Monday, June 30, 2008


My devotion to the Doctor is unquestioning. Wherever I am in the world, I will follow his attempts to save the universe. The Information Age makes this relatively easy, of course, and my only dilemma in India has been whether to get a friend to download Series 4 in readiness for a return-to-Zion marathon, or whether to make do with YouTube. Like a seasoned addict, I’ve plumped for the latter. Every Sunday night, no matter where I’ve been, I’ve made my way to the nearest cyber-café in order to watch the latest episode.

Two Sundays ago was the same; the only difference being the pull of the start of the series finale, and an episode penned by the Guru of the new series, Russell T Davies. Turn Left promised counter-factual craziness with political undertones (the south of England wiped out of a car turning left, instead of right), as well as the return of Rose Tyle (Bille Piper). Seeking familiarity, I headed for the same café where I had watched the previous episode, in High Bank, Rishikesh. That time I had been worried that I wouldn’t be able to watch, as a sign on the wall read “No Downloading or Uploading.” Seeking refuge in my technical knowledge, though, I reminded myself that YouTube constitutes neither downloading nor uploading; it simply streams videos from a remote server, leaving no trace on the computer. Nonetheless, I decided to check, asking the owner for permission to watch. Permission duly received, I started watching.

A week later, and I was just coming to the end of Part One. Infected by a mysterious time-feeding bug, Donna Noble was on the verge of turning right, a move that would lead to apocalypse upon apocalypse. Excited to get started on part two, I was disturbed by the boss. Pointing to the sign, he menacingly told me, “No downloading or uploading.” A disputation ensued. I explained to him that YouTube didn’t break the rules as stated on the sign, he said that they did. I said that it hadn’t been a problem last week; he said that that was then. An appropriate response, I suppose, given that the topic under discussion was a programme about a time-traveller.

It didn’t stop me though, and I continued to explain to him that I wasn’t downloading (or uploading, or sideloading) anything. “If I’m downloading it, you would be able to find it on the computer,” I told him, “Where is it?” Again, no answer but his authority as the boss; I was fighting a losing battle, and my exasperation was starting to show, particularly in my inarticulate arguments in favour of the “YouTube is not downloading” motion. The temperature was rising.

Now a moment of schadenfreude for my parents, who have always told me to cut down on my swearing. “It’s not fucking downloading,” I told him, desperate to watch, and now the gloves were off. He totally lost his cool, jibbering and jabbering and threatening to call the police, whilst I stood my ground, telling him that I would welcome their intervention. Swearing had been a mistake. Now I was as calm as possible, but it was too late to save the situation.

He wanted to charge me 100 rupees, I refused to pay a single paisa. I reminded him that I had been a good customer throughout the week, using him for rafting, internet and telephone calls, and was happy to sit here for another hour, on the condition that I could watch my programme, which after all wasn’t doing the other customers any harm. Unmoved, he dismissed me, telling me that he didn’t need my money. That night, I always walked the mean street of High Bank accompanied, out of the exotic feat that he might send his goons after me. The next morning, I left town, in search of an internet-café where disciples of the Doctor would be welcome.

Saturday, June 28, 2008


Since the pesky Romans destroyed the Second Temple, we Jews have lacked a proper pilgrimage. Sure, we can make a nuisance of ourselves in some biblical tomb in the West Bank, or nip off to see the shrine of some wise Moroccan sage, but these are all optional excursions. Evan at its most Orthodox, Judaism requires no pilgrimages. In fact, the Rabbis were so concerned with the negative effects of pilgrimage culture, that they took great efforts to ensure that the most obvious candidate for a hardcore Jewish pilgrimage – Mount Sinai – became anything but.

To make up for this lack, I decided to join the Sikh community on their trek up to Hem Kund (Uttarakahand), where the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh, is reputed to have meditated for 300 years before being summoned by God to begin activities as a human. My love-in with the Sikhs has only deepened since my chapatti-distribution at the Golden Temple, and now seems as appropriate time as any to officially declare that my apostasy of choice would be to Sikhism. They have been the friendliest single community I’ve encountered in India (with the possible exception of the Tibetans), and I’m particularly intrigued that most travelers seem to overlook them in favour of the more other-worldly abstractions of Buddhism and Hinduism. Perhaps it’s the Jew in me, but Sikkhism seems to be rooted in the here and now, which no doubt helps to explain why Sikhs have always punched above their weight, whether in India or the Diaspora. Also, their men are extremely tough (someone told me it’s the Punjabi water), and yet are still allowed to carry daggers! My only complain would be that they – like other religious communities – take themselves far too seriously, as demonstrated by their frequent complaints whenever Bollywood portrays one of their ranks as anything other than Turban-wearing, barbershop-avoiding, pilgrimage-completing devotees.


