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Disaster Strikes Ladakh

14th August 2010, Leh.
At approximately 0030hrs on 6th of August a "cloudburst" caused severe landslides, wiping out a significant proportion of the city, and a further twenty plus villages in Ladakh. The final death toll is as yet uncertain, but I think it's fair to say it will exceed 1,000.
You will find a few pictures from the second and twelfth days after the disaster here; I didn't take many pictures, as I was mostly volunteering, helping to shift mud from the hospital and from peoples homes.

That evening, 5th August, I lay in bed watching a storm brewing over the hills a short way off. The electric show was impressive; lightning flashed on average once a second. Storms the previous night had resulted in flash flooding thirty kilometres away, and nine people had lost their lives - a family of four in a car near one of the bridges that had been destroyed, and five road workers camped in a dried out lake bed. I felt sorry for the people that were on the receiving end of this night's rain, and thought of the monks sat in their monasteries perched on rocks, and trekkers sleeping under canvas.

After a while I heard the rumblings of thunder and noticed the lightning was getting closer. Not long afterwards the storm arrived; it was of biblical proportions, I've never known anything like it. The thunder was loud enough to make you believe it was sent from a wrathful god; the temperature dropped dramatically; the wind whipped up into a frenzy, and I saw the trees outside my window, illuminated in the staccato lightning flashes, swayed worryingly this way and that. The rain increased, then turned to hail, which was driven against my leaking window with such a force that I thought the glass may break, and got out of bed and sheltered in the corner of the room, away from the glass. The intensity of the storm lasted maybe twenty minutes, then the thunder gradually calmed to a lion's roar, then a rumble. The hail turned back to rain, and the wind dropped a little. By one o'clock the worst was over.

The following morning I awoke to sunshine; a deceptively innocent start to the day. I suspected that my trip may be off, but checked out anyway, storing my main pack downstairs. The lady who owns the guesthouse told me to check; the rain may have damaged roads, so maybe I'd need to check back in. I thanked her and went to wait for my lift. When it hadn't arrived forty minutes later, I wandered down to the travel agent where I'd booked. I'd spoken to a taxi driver who'd told me that there had been more death and destruction in the storm, and that the road by the bus stand had been wiped out. I was pretty convinced by now that my trip wasn't happening, but went to find out for sure.

The shop, along with almost all others, was closed, shutters still down, which was unusual. Outside were an Italian lady and an Indian man, booked to go on the same trip. Half an hour later, the company owner pulled up. He was in a state - his house had been half washed away, and he had got out with just a couple of minutes to spare. His friend had fallen in the water, but fortunately they'd dragged him out and saved him. Many houses were destroyed; many people were dead. Astoundingly the Indian man asked if he could come to the office that evening to collect a refund. "The office will be closed," replied the Ladakhi. "This is the worst thing I have ever experienced in my life."

I returned to my guesthouse and reclaimed my room, then went down to the epicentre of the damage within the city. I suspected there would be little I could do to help, that the army would have everything under control; I was wrong. The city was like a ghost town as I walked through it. Hardly any of the business were open, and people were walking around in a dazed state. It took half an hour to reach the point where the tsunami of mud had devastated the lower part of the city. Along the way I saw a group of westerners crowded around a donkey, caked in mud, trying to get it to drink water.

As I reached the town gates, I joined the crowd surveying the shocking scene. The mud had taken out a residential section; three story high concrete buildings had been demolished by it; vehicles swept up, the metal twisted as if it were tin foil. Three JCBs were at work, shifting the mud and rubble from one side of the road, where it buried buildings, to the other. Chain gangs of helpers were assisting in moving the debris, so I went down and helped.

No, I did not take my camera. Yes, it did cross my mind, knowing that there would be some amazing photographic opportunities, but I could not have done so with a clear conscience. People were buried under the mud in the collapsed remains of their mud-brick houses - how can you stand around taking pictures when there is a chance, albeit very slim, to save lives? A number of people did though - and not just foreign tourists, Indians and army personnel too were clicking away on their cameras and mobile phones.

