I’d never been to Ladakh, a region of India’s northern Jammu and Kashmir state that borders Tibet before January 2017. I’d heard from friends who’d been to Ladakh in recent years about how glorious a place it was, surrounded by towering, snow-capped peaks, and Buddhist monasteries. I’d yearned to go for a very long time.
But there was a deeper reason for going there twice in three months.
Like last time, there was no easy way to reach Leh, the Ladakhi capital on the first week of April. The city was snowbound. Less than an hour after the GoAir jet left the warm Delhi behind, I strained to see out the windows. The view was nothing short of magnificent. The sun kissed the tall peaks of the Himalayas. Some of them were looking as if they were on fire.
Only two main roads run to Leh which is sandwiched by the Himalayan and Karakoram mountain ranges. On top of that, the roads remain blocked for some six or seven months each year. Ladakh can then only be reached by flights.
An unusual heavy April-snow greeted us from the very first day. As we departed our hotel for Spituk, the snow-capped mountains showed a remarkably deep white. Although some homes were outfitted with modern conveniences, there were animal-ploughed fields, hand-built homes, and people warming themselves around the wood stove.
We met Rinchen Dolma for the first time after the Bangkok miracle. While Rinchen may not belong from a front-line ice hockey nation but she has it too – ambition, confidence, charisma. And especially after the team’s success, the captain clearly knows what needs to be done and what can at most possibly be done.
Everyone has a weakness for a critter and even Rinchen has succumbed to the charms of Chappie. She is an avid lover of dogs and turns to him whenever she feels like taking her mind off sports. There is no denying the fact that having a pet can provide peace and happiness to athletes like her who are under consistent pressure during their playing careers. Chappie may not know what kind of pressure his ‘friend’ go through and may also not know what she achieves or fails to achieve.
Living in Leh during winters is a claustrophobic affair because of the excessive cold. Added to that are water shortages, no internet connectivity, and an inability to often leave the house after evening. At home, with his wife and daughter watching on, Mr Tsewang Dorjey reflects on how the team has performed recently. To ensure he did not miss out on the games, he flew to Chandigarh and was updated on social media.
We headed over to meet Kunzes Angmo, who is the sports teacher at Delhi Public School. The Principal says Kunzes is an inspiration to the 500 odd girls of the school who she has been training for the last three years.
Subhash Kumar Baldotra praised her for being an efficient staff member and added most of the girls of his school want to follow her footsteps. On a lighter note, he admitted that his child never misses Mam’s classes.
I watched Angmo in the basketball court where she was assembling the kids for her skating class. A speed skater herself, she is well aware of the wider responsibilities on her shoulders. At home, her father Phuntsog Angchok tries to stay optimistic despite all the difficulties the sport faces. The only matter of concern is the hope in his heart that the sport will be recognised by the government and will get a better platform.
Kunzes has fond memories of the final one minute against Philippines and recalls how she broke down on the rink with Noor Jahan, with whom she anticipated the win the night before. Jahan, the goaltender of the team was in Delhi but did not miss out on expressing the weight of expectation on their shoulder by The Logical Indian community members during the entire #IceHockeyPossible campaign which according to her was ‘too much’. “There were days when I woke up in the morning and thought what will happen if we don’t live up to the hopes of the people. If we disappointed, it would have killed us inside,” she recalls.
The expressions were of awe and astonishment on the faces of Diskit Angmo and Padma Chorol who discovered a slice of a strange new land after the triumph in Bangkok. “We wish the only thing we cared about was ice hockey. There are so many things to worry about right now,” indicated Diskit with a smile and her customary swagger.
That day may be some way off. In the meantime what they can do is keep planning and playing.
The front page of the newspaper reflected on a stunning show at the Challenge Cup of Asia on what has been the most successful campaign for the girls so far. A couple of pictures of the team draped in Khatak (a traditional ceremonial scarf) dominated the top half of newspaper.
While many must find the freedom they crave in everyday life, on the professional side, the players are clinging to the sport. The domestic tournament happens once a year and there is hardly chances of making a living through it. At just 18 years, Tashi Dolkar, the youngest in the team has more to worry about than being just a forward of the team. She appeared for her board exams and is now contemplating her future dreams.
The sense of freedom and security among women here are visible. Most shops in Leh are run by women and traffic in major junctions is regulated by women police. The gender prejudice in this region is much lesser and the freedom of women is not limited to a particular community. From the Tibetan salt butter tea to snacks, people there did not leave any stone unturned to indulge themselves in treating us with the best of resources they have. As they claim, ‘guests are god’.
Regardless of the eventual outcome, the excitement from this ice hockey adventure has given the local clubs and leaders a PR boost – but it has also provided many things to its people including hope and pride. In the end, World Championship qualification may well prove tough anytime soon but the achievements of this squad will be lauded given what they have had to overcome.
But most people will never see what I did in Leh. I saw a part of my people through a different lens. For that, I am grateful.