I’m now travelling again, moving and being moved. Within the space of five days I’ve experienced wonderment and despair, boredom and fear, pleasure and just about endurable pain. Perhaps this section of my scribing should be entitled ‘the agony and ecstasy’.
I arranged to leave Leh by truck – in fact, three. I would have travelled by ‘B’ class bus if ‘B’ stood for budget. Instead it stands for bone-bending. So a truck it was to be. The two that offered lifts had left before my scheduled arrival on the polo ground-cum-parking area (6am.) Truck no.3 obliged for Rs.50/-.
I shared little time with my fellow travellers, preferring the visual splendours and memories of Ladakh from the all-round viewing perch in the rear. There are no exports from Leh so, with the freedom to leg stretch, I indulged in the unique, for me, landscape.
The early morning sun cast sharp shadows from the jagged peaks in the ravines, while the scree slopes and bed of the Indus valley had a velvety sheen. Later the sun’s strength was to add another brown layer to my skin to await a peeling.
The night was spent in Kargil in a 5 rupee dorm shared with other transients. The town has little to recommend it, Few people see it, arriving at sunset, leaving at dawn, so no attempt is made to cosset the weary. Even the food is transitory, preferring to pass straight through.
The next day offered the up and over, back and forth of Zoji-la, the highpoint of the road. I looked forward to the excitement of looking over the side of the truck and down the precipitous sides of the road. But the dusty lurching took its toll, with wrenched stomach muscles and lungs full of dirt and diesel. And so onward to Srinagar – but late – having been ‘forced’ to submit the truck to a good wash and scrub by one of the ‘toll’ check points en route. It was a chance to rinse ourselves as well and to laze on the banks of the stream among other truckers.
Srinagar? Having been there before it was just a matter of finding a houseboat on the Bund, or rather it finding me as, even after nightfall, there are numerous procurers. HB Brunhilde had a certain grandeur which in a more leisured time I could appreciate better. I did not appreciate the owner’s son asking me over my fatigued breakfast what I had to sell. Grumbling about Kashmiris always cashing in, I angrily ordered him out of my sight and never saw him again.
The rest of the day was spent ‘on business’: collecting mail, changing currency, arranging future Air India flights and booking a bus ticket to Jammu.
The Jammu-bound bus was to be my ‘proper’ introduction to India. I don’t regard Kashmir and Ladakh as anything other than separate entities, and my start off week in Delhi, while still firmly etched in my memory, was a planned culture shock.
I love mountains, and the journey down through the Himalayas is a visual splendour. From the comfort (?) of one’s seat one can fantasise about walking yonder ridge, or white water rafting in the valleys below. The reality, though, is of a descent to the plains, to the heat and hot tempers of religious, or political factions.
Fifteen kilometres from Jammu we were brought to a halt by a mob around a cattle truck which had been heading the other way. The cows were destined for a Kashmiri – ergo Muslim – slaughterhouse. The Hindus found this out at the local, ubiquitous, toll weigh-station and had redirected the truck back into their community where they used it to block the road. The cows had been released – I wonder how they are? – and agitation started.
A few of us spotted a grog shop a short distance away and stocked up with some firewater to sit and observe the goings on. I don’t know what happened to the driver – I wonder how he is? – but the police guarding the truck became objects of wrath. At one point, some anguished fellows pleaded with cigarette smoking me to provide some matches. “Sorry, I’m a vegetarian,” said I. (It made no sense to me either at the time, but they left me alone.)
The police guarding the truck became objects of wrath. A volley of rifle shots in the air dispersed the crowd of onlookers – I scarpered behind a low wall – but created the space to set fire to the truck.
Four hours after it started, the incident was over insofar as the fire brigade and riot police had arrived. Jammu was reached in the dark. I disembarked, onto the flat of my back, was brushed down and escorted into Hotel Grotsville where I’m penning this.
A shower, some good vegetarian food, ice cream later, and a minimal night’s sleep were my reward.
Tonight I’m treating myself to a first class sleeper compartment to Ferozepur: sixteen hours of potentially hassle-free sleep and travel I deserve it, but will I get it?