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A holiday in Kargil - what more do you need?
The continuing misadventures of Joel and Jamie (and no, we are not gay).
Its raining again, all over the world, and it was particularly raining in Manali, so we abandoned ideas of unknown high passes while dodging hashish-crazed Kashmiri tourist hunters, deciding on Darcha to Padum and instead we hoped the most we would have to battle would be wild European women on this popular route. Since I believe coincidence is nothing else, we ended up with the same horseman Joel trekked with last year, we saw lots of German women with no clothes on and I met two Swiss people I trekked part of this route with in 1992. In all probability Joel tripped over the same stone, fell in the same stream and Jamie photographed the same plant, since we did those so often. We saw fields of green but the skies of blue were mostly absent, however with a star Bhutanese cook, helper and a caring very competent horseman and amid the magical Ladakhi scenery we enjoyed all the same.
As Tilman once intimated the sight of a road renders the trekker lame so we hired the fanciest jeep in Padum for our holiday in Kargil en route to Leh and Rob, an American rafting guide, taken with the quality company rather than the sight of the shining white jeep, we hoped, joined us. After trekking all these years in search of the best trekking scenery on the planet we were gob-smacked to find all you have to do is drive Padum to Panikhar.
Drive. Drive, I ask you! The thousands of miles we have plodded, the soul-destroying hills we have valiantly struggled up, the never-ending knee-breaking descents, the peaks and passed we have clambered only to find another on the near horizon, camping in such cold that the lighter wouldn't light, trekking in such heat that the lighter spontaneously combusts (I kid you not!), being showerless for days, weeks, months, the torturous decisions on what to take (one pair of undies or two?), the aching shoulders, legs, hips, feet, boots for a pillow, stones for a mattress (Joel only discovered the joys of a Thermarest on this trek), sweat dripping so hard, all you can do is close your eyes, the lack of wine, women or song (Jamie only discovered the joys of a walkman this trek, and no, rum doesn't count as wine), oh the hardships we have suffered for in search of the ultimate pleasures.
And here we sat - sat - on a PADDED seat, in air-conditioned comfort* while our valiant diesel engine - motorized vehicle, no peddling required - powered up hill and down dale, stereo pumping, and in total comfort we effortlessly rolled thru some of the most glorious scenery Central Asia has to offer. Glaciers glistened - "I say chaps, worth a photograph, what?" - above us, opposite us and BELOW us,** and not with plastic boots and crampons so heavy that you think your feet are nailed to the ice, and stupendous mountain panoramas that leave you breathless, not because you need a hundred breaths a second to recover from 8 hours hard labour in oxygenless air, but the sort of breathless eyeballs out on stalks "lets have a picnic here, its sooo beautiful".
So much for the elusive backsides of wildlife spied thru binoculars as they ran away from armpit odour at 200 yards, instead, us freshly showered, our steed sped towards marmots faster than a runaway yak, and certainly faster than the flopping teddy bears could paddle-bounce to their holes and wiggle, shove and squeeze their way in. Of those rabid man-eating Tibetan mastiffs that brought beads of sweat to our brows at the mere thought, that required artillery fusillades of stones to beat off - "defence shields please, Mr McCoy", "Aye, aye Captain, windows up." Try chewing on two tons of unstoppable steel, suckers! The joys of trekking by car.
So on we journeyed through an airy, stunning colourful kingdom en route to our next shower, only a few hours away and a cold beer, clean sheets and a hot meal on solid table and sit-down chairs (but where are those elusive dancing girls?). As luck would have it a mild mannered stream had turned into a raging uncrossable torrent so we overnighted in the government resthouse at Panikhar. Our holiday in Kargil would have to wait to the morrow. After suffering the clean sheets, the sit-down loo, and suitably refreshed, repasted and cleansed we recommenced our journey.
Entering Kargil was a chaos of army trucks, stray dogs and officers claiming right of way. Being to a degree wise to the traps of India we elected to enquire about leaving before settling in and were told the demise of a bridge between Kargil and Leh meant that the buses weren't running. So this brought us to the taxi union where we began haggling for another king of the road Tata Sumo, none of the those bouncy, designed for hunch-back midgets Suzuki gypsy 4 wheel drives for us.
With the usual astuteness, the rabble worked out our preference and quoted Rs3000 for the king of the road big enough for the five of us and gear (yep, we still had a cook TP and kitchen hand Urkien with us, you can never be too sure of these road side stalls portending to be restaurants that once in a lower state we would have descended on and devoured every momo, green or not in pot) and only Rs2600 for the vehicle patently incapable of carrying even five dwarfs with their toothbrushes, and without individual aircon vents in the back***. Being wise to the ways of Kashmiris (another story you will suffer sometime) and other such crafty, scheming, money-minded, backhanding taxi drivers who in theory and occasionally in practice follow their fixed price rules, but only when it suits them, we stuck to our guns - who mentioned guns?
Were the twin thump-cracks in the hillside the gods reminding taxi drivers they are supposed to be charitable to tourists, or was this a reply from Mr Nawaz Sharif, Prime Minister of Pakistan and a Kashmiri, that we has racially slurred one too many Kashmiris? By the time the drivers had announced "the shelling has started" and assumed postures with cars between them and the open spaces, the streets were empty, and even the traffic had mysteriously vanished. This sorcery was too much for Joel who agreed to Rs3000 immediately, and if we had given him time would have even paid the difference himself. But the more nonchalant of us stuck to our guns - Allah, who said guns again? And there were more ominous thumps in the distance. Using the appealing logic that lives matter more than Rs400 of additional profit, and being wiser to the situation than newly arrived tourists we left Kargil in about 10 seconds flat, in the comfortable vehicle and a pleasant driver in command.
"We thought the tiff with Pakistan was over?" we asked as casually as we could muster between bouts of our adam's apples conspicuously bobbing up and down. It turned out that, yes, the Pakistani invasion has been beaten back by the heroics of the Indian Jawans and now the situation was back to its normal summer self. This means that when the air temperature is warm enough (ie thin enough, roughly 11.30am to around 7pm) Pakistan lobs a succession of rather large and heavy and definitely explosive 155mm howitzer shells at Kargil and surroundings and sneaks infiltrators in under the covering fire. Even at maximum range the guns are far too accurate and many locals had be killed or wounded over the months. "One of their main targets is this satellite communication dish" - that we just happened to be driving past, in fact 50m close to, at the worrying speed of less that 15 miles an hour on an uphill bend that turned towards the border. We looked with not a little trepidation for signs of shelling, but in vain, and before anyone had the bright idea of mounting a foot search for shell fragments, or worse, waiting for the shells to come to us the driver pulled out 3 chunks of shrapnel from beneath his feet for us to ponder. They would leave would could be mildly termed a Nasty Hole in anyone, indeed anything less than armour plating.
So much for a holiday in Kargil. On the other hand Leh was all very nice and peaceful, except for the occasional debauched evenings after running into old trekking friends.
* Indian a/c; "can you wind the window down some more?"
**three different glaciers, no less