My pilgrimage started – but of course – with a ten hour bus ride into the mountains. I’ll spare you the details, though, save for one vignette: I spent the first couple of hours (4-6AM) cramped next to an old man vomiting out the window. During the dhaba-stop, I spied salvation in the form of a seat adjacent to the driver, with leg room that called come hither more enticingly than the Bollywood actress being beamed coquettishly out of the DVD player. Our break complete, I moved to occupt it. Almost immediately, the teenage boy who had been sitting there before came to reprimand me. Believing that the etiquette for these front-seat free-for-alls was first-come, first-served, I held my ground, greeting every Hindi threat with wild, threatening gesticulations. This stand-off played itself out for a few seconds, until a middle-aged man lifted his head from his newspaper, before stating disinterestedly – in English – “he’s the driver’s son.” Defeated more emphatically than the Russians by the Spanish, I returned to the dying man.


Hem Kund is reached in two stages. First, a meandering 14km hike to the 3029m high village of Ghangria. The pilgrim season runs from June to September, which makes for a crowded path. As every, I was the pork pie to the proverbial Bar Mitzvah, the crowds greeting me with the excited astonishment participation in India religious rituals leads to. Early on, two teenage boys took me under their wing, teaching me to say Sat sri ahal (hello in Punjabi) like a native. The next step was to teach me Wahigru, the Sikh name for God a word that is chanted constantly on the way up, with no variation, like a set of football-fans with only one song.

Although uphill, the first 12km were relatively easy. But then, like an invisible gas, the high altitude suddenly kicked in. Everyone was staggering, as if in a mysterious trance. Old or young, fat or thin, Jew or Sikh, it didn’t matter: Every twenty metres, there was a pause for breath. It was a taste of what was to come. 2km later, barely standing, I made it to Ghangria, base-camp for Hem Kund.

I rose the next day at 4AM, keen to be among the first to the top. The mountain-scape was lit up by the moon: giant, protective shadows were cast all around us. As my eyes accustomed to the gloom, I made out the shapes of a handful of other early risers, also eager to be ahead of the hundreds that would inevitably follow. Yesterdays 14km took me just under four hours. Today there were only 6km. From the rudimentary knowledge of high altitude sickness I garnered from Lonely Planet, I had hoped that a good night’s sleep would help me acclimatize. Not fast enough. The climb to Hem Kund turned out to be – quite simply – the hardest physical thing I had ever done. The path rose from 3029 to 4329 metres, while the air got thinner with every step.

As I tripped forward, I cursed Gobind Singh. Why couldn’t he have meditated in the hut of his local chai-wallah? Why did he davka have to schlep up here? Maybe this pilgrimage lark was over-rated, after all. Such thoughts were far from the mind of my fellow pilgrims, however, whose ever-monotonous chants of wahigru were as strong as the burgeoning morning light. By now, even I joined in, hoping that it might spur me on. It did. Eventually, after three and a half hours of calf-crushing climbing, I had made it.

The existence of a gurdurwa in such inaccessible place defies belief. The shrine itself looks more like something out of a ski-resort, a freezing structure dug into the snow. Pilgrims are greeted with hot chai, before heading inside to listen to the cantor recite from the Sikh holy book. The braver ones then walk outside to take a dip in the half-frozen lake. I was implored to join them, but thankfully my lack of towel proved a sufficient excuse, and I made do by taking photos of submerged old Sikh men.

On the way down – after taking a detour to se the famed but currently flowerless Valley of Flowers – I started to think about the pilgrimage in a less idealistic light. The sheer difficulty of the climb means that certain sectors of the community – like small children and the elderly – can’t do it unassisted. As a result, they employ local Nepalese worker to help them up. Some go on ponies. Others are carried up, either in a basket on a Nepalese man’s back, or in a chair carried Cleopatra-style by four Nepalese men. This doesn’t come cheap, of course, but that shouldn’t hide the fact that we’re talking about slave-like work. It doesn’t matter how used to the high altitude you are; carrying a fat old man up a mountain on your back twice a day is going to quickly destroy your body.

