Jullay from Leh

Welcome to Prue and Ian's blog of their cycle tour of India

"Soaring thousands of metres above the rush, heat and chaos of India's plains, the Indian himalayaare a world apart. prayer flags snap in the wind on high mountain passes, immense yaks thresk barley at harvest time and the colourfultata trucks crawl up the hairpins like ants. The people, especially in Buddhist Ladakh, are cheerful, honest and gentle. The landscape is a reflection of their religion - white chortens line the roads and approaches to villages like pawns from a giant game of chess, burgundy-clad monks hitch lifts at the side of road, gompas perch on spectacular crags and everywhere the air is alive with the flutter of prayer flags Here is some of the most starkly spectacular mountain scenery you will find anywhere in the world"

Laura Stone Adventure Cycling

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Tragic events in Ladakh

The last week in Leh has been an emotional one. Ladakh experienced its worst ever natural disaster. A violent cloud burst  at 12:30 am on August 6th initated floods and mud/rock slides that would kill 184 people, injure over 350 and, at this stage, still have 500 people unaccounted for.
Prue and I had an interrupted night with lightning and heavy rain occasionally waking us. As with many living in our area of Leh little did we realise the huge effect of the storm.
When we were about to head off to school on our bikes our Guesthouse owner said that we might have trouble getting there as the storm had caused a great deal of damage and loss of life. The ride to school certainly opened our eyes to the mudslides in particular and the utter confusion of Leh's population. The storm destroyed the electricity supply, radio station and communications infrastructure. Word of mouth was the only form of communication.
We arrived at school to find that we were that only adults there and that the boarding school senior students had conducted the normal 9:30am assembly and were oblivious to the destruction above them in the Leh valley. Finally, one other teacher arrived and then Rinchin, the Principal. Rinchin and his family had slept in his car after the cloudburst has destroyed some of his home's roof and walls. Most other teachers lived in the Choglomsar area that we would later find out was one of the hardest hit villages. (In this village hundreds of people are still missing as mud 1 - 2 metres deep had completely engulfed the area.)
School was called off for the day . As the bulk of students are boarders, a Sunday (non school day program) was put in place. Eventually the school was closed for a week and many anxious parent and took their children home. Road closures and bridge wash aways didn't allow 60 of the students to return home so they were cared for by wardens at the school.
Prue and I rode back into Leh through the destruction and news was starting to spread about the deaths and the extent of damage.
Over the next week we volunteered through one of the agencies that quickly responded to the tragedy. The local Christian school was running daily buses to outlying villages that weren't helped in the initial emergency response. We chose to go to Saboo, 10 kms from Leh. We ended up in an international team with South Korea, France, Italy, Germany and Australia represented. For the next few days we returned to the same house emptying the mud and rocks from the remaining rooms that withstood the torrent.We were amazed how very sizable rocks were able to flow with mud into houses.
Unfortunately bodies were still being recovered from home sites near us. The villagers knew who was still missing and where the bodies probably were. Yet the anguish of actually recovering their loved ones was over-whelming.
Our small team became close through the experiences and we frequently shared our evenings together during the following days.
The destruction of the houses and farmland is devastating.  Precious soil and retaining stepps that often surrounded family homes were completely destroyed in parts of Leh and villages close by.
Although the aftermath of our own 2009 bushfires took time, (and still goes on in many cases) it is not hard to feel that the destruction here will take generations to re-build. As climate change effects the region, the lifestyle of the Ladakhis will need to adjust to more rain / less snow and the resultant mud slides. Housing design and materials, urban planning, agriculture, roads and other infrastructure will need to change with the shifting rainfall patterns.
As with all natural disasters there are also the secondary casualties and in Ladakh's case it is the tourism industry and the cash flow from it. Over the last week thousands of tourists have left the region mainly by air. Road access from Manali from Srinagar has been closed. Cafe owners, shop keepers, taxi drivers, trekking companies, guesthouse owners are all depressed about the premature end to an already short season.
The Prime Minister arrived in town yesterday and threw his support behind the recovery with  a pledge of 135 million Rupees. A few Ladakhis we have spoken to about the package are thankful but reserved about how much will actually get to the victims or to re-build infrastructure. The culture of mismanagement of public funds is so strong in India generally that the locals just see it as a fact of life.
The response to the emergency has been overwhelming. From the core Leh community, monks from surrounding monasteries and local villagers who have been unaffected, to itinerant workers and tourists - everyone one has contributed. A Condolence candle light walk and prayers through town four nights ago was attended by thousands. It proved to be a very powerful experience. Most tourists seem to be willing to pitch in for a day or two and in some cases holiday plans are totally on hold, with daily volunteer work removing mud at the hospital, surrounding villages or in schools..
Comments from the trickle of tourists still arriving are usually concerned with 'How can I help?"
We are very appreciative that several of you at home who are working to send clothing or money. Thanks for your concern and efforts. My sister Maree, in particular , has put together two large bags of clothing that Alice and Riley will endeavour to bring over in a few weeks.
Finally, thanks to family and friends who became aware of the crisis here and inquired about our well-being.  Embassy officials from numerous countries, including Australia, have been in Leh ensuring that all tourist are accounted for.
We have now returned to teaching at the New Millennium School and our days are spent covering classes for two absent teachers who remain effected by the disaster.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Blog 5 A few adventures and the start of school.

