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.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Ian & Prue, so sad to read through this blog and see your photos. Its hard for us to fathom how the human spirit can survive evnts like these and the years of rebuilding in front of the community there. Your prescence and your efforts are totally inspiring, stay safe and stay in touch,


    Lach & Beth