An unanswered question still haunts us. If they were visitors in our city, guests in our homes, would we have treated them the same? Would they go back thinking the same of us as we did of them?
The places we visited – some of them deep remote parts of the Himalayas – are among the most beautiful parts of our planet. Yet, surprisingly (or maybe not), the people we met on our trip (and not the stunning vistas) have been our defining memory of these places. Every level of isolation unleashed a new level of hospitality and generosity.
The time spent in the mountains feels like a journey from one random act of kindness to the other.
Serendipity and travel
We were in a bus from Patnitop to Sanasar. Sanasar is a village set on a mountain side, a hill station on the Jammu side of Jammu and Kashmir. All along our bus ride, we saw these mud coloured, box-shaped houses.
Seeing these unique structures, our curiosity was piqued. We were eager to peek into these houses and the lives of the families which made these home.
Turns out, a brilliant stroke of serendipity was awaiting us!
The next morning, we set out on a random trail into the mountains. A farmer living in one such house spotted us and invited us over for tea.
Sanasar was just the beginning of our trip in the hills. We were still novices to genuine warmth and hospitality. As a standard habit of city dwellers, our guards were raised at this unexpected friendliness.
Well, the tea coupled with long conversations, turned into a well-fed meal of rajma-chawal (black bean curry and rice), karela (bitter gourd vegetable) and yoghurt.
And ended up being the first of the many such priceless gifts of our travels!
Yusuf from Sinthan Top
We had just reached Sinthan Top, after crossing our first high altitude mountain pass on the national highway NH1-B. It is open for traffic only in the few summer months.
We were among the handful of visitors up there. Palpably enamoured by our first sighting of snow in years (decades), we were shivering despite the layers of clothing on the cold windy day.
That’s when we met Yusuf. He was an employee for BEACON, the company that maintains the mountain roads in Jammu and Kashmir. His present posting was as a security guard for the snow clearing machine that was parked on the Sinthan Top. He lived in a small tent with another colleague.
By sunset, the three food shacks at the top shut down and the owners return back to their villages. Yusuf and his colleague are then the only people in the vast middle-of-nowhere. Howling winds, surrounding snow and the star-studded sky in pitch darkness are their companions.
No other neighbours. No shops. No traffic. Zero help in case of an emergency.
The nearest village, Daksum, at the bottom of the mountain pass is 30 km away.
Yusuf visited his home in Daksum once in 10-15 days. With a stable job, he was an exception to his Gujjar tribe who otherwise are largely nomadic.
Seeing us freeze in the cold, he invited us in his makeshift tent. It was surprisingly warm inside. We chatted about his job and responsibilities as an employee of BEACON. He explained to us how the machine worked.
It was past noon by then. He asked us if we were hungry and offered to cook us some lunch! Adding that he couldn’t make much up there. Had we visited his home in Daksum, he could have treated us to a much better variety!
We couldn’t believe this hospitality.
Tough jobs, yet such kind hearts!
Setting an example of “Atithi Devo Bhava” – My guest is my God
Beliefs change every few miles in the Indian society, but this is one sentiment that binds us all. Even in the far off meadows of Dragdolan in Kashmir.
Like this Gujjar family of nomadic shepherds. They shift homes every six months, spending summers up in the hills and winters down in the plains.
This change is the only constant in their lives.
When they saw us walking up a hill, the woman called out to ask if we wanted some milk-bread (mush kalari). We had never heard of it before, so told our guide we wanted to try. That was the only thing they charged us for (charged, would be a few cents!).
We then went into their house and had our first look at a Gujjar home, their kitchen and way of life. Even allowing us to take a photo of them in their house.
The eldest woman gave us water to refill our bottles. Every day, one of them had to walk for miles in the hills to stock up their water supply. But they didn’t hesitate a bit while offering it to us. On the contrary, our guide explained to us, they would feel happy about helping us out like this.
On our way back, by the time we crossed their house again, the entire family had returned from the hills with their flock. They again called out to us, this time for a full family portrait.
We had some great fun filled moments, taking pictures and chatting.
This Gujjar family reprieved us from hunger on a trek in the forest around Chatpal, a remote part of Kashmir.
For some baffling reason, we skipped breakfast and set out for a day trek without any supplies. Obviously, very soon, hunger struck. By then, we were well beyond the villages and there were only these Gujjar deras – settlements, around. Our guide approached them, and they invited us over for tea.
The woman was unwell; they were leaving to see the doctor, around 10km away. All by foot.
And yet, they gave us some hot namkeen chai – salted tea.
And apologised for the rush and not being able to serve us anything more!
Tenzing came as a God-sent to rescue us from a cliff
We had just started our walk when we reached a point where the trail disappeared. We had to literally walk down a cliff which fell into a deep gorge.
We stood rooted there, staring scarily at this difficult patch, strategizing a safe crossing. When Tenzing, the daughter of this family, came by. Without any hesitation, she walked through, as easily as one would climb down the stairs in their house.
Realising our predicament she came up again, and helped us all! We couldn’t have thanked her enough!
Later, while crossing through her house in Anmu, her family invited us over for tea. It was an idyllic setting, a house on a hill, with a kitchen garden in front, small cosy cheerful rooms and loads of kids’ laughter! We had some tea, home-made bread and the most amazing yoghurt.
Humbled by their hospitality and hearts filled with gratitude, we carried on.
Friendly urban professionals from Kashmir!
Imagine meeting a tourism officer, by chance. He is on a holiday with his wife. He drives you around some remote parts of Kashmir. They then get you home for the night!
We had known them for just a couple of days when they invited us over to stay with them in their home in Srinagar. With their kids out for higher education – son in Chandigarh studying engineering and daughter in Malaysia doing her masters, they said space was not a problem.
We were thrilled at the prospect of being in a home with a real family. No room check ins and check outs. Soft beds, fresh floral smelling linen, clean bathrooms. This was a home!
We all had dinner in their wood floored cosy living room. Aunty had made the most luscious chicken.
The next day, we had plans to head to Gulmarg. But it turned out to be a rainy day. They said there was no point stepping out in the rains. That evening, they drove us around parts of Srinagar we hadn’t seen before. It felt like a lovely family outing!
We had experienced first hand the hospitality of the simple rural folks. But city life wasn’t meant to be like that!
Lamayuru homestay: Feeling at home in sickness
Our supposed journey from Kargil to Leh is something we won’t forget for a long, long time. Battling the (in)famous Indian stomach infection and not the glorious vistas being the reason.
We jumped off the bus at Lamayuru, threw our backpacks on the road and ran into the loo.
This kiddo had come looking for prospective clients for their Temple View Homestay. He realised our situation and rushed us in the direction of the restrooms.
Only after a long dreadful hour, were we in a position to step out and went to meet his dad. He is the owner of Temple View Homestay. He and his family rent out the spare rooms to guests and tenants.
He asked us if there was a problem.
We explained the matter to him. He asked his son to take us to the health centre who also got us our medicines. His wife made us a light meal of rice and fresh yoghurt. They didn’t let us have any packaged food. He warned us against drinking cold water.
By evening we were feeling much better and told him he needn’t boil the water for us. He would have none of it. Before we went to sleep, a bottle of boiled water was sent to our room.
His son and daughter, seen in this photo study at a school in Leh and had come home to Lamayuru for holidays. The next day they were heading back for school. Their mother was going to accompany them to Leh. We all left together by the same bus.
We were two months into our trip, far away from family and friends. It was heartwarming to be taken care of like this.
We will forever and ever be obliged to all of them for making us feel at home when we were really down.
Kindness and warmth like this is probably the biggest reward of traveling.
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