Kashmir and Ladakh, India

I had a great opportunity to travel with a group to India for two-weeks. I took quite a few pictures and kept a daily journal. The first half of our trip was near Srinagar, Kashmir. The second half of the trip we drove over NH-1, the Leh-Srinagar road, to Leh, Ladakh.

I have adventured through a lot of North and South America but this was my first time experiencing Middle East and Oriental culture. Kashmir is along the border of Pakistan and though it is under the rule of India, it is culturally and ethnically independent and more similar to Pakistan. Driving to Ladakh, I saw an interesting transition to people that more closely resemble Chinese. Over the last few years, Brandon has been to Japan and Malaysia so he was able to prepare me somewhat for the changes from a Western lifestyle to an area heavily influenced by Oriental culture and Islam.

Flying out from Bozeman, I spent a few hours in Newark, New Jersey before flying to Delhi.

From my journal:

I was about three hours early for my flight [from Bozeman to Newark]. There were no other flights scheduled to depart prior to mine, so the terminal was nearly empty. I found a good spot in the comfy section. There were rows of hard plastic seats with a section of padded chairs at one corner of the rectangular waiting area. I realised I was already starting to get thirsty and decided to trade four of my five one dollar bills for a 1L bottle of water. The water tasted sterile but the bottle would serve its purpose: I needed something to refill while at the airport, something I could fit into the water fountain so I would not have to pay for water again during the flights. Once in India I would have money in the bank I could retrieve, but for the flight – I was stuck with four granola bars and a water bottle to last near 24-hours of flying and layovers.

The flight to Newark was uneventful. I sat aisle, though I wish I had window. It was mostly cloudy for most of the trip, so there wasn’t a lot to see. What bothered me most was the constant brushing past my shoulder, though I was glad I did not have to constantly ask the person to move so I could pee.

When approaching Newark, the smog was seen for a hundred miles around. It was still light when we reached the east coast city. It was incredible. I have never seen so much concrete.

The airport was not as busy or packed as I expected, but afternoon Wednesday is probably a low-traffic time of the week.

I quickly oriented myself to the proper gate. United was large enough that it had its own terminal. I came in on United, I was going to leave on United. I just walked the expanse of carpet until my number approached.

For the three hours I waited, I walked around the terminal. I was confident I could re-find my gate quickly and I never strayed too far to not hear the announcements as my time approached.

I realised the plane was going to be mostly Indian. Once on the plane, it was 99% Indian. Probably 300 people on this 777-200, and I only spotted one other white guy and one old black woman. 

The stewardess [flying to Delhi] did not like her job. None of them did. I don’t think it was this flight, specifically. They all had a look of exhaustion. They didn’t look tired, they looked tired of being there. The team of six women looked like they probably once enjoyed their jobs but now loathed it. They appeared rushed, bothered, depressed.

Very little English was spoken on the plane. It was all the same to me because it eventually was late and people went to sleep. I kept my earplugs in the entire trip bar a short podcast for a change of activities.

The flight [to Delhi] was mostly in darkness but there was a little light at the end of the flight when we awoke for breakfast over northern Europe. Unfortunately, even though it was still light as we approached Delhi, I could not see the land because the smog was so terrible. There was a haze covering most of India.

It was not a comfortable 15-hour flight. I am not sure any flights that long are comfortable. I am a pretty small guy at  5’8. I was very tight. My knees rubbed on the seat in front of me. God have mercy on the guy I saw at a different gate flying to Mumbai. He was probably 6’6.

After landing, I was somewhat taken aback at the air quality, but I knew it was going to be poor. If I think the haze is bad in Salt Lake or Spokane, I had no doubt that the 17,000,000-person Delhi was not going to be “fresh”.

From Delhi, I flew farther north to Srinagar where my group toured the University of Kashmir. The school is regarded as one of the premier universities of India, primarily teaching graduate and doctoral programs. To compare it against most Western universities, you’d think the campus has been condemned. It was fascinating to walk the halls of the structures and the grounds and see an interesting clash of India, Pakistan, and British influence on the people, the architecture, and the general way of doing things.

We had a chance to walk through the university campus with a tour and see the school’s botanical garden. There were many, many stray dogs on the campus. It was uncommon to see a street anywhere without a pack of a few dogs.

