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.
…continued from Part 1
Dispatch #6 – Chaos rules
Enriched by the experiences in Sanasar we now decided to make the move to the Kashmir valley. Starting early morning from Sanasar by the first bus down the mountain we waited for a long while to find a taxi at Patni Top.
A manic driver took us to Srinagar by evening. He dropped us at Jehangir chowk just outside the Jehangir hotel. It turned out to be out of the budget we had set for accommodation. They suggested we go to Lal Chowk to find budget-friendly hotels. Not having a place to stay was now not new for us.
We reached Lal chowk, looked for a cyber cafe and found a hotel that would fit our budget (around 500 INR per night). It fell way short of our expectations, so the next morning after a stroll around Lal Chowk we moved to the Lala Rukh hotel opposite to this one. Here, we stayed in an almost empty dormitory for 300 INR a bed. It was a surprisingly comfortable stay.
Visits to Dal lake, Shalimar and Nishat gardens, Pari Mahal and the usual places followed. But at the peak of summer, Srinagar was too crowded for comfort. We realised that to truly explore at our own pace we needed to move to a place off the tourist circuit.
Everyone around suggested Pahalgam and Gulmarg. We wanted to dig deeper.
We again took to the internet for help.
Dispatch #7 – Important people, on the run
Looking for places to get away from the crowds at Srinagar, we went on the JKTDC website. Kokernag sprung up as one of the options. It was just a couple of hours away and we could book a room that fit our budget.
People at the Lala Rukh hotel suggested we take the train to Anantnag.
We were the only “outsiders” at the station and on the train. The army guys, the police, the people – all wanted to know who we were and why did we want to take such a crowded train. We tried to explain as we went past the newly planted rice fields giving us glimpses of the rural life of Kashmir.
The JKTDC accommodation was right inside the botanical garden which meant we could be in the garden before it opened for the public. But our room was a total disaster. We knew we couldn’t stay there beyond that night.
We spent the day roaming around the Kokernag Botanical Garden, the trout fishery next door and strolling the main road.
By chance, we saw the JK Tourism office and on a whim, we walked in. It was a Sunday evening and we didn’t expect to get any response.
A tourism officer was sitting in the lawn there, we said we needed suggestions for places to see. He invited us into his office. We were surprised and impressed.
“How long is your tour?” He started the usual questionnaire.
“We don’t know yet. We are here to explore.”
The smile he gave said he had got us. Chetan showed him some photos he had been clicking. The officer only replied, “You are an important person for us.”
We didn’t know at the time how those lines and that officer would change our lives forever.
Dispatch #8 – “Somehow” simple
The tourism officer who we met in Kokernag, Mr Shafkat Ahmed, asked us to shift base to Achabal. A huge room for just 500 INR. Only thing was a shared bathroom, which was kept impeccably clean by the staff.
When he suggested Sinthan Top, he himself had no idea how we could get there without a private vehicle. “Manage somehow”, he said.
“We’ll see how we can go about it”, we replied.
There was a regular shared jeep service up to a village named Vailoo. At Vailoo, luckily for us, there was a jeep going to Kishtwar (besides the Jammu-Srinagar highway, this route is a summer-only alternative to enter Kashmir). The driver dropped us on top of the Sinthan Pass. Surrounded by snow (gosh, after so many years!) and no other tourists around we had the entire Sinthan Top to ourselves. We had the essential Maggi and eggs lunch in a “food stall” followed by an invitation by a snow machine guard (who worked for the BRO and at times spent the night all by himself on the Sinthan Top) to visit his makeshift but an oh-so-warm tent.
We returned in another shared jeep, this time carrying horsemen from Kishtwar who were getting their horses to Kashmir for the Amarnath yatra (weeks ahead). This time we got off at Daksum to spend some time by the glacier-fed stream in a forest. We were so besotted by Daksum that the next morning we went there again to walk in the Rajpari Wildlife Sanctuary.
There were no tourists around, only people who lived there – those we call “locals”. We were spending as long as we wanted in places we had never heard of before.
“Somehow”, we were learning to work things out and it was all turning out to be really simple!
Dispatch #9 – Homebase
Achabal was now our “home”. Each morning we would wake up and find the hoopoe in the garden in front. We would make tea and coffee in the room using our stock of sugar, milk powder, tea bags and coffee. Get ready and head to the dining hall for breakfast. Many a time there would be other guests visiting for a couple of days. We were like the in-house guests.
The staff would then give us final instructions on how to get to where we were heading. On most days, we needed to head to Anantnag. If needed, we would stock up our supplies from a store here. By then we had developed a habit of carrying 250 ml tetra packs of milk (at least 2 each), multigrain biscuits and fruits in our bags. This would usually be our lunch – in a garden, by the waterfall, next to the stream – wherever.
On lazy days, we would just spend time in and around Achabal. There was an ashram further down the road at a place called Nagdandi. Shafkat had recommended we go there. So one evening we just walked up there, spent some time in the garden of the ashram there, befriended two young boys and spent an entire evening watching them go about their evening play.
This image later went on to be a part of the series “Games children play around the world”, getting millions of views globally.
Dispatch #10 – Questions, answers and friendships
Terraced gardens, springing fountains – and the movies that made them famous now became a part of daily life. This was known as the garden region of Kashmir. Kokernag, Achabal, Verinag all had beautiful Mughal gardens minus the tourists that pack their counterparts in Srinagar.
These gardens were all pretty and beautiful and all of that. But what