▪ Editor’s note: Tri-City dentist Bart Roach travels the world using his skills to help people with little to no access to dental care.
The owner of Three Rivers Dental in Kennewick recently spent 2 1/2 weeks in the Ladakh region of India with the nonprofit Global Dental Relief.
In between helping treat 550 children, he spent time exploring and making new friends.
Here is the story of how one of those friendships blossomed.
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I descend from Snow View Homestay toward the tourist center of Leh as the retreating sun descends behind the Karakoram front range, illuminating the Ladakh Valley in purple light.
Skipping from cobblestone to cobblestone between Tibetan architecture, roofs neatly piled high with silage for the impending winter, I emerge from the footpath to Upper Changspa Road.
The last light of day brings life to the community hockey pond, filled with scarlet millet, ripe for threshing. Itinerant construction workers building the grandstand light kerosene stoves to cook dal, squatting in front of lantern-lit pyramidal tents from another century. Soon, the pond will be flooded, and Ladakh will host the annual hockey match with the Canadian Embassy team from Delhi.
I look right, where the traffic comes from, and check my gait as a Royal Enfield motorcycle zooms past my shoulder carrying two Desi-looking youth, hair slicked, on their way to a good time. I switch on the flashlight on my iPhone and continue my journey west, evading potholes, until I get back to the arterial footpath wending between the three strata of Leh.
I emerge onto Fort Street and into the chaos of an Indian evening. The best commercial hours are in the evening as trekkers and dharma seekers return from the mountains. Moseying toward their repast, they window-shop for pashminas, carpets and tin trinketry. Old men pass with heaps of cardboard on their heads. Motorcycles, tuk-tuks, tourism vans and lorry trucks evade sacred cows and tourists as they vie for space on a paved road one-third the width it should be.
As I dodge along, I do my best to respectfully decline the propositions of languid shopkeepers and make my way to the carpet shop, where I am to meet my new friends for Kashmiri free-range lamb, cooked three ways by their mum.
Nikki befriended me my first day in Leh, when I dropped into his shop on a mission to find cashmere sweaters. He explained to me the difference between pashmina and cashmere, variation in quality and corresponding price. He told me he was from Srinagar, the regional capital of Kashmir, about 280 miles to the west.
Kashmir, a land of my dreams, brought a smile to my face.
Noting my interest, Nikki reached into a hidden chest and pulled out an old photo album of the “Switzerland of the Subcontinent.”
I sat and listened as the sartorial gentleman regaled me with facts and stories of his fabled homeland. Antique analog prints, yellowed by time, showed scenes of his houseboat, the family processing carpets, his sons fly-fishing pristine alpine streams.
Conversation turned to wingshooting and golf, and Nik found in me a kindred spirit. We discussed all aspects of those genteel pastimes, from trans-Siberian flyways to the Swiss turf imported to Kashmir specific for the clime by Robert Trent Jones Jr.
I steered the conversation back to carpets, and Nikki insisted I come with him to his other shop to see the bulk of his inventory. I obliged, and over a cup of Masala chai, his son Suhail unrolled dozens of resplendent carpets as Nikki explained the nuance of carpet selection and the history of each heirloom piece.
Unlike other collectors, Nikki sourced his antique rugs from tribal families as far away as Peshawar, Pakistan. Many he acquired from gray market vendors of Mughal antiquities from the days of British Raj imperialism.
My favorite carpet alighted the floor with a puff of dust, making me smile in wonder as the dust settled, thinking of the stories it held.
For the next eight days, I indulged no fewer than five carpet vendors to appraise the inventory and try to determine the going rate of tribal kelim vs. Persian wool vs. silk vs. synthetic, the knot count per square inch and the authenticity of purported antiquity. I passed on one phenomenal piece a vendor sourced for 11,000 pounds sterling, or about $17,000.
Throughout the week, I would drop in on Suhail to tell him what I learned and ensure that he had not sold my favorite piece yet. We traded stories of epic shoots — mine for mallards on the Columbia, his in rice paddies for Siberian grey leg geese. We listened to mallard calls on the iPhone he and his brother attach to the loudspeaker to practice.
Suhail requested good chest waders and a cocobolo double-reed call, because all he had was an old plastic Buck Gardner and knock-off Chinese boots.
I would never have imagined having a full schedule of dates, appointments and pickups on the far side of the earth.
My last hours in Leh were spent squirreling away treasure, closing Kingfisher tabs with the last of my rupees and visiting new friends for the last time.
Suhail’s elder brother greeted me at the shop with a smile and sparkling amber eyes. We sat cross-legged on antique kelim and arranged platters of kebab, rogan josh, mutton in minted yogurt sauce, long grain biryani and naan hot to the touch.
We broke bread and — eating with our hands — enjoyed each other’s philosophies on how to go low golfing, the best way to pass-shoot geese by moonlight and the glory of full-size trucks on American freeways.
By evening’s end, we had finalized plans for a golf/horseback fly-fishing expedition to Srinagar in the spring.
We also made arrangement for my carpets — one to be traded for three sets of waders, a shotgun, a new call and a spinning rod for Nik’s grandson.
I gave my new friends my kindest regards and American Express, packed my gear and headed back up the mountain to Snow View.
Ambling up the footpath past waking street dogs, I hauled seven sweaters, two carpets, nine pashmina scarves, three Thangka paintings and my freshly embroidered travel wardrobe.
Depositing my load next to me on the roof, I climbed into my sleeping bag and started my evening ritual of counting shooting stars as they ripped across the Milky Way.
Soon, I feel asleep to the dogs sounding off in the night.