When people hear of our long term and slow travel stories, we are often asked questions – how do we plan, what do we plan and for how long do we plan. And when we say that we don’t really plan anything at all, more questions follow. We have always said that serendipity is a big part of our travel and we let the road lead the way.
We are starting this series from our first longterm trip (well, it wasn’t THAT long but for us, it was, at the time, circa 2013) – our 3 months in the Himalayas. We won’t talk much about the place and our experience but about how did we decide the next destination, how we moved ahead and how the decision panned out. We will just “write out loud” what was going on in our minds. We hope this series throws light into the psyche of long term travel and acts as a guiding tool for future aspirants.
Dispatch #1 – Before the start the heat hits
The time of the year decided the destination for us, really. It was the month of May and the only “sensible” place to travel in India at the time is the Himalayas. We figured we would “do” the 3 states of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand in the 3 months (the idea now sounds preposterously laughable).
Not knowing exactly where to start, we just booked tickets for Delhi. Those were the only ones we got anyway, in the peak holiday season. Delhi is also a city where we have friends who are family hence a home.
It was treacherously hot in Delhi. It felt like we had stepped out of the Duronto train into a gas chamber. Mornings were the only time we could step out to explore the city. Mornings at Lodhi Gardens, Hauz Khas, the deer park and nights at India Gate followed.
Meanwhile, we had to figure some gear out. We only had one backpack at the time. We had heard of a store called Stikage in Delhi, so that’s where we went to buy a bag and ended up buying almost all their travel-related gear. The Canon camera lens needed some fixing so we got that done at the Canon service centre. And bought some cheap cotton clothes at Sarojini Nagar.
But where do we head from here? Which part of the Himalayas should we get to? Uttarakhand and upwards or Jammu and Kashmir and downwards were the two options.
But where exactly?
Dispatch #2 – Holiday before travel
While we were still undecided at Delhi was scorching, some friends asked if we would be interested in driving down to Naukuchiatal for a weekend. “It’ll be a holiday before you guys go travelling on your own”, they said.
Made sense. Early on a Saturday morning we started from Delhi and got stuck in dreadful traffic caused by some Ganga snan for some auspicious (pretty much godforsaken for us!) day. We were baked potatoes by the time we reached Bhimtal. But roads lined with peach, cherry, plums, litchi (fruits from the hills!) soothed us and in the evening breeze, it did feel like we were in the hills.
We explored a bit of Naukuchiatal and Nainital in the mornings and evenings – the days were quite hot even here to spend outdoors.
We returned to Delhi after a couple of days knowing that to find good weather, we would have to go really really high up. “Let’s start from Kashmir”, was the decision made, based solely on this one factor – the heat.
We booked our tickets for Jammu, said goodbyes to our friends.
“Have a life-changing trip”, we were told!
Dispatch #3 – Internet, 2G and no room in a new city
So we reached Jammu early morning and immediately got into a fight. While I (Sandeepa) had assumed we would be heading to Kashmir, Chetan thought we should hang around and explore Jammu since he hadn’t been there before.
Great! We were in a new city, not knowing anything about it with nowhere to stay! Panic struck, the fight blossomed. Finally, our emotions were spent and we got down to the task of finding a place to stay. In those 2G days, it took a long long time to find something that looked promising. A hotel near the main tourist attraction – the Raghunath temple for just 300 INR!
This is sounding repetitive but Jammu was too hot to step out as well. We just stuck to shopping. We bought a stainless steel spoon, two small plastic containers – one for sugar, the other for milk powder and packets of tea bags, coffee sachets, milk powder and salt. We bought lemons to make lemonade, paneer and tomatoes to make a healthy salad.
Next on the list were shoes. The owner of the shop we walked into turned out to be a DSLR camera owner desperately looking for lessons on using it. A quick class ensued which was promptly followed by a discount and travel tips.
“Go to Mansar lake and on your way to Srinagar stop at Sanasar for a few days.” These were names we had never heard of!
