Little Israel

Little Israel, the locals call Kasol. It became popular with Israelis about five years ago and now they are here en masse. But the place somehow works its magic on them too, and they are less aggressive than I have encountered elsewhere. I see a small group make their way on to a large boulder down by the river. Two of their number pass them unseen, and when they get halfway across the bridge someone gives a tremendous whistle. The two immediately turn back and go down to join the others. They all begin a cheering and rhythmic clapping, celebrating something. I can tell even from 200 yards they are Israeli. I imagine how it would feel, after three years of military service (two for women), to find yourself in this place. You would celebrate.

The black dog just caught a fish out of the river. It took it behind some rocks for a while, then reemerged and jumped to a boulder in mid-stream. It’s like watching bears in Alaska catching salmon. It stood uncertainly, then repeatedly pawed the water, testing the current. It decided against it, and turned back. Brownie the Dog is just a little too dominant – not much benevolent about him. The females all have a slightly nervous, cowering look, as if expecting to be pounced on at any moment. Then again I know a few humans like that too.

There’s also a cultural divide – or perhaps its a class one. Most locals on seeing a dog hanging around will make a sort of stone-throwing gesture to shoo it away. Most goras (westerners), on the other hand, will beckon it over and start stroking it. But in fact many of the Indian tourists here, who are generally pretty well-off and well-educated, will also pet the dogs. In fact one man buys a packet of biscuits every morning and feeds them to the beige dog.

Likewise there’s a slight gulf in dress. It would be a little odd for a European family in a hotel to come down to breakfast in their pyjamas. But I’ve seen it here a few times with Indians – not just the kids, but the grown-ups too. Sure, it’s a pretty informal place, and indeed I have appeared in white kurta pyjama and blanket in the early mornings, but you won’t see many other westerners do it. In fact one young Delhi guy earlier took it a stage further by swaggering round the terrace in a white vest and boxer shorts. It was during one pyjama and blanket-wearing session that ironically, having earlier spoken about the pleasant lack of bugs here, upon emerging onto my balcony at 4am for a cigarette I saw a spider on the opposite wall whose dimensions were some way in excess of my hand.

But even that momentary jolt of panic was nothing compared to later that morning. I looked down and realised my bag was not in sight. First time in months. I had left it down by the terrace at breakfast (which somehow seamlessly slips into lunch). Checked the room three times. Not there. My passport is in that bag (Sometimes. Sometimes it is in my combats pocket. Now it wasn’t.) Surpressing rising panic I asked in the kitchens, had anyone seen it? They had not. Then I went over to reception. Yes, a small black rucksack – they had taken it indoors along with a packet of Marie biscuits (not mine). My immense relief must have been clear as I instinctively clasped my hands in namaste as thanks. ‘No problem,’ said Om the waiter. ‘Here is good place, safe here.’ Yes, but still. Four-and-a-half months, round India and Afghanistan, and I get absent-minded just once. I had Marie biscuits and a masala chai by way of celebration.

I heard today that the SS had an ‘Alamein’ division, which was mostly made up of Indians – especially Sikh. I know that there were around 50 Brits in the Nordland, which was otherwise mostly Scandinavian. Most of the Indians were ex-POWs, and the Germans appealed to their nationalist sentiment in overthrowing Britain, their colonial rulers. It’s not clear what happened to them afterwards.

Walking towards Manikaran, a village with hot springs where Sikhs congregate for ritual bathing, I was passed by a convoy turbanned riders on five or six bikes, all flying a large orange triangular flag from the handlebars. Not sure where they had come from, but they were combining a bike tour with a pilgrimage. On the other side of Kasol, an hour up the mountainside, is Malana – a village which is so sacred that outsiders must pay a fine if they inadvertently touch one of the houses or the inhabitants. The locals claim to be descendants of Alexander the Great (who my Panjshiri host referred to as Sikander Makdoni), and it’s a possible location for Kipling’s story of The Man Who Would Be King – a great movie starring Sean Connery, Michael Caine and Saeed Jaffrey. There are villages like this all over Afghanistan and Pakistan, claiming descent from Sikander, but this is the first one I’ve heard of in India.