I fly 15,000-miles from home, half-way around the world, and I get an apple from Washington…

The streets outside of the campus were quiet. Within the city, crime was high for Western standards but I am told Srinagar is one of the safer cities in the area. This was not much reassurance after hearing a round of gunfire most nights.

A change from city activities, the group went to Dachigam National Park east of Srinagar. In the US, national parks are for preservation but also recreation. You can hike, camp, go off trail, do quite a few things in the US parks. It is heavily taxed and regulated, but depending on how much hassle you want to go through, you can raft in Moab and hike in Glacier. In India, however, national parks are restricted access points. It was a “gift and privilege” that our group was able to have a guided tour through this area. Parks are usually reserved for elites and government officials. Because of that, information on this park and others is sometimes limited.

From the United States NPS, their mission claims: “The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.”

While finding the mission statement of the NPS, I came across this gem. From the National Forest Foundation: “As said by Gifford Pinchot, first Chief of the Forest Service, National Forest land is managed, ‘to provide the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people in the long run.'”

“Greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people”… I heard something similar a while ago.

Dachigam National Park
Dal Lake
Floating gardens on Dal Lake

From my journal:

We left for Dachigam National Park. In America, the national parks mission is to preserve natural resources for the use and enjoyment of current and future Americans. In India, national parks mission is to preserve natural resources for future generations which means the present population has no use. This sounds nice but is tremendously dangerous. If a resource is always kept for “tomorrow”, it will never be used today. Tomorrow, never comes. This makes broad swaths of land, land of no use.

We toured the park which basically means we drove about two miles in, walked a quarter mile to a viewing platform, then walked back to the car. We talked about the native plants for about 100m. We were “behind schedule”. Always behind schedule… [We were asked, as Americans, how do we protect our parks. They only had a few minutes to listen.] Challenge yourself. Try to describe the ecosystem of Glacier and Yellowstone, the history of anthropological impact, and every conceived restoration and preservation plan in under twenty minutes. It was not useful except to burn what ended up being almost two hours of the day stroking a politician’s ego.

We left the park for Dal Lake. We had a motorboat ride around the lake to look at the water lily. The water lily is invasive and in about three years it has taken over more than half the lake. If daily crews were not cutting it out, the entire lake would be covered. Because Dal Lake is such a “tourist attraction” (maybe to Indians but not Westerners) they are “cleaning up Dal Lake”. The tour was okay. It was more of a working adventure to see if we had any ideas to help remove the plant. The group had some ideas but they involved large amounts of money and equipment – typical of government logic. There are people who own property rights over the lake and use it as floating gardens. [One person] suggested in not so many words to “take their rights so the lake could be restored to a natural state” and stop being polluted with fertilizer and such.

We had lunch as Nathu’s Sweets, a candy store and lunch place in Srinagar. Everything was actually Indian! They made no accommodations for Americans. It was great. We each had a sampler plate with white rice, saffron rice, and four types of curry sauce. I think they were all cow milk based, as I am finding is the case for Islamic foods. There are no coconuts here, but they have cows. Bovine is not against the food laws, evidently. I had three treats, all were cashew paste. One was fig and cashew (not very good), the other two were mango paste on cashew paste and the other was chocolate on cashew paste. These were delightful. Together, these 3cm-square deserts were 160INR, about $2.70. Lunch, which was huge, was 270INR. We decided it would be $20-25USD in Bozeman or Missoula. It was about $4.20.

After lunch, I went to the street market directly in front of the restaurant. Three men were sitting out front with a table and sign “free books, non-muslim only”. We had a very short conversation. I stated I was from America, a Christian country, and I had little experience with Islam in my personal life. I asked if they had books I may have to learn about Islam. He gave me two pamphlets on Islam as an introduction and an English Quran.

We stopped at a street market. It was okay. We avoided the traditional market because there was a shooting near there the night prior. The market we stopped at was basically a string of stores, not really a market as I would think of it. The women oogled at the scarfs and hijabs and shawls and cloaks. The men looked at carved wood boxes. I stood around and watched people and waited for a tea store. It was not what I hoped for. Where I was taken by [our guide] was closer to a supermarket. I did get some saffron and chai plus some loose black tea. I will see what is in Leh for a true tea shop. Worst case, I am sure I will find something in Delhi when I spend the day there.

