One arid afternoon in the alpine-desert city of Leh, Ladakh, Nat and I decided to go for a little jog. As always in this part of the world- the simple act of going for a jog can unknowingly lead to a kooky adventure which has one picking apricots and dancing with the most powerful government officials in the land.
Leh is a high desert city in Ladakh, perched high within the Himalayas along the powerful Indus River.
We jogged out of our little hotel and up winding yellow dusty streets interspersed by blank-faced cattle and friendly stray dogs. Soon we found ourselves jogging up a cold stream, jumping between the rocks and waving to the women washing clothes on the banks.
We jogged up the stream for several miles until we came to a bridge at clearing. In the distance, at the highest part of Leh beneath the looming mountainside, Nat and I could see a great statue of the Buddha. His far-away silhouette was imposing against the yellow granite backdrop.
“Aim for Buddha?”
“Sounds good to me.”
In the distance across the river, we spied a beautiful old mansion nestled among a patch of fruit trees. It was in the Ladakhian architectural style- with imposing trapezoidal features and intricate wood carvings. We stood for a moment, catching our breaths in the cool alpine air and admiring the beauty of the estate in the distance.
“Yo! do you see that guy waving?”
A small speck between the trees came into focus. A man was animatedly waving in our direction!
“Is that guy waving at us?”
“I think so? I think he wants us to walk over there! Should we go?”
“Press ‘X’ to accept quest?”
We hiked across the river and hesitantly pushed our way through the wrought-iron gate into the lush garden of fruit trees surrounding the old manse.
This guy literally popped out and with a grin and a bundle of apricots in his arms. He’s about five foot five, and he has the darkened olive skin of a Greek or Macedonian, with a thick black mustache between twin bushes of eyebrows. He is Wazir, he is the District Magistrate of Ladakh (he shows us government ID), and he is filled with the boisterous energy of an Indian playing host.
The apricots were absolutely delicious. We gobbled them up with incredulous delight and Wazir immediately scampered off to get more apricots from the trees.
He welcomed us into the home and we found the interior to look a bit like a home office meets a drab hotel- not nearly as majestic as the outside of the property.
We walked down a hallway of cheap yellow wood with what look like numbered dorm rooms on each side and turned into a central meeting room with big windows looking down towards the Indus River at the center of the valley. White and green poplar trees formed gentle lines across the beautiful view.
Nat and I sat down on cushions on the floor and waited. Nat suddenly felt very self conscious in her tight running clothes- a sports bra and skin-tight shorts are not quite the best attire for a group of Muslim government men. I’m in shorts and a tank top and suddenly the men start to file in.
I stand hurriedly and begin shaking hands with the government men of Ladakh. Minister of Transportation, Minister of Labor, Vice Magistrate, Indian ambassador to Ladakh, on and on.
Wazir, the District Magistrate, is the leader of central Indian government based in New Delhi, which administers the protectorate territory of Ladakh. It’s a tricky job, since Ladakh is extremely remote, culturally disparate from India, claimed by China, and populated with separatists.
Ladakh is essentially a territory subjugated and administered by the Indian government, and this is the office in which that bureaucracy is executed.
We sat down with the group of men, who had all ceased work (its like Wednesday afternoon) and come out of their offices to meet with us. There were two Americans in the house and the machinations of bureaucracy could wait!
A young boy swiftly delivered scrambled eggs and chai masala. As we awkwardly dug into the eggs, Wazir asked with a serious tone if we would like beer. He said it with a serious and scholarly look on his face, like he had read in a book somewhere that Americans like beer.
We politely agreed to the beer and Wazir spoke a few words in Urdu to the boy. The kid literally ran out of the room and out of the house. A few moments later we saw through the window his gangly body loping down the street into town.
We sat on the cushions for over an hour in animated conversation with the men. We discussed the friendship between our countries and the mutual threat of China. We talked about the Border Roads Organization and the monumental effort by the Indian government to build good roads through the mountains to connect Leh to India. We discussed about the relations between Ladakhi Buddhists, Hindu Indian nationalists, and the Muslims of Kashmir (these guys were all Muslims from Jammu, which I found interesting considering they were employees of Modi’s Hindu-favoring government). We talked about all sorts of crazy stuff with both intense yearning for understanding and the occasional blip of total cultural misalignment. They all spoke Urdu with each other, but most of them spoke English quite well.