I walked over the footbridge yesterday at a time which must have coincided with school finishing. Dozens of kids, the girls all in white baggy trousers gathered at the ankle, long pink kurta shirts, a black cardigan, and twin plaits tied with white ribbons. The boys were in a more standard western uniform of red jumper and grey flannels. They make their way across the swaying bridge over a raging torrent, then along a footpath slick with mud, passing a herd of goats coming the other way. It must be one of the most scenic school runs in the world. And they do it all alone – there are no adults in sight.

The cloud comes down over the mountain and wind whips up the valley, a precursor of rain. The river sounds louder somehow, as it tumbles and rushes endlessly onwards. The rivers here are all dammed further upstream; they must have been wild torrents indeed beforehand. The beige dog, which has been lying at my feet, goes trotting away and makes its way down to the river, sitting on a boulder in mid-stream, watching the water. Then it spots something and bounds away, a flash of light brown against the white-grey river rocks, its tail bobbing up and down like a signal flag into the distance.

Down at the other end of the village there is a small house with a huge billboard in Hebrew and a picture of a bearded gentleman in large black hat. This is an Israeli halfway house – a sort of government-sponsored lodge known as Chabad – where Israelis who have spent too long on the road, or lost their passports, or generally need reorienting, can turn up and be looked after – presumably with large quantities of chicken noodle soup. During the Mumbai attacks one of the targets was a house just such as this. Israel carry out 18 extractions a year from Goa alone, using the Indian Air Force base at Dabolim. Usually it is in response to a security alert based on intelligence they have recieved. As all Israeli citizens register with their version of the Locate database, as soon as intelligence comes in that there is a security threat, they are contacted and extracted. One day the beaches of Goa are full of the sound of Hebrew, and the next day they are all gone. Every single one.

I’ve not tried the chicken noodle soup, but had something called shaksuka today – a kind of spicy tomato ragout with two fried eggs on top, hummus and pitta bread. It was very good.

There were spots of rain yesterday, and a cool breeze, so I was wearing the pakol hat. It’s very practical – warm and keeps the rain off my specs. But it’s quite symbolic too – although it means different things to different people. Round here the locals wouldn’t recognise it as being specifically from anywhere; although they are worn in Pakistan, the Pakistanis most people encunter here are Punjabi, from the area nearest India. In Kashmir it would be quite another story – despite being equally far from the part of Pakistan where they are worn, it would certainly be seen as a political statement. The pakol is worn more in areas bordering Afghanistan, and in fact is quite closely associated with Pashtuns. So it’s interesting it became the personal choice of Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was Tajik. They had been seen before by westerners on the heads of the mujahideen fighting the Soviets, and indeed in some rather unclear footage, it was almost possible to tell whether the fighters on screen were Northern Alliance by their pakols, or Taliban, in their turbans. The one group around here who definitely do a double take are the Israelis. Pakistan and Afghanistan are the badlands, and it’s a bit like wearing a shemagh, or Palestinian scarf with its consequent associations – which ironically is something that has been widely adopted by British soldiers serving in desert conditions.

It reminds me a bit of the Cambodian krama, the traditional chequered scarf. It was adopted by the Khmer Rouge as an unofficial uniform, paired with black pyjamas and a Mao cap. Most popular were red and white chequered kramas, and after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, rather than abandon what was essentially a traditonal item of clothing that had been hijacked, they instead started to manufacture them in dazzling combinations of colours, in a glorious burst of sartorial exuberance after the austere Maoist ideology. But I can’t see technicolour pakols taking off in Waziristan.

The road to Leh Ladakh is still blocked with snow, apparently. 10km north of Manali is the Rohtang Pass (4000m high), which literally means ‘piles of bodies’. It’s the gateway to Ladakh. There is another route which goes through Jammu and Kashmir and then on into Zanskar, but the passes there are even higher. The Manali route climbs over the Tanglang La, at 5328m (17,480ft), making it one of the highest motorable passes in the world. The time to visit Ladakh is June and July really, during their short summer months, but there are rumours of the passes opening in a week or two. An alternative option for me is to head back towards Mandi then up to Dharamsala and McLeodganj, home of the Dalai Lama in exile. It’s a place of pilgrimage for countless Tibetans, as well as an increasing number of westerners – assorted Hollywood stars have had themselves photographed there. Dharamsala is on the other side of Himachal Pradesh, and is in rolling foothills as opposed to the high peaks here. Where I go next depends on the snow melting on the high passes at the moment, which is one of those forces of nature that makes a mockery of human-imposed itineraries and schedules. Nothing to do but wait.