A Travellerspoint blog

October 2012

The Parcel

Nell had been collecting various souvenirs and gifts for others over the days we had spent in Leh. We thought it would be a good idea to send them home by parcel mail rather than carry them with us for the next few weeks and then pay excess baggage for them on the plane. [Let alone get them through the quarantine and security checks back in Australia.]

“I don’t mind how long they take, we may even get home before they arrive,”said Nell.
She had taken a fancy to a large patchwork wall hanging made from bits of recycled sari and cloth, which was displayed opposite Javid’s little shop. We had got to know Javid quite well after browsing in his shop several times before. He seemed genuinely more interested in us than the majority of rather pushy and intrusive young salesmen that we had encountered in the touristy souvenir strip leading up to Changspa. Or it could be that he was just a better salesman by being so laid back.

It baffles me that these youngsters actually seem to think that being pushy will help them sell more stuff; but then, many of the tourists have not been to poorer countries before and get bamboozled into a shop where the hard sell really starts. Hmm...Which technique will I use for these tourists, this guy looks well travelled and experienced but the lady...she looks very kind...a soft touch. The salesmen may be young but they are very street wise. It’s a pity they are not more creative with their pitches. “Come look inside, best prices for Pashminas...Buddhas, Tibetan artefacts, Tankhas...Tankhas...” Tankhas, but no thankas, I thought.

So on Saturday [when, we had discovered, the post office closes at 2pm] we walked about two kilometres uphill to arrive at Javid’s shop at 9.30am, packed a box with patchwork and pashminas and trotted back to the guest house carrying the box.

10am We decided to fit in some clothes we were never going to wear and added more gifts and trinkets until the box was full. May as well; we congratulated ourselves on this neat way of lightening our backpacks. Javid had told us we needed to pack the parcel in a certain way; it had to be wrapped in a white linen cloth with the address written on in indelible marker. We would be able to get it done very easily at a local tailor. He knew a good one and said, “my boy, when he gets back, will show you where to go and translate.” So Nell puffs back up the hill to Javid’s shop to collect the boy. In the meantime I carry the heavy box down to the mosque in the centre of town to wait for them, and watch the action on the street.

The Muslim men are gathered together in grey suited groups. They mostly wear beards and little skullcaps which make them stand out from the majority, but they seem to be of a different race too; more like Afghans or people from the ‘Stans, which they probably are. They are looking at me suspiciously. Why? I’m not doing anything! [Later I realised they may have been wondering what was in that large box right outside their mosque. Was this a bomb? Was it mine? Did I look like an American suicide bomber out for revenge?]

A milk truck parks nearby, which seems to be the reason for the gathering of many of these men. Milk and yoghurt is ladled into bowls and containers as the people push forward. Is this a handout for Afghan refugees? Now there are women too, filing out of the local shops and houses. Are these Muslim women? Is this special halal milk? Can milk be halal?

Some street dogs are hanging around the truck and when it pulls away they look for other things to keep them amused. One of them, a youngster, trots towards me, tail wagging playfully. I know the language well, having owned dogs, and can read that he is friendly. Checking for ticks, mange and other unpleasant conditions, I see that he is well looked after, healthy and clean so scratch him behind the ears, that favourite caress of all dogs. Now he is my best friend and especially likes my box, which he snuffles with curiosity, leans against and finally, when nothing is forthcoming, guards with his life.
10.45am Nell finds me, and we [including the dog, who told me in Dogue that his name is Rusty, by the way] head to the tailor shop where the “Boy” [Javid’s cousin], is organising the wrapping of the parcel. He translates that the Tailor will sew up the parcel completely despite our misgivings, as they no longer ask you to open the bag up in order to check the contents. They now have a machine which can do all that; easy! The cousin leaves and we watch the parcel being sewn up. Then we watch Rusty who has found a cute playmate and is romping about with her in the alley. Oh, what it is to be young and fancy free! He disappears around the corner with his lover; best friend with the parcel abandoned and already forgotten. We paid the tailor Rs200 plus Rs50 as a tip for the boy. “Be sure to give that to him”, we said.
11.30am The post office is a long way down near the airport so we caught a taxi there for Rs100. The man at the counter raised his eyebrows when he saw our parcel and pointed us in the general direction of a board on the wall which indicated that there were, in fact, prepaid boxes for international parcels up to 5 Kg at Rs 2500 for standard air mail. “These ones are expensive, no?” said the man at the counter. We agreed; glad that our traditional parcel would be cheaper, it must weigh less than 5Kg.
We decided to go ahead and turned back to the man behind the counter. This time he indicated that we would have to go around the counter, through a door to the back of the office where somebody would fill in a form for us. Everybody was very friendly and cheerful as though they were having a great time doing something different to relieve the incredibly dull work they were normally engaged in. Smiles and jokes were being shared by customers and staff alike. Our arrival had cheered the place up no end.

