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Of Yellow Lines and Ponies

The Indian Express - August 19, 2012

When Chinese precision meets Indian flexibility on a journey to Kailash Mansarovar

My trip to Kailash Mansarovar was flagged off by a wry, tongue-in-cheek comment from a dear friend about going all the way to pray in the Chinese language to Hindu gods. The trip had its share of spectacular personal highs, but it also had its fair share of interesting sidelights that make you think about the world you live in. Perhaps, such worldly reflections are as much the point of pilgrimages as the hope for a glimpse of divinity.

I strongly recommend a visit of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) or equivalent senior delegation to Zhangmu on the China-Nepal border for a reality check. On the one side is laid-back human authority and on the other, just across a short bridge, envious, formidable, faceless efficiency, including insistence on straight lines. On our return, as we queued up to enter Nepal, there was a power cut. The computers at the Chinese immigration office, and all activity, shut down for hours together. Any attempts to seek information were met with a scary, hostile bark: "Yellow line," which meant, "retreat behind the line, we owe you no explanation."

A handful of self-styled "Chinese guides" said that the border would close at the usual time, regardless, and nothing more could be said or done. I couldn't help think that if this had happened in my country, we would have yelled and screamed and demanded an alternative method of clearance and an assurance that the border would remain open till the backlog was cleared. And it would have happened. We saw a distraught family with the body of a relative who had died on the yatra, cooling their heels behind the yellow line. I knew then that I wanted my country to have a human heart more than winning the world GDP sweepstakes.

One of the hotels on the way was next to a Chinese military camp. "No photographs," we were told. Come morning, there was the reveille, and the marching music sounded quite unlike anything I was used to as an army child. "Isn't that opera music they are marching to?" my room-mate asked. It was. I guess, they do march to the beat of a different drummer.

Then came the negotiation for the ponies for those who wanted to do the parikrama. It clearly was a sellers' market, and there were none available. Our Chinese guide informed us that all ponies were owned by the government and he was helpless. The next day perhaps there may be some, but the fee would be 1,900 yuan. He was unfazed against the onslaught of Indian negotiation. "Why can't you tell the government we need the ponies and ask why they are more expensive than the last season?" The guide patiently explained, "If I go and argue with the government, they will shut the door and say the office is closed. Who will I negotiate with?" He added that if it was a government rate for a government delegation, then the ponies would be cheaper by 3,000 yuan.

In contrast to the Chinese (non) negotiation on ponies, was the priest, transported from India. On being subjected to a group negotiation for lowering his rates for a rudra pooja on the banks of Mansarovar, he grandstanded and burst into tears, "You are willing to pay so much for a pony, yet you grudge me a fraction of the amount for a pooja?" Needless to say, everybody climbed down and he got his fees - many times over. One pooja and then various families, names, and details woven into it so that the good lord knew - a great aggregator model with economies of scale.

The road from the Nepal border all the way to Mansarovar, a long distance, was a beautiful two-lane road, with no people or cars or hawkers or settlements on either side of it. I missed the small Indian entrepreneur, who would never let a good road go waste. There were periodic checks from the inscrutable Chinese army, and one could feel the palpable tension of the Tibetan car drivers.

When I came back to India, the immigration officer asked me with a broad smile "Suna hai Shivji is time Amarnath mein thehre hain, Kailash mein nahin?" (We've heard that at this time of the year Shivji is in Amarnath, not in Kailash") Was I glad to be home. And I would not exchange my "we are like that only" country for all the yuan in the world.