Like many Indians, they asked us our religions within a few moments of meeting. Not in any way that imposes judgment, but just as one of the fundamental “who are you?” questions of first meeting someone.
When we told them we were going trekking into the mountains the next week, they truly didn’t understand. I’m not certain they understood the idea of heading into the mountains to go on a long, multi-day walk for no real purpose. Wazir kept saying he was going to connect with us next week and we kept repeating “we will be in the mountains!”
The sun was going down in the sky and we started to brainstorm excuses to leave when the young boy burst through the door, panting, with two room-temperature cans of beer. He presented the beers to us like they were some bizarre alien technology.
Once we had the beers, the men filtered outside to stand by the river outside the gate of the property, almost like it would have been improper to consume alcohol in the house. We stood in the river, chatting geopolitics and culture and stuff. Nat and I chugged the warm tall-boys as fast as we could because we kind of wanted to get out of there! But we hadn’t had beer in weeks of traveling India, and we were at 12K’ altitude, so all of a sudden we were drunk! Once I felt drunk I relaxed and started to just appreciate the weirdness of the moment.
I sipped the beer and observed Wazir, the District Magistrate of Ladakh, ankle deep in the cold water with a huge, silly grin on his face. Suddenly he tells us:
“Okay guys, you’ve got to go. But please come back at around 6:30 tonight for dinner.”
All we could say is “Okay” with some great relief that we could get out of there and put normal clothes on.
We probably had less than an hour to hike miles back to our place, change, and then hike back to the mansion. So we sprinted home, burping up beer as we trotted through the maze of darkening streets.
We got home, changed, found some more beer at the one bar in Leh (alcohol is a reasonably big taboo in the Ladakhian Buddhist culture) and took off back up the hill.
We jogged back up the hill while trying to simultaneously chug our beer in order to get sufficiently drunk for the weird interactions we knew lay ahead.
We arrived back at the mansion and Wazir greets us at the gate, again. This is when it starts to get REAL weird.
Wazir immediately led us through the house up to his bedroom. It felt like a college dorm, with an unmade bed and blank walls. Wordlessly, he started fishing through what looked like a sock drawer and pulled out some dried nuts and fruit. Wazir offered the snacks, saying the dried fruit is from his homeland of Jammu & Kashmir.
Then Wazir just left us in his bedroom to snack while our confusion grew. We thought we’d be getting served diner but instead we were snacking on almonds and apples in the District Magistrate’s bedroom.
Soon enough the government men started trickling into the room to meet us. Wazir was the gatekeeper, initially only allowing the highest ranking officials into his room to meet us. Eventually, the bedroom was filled with 8-10 government men, sprawled on Wazir’s bed and sitting cross-legged on the floor like a bunch of schoolkids in a freshman dorm.
It was actually so fun! They taught us all about the multiple languages in Jammu & Kashmir, and told us about their home in Jammu. We talked about the geopolitical strife with China and the Muslim separatists in Srinagar. We talked about Hinduism, Islam, and the principle of tolerance as it balances against nationalism in the current government.
Eventually Nat and I straight up asked for dinner we were so hungry. With characteristic gushing hospitality they ushered us down the stairs to the dining room where we were served a plain meal of yellow lentils with white rice and chai.
Everyone else had eaten already, so the men stared at Nat & I as we scarfed down lentils. They were playing music on the TV and I recognized the artist as one of Punjab’s biggest rappers: Sidhu Moose Wala!
I exclaimed my favorite Sidhu song was “47” featuring Stefflon Don and they blasted the Punjabi hip hop song and pulled me off my feet to start dancing.
It was a party! Except it was all men except for Nat and nobody was drinking! But everyone was reveling and having a blast and dancing all together! It was actually amazing to see all of these sober co-workers who live together and administer Ladakh just totally cutting loose!!
It was so weird but fun hanging out with those guys. We bid farewells at the end of the night and profusely promised to write and talk and make the journey to Pangong in their government caravan, and then disappeared into the night.