Tuesday, October 16, 2007

An Unique Arrangement

I visited Leh, Laddakh in mid 2001 for trekking and seeing the place. Four of us completed our trek along Laddakh's Markha Valley in about eight days and decided to travel south to Srinagar in the Kashmir valley. Although Laddakh and Srinagar are both part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir they have dissimilar cultures and political atmosphere. The predominantly Buddhist Leh has been spared most of the violence that has plagued the state while the predominantly Muslim Kashmir valley has been at the heart of incidents.

We hired a taxi to ferry us to from Leh to Srinagar. The road connecting the two passes through several towns including Kargil that bore witness to a small scale war as recently as 1999. We started at noon from Leh. In spite of the modest distance (~475 Km/300 miles) ahead of us we were obliged to stop in Kargil at nightfall for various reasons. Traffic through the narrow Zoji-La pass was regulated so that vehicles driving North-South could only travel through from sunrise to noon. For the rest of the day the pass would be used by vehicles traveling in the opposite direction. Moreover nighttime civilian travel was not common, even discouraged.

In Kargil we checked into a hotel for the night. During dinner the manager came over and enquired if we had hired the cab in Leh. After we answered he told us to expect the driver to come up with an excuse to end the journey in Kargil and go no further. We would be offered an identical vehicle with a new driver to take us to our destination at no extra cost. It happened exactly as he predicted. Early next day our driver informed us that the car wouldn't start but we could continue our journey in another vehicle that had miraculously appeared out of nowhere in the predawn cold.

The incident was puzzling until we discovered the reason behind it. Our first cab driver was a Buddhist from Laddakh. He didn't dare to venture into Kashmir valley for fear of his life. His replacement was a Muslim from Srinagar who stayed away from Leh. The desire to survive had prompted them to come to an arrangement through which they could still work and split fares.

The rest of our journey was uneventful save for the hair raising transit through the narrow paths of Zoji-La. We reached Srinagar safely and settled into a house boat in Nagin Lake.

I haven't been to Kashmir since. I wonder if things have changed sufficiently for the cabbies to drop their arrangement.


Sarath said...

What caused all these memories to come back ? Planning another trek ??

Manoj Govindan said...

No plans for a trek in the near future I'm afraid. Besides being too thin to bear the winter cold, I am lean on vacation time as well :)

The topic of Kashmir came up during an email conversation with a friend a few days back. I wrote it up in the spirit of "write something on your blog awareness month" :)