A Kind of Homecoming

People talk about the ‘thousand-yard stare’. But I’m looking down hundred-mile valleys. I keep losing focus and staring vacantly at things. Whatever direction I am looking in has no bearing on what I’m seeing in my mind’s eye. Beyond tired. I was so exhausted this morning I could hardly walk – it was more of a wavering trudge – and I had to stop five times along Changspa Road to sit down in the shade on the steps of shops. The grandpa at the guesthouse would easily have won a race against me across the terrace. When I got in last night I lay in bed fully clothed with my teeth chattering, though the night wasn’t cold, and noted with some alarm the series of spasms and twitches that shot through me. It continued the next morning: periodic tremors and involuntary movements of my legs. I suspect a combination of sunstroke, dehydration, exhaustion and altitude sickness. It was, in many ways, a typical comedown. Either way, I felt very unwell indeed.

Leh had been transformed in the seven days that we had been away. Most of the restaurants had been shut when we arrived at the end of May, and over half the shops shuttered. Now the place was bustling. Changspa Road echoed to the sound of Enfields all day, and bikes piled high with luggage and jerry cans roared through the streets. Some of the riders looked like they’d never ridden anything larger than a scooter before, judging by the incompetent way which they swerved around the place; I saw several near misses on the first day alone, which did not bode well for them if they were planning to head up over the Khardung La, or across the Rohtang Pass to Manali. Now that the Rohtang had opened many people were coming to Leh that way – 2 days on a bus, slightly less on a bike. And the narrow lanes of Changspa soon clogged up with traffic, as minibuses full of Indian tourists vied for space with army trucks and pedestrians. Walking down the road one afternoon I realised that every single passing vehicle had hooted, although I was well over to the side. I wasn’t in the way – it was simply that I was there at all. This meant a constant cacophony of car horns, all day.

In an attempt to catch up with the diary I adjourned to Wonderland for breakfast, which was conveniently situated above an internet cafe whose wifi signal just about reached the furthest tables on the terrace. Leh’s internet is famously expensive, at around 70-90 rupees an hour, and given that mobile phones – even ones with an Indian SIM card – are blocked in Jammu and Kashmir for ‘security reasons’, the internet cafes have something of a monopoly. Even so, the connection is slow and unreliable. Prior to Nubra my usual staple in the morning was an Indian Breakfast from a small cafe near the pizza place, which consisted of two aloo parathas, an omlette, achaar mango pickle, a bowl of curd (like yoghurt), and a masala chai. The thought of food made me nauseous, but I was getting weaker all the time, and had to eat something. I was reminded of Robert Byron’s description in The Road to Oxiana:

“A Hungarian arrived here [Herat] today from Kabul, having been unable to eat for a fortnight. I gave him Ovaltine and soup and a charcoal pill – he seemed really on the point of collapse.”

Wishing to avoid the Hungarian’s fate, and lacking Ovaltine, soup or charcoal pills, I found a solution in the form of banana porridge with honey. For several days it was the only thing I could keep down.

Slowly over the next few days I began to recover. All of us were shattered, whether by a bug from drinking the tap water in Nubra in the absence of any bottled water, or by the exertion of what we had done. And there was something more long-term for me too: I was frayed by months on the road. I had gone from Goa to Delhi, visited Afghanistan, travelled all round Himachal Pradesh, made it across Kashmir to Ladakh, then ridden over the world’s highest pass (allegedly). I toyed briefly with the idea of doing a visa run to Nepal, spending some time there and then coming back to India and heading down the east coast. But when you’re ill and tired such plans seem more of an ordeal to be endured than a promising adventure. I was ready to go home.

The only problem was, how to get there? I had managed to book a flight from Leh to Jammu, back in Kashmir, reasoning that it was at least two days closer to Delhi than Leh was. But I was dreading a repeat of the night bus experience. Last time I had been to Jammu almost a month ago it had been 47 degrees C, and a local had told me: “Wait until next month. It will be over 50.” An 18 hour bus ride in my enfeebled state was something to be avoided at all costs. I tried booking a Jammu to Delhi flight from a travel agent on Changspa Road, which initially looked promising. He quoted me 4700rs – about £50. When I agreed, he said: “You need to come with me to the bazaar so we can print the ticket.”

I couldn’t walk more than 100 yards without sitting down for a rest.

“Why on earth is it necessary for me to come to the bazaar?” I asked. “Surely you can arrange a ticket without me having to traipse all over town?”

“OK, give me a copy of your passport and I will go to the bazaar.”

