Kashmir – Part 3

By Johnie Jonker

The People

The general feeling is that the locals are an extremely friendly, helpful, polite people, without malice or arrogance, sincere and unspoilt by diplomacy.

Also no beggars. Only (some) children wanting to pose for photographs for a pittance. Well OK, not really a pittance. The only English they knew was “One dollar!” which equated then to 42 Rupees (R6) which was probably better than daily wages for most people living there.

Swimming after school

One afternoon, after being requested to not come to the base, sitting in front of my room on the second floor of the Hotel Shamba-La I heard a youthful chatter approaching. A group of primary school boys on their way home were passing just other side the hotel property wall. An earth dam was being filled on the property next door, so they decided this was a good time for a “swim”. They took off their school uniforms and had great fun. The water was shallow – I do not think any of them could really swim anyway – so they could walk on the bottom with their hands, with their heads above the water. When they had done, they sat out on the rocks to dry before they put their clothes on again. The rocks were next to quite a busy pathway leading from town to the residential village, and they made casual conversation with passers-by, completely unselfconscious about their nudity.

The Hotel Manager

Upon our arrival at the Hotel Shamba-La, it was time for negotiations, which went more or less as follows:

Mr Wanchok explained that the hotel was officially closed for the winter season – Rudi and I were the only guests – and that if we did not mind washing ourselves out of a bucket of hot water instead of the running water in the en suite bathroom, he would reduce the hotel rates from the in-season $100/day to 38$/day.

Mr Wangchok

He explained that due to the erratic electricity supply they heat their water with a donkey – but one of substance. This was plumbed into the hotel rooms, so you would get hot water whenever you opened a tap. However, it was expensive to keep this system going for just 2 guests, and they would rather use the auxiliary donkey – which was more the size of two 44 gallon drums – and bring each of us a bucket of hot water every morning.

The Chef, Waiter and WaterCarrier

Lal Bahdur was a migrant Nepali worker, who was employed by the hotel for the duration of the tourist season – March until October – where after he returned home untill the following year.

Lal Bahdur

Lal’s English was less than rudimentary, but each afternoon when we got back to the hotel, he would come round and enquire as to what we would like for dinner – Western, Indian, or Nepali food. Regardless of what you chose, he would always end the order with an “And Cheeps”, and happily go off to create something truly enjoyable – with chips – which he then of course also served.

Other than the food, Lal was responsible for the hot water supply in the hotel. This comprised getting up at around 4 am every morning, stoking the donkey and at the pre-arranged time, knock on our doors with the hot water. The bucket was big enough to sit in, with your legs hanging over the sides – once you added cold water to prevent scalding your buttocks.

The Driver and his Cousin

Although the hotel manager had as his personal transport a 1948 Willys Overland Jeep, a Suzuki SJ410 with driver was available for the guests, for both work and sightseeing. Our driver was a local with the name of Sangay.  He also came up with suggestions of where he could take us in terms of sight seeing during our idle time, for example the Dalai Llama’s house just outside town.

The daily commute to the military base was along a road following a river. Construction was executed by laying rocks from the river side by side and then tarring over it. So the ride was quite bumpy, and in the back of the Suzuki, I had to sit with my head cocked to the side to prevent my skull hitting the roof over some of the bumps. I learnt this on the first day, but only after first compressing multiple neck vertebrae – at least, that’s how it felt – during an unscheduled, rather exuberant, dip.

Sangay’s  cousin was a Buddhist monk at the Tiksey monastery. Following a visit, we were already back in the Suzuki to start our return trip when said cousin came running up and Sangay translated that we were invited for tea. So we went.

On the way back, Sangay invited me for MORE tea, this time at his house. We picked up two hitchhikers after Sangay enquired from me whether I would mind. They really are such a polite people.

Two hitchikers

His wife was out visiting with friends, but his mother was home, tending his son. Should you ever be offered some Ladakhi tea, accept at your own peril. After the tea is brewed, a piece of fat is dissolved in it (instead of milk, as due to the erratic power supply, fridges are not common), and a teaspoonful of salt added.

Teatime at Ladakh

Self-preservation soon displaces politeness, as your host keeps on topping up your cup from a handy flask as soon as the rim becomes visible above the level of the tea.

The leaving of paradise

Flights into Leh can carry up to 120 passengers. However, return flights can rarely carry more than 75 passengers, sometimes without their luggage, due to the density altitude.

Density altitude in flying correlates with the power loss experienced at reef altitude in the case of normally aspirated cars, where the air is thinner than at sea level, where engines are tested and specified. So where a normally aspirated car experiences an 18% power loss in Johannesburg, it would experience a 32% power loss in Leh, due to the altitude being 10500 ft Above Sea Level. So the 737 simply does not have enough power to get airborne prior to using up all the runway.

A queue of desperate visitors, trying to get out of Leh, was therefore a common sight at the local Indian Airlines office, especially around October each year, as the region gets completely snowed in during winter. Depending on the weather, you may be stuck till March, when the snow melts and the tourist season starts again. However, if your hotel manager happens to be a personal friend of the Indian Airlines 2IC and also moonlights as luggage handler at the airport to augment his income during the off-season, getting on board is a formality.

Due to the security situation all hand-luggage was searched, item by item, and ANY batteries removed, to be re-packed with your cargo-hold luggage. Even the batteries from my Mini-Maglite torches had to be removed.

Once on the apron, your hand-luggage is unpacked AGAIN, on a table placed on the runway. Women are dropped off the bus prior to this point, to be body-searched in a makeshift cloth shack. Only NOW may you board.

The return flight was uneventful, as on condition that visibility is good, getting out – always downhill – is not that tricky.



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