Small-town blues

August 18, 2017

When I was a mere child, relatively, I spent a summer working on a cattle station in Far North Queensland in Australia, for reasons that escape me now. Suffice to say that it was both an eye-opener, and one of the most brutal and terrifying places I’ve ever been. When I get around to writing my autobiography, there’ll be a chapter on Escott Station, and it won’t be cheerful reading.
But one thing that has stayed with me is the feeling I got when I made it back to Brisbane. Now, Brisbane in the mid-1980s was not the dynamic, get-up-and-go cosmopolitan world city that it is today. Back then, it was Cow Town. But to a rube like me, freshly in from months in the sticks, it was a place of astonishingly urbane sophistication. I’d spent an age in a place with a single copper telephone wire, 1,000 miles from the nearest church or bar, with a population of 40. 
I remember clearly being astonished by escalators, car parks and restaurants. Traffic lights were a renewed revelation. Crowds were frightening. But obviously it all wore off pretty quickly, and cities became my natural home again.
But I’d thought that maybe the same thing would happen again over here in India. I’ve spent the last few days in Bombay, population 20 million, after living in Thiksey, Ladakh, population 2,500 for the last few months. So I was ready for some cognitive dissonance, with all of the world, good and bad, outside my hotel room. In Thiksey, there is a shop, but the man who runs it is not well, so it barely opens. In Bombay, you can get almost anything (except steak).
But no, being in Bombay was the same as being in Thiksey. Just another place. Small town; big city: same same. Shame really. Now I’m sorry I made you read all of that.

In other news, WAR! Indian and Chinese troops apparently clashed only a couple of hours drive from here just the other day. I got very excited about this, journalistically. Until I read the wire story, which said “Chinese troops threw stones at Indian soldiers near Pangong Lake…” Throwing stones? The two largest countries in the world, both armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons, and they’re chucking stones at each other like schoolboys? Perhaps this’ll be followed up by a round of pigtail pulling, or some super-tense international ringing-the-doorbell-and-running-away. It’s certainly more charming than the current impasse on the Korean peninsula.
And I also laughed yesterday, Indian Independence Day, at a half-page ad on the front page of the Times of India, which read “Mahatma Gandhi believed in himself. He believed in you, and me, and India. In our skills and ability to match up to the best of standards worldwide. Jaquar salutes that spirit of Indianness. By adopting the highest quality standards in our products, Jaquar has become India’s most trusted bath fittings brand.” Bathos, that is. There isn’t much I can add to that.

Hello, wage slaves! This is me calling, from sunny Kashmir.

Actually, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to rub it in. But it struck me quite forcibly last Monday morning. I was driving through the mountains; we’d just gone over the Khardung La pass, which is (not) the highest motorable pass in the world, at 17,650 feet. The skies were a wonderfully succulent cornflower blue, the snows a gleaming white. The mountainsides fell away to distant valleys and vast churning rivers: the Shayok, the Indus, the Nubra.

I looked at my watch, and saw that it was noon. Or 0730hrs in London, when scores of people whom I know and like would be forcing their way on to crowded Tube carriages, negotiating the hell that is the London Underground, on their way to jobs that they do simply to pay the bills. And here I was, on a Monday morning, driving through a huge and fascinating paradise, along ancient trade routes, past unclimbed mountains and uncharted valleys, all in the name of work.

DMon1

(Oh, and it’s cheap here. Since I’ve been in Ladakh, I’ve only been to the cashpoint once, and have only spent £100. In two months. Back in London, it seemed like just leaving my house caused money to fly out of my wallet.)

Anyway, we were on our way to the Nubra Valley, up near the border with Pakistan and China, and a stone’s throw from the Siachen Glacier, the world’s highest armed battleground. We got to the camp, which is ringed by 18,000 foot mountains, crested with snow, in the lee of an ancient monastery perched precariously on a crag looking out over the valley.

We were there to organise and host a lunch for one of the most remarkable men in the world: His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. He comes to Ladakh most years to teach and meet fervent Buddhists, and he had agreed to come and have lunch with us.

I won’t go into the work that went into hosting HH: it was quite a lot, but didn’t involve getting on an urban mass transit system at any stage. But he came, and was incredibly nice and warm, wise, generous and full of a genuinely benign radiance.

We had locked Harley, the Hammer of the Dogs, in a distant tent, but somehow he managed to escape and get past the perimeter of soldiers with machine guns hiding (asleep) in the bushes, and before we knew it he was bounding around under the Dalai Lama’s feet. I dragged him away, mortified, but HH put up his hand and stopped me. “Let him come,” he said, and Harley was allowed to frolic around his divine ankles and disport himself freely.

HBless1

Afterwards, His Holiness blessed Harley (His Harliness, now) and was generally a fantastically good man. I’m not very often star-struck by famous people (ie, never) but the Dalai Lama is different, up there with Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi (before she was corrupted by power and became a vicious Islamophobic stooge) in being a genuinely wonderful man and a wholesome force for good in the world.

DLBlessH

After the lunch, I was standing around with His Harliness and a group of very senior Ladakhi rinpoches, when one of them decided to feed the dog, by grabbing handfuls of cream cake and offering them to the little beast. Normally, this wouldn’t be allowed, but who am I to argue with one of the most powerful figures in Tibetan Buddhism?

After Harley started to visibly and cheerfully bulge around the midsection, the venerable rinpoche looked around him, and, seeing nowhere to clean his cream-covered hands, leant down and wiped them on Harley’s back.