I suppose it’s yet another powerful illustration of Isaiah Berlin’s argument that two positive values can’t always be reconciled. You can outlaw the human-carrying, and in the process destroy the Sikh-reliant local economy. Or you can do nothing, and watch as the mountain schleppers turn into cripples. Such as the awful dilemmas India often confronts you with, even in the middle of nowhere. The only resolution will come from the Sikh community itself, who should surely implore those who are unable not to climb Hem Kund, while at the same time taking care to guarantee the economic future of the local community, who after all make the pilgrimage possible.

Note: Five days after I climbed Hem Kund, seven pilgrims were killed there in an avalanche – five from the Punjab, and two from Delhi.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Pass the Courvosier: Chandigargh and the question of Indian modernity

“the past is the past: architecture in India is a modern course of study and, as such, another imported skill, part of someone else’s tradition.” V.S. Naipaul, India: A Wounded Civilisation

“Let this be a new town symbolic of the freedom of India, unfettered by traditions of the past…an expression of the nation’s faith in the future.” Nehru

“The curve is ruinous, difficult and dangerous, it is a paralysing thing. The straight line enters into all human history, into all human aims, into every human act.” Le Corbusier

Three clobbering gap-year girls are standing in the centre of Sector 17, Chandigargh’s downtown district. Their bags were - inexplicably - forbidden on the train, so now they are scrambling across town to catch the bus to Delhi. They know nothing of the place where they stand. “We’ll stay until the evening,” declares one of them, her sharp green eyes stinging from the sweat brought forth by the Punjabi son. A veteran of one day in this city, I offer up my recommendations, which they politely but unconvincingly promise to follow up.

Chandigargh is a new city, designed by one of the twentieth-century’s greatest architect-theorists, an attempt by a newly independent nation to free itself from the “existing encumbrances of old towns and old traditions.” Anywhere else, it would be a major tourist attraction. For the average traveller to India, though, it is barely an afterthought, at best worthy of a quick stop-over between Delhi and the Himalayas. Why?

In most western countries, visitors try to avoid the poverty, to pretend that it does not exist. A traveller to New York does not seek out Brownsville, a pilgrim to Zion does not spend the night in Lod. Urban deprivation is of little interest: the tourist is looking for galleries and restaurants and clubs, but rarely reality. In India, ,this phenomenon also holds, although it manifests itself differently. The tourist seeks something ‘eternal’, something ‘spiritual’ and ‘unchanging’. Poverty is no hindrance to this; indeed it may be positively beneficial. But wealth, wealth is useless. Wealth must be ignored, denied.


The sword of partition fell most heavily on the Punjab, in the North-West of the subcontinent. The state was split down the middle, with the beloved state capital of Lahore allotted to Pakistan. For Indian eastern Punjab, a new capital had to be found. Nehru, an avowed secularist, thought it best to start from scratch, to build a new Indian city, “the first large expression of our creative genius, flowering on our newly earned freedom.”

Nehru was also convinced of the sanctity of Indian self-reliance, a principle that would dominate Indian economic policy (with disastrous consequences) until the 1990s. Strangely, though, he had no problem calling in a western team to design the new Punjabi capital, arguing that India did not have enough qualified architects of its own to complete the task. An American team (influenced by the Garden City movement) began the project, but when of them died in a plane crash, the others decided they couldn’t continue. In stepped the legendary Le Corbusier, enamoured by the opportunity to design a whole city, one that would be constructed according to his holistic theories of urban planning.

The mention of Le Corbusier to architecture enthusiasts quickly leads to reverential, hushed tones. To those in the know, Chandigargh is of far more interest than the Taj Mahal. I haven’t made it to the Taj yet, so am reluctant to comment. But as someone interested in contemporary India, I get the point. Chandigargh is indispensable for thinking about the country, a place which challenges all your assumptions about what India ‘is’ or ‘should be’.

At this point, I should confess that I wasn’t particularly taken by Le Corbusier;s flagship buildings in Chandigargh - the Secretariat, the Legislative Assembly, and the High Court. Perhaps it was the drab weather, the disappointment of discovering that the heavy rain was not a premature monsoon, but merely a tropical storm caused by cyclones over Pakistan. Or perhaps it was the soul-destroying bureaucracy, traipsing through the rain from building to building, in order to get a permit for a brief look around. Either way, the grey monoliths didn’t impress me much, particularly after nothing how drab and dirty and chaotic they were inside. If I’m missing the point, I encourage the architects to say so in the comments.