We went to another Mughal garden [Nishat Bagh]. This was larger but not as impressive as the first [Pari Mahal]. It was still neat. I observed the paths of travel by people and how the common routes compacted the clay-rich soil which was resulting in areas absent of cover. The magnolias were beautiful and most were in bloom, though these grandiflora species do not produce as many flowers as the smaller-sized flowers I remember from [my aunt]‘s house.

Before British and European colonization, the Mughal empire ruled over the Kashmir valley. While there, they built massive gardens for the royalty and their families. These gardens were largely preserved and are now available for people to visit. They were pretty neat but very packed with tourists. We visited Mughal gardens Pari Mahal and Nishat Bagh as well as a rice paddy along the highway. 

Pari Mahal
Pari Mahal
Workers from southern India in rice fields
Cannabis growing like a weed in the ditches
Nishat Bagh
Nishat Bagh
Dal Lake

We spent one night at Gulmarg, elevation 2650m (8690ft). A few in the group took the gondola to the peak of the ski mountain, just below 4250m (14000ft).

The image is not skewed

After a day looking at the earth-roof huts along Gulmarg, we drove 10-hours to Kargil, then Leh. Along the way was a camp of Buddhist doing their annual pilgrimage

Oat and barley left under cover to dry for winter “bales”

Once in Ladakh, we visited three monasteries. I heard tale of yak butter tea being served at one of them, but I was disappointed to find none. I did have a mango lassi served by Buddhists. I guess that’s something!

From my journal:

We took two taxis from the hotel [in Leh] to Hemis monastery. The admission was steep, 100INR, but it was the nicest of the three we toured. It was well-kept and had a large museum and gift shop. It was a tourist’s dream. As someone who desires less fanciful things, I was not particularly turned on by the inside. Outside the monastery, I took a walk up the road and found a trail up to a temple on a hill, less than 1km away. Once near the top, I could tell that the temple was not impressive. I am not wooed by stupas or temples or other pointy structures. The social trail walking towards a ridge looked much more appealing. This move to a more private area was not without premeditation. I had a terrible need to cast a ballot into a cobra hole, gully, or any decently flat area behind a boulder. Just in time, I dropped trou and used the last quarter of my 1L water to rinse. I allowed a momentary air-dry in the desert wind. I continued to walk the trail for a few minutes and stopped to think on the surroundings and take some pictures. It was time to return to the group. We would be leaving soon. We were behind schedule. 

Once we joined at the restaurant outside of the monastery, I enjoyed my first and only mango lassi of the trip. It was okay. It just tasted like plain yogurt with some mango juice and a few chunks. I was expecting more of a thick cream, I suppose. I am not disappointed but I don’t think I would buy another one. The strong minus of the dairy is not worth the modest plus of the relatively bland, plain-yogurt mango-flavor drink.

Continuing to a second monastery, this was not as fancy but also costs less, 30INR. I am glad I saw a second one, a plan I was originally against. I could compare the tourist trap place against others. I was finished after a half-hour, thirty minutes before our one-hour meeting place. [Half of the group] wanted to go back to the hotel acting as though we were late for something. [Two others] were interested in taking a few more pictures and suggested we leave separately as two groups – a plan I was all for. [After a dispute over the plans] I do not let this taint my overall joy of the area and wish to return under different circumstances.

The artwork which covered almost all walls was complicated and pretty disturbing. I am not sure what to think of it. I used to think of Buddhism as a pretty low-key, peaceful, easy-going gig. The people I have met in my life who claim to be Buddhist have always been the more hippy types. My aunt even practices Buddhism. Now that I have visited actual places of Buddhist practice along the border of Tibet, I wonder if there is some ignorance with Americans who pick up a roll of prayer flags and learn some chanting. I don’t know, but the walls of the mediation chambers and elsewhere give me pause.

The last few days in Leh was spent walking the markets, looking at local gardens and food production, and other local sights.

Tourist trap

After 15-days in India, I was ready to go home. My “home-sick” light started to flash around day ten. I flew from Leh to Delhi and spent about ten hours, there. I planned to take the train to central Delhi, walk the markets, get some street food, and walk back over a few hours. After two hours of walking around, I realized I didn’t really like Delhi and had several moments of feeling at risk. I was alone at this point – the group took various flights home. I was dressed presentable but not fancy. Anyone without holes in his jeans is at risk for muggings and the like in this area. I bought some fried bread and found my way back to the train, then the airport. I hung out for seven hours in the departure lounge reading and napping. Internet was not available for non-Indians.