And then the man behind the counter asked us to open the parcel.

“But...umm, you have got a machine...you know...x-ray,” we stammered. “No machine,” the man behind the counter said, “you can go there” pointing towards a shelf. One of the Post Office Ladies handed us a pair of scissors, a needle and some thread; it was obviously a common occurrence for they had the materials readily at hand. Opening the parcel was quick enough, as was the cursory inspection that followed, but sewing it back up by hand took us the best part of half an hour.
By now we knew everybody personally, it was a most relaxed atmosphere. The tellers were doing Facebook on their computers, their families gathered around with the kids playing on the floor together. Names and addresses were being exchanged and photos taken so that we could send them to everybody when we got back home. We all had a lot of fun.
“That will be Rs 5975’’ said the man behind the counter [whose name is Stanzen Tondup by the way, we knew that by now]. “ Yes, look, weigh more than 8Kg.”

“More than 8 Kg...? There must be something wrong with the scales!” I exclaimed.

“Can that be right...almost Rs6000?” I asked Nell [hoping she would tell me that someone had made a mistake]. “Um...it looks like it” she replied slowly; “how much is that anyway?”[Hoping that I would tell her that it was not as much as she thought.] But we had both worked it out by then...a lot...more than all the gifts in the box put together. More than all the gifts and the folded up clothes [the ones that Nell had decided to send home as she was not using them] put together.

What’s going on? This is India, where everything is cheap! We were confused; as Stanzen had said that the prepaid boxes were expensive, so our old fashioned, slow mail parcel...

12.30 pm We did not want to argue with our new found friends, they were so nice, and so cheerful; so we just paid and left.
Refusing to pay for a taxi, we had a long, uphill but rather pleasant walk back up to Leh, through country lanes and little barley fields. The way Leh used to be before the tourist influx. We enjoyed the sound of babbling streams and birds and yet we were only a few hundred metres away from the hubbub, heat and dust of the main road.
2.15pm We arrived thirsty and hot back at our favourite trendy watering hole the Open Hand Cafe, where, slurping our ice cold lassis, we pondered on the day’s events. By sending this parcel we had made the day for quite a lot of people; Javid, his cousin, the tailor, the taxi driver, Stanzen, Stanzen’s family, possibly his colleagues and their families, probably a corrupt post office manager, no doubt a high ranking civil servant and definitely the owners of this trendy cafe with their expensive lassis.
It’s good to know that a day’s effort and a few bucks go such a long way. In India.

The parcel arrived a month after we got home.

Posted by takinitezy 03:38 Archived in India Tagged rupees sari lassi indian_post_office tankha Comments (0)

The Nubra Valley


We had a few days of recuperation in Leh after our trek and managed to find an organised tour into the Nubra Valley which is very close to the Tibetan and Pakistani borders. Over the last couple of years they have opened these areas to tourism as there have been no border disputes, although special permits are still issued to those who want to go there.

Before we had left on our trek we had put a poster in an agent’s window asking for extra people to share the cost of a jeep hire to Nubra. The agent soon found two more sharers but, as this is India, and backpackers are always looking for a better deal, they had dropped out when we arrived back in Leh so we had to plan again. The nice Tibetan guy with the long plait, who had organised our rafting earlier, was able to slot us into a Nubra trip with just enough time to find us a permit that day [we had to provide him with our passports].

One evening we saw the grand final Polo match of the Leh festival, which was rather disappointing; not really a spectator sport as most of the action is a long way away on the other side of the enormous playing field. There was the odd time it did get exciting when a group of ponies thundered past and stirred up the dust, the riders flailing their mallets in the general proximity of the ball. It seemed to me that the ball was only touched very occasionally, more by chance than judgement. But hey, who am I to comment? I know how hard it is just to stay on a horse let alone steer the animal where you want it to go with one hand!
The locals next to us were happy enough, smiling their toothless smiles at us as we did a running commentary as though we were at home in front of the telly watching a World Cup Football match. “YES, good try mate... that’s it, that’s it...NOW!! OH NO, he missed the effing ball!! What a useless game this is!” The old guys grinned broadly and nodded encouragingly.