Of more interest was the city’s design, in particular the ethos behind it, explained in the fascinating city museum. As mentioned above, Le Corbusier was a theorist as much as an architect; he didn’t just endow Chandigargh with buildings, he left it with a constitution. “(i) Chandigargh is a city offering all amenities of life to the poorest of the poor of its citizens to lead a dignified life. (ii) Chandigargh is a government city with a precise goal and consequently a precise quality of inhabitants.” This was something radically new, a precisely planned Indian cit.

Le Corbusier organised the city according to four key principles: living, working, circulation, and care of body & spirit. Divided (sinisterly) into sectors, the city has wide avenues reminiscent of French boulevards, and massive stretches of parkland, a greater amount than I can recall seeing anywhere else. There is an artificial lake (for care of body & spirit, noch), and monuments dot the horizon, including the Open Hand, the city symbol. It is a rationally-planned, relatively clean city, a bourgeoisie outpost with delusions of grandeur.

If it wasn’t for the Indians, though, you’d never know you were in India, and this is why I don’t understand Nehru’s stance. Admittedly, I don’t know much about the country’s architects at the time of independence (Naipaul’s controversial quote at the top of the page alludes to a ruptured tradition), but surely there should have been greater domestic involvement in the project? As already mentioned, it seems particularly surprising in the context of Nehru’s virulent opposition to foreign interference in other spheres of Indian life. The rhetoric about freeing India from the shackles of the past seems overly harsh, not to mention unnationalistic; surely the point was to create a blend a between tradition and modernity? rather than rejecting either one.

What of Chandigargh today? Contemporary architects are, of course, a notoriously short-sighted lot, and the relative wealth of the city hasn’t prevented the ‘other’ India from shaping its image. At night, the workers from the village bed down on the covered sidewalks in front of the chic stores; by morning they are brewing up chai and baking chapatis, ready for a day’s work. Despite the space and the traffic lights (routinely ignored by rickshaw drivers), crossing the road is barely less terrifying than elsewhere, and - despite the emphasis on quality of life - there’s an unmistakable sense of decay about the place.

Perhaps it’s because there’s too much parkland, or perhaps it’s because Chandigargh seems old hat in comparison to the new satellite towns springing up as a result of India’s financial boom. Either way, it feels provincial, like some old Eastern European town. Not even trendy coffee shops or expensive restaurants can shake this feeling. But that doesn’t make it any less fascinating. It’s a first attempt at Indian modernity, forty years before financial liberalisation, the benchmark for other attempts which followed. The fact that it is of little interest to the average backpacker points to larger themes, ones I hope to pick up on further on up the road.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Indian Pastoral

British readers may remember Transworld Sport, which used to be broadcast every Saturday morning on Channel 4, just before Football Italia. It showed obscure sports from around the world, including Kabbadi, which can loosely be described as a cross between wrestling and British Bulldog.

Wandering through the valleys of lower Himachal Pradesh a couple of weeks ago, my ambition was fulfilled. At the edge of a village, I stumbled upon an elementary school, P.E. class in full effect. At first I was thrown. The game the pink-saried girls were earnestly playing triggered memories of my Transworld Sport days, but I was used to heavy-set turban-wearers, not little pixies. Also, the great gimmick of Kabbadi is that the would-be conqueror has to constantly mutter Kabbadi (‘holding of breath’ in Hindi) as they launch their raid into enemy territory, but here the sound was a monosyllabic ‘mudge’.

Seemingly honoured by my interest, the teachers invited me to pull up a pew, and readily answered my questions. This was Kabbadi, yes, in its purest form, the change of vocabulary explained by locale. We were in Himachal Pradesh, and not in the Punjab, where it originated, hence the change in word. With the confusion cleared up, the boys stepped forward, in sky-blue-shorts and sand-yellow corduroys (no PE kit here), predictably more aggressive in their approach. I sat back and photographed the spectacle to my heart’s content.

The school-bell rang, the class was over. Break-time. I was due to get back to the Tibetan summer camp I was visiting, whose participants must long ago have reached the river for an afternoon of frollicks. As I prepared to set off, though, I felt a firm but gentle palm on my shoulder. “You must come and drink chai with us,” implored one of the teachers. Without waiting for a response, he led me into the school courtyard, where hundreds of children gawked, as if President Musharraf had just walked in.