I handed over a dog-eared photocopy and he roared off on his Enfield. 20 minutes later I got a phone call. The ticket price had almost doubled, to 8,500rs. I thought about the night bus, did a bit of calculation and then agreed. I trudged back up the hill to the guesthouse. Later that evening, heading back down to the travel agent, I asked him about the ticket.

“Ah, ticket is not there. It is now costing 18,000rs.”

I checked prices using the Skyscanner app on the iPhone, and it was true – the flights that had that morning been listed as 8000rs were now all showing 18,000. It was too much for me. Sitting in the shop, together with four locals, we discussed my options. Trains were out – they were booked up months in advance. A taxi would have been extortionate. One of the men, who came from Jammu originally, suggested a deluxe Volvo bus. “Very comfortable,” he assured me. My experience told me otherwise. But it seemed the only option.

My flight out of Leh was at 7.45 in the morning, which meant an early start. On my last night we decided to have dinner at the guesthouse, and adjourned to a room we’d never been in before, decorated in Ladakhi style with a large central stove and numerous pots and crockery along one side of the room. They had made momos for us – the traditional Tibetan ravioli stuffed with some kind of greens like spinach. A normal serving in a restaurant is ten, perhaps 12 momos at most. I managed to eat two and a half. Graham, if memory serves, got through 19. Dan surpassed himself by polishing off 25. The granny served the food, shuffling round in her smock with her two plaits of her hair tied together at the base, beaming at us. The little boy, whose name sounded like Date Sauce, stared wide-eyed at the enormous foreigners as we ate until he was chased out of the room by granny. It had been a pleasure to stay with such a welcoming family, to get to know the routine of their daily lives, and enjoy their hospitality. In a way I was sorry to leave. But leave I must.

However, even leaving the next morning was easier said than done. The taxi developed a flat tyre on arriving at the gate. Rummaging through the boot for the spare, it was discovered that there was no wheel brace. A passing car was flagged down and persuaded to lend one. A thin drizzle was beginning to fall. I looked at my watch – at this rate I wasn’t going to make the flight. At that moment Kitch leaned out of his bedroom window.

“Need a lift?”

I did. Wearing my full rucksack I climbed rather unsteadily onto the back of his bike. It coughed repeatedly but wouldn’t catch. Flat battery. We rolled downhill until he had enough momentum to drop the clutch, and the engine roared into life – as I nearly fell over backwards. “Where’s the airport?” he yelled as we roared downhill.

“I dunno! Straight on I think.”

The speed bumps were a torture. I had my arms behind me, holding onto his newly welded rack with the full weight of 20kg on my back, and I prayed the weld would hold. We saw a sign saying Departures and flew down the road, the drizzle covering my glasses. We turned into what looked an awful lot like an army base. The sentry looked us up and down with some misgiving. “Airport?” we both yelled simultaneously. He tilted his head back up the way we had come. “That side.” Kitch pulled a U-turn, I nearly fell off the back again, and we shot back up the road, overtaking a couple of army trucks. Another sign, this time saying Airport. We cut to the head of the queue, and were halted by a machine-gun toting cop. “Passports,” he snapped. Kitch didn’t have his, and they wouldn’t let him in.

“Fuck it, I’ll walk,” I said. We shook hands and I thanked him profusely, then quickly turned and speedmarched across half a kilometer of car park to the terminal building. More soldiers checking tickets. “Germany?” one asked me.

“God no – mai Angrez hoon! English!”

He grinned and saluted. “OK, you can pass.”

Inside the terminal it was the usual chaos. I saw a sign which stated no hand baggage was allowed for security reasons, and spent several minutes trying to wrestle my day sack inside the big backpack which was already full to bursting, while also not losing my place in the queue. I spotted a couple of anxious-looking goras in fur hats trying to find the right queue to join. I’d got my Indian queueing technique down by now, and pushed in to the scrum at the X-ray machine to extract my backpack. Another queue for check in. I sacrificed my wordly goods to the tender mercies of Air India and joined another queue for security. A GoAir flight for Delhi was departing almost simultaneously, and I wondered if I could somehow get myself aboard and bypass Jammu altogether. But the security was too tight. All passengers had to go and identify their luggage before it was loaded. I asked a lady if this was the queue for the flight to Jammu, and she literally turned up her nose at me, swivelled on her heel and turned her back. Charming. I tried again with a large gentleman in his mid-30s. “Yes, for Jammu. We too are going there. But we don’t stay there” – he looked horrified at the thought – “We are from Mumbai.”