We wandered back through the old part of town where a multitude of businesses plied their trade; fabric shops, hardware, goldsmiths, tinsmiths, barbers and so on. These were real shops with real prices for real locals, not catering for well heeled tourists from afar.

Day one

“WELCOME TO ONE AND EVERY TOURIST KHARDONGLA HIGHEST MOTORABLE ROAD IN THE WORLD ALTITUDE 18380 FT.” said the sign on the pass. Work it out in metres for yourselves if you like, but I’m not sure of either claim; the height or the motorableness. The jeep was full of six of us; Tom the psychologist, Arek the microelectronic engineer, Paul the social worker/ DJ, Ernesta the teacher, us two oldies and the driver. It had taken us an hour and a half to get here on endless hairpin bends as we ascended the mountain with the snows of Zanskar rising and the fields of Leh dwindling, still visible behind us for most of the climb.
Some small patches of dusty snow, a hopeful host of prayer flags, military huts and oil drums littered the pass. It was cold, dirty, scruffy and smelly as we visited the highest public toilets in the world which emptied their contents a few meters down the slope through open pipes. We felt dizzy and out of breath due to the lack of oxygen and the excess of methane and ammonia. But despite the discomfort I was excited, because way in the distance we could see a spine of snow capped mountains; the edge of Tibet.
India_2011_327.jpg India_2011_390.jpg
It’s strange how drawn I am to Tibet. I had been very close to the border in Yunnan Province of China a few years before and I was enchanted then by the rosy cheeked character of the people. They seem to shine with an inner beauty, just like those Ladakhis we had got to know on our trek. The magical mystery of Tibet is enhanced by the difficulty in getting there; I had not been able to go from Yunnan but I always wonder whether there will be any magical mystery left after many years of Chinese occupation. In Yunnan my friend Daniel had said that to go there would only cause me distress, when I saw the destruction and oppression of such a unique and beautiful people.

The scale of this place is difficult to appreciate. Somehow the mountains are quite approachable from here and it seems possible to climb them in an hour or two. Up the scree slope, along that ridge and you’re there; not too bad really. But when you descend in the jeep for hours through the same valley with the same mountains constantly in view, not seeming to make much progress, you realise that the valley is a lot larger than you had thought.
It is not until you have something to compare with, that the scale becomes clear. There was not a single tree to be seen. Those little brown bits of grass are barley plots and whole villages with houses. When you spot a little dot moving across the slope you realise that it is a truck on the road 4 kilometres ahead of you. What looks like an eroded gulley in a dusty creek is in fact a hundred metre deep river gorge. Yaks look like ants; pebbles are the size of houses as you get closer to them.
The road was wickedly bad. We bumped and swayed, held on for our dear lives as we passed other cars stuck axle deep in mud and trucks that had overturned the previous week. Amazingly we saw guys on motorbikes [mending a puncture] and even someone on a mountain bike with all his gear in saddlebags. [Doing the Himalayan Trail, one of the ultimate cycling challenges].
As we got further down, the road got a little easier, but now we were worried by the speed the driver was doing down the single gravel lane, often with a deadly drop on one side and a rocky cliff the other. There were endless blind corners but he did not slow down at all. The men in the car were trying to keep their cool, pretending that they were used to this kind of reckless rally driving. It was up to the women [always more sensible] to speak up and Nell was the first to do so. We spoke up; the driver reluctantly agreed but it did not last long. Ten minutes later he was at it again. Several times we screeched to a halt just inches from the front bumper of a vehicle coming the other way around a blind corner. There was little we could do except remind him from time to time. It’s just the way people drive over here. They rely on their luck, or to put it another way; their Karma. If you have led a good life then your next one will be even better.