We took our seats in the corner, the children circling us, transfixed. At this point, I should explain. I was well off the tourist-trail, at a school not used to foreign visitors. “Actually, you are the first,” declared the English teacher, my chief interlocutor. “This is a great day. We shall record it in the school diary.” With that, what I thought would be an informal break-time chin-wag turned into an audience. After being politely questioned on my background, I was interrogated on the UK. “What is its topography?” the teachers asked, peculiarly. Then, we moved onto geopolitical matters, which involved me giving my considered opinion on the future of India and its relationship with the rest of the world.

The school seemed to be a lovely and buzzing-place, with all the sweet, sentimental images (Famous Five, anyone?) that conjures up. It was also – I hope – a little snapshot of the spread of education into rural India. The teachers were humble, but proud of what they saw as their vital role in the development of the nation. “Come to learn, go to serve,” was plastered on the school walls. This sense of mission may be surprising for a democratic country, but – coming from Zion – I suppose I’m used to it. Chai finished, I was granted a few moments with the principal. I thanked him for the welcome, and congratulated him for the atmosphere of the school. He promptly invited me for more chai, but by now I really had to go. Taking my leave, I skipped down the lane towards the river, delighted in having stumbled upon this pastoral scene, with no cause for cynicism in sight.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Leh-Manali road

We headed to tbe bus station at 2AM, having picked up our tickets for the 18-hour jeep ride from Leh to Manali in the morning. As it was early in the season, the buses weren’t yet running, which meant we had to do the journey in one, hard slog, with only one driver behind the wheel. There are two roads out of Leh – west into Kashmir and south into Himachal Pradesh. While both have a reputation for treachery, the Leh-Manali route is less of a road, and more like the bit in Gulliver’s Travels when he’s being carried through the air by a soaring eagle in a little box. In a word, visceral.

I was accompanied by Leo the Lion and The Swede, whom I had met on my way to Leh. The Swede and I paid 1000 roops for a middle seat, with The Lion preferring to rough it in the back for 200 less. Comfortably in position, we set off surprisingly promptly into the darkness. Stretching out my legs, I remarked to my friends that this might not be so bad after all. But I hadn’t reckoned for Leh’s urban sprawl, for apparitions standing on street-corners in the twilight, patiently waiting for a ride south.

There were four stops in all. First, the front two seats were taken. Second, two men joined Leo in the back. Third, a moustached Ladakhi joined The Swede and I. When I purchased the tickets, the driver promised me there would be only three on the middle seat. Three I could tolerate. But then, with the lights of civilisation about to vanish for the next 400km, a final, soul-crushing stop.

The introduction of a fourth man meant that us middle-seaters were transported into a peculiar version of Whose line is it anyway, namely the Standing, Sitting, Bending game. It wasn’t possible for us all to lean back at the same time, so we had to improvise to find comfort. At the start, I was wedged between the now-regrettably tall Swede and the moustached-Ladakhi, awkwardly twisted like trapped in some medieval torture instrument, the only consolation being the heat that was provided. During the first stop, I reprimanded the driver – via a makeshift interpreter – for lying to me about the maximum number of people on the middle-seat. He deflected my criticism without a care, as did the two Indians sitting pretty in the front, rejecting my plea for an occasional swap on the false grounds that they had paid more for their seats. There could be no avoid it – I would be travelling to Leh cattle-car style.

By now dawn was slowly breaking, and the first mountain pass was upon us. 5000m above sea level, the seasons were changing, with the melting snow turning the road to sludge, a brilliant white giving way to an unedifying brown. I gave a knowing shrug, having seen it all before on the Srinigar-Leh road. It couldn’t phase me now. Breakfast was two miles down the road, a bundle of big-top tents in an otherwise deserted landscape, its proprietors distributing much-appreciated noddles as we tried to keep our toes warm.

Rocky mountain passes soon gave way to flowing rivers; harsh ascents gave way to endless flats, any semblance of road disappearing. Colours changed rapidly, the perilous views reminding us that we somehow weren’t meant to be here, or at least not in a vehicle. The dust churned up by the jeeps in front of us made us choke, so we sealed the windows, as if in a travelling tomb. I then replaced The Lion in the back, holding on for dear life, as we headed off-road in search of short-cuts, where I was lifted into the air like on some fun-fair simulator, only without a seat-belt. We appreciated every minute of every break, lying still or slurping chocolate, cursing every time the drive summoned us back.

Our driver deserves a few lines. With a brooding, wounded look on his face, he went about his task like he was steering some great warship through enemy fire. Every turn was over-amplified, every acceleration dramatised. He did this for eighteen hours, with only the occasional break for regeneration. Despite this, he never seemed to waver. On the final leg of the journey, up some highland peak, The Swede drew my attention to the red in his retinas, but it only seemed to spur him on further. It was a most impressively-driven journey, and I regret the agitation I caused him earlier in the morning.

