Ice Hockey in Ladakh, Part 1: The Adventure to Chiktan

As usual, pictures at the bottom of this post…

Passion. It is one of the most beautiful and definitive words in the English language. Passion is loving something so deeply, it resonates through your bones and into your soul. Passion defines who we are, and how we behave. Passion is waking up at the crack of dawn to skate in sub-zero conditions. Passion is staying out when it’s dark to resurface the ice. Passion is hand-made hockey sticks and skates that are way too big. Passion is using any excuse possible to play hockey.

Passion is what motivates me to pursue my dreams and is the reason why I have the unique privilege of writing this post about ice hockey in Ladakh.

In Ladakh, the passion for ice hockey is as crystal clear as the Indus River that runs through the region (during the winter). Ladakh is one of the most difficult places to reach (see previous posts), which cuts it off from the rest of the world. As a result, the region loses out on the opportunity to attract tourists during the winter, outside of a few extreme thrill seekers and hockey nuts like myself. It is the de facto capital of ice hockey in India, since it’s the only area where natural ice forms – primarily from late December through early February – and they celebrate the fact that hockey is their sport.

From the moment I arrived in Leh, on my drive to SECMOL, I saw a handful of children playing hockey on a pond, and immediately got the itch to get on the ice, regardless of travel and altitude (once again, see previous post). For the Canadians, Midwesterners and Swedes reading this, I realize pond hockey is not a big deal to you, as bodies of water freeze over quite often, but please understand my hockey situation. Long Island is surrounded by water (unlike Rhode Island, we actually are on an island), and we are somewhat along the gulf stream, which keep the water temperature slightly warmer in the winter, and provides just enough warmth to prevent the scarce ponds and rivers (more like streams) from freezing to a point where people feel comfortable enough to skate. At the same time, Nassau and Suffolk Counties (political Long Island) has 12 indoor ice arenas, not including the Nassau Coliseum, that provide somewhat ample opportunity to pay too much to play hockey. Side note: Skate sharpening on Long Island is as much as $10!

Anyway…the point is…there is a passion for hockey in Ladakh that is palpable. You can see it, feel it, and can’t help but be inspired by it.

It gets better…

After day one with the altitude sickness, I tried to take it easy on day two. The child that I tend to behave like forced me onto the ice for a little bit on day two as well, and by day three we were on the road, but not before we caught a game of the senior SECMOL boys playing in the Leh tournament.

It’s safe to say that ice hockey in India has a long way to go. As of today, all of the rinks in the country are outdoors, almost all of them in Jammu and Kashmir (the state), and in particular Ladakh (the region within the state). To make matters worse, there are no official referees, no understanding of the rules, and nobody to show them what they are doing wrong. Until now! I have a lot of work to do! Players would line up anywhere they pleased for a face-off that could be anywhere in the rink. They’d then attempt a slap shot as the referee “dropped” the puck from 5 feet away, whether someone was in the vicinity or not. Offsides and icing wasn’t understood, and penalties weren’t called. There’s no concept of team play. Passing was scarce and goaltending was atrocious.

SECMOL had lost the previous day 15-0 to a police squad that has no formal training and had to fabricate much of their own equipment. This day, SECMOL won, but mostly on the backs of selfish play, as the aforementioned lack of passing meant that one player would skate end to end. There’s no doubt that it’s fun to watch an individual shine, but as we know in hockey, the team is the most important aspect. Individuals can thrive in India and at lower levels of hockey, but not if they want to stand out at the international level. This player ended up winning the Best Player Award for the tournament. He has a long way to go until I’d want him on my team.

I mentioned in a previous post that I was going to Chiktan to participate in a hockey tournament. The folks from Vermont that were also staying at SECMOL and I comprised the American team participating in the Kargil Ice Hockey Tournament, a few hundred miles away from where we were in Phey, outside of Leh. The trip to Chiktan began with absurdity, and ended in insanity. A handful of the folks from Vermont had already gone to Chiktan in advance as part of some treks that they do through VIS (Vermont Intercultural Studies), but a few stayed behind for the dual bus ride. Now when I say “bus”, that does not mean a luxurious coach bus, or even a dilapidated school bus. It is more like a giant box that has wheels, an engine and some seats. Storage is on top of the bus, as well as in the aisles, and heat is nowhere to be found. On one bus was a majority of the SECMOL students with a handful of hockey equipment, and on my bus was a few SECMOL students, the foreigners (myself, two Vermonters, one German girl, and the SECMOL volunteer coordinator), the food (this trip was B.Y.O.F.), and a few kerosene & gasoline tanks. Needless to say, it was not only crammed in, but there was the distinct odor of toxic fumes in the vehicle, something I have become accustomed to no matter where I am in Ladakh.

The ride started fine, as I had claimed my traditional seat all by myself (on a jam-packed bus), while we drove up and down the Himalayas, along the Indus and Zanskar Rivers. Was it dangerous? Of course (again, see previous posts). Was it beautiful, absolutely! Being daylight when we left, I could appreciate the beauty of the trip. Once darkness set in, though, things started to change. Worry replaced awe, as the snowy, winding roads became icy, winding roads. I know what you’re thinking…why aren’t there street lights in the Himalayas? Good question…I am still asking myself that brilliant question. At the very least, they could’ve utilized some 4-wheel drive vehicles, but we were not so fortunate, and that cost us.

Around 8 or 9 pm our bus got stuck in the snow and we had to put chains on the tires. This being a 4-wheeled vehicle, the 2 sets of chains made the conditions anything but ideal for driving. After a considerable amount of nap time on my part, the chains were placed on the bus, and we were on the road again. You should be thinking back now about the fact that we had 2 buses on this voyage. Yup…we had to share the chains with the other bus. About 5 miles after driving up and down icy, winding roads in the high altitude and freezing Himalayas at night, a few lucky SECMOL students had to run the chains back to the other bus, in the snow, and fit that bus to drive.

Apparently, it didn’t help.

I have the good fortune and equal bad luck of being able to sleep through a hurricane. I slept through most of this drama. I was rudely awoken from my dreams and Beatles music on my iPod as people started to board our bus. The second bus broke down, and most of the girls from that bus were brought onto our crammed bus, and the definition of close was quickly being redefined. As it is, Ladakhis (and Indians) have a much different cultural perception of personal space, as touching and sitting on laps is commonplace. Well, this all went into extreme practice, since space was limited and population had doubled. I lost my single seat, which was quickly converted into a quad, and we drove the rest of the way like this into Chiktan.

Arrival was around 2:00 AM, and if there’s something I’m not, it’s pleasant in the morning. Being a bit jet-lagged, and already groggy from napping on the drive, being freezing and confused just put me over the edge. No, the 1-mile walk in the middle of the night through dark, snowy paths, while jet-lagged, groggy, freezing and confused put me over the edge. I finally settled into my sleeping fleece (nope, no sleeping bag for me) around 3:00 am, shivering, but content, with a kerosene fire going in an enclosed room. The two guys from Vermont were positioned on the floor opposing me. I could’ve played footsies with either of them as they spooned.

At 5:00 AM, the rest of the boys arrived from the broken-down bus. Just like their cultural disposition towards personal space, there is a similar disposition when it comes to consideration of someone else sleeping. The group came into the room howling, barking, screaming, and jumping around, pushing us as we slept to make room in the tiniest corners of a room with no heat. They took down the kerosene boiler (I’m still not sure why), and after a few inaudible whines on my part, I was back to sleep, dreaming about pizza and New York girls (not together).

Bumpy bus ride…I couldn’t hold the camera steady.

Indus River from the bus.

Another view out the bus.