Sunday, June 12, 2011

Reckong Peo to Kaza

The guy driving me was named Vinod. He was only a couple of years older than me and incredibly obnoxious. He picked up his friend on the way out of town so he had company for the ride back. Vinod and his friend liked “American rap” and they liked it loud. I think I heard more Eminem in the duration of that ride than all of the Eminem I had previously heard in my life combined. Vinod was also a rather typical 20's male driver in that he liked to be in front of a line of cars and insisted on passing everyone even if he didn't need to. It was going to be an interesting ride.

We were only an hour and a half out of RP when we had to stop. There was another land slide up ahead that took them half an hour to clear. Vinod was more than happy to hang out on the side of the road at a chai stall chatting with his friends (apparently he knew everyone at the chai stall). When it seemed like traffic was moving again I had to be pushy to get him back in the car. We drove a little distance and came up to another road block, where we waited some more. At least this time there weren't any distractions for Vinod, who was increasingly petulant about the whole thing. A bunch of cars piled up waiting, including two of the folks from the ILP office. We chatted a bit, I read a book and listened to some music. Eventually they blew up the largest boulder that had fallen and then brought in a plow to clear the rest (everyone had to back their cars up quite a bit to be clear of the explosion). It was becoming somewhat late in the afternoon and I was starting to wonder if we would get into Kaza in the middle of the night. We drove for a few more hours until we came across a third road block; this one wasn't a land slide but a road widening crew. The wait wasn't as long but everyone in the car was getting impatient. Luckily, by this time Vinod had exhausted his supply of rap and had switched to some Kinnauri music, a surprising selection coming from him but one that I enjoyed.

I didn't mind waiting for the road widening crew so much because the stretches of new road they had finished were quite nice. They're widening the road to two lanes; right now the road is a single lane and cars often have to stop and pull over to pass each other. They're also paving the entire thing, which probably won't last very long and will require constant upkeep, but still, I appreciated the parts that are done. Eventually the entire stretch of road from RP to Kaza will be redone, but for now the newer sections spring up in patches separated by the narrow, rocky, washed out dirt road. Vinod made the most of these new patches, increasing his speed until the impending dirt roads made him slow down. The road itself was in really rough shape overall; this and the frequent delays made me grateful I had sprung for a jeep rather than taking a bus. The road from Shimla to RP is not so bad on the bus, but from RP to Kaza the condition deteriorates dramatically (the height of the road and sharpness of the turns increase as well).

At Chango we stopped for the first permit check. Both permit checks are now on the road between Nako and Tabo, which is nice because it means that tourists can visit Nako without getting a permit. Previously, the first permit check was in Spello, which is before Nako, but it has since been moved to Chango apparently due to complaints by the residents of Spello and because two trucks smuggling goods over the border to China had been stopped near Chango. This is the part of the permit concept that really confuses me. In Shimla, the Additional District Magistrate gave me a lecture about how the permit check was for foreigners' safety because the road was so difficult and it was easy to become lost or “fall off a mountain” (the latter apparently preventable merely by paying a travel agent). In RP, according to the permit handler as well as Vinod, my driver, and later confirmed by the military official who checked my permit in Chango, the permit check is primarily to stop smugglers and people from passing over the Chinese border. If the latter is the primary motivation for the check posts, then it really doesn't make any sense to target foreigners, the vast majority of whom are tourists just passing through and stopping off at the monasteries. If they wanted to stop smuggling, I would imagine it would be more productive to focus on checking locals. Part of the check post system requires all vehicles to stop and register (free, no permit required), not just those vehicles carrying foreigners, which makes me wonder if the foreigner permit requirement was just an extra step tacked onto the process to financially supplement the cost of checking every vehicle that passes through. In any event, there doesn't seem to be any indication that they'll do away with the ILP any time soon, based on the fact that both Shimla and RP have been investing in digital cameras and new computers to expedite the process, as well as establishing agencies to “assist” foreigners. If the Kunzum pass doesn't open by the time I need to leave Spiti (which is unlikely), I'll have to double back on the same route and get another permit in Kaza. We'll see how that process compares to RP and Shimla. [update: I did have to get another permit in Kaza, which will get it's own wonderful delay-laden post]