The work was chaotic, but we did what we could. Passing the mud bricks that the homes had been constructed with from one person to another across the road; filling up buckets with dirt, and passing them in the same way. No common language was needed - just look for a gap in a line, and jump in. At least we could help, do something. It was sadly pretty obvious that it was bodies we were going to recover, not survivors. Five bodies were pulled out while I was there, and rushed to the hospital in the back of pickups; a futile exercise, as they were already dead. One was the body of a young boy. A man rushed out of the collapsed buildings with him in his arms. His head lolled lifelessly, his face brown from the mud, save for his mouth, caked in blood.

The hospital itself had been badly hit; the mud had swept right through. I've heard reports that eighty people died there, but I don't know whether that's true. The bus stand likewise had been destroyed. The runway has been washed away at the airport. Some say as many as 400 military died, as the river of mud continued through the city and wiped out an army base. A village nearby that got the brunt of the storm is rumoured to be totally destroyed, with 200 of its inhabitants dead. Who knows what the final death toll will be.

We worked and we worked, moving the mountain of mud from one side of the road to the other. Local businesses came down with water, juice and food, which was freely distributed amongst the helpers. Indians, tourists, military men, piece by piece we shifted the rubble. A number of vehicles drove up and down the road, forcing the chain gangs to move to the side of the road, some with loudhailers. Locals translated for us. More rain is expected, stick to high ground. At six o'clock a senior, Tibetan looking army officer shouted to us in English, just as the first spots of rain began to fall. "The flood water is coming - stop working and move to higher ground now."

As I stumbled wearily back to Changspa (which is on higher ground than central Leh) I passed a procession of Muslim men, carrying aloft five bodies, four in makeshift coffins, one just wrapped in a tarp. They chanted prayers as they walked. It was very moving. I went to my room, washed my hands and face, then went back out onto the street - where I saw numerous tourists running with their backpacks on. The owner of my guesthouse was packing his family into a car, sending them to safety. I asked him if I should follow the crowd, and he agreed. "This is not high enough, you must get higher."

I returned to my room, where I surprised myself by deciding against saving my camera, but sensibly just packed some warm clothes and a couple of packs of biscuits (I never even thought to take my money and passport, which was a little daft). I followed the exodus to Shanti Stupa, a large Buddhist monument on a hill, the steps of which begin just a three-minute walk from my guesthouse. The steps were almost obscured by people climbing up to safety; the stupa itself was ringed with people looking down upon the city. I climbed some distance up, then settled down beside the steps. I felt I was high enough - who really knew what was safe and what was not? This was unprecedented; the worst natural disaster ever to befall Leh.

I was joined a short time later by an Australian girl named Donna. Amazingly she had just arrived in Leh that day, from Manali. Her minibus had made it a way past Sarchu towards Pang, then met with a bridge that was out. The choices were to return to Manali or get out and walk; she opted for the latter. A group of travellers walked eleven kilometres to the next village, then variously hitched lifts. She'd been in a tanker, which had later got bogged, and they’d had to dig it out the next morning with metal dinner plates, as the driver had no spade. They met with many landslides on the way - it sounds like the road to Manali will be out for some time. Someone else in the party had been dropped at the village worst hit by the storms, and had waded through knee-deep muddy water, littered with bodies.

We joined forces with John from the Channel Islands, and the three of us sat it out until midnight, halfway up our mountain. John had heard from his local friend that there was a considerable amount of water sitting up Khardung La way - a giant puddle if you will. His worry was that if that headed downhill, we would all be in trouble. Fortunately there was only a little rain, just a sprinkling really, and no more storms. Once the stars appeared we figured we'd be as safe in our rooms as anywhere else, and descended from the mountain. Donna came back to my room, as the building her room was in had been shaking when she had packed up her things.

The next morning the city was still in a state of shock. I decided that it was now decent to take my camera out snap a few pictures, starting with the little bridge at the end of my road, which has been considerably damaged. The water, normally a crystal clear babbling brook, was a roaring surge of muddy brown water. The river is littered with fallen trees, and the banks have collapsed, undermining buildings that sit alongside. Large stones have been placed in front of the bridge, prohibiting motor vehicles - and even on foot, you feel inclined to rush across it, lest it collapse completely. A little further on is a waist-high flood barrier of stones and metal sheeting, designed to protect lower Leh should the river burst its banks.