Somehow, eventually, I got on the plane. Ascending the steps I spotted a small hexagonal nut, and unthinkingly stooped to pick it up: it was exactly the kind that would fit my luggage rack on the Enfield I no longer possessed. I found my seat and looked out of the scratched porthole at a ring of mountains. Where was the runway? We seemed to be entirely surrounded by jagged peaks. An Indian aunty took the seat next to me and repeatedly elbowed me while trying to do up her seatbelt. Her nephew, who was about 12, tried to show her. I noticed that she had the belt from the next seat in her left hand, and leaned over to point it out. “No no,” said the nephew, “It is working like this.”

I just sighed and went back to looking out the window. After five minutes they figured it out.    On the screen in front of me a documentary about the West Indies cricket team began playing. I’d watched the whole thing the previous summer in London. Modern travel is full of such cultural disconnections; I once watched the war film ‘Where Eagles Dare’, which I’d seen countless times as a child, sitting in the courtyard of the government guesthouse in Magunje, Zimbabwe. Two men had brought a projector in a wheelbarrow, and they used the wall as a screen. The audience sat on the floor, talking throughout and eating peanuts. I’ve watched ‘Battle of Britain‘ in a beach shack on an island in Thailand, just myself and two terminally bored waiters. What did they make of it all, I wondered? The patchwork fields of southern England green and golden in the summer sun, the suburban sprawl of London, and periodically a nose-diving fighter trailing smoke prior to crashing into the sea. Did they know when this happened? Or who was fighting who? I wanted to say: Look – this is my culture, my history. This is where I’m from. But they were talking in rapid-fire Thai to each other and longtailed boats were puttering past in the sunshine and the sea was lapping at the edge of the sand, and eventually I got up and left, walking out into the glare of the afternoon that made all the colours shades of monochrome and sucked the life out of the day.

We taxied down the runway and climbed steeply to avoid the first row of peaks. Leh fell away to my right, and I saw the whole town spread out before us: the army bases that lined the road into town, the dogleg of the Changspa Road, and the Shanti Stupa perched on a hill overlooking it. I thought about my friends who I had spent the last three weeks with, and the onward journeys they would have to make, threading their way through this shattered landscape. The mountains were packed densely together, with narrow valleys extending in fingers of thin greenery between them. Snow dusted the summits, and the occasional road snaked alongside tumbling glacial rivers. We climbed above the cloud into dazzling sunlight, into a scene like the ice cap of Greenland: a cumulus tundra punctured periodically by enormous peaks. One lay on the horizon, jutting up through the billowing white ridges – a vast summit that seemed to be the same height as the plane. What country was it in, I wondered? It could be Pakistan, India, Tibet. Was it K2? But it seemed the wrong shape. Even with so many peaks over 20,000ft in the area, this one was a giant.       The cloud began to disperse, and below us the landscape began to change. Gone was the dramatically barren rock and endless serration of ridges that characterised Ladakh. We were entering more Alpine scenes – mountainous still, but now with pine trees and poplars, greenery and apple orchards in the valleys. The Vale of Kashmir. A town sparkled below us – perhaps Gulmarg or Sonamarg – one of the ones I had driven through three weeks before. The speed of the aeroplane made a mockery of the previous journey: days spent being thrown around in the back of a jeep, or fighting the handlebars on a bike as they bucked and writhed over the potholes. Even as I watched the landscape changed again, into undulating forested hills which then ended abruptly, curving down sharply into the beige aridity of the plains. The pilot’s voice crackled over the tannoy announcing that we were approaching Jammu, and we came down low over a desert town, with small compounds appearing and trucks crawling along a tarmacked road. It had taken 45 minutes to fly here – a journey that took over three days by road.

The heat was an oven blast when I descended the steps. I was carrying my Barbour jacket and my trousers were still damp from the drizzle on that mad early morning dash to the airport on the back of Kitch’s bike. Almost at once I heard a bird calling, a rising, limpid whistle that I associated with early mornings in Goa, sitting on the balcony and looking out at the coconut palms. I felt like I was back in India. The passengers walked across the shimmering tarmac to the terminal, which looked imposing from the outside. I felt a surge of optimism; perhaps there was an airline office, even a Cafe Coffee Day. I was looking forward to one of their grande cappuccinos. That morning I’d had a few swigs of plasticky water and a masala chai. I wanted to sit down and be back in the world of creature comforts, of consumerism, of people who were clean and sweet-smelling – not people whose socks were stiff with sweat, whose guts were knotted with pain, who had sand in their hair and grime under their nails. I wanted to flash my credit card and be whisked away in air-conditioned comfort, to eat something that I could keep down, to have a shower with hot water. But I was in Jammu airport, and it wasn’t looking hopeful. It was essentially a military base. Soldiers were everywhere – not just the ones guarding the place, but also as passengers. I could see no airline office. There wasn’t even a cafe. My stomach rumbled mutinously.

