Kargil was one of those places that was instantly bad, a place where you got shifty looks on the street and nobody would give you a straight answer to anything. I’d walk into an open restaurant in the dusty main bazaar to find the clerk swabbing the floor from a pail of foul-smelling water. “No food, ” he says to me, motioning me out the door, “No food.”
The lodging situation if possible was even worse, dark and squalid rooms with sinister odors going at rates normally reserved for midrange hotels with aircon, cable, and hot water. “How are you charging these prices?” I asked a clerk with a wonky eye after he’d shown me a dank cave perfumed with bathroomy odors.
“People pay, sir. Other rooms are much worse.”
That much, sadly, was true: I was paying ten dollars a night for a dusty cot in a low, bare cell and a shared bath that invited scenes of prison rape. Truly, there were few bright spots. Taxi drivers were quoting outrageous fares to Padum amounting to hundreds of dollars, and nobody could (or would) tell me when the public bus would pass thru town on its way to my destination in the Zanskar Valley. Over my evening meal of painfully salty fried rice, eight local men gathered over my shoulder, not speaking but simply staring, watching with a kind of malignant curiosity as I ate. In the morning, a boy at the tea stall where I ordered coffee rudely seized my pen and tried to scrawl upon my notebook, and when I scolded him and snatched it back, he gave me a pointed, lingering, evil stare as he went to fetch (and probably spit into) my coffee. I gathered my belongings and walked out.
I took it all as seasoning. Ultimately, there were few other choices, short of booking my ass on the first bus out of Kargil, whether it went where I was going or not. The evil town, the bad place, this zone of transit limbo inhabited by its shifty-eyed denizens — it was all part of an education, a hardening not gained thru happy times and sunny places. That night, in the weak yellow light of a single bare bulb, I sat in my underwear upon my dusty, lumpy cot, and thanked the gods of travel as sincerely as I could.