Throughout the city around two thirds of the businesses remain shut. As I approached the place where I'd helped the previous day, I saw that the military had taken charge of the situation. A stocky officer with a beard and a machine gun shouted at onlookers, throwing stones at them to make them disperse. I didn't linger to take many pictures there, but continued past towards what used to be the bus stand, my jaw dropped in shock at the scale of the damage. The wave of mud had engulfed a vast area, sweeping cars and minibuses, throwing them on their sides. I walked amongst the collapsed buildings feeling shocked, and came across a donkey, its fur matted with mud. It had mostly dried now, except for some around its face, which was still damp, so I set about cleaning it, brushing off the mud from his coat. It seemed a little happier afterwards, I think - it's difficult to tell with a donkey, but it gave a big, hitching bray as I left it, which I'd like to think was a thank you.

I continued along the path of destruction, slowly heading downhill. Suddenly I heard shouting and turned around. Thirty or so locals bolted around a corner, shouting "panni", the Hindi word for water. My first thought was that there had been a water delivery and they were running for that, then a man shouted to me in English "the water is coming." I joined the panicked crowd running this way and that, and found myself by the hospital. Remembering that it had been badly hit by the flood I retraced my steps and ran sideways, thinking to myself that this would serve me right for taking pictures instead of helping the recovery. I soon became badly out of breath, then saw an army officer, and asked him if it was true, was floodwater coming? No, he said, it is just propaganda. There is no rain and no danger.

Returning to my guesthouse I found a party of four who had been out trekking when the disaster had hit. They were walking along a trekking path cut into a steep mountainside when the excessive rain had caused a landslide in front of them. The turned to retrace their steps, but were cut off by another landslide and trapped. Fortunately they had rope with them, and were able to tie themselves together and help each other across. After a number of treacherous river crossings they were able to return to Leh safely. Not all trekkers were so lucky.

On day three after the disaster Donna and I walked down to the hospital to help with the clean up process. The worst hit building was a new block, which fortunately had been empty at the time. The tide mark on the outer wall was around five-foot high, with much higher splashes in places. The force of the wave had smashed the windows, and there were two and a half feet of mud throughout the building. I joined in with the laborious task of removing the mud. Very little equipment was available, certainly nothing mechanical. All we had was shovels and bowls, similar to woks. The mud was shovelled a spadeful at a time into the containers, which were passed from person to person, out the door and emptied. Another line of people returned the empty bowls to be refilled.

It was a daunting task. The long corridor had a number of doors opening onto wards, every inch of floor space was covered with feet of mud . . . and this was just one building, surrounded by devastation. In total over twenty villages have been destroyed. It will take years for Ladakh to recover. Many crops have been destroyed, and Ladakh has such a short growing season. How will they get through this winter? Thinking of the big picture makes things very difficult; better just to concentrate on little goals; clearing one patch of mud and seeing the floor beneath.

I feel very lucky to have this opportunity to help. So often you see a disaster on the news, and wish that there was something you could do, some way to help other than donating money that may or may not reach those in need. It was wonderful to see so many foreigners pitching in, doing all they can . . . but at the same time it's very hard not to feel angry with those who do not. So many people are concentrating only on when and how they can get out of here, the sooner and cheaper the better. I feel like shaking them - for Christ’s sake, look at what has happened to these people. Think of them, not yourselves. Don't just sit in a cafe all day, complaining that the flights are booked up, do something positive.

We worked from ten until six, by which time a small section of corridor had been cleared, and the first room off of it. It was a start. During the day we had been provided with a couple of meals, chai and water, to fuel us in our work. Walking back to our part of town, dodging around wrecked cars and partially collapsed buildings, we felt shattered but pleased to have helped - even though the work put in by a couple of hundred of us was just a drop in the ocean. If we could get the hospital clear, and the furniture and medical equipment washed and cleaned, then it could be used - and we could turn our efforts elsewhere.

