps due to the harsh sun or whether it is in their genes, but you tend to see the women – who appears to be the main cultivators – looking like they should be sitting in a rocking chair knitting away, enjoying the spoils of grandmotherhood. But no, they are out tending the fields and animals.

Agricultural methods are basic, with virtually no mechanization, pretty much how your gran did it in her younger days. Walking the donkeys in a line across the sheaves to thresh the chaff from the wheat and then winnowing it in the wind, is but one of these methods.

Laundry day

Well, if you have no washing machine or wife, the only thing to do is to take all your clothes off and, wearing only a loin-cloth, do you own laundry.

The water literally gushes out of the ground through the grass and flows into a little rivulet which is used for this purpose. All this just outside the hotel entrance.

Local Manufacturing (or Boer maak ‘n Plan) 1

Every morning on the way to the base, we would travel through an industrial area.  Do not confuse the term “industrial” with anything modern. One shop had a huge belt-driven lathe – I don’t think they make them this big anymore – that could be driven off a tractor power take-off, similarly to how the wheat threshers of 40 years ago were powered.

Further down the same road, we noticed a sheet of corrugated iron lying in the road. Drivers were not taking any evasive action and drove slap-bang across it. We were curious as to why no one picked it up, but realized the next morning how this worked.

One of the home industries right next to the road, was in the business of hand-making steel trommels. Having run out of flat sheet and having only corrugated sheets left, the proprietor would place one in the road in the morning, and due to the large number of army trucks driving up and down the road daily, would end up with a pretty flat sheet come evening.

Innovation (or Boer maak ‘n Plan) 2

As there is no compacted base underneath the stones – only the levelled ground – the rocks sometimes give way when driving too close to the edge of the road. So one morning on the way down to the base, we found a 3-ton truck lying on its side in the river next to the road due to these edge rocks being “squeezed out”.

Over the next few days we observed the progress in getting the truck back onto its wheels and onto the road. I doubt any of the residents or their forebears witnessed the building of the Pyramids at Gasa, but they gradually lifted the truck with long poles, packing rocks underneath until it was upright. After three days the truck was gone.


Transportation of both people and goods are via colourfully decorated trucks. There is absolutely NO aggression on the roads, neither here nor in India proper.

Without exception, ALL trucks – mostly Tata – would have a polite message tastefully signwritten on the back inviting you to please hoot/honk, as the driver cannot see you. And when you do, they pull off the road immediately and give you a friendly wave when you take the opportunity and pass.

Very different to back home, where the message would read something like: “Keep on hooting, I’m busy re-loading”.

[Part 3 follows]



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