Eventually, we arrived safely in Manali, aching but alive. The grandeur of the vistas, and the thrills of the plummets, will not convince me to take the Leh-Manali road again. “Next time you fly, eh?” quipped a Kashmiri man to me on the Zhoji-La pass separating Kashmir and Kadakh. Yes sir, I do.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Ancient Futures: Pondering modernity in Ladakh

The documentary Ancient Futures tells the story of the Ladakhi people and their encounter with modernity. According to the filmmaker, modernity (primarily delivered through new roads and tourism) has destroyed the traditional Ladakhi way of life, which until now had managed to sustain the Ladakhis for centuries.

Sitting bare-footed in the Women’s Alliance, agit-prop all around me, I was having none of it. The film presented a crude dichotomy (pre-modernity good/modernity bad), which positively enraged me. The documentary may not be the best medium for nuance, but that doesn’t excuse such crudely simplistic arguments, arguments which don’t tally with a cursory look around Ladakh’s capital, Leh.


Ladakh is really western Tibet. It has found itself under Indian rule for geopolitical reasons, which saw the Indo-Chinese war being fought on its territory. Despite this, its people have managed to use their physical isolation (cut off from Himachal Pradesh, Tibet and Kashmir by the mountains) to preserve their cultural identity. Tibetan Buddhism is the dominant religion here (the Leonard Cohen-narrated documentary on The Tibetan Book of the Dead is largely filmed in Ladakh), but the Ladakhis are culturally distinct from Tibetans, with their own language and customs, and wonderfully sinister hats.

Ladakh is the coldest and driest territory on earth. Settlement is only possible in the shadow of the mountains, where the snow-water falls. Beyond the shadows, the land looks strangely like a Middle Eastern desert. Ladakh is the one place in India that the monsoon leaves untouched, an apt reminder of how odd its political status is. I arrived just before the peak tourist season, which is fuelled by the demand for high-altitude trekking and biking, as well as the spiritual attractions. With the seasons changing, the land gave off a hint of what life must be like in winter. Somehow the philosophical underpinnings of Buddhism make more sense here – the passive acceptance of life’s brutal rhythms, the futility of using emotions as a weapon against reality. Better to resignedly take your place as part of the landscape, to take your place in the cycle of life as best you can.

Ancient Futures argues that modernity has exposed innocent Ladakhis to the west’s most pernicious features, that the traditional fabric of life had broken up, that communities have been destroyed, that drug abuse and perversion is now rife, that people have become thoroughly individualized, concerned only with the pursuit of wealth.

It’s an easy argument to make, of course, one that’s been made in a number of other places. No doubt much of it is true. The problems caused by modernity are hard to deny. But when the balance-sheet is drawn up, it’s clear that modernity’s overall effect has been positive. This can only be denied through a sentimentally-skewed reading of pre-modernity.

While the film mentions high infant mortality in pre-modern Ladakh, it whitewashes the exclusion of women from political power, the poor standard of literacy, and the dominance of feudal elites. The filmmakers can do this because Buddhism has a soft power other religions can only dream of, because they know that critical questions will not be asked. Sentimentalisation, coming from a familiar place in the human spirit, will win out. The grass is always greener on the other side, and there is nothing worse than the present. Take the Jewish example, with the absurd romanticisation of shtetl life, lazily contrasted with the supposed ‘degraded society’we have created in Israel.

Contemporary Ladakhis have some sense of this, which is why Leh is a surprisingly hip place, where interesting ecological innovation and dramatic architecture sit side by side. If the patronizing westerners who made Ancient Futures had their way, Leh would still be in the dark ages. Arrogant in their conviction of what the good life is (meaning through community, sense of place in cosmos), they neglect to see the rewards reaped by modernization. “Never abandon our culture, just be moving it along, technology and tradition, innovation in the song,” sing Asian Dub Foundation on New Way, New Life, the motto for managing the often traumatic transition to modernity. Yes, there is much that was precious in the pre-modern world. The key word is balance, finding the right balance so that communities can both prosper and maintain their ancient heritage.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Bargaining in the Barbershop

It's the barbershop, you know the rules...No fighting, no cussing, no Cause and no Bloodin' - and sit yourself down and act like you got some sense.
Murs & 9th Wonder, Barbershop (Murray's Revenge)

A weekly visit to the barbershop for a cut-throat has become one of my essential Indian rituals. I am lathered and shorn, massaged and perfrumed, always with the devotion of an artist. This is high-skilled labour, performed to perfection. And the price?
India is cheap. Cheaper than I thought it would be before I arrived, which was already cheap. It is almost insultingly cheap, a place where the gap between price and quality is almost heartbreaking. A good dinner should set you back no more than a pound, but you can fill yourself adequately with street-food for a third of that. A baseball cap will cost a couple of quid, an en-suite hotel room should be no more than four. India is cheap.

