The Plan, Part 3: Stranded in Drass

If you read the post about Leh vs Kargil, you’d know that my plans for Drass were complicated.  It wasn’t until the day before departure that I knew my transportation situation, or so I thought.
NOTE: Have you detected a theme yet?  When I think I understand a situation in Ladakh/India, I am frequently wrong, and yet it all works out as I more or less intended.  That’s life here.  If you plan for nothing to go as planned, your plan will come true.  Think about life that way, it’s refreshing.

Drass is in Kargil district, as opposed to Leh district.  Leh is predominantly Buddhist, with a significant Muslim population.  Kargil is significantly Muslim, with Drass being 70% Shi’a and 30% Sunni.  In Ladakh, the Shi’a are less strict with their practice of Islam.  There are significant differences between the sects of Islam, but that’s not the issue here, outside of the demographics, so let’s move on.
Being on the border between India & Pakistan, Kargil district was the main theatre of the 1999 Kargil War (I bet you could’ve figured that out) between the two countries.   On our drive from Kargil town to Drass, the highway hugged the river that separated what used to be Pakistan, until a 1971 skirmish allowed India to take control of that area.  Towering over Drass town is Tiger Hill, a major campaign for the war, and which foreigners are almost exclusively restricted from (although I made enough verbal attempts to get permission from the military to go to Tiger Hill).

Our drive from Leh to Drass was long.  We departed around 10am, and didn’t arrive in Drass until around 8pm.  Instead of staying at the VIP Guest House (aka “Dag Banglow”), as Alex and I did in Leh, the group of us, now 5 strong (3 for hockey, 2 for something different than SECMOL) were put up with a host family, one of the organizers of hockey in Drass, coincidentally also the President of the Drass horse polo organization, as that’s the sport of choice in the area.

Two years ago, I participated in a hockey tournament in Chiktan, also in Kargil district, which included a team from Drass.  The head of the local ice hockey organization, including many of the players in the area, were among my competition in that tournament.  It was one of the most beautiful places I had seen in Ladakh, and an area I was looking forward to returning to.

Hockey coaching began in Drass the next morning. The rink in Drass is artificial, in the sense that it’s ice on top of cement.  It’s nowhere close to regulation ice, being closer to a sharp square shape than a rounded rectangle.  The rink is near a small cliff towards the river.  On the other side of the valley are not just snow-peaked, but snow-covered mountains.  The whole region is surrounded by mountains just like that.  It is truly a Winter Wonderland.  Set your cameras on panorama if you ever make it here.  
On day one, much of the ice was available, although with no ice resurfacers in J&K, there was significant snow buildup on half the rink, so we used the cleaner side.  Hockey in Drass is well behind the rest of the Ladakh.  When Drass reached out to the Ladakh Winter Sports Club for support, apparently they received some equipment from the organization.  I don’t know how much, how good, and if it cost anything, but players are still lacking equipment.  Sticks are skates are fewer are farther than in the rest of Ladakh, which means that bad just morphed into impossible.  They’ve also received little to no support from coaches.

Now that’s changing.  The Hockey Foundation is proud to provide one of the first, if not the very first international hockey coaches to this remote, yet important, town in Kargil, Ladakh.  Not only did we set aside 5 days to coach hockey in the area, but we were delighted to be able to donate nearly all of the equipment we brought to Ladakh to the local ice hockey organization for use by kids and adults in Drass.  It’s not a solution to the problem, but it’s a band-aid until we can help locals establish a more reasonable hockey pro-shop for themselves.  This is how we can help improve life in the community, as it will keep costs down and allow more people to afford adequate equipment.  They need to be accountable for their own business, but we can help them understand what is reasonable and what isn’t.

Locals love to tell you that “Drass is the second coldest place on Earth.”  In actuality, Drass once had a record low temperature that was considered the second coldest of any inhabited region on Earth at the time.  It wasn’t unreasonably cold when we arrived, and being at a lower altitude than Leh, it was easier to breathe.  Just like everything else, that was about to change.

