Category “Johnie does Kashmir”

Kashmir – Part 1

Friday, 10 September, 2010

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.…

Kashmir – Part 2

Friday, 10 September, 2010

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 …

Kashmir – Part 3

Friday, 10 September, 2010

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.

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’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.

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.

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 …