Day four continued in much the same way. We managed to get the whole corridor clear of mud. Water leaked out of the rooms - I think the sludge that entered the building had separated, solid mud at the bottom, muddy water on top. The more mud we cleared, the more water appeared. A broom would have been handy, but there were none, so we made makeshift ones by nailing two pieces of wood in a T-shape. By attaching hessian sacks to the bottom, we were able to push the water out of the door, three of us working in a line to shift as much water as possible, then lifting the heavy, sodden tools and walking back along the corridor to start again. Others used pieces of plywood to the same effect.

By the end of the day we had cleared the whole corridor, and almost all of a second room; it was a very positive feeling . . . then I walked into the room (I'd been mainly in the chain gangs in the corridor or outside, when not sweeping the water away). Off of the room that was almost clear were a large toilet block, a shower room, a cupboard, and two huge wards. So much more work to do before this one building would be clear.

On the way back to the guest house (all of us doing the "volunteer stagger" up the hill) I was thrilled to see a sign for UK/US citizens with a message from the embassy - up until now only the embassies of the organised European nations of Switzerland, Austria and Germany had made contact, along with the Koreans. Of course the Israelis were sorted too - each tourist destination in India and South America (both popular destinations for post-army, travelling Israelis) has a Jewish House; a place they can go to be with their own kind, hear religious lessons, eat kosher food, and be reminded of their religion, should they be tempted away by one of India's. On that day, a fair number of Israelis had actually turned up to help, as the Jewish house had "motivated" them to do so (as an English/Israeli girl told me); up until that point only a couple of individuals from that nation had pitched in.

We attended the embassy meeting, which was designed to quell some of the rumours and pass on solid information. The facts we received were these: the road to Srinigar will be out for weeks if not months, as seven bridges are destroyed (also Srinigar is currently a warzone) so forget any ideas about leaving that way; the road to Manali, the Indian officials had told them, will be serviceable in a few days, maybe sooner; two of the three airlines flying out of Leh had put on extra flights, and one of them was now accepting credit cards (up until then people had to turn up at the airport with a wad of cash); prices of flights had now returned to normal (the airlines had tripled them, capitalising on the situation); 150 foreign nationals were stuck on the Marka Valley trek - they would not be airlifted, but must wait for the roads to be cleared; more foreigners were stuck at Pang, on the road between Manali and Leh. Unofficially we were told, when we asked, that foreigners had died, although the bodies had not yet been recovered.

A man named Simon from the British Consul gave the speech, and I have to say that he did us proud. He relayed the information in English, French and German, in a succinct manner and even managed to be respectfully witty. I felt proud to be British. I felt a lot better to have some information from "authority", although it would have been nice if they'd encouraged people to help, rather than flee the scene.

I awoke on day five feeling pretty overwhelmed and wanting very much to speak to my parents. I had managed to send them a text letting them know I was ok, and had asked them to book me a flight for the 20th, two days before I fly out of India. After much trying I finally got through (waking them at some ungodly hour, but I'm sure they didn't mind - by the afternoon the international lines are jammed). I was relieved to hear they'd got me my flight, so now I can concentrate on helping. We returned to the hospital, and carried on as before. Energy levels were low all round. We'd been shifting the mud out of the windows, rather than the door, since the previous day, and the ground level was now almost at the windowsill. There was still so much mud to shift, it was difficult to know where we were going to put it. I collared a couple of army officials to ask if they could bulldoze the mud we've already removed away, but there's so much to do everywhere, who knows when they'll get round to it.

At around two o'clock I lost my happy thoughts. The situation felt so hopeless. Hundreds of people working for days to clear a single building; so much more to be done after this one; foreign helpers leaving by the day. Exhausted and distraught I called it a day, hoping that a couple of hours rest and a good night's sleep would see me in a more positive frame of mind for the following day, able to put in 100% and make a difference.

On the way back to the guesthouse I was thrilled to bump into Orly, the lovely Israeli lady I'd met rafting, and gave her a big hug. Knowing that she'd been on the Marka Valley trek I'd been concerned for her safety, and had visited the Jewish house a couple of days before, learning that she was still unaccounted for at that time. Her and her friends had joined with a number of other stranded trekkers, climbing a mountain to return to Leh, where they'd arrived the previous day. She asked me about the volunteering, and said she'd do her bit the next day.

