As Ladakh comes to grips with devastation, Pankaja Srinivasan travels back to a happier time
"Did you put the rum in?" Groaning, I haul myself out of bed and pour a capful into the WC. A nightly ritual, and woe betide if we forgot. The morning after would be unpleasant, to say the least. The water would turn to ice and burst the pipes. The alcohol acted as an anti-freeze.
Funnily, this is the first thing that comes to mind about Leh. I hadn't thought about the place for a long time (we were there from 1993 to 1995) but it all came rushing back when I watched on television the flood-ravaged Choglamsar and Leh town, with their traditional mud houses reduced to slushy nothing.
Seventeen years ago, we too lived in mud-walled houses. They kept us warm as toast in the brutal winters. There was no running water. We woke up to the sound of someone breaking big chunks of ice from a water drum placed outside each house. We brought in the ice pieces in vessels and buckets and that is how our day began.
But no one complained. Because we had a view to kill for. When we opened our front doors, we saw the spectacular Spituk Monastery. It has been slumbering there for hundreds of years, with the ice-capped mountains standing guard over it. Shrouded in mystery, spiritual, and starkly beautiful. I remember reading Lobsang Rampa's The Third Eye - a riveting account of the lives of monks in the secret passages and chambers of a Buddhist monastery.
On crystal clear, ice cold nights we shivered under our blankets watching flaming torches on the slopes below the monastery flare up and fade away. On the festival of Losar, the torches are tossed over the slopes to chase away evil spirits.
If you got tired of looking at the monastery (as if anyone could), on the other side was the incredibly pretty Stok village with its palace and all. And somewhere there flowed the river Indus. On Holi, we trooped to its banks and chilled the beer in its waters.
The children and I had left Delhi hot, sweaty and grimy. The same evening in Leh, we watched enchanted as it snowed - the first of the many surprises the place had in store for us. Coming from Delhi, where courtesy and graciousness are in short supply, we found the crinkled eyes, smiling faces and friendly ‘Juley' from the Ladakhis uplifting.
Turpistan, who worked in the Air Force Station was friend, philosopher and weatherman to the officers. If he said, "Saab ley, don't bother getting out of bed, there will be no flying today," the guys would just grunt gratefully, and roll over. One of my husband's enduring memories of Turpis was of his trip with him to the Jammu railway station. Turpis sat unmoving and wonderstruck from morn till evening watching trains come and go. It was the first time he had seen a train!
On a trip across Ladakh, at a place called Tangtse, we picked fresh peas from a field and were later invited home by its owners. Sitting amidst gleaming vessels and a friendly fire we were plied with solja or the gurgur (salted butter tea).
Another time, by the Zanskar river, we danced away the afternoon to live music. The army with typical resourcefulness had organized a party on its sandy banks. In sub-zero temperatures we ate piping hot phulkas and lauki sabzi at the Nanak Pathar Sahib Gurudwara on the Leh-Kargil highway. We white-water rafted on the Indus. We warmed our Cokes and Fantas on the bukhaaris and sipped them on freezing evenings. We trekked, watched parasailing, skinny-dipped in hot springs at Chumatang, saw Pashmina shawls being woven at Nyoma and witnessed our national flag being hoisted at Chushul on a cold Independence Day. We bought Chinese velvet at a remote post in Chaga La. We ate smoking hot soup in huge bowls at a restaurant called Mentokling. We listened as Mr Viswanathan, director of the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), told us incredible stories of men battling the world's most inhospitable weather and terrain to keep the roads open.
On the eve of our departure from Leh, in freezing February, we were guests of the Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) commandant Mr Thangaiyyan. He and his men fed us a sumptuous dinner and saw us off with a gift - a small table painted in bright red with dragons and other Buddhist motifs.
Turpistan, Gayal, Tsering Dolma, Nawang, Rinchin Dolma, Namgayal, our friends in the BRO and ITBP …. We haven't kept in touch, but we remember them with affection. As I watch flickering images on television of Ladakhis stoically trying to put together what is left of their homes and families, I can only pray our friends are somehow safe.