That makes it a backpacker's paradise, a place where you can live in relative luxury for $10 a day. As a result, it's an attractive place for those looking to while away the days in stunning surroundings, without falling into financial difficulty. This creates a strange change in mentality. Even if you come here with wads of cash, the low prices soon alter your perspective. When you realise that 100 rupees (just over a pound) is relatively expensive for a main course, you start to alter your consumption habits accordingly, even if your budget makes penny-pinching unnecessary. This is partly because you consume according to the company you keep, but it's also an issue of self-esteem - nobody wants to feel ripped off.

Backpackers also buy things in India - clothes, trinkets, carpets, things. And, like other countries with similar economies, you buy through bargaining. While I'm not a major purchaser of "objects" (at least not until the end of the trip, when thoughts must inevitably turn to presents for nearest and dearest), I've spent plenty of time with people who are. One of my strangest experiences, for example, was sitting in a boat and watching a couple barter over jewellery being hustled by the boatman next door. This lasted about half an hour, without a sale. Watching them in action, I realised that, try as I might, I can't get into the bargaining mentality. Not only am I awful at it, I can't even fathom the economics behind not having fixed prices. The first clause explains the second, I guess, but I'm still left deeply unsatisfied. Bartering may be part of the "experience" of travelling in the subcontinent, but is there a deeply shady morality behind it?

The shady morality, I think, comes from the traveller. Even the poorest of western backpackers brings with him/her stacks more cash than a vast majority of Indians will ever see, even if recent economic developments are taken into account. In this context, a 'tourist tax' isn't just reasonable, it's also deeply moral. My knowledge of economics is appalling, but I am convinced of this: the growing gap between rich and poor is shaping up to be the major source of instablity in the twenty-first century. Optimists can talk until the cows come home about the benefits of trickle-down economics, but allowing the wealth gap to widen will end in blood. One friend told me of a businessman who drives down Delhi in an orange lambourghini. This is - quite simply - an incitement to violence.

So I haven't minded being 'exploited' here and there; I've paid my tourist tax with pride. I guess my only hope is that all my transactions have been performed with dignity, that the seller hasn't laughed in my face when I've left the store. As long as that's not the case, I'm prepared to pay that little bit more.

I hope this doesnt come across as excessively self-righteous, and I also don't want to give the impression that I'm splashing the cash like some rap star. But I am getting increasingly annoyed at seeing people from Britain or France or Israel arguing over ten or twenty rupees. It's deeply distasteful.

I'm writing these lines - in righteous indignation - freshly shaven in the isolated village of Sumur in the Nubra Valley, close to the border with China. Here, the barber wanted to charge me 10 rupees. 10 rupees, 15 pence, for half an hour of his time, after which he has left me looking - quite frankly - invincible. After he quoted me the pittance, my mind drifted back to Amritsar. It was the third day of my journey, and I was feeling a lot more generous than now, not to mention a lot more ignorant about the consumer economy here. As I drifted through the most sensuous hairdressing experience I had ever had, I asked myself how much I was willing to offer him, whilst speculating on what his chutzpah would lead him to ask for. After an awkward pause, we came to the same figure, 300 rupees, astronomical even in the context of first-week naievity.
Paying that every week would be excessive, of course. It might even be a little bit patronising. So I've settled on 20 rupees here, 30 rupees there, depending on how safe I felt when the blade was gliding over my adam's apple. To the barber in Sumur, I have 50, which left him quietly surprised, but not offended. Quite simply, it's a reasonable price for a western tourist to pay for a high-quality service. Part of the role of the travellers it to put money into the local economy. We should do this with dignity, without excessive and shameful bargaining. After all, we are only passing through, fired by cliches about memories that will last forever. Amidst the constant inspiration, let's not forget about those who will be left behind.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

The Scenic Route

I've just made it to Vashisht, near Manali, for a week of well earned relaxation and footie watching, where I also hope to update the blog. I have plenty of tales to tell - from the 18 hour drive from Leh to Manali, to becoming a celebrity at an Indian primary school, to visiting a Tibetan summer camp. Stay tuned - from tomorrow evening I plan to update daily throughout the week...

