Trekking the meadows of Kashmir

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.IMG_8250

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. IMG_8138There IMG_8139was 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.

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IMG_8280IMG_8142We 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!!

IMG_8226IMG_8227We 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. IMG_8146We 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.IMG_8264IMG_8149Our 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. IMG_8148It’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. IMG_8224-1We 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.IMG_8239
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. IMG_8259By 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.
IMG_8282I 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. IMG_8283We 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.IMG_8286 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.IMG_8293IMG_8296

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.

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A drive in the mountains.

2 July 2014:

Thanedar, out the window

A misty morning at Thanedar

Driving into the mountains again and the weather has just broken – first monsoon rain, or just like that? I don’t know, but there is nothing quite like driving through the plains on a lovely cloudy day, with spattering rain and know you are headed into the hills.

We completed a meeting in Simla, by which time the spattering rain was a full blooded downpour. The roads ran like rivers, iffy visibility, even with the wipers going crazily back and forth. Then of course came the misty bits, only once we got off the main road – obviously – so each curve of that little track appeared in slow motion in the beams that were already reflected back off the swirling mist. A lovely adventure that has brought us to this very comfortable Banjara Orchard Retreat at Thanedar. Warm rooms, neat bathrooms and a lovely dinner. The view I shall describe tomorrow – as I can see only twinkling lights on the far hills at this point.

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Apples out of my window

So the morning. A view straight down to the Sutlej and across to where we are going  – the Jalori pass. Right outside my window are ripening apples.

Walks from here –

Oldest church in India 1872, Saint Mary’s Church a walk through the orchards of an hour and a half gets you to the church, and you can choose to make a long walk of it or have a car pick you up on the return.

2. Saroga with Thakur sahib, who will tell you the stories of the area walking through the forest.

3. Drive to Tikkar, start climbing to Sidhpur and on to Hatu peak and back starting at 8000 ft and climbing to 11500 ft to visit the temple, walk down the other side. A full day hike through orchards and forests with spectacular views.

All this I got from the very genteel Thakur Sahib over an extremely fulfilling breakfast. I would love to go on the walk with him, n he is a font of information about all facets of the area – not discounting that he is also an extremely charming gentleman.

3 July 2014:

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roofs of Koti village short of Jalori

I am sitting on the balcony of a beautifully restored Himachali home, watchig the clouds drifting between the thickly forested mountains off the Jalori pass. It’s a drive I have done myriad times and it never fails to enchant. We took the back route which goes through little villages and climbs unrealistically up sharp hair pins with loose boulders. Hillsides carpeted in purple irises interspersed with wild, red strawberries, thick deodar forest. Undrivable, lumpy roads full of slush – it’s why I love the 4×4 – you can get to these places.

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Prem Singh’s Dhaba after the slushy road

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Irises off Jalori

 

We have arrived at the Banjara Camp at Shoja. It lies at the end of a little village, overlooking the valley. You look down off the balcony and fields of vegetables interspersed with apple and plum trees fall in steep terraces below and across are thick forests. Two converted old homes, large comfortable rooms and bathrooms, opening onto deep balconies where you can laze the days away watching the changing vistas of a monsoon day, or soak the sun and catch the spreading views of range upon range of mountains.

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4 July 2014

It is still pouring rain as we leave from Sojha down into the Tirtan river valley to visit  my old friend Raju in what I would term one of my favourite holiday destinations. Raju’s cottage, sitting on the banks of the Tirthan river, crossing the jhula in the rain over a roiling river, meeting Lataji and her new daughter in law, and the greatest surprise of all, running into both Cookie and Shaheen. Had a lovely breakfast with all the homemade juices, jams, parathas and the amazing dahi from the fresh milk that Latajis cows provide. I could have just stayed there, but we had a long day of discovery ahead of us so on we drove. First to IMG_4756check out another little home stay at Deori along the Tirthan a little lower. Nice two bedroom cottage on the banks of one of the side streams.  Then on to find someone to fix our car battery which is completely gone and necessitates us parking on slopes or pushing the car. After having done that we drove up the Pah Nala to a beautiful home that is being built by the side of the nala, I want to live there. Mr. Jamwal who owns the place knew about the upper road from Raison to Kullu that Pia and I had wandered many years ago – so we followed it and discovered lovely villages, a hair raising road, a completely off road track leading to a high village and superb views of the whole kullu valley. We have now arrived at the Sunogi homestead, which I shall discover in the morning.

3 July 2014:

It is reminiscent of all the family summer homes. I could be at York cottage in Dalhousie or at Pavit’s in Mashobra. Traditional himachali architecture, added and improved to provide the comforts of great bathrooms and interesting bedrooms with touches of unique individuality. A fabulous, large, central fireplace dominates the dining room – you could roast the proverbial ox. The food is homely and tasty. The whole sense, at least for me was exceptional quality and comfort.

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A likely spot.

The drive to arrive at this special spot is much like the climb to York, tiny little ‘kacha’ road winding through monstrous deodars which will prevent you tumbling down the hillside but unless you know how to control your machine, you will leave notches in the those old trunks. So all inexperienced drivers, park and walk, intrepid drivers can try their skill. Probably best to have a 4×4 though.

It has finally stopped raining and we have a clear, sunny day to try our bit at exploring the road to Bijli Mahadev.

4 July 2014:

I saw some of the thickest tallest Deodars on this wild drive to the meadows of Bijli Mahadev. A dirt road, 4×4 all the way, just beautiful wilderness. Such an array of wild flowers, buttercups kissing cheeks with wild strawberries. Deodar, horse chestnut, huge himalayan oaks. Crazy streams threatening to wash away the road, fat boulders and tree trunks wanting to stop your path and finally to emerge on the ridge top to views of the Beas on one side and the Parvati on the other. The sky’s threatened to pour, but stayed clear for us.

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The wishing tree at Bijli Mahadev

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Gods in row.


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Kathguni style used for animals now!!

This homestead has been built by an Italian called Erin……., we discovered that many people in this area have been affected by this foreigners championing of the traditional kathguni building stlyle and have built following his dictat. It is heartening to see and a sorrow that an outsider
needs to help us acknowledge traditional wisdom.

We have done a short drive up the Parvati valley, which is quite ruined by the dam and the mafia, so I shall keep my memories of it intact. But we discovered a beauty in the Lug valley, you turn up from the middle of the Kullu bazaar and in a few moments find yourself in a beautiful, steep sided valley with villages scrambling for purchase on its sh
eer sides.
A lovely stream running through it. It bifurcates into 3
different valleys farther up and we managed to explore two. One is going to become a main highway soon once they bore a tunnel through the mountain from Barot. Kilagi was the last village and the road turns off
just short of it so there will still be lots to explore in the future.

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Traditional bee keeping.

5 July 2014:

Today we discovered the most beautiful old village, up and up the road from Raison. Himri; of wooden homes that still have traditional beekeeping logs on their balconies.

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At the head of the valley.

A man and his dog

A man and his dog

The time has stood still here and you can access the high meadows above Himri and through forests and magical mountain views, cross into the valleys on either side without ever touching the hum drums of the lower valley where roads and ugly structures exist. 

We did drive back down and up into the Faujal nala to see what we could see, and sure enough – Faujal has turned into a teeming place with cafes and what nots, but you clamber up a side road to discover the orchards and scattered homes of Dhara village with spectacular views up and down the Kullu valley again.

This has been a week of discovering hidden gems. May they stay glowing in their uncut splendour.

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A wedding procession.

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I love the mountains!