My rucksack was one of the last to appear round the carousel, and I staggered a little as I swung it up and onto my back again. The baggage hall was virtually empty. I asked a soldier where the Air India office was, and he gestured outside to the car park. I emerged into the sunlight and immediately saw a thermometer displaying the temperature: 43 degrees C. It was 8.30 in the morning. I could see no cafe, not even a chai stall. But there was a kind of kiosk selling crisps and soft drinks. First things first. Between the Arrivals and Departures entrances was a small row of barred windows, with two of them occupied. One said Air India, the other Spice Jet. Seeing as I’d just got off an Air India flight, I approached the window. Did they have any availability on flights to Delhi? Today or tomorrow? A slim man with a narrow moustache picked up his mobile and dialled a number. On and on it rang with no answer. I looked at the computer monitor on his desk but it was dead. “No power,” he shrugged apologetically. Two UN troops walked past in blue berets, desert boots and fatigues: an Italian and a Croatian. An interesting historical juxtaposition, in some respects. There was no answer from whoever it was at the other end of the phone. I sighed, trying to prepare myself for a rickshaw ride into Jammu on gas mark 6, finding somewhere to wait out the heat of the day for 12 hours, then the night bus. Or night and a day bus, more accurately.

But maybe there was another option. I approached the Spice Jet window and peered in at two girls in white blouses and short black skirts.

“Do you have any availability to Delhi today?” I asked.

One of them tapped away at her keyboard – for some reason they had power.

“Yes, we are having three Delhi departures today sir. Next one with availability is at 1345.”

Heavenly chorus. “And how much is the flight?”

“Sir, this flight will be costing 4775 rupees.” Fifty quid.

“Excellent! I’ll take it. Is cash alright?” I handed the last of my 1000 rupee notes through the grille. She tapped away on her keyboard some more, a printer whirred, and I was presented with my ticket. Thank god for professionalism. Thank god for Spice Jet. I’ll fly them again out of sheer gratitude.

I sat in the waiting hall together with about 300 soldiers and CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) men. I’d read the reports of what they’d been up to in Orissa and Chhattisgarh – a woeful catalogue of human rights abuses: abductions, rapes, torture and murder. I tried to reconcile it with the men who sat before me. They ate packed lunches of sliced white bread and crisps. One came and took the seat next to me, and after a while I struck up a conversation with him based on our identical footwear: they were all wearing khaki fatigues and the same kind of lightweight combat boots that I was, modelled on the old British Army Northern Ireland issue, with dimpled leather sides and smooth toecaps and heels. I complimented him on the shinyness of his toecaps, compared to my battered and scuffed ones, and he laughed. “How long are you having these boots?” he asked.

“One week.”

“One week!” His eyebrows rose in astonishment.

“Yes. I’ve been riding an Enfield in Nubra Valley.”

He waggled his head. “You must be polishing them.”

A garbled announcement in Hindi came over the tannoy, in which I made out the words “Spice Jet” and “Delhi”. I made my way over to the gate, carrying Barbour jacket, bottle of water and my book – William Dalrymple’s ‘Return of a King’. A soldier at the gate checked boarding passes and pulled me aside, confiscating my water and leafing through the book repeatedly. “It’s good,” I told him. “You should read it.” He sneered a little and then let me pass. I wasn’t sure what to expect of Spice Jet, but was quietly impressed by the aircraft –  a newish sort of Airbus. I took my seat in a plane which was half empty, and idly leafed through the in-flight magazine, which was full of fashionably attired Indian women posing in locations such as New York and London, and enjoying various beauty therapies at spas in Thailand. An article listed the assorted attractions in the destinations that Spice Jet flew to – mostly within India, but also to various Middle East locations. Then I found Kabul. “Explore the famous gardens of Emperor Babur,” the article listed under attractions. And then, places to stay: “Choose the Hotel Inter-Continental for a truly memorable stay in Kabul.” I snorted a bit at that one, recalling the suicide attack the previous year. Memorable alright.