Our first wet day since arriving today. Rain through the night flattened the wheat crop at our guesthouse. The change in weather seems to have quietened the town down a notch.
Teaching at the New Millenium School started on Monday. Leh is sited in the middle of a long valley. Lardak Guesthouse is in the old Changspa village near the top and N.M. School is down near the airport at the bottom. Consequently the ride to work is almost downhill all the way AND guess what happens after school? It has been two sweaty bodies arriving home after a good workout ( Ryan's lookout x 3 for the Wang folks)
The school has 260 students - 230 boarding and 30 day students. A Swiss foundation called Eco-Himal has sponsored the school since its inception in 2000. Buildings, boarding dormitories, community hall and classrooms plus food, uniforms, text books and teachers' wages are all sponsored. The focus is to provide a traditional Tibetian Buddhism approach to a modern curriculum. Students come from far and wide - mainly from poorer backgrounds.
The bus-ing of students is certainly consistent with other Indian bus arrangements that many of you are familar with. An excursion to our sister school last week had 260 students plus staff into 2 x 35 seater buses. Don and brenda from wangaratta coachlines would have a fit! (We passed a school bus several weeks ago and from front on it was difficult to see who the actual bus driver was as so many faces were pushed up against the windscreen.)
Several teachers had not returned from school holidays dues to road closures (landslides) and a marriage, so Prue and I had a week of full teaching loads to cover them. My first class was Hindi (I had to explain to the class that Hindi wasn't my first language!) Luckily a reading comprehension task on fishing was the next page in their texts and I added a drawing of the scene to complete the task.
The staff are quite young and very friendly. We are greeted as long lost friends each morning. As time goes on and we settle into the term, our roles will evolve to more team teaching particularly in English classes (and Prue has her eye on the school library)
The students are also very friendly and so polite. As you walk into a class a  student will sing "Stand up" and then the group will all sing "Good Morning Sir /Madam".
The 4 -5 year olds are so cute in their formal uniforms.
Each morning starts with an assembly - Tibetian prayers and the Indian national anthem, and one person from each class performs a quizz, sings a song or recites a poem to the group. The formalities end with a march into class accommanied by drummers. The pint sized soldiers swing their arms enthusiastically and almost in time.
A quick toilet story. Toilets in schools can be problematic - particularly the Boys. The playground toilets are traditional Ladakhi - mudbrick built a metre and a half off the ground.. Inside is a 20cm x 40cm hole with earth covering the floor boards. The boys come in and pee towards the hole- consequently the earth around the hole becomes wet. the next boy stands on the dry dirt and pees towards the hole.... the wet patch becomes bigger. By the end of the day I'm not sure they even get inside the doorway!
Most days we track down a copy of the Times of India newspaper in a cafe, catch-up with the news of the world. The Times is a hybrid of melbourne's two offerings. Ample breasts on Page Two and gossip ranging from the lives of Bollywood stars to Aussie cricketers. Yesterday's lead gossip story was about David Beckham's tattooist bring out a line of T-shirt designs.
In the "it could only happen in India" category was the news that only 42 people had died so far in the construction works for the Commonwealth Games.