11th August - day six. The early bath yesterday did me the world of good, and I awoke this morning full of energy and feeling more positive about the contribution I could make. I walked down to the hospital around eight thirty, but when I got there one of the LBA (Ladakh Buddhist Association) volunteer organisers said that as there wasn't too much more mud to shift there they wanted the local people to finish off. We followed him to the nearby residential area where many people needed our help. I went with two Korean Buddhist nuns to a home that needed clearing; three other Westerners were already there helping the occupier to empty his house of mud.

At first glance it appeared that the four-room mud-brick house had a nifty paint job - smoky white at the top, brown paint from waist height down, but of course the brown was the tide mark of mud. The owner told us that he and his family had sheltered in one room, and amazingly all survived; his next-door neighbour had not been so lucky, mother and one child had died. The wave of mud had hit the house with such force that it shattered the windows and broke the door. Two rooms and the hallway had already been cleared; we were working on a room ten-foot square, filled with a good three foot of mud. A couple of people were in the room, one with a pickaxe, loosening the mud, the other with a spade.

A young Dutch couple and the Korean nuns had makeshift stretchers to carry the mud, fashioned from poles nailed together with hessian sacks attached; I used a metal wok-type container. It was a new one, the outside covered in a black, slightly greasy substance and I was soon likewise covered. The mud was shovelled into it then I exited the house; walked down the side of it and around another house, stepping over debris and the usual Indian rubbish - crisp packets, discarded animal bones etc.; over a board placed across a small stream; scrambled up the steep bank; just another dozen or so steps, and empty the mud in a pile - around 100 metres in total. The nuns were an inspiration, they worked tirelessly, beatific smiles on their faces. Any time I felt I exhausted I looked at them and gained strength.

We got a few deliveries of bottled water, and at one stage a short break was called, and we were offered juice or tea. I eagerly asked for a chai, knowing the strength that the sweet milky tea can provide - instead though it was the salty Tibetan drink of yak butter tea . . . quite possibly the most disgusting thing I have ever tasted; my tastebuds were not impressed. I counted my trips to give me something to focus on - trip 37, three more and I'll have a drink of water. I got up to 48 when lunch was called. We were ushered over to the hospital, where monks provided us with rice and bean dahl - and I managed to get a couple of cups of proper Indian chai.

After lunch I found a second wind - in the morning the walk to drop the mud had been tough, the last few steps almost a stagger - but in the afternoon I managed to get in the zone, and trudged back and forth counting my trips out loud. At 89 the man declared the room was finished . . . there was still a muddy mess inside, but I guess he felt he and his family could clear that up. The remaining mud-filled room was wetter than the other had been, and had a number of pieces of furniture poking out of the sticky dirt. It was half past three, and we decided to call it a day. The sweet man thanked me, shook my hand and hugged me.

I trudged up through the town, only realising when I got back to my guest house how filthy my face was - I looked like I'd just come down from a chimney. Once I'd cleaned most of the dirt off I went to use the phone, persevering and eventually getting through to Chris. There was a candlelit procession through the town in the evening, beginning down past the hospital, but as I'd already walked down there and back once in the day, and was shattered from a hard day's work, I decided to give it a miss. It was a choice of attending, or grabbing some food and getting an early night - food and sleep won.

12th August - day seven. My disaster buddy Donna leaves town tomorrow, so she was taking a day off to have a look around the town - having arrived post-disaster, and volunteered ever since, she'd not had a chance to see the place. I had breakfast with her and Malina and Roon, two of the trekkers who'd been on the Marka Valley when the flood occurred, who have also been volunteering, and then went along to do my bit. I wanted to continue helping the family I'd been with the previous day, so caught a lift down to the area and walked through the debris to their house. A number of volunteers were already there, so I grabbed my container and joined in. We had a little further to walk today to drop the mud; climbing up the four-foot mound of dirt we'd piled up the previous day, and dropping it over a broken wall.