The permit check at Chango was surprisingly busy. Another woman at the checkpost told me that she and most of the folks milling about were traveling to the monastery for the Budh Purnima (Vaisaka) celebration the next day. I somewhat kicked myself for not paying better attention to the Tibetan calendar, because that would have been something interesting and potentially useful to stop and see. I figured there would also be something at the new Sakya gompa in Kaza the next day (if I made it in time) that I could check out anyway. Back in the jeep until the next permit stop in Sumdo. By this time it was dark out and we had run out of water (there hadn't been anywhere to buy bottled water at either check post and, while I had brought plenty for me, Vinod and his friend hadn't brought any, so the water went twice as fast as I'd planned).

I had asked Vinod several times to stop for dinner and water and he said that we would soon. Turns out he had a specific place in mind, again, so he could hang out with friends, but which turned out to not have food or water. It was before we reached Tabo, I think somewhere just past the checkpost between Gue and Hoorling. There was a cluster of houses and two dhabas, one with lights on and full of activity and one mostly empty and dark. I think the first was more of a bar/local hangout and the other was a rest stop for travelers. Vinod took me to the latter and told the guy I wanted food and then walked off next door (he was seriously turning out to be a very bad driver). The guy who was running the dhaba kitchen and I had a confusing conversation in broken Hindi in which he told me that there was no food! I asked him if there were any eggs and maybe just roti (seemed super simple to me) and he said no eggs and walked away. I sat there for a bit and he came back and asked if I liked daal and sabji, I said yes but that I was in a hurry and something simple/quick would be best, again he disappeared. About this time Vinod and his friend came back and asked if I had finished eating. I was pretty annoyed with him for disappearing for half an hour (and in general) and said no, I hadn't had anything yet. Vinod went back to the kitchen and argued with the cook and then we all sat down to wait (it had been 40 minutes or so by this time). The cook eventually came out with an omelet and roti (magically I guess there were eggs). I started eating quickly and then he came out with a veg thali (rice, daal, sabji), at which point both Vinod and I were like, what the heck? A minute ago we told him we were in a hurry and he said there were no eggs and there was no food, and now he's bringing out way more food than I wanted or needed. The whole situation was rather absurd. I should mention that five minutes earlier a handful of guys had come in and also asked for food and been told there was none, so when the cook brought out the thali they also started shouting at him. So he gave my thali to them and then brought them out another, much to everyone's confusion. I finished the omelet and roti, all the while wishing I had some water, and then we got back in the jeep. I argued with Vinod a bit about the poor choice of a stopping place and the fact that there was not water and he just sort of shrugged.

It was getting late and I was tired so I tried to doze for the rest of the ride, but that's kind of difficult when the road is as bumpy as it was. I put on headphones to drown out the rap, which had returned to replace the Kinnauri music, and was sort of out of it for the rest of the ride. We reached Kaza around 10:30 and pulled up to the Zambala Hotel, which is right where all of the taxis and buses come and go. I hadn't called ahead to reserve a room (again, you can usually just walk up to a hotel or two and get a room in Kaza). I had stayed in Zambala twice before because one of the managers/owners/not sure, lives in Kungri and is the financial secretary or something for the monastery. I turns out that Zambala was in the process of being renovated and they weren't renting out rooms. When I explained to the younger guy who answered the door who I was and where I was going, he said okay and found me a room that they hadn't yet begun renovating and then brought me a bucket of water (there apparently wasn't any water, either from the renovations or just because the city was out, I wasn't sure). The downside of the renovation was that the restaurant in the hotel was empty, so there wasn't any bottled water there either. Everything in Kaza was closed so I washed up a bit and then collapsed, hoping to find water first thing in the morning.

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