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.
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.'
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.
were lucky,' he said as he started work on the
shoe. 'A few more inches and it would have been
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.
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.
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
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
knew it was going to be bad before entering but
went in anyway. It surpassed all expectations.
It was so bad it was enjoyable.
of years of Mughal rule, British dominion and
finally independence, were dismissed in a few
grease-smeared glass cases containing the odd
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.'
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.
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
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.
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'
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.
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
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.