Sitting in the cool draught of the overhead vent as we flew over the sun-baked plains of the Punjab, picking my way through the vegetarian option meal (250rs) with a kit-kat for dessert, I marvelled at my luck. There’s a downside to globalisation which has been exhaustively documented, and there are many who bemoan the uniformity of development which makes everywhere look the same in some mass corporate future where we are all just consumers. But I didn’t care. I’ve been on small planes that spiralled down to avoid missiles and landed in blown apart airports in blown apart cities with no power or water. I’ve sat on buses full of farmers and their livestock, hitched rides in the back of trucks and hung out of the doorway of a crowded matatu minibus for hours. But sometimes you just want things to work, to go smoothly. People say India has changed dramatically in recent years, and it’s true – it has. The free market has opened up, a newly prosperous middle class has been exposed to a more global discourse. We all watch the same TV shows, listen to the same music, see the same movies. We are increasingly global citizens, wherever we happen to be from. And the other passengers on the flight were all of a similar dynamic: young, well-educated, wealthy. They leafed through the magazine and took in the perfume ads, the puff pieces for foreign holidays (“London’s coolest neighbourhoods”) and surfed the internet on their iPhones (47,500 rupees RRP). It’s a uniformity of prosperity which is unashamedly materialistic, but it’s a hell of a lot better than 24 hours on a bus sometimes.

The sprawl of Delhi began to appear below us. Lower and lower we came, buildings rushing past that I now recognised from previous trips. We bumped down onto the tarmac and the pilot’s voice thanked us for flying Spice Jet. Walking through the airport corridors I tried to remember how many times I had been here before. There was the smoking room that we made a beeline for after the flight from Kabul. The quiet, ordered hum of an international airport where everything worked. I retrieved my bag yet again, covered now in dirt, scuffs, and two different sets of security badges, and walked out into the steamy heat. I don’t know why it feels like coming home, but it does. Some people I know hate Delhi, and much prefer Mumbai. I don’t know Mumbai; I’ve flown through it a couple of times, but it’s Delhi that has become familiar. 17 million people in a chaotic, anarchic, unaccountable city with collapsing infrastructure, encompassing everything from mansions to the worst slums in the world, suburbs of faded middle-class gentility, the imperial pomp of Lutyens’ New Delhi, and the older monuments of dynastic grandeur. I like the place.

The Delhi Police run a pre-booked taxi company, and they are generally cheaper than the private operators, so I tottered up to the stand and ordered a cab to Lajpat Nagar. 275 rupees. The private firms had wanted 400 (although that was negotiable). The driver looked about 15, and had a thin, wispy moustache and the half-famished look that comes of generations of grinding poverty. The car was a small Maruti, the name written on the steering wheel in Hindi script, and looking around the interior I realised what it was that I liked about this city, and indeed this country, so much. Everything was broken. Everything. The speedo needle sat stubbornly at zero. The windscreen was cracked. The knob to the fan was snapped off and stuck on cold. The rear seat was exuding a mixture of stuffing and springs. My window didn’t go up. The car shuddered and lurched round the potholes, and we weaved from lane to lane, missing other vehicles by inches, and all of this in slow motion, never exceeding 30 miles an hour. Everything was broken and yet everything somehow still functioned. We drifted like a shoal of fish across an intersection where the traffic lights flashed amber endlessly. A motorcyclist passed with a six-foot plank sticking up out of the back of his shirt. Green and yellow autorickshaws crawled up the hill of the flyover, barely holding together over the bumps. A truck reversed down the hard shoulder having missed a slip road. The slip road itself was missing about 5 metres of tarmac, and the patch of dirt was pitted with potholes. We passed yellow police blockades which said: “True, we slow you down. But we try not to let criminals slip by.” I loved the rueful honesty of it. Yes, we’re crap, but we do what we can with what we’ve got. It was like a metaphor for the whole city. Two tousle-haired little girls in pyjamas rushed up to car windows at an intersection and tapped on them, trying to sell pens. Grain covered the pavements on both sides of the road, pecked at by hundreds of pigeons. A man crawled along the pavement, spine twisted by some appalling condition, his spindly legs dragging behind him. College girls in jeans and flip flops waited at bus stops and talked endlessly on their mobile phones. A long-distance truck, short wheelbase, orange and with gaudily painted sides ground along leaving a cloud of black smoke belching out behind it. Punjab, Haryana, All India. Green buses packed to the gills, every window open, the pixel signs on the front advertising their destinations in Hindi: Okhla, Defence Colony, Hauz Khas, Lajpat Nagar, Khan Market. A Sikh in a turban and face mask on a 125cc Pulsar with his wife in a sari side-saddle behind him. Three girls colourful as birds all sitting on a scooter, going tripsies, the one at the back flicking the long plait of her hair back over her shoulder as she texted on her phone with the other hand. Delhi, Dilli, दिल्ली. I love it, I hate it, I miss it, I’ll be back soon.

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