Again I found that the work was much easier to do in the afternoon. And really, why shouldn't it be easy for me - as a postman I've had plenty of experience walking whilst carrying a heavy load. By the time I'd made 76 trips, the mud was practically cleared from the larger room, and the toilet (which I'd not even noticed the day before). The family still has a lot of cleaning to do before they can return to normality, but most of the heavy work is done. I was very pleased that their young son helped out too. He's about eight, and the previous day had just watched us - fair enough, after the traumatic experience he's had, but I did think that it would do him good to pitch in. Half way through the afternoon he picked up a small trowel and started scraping up loose mud from the hall area. I provided my container for him to put the dirt in, and gave him lots of encouragement. At first one of the men took the tool from him, but I made him give it back, explaining that it was good for him to help out.

There were a few army personnel about, but I didn't see many working. At one stage a reasonably senior man (I'm assuming by his stocky appearance and bushy moustache) entered the house and watched us for a while. He stood in the hallway, spat on the floor and then left. He and a colleague loitered around a neighbouring house, watching us work for half an hour or so, then went off. A number of newspaper articles have been displayed by the LBA muster point. Most of these imply that the army is pretty much doing all the recovery work; this is definitely not what we are seeing on the ground.

Around half past three a rather heated discussion broke out near to the house - right on the path we were trudging along to drop the mud, which was inconvenient. I'd not seen the two men involved before, and don't know what it was all about - but to be honest I'm surprised things have been so amicable up until now. Rain clouds were approaching us from either side, and the wind was getting up and the temperature dropping. A number of local people had gathered nearby, and one lady suggested that we finish for the day. I said I wasn't tired and continued inside for another load. When I came out a man said that we'd done enough, and suggested we left. I asked the homeowner if the house was finished, and he said not yet, so I carried on. As I dropped my load a third person told me to leave, pointing up at the rain clouds over Khardung La, so I finally took the hint. Whether they were worried about the rain, or wanted to argue without Western witnesses, I don't know, but we left as asked.

The rain started as we returned to the main town. I'm pretty convinced that we are in no danger here now - unless there is another severe storm like the other night (they're calling the event a cloudburst; I'm not sure if that's a widely recognised term, or specifically an Indian one). Whilst not as dirty as the previous day, I was grubby and cold by the time I arrived back. I went to ask if it was possible to get any hot water - a bucket would do. Having a freezing cold shower after a hard day's work is pretty tough (plus it's harder to shift the grime), but that's all we've had up until now at this guesthouse. The owner's wife told me it was not possible until six - an hour and a half away. The electricity has been putting in the odd appearance over the last few of days, if we're lucky between six and midnight . . . but not normally for that long.

I contemplated this, and decided it just wouldn't do. I wouldn't be that bothered under normal circumstances, but . . . well . . . I guess these aren't normal circumstances. I know that it's a pretty trivial matter compared to those who have lost lives, families and homes, but I've had a head cold for a few days, and I'm sure the cold showers aren't helping. I went back to the woman and explained that I was staying in Leh for another week volunteering, and that if it weren’t possible for me to get just a little warm water, then I would reluctantly have to move to a hotel that could. "Okay," she said. "Will lukewarm do?" I said that would be fine - anything but freezing cold. She half filled a bucket of near boiling water from their own bathroom - I was a little irked to realise that they've had piping hot water all this time, while we who have been digging out their town have been shivering under ice cold showers.

I was planning to take tomorrow off and rest up, but I feel that I've only put in half a day today, with a late start and an early finish. Maybe I'll head to Choglamsar tomorrow, the worst hit area, or to one of the other villages, weather permitting. I can't stress enough what a rewarding experience this is; it's the most honest work I've ever done. The river near here is roaring with muddy brown water again - this morning (in fact even two hours ago when I returned from volunteering) it had almost returned to clear.

Whilst eating in Booklovers Retreat this evening Simon from the British Consul came in looking for some people. We quizzed him and found out that 350 foreigners are still unaccounted for - although many of these will be safe and well, having already fled the scene; some, however, will not be. There were a couple in the restaurant who asked whether it would be safe to do any trekking soon - the answer was no. Only the Nubra Valley and Pangong Lake were relatively unaffected by the floods, the rest of Ladakh is pretty much screwed, and will be for some time to come. He estimated that around 800 bodies remain buried in the mud at Choglamsar.

Friday 13th August - day eight.

