Monday, August 14, 2006

A TRIP TO LADAKH: HIGH ROADS, THE RYTHM OF 'CHAI' AND MOTORIZED MONKS.

“Himalayan Queen” was certainly an undeserved novelty title for the ‘squat over rails’ that transported me from unbearable Delhi to Shimla, in the cool Himalayan foothills. I cannot say the trip was pleasant, and with whole families packing the corridors and quantic-proportioned mothers attempting to sleep their children over my knees, it didn’t take long until I reexamined my opinions on population control. The scene reminded me of a creepy pension in Delhi Bazaar called “Prince Palace”, where the closest thing to a shower was buckets of boiled water. I repeated myself that the important thing was that I was leaving Delhi, even if Delhi hadn’t actually been that bad in the last week, partly thanks to the social life I borrowed from my friends at the Spanish Embassy, and also to the interesting conversations with Susumoy, my local Hospitality Club host.

Shimla is a collection of large Victorian mansions, a heir of the colonial era. Horror films could be rolled in any of them, since their state of conservation make them al look haunted. While today the pedestrianized “Mall” is a stampede of Southern Indian families in Sunday dress, boy-with-ice-cream included, it’s hard to imagine that back in the colony days it was forbidden for Indians –except for those carrying the luggage of their masters- to set foot in what then was a sanctuary of style and inequality. Today Shimla is the capital of the State of Himachal Pradesh (Land of the Eternal Snows) and starting point for venturing into higher and more desolate valleys.

The plan was to explore Kinnaur and Spiti valleys, in the border between Himachal Pradesh and Tibet, and then head up the second highest motorable road in the world, linking Manali with leh, in Ladakh, another exclave of Tibetan culture within Indian borders. But my visa was slowly expiring as the classic refrigerator lemon, so the trip would only be possible resorting to the undesirable “arrive and leave” strategy.

Thus, Kinnaur Valley passed as a slide show. Even though it’s one of the most scenic valley in the whole Himalayas, the fertility allowed by the punctual monsoon deprives it from any dramatism, making it rank, at most, as idyllic postcard. The view of Mount Kinner Kailash from Kalpa village, in fact, shines with the selection of memory. Its inhabitants, the Kinnauris, to whom the first historic records refer as ‘celestial musicians’, are easily identifiable from their caps, which resemble the ones of an impossible reggae army, with red and green embroideries. They are generally Hindu, with a special devotion for Kali, who they worship in stone and wood tower shaped temples. It’s interesting to note that, besides being Shiva’s wife, Kali is also one of his attributes. Another version of the old macho argument where woman is born out of a chunk of man….

Spiti valley rest behind the Himalayas, which doesn’t mean that mountains is not all what’s around. It happens that the Himalayas are only the most famous of a plurality of concentric mountain ranges forming the arch of high peaks separating the Indian Subcontinent from the Central Asian massif. Squeezed between the Himalayas and the Zanskar ranges, the valley stays sheltered from the annual rains, which accounts for its moonlike scenery. The water of the Spiti river has over the lands it washes the same null effect that modern world has over the monks of the numerous gompas (Tibetan monasteries). Following the systematic destruction of Tibetan culture by the Chinese (process the later proudly calls “Cultural Revolution”) the monasteries in neighboring countries such as India and Nepal have become repositories for posterity. The proximity to China, occupied Tibet, is a bit more than poetic data. Both countries staged a brief war in 1962, following a failed invasion by the Red Army, and still today the area is considered volatile. While the Tibetan are used to being in the fire line, it’s still to be seen how they resolve the interaction with the new pacific invader: the tourist. Just watch the novices of Tabo gompa –the place where the Dalai Lam is meant to retire- playing fascinated with the Enfield motorcycles parked outside the monastery by foreign visitors. They seem to enjoy to much our material world to seriously expect to abandon it.