We went to the Mansar lake by bus (with a changeover at Kathua – all informed by the people on the bus) early the next day and were back in Jammu by late afternoon. We went to the bus stand to enquire about the buses for Srinagar and found out that early morning was the best time to leave.
Not only had we found a decent (and incredibly cheap) place to stay but we had also explored places we didn’t know existed – for cheap – all thanks to the locals.
“This is awesome” we realised.
Dispatch #4 – Serendipity starts in Sanasar
The bus for Srinagar was the usual state transport rickety bus. Out of Jammu following the Tavi river, the landscape was starting to finally feature the mountains! The bus dropped us off at Patnitop. There was an army post there and we were informed that a bus going to Sanasar would get there around 2 PM. We had a few hours which we whiled away on the meadows of Patnitop, looking at musty youth hostels. We had a lunch of rajma-chawal at the army post.
Surely the bus arrived – filled, no, bursting with people. Cans of milk, hens, men, women, the elderly, kids – everyone. “Okay, we are from Mumbai. Standing in an overcrowded bus isn’t a big deal. And – we don’t have an option of chickening out”. Into the bus, we went and instantly became objects of curiosity, amusement and minute examination. Most people were the Gujjars returning home after selling milk in the markets of Udhampur.
The JKTDC on the Sanasar meadows was a bit too expensive (1000 INR at the time). We asked around a bit more and found a “hotel” run by the local guys – 350 INR for a cabin-like room with the sweet smell of wood and a massive layer of blankets!
Alright mountains, we have arrived!
Dispatch #5 – Trust issues
The scenes we had seen on the way up to the Sanasar meadows – the mud houses, the Gujjar families and their nomadic settlements, and this was a big one – how far removed they were from anything we had known up till then, all made us curious about their them and their lives. How could we know more?
The next morning, we knew we wanted to skip the “seeing the points on a horse” routine. We decided to follow a random trail in the forest down the mountain slope. We walked and walked some more. This was the first time we were walking down a forest trail by ourselves not knowing where it went. After a while, the landscape changed from forest to farms. “Well, let’s move ahead and see what’s here.”
We walked for a few more minutes and saw our first human on the trail. “I have been seeing you since you came up that turn.” Of course, these were words that raised all alarms. Our bodies tightened, senses heightened.
Us: “Where does this trail end?”
Him: “Come home, let’s talk over tea.”
What’s there to talk over tea? Just tell us the way, where it leads to and we’ll go our way, you go yours. Why are you inviting us for tea? Aren’t we strangers? Who does that? Something is wrong here. Is he trying to kidnap us? Can we escape safely? Mental overdrive.
Tentatively, we walked towards his home – just like the mud houses that had piqued our interest. Inside, it was a regular home. His kids were getting ready for school, their bags and books were lying around. His wife who was busy in the kitchen got us tea. We sat, relaxed and started talking.
“Where are you going? Where are you coming from? How come here? Are you with a group?”
“What’s your name? What’s the name of this village? What do you do? Have you been to Mumbai?”
Turns out, he used to be a truck driver, delivering apples to Mumbai every year. “Marathi mein bolte hai aalu ko batata”, he said, his smiling eyes saying that he was thinking of happy times.
We were a long way from the road. If we wanted to move ahead, we would “at our pace” take at least 4 hours. When his wife heard this, she went to the kitchen again, announcing that we would have to have lunch at their home, we wouldn’t get anything to eat on the way.
Just like that!
For sure, it took us a good 4 hours. Close to the road, we saw the construction of the now functional Chenani-Nashri tunnel. A change of a couple of buses (including the last, even-more-crowded bus) got us back to Sanasar.
Something bizarre that we had never imagined, least of all expected had happened that day. We couldn’t grasp the whole experience. But something felt just right.
We didn’t exactly know what the question was, but it felt like we were finding the answer!
(To be continued…)