As if the trek to Chiktan/Kargil wasn't enough, day one of the Kargil Open: Ice Hockey and Skating Championship began with confusion. There are some things I'm finding consistent in my travels through Asia. One: There are procedures that must be observed because that is the way things are; two: "Saving Face" and respecting elders/leaders is always expected.
This is important to remember as you learn more about what goes on with hockey in Ladakh, starting with Chiktan.
The morning the tournament was supposed to start, we were notified that a village elder had died. Obviously tragic, the tournament was to be delayed until after observances, which included the "chief guest", otherwise known as the highest ranking official that could be dragged out in the middle of the winter to speak, be recognized, and then berated with requests for support from the organizers.
A team of foreigners was registered before I even arrived in Ladakh, something I was notified about the day I arrived at SECMOL.
The conversation went something like:
"So, uh, yeah, there's a tournament coming up in a few days in Chiktan."
Me: "Cool, is that far and am I coming?"
"It's about 200 kilometers and you're on the American team that is in the tournament."
Me (sarcastically): "Ah. Good thing I brought full equipment."
"Don't worry. We'll scrap some equipment together for you."
That never happened. I ended up playing the whole tournament with just my stick, gloves, and skates. Oh, and a cup. As a side note, 200 km = 124 miles, since 10 km = 6.2 miles.
Anyway…we spent most of the day sitting in a room huddled around a kerosene stove, keeping ourselves and our skates warm (nothing worse than putting your feet in to a pair of ice skates…other than putting on some frozen wet undergarments. If you just pictured that…you're welcome).
When we were finally notified a few hours later that the game was on, we were a bit cold, mostly cranky, and unaware that we had to stand on the ice in our skates THE WHOLE TIME, while everyone made speeches about how great hockey is (I presume). I don't know about the rest of you, but I have a hard time just skating on ice when there is no stick and puck involved. My feet tend to hurt quickly and I get anxious. Now make it 10 degrees outside, snowing, in light gear, and tell me to stand still for 30 minutes. Yeah, you guessed it…I was day-dreaming about which speaker to shoot a puck at first.
As the game was starting, we discovered it was just a preliminary match. Apparently the torture of waiting all day was all for naught, not that I cared. As far as I'm concerned, tell me what color to wear and which way to shoot, and I'm good to go.
Our team, "Vermont, USA" (I protested the team name and recommended "Maple Syrup" instead, since although most of the team was from Vermont, I am obviously not, and neither were the 3 Ladakhi's called up to the show), was in white, possibly the worst color to wear when playing outside in snow. The rink was about the size of a tennis court, but instead of a smooth, playable surface, the ice was more reminiscent of a floor of a bar after a fight: broken glass everywhere. There were danger zones around the rink, notably the entire far side of the rink (1/3 the surface) - which didn't affect me in the first half (don't get me started on the fact that they had halves in hockey), as I have a left-side deficiency, the center face-off circle – that made taking face-offs a bit tough for me, and then a couple of paths shooting down the rink. Anybody that fell in these zones was guaranteed major ass-bruises, scrapes, or bloody noses. As a result, these were called "walk, don't run or skate, zones"…if you dared enter this no-man's land.
That being said, competition was not exactly tough, and although the home team had an advantage of being acclimated to the altitude, used to playing on a small rink, being trained in the art of ice-walking-hockey, and our Ladakhi goalie, team "Vermont, USA" came out passing and won the game 10-2. In case you were wondering: 2 goals (I think), including a "pass" out of the defensive zone that bounced into the opponent's net.
After the debacle from the first night in Chiktan (See Part 1), I was quick to accept the invite of the VIS (Vermont Intercultural Semesters) group to stay with the family of Tashi Angchok, a Ladakhi employee of VIS. What an upgrade! The house was of traditional Ladakhi design, with stone walls, wood/straw/mud roofs, no running water, no central heating, and no western toilets. Since this is Ladakh, and we are already well aware of the Things We Take For Granted, it was an amazing time staying there with such a warm and inviting family! We spent most of our time in the winter kitchen, just sitting around a stove, reading, writing, drawing, chatting, laughing, playing cards, drinking tea & eating. At that moment in time, the warmth of the room and the warmth of Tashi's family made us easily forget that it was around 10 degrees outside, and we were in the middle of the mountains. The kitchen was safe haven.
