Campaign on Ice: A working trip to Ladakh

Recently Arvind Venkatadri, who heads our Library programme was in Leh to train around 100 Heads of Government Primary schools, where 17000 ft Foundation has set up school-based Libraries. Akshara is their knowledge partner in this initiative.
Read below Arvind’s travelogue to know more about this exciting trip and working in Leh in sub zero temperatures.

Welcome to Kushok Bakula Rimpoche Airport, Leh. The temperature outside is -12 degrees Celsius”. I had arrived in Ladakh, but a Ladakhi welcome had already been bestowed on me the previous day at New Delhi airport, where I was met by a smiling Stanzin Norbu from the 17000ft Foundation. I was here at the invitation of Sujata and Sandeep Sahu, founders of 17K, to help them provide a training-orientation to Heads of some 100 Government Primary Schools, where they had set up their School Libraries as part of their programme with rural Ladakhi schools.
It seemed at first sight that there were just two things in Ladakh: ice, and space. From my bedroom window, on the ground floor, I could gaze upon the sunlit spires of mountains on the far shore of the Indus. I had been given a list of clothing material to buy and I got it all from Decathlon here in Bangalore, the most important part being a Goose-Down-Jacket-with-a-hood. I had thermals and skiing-gloves and fleece sweaters and fleece caps and a balaclava and skiing clothing ( form-fit trousers and shirt ) and a baggy waterproof pair of trousers. I had been asked to take Diamox tablets for altitude sickness and I felt no ill effects whatsoever.

I spent the first day getting used to all the clothing I was wearing and took a walk into Leh. All that rustling of clothing made me turn around more than once, but I was alone. Never have I seen snow-swept, sunlit streets so desolate: there was not a person in sight, it could have been a ghost town. I did trudge up into the market street to finally see some cars and people. Breathing was not easy that first day, and it was not just the cold. The words “thin air” took a new, precise meaning for me once again.

The training began the next day and I spent two days lecturing in Hindi to the Heads from Govt Schools there; some of these schools are located at 15,000 feet ! Training began at 11.20 AM (after the first period; it is after all a college for Teachers) and ended at 4 pm on both days. Most of these HMs are were very young, the average age must have been 25-30 not more. Schools in Ladakh are shut from December to February; that is when the Teachers complete most of their training for the new academic session. The training was held at the DIET (District Institute of Education Training). The training rooms had hot stoves called Bukhari-s, three of them, with chimneys leading through the roof. All the Staff members sat in groups around the bukhari-s and every hour or so, a woman would come in and add firewood to the stoves. Lunch was a strange tea-and-bun affair of 20 mins; on both days we hit the town restaurant for lunch at 4.30 PM. I had some interesting food, the best being a thukpa, a spaghetti laden soup with veggies; very satisfying “winter” food.

The training was on Libraries: how to set them up, how to grade books, match these to children and their reading abilities, and how to measure that the Libraries have impact. We also talked of the various creative activities that we could conduct in Libraries. At the end of the two days, the Principal of the Institute Angmo Phuksong gave me something I was not prepared for: she honoured me with a long silk scarf, called a Khatok, which she formally hung around my neck. It is a very Ladakhi way and also a very big deal, I was told.
 I was reading Pankaj Mishra’s An End to Suffering: the Buddha in the World, an apt book for this place. The travels and thoughts of the author mingled with my impressions, as I saw Abbaley and Ammaley, our hosts, sit in the sunshine working the beads and reciting the Name four lakh times. There were shrines with large red and yellow prayer wheels at street corners; a steep hill in upper Leh seemed to have a monastery on top, but it seemed beyond me to attempt to get there. I contented myself with listening and humming Manasa Yetulortune in that lazy morning sunshine and talking to the two house cats in Tamil, who insisted that I part with some of my puri-s.

It snowed on two days, both times in the morning and continuing through most of the day. It was not snowing at 6 AM when I awoke, and the garden was bare; by 6.30 AM, there was a carpet of white that grew 2 inches as I watched. Across the Indus, the mountains turned completely white that morning. On both days, when the sun went down, it very rapidly grew really cold. Folks, the geese know what they have on. The goose-down jacket kept me completely comfortable, as did the thermal leg-wear. My shoes however, did not prevent my toes from freezing, despite the double layer of woollen socks that I was wearing ! Blankets in the room were two very heavy razai-s; plus a sweater, a head cap and the room heater was on. After a while, I either lost my head completely or I got “used to” the cold perhaps or the thukpa was working, for I was walking around barefoot in the room and to the tiled loo and even washing my feet each time with cold water. Water was delivered to the room; two buckets of ice-cold water and a half-bucket of hot. Brushing, shaving and laving myself with the cold water was, well, fun. On the last day, the bucket had pieces of ice floating in it too!

The day before I left, we were free, so we drove 30 kms to Nimmu, west along the Leh-Kargil highway. Stupendous scenery with vast open fields and slopes and towering red-brown mountains covered generously with snow. Nimmu has a Bihari-run shop that sells deadly samosas but sadly, the joint was closed that day. While we waited for our friend Dawa to catch up with his friends here, we wandered across the street, the highway that leads to Kargil in the west. An Army truck with snow chains over its wheels was parked there, the driver looking like a Telugu man for all I could tell. Across the street, a tiny and brilliantly coloured J & K Transport bus was parked and ready to go, the driver insistently honking to coax the reluctant passengers out of the tea-shop. Must have been just the thin air, but I thought I saw Mithun Chakraborty drape a blanket over Anita Raj’s shoulders as they both climbed up and sat on the freezing roof-top. Koi shaque? The bus disappeared in a flurry of snow and I hummed Zeehaale Muskin mukon baranjhish, but my voice would just not come out in the cold. My nose was also hurting with an insistent bleeding, a common affliction for me when I visit cold places.

A short drive and here we were at Sangam: the Indus, flowing from the South-East, meeting the Zanskar, coming in from South-West. The already broad Indus was almost completely frozen over but for two 20-feet wide streams separated by icy islands; the Zanskar was laden with pieces of ice, and even the water had a different colour! Paani da, rang vekh ke, Akhiyan jo hanjhu rul de….certainly the sparkling sunlight, the champagne air, the untouched snow and the immense peaks around me had my eyes streaming. I walked as far out on the ice as I could; I swept away the inches of snow to see the frozen ice-glass water of the Indus. And took a GPS reading that put me dead in the middle of the Indus (34.165305N, 77.332089E ). Lovely!

Ladakhi girls are good-looking. Period. And the children are adorable! As I departed, my host’s little grand-daughter culled some “apples” from her rosy Kashmiri cheeks and offered them to me as a parting gift. Abbaley gave me a hug and Ammaley, a handshake.

I know that I will go back there again, to be once again part of the Campaign on Ice.”