Fools on the Hill

6th August 2010

We had returned to Leh that afternoon after spending the previous day at Nubra valley, some hundred and fifty kilometres to the north of Leh. On the way back to Leh, we had been informed by the driver of a car passing the other way that there had been a cloudburst in Leh and hundreds of people had died. There were hardly any armymen at Khardung-La; on the way to Nubra the previous day, the place had been teeming with armymen and tourists.

Everything in Leh was closed; we were told everyone had gone to help out with rescue operations. Thankfully we found we had a booking at a hotel and checked in and quickly booked a ticket on the first flight the following morning. The evening was spent playing cards and watching news on some horrible Hindi channels (the hotel didn’t have any English channels). I was on the terrace, talking to Pinky over the phone. And I saw people in the street walking down towards a nearby hill.

Soon there were more people. And even more. All of them carrying some sort of luggage, like they were running away from something. Soon the street was filled with people running towards the hill. It was as if the whole town was running towards the hill. I went in and informed the others, who checked up with the hotel staff who instructed us too to proceed to the hill.

A couple of hours earlier we had found out that our hotel building had been built of mud, like all other buildings in Leh. Leh is earthquake-prone but it hardly rains there so mud houses are the norm. Given the floods of the previous night we had already been apprehensive about spending the night at the hotel. And now when we heard stories that some canal had burst and the street where our hotel was would get flooded we panicked. Picking up our bare essential belongings (basically the “hand luggage”) we followed the town down the road and up the hill, and settled in a reasonably comfortable place there.

I must have spent some three hours on the hill. Some friends spent double the time there, apprehensive of getting back to the hotel. While I was there I got conflicting news. Some people were saying that the floods had not hit our part of Leh. Others said it was only a matter of time and the entire area would be flooded with water. At times we worried if we were high enough on the hill, at other times we contemplated descending. It was crazy.

While on the hill, frantically trying to calm myself down, I thought this was just like the global financial crisis of 2008. The problem in 2008 after Lehman crashed was that nobody trusted anybody any more (coincidence: Lehman’s ticker on NYSE was “LEH”). So if I don’t trust you I don’t trade with you. The lack of trustworthy sources of information meant that nobody knew which financial institutions were in what state of health. So everyone just assumed the worst and refused to trade. It was only after the government (some sort of credible player, essentially) stepped in (TARP, discount window, etc.) that people began trusting each other and the markets calmed down presently.

It was similar on the hill. There were no credible sources of info. Nobody knew what was happening, and given the extreme risks involved (in the worst case we could have  been washed away, either by the rain on the hill (there wasn’t any when I was up there) or by floods on the street). People would go up the hill, and down the hill. Looking at them, others would try glean information (I decided it was safe enough to descend when most of the hill emptied; wisdom of crowds fundaes). But then there was distortion throughout the system. It was like all of us were playing one big game of Chinese Whispers.

It must be mentioned here that following the previous night’s cloudburst and floods there was a sense of panic all over town (just like there was in the financial markets back in 2008) so it was easy to spread rumours. The only way to have controlled damage was to have some credible sources (like say some armymen in uniform) to come and let us know what was happening. But then there were parts of town significantly worse affected compared to us so there was no help coming our way. And we continued to panic. And play chinese whispers.

The three hours I spent on the hill are probably the scariest of my life. Even now, thinking about that gives me the jitters. I’m happy I’m here, sitting at home at my ancient teak-wood desk in front of my laptop, telling you the story.

PS: the title of this post derives its name from a Beatles song of a similar name and has no other connotations

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