After spotting a marmot we looked for them on the slopes but soon realised how much they look like rocks. So we did a lot of rock spotting but saw very few marmots...it kept us amused. “Was that a marmot?” I asked the driver, knowing full well that it was. I regretted making such a stupid tourist comment immediately afterwards. No wonder they think tourists are stupid. I did it to try and involve him in our enthusiasm for every little detail of our trip, but should have realised that all he was thinking of was how to get us to our destination before it got dark; or whether his heavily pregnant wife was beginning her contractions yet; or that he would not have to talk to us too much. He was obligingly enthusiastic saying, “yes, many Mamot here, many many Mamot!” We saw three.

After Kardung village, which was strung out for quite a distance along the hanging valley we diverted for many kilometres around a gorge and ended up on a high shoulder above the Nubra valley. It seemed even dryer than the Indus valley around Leh. Very rocky and sandy with scorched scrub desert, the only patches of green around villages. The river was like flowing mud and could hardly be distinguished from the landscape at first glance. It took some concentration to see that part of the wide and flat valley floor was flowing...that part was the river.
On the valley floor there was quite a different flora to the Indus valley. Here the trees and shrubs were reminiscent of a desert; thorny scrub, Acacia and occasionally Casuarina. Most of the hedges around settlements and farms were piled up thorns, presumably to protect the livestock against Wolves and Leopards. The valley narrowed as we drove for many kilometres towards Turtuk village near the Pakistani border. We passed many military camps, an airfield and had to stop twice for passport checks. Turtuk had only been opened up very recently and was the “cool” place to go. The river now raged through the precipitously narrow valley, past mountain-sized blocks of stone, twisting between unbelievably huge scree slopes and suddenly opened up onto Turtuk.
This village and its people are of a very different character. It is Muslim. There were excitable youths and charming children who plied us with questions. Tourists were still a novelty to them. The driver did not know about any accommodation here and after asking a local took us to a very expensive tent “resort” which we rejected immediately. After wasting much time we asked him to drive us back up into the village and found another place ourselves, the Balti guesthouse which was tucked way into the alleyways of Turtuk. We had spent nine hours in the car, which left us with very little time to explore the village. As always, organised trips are far and fast travel, waste too much time driving and do not provide enough time to enjoy the character of a place.
Being located in such a steep valley, the light soon disappeared behind the mountains so we wasted no time in going for a walk through the village. The women wore veils; the men little white skullcaps. There was a mosque with a rickety wooden minaret. It was how I imagined a village in Pakistan or Afghanistan would be; no longer like Ladakh. Turtuk was greener than any village we had seen before; there was no lack of water from a rushing, icy blue mountain stream that runs through the centre. A bouncy suspension bridge connected the two halves. Being tucked between the mountains meant that the crops did not scorch in the relentless desert sun and we saw lots of veggies growing on the terraces.
But despite being such a remote village with very little tourism, it seemed more prosperous than those we had visited on our trek. The little children could all speak remarkably good English so the education must be good. We had fun with them as we strolled around the alleyways. The prosperity was probably due to the large numbers of military personnel in the area, some infrastructure has to be provided. Military presence has its positive spinoffs.

It was getting dark and we found some food at the only little eatery in town; SELMO RESTURANT, less of a restaurant really than a teahouse. We had booked ahead and a special Chef had been brought in to cook for us. He was just one of the local youths who seemed to run the place. I don’t think there was anyone older than twenty five. This was their regular haunt where they could gather for a drink, play cards and dream of riches brought by tourists like us. Dinner was simple enough, Chapattis and Dal, but it took about an hour of lighting the stove, making the bread, burning the first lot and starting again with much arguing in the kitchen; only then to arrive in dribs and drabs. We had two lots of tea while we were waiting, and even those took forever to arrive. But we did not mind, it was fun being served by a different kid every time. They were falling over themselves to help us.
We watched the roadside entertainment with people, tractors and trucks passing by from higher in the valley. The trucks were brimming with men who grinned and waved enthusiastically at us as we peered over the banister. There certainly was a jolly atmosphere in Turtuk.India_2011_1007.jpg

Day two.

We were off to Diskit, which meant driving all the way back along the same road, spectacular enough but somewhat wearying the second time around. As we passed through little villages we saw lots of flags and flowers along the road. People were gathered in little clumps wearing their Sunday best clothes; or in this case, the traditional costumes worn only on very special occasions. Today a very important Lama was passing through, coming home to this region where he is Chief Buddhist administrator. [He was of Rinpoche “rank”]. I would have liked to stop and take some photos but the driver had a purpose.
The villagers had made a huge effort to welcome him home after his travels, all for a brief glimpse and wave as he passed through in his large four wheel drive. We stopped for lunch and saw the convoy of security and retinue vehicles pass by. We could not even determine which car was his, but guessed when the locals suddenly cheered.