Finally, the good news that has featured several times in the last few weeks and hopefully was given coverage in Melbourne media, was the story of Indian migrant Pooram Singh. His cremated ashes were in storage at a Warrambool Funeral Directors since 1947. Three generations of the Funeral Directors were unable to contact his family in India. Finally, a chance conversation about the his fate and the state of Melbourne / Indian relations between a Indian ex-cricketer and a media commentator led to a solution and good Australian PR here in India. Pooran's final wishes for his ashes to be placed in The Ganges at Varanasi were fulfilled.
Just prior to starting our teaching we had two mini adventures.
I went rafting on the Zanskar River for the day. (Prue had an I.D.O. - Ian Day Off ) I had hoped to paddle a kayak for the day but in retrospect, I was glad to be in the relative safety of a six person raft. The Zanskar landscape was stunningly beautiful. Barren ridgelines dropping steeply into the muddy, icy cold waters.  I shared the raft with two Adelaide Uni students and three mates from Mumbai who were way out of their comfort zone. A flip (and swim)in a large Grade 4 diagonal stopper didn't do much for their confidence (or mine for that matter!)
The second adventure was to be a 3-4 day trek. The "baby" trek as it is called. We caught the local bus for a two hour trip out to Likir.At the departure time the 21 seater was full. Five minutes later 10-12 more people crammed on to make a very uncomfortable ride. For the second half I rode the open doorway - very scenic but I had to hold on to ride the bumps!.
Likir's gompa has a magnificent 23 metre high statue of the future Buddha sitting on the exterior of the complex. Before leaving for our walk we explored the gompa and had a private viewing of 6 monks starting a mandala. It would take several weeks to complete so we will need to have a return visit.
 The walk notes for the trek via three villages mentioned a four wheel drive track. Since publication of the notes the 4WD track had been upgraded to a road quality that was better than the Manali -Leh-Srinigar Highway. Unfortunately our group's chief route finder became very disorientated. (despite being given directions by locals.) Very quickly we were off the intended route and following a donkey track that I thought was heading in the general direction. Hours later after some very arduous climbing up a twisting gully, we found ourselves looking for some flat ground to pitch a tent at 4300 metres. The steep ground 200 metres below a ridgeline was looking impossible until we found a large boulder with a one person bivy overhang. After some digging we enlarged it to a 1.5 person bivy and we set up our mats and s/bags for the night. Neither of us slept a wink. The area is a hot spot for snow leopard sightings, so I spent my 13 hours awake creating scenarios of how to fend off a pair of hungry leopards. Choice of weapon - pocket knife or tent poles? The reality was snow leopards are so rare that a distant sighting, let alone an attack, was a very very remote chance. Prue, on the otherhand, concentrated her thoughts on down climbing what we had climbed up the afternoon before. (She was probably cursing her climbing partner for trying to follow a hunch about linking up tracks) The next morning, at 6:00am,  we sensibly retraced our our steps and found the loose rock/scree in the centre of the gully fairly easy to negotiate.
The heat of the sun by mid morning tookits toll and we headed back to Likir for a shower / sleep in an expensive hotel.
It took a while to work out where my route finding went wrong and it was not without some embarassment.