Ladakh is split between Buddhists and Muslims, and while many people in Leh are Buddhist, most of the population in Chiktan/Kargil is Muslim, except Tashi's family. Historically, the local healer was a Buddhist, so as the village became Islamic over time, Tashi's ancestors were to remain Buddhist so they can heal the population. The family house is across from a mosque, on a small stream, and while I was told of rumors that prayers were done on the loud speaker at 4 am, it never happened while I was in residence. Apparently it was too cold to pray.
This is not a statement about religion, since everybody is incredibly friendly and inviting. Best of all, they all love hockey! That's all that matters at this point in time.
The next day, we made sure we waited at Tashi's house before departing for the rink. Understanding the looseness of Ladakhi scheduling, we didn't want to sit in the cold for hours waiting to play in frozen equipment. When we received our phone call to leave, we rushed into the packed van, drove 10 minutes on a snowy, winding road (have you detected a theme with the roads?), and rushed to get dressed.
We still had to wait.
Once again, by the time we made it onto the ice, we were in "walk, don't skate" mode. I requested that the ice be swept up (they use brooms and plywood boards to clean the ice), which was denied. Regardless of ice conditions, Vermont, USA won the game 9-1, again as a result of dominant passing. For those of you keeping track at home, 3 goals.
That day, a goal dispute had to be broken up by the local police. Apparently a team felt they had scored a goal, which was called off, and the team protested the game, which never finished. As you will see in future posts, there is a pattern with disputes and discipline in hockey in Ladakh. This dispute lasted for a full 24 hours, requiring mediation from local officials. The dispute was resolved the following day - before our final match - with the goal being disallowed and the teams playing less than 5 minutes to resolve their match. The mini-game ended with no score, and the game ended the way the dispute began. The team that had been complaining refused to pay their entry fee as a result. They had lost to our team, and were not in the finals. Why waste your money if you aren't going to win, right?
Originally, we were going to play SECMOL boys in the "Men's" final (we had 1 woman on our team), even though they hadn't played a single game in the tournament. After the disputed game was resolved, we played the winner of this game after hours of delay. A few of my comrades were itching to leave as early as possible to make it back before sundown, and were getting particularly frustrated with the loose Ladakhi schedule. I personally didn't care much, as long as nobody jumped on me at 5 am. The game we requested begin before 11 am started around 1:30 pm, and there was a brief ceremony to start the match where the "chief guest" placed a traditional pashmina scarf around each of our necks. Not knowing what to do about this, we decided it be best to play hockey with the scarves still around our necks, trying our hardest not to rip the delicate and beautiful piece of Ladakhi culture, let alone choke ourselves.
After winning this game 9-0 (3 goals with a blinding migraine), we had to participate in a much longer, and somewhat confusing, awards ceremony. Let's blame the confusion on my headache.
With all of the Chiktan/Kargil drama over, we were able to be on the road back to Leh by 3 pm. I could not be more appreciative of being able to play hockey in a remote, gorgeous area surrounded by mountains and running streams, with incredibly friendly and enthusiastic people. There are already tentative plans for me to return to Kargil next year to host a coaching/hockey clinic to support development of the game in a region of Ladakh slightly ignored by the wealthy population in Leh, the main city of the region.
The love of hockey in the Kargil area is just as strong as in Leh, and I want to do everything I can to help them grow with the game!
Here are a few pictures I love, but so many more are already posted on Flickr.
All the best,
Tashi's nephew holding skates and a water bottle in front of the mosque.
Me walking with my gear and my head down while there was a soldier/guard walking with his gun.
Your's truly. I never did bend my knees enough.
Yes, that's a cow, in front of a crowd at an ice rink. I waited for the cow to return to take this picture, and just when I did, it turned to face me. =)