The Plan, Part 1: Changtang

After recovering from altitude sickness, the goal was to get a sense of the state of hockey in Ladakh.  I observed a handful of matches in the under-18 tournament at Karzoo, to find that hockey had improved significantly.  That doesn’t mean the kids were on their way to prominent careers in the NHL (or any other major league), but they were passing more, taking less erratic slap shots, and has a slightly better grasp of the game than what had been happening two years ago.
With that understanding, I was about ready to begin my coaching camps when I received a message from Akshay Kumar, General Secretary of the Ice Hockey Association of India (IHAI) that some German reporters writing for a Swiss magazine, were doing a feature on women’s hockey in Ladakh, and needed help getting a hold of some of the girls.  Having enough connections, I was able to get a hold of the girl they needed, and met the reporters at their hotel.  Within a few minutes, their plan was falling into place to get a Buddhist girl and a Muslim girl together in a hockey game.  They wanted to display the diversity and cooperation of the different regions & religions of Ladakh, as Leh district is primarily Buddhist while Kargil is primarily Muslim.

Although the reporter had come to Ladakh two decades ago, he was definitely not familiar with how things operated.  He stressed out about whether he could pull off the story as he wanted it.  I tried to reassure him that things play out as you intend, even when each step is complicated.  It all works out in Ladakh & India.

We found out that there was going to be a women’s tournament in Tangtse, in Changtang region, and that SECMOL would be participating in this tournament.  It was a perfect opportunity for the girls to play against each other, and for Alex and me to get a sense of what life and hockey (sometimes one and the same) were like in this part of Ladakh.  

The trip to Tangtse was a major undertaking.  Snowfall hit this part of the Himalayas reasonably hard the night before, and so our trip got delayed once we were underway so that the single lane highway zig-zagging the mountains could be plowed with bulldozers and some heavily bundled locals with brooms and small shovels.

Just like my trip to Chiktan two years earlier, the drive was wild, going around snowy, blind turn, thousands of feet up on a cliff, for a few hours.  We traversed over Chang La, at over 17,000 feet, and arrived in Tangtse in the afternoon, to find out that hockey was cancelled due to poor ice conditions.  That, and one of the girls’ teams hadn’t arrived.  

With uncertainty abounding, and a hockey camp pending, all we could do was kill some time and head to the local monastery.  Buddhist monasteries in Ladakh are amazing.  The colors and artwork mesmerize the soul, and make the beauty of life so clear.  The respect for tradition in towns around monasteries is inspiring, and the journey up to these monasteries is always worth the oxygen deprivation, as nearly all of them are hundreds of steps upwards, on a cliff overlooking the community/region.

Sitting on a ledge at the monastery, looking at the Tangtse valley, I assumed that we would just start our hockey camp in Leh a day later than expected, although without a phone (J&K toughened their SIM card rules as compared to 2009), I couldn’t be sure.  This would also allow us to take a slight detour to see Pangong Tso, one of the highest altitude lakes in the world, of which about 50% is in Tibet/China, 30% is in Ladakh/India and the middle is disputed.  It’s also a saltwater lake, which is quite unique.  We met a prominent poet in Leh who had come up with the idea that we should organize a hockey game between India and China on the disputed portion of the lake, as it is usually frozen in the Winter.  From the moment I heard it, I loved the idea.  Now all we need is for India to develop a hockey team that can compete with China, which is much further along in their development.

After Pangong Tso the following morning, we returned to Tangtse, where hockey had resumed.  One of the teams competing in the tournament was ITBP (Indo Tibetan Border Police), of which half of the team comprised the Indian Ice Hockey Team I coached in Abu Dhabi in 2009.  Ladakh is a small place.  It was announced to the public that I was returning to the region, so I don’t think many players were surprised to see me, but it was definitely more unique to see them in a remote village such as Tangtse.  Their team had greatly improved.  They’d been practicing many of the drills I instilled the first time around.  Definitely the best team I’ve seen in Ladakh since my return.

SECMOL was also in the tournament.  Without ice this year at their campus due to the floods from earlier in the year, their skills have definitely dwindled.  I don’t know of the coaching situation from last year, but SECMOL’s girls have been receiving training from Paul, a Canadian doing a post-college world circuit that was drawn to SECMOL for the same reasons I was: hockey, solar powered, self-sustaining, progressive education, predominantly Buddhist campus open to all faiths.  While observing the matches, I discussed with Paul the opportunity to join me in teaching hockey in the region, and as we travelled to the more remote villages on the other side of Ladakh, closer to the Pakistan border.  I also invited two other SECMOL volunteers, Gitanjali and Swati (both Indian, if you couldn’t tell), as they hadn’t seen the region in their months at SECMOL, and I knew how beautiful the Chiktan area in Kargil district was.

The German reporters were also on this trip to Tangtse, as they orchestrated a girls match that allowed the Buddhist girl to play against the Muslim girl, and complete their story of women’s hockey in Ladakh and the diversity and cooperation it created.  We had all driven to Tangtse together (in separate cars) the day before, but Alex and I didn’t need to stay for the whole match, as we had hockey clinics to prepare for in Leh the following day, so after observing matches in Changtang region and seeing one of the most unique and beautiful lakes in the world, we continued back to Leh, over a 17,500 ft pass, one of the highest motor-able passes in the world, having done 24 hours by the Tibet border all for hockey.