Kashmir, always evocative of romance. The last time I drove through on my way to the Zanskar, I found the magic of the houseboats. This time was closer to the childhood Kashmir of cottages in Gulmarg – picnics in the meadows et al.
Dilshad said, ‘you have to come on this trek.’ There are no have to’s for me when you offer me a walk in the mountains – I would live my whole life out of a tent opening to incredible vistas every morning. That I manage to do it more often than not, is the greatest blessing.
The first time I ever flew into Kashmir, the airport was the beginning of the enchantment – there were fields of red poppies nodding in the jetstream of landing aircraft all along the runway. I don’t know if that still happens in summer, but there were certainly no poppies this October day. It was cold out and nice to anticipate the, brisk weather, walking. We had what was meant to be a quick car ride to our trek start point in Tangmarg – unfortunately – it was delayed by a traffic jam at road works blockaded by trucks. Just the usual fare. We started our trek from Tangmarg rather late, down to cross the river where the bridge has been swept away by the floods last year. The bridge still not fixed, but the large pipes that carry the water from the small power house were all in order. We scrambled over pipes and slippery boulders to the village of Drung. There was produce being dried in fields and on rooftops, corn and vegetables, getting set for the winter. We moved on through, being greeted by so very polite school children, all rosy cheeked and clean.
Our first stop was in a meadow surrounded by pine and fir, close to a now abandoned Gujjar hut. The family and buffaloes having moved down for the winter.
We stopped to eat our lunch. The air was crisp and clean with the smells of pine and fir. There were remnants of daisies and buttercups reminiscent of the passing of summer. Our trek continued crossing burbling brooks and through forest and meadow – we passed an ancient Hindu temple, built by the Mughals apparently, now in ruin
s and shelter for cows it seemed. It was beautiful with fall colours on the few Chinar and wild Walnut trees. Carpet of green, gold and red. I was also imagining it in summer, the riot of wild flowers and colour that we could see remnants of would be in full bloom and make for an element completely different to the one we were experiencing. It never ceases to amaze – how well nature clads herself with impeccable style, colour and taste – perfectly suited to the seasons!!
We did a two day route in one and were rather hurriedly clambering up hills and down dale to get to camp before dark, which took away some of the enjoyment of stand and stare time, which is what I savour most when on a walk like this. However our guide Wali Mohammed would saunter off way ahead of us and then lie on a rock meditating, while we scrambled to catch up. He would look pityingly and ask if we were ‘ok’ or needing a rest? We did not dare need a rest so on we would trudge – him with his easy loping stride and us with our ‘Nepali shuffle’ slowly up the mountain. We did make it well in time, coming up below the high Gondola wires and through a large Gujjar and ‘Ghorha wala’ settlement to descend down into a charming meadow surrounded by firs and bordering a stream.Our camp was set and waiting and the fire was lit to warm our frozen selves. A new moon appeared in the twilight blue sky and all was oh so good with the world. It’s that moment that one breathes a sigh for the magic and gives thanks to whatever has led you to be here now.
To wake to the sun gilding the mountains and emerge into this brightening world out of a warm cocooned tent – it is one of those special joys of the trekker along with sweetly sore muscles. We were going up and over the ridge to the Frozen Lake. Crossing the tree line and up into the barrenness of browning meadow and giant scattered boulders, is not so exciting in biting cold. Then the clouds came and blocked out the light making for more ‘Drear’! Totally joyless walking when it’s meant for pleasure is no one’s idea of fun. We diverted through an enchanting forest of Bhojpatra, bone white tree trunks with flaking, paper thin bark.
Myriad coloured leaves that crunched underfoot, we stopped for our picnic lunch in this wonderland. Continued traversing the ridge and climbed down to the Cable car – which zoomed us up to the ridge we would have been walking across. Short cutting totally. By the time we reached the top it was hailing and raining and an absolute white out. The frozen lake would have to wait for another time, when perhaps the meadows would be a burst of interesting wild flowers to make that trudge more palatable.
That night as we lay snug in our marvellous tents it rained and rained and rained. I woke to the call of nature, which went unanswered because I kept waiting for the rain to abate. It didn’t at all and I finally put on my rain jacket and emerged into a breaking dawn – the toilet pit was flooded making for a natural water closet – no details here. The dining tent had stuff piled up on the table and water channels crisscrossing the floor. We had a makeshift breakfast and decided to abandon a further trek to Ningal nalla and just clamber down into Gulmarg. It turned into another enchanting walk through the rain with the mist enshrouded trees and the streams bursting their banks.
I must admit I could have walked some more – it was so beautiful. Unfortunately we very shortly reached the roadhead where a car and driver awaited us – he surreally appeared out of the mist holding a placard. We transfered to the posh Khyber hotel – where admittedly the bathrooms and the rain showers were a very acceptable luxury as was their spa. A steam and deep tissue massage were very welcome to cramping, cold muscles.
We then wandered into a lovely old village near Tangmarg to visit an old home where carpet weaving was taught. All handicrafts are essentially winter activities in most hill areas – the short summers being used to grow a crop or do outdoor work as required. The kashmiris along with having the most spectacular scenery to dwell amidst, also seem to have the most beautiful crafts and artisan work. From their fabulous carpets to the gossammer woven, intricately embroidered shawls. Beautifully carved and crafted wood work and furntiture. Papier mache art with it’s skilled painting – they truly are a talented people. Watching those spinnners and weavers sit in that old room with the misty daylight that barely penetrated the dusty windows was a fascination. Their strips of pattern strung in the threads above, their nimble fingers didn’t seem to pause and obviously they made no mistake to the intricate pattern they wove. In turn we also seemed to fascinate the whole family who came to peek at the strangers peeking at them.
Our day ended with hot chocolate at the Highland Park bar, I needed to go check out an old haunt – it was much the same and it was nice to see that though Gulmarg is unrecognizable from when I knew, all the new structures have the same old architectural style – it is still the large meadow of memory and has not been high rised and built into oblivion.
This is what I would term the perfect short trek, – it is utterly beautiful country, comfortable walking terrain, great campsites and ends with an option of opulent luxury.