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Donkin on Travel

1995, Ladakh

Leh Palace, Ladakh

After the shoe-shine trick, the world's worst museum was the final straw. New Delhi was too hot anyway. Sympathetic friends recommended Ladakh . It was cooler, cheap and easy to reach and had plenty of Kashmir rugs and Buddhists so I decided to seek enlightenment and booked a flight.

I had only myself to blame for the shoe-shine trick. Shopping in the heat with a tummy bug is not to be recommended, particularly in Delhi's dis-orientating Connaught Circle. The taxi had disappeared and, as I stood on the pavement edge trying to get my bearings, a man approached and said: 'Bird shit. On your shoe.'

I looked down to see a large khaki dollop unlike anything I had seen produced by a bird before, not even at the zoo. I looked up at the cloudless empty sky and looked back at the man who just happened to have a shoe-shine kit with him.

'You were lucky,' he said as he started work on the shoe. 'A few more inches and it would have been your head.'

There seemed little doubt I had been duped, that this big brown bird dropping had been surreptitiously deposited on my shoe. The story, however, was plausible enough to make it difficult to challenge without having witnessed what happened.

Large vultures did indeed live in the centre of Delhi and it was remotely possible that one of them might have been caught short above my head. I was full of admiration. This was new; an encounter with an expert exponent of the great bird dropping scam. Did he have a bottle of Acme Miracle Bird Droppings in his bag? He wasn't for telling. He wanted 350 rupees - sufficient to buy a brand new pair of shoes. I gave him 100, probably as much as he would normally earn in a week.

The taxi driver seemed bored with shopping so we went to the Red Fort, a large but rather tatty relic of Shah Jahan's rule. Shah Jahan is better known for the Taj Mahal, the tomb he shares with his wife, but he also built the red forts in Delhi and Agra. This one is the less impressive of the two.

Sometimes in these so-called 'places of interest' you see a sign pointing to a must-see exhibit which you know in your heart will be a great disappointment. The sign for the fort's military museum was like that.

I knew it was going to be bad before entering but went in anyway. It surpassed all expectations. It was so bad it was enjoyable.

Hundreds of years of Mughal rule, British dominion and finally independence, were dismissed in a few grease-smeared glass cases containing the odd rusty scimitar.

The best section was that reserved for the First World War - four years of global conflict and millions of wasted lives were summarised in two black and white photographs surrounded by a broad expanse of empty wall. One showed some British soldiers with their German prisoners. The caption said: 'British with their prisoners. The Huns will part with anything but their bread.'

The second photograph of a big gun was captioned dramatically: 'Frankenstein's monster turns on its creators: Canadians use a captured gun against the enemy.' And that was it, not an Indian to be seen. So, you see, I had to go to Ladakh.

The flight across the Himalayas takes about an hour. When it reaches Leh, the Ladakhi capital, it is not immediately obvious because the terrain is still surrounded by mountains. The airstrip looks a long way down, because it is, but the pilots have a way of rectifying this. They lose altitude quickly in a steeply banking 360' descent.

Many people come to Ladakh for the full Buddhist experience. You can see why. By the time they have landed they need it. They also need a rest. Leh is at an altitude of 11,800ft. The air is thin and altitude sickness due to the sudden rise from sea level is common.

The military is everywhere. This is frontier country, part of Kashmir and close to both the Chinese and Pakistani borders. There is a glacier just to the north where the Pakistani and Indian armies frequently skirmish with each other. The locals call it the highest battlefield in the world.

Ladakh is a miniature Tibet. The palace at Leh looks like a smaller version of the Potala in Lhasa and its people look, dress and behave like Tibetans. It is one of those places where everyone still wears their national dress, not for the tourists, but because that is what they wear. They have the sort of craggy characterful faces that you have seen a thousand times before while thumbing through National Geographical Magazines in dentists' waiting rooms.

The monasteries, or gompas, are spectacular - not particularly enlightening - but the monks are friendly. Two or three days is enough to see the best of the gompas but a week would be necessary to explore the remote valleys to the north which have only recently been opened to visitors.

The daily flight did not come on the morning I had planned to leave. The co-pilot had reported sick. There was bad feeling because the airline had just given a pay rise to its most experienced air hostesses, putting them on higher salaries than co-pilots.

I bought a rug too, to go with the one from Turkey and the one from Morocco. It cost a fortune in import duties and handling charges when it arrived through the post. The man at the freight desk at London's Heathrow airport said I could have bought it for the same price at Harrods. This was how he got his kicks. I am sure he was right but I really did not want to know. Still it was enlightenment, of sorts.

© Financial Times

   
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