All-together, it was a fine trip. I am glad I went but I can solidly cross-off the Middle East, India, and most oriental destinations from my travel list for the time being. I will want to go back and spend more time in the Himalayas but not for a good while. India was safer in general than most Middle East counties touching the range, but even there, I was uncomfortable many times.

I will not be traveling with a group, again. With several individuals, there were several different things that people wanted to do. There is nothing wrong with that in-and-of-itself, but I do not enjoy most of the things others do. The people I went with check two large suitcases a piece, have 3000$ worth of digital SLR and lens but don’t sell or exhibit their photos, and don’t you dare suggest camping to save money! I had one small backpack that I brought on the plane. That’s it. Two-weeks across the planet and I had a bag that fit under the seat in front of me. Traveling in a large group with a specific purpose meant I paid an outrageously low amount of money. The cost of being a tourist and not an adventurer was more than I bargained for.

Update: 7 August 2018

Jeremy’s note: Culture in the Middle-East-influenced India was very different from my own in the West. I am not sure how the attitude of Kashmir compared to the rest of Hindu and European-influenced India as I spent only one day in Delhi. Leh, Ladakh was very Tibetan-like but is not something I am going to address here. 

I am told that the caste system “is not that strong here [in Srinagar]” yet the same Kashmiri man told me everyone just happens to work the exact jobs their caste would have otherwise allowed. (It is an interesting note that the Muslim rulers of the Mughal empire were the first group to attempt a disregard of the caste system of India. Of course, this was because they didn’t think that the lowest caste should be excluded from working the fields and that, as polygamist, they needed to open to pool of eligible wives.) [1][2]

Everywhere I went, everywhere, there was a hierarchy. We have hierarchies in the United States and these are not a bad thing (and are a good thing in many situations), but it is much more subtle in many ways and there is a lot of “blending” between statuses. For example, if two people meet at a party, one is a university professor and the other is a waitress, they will exchange a conversation provided each are interesting in their own way. I noticed this to be untrue in Kashmir. There was no blending of status. The retail cashier did not speak with bankers. The cooks did not associate with the hotel owners. The university professors did not acknowledge the presence of students outside their discipline. 

As a welcomed group, we had the opportunity to meet several notable people in the area. These people were gracious to us, as we held very high status in their eyes. I saw these interactions from “the top-down” and saw how the tip of the hierarchical pyramid interacted with those lower on the totem pole. It was not that great. There was no “please” or “thank you”. Eye-contact with the superiors must have been considered disrespectful because I never saw eye-contact between the tea-servers and the superiors or us. 

For what I understand of Islamic culture, the women are relatively free in Kashmir – possibly a factor of the Indian government not being Islamic-state controlled. Women are free to marry or not marry, they may drive a car, be educated, and at the university there were several female professors and many students. In meetings, the female professors could not speak if they were not spoken to. If they had an idea, they held their eyes averted and passively raised their hands and waited to be called and sometimes they were.

It was very strange to witness this type of power difference. In the West, I just don’t see anything similar that isn’t aberrant. I have been of very low status most of my life. I grew up in poverty, my parents were not educated, I worked labor jobs since a very young age. As an adult, I have spent many years working unskilled jobs and living within my means. I met a lot of people through the years. Of likely thousands of people I have met to-date, there is only one person who turned away upon finding out my “low status”. One person in a thousand or more. As for 99.9% of people I have spoken with for any significant conversation, judgement was on my personal character. Was I a good person? Am I interesting to talk with? Am I confident and have something to say? These are the questions that keep a person interested and wanting to continue a conversation. These are the qualities that I make judgments on. Are you a good person? I have spoken with doctors and lawyers and politicians and plumbers and dump truck drivers. One of the most fascinating people I have ever had the great pleasure of knowing is a mailman who has a personal hobby of collecting American-made toilets. Abiding by the culture of Kashmir, as the “status” I am today, I would not have given this man the time of day. 

How many conversations aren’t happening? How many contacts are never made? How many people never meet? How many ideas are never exchanged?

[1] https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/the-caste-system-of-india.html
[2] https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-indias-caste-system-195496

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