Getting to Ladakh is no easy task. Just getting to the right part of Indira Gandhi Airport in Delhi was a project. Flights get cancelled often. Fortunately, that was not a problem I had to deal with. The extra hockey gear I brought cost me only 1260 rupees ($30) to bring along, and my flight was not even 1/6 full.
The flight was short, about an hour and ten minutes, and upon descent into Leh, it was clear the world I am accustomed to in New York and on Long Island was nowhere in sight.
Landing in Leh should require an additional pilot’s license, because the landing requires the pilot to weave in and out of the mountains like a ski slolom. Snowy, rocky peaks are in all directions, and the final descent literally requires the plane to do a 90 degree turn to avoid crashing into the side of the mountain.
Throughout this airport voyage, I was the human freak show carrying 2 bundles of hockey sticks, and this was heightened in Leh by the fact that the aiport was the size of a garage and I was the only American on the voyage to the coldest region of India.
It was cold, but not as bad as I expected. The air was crisp and seemed easy to breathe. I stood in the middle of a taxi driver circle, half bewildered, half firm in the price I would pay to get to SECMOL’s campus in Phey, about 10-20 miles away.
The ride was interesting, to say the least. On one hand, you were surrounded by the Himalayas, Mother Nature’s Crown Jewels, with the Indus River cutting through it, and on the other hand, the scene on the road was full of Indian military bases, ad nauseum. The second half of the drive was on a narrow road that followed the curvature of the mountain face.
I wasn’t entirely confident my driver knew where SECMOL was, but sure enough, after a few awkward exchanges, we made it to a dirt road with a small sign pointing the way. When I say “road” this is highly exaggerated, as it was nothing more than 2 tire marks to follow in the desert while trying to avoid any major boulders or ditches. I was just able to make out the SECMOL campus, when we came to a sudden stop. I thought my Ladakhi driver made a wrong turn and was about to take us down a cliff, as this would’ve been the preferred option, because the road to SECMOL had been blocked off as it was undriveable. I was well over a mile away from campus, with a winding road of boulders to walk with 3 bags (luggage and equipment) and 2 bundles of sticks.
Oh, did I mention this is at an altitude of almost 12,000 feet? Leh is twice the altitude of Denver, which towers over North America at 5,280 feet. You know how you hear about the altitude issues for athletes in Denver, and how Major League Baseball actually uses a different ball for games in Denver? Well imagine that within 30 minutes of arriving at what feels like the top of the world (the two highest civilizations in the world are in Peru & Tibet, both over 16,000 feet), and carrying 100 pounds of crap well over a mile on a rocky path, while having a hard time breathing.
What better way to get acclimated to the altitude?
Oh, how about playing hockey an hour later.
The rink at SECMOL is about 2/3 the size of an NHL standard rink, with no boards. I was fortunate enough to find netting in the US that fit the oddly constructed goals perfectly. I attempted to show the students how to take a proper wrist shot and after a little while, we got to the fun part…scrimmage.
There is a tremendous room for improvement for hockey in Ladakh, as you will find out in detail in my future posts. Suffice it to say, if we scrimmaged 2 North Americans on 10 Ladakhis, we’d have a decent match.
Unfortunately, my body was quickly failing, and by early evening, after 2 days of travel and a +12,000 foot change in altitude, I was feeling dizzy, nauseous, confused and with a massive headache that didn’t subside until the following afternoon.
That is where we’ll pick up the next chance I get to find a stable internet connection.
Here are some pictures of the beginning of the trip. Video and additional pictures to come soon.