I was, I must admit, somewhat taken aback. It was a bit like watching the Pope blowing his nose on the curtains. Harley didn’t, of course, mind in the slightest, except that he couldn’t reach around and get all the liberal crusting of chunks of cake and cream off himself.

So, all in all, it was a fairly good day in the office.

As it were.

 

So have I landed the best job in the world? Well, no, obviously, because it’s a job, which, despite the self-serving strictures of our capitalist overlords, is fundamentally inimical to human happiness. And I’m not a photographer for Playboy, head of product testing for Gibson Guitars, chief taster for Macallan whisky, or a coriander farmer in Tahiti.

But it’s not too bad, considering. Me and Harley the Wonder Dog walked along the stream through our sylvan glades to work this morning. I installed myself in a corner of the camp’s reception area, fired up Bach’s Mass in B Minor on the excellent stereo, and got down to crafting some pieces on how great things are here.

Every so often I pop outside to be confronted by the vast bulk of the 20,000 ft Stok Kangri Massif on the other side of the Indus Valley, dark and brooding and snow-capped, with the insanely vivid blue of the sky above, the green of the poplars along the river etching the view below. Citrine wagtails and orange-crested hoopoes flit through the glass-clear air and butterflies wobble past. The temperature is about perfect.

But there are downsides. Chief amongst them, for me, are the vagaries of the internet. We only seem to get a couple of hours of connection a day, at unpredictable times: it came on at 2340hrs last night, after being off for 12 hours. So I had to get up and start firing off emails. [And it’s just come back on after being off for five days.]

And I could only do that because the power was on, which is an intermittent affair at best. Often, when the internet is on, the power is off, or vice versa. As my job involves writing, emailing, fact-checking and research, and fine-tuning copy, the lack of an internet connection is a major drawback. I’d be working right now if the internet was on, and you’d be spared this, so, you see, it affects all of us.

Also, the dogs. Ladakh is home to packs of vicious and degraded mongrels, who seem to regard Harley-Ji as a potential luscious and glossy hors d’oeuvre. He was attacked by a vast scruffy hound the other day, and bled copiously from the ear for some time afterwards. So I carry a big stick and walk around with potential death in my heart, which feels a little negative while I’m being overlooked by a holy Buddhist monastery full of vegetarians who worship all life. But I would quite cheerfully kill any beast that threatens my little canine pal, and wouldn’t care in the slightest.

And … er … that’s about it. There’s a distinct lack of Yorkshire puddings and cheeseburgers, rather too much of the old dal and chapattis, very little beer, and the guy who irons my shirts seems resistant to my charms and takes a day too long to get them back to me.

And what’s that sound I hear? It sounds like it might be coming from the world’s tiniest violin.

Regular readers may recall that one of the most important reasons for me leaving London and my loathsome job was my ever-increasing hatred of commuting. I just finally decided that, clichés aside, life really was just too damn short to spend three hours a day on the Tube. I think most commuters think much the same as I did, but they haven’t got around to actually doing anything about it. Well: I did.

Cambodia was infinitely better – taking a tuk-tuk into the office, the warm wind in my face, through the wild and varied scents of downtown Phnom Penh, was a considerable improvement. But, over the five years I spent there, the traffic got worse, the fumes more overpowering, and the attractions of the office less pressing.

But now I think I’ve really cracked it.

My walk to work this morning took 20 minutes. My grassy path runs between two meltwater-fed streams about two metres apart, lined with willow trees. On both sides, treeless boulder fields run up to vast snow-capped peaks touching 20,000 feet. Off to one side is the Indus River, which gives India its name, and which runs all the way down to Karachi.

Me and the dog on the way to work.

So I walk between the streams, along the sun-dappled path, waving to cheerful women planting in the fields and calling out ‘Julay!’, the catch-all greeting of Ladakh. Birds chirrup in the trees and butterflies dance across the path. I carry a sturdy walking stick, cut yesterday from a willow, and am accompanied by Harley the Wonder Dog, bursting to smell and see everything. It is the very definition of the word ‘idyllic.’

Getting Dog Harley up here was less than idyllic, however. Delhi was a miserable 45 degrees (113 Fahrenheit in old money), and crowded and mainly deranged. Only one airline flies dogs up here, and they really don’t have much of a clue. On the phone they told me I had to take him to their offices so they could have a look at him, and at his papers (of which he now has nearly a kilo), and pronounce him fit to fly. So I got there, after a two-hour drive across town, only to be told that dogs weren’t allowed in the building, and that they didn’t care anyway.

The next day, ticket booked, they called back and told me to take him to a vet, three hours drive away, to get a special certificate allowing him to fly. Which was not a cheap certificate, either. That done, we rebooked the ticket, and eventually arrived at the airport at 0300 hours, to be told that the captain of the plane had to look at him and decide on his air-worthiness. But the captain was in bed and couldn’t be raised. Airline maintenance didn’t like the look of him, and because it was a prop plane thought he probably couldn’t go. No one was interested in the slightest in my expensive certificate. And (slightly worryingly) it wasn’t a prop plane either.

Finally they all gave up, against my implacable insistence that Harley was getting on the flight whether they liked it or not, and two hours later they were unloading him in Leh, in front of a crowd of fascinated Ladakhis.

And so today we walked to work, only to find that someone had put a spade through the internet cable, cutting off the whole of the Eastern Indus Valley, which meant I had to go back home and read books on Ladakh instead. Now that’s the kind of commuting I can get behind.

And, I’m hoping to get a 500cc Royal Enfield Bullet next week anyway. Forget this walking lark.