I joined the main road in Manali, and soon moved to an outlying pacific village called Vashisht. Pacific, in spite of the hundred or so Israeli backpackers, that you may also find in any other touristic village in Northern India. As far as I understood, after two years of Army service, the average young Israeli compensate with a couple of years plane hopping around the world. Those I chatted with were twice as happy to be in India: if they had been at home they would have certainly been called to duty. The night arrived, but I resisted the temptation of cheap guesthouses and instead wandered the streets, a bit lost, knowing that little could I wait from the locals in terms of hospitality. I was, in fact, rescued by a fellow foreigner, a German called Rogelio, who is resident in the village. I had just watched “The Lord of the Rings” in a café, and the in-stage of Rogelio, with his broad never ending ginger beard and his Saxon warrior outfit, made me wonder if Frodo legions hadn’t escaped the 24 inches. In any case, reality and Rogelio were not best friends, and even if he offered a space in his room as promised, he went all night speaking incongruously with himself. I pretend to sleep, but I listened in awe: “I have an Enfield motorcycle. I can ride it to Germany, and drive around the Reichstag, and inside stadiums, no problem, but slow…” At midnight he would stand up in bed and proclaim: “The German Parliament of Schroeder is a debate club where people get paid to talk nicely…”
Standing out of town I stretched my thumb towards Leh, 475 km further north. I didn’t expect an easy trip, knowing that it takes two days by bus. I reached Keylong without difficulties, with two rides in a jeep, one carrying tomatoes the other pipelines. Keylong is situated at 3350 m, and it is the last town of any size in 280 km, before reaching Rumtse, already in Ladakh. In the middle , the road runs almost always over 4000m, with two passes over 5000m, and there are no settlements except for army barracks and transitory yurt camps offering accommodation and basic food to travelers. And the travelers are not few: since the road was opened to foreigners in 1989, thousands of our specie complete the arduous journey every season, whether in bus or in rustic Enfield bikes. Personally, I couldn’t avoid evoking similar South to North trips in the Argentinean Calchaqui Valleys, but without the perspective granted by recurrence. Behind lied the Beas river, that responsible for discouraging Alexander the Great, that traveler disguised as conqueror, who thought the “End of the World” was around here. I stayed overnight in Keylong, where Ailine and Stephanie, two Swiss travelers, smuggled me into their room.

It took me the following morning a jeep and a tractor to reach Parsu village, 52 km north from Keylong. There I saw in the horizon a caravan of Tata trucks, one of which, a tanker, stopped for me. After so many short rides in jeeps, tractors and motorbikes, I had a reason to smile when they said they were going all the way to Leh. Of course, things were not going to be that easy… The first day everything went smooth. Kuldip, the driver, and Guddu, his assistant, were kind in each detail and never spoke about money. So, slow but steady, the Tata opened his way across the winding cliff roads that characterizes the north of Himachal Pradesh, where the high peaks hold the eternal snows so precariously that one expects an avalanche at any moment. More the geography I feared the human factor: Kuldip chose the Baralacha Pass (4830m), the first of a series of high passes, to train Guddu in such tasks. Eye opened Guddu gave stern turns to the wheel, hardly correcting the direction in time for the next curve. I started to choose what memories to retain in the second of my life.

But Gudu did the job. The job of a trucker assistant in India exceeds those of a mere navigator, for in top of those tasks in relation with the road, such as clearing the way from heavy rocks and monitoring the progress of the truck in dangerous curves, there is a devote Guddu who lights incenses very morning to purify each corner of the cabin, from the dead speedometer to the mandatory Shiva image, before joining hands in prayer position and clapping twice. Darkness surprised us soon after the pass, and we stopped at Zingzingbar camp, in a yurt where also three Israeli bikers took rest. These people always surprise me: one of the, with long hair and a pacific aspect, is, in the reserve service, a tank driver! That night it rained harder than ever. My Israeli friends will have, I thought, some genetic skills in Arc construction. Given the circumstances, I couldn’t make clear if the terrible headache was the product of the altitude or the first symptoms of the rabies shared by the dog that bite me in Delhi bazaar… Way or another, we were up 5:30, ready for a long day of traveling after which we should reach Leh.

We hadn’t covered 20 km when we found a column of parked trucks by the roadside. The rains of the previous night had caused a landslide and the road was blocked. A group of 15 workers from Bihar (the poorest province of India) struggles with shovels to make the surface even again. A digger was on its way from Zingzngbar, but it would take hours for it to arrive. With such scenario, Kuldip stared at Guddu and invited (imposed) with a scream: “Chai?” (Tea?). Chai, that Asian way of punctuating the void. Each second, in all Asia, from the Bedouins in Syria to the mullahs of Iran or the lamas in their gompas, millons of throats coordinate the exact inflection and invite (impose): “Chai?” As the tea was not going to be enough to quench my hunger, I decided to walk over the landslide to Sarchu, the next camp, 4 km away. After filling the stomach I looked for a quiet yurt, rented a mattress for the day (1 dollar) and, lethargic as the altitude had rendered me, I fell in a deep sleep. Between the gaps of unconsciousness I believed to hear the engine of the Tatas roaring through. Could it be possible? Could the way be already repaired? I decided, with more instinct than rationality, that resting was now the priority and that next morning I would eventually find another truck bound to Leh. I woke up at 8 pm. It was still raining outside, and there were no other foreigners in my yurt to talk to. Feeling a bit miserable a bone-wet, I emigrated to a yurt across the road, where some Israeli and four Indians from Bangalore, all riding their bikes to Leh, were having some greasy soups as dinner. While crossing the road I could noticed there were several trucks pulled by the muddy roadside as defunct dragons, but being the camp several kilometers long, I rejected the idea of searching for “my” Tata. I had been talking for a couple of hours with my new friends. Raghu, one of the Indians from Bangalore, worked for Dell and had offered to sponsor my up coming website for the first year. In that moment I saw Guddu emerging out of the semi light provided by the kerosene lamp, leaning his head to a side and another, as if it was about to fall, in that polyvalent Indian gesture that can mean everything from affirmation to acknowledgment. They had arrived while I slept, and they were looking for me. “Tomorrow, 6 am, up, evening, Leh” –said Guddu in his broken English, which in that moment sounded as a Shakespeare sonnet. “See you in the next landslide!” – I greeted my fellow travelers and went back to my yurt.