Then we went for a camel ride in some sand dunes. Yes, I know; touristy! But my motto is; DO WHAT THERE IS. [Which is actually a second hand motto, provided to me by a diplomat lady friend in Kenya who was showing my wife and I how to feed giraffes from a high platform at the time]. It was silly but it was fun!
More authentic was when a large flock of goats and sheep came through the valley and completely surrounded us as we were walking back to the jeep. An opportunity to get up close for some nice photographs.
The Gompa at Diskit was closed for lunch when we got there. Nell and I seem to have a habit of doing that. Bad timing; but a kind monk opened up especially for us. Nell stayed near the toilets as she could feel another bout of Delhi Belly coming on. In the main temple, which also served as a canteen the monks were having bread and soup, and managing to chant at the same time; no mean feat. In one corner there was a wonderful sand Mandalay in a cabinet. I could not understand that, since I thought the whole idea was to destroy the beautiful creation as soon as it was finished, to illustrate the impermanence of everything.
Some other tourists showed little respect for the kind monk who had let us in. He had asked us to be as quiet and unobtrusive as possible, but the other tourists marched through loudly and took flash photographs as though it was all for their entertainment. It’s a wonder the monks let tourists in at all. Another, older temple had very delicate Thankas and precious artefacts. The monk stood by to advise us again that no photographs were allowed here. The other tourists still took them behind the monk’s back. I could hear the clicking of their shutters and so could the monk.
From the Gompa on top of the hill we looked down towards a large, rather garish statue of the Buddha but we had no idea of how big it was until we arrived there.
The plan was to stay in this town for the night but we asked the driver to take us to a small village called Saumur further up the valley, since Diskit was rather scruffy and uninteresting. It did mean another two hour drive but we had not seen this bit before and it turned out to be well worth it. A charming guest house was found very quickly and the whole group went for a lovely walk in the evening which turned out to be much further than anticipated but gave us a good appetite for the evening meal. Whether it was our appetite or the skill of the cook we will never know but I can say without hesitation that the aubergine curry was the best food we had eaten in India and still rates amongst my most delicious meals ever. We all agreed and asked for more, much more of the same please! We still strive to recreate that recipe and send each other e-mails to see if we have discovered the secret. [I suspect it has something to do with using a rare Himalayan mutton stock...]

Day three

I was up early. The mist was still hovering over the barley fields. Already the locals were heading out to harvest. A glow of sun touched the tops of mountains but it was cold. I followed the raised runnels used to irrigate the terraces, walking along the low dikes which served as footpaths. The bunches of Barley were laid in neat rows ready for the sun. Rows of twisted lentil plants had been cut and snaked through the fields. Clear water ran through the channels. The hedges were of thorns and more than two metres tall. This was life in the Nubra valley; all was as it should be. The harvest was coming in, ready for the long winter ahead. No doubt villagers on the other side of the border were doing the same. Where the borders are is irrelevant.
Not far from the guesthouse was Samsteling Monastery which was where the Dalai Lama would stay on his rare visits. It was fairly modern by Gompa standards and very smart and prosperous looking. The colours of the wall paintings were particularly bright because they were only a couple of hundred years old. I personally prefer the really old ones which have faded into subtle shades; they exude mystery even though they are not so perfect. [Sigh] wall paintings are not what they used to be. It was a cheerful visit that made us all smile. Someone had offered a packet of Hobnobs to an image of the Dalai Lama. Lots of young monks came out to play football during their morning break from lessons.
The trip back to Leh was quite nice to start with. We saw Tibetan dogs, marmots and gentians when we stopped for tea. But then we ground and bumped back up to the pass with the hot sun glaring and Nell and I developing a headache which got worse when we had to wait for two hours right at the top for an army convoy. The lack of oxygen, altitude and diesel fumes made us feel quite ill. It took several hours down in Leh and numerous strong pills for our headaches to subside.

Posted by takinitezy 02:25 Archived in India Tagged river valley himalayas buddha lama jeep ladakh leh nubra scree Comments (0)

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