21.04.2014 - 23.04.2014
Next day we left for Kisthwar at 6 AM in a share taxi, for the 10-12 hour ride. I had forgotten just how crazy the roads can be in the mountains, and it was in terrible shape in many places due to the almost constant rain over the last two months. There were landslides and boulders in many spots, and par for the course, our driver went far too fast and often passed on blind curves. We finally got to Kisthwar around 4, and decided to push on to Gulabgarh after stopping to eat. It was still another 2&1/2 hours in a different share taxi The road was in even worse shape, and after riding in the front for a while, I asked Tashi to switch places with me because I felt safer in the back. I kept thinking about his older brother dying on this same road ten years earlier.
Tashi told me that his relatives were descendants of Ghengis Khan, although I was never able to confirm this. I wondered how his people could have ended up in such a remote place, through such intimidating terrain, well over a hundred years ago. His village, Kabban is still more than 10K from the nearest road. The road to Gulabgarh was only built in the 90's, and Tashi said it took his father more than 20 days of hard up and down climbing to make it to Kisthwar to purchase salt and rice. I thought it might be interesting to try and tell his family's story, but this proved more difficult then I expected.
Eventually, and thankfully, just as it was getting dark, we made it to town in one piece.
Main street not far from Tashi's house
Gulabgarh is where he now spends most of the summer months, having moved down from his original village 15 or 20 years ago. His boys, age 15 and 17, are in boarding school in Jammu, and his 8 year old daughter attends the Himalayan Culture School, where I will be teaching. Puti, his wife, had just reached Gulabgarh earlier that day from Jammu, where Tashi has started to build a winter home because it is much lower and warmer. In previous winters they have run a simple dry goods shop outside of Agra, along with Tashi’s sister. I never realized what a jack of all trades he has had to be in order to make ends meet.
His house in Gulabgarh is a modest affair, with four cement rooms, furnished with cushions on the floor and a few wooden cabinets and beds.
My messy room
There is no hot water because the minimal amount of electricity will not support it, nor will it work the washing machine. When I arrived to the smoky rooms, Puti was brewing up coffee (well instant actually) on a kerosene stove in the middle of the floor. She doesn’t speak English, but having heard Ladakhi again for the first time in many years, I managed to say Julay, which means hello, how are you, similar to namaste in Hindi.
His daughter Tsering, a tall girl at 8 years old, who I’m told does speak a bit of English, greeted me a big smile, cute as can be. She did not answer when I asked her name, however.
The one 20 watt bulb was flickering constantly and barely threw any light. After a time we went over to Puti's sisters house. She had prepared a meal of momos and other things, and Tashi and I chatted away, as we imbibed the local hooch, a kind of wheat wine. There were several other relatives there, though it was very hard to see them in the dim, smoky light. They plied me with more food than I could eat, and kept refilling my glass with the wheat hooch. We discussed the school, along with the foundation that Tashi has helped to set up, Education Access. He wants to encourage more donations so that they can build a dorm and a kitchen. The school now has more than 200 kids, age 4-16, many of whom come from the surrounding mountain villages. He has dedicated himself to trying to keep his community together, while also trying to improve their lives.
In a somewhat drunken haze, I asked him if he felt caught between two worlds? Not an easy question to answer. In spite of the fact that some of his other nine siblings have more formal education, he has clearly been exposed to much more of the world than they. After a time he answered by saying, we are all really of one world, and that everyone should get their fair share from the politicians (ie, the government). A nice sentiment, but I didn’t feel he exactly answered my question.
Finally, exhausted from the days travel, we went back to his house, where I piled on about four heavy blankets to stay warm in the chilly night. The stray dogs barking half the night didn’t help with sleep.
The next day we went over to the school, where I met the teachers, the principal, and spent a few minutes in each class with the kids.
The main administration building is done in the Tibetan style, and in fact I was told the Dalai Lama was here a few years ago in order to bless the school.
Although the school is run by a private foundation, Buddhist Heritage, of which Tashi is now the president, it receives most of its funding from the government. There is also another public school for non-buddhist kids up the road a piece, mostly Hindu and a few Muslims. Although Gulabgarh now has a significant number of Buddhists, overall they are a small minority in this part of Jammu, unlike in Ladakh, which is on the other side of the Himalaya Range. One of the classes that is required for all of the students here is Pali, taught by a monk. They are also taught Hindi and Urdu, as well as English. All classes are supposedly taught in English, but as I later found out, most of the kids can understand very little and can speak even less.
That evening, after an unsuccessful attempt to get a sim card which fit in my phone, we sat around Tashi’s mother’s room near a small wood stove on the floor, also used for cooking fried chicken, which we munched on. She is a small, but very energetic woman in her 80’s, who is caring for two of her young grandchildren while they attend the school.
As usual, they served me first, and gave me the best pieces of meat as the honored guest.
It turned out to be quite a family reunion. Tashi’s younger brother was there from his village, in order to visit his two young son’s age 5 and 6, who were being looked after by grandma.
There was also an aunt from Himachal Pradesh, near Manali, as well as the wife of Tashi’s older brother, the one who had died.
Puti was there of course, and several other kids. Once again, much arak was consumed, which is what the wheat spirits are called. Everyone was busy talking away, until the aunt started singing in a high sing-song voice. I was told the song was about how nice it is for a family to get together, no matter how fleeting the time, because all of us are only here for a short while. A poignant carpe-diem message, if ever I heard one. Despite not understanding the language, and missing many of the jokes, of which there were many, I felt very welcomed and included.
I left around 10, although the party was in full swing. I managed to drown out the dogs that night with my white noise machine. Just enough electricity to do so. It was another chilly night, but once again the day dawned fair and clear.