On ice instruction in Drass, as mentioned, was well behind Leh.  Since most players didn’t have sticks, all of our sticks were provided to the advanced players so that they had something to represent a balance more realistic for hockey.  We barely did any drills with the sticks.  A few times we squeezed in some passing drills and once we did a couple of shooting drills.  Most of the time, all we did was go over basic hockey skating fundamentals: forward, backwards, cross-overs, etc.  That’s how far behind they are.
Due to the lack of skates, what was originally planned as two 1-hour sessions turned into three sessions of uneven time.  At the end of each session, players would hand their skates over to someone else, even though they frequently wore different size skates.  As in Leh, when players wear skates that are way too big, improperly sharpened, and dulled down to the point that there’s barely steel left, it’s almost impossible to skate at a basic level.  This is something we hope to resolve in the coming years, but it will take a lot of time, money, effort and support.  That’s a challenge we accept.

There’s not much to say about the hockey that hasn’t been said.  Drass is sorely lacking equipment and instruction.  Our camp was solely dedicated to improving the skating level, with very little more.  All we could do was go with it and make the most of the situation.  That philosophy would become important in only a couple of days.

Snow started by day two.  They were hesitant to hold the hockey camp, but my argument was that it’s just snow.  It’s a natural component of hockey outside.  So they got to work shoveling with small blade shovels and an ingenious two-person manual plow, made of a plank propelled by two big handles.  An hour later, we had a small sheet of ice to work with.

This pattern continued every day.  The day before our last, Alex and the two Indian ladies joining us planned to return back to Leh so that Alex and one of them could catch their flights back to Delhi.  Their morning departure was a failure, and they turned back.  A few hours later, Alex left, with the ladies staying with myself and Paul, who was helping me with coaching for the final portion of the itinerary.
On the final day we planned to hold a classroom session & give out participation certificates.  So much snow fell the evening before that even finding a place for locals to gather was impossible.  There were multiple feet of snow on the ground, with more on the horizon.

I love snow.  I become a child in snow.  We built a snowman at the ice rink and put an Indian ice hockey jersey on it and fired shots at it because I wanted to play in the snow.  The problem with snow in remote parts of the world is the removal.  The plan after the final day in Drass was to head immediately out to Kargil to continue coaching in Budhkharboo for the Kargil Ice and Snow Sports Club.  This was to be my 7-day camp to help ease the tension in the region, as there’s a significant amount of conflict between this club, Drass, and the Ladakh Winter Sports Club.

Unfortunately, the snow blocked off the highway, and after multiple avalanche deaths in the region, the state government ordered no movement until roads were completely cleared and deemed safe.  As I write this post, I should be in my third day of coaching in Budhkharboo.  We’re still not sure when we’re moving, although it may be by tomorrow, the day this gets posted.  

Our hosts have been wonderful, allowing us to cook for ourselves a few times.  We’ve now successfully made homemade potato chips twice; the second attempt being far more delicious and bountiful than the first.  Most recently, I attempted French toast with some local bread that flaked apart easily.  It required grinding cinnamon bark manually with a makeshift pestle, and cooking it on a cast iron frying pan that made it quite difficult to flip the bread.  That being said, the French toast was a comforting reminder of home, and the caramel sauce we miraculously pulled off after a first attempt tragedy was a pleasant distraction from the fact that my itinerary is severely compromised.

In regards to Budhkharboo, a lot depends on my pending flight out of Ladakh.  The intent after Budhkharboo was to scrap the camp in Dhomkhar based on the grounds that 1) they’ve received a lot of support in the past, 2) they won Ladakh under-16 tournament, 3) they may have faked the age of players to appear under 16.  After returning to Leh, my intent is to spend a couple of days in Delhi before heading to Dehra Dun to hold a hockey camp for players in the states surrounding India’s only indoor ice arena, including from Shimla, the first town in India to play ice hockey.

If that plan is still underway, my days in Budhkharboo are limited.  At the same time, I promised 7 days of hockey instruction to the players in this area, and if possible, I will hold two sessions of two hours each for the days available, to try to provide as much instruction as possible in the time available.  My body usually doesn’t love me for that, or rather my feet don’t, and it’s not my fault the weather prevented our departure, but I’m here to help and uphold the promises made, and I will do everything in my power to make that a reality.  Until then, I’ll just sit and wait, listening to The Beatles, Jukebox the Ghost (check them out!) and Sara Bareilles on my iPod (as well as countless comedy podcasts),  watching the TV shows & movies I brought with me for moments just like this (legally, of course!), and reading books that were intended for the vacation portion of my time in India, which seems to be less and less.