Donna flew to Delhi today, leaving the guesthouse at five in the morning - a good two hours before her flight, as there are so many people turning up at the airport every morning desperate for flights, there was a danger of her seat being resold. It's been really good having someone to hang with whilst all this has been going on. I had no trouble getting back to sleep after saying our goodbyes; exhaustion is starting to set in now.

Getting out of bed later on in the morning was an effort, and I found myself wishing I'd stuck to my original plan of a day off. I managed to make it out of the door by ten, and went straight down to the LBA muster point and caught a lift to the hospital. The new block may well be clear, but unfortunately that is only the tip of the iceberg; there are many other buildings and wards still full of mud. We concentrated at first on clearing one large ward, which had quite a thin layer of mud, then moved onto the long, sloping corridor. I had a few problems with Germans today. First a man wanted to make a chain of people over a distance of around sixty metres with just twenty or so people. This is my seventh day volunteering, and it was blatantly obvious to me and to others that this would not work. When I tried telling him we didn't have enough people he shouted at me, "if you don't want to make a chain then go and work somewhere else."

A little later, someone removed a mosquito screen from a window so we could make a shorter chain outside and dump the dirt. There was a large hole that had quite clearly been dug on purpose, and a German woman who was with the man I'd had the run in with earlier told me to dump the mud in there. "Hang on," I said. "Surely that hole's there for a reason?" "Don't think, just do," she screeched at me. As she poured her first container of earth into it one of the workers from the hospital shouted that it was for drainage, and to please put the mud somewhere else; I couldn't help feeling a little smug.

Anyhow, the international friction didn't last long, and we soon had a good crowd of people working efficiently together. Four hours later we had a five foot mound of mud piled up and a clear corridor. I'd spent the whole afternoon on the full-container side - I have to say that the longer I'm doing the heavy work the easier it gets. I guess it's true what they say about muscle memory; it's nice to know that the year or so I spent going obsessively to the gym is being put to good use. Maybe there really is a purpose to everything.

Rather than walk up through the debris by the bus stand like I normally do, I went to the road where an LBA organiser was getting lifts for people. He leapt in front of a small van and opened the door for some of us to climb inside; the driver didn't mind, and dropped us at the end of the main bazaar. I'd quite forgotten that the monks were holding a big puja (religious ceremony) in the monastery today, and as I walked to the centre of town a multitude of monks streamed past me, along with gorgeous old Tibetan people in beautiful traditional costumes. Hundreds of photo opportunities passed me by without me taking a single snap. Somehow after all this, photography doesn't seem quite as essential as it did.

On that subject, I am almost positive that my video camera has been taken from my bag over the last week, which is disappointing. I'd had it in a side pocket, but now only the case is there. I've searched the room and my other bags twice, but can't find it, although there is a slim possibility that it's in here somewhere - my ex-colleagues at Customs will tell you that I never was the best rummager! I hope it does turn up, as I had a few - not many though - pictures of the devastation around the bus stand and hospital on it, showing the thickness of the mud and the tide marks on the exterior wall. Oh well, it's not really important.

I was hoping for hot water when I returned to the guest house, as pretty much all of the guests had pleaded with the owner the previous evening, and we thought we'd got our point across. No such luck though, just cold. I'd been working in the sun all afternoon though, so it wasn't as big a problem as the day before, when I'd been cold and wet. My flight is a week today, and I am putting my foot down about taking tomorrow off. I gave my filthy work clothes to the laundry man to make sure I don't talk myself out of it in the morning.

I'm going to grab something to eat and then tuck myself into bed and read - electricity permitting. With a fair bit of luck I'll be able to get on the Internet tomorrow and send this out to you all. If you've managed to read this far, then well done! I'm sorry it's so long. If you are in a position to do so, please give a little something to the relief fund - the people of Ladakh are going to need all the help they can get over this coming year, especially during their bitterly cold winter. As I write this I've no idea of the details, but will try and find out tomorrow if I manage to get an Internet connection.

Note - I haven't yet managed to track down any details online for a relief fund, but considering the even more severe flooding in Pakistan and other parts of the world, any donations via Oxfam or other reliable charities would be nice.


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