And I'd be interested in hearing feedback about my route: my latest plan is to stay in the hills until the start of July, and then to work my way down into the plains and east to Calcutta, before heading to Rajasthan the first couple of weeks in August. (I know it's hot and monsoony, but that's part of the fun, particularly after reading Alexander Frater's delicious Chasing the Monsoon. Anyway, feedback is welcomed...

The Wandering Satlan

Monday, June 2, 2008

Free Kashmir?

"The vast majority of Kashmiris want independence, or at least hugely increased autonomy, not to mention a withdrawal of troops." Here, at Comment is Free.

Kashmir (2): Down in the Valley

The Kashmir the world knows about begins when you emerge from the 2531 metre long Jawahar Tunnel. Leaving the darkness, you are immediately confronted with the two salient points which define what the locals call "paradise on earth": the fertility and the soldiers. Before the descent down into the valley, a sign invites you to take a break and admire the view. To the left, a military post, the first of many.

Soldiers are everywhere in Kashmir, on street-corners, in forests, by rivers, by Mosques. One Kashmiri told me there were 800,000 soldiers based in the state; with an overall population of just over ten million, that's quite an astonishing figure. On one hand, their presence is testament to the fact that the violence which killed thousands in the nineties is not far behind us. On the other hand, it's a reminder that India has a shit load of soldiers with little else to do. [For more on the political situation in Kashmir, see my Comment is Free piece - link above]

You soon get use to them, though, like a part of the furniture, and they don't stand in the way of appreciating the great life and fecundity of the valley. Alpine glades, fast-flowing rivers, snow-capped peaks - it would be Orientalist to describe the vistas in terms of the Alps, but that's the image which springs readily to mind.

Of course, the people are anything but European, and indeed are anything but Indian. The Kashmiris are a proud and hospitable people, of mysterious origin, often dressed in shawls and turbans like their Muslim counterparts in North-West Pakistan, but with a cannier approach to tourism. Especially given the warnings, it was gratifying to see a group of Israelis greeted so enthusiastically, a phenomenon that is surely unmatched elsewhere in the Muslim world. A few Hebrew signs dot the landscape; with many other western tourists still reluctant to visit, it seems that the Israeli contingent is still doing its best to keep Kashmir's connection to the outside world alive.

We stayed at Pahalgam, the valley's main tourist centre. From here, masses of Indian tourists head to the Armanath Caves, an important Hindu holy site, while the more adventurously inclined go raftnig and horse-riding. We did btoh, before heading for a few days hiking up-river from the nearby village of Aru.

We were accompanied by Haji - the patriarch of the 'Brown Palace' and assorted other tourist ventures - and his dimunitive nephew, Roma. In his shawl and white skull-cap, Haji loked like he should be reclining in a Mosque, but he was was the man responsible for setting up our camp in the midst of a community of Kashmiri herdsmen and their families, liberally translated by our guide as gypsies. While loading the jeep, I had been startled to find my rucksack placed alongside a box of two live chickens, which turned out to be our dinner. To sit by a mountain stream at twilight, watching Haji slaughter and then meticulously clean the chicken (this took him over an hour) was - how shall I put it? - a rather carnal experience, on that (I'm sorry to say) didn't make me a vegetarian. On the contrary, it made me realise that meat tastes better when it has been freshly killed.

Our days of hiking finished, we headed to Srinigar, just after the disturbances caused by the President's visit. In Srinigar, you stay on houseboats, hundreds of which create a floating island ni the heart of the gigantic Dal Lake (now there's tautology for you). Houseboats, shops, wandering chikoras selling jewellery, even floating gardens - Dal Lake is a random wonder which makes Venice seem rather ordinary. The only downside is that it serves to detract from the main city, which is justly famous for its wooden mosques sans minarets.

I probably should have stayed longer in Srinagar. Certainly, getting a boat to take me to shore at dawn has been one of this trip's great memories. But what struck me most, after having internalised Lonely Planet's annoying habit of referring to the security situation every other sentence (although, to eb fair, they do have to cover their backs), was just how safe and welcoming a place it was, and how much potential is still has. I hope the development continues, and that the Kashmiri people can find the self-determination that they - like anyone else - deserve.