My first stop in India was also without a doubt my most memorable. I had heard legend and lore of a village in the Himalayan Mountains that lives and breathes ice hockey, but I had to see it to believe it. My Canadian expat friend Tony, whom I skate with in Shanghai, has been organizing this trip for 11 years straight, starting when he lived in Delhi in 2002. I accepted his invitation without fully knowing what I was getting into, but sometimes you have to take a risk to get a big reward. And rewarded we were, all 17 of us players as well as a handful of fans who made the trip up to Leh from Delhi and various other parts of the world. An entourage of mostly Canadians residing in India and myself were basically treated like royalty by the Leh locals, who really know how to make guests feel like part of the family. But the trip almost was not to be. I flew into Delhi on a Thursday night, grabbed a hotel near the airport to spend my first night ever in India, only to get up at 4:30am and head back to the airport and catch our Friday flight up to Leh. Now flights to these more remote regions are often infrequent and sensitive to the weather. There was an immense fog that morning in Delhi and apparently snow up in Leh. We all waited patiently as our flight kept getting delayed and eventually cancelled, and they never fly in the afternoon so we were all stuck and rather disappointed. Saturday flight? Nope, the best they could do is Sunday morning, and nearly everyone had booked their return ticket for the following Monday. Feeling hopeless, we retreated back to the city hoping for a miracle. We decided if we can’t make it up there then we’d go out and have a big dinner at a local hotspot, and try to make some juice out of the lemons we were handed.
It’s been said that many of the Leh people wait all year for this one weekend where the foreigners come up to play the local teams. Hockey has been here since the 70’s and it isn’t going away. In fact, there are 11 full adult teams now competing each year in Leh on their tiny water run-off pond turned hockey rink. These guys only get about 2 months to play each winter, so they practice quite intensively vying for a spot to play against the ‘Canadians.’ In fact the sport is getting so popular that equipment shortages are a constant problem, and the kids all want in on a piece of the action so they can be the future stars of Indian hockey. I was even told by one local that the kids aren’t allowed to play unless they retain good grades, all the more motivation to study hard.
Needless to say, the Leh locals were quite sad when they heard we couldn’t come. But on Friday evening, as we were all out together trying to enjoy our circumstances despite the bad luck we ran into, the miracle call came. The powers that be in Leh put enough pressure on Air India regarding the importance of this event (not to mention all the people who flew in from all over the world) to charter a special flight for us Saturday morning, weather permitting. All day Friday rumors flew back and forth that we were going, then weren’t going, and so on and so forth several times. At last, some confirmation, and right when we were all certain that we wouldn’t be able to go at all.
The weather cleared up and we were off to Leh Saturday morning, riding on the most impressive and scenic flight I’ve ever been on. Flying through the Himalayas in a full size jet with mountains so close it looks like your wings are about to scrape is quite surreal. We touched down and were warmly greeted and promptly escorted to our hotel before our first scheduled game. I say scheduled, but really this city’s schedule revolved completely around us! Or so it seemed anyways.
Playing any sport at this altitude requires acclimatization, at least 24 hours worth, just so you can get used to the sparse oxygen. But instead we were all so awestruck by the beauty of this place, along with our miraculous circumstance in getting here, that we just wanted to get out do what we came here for: play some hockey! Word has it the Indian teams have never beaten the Canadian squad in the past, and I’m not saying the complete lack of altitude adjustment had anything to do with it, but we got beat in the first AND second games I played in! Most of us really struggled with the air, headaches, nausea, but we were loving it! It was rather euphoric so the illnesses sort of passed unnoticed. As for myself, I played terrible and was pretty much worthless. But it was amazing.
It was more of a ‘fun’ tournament than anything, but it appears that the Indian teams have steadily been improving, although the foreigners squad won the Championship game by a narrow margin of 4-3.
More than the hockey, this was one of the greatest cultural experiences of my lifetime. We met some of the friendliest people on earth who escorted us around their city like kings who were visiting. They even brought us to a local Buddhist celebration where there was some beautiful traditional dances, and I got to meet the 7 year old reincarnate of the Dalai Lama. I felt kind of bad about that actually, people were waiting in massive line out in the cold to meet him, but they just ushered us right up to the front!
Leh is famous for its tourism in the summertime as trekkers flock their like moths to a glowing light, but the mountains in winter there have a beauty about them that’s incomparable to any other mountain range I’ve seen thus far in my life. I really had a difficult time trying to capture them with my camera, and I just couldn’t duplicate what I was seeing. It is cold there, but the views from the flight alone are worth the trip. But don’t take my word for it, see for yourself: http://www.ctv.ca/CTVNews/NationalNews/20120208/hockey-in-the-himalayas-janis-mackey-frayer-120208/
There has also been a short documentary filmed with an extended version to come due to popular demand: http://www.patmorrow.com/Magic_Mountain.html
Also a full length feature film was made about this a female player in this Ledahkian phenomenon called “Thin Ice.” The exact same place where I played!!!!! Here is the trailer:
If you want more information about how to participate in this annual tournament next year, please email me from the sidebar and I’ll get you the details. Here are some panorama shots just to tease you a bit more, click on them for larger images: