Saturday, November 7, 2009

Passage to India XII

26 September

My memory failed me - in the last post I wrote that we stopped at Leh but when I checked my diary I realized we switched back into the Scorpio in Leh and continued right away towards Alchi gompa. After leaving the town we enjoyed a spectacular view over the Indus valley...

...and drove on in the familiar moonscapes of Ladakh.

We stopped at a little village for dinner (Soni was talking all the way about excellent Punjabi food, making my stomach rumble like a cold diesel engine).

After all, we didn't go to Alchi. First, it was a matter of principle. At Pangong, the driver of another tourist couple told us, the LTM has a checkpost there and anyone not travelling with them has to pay a fine. This other driver was a complete joke - dirty, smelly, untidy and besides incredibly arrogant, he made me realize how lucky we were with Mr. Yangdzho. And yes, he was one of those fuckers at Himalayan Ecodrive. I didn't want to pay one single rupee to their mafia. The other thing was that if I'm interested in Alchi, I can get all information on Wikipedia together with photographs probably better than mine. And the third reason was that I wasn't after monuments. Therefore turned right at Khalsi and followed the Indus valley towards the Brokpa villages.

We saw this interesting little monument on the road, erected in the memory of a dozen dead soldiers. What was interesting is that they were all Sikhs or Hindus (judged by the names) but the inscription was a quote from the Bible ("O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?").

Tired and a little road-weary, we made our way through the gorge, running into the occasional traffic jam...

...until we reached the point where, according to my map, Dha village was supposed to be. It was already total darkness and all we found was a military checkpost. The soldiers told us that this is actually Dha, and the village itself is not accessible by road only on a path through the forest. We drove back a few hundred meters where there were indeed some steps, climbing up the hillside and disappearing in the darkness. No accomodation nearby, no lights no nothing, and driving any further was not an option. We decided to climb up to the village. I got together all I needed for a night, and started climbing the stairs with Soni behind me, valiantly lighting the path with his mobile phone. Walking in almost total darkness, passing by empty mud huts and goat dens, suddenly we heard a strange noise, like a dog growling. It was a bit eerie because it sounded like a dog but definitely wasn't one. I asked Soni if he liked horror movies, he asked back what a horror movie is. I told him, it's usually about nice young people who are stupid enough leave their perfectly nice car behind to spend the night in a strange place where they all get killed. We were getting closer to the source of the noise and suddenly, in the blueish light of my torch, there was a zombie. It was looking like a zombie, moving like a zombie, growling like a zombie. I wish I had taken a video of that! The creature was obviously scared by the blue light and run away, totally with the movement of zombies in movies, growling and howling. I felt uneasy and excited at the same time. Some cigarette butts and chocolate paper littered the path, which was a good sign as zombies don't smoke and don't eat chocolate. The creature disappeared and we soon found a guest house sign, and made enough noise to awake the owner. I told him about the zombie. He grapped a big stick and disappeared in the darkness. Then a woman appeared by the name Dolma, and invited us for tea. Her place was full of family photos and to break the ice, and to get back to reality after the zombie, I showed her mine.

The problem was that she had rooms available but the key to the rooms was four klicks away with her brother-in-law in another village. We checked out another guest house where the owners were too drunk or too lazy to give us rooms, so we found our way back to Dolma's house. Her father came and tried one key after another without success. Soni saved the day: he took a pickaxe and forced the lock off the door and with a reassuring smile he said, "don't worry sir, only fifty rupees lock sir!"A drastic solution but it worked. And at last I had a roof over my head for the night.

27 September

Dha village was a totally different experience in sunshine.

This is Dolma's guest house:

...and after breakfast (tea + the last beef jerkies) Lundup, her brother-in-law (or cousin or brother or whatever, the relationship wasn't clear) guided me through the village.

We met an old lady called Tsering Kungskit, absolutely the most interesting face during the whole trip, who was so well-acquainted with tourists that upon seeing my camera she asked me not to use the flash as it annoyes her. After a few polaroids she calmed down, though. She was sitting in the shadow of a walnut tree, cracking nuts open with a stone, telling us about her life ("I am all alone now, no children no husband, I'm just sitting her killing time every day till I die...").

I had high hopes about photography here but light conditions were abominably bad, with the sun shining directly from above and everyone hiding in shadows. Lundup was kind enough to put on his traditional Brokpa headdress:

Dolma let us ask her repeatedly (as it befits a lady) but finally we made her to slip into her own dress. Needless to say, it was more than impressive. Soni was so much impressed he couldn't stop talking.

(Sorry about the misaligned video format...)

Her father-in-law joined the show. I made him extremely happy by giving him my Manfrotto monopod as a present, partly to make up for the lock, partly because I could live without it but for him it was a blessing.

The Brokpa is a special people - they are Buddhists but it's easy to see old pagan beliefs peepig out from under Buddha's robe. The whole experience reminded me very much to the Kailash people in Kafiristan (North-West Pakistan, not too far from here). No one knows for sure whey they came from, we only know that they are closely related to the dardic tribes of Baltistan and their origins are so obscure that beingthe descendants of Alexander the Great's soldiers is the most plausible explanation. Many of them have almost European features, with blue or green eyes and fair skin, making them look very different from any other people in the Himalaya (except the Kailash). So, let's speak the Brokpa for themselves:

Lundup was proud to show me the collection of Brokpa folk lore (tales and songs), made by some anthropologists in order to save their heritage from being forgotten. You don't have to worry about them - the label "little culture on the verge of extinction" draws so many visitors that they are relatively well-off from tourism, and - to be cynical - because all the tourists want to see Brokpa tradition it's not very likely to be forgotten any time soon.

Early afternoon though, it was time for us to leave.

Walking through the same forest we came up the night before made me wonder how we didn't get hopelessly lost in the dark.

And finally, there was our Scorpio, faithfully waiting for us. Off we went towards Kashmir.

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