I shouldn’t have used such a dangerous formula. The following morning we had covered less than 10 km when we met again a queue of trucks and jeeps. “Chai!” – shouted out Kuldip, as if two landslides in 10 km would be part of the routine. The second landslide was, nevertheless, more peculiar, for this time the foreigners who traveled in buses and jeeps delayed at both sides of the landslide, joined the Bihari workers and shovels in hand helped to repair the obstructed road. The bright skinned black Bihari workers are always found where the most difficult tasks are required, and remind me of the sub races imagined by A.Huxley. The job demanded more than 5 hours, and only after midday we speeded again. By now, landslides had imposed their rhythm, and we traveled in an involuntary convoy of three trucks. One of the other trucks carried goats, which loomed with through the gaps of the wooden bars of the cargo compartment; the other five hundred hens drugged by altitude. In each landslide, the three truck drivers (and their assistants) would gather and ask each other: “Chai?”.

After we overcame the second landslide, our Tata galloped like a wild horse. The road unexpectedly got paved and led to a plateau of pastures, inhabited by a few khampa nomads, from whose faces can be told that they are still complaining to the Gods for the draw of destinies. The plateau lasted some 20 km, and we started to climb the side of a gorge. The outcome of such steep zigzagging was Taglang Pass (5360m), the second highest motorable pass in the world. With the attitude of a surgeon, Kuldip extended his left arm, where Guddu appropriately fitted a bottle of cheap whiskey. It was their way of celebrating the safe crossing.

On the other side, and after three days in the truck, we reached the first town, Rumtse, which is culturally, a point of inflection. We had left Himachal Pradesh and entered Ladakh soon after Sarchu, but the absence of any settlement had concealed the evidence: that Ladakh is a “Little Tibet” in India. And in Rumtse that fells like a verdict, it is enough with looking at the architecture and the faces of people in the street. Tibetan architecture somehow transmits the stoicism and solidity of the Tibetans. Even the humble most of dwellings looks like a fort built to last a millennium. The slightly inclined angle with which the Hellenic white walls part from the ground enhances this illusion. Near Miru, another Tibetan village with eroded stupas –symbolic Buddhist altars- on the sides, our third landslide surprised us, and tamed us until the next morning.

The last stage on to Leh was clear of landslides but not uneventful. In Karu, a large military base, a young local palmed down the Tata. I thought he was a conscript heading back home to Leh. Once inside, with the premeditated eloquence of a TV presenter, he took a dozen film black plastic tubes refilled with opium and started a real auction. The drivers of the other trucks were already in our cabin. The always ready dealer had even a manual weight like the ones jewelers have. All the transactions went on just in front of the military base…

In Karu I said goodbye to Gudd and Kuldip and boarded an Army jeep of a General who had lived a year in Angola and spoke Portuguese. We soon reached the broad Indus Valley, with its enormous gompas that, far from having been conceived and built in the same instance, are real rag puppets, the babelic result of infinite additions and earthquakes and… Finally, the road seemed to crash against a arch of high unforgiving mountains. A couple of curves and these slided like a theater’s canvas. What was behind was Leh. 101 hours and ten vehicles had been necessary. But I was there.

4 comments:

Justin said...

Juan,

It is great to see you still heading in that direction.
We miss you here and hope life is still on the up and up for you.
Please post some pictures for us,
I love the stories but I got to see some visuals.
Take care

Bamian Cowboy

Caco said...

Veo que los amigos del hemisferio norte ligan los posts antes que nosotros los sudacas...a mi me da igual si esta en ruso o en japones, mientras que haya algo tuyo para estimular mi imaginacion y fantasear que vuelvo a los caminos...

Saludos, y a no bajar los brazos...

Caco

Acrobat of the Road said...

thanks for the message man, I am trying to start a new website with proper pictures...patience...

gaucho

Akshay said...

Leh (Ladakh) is one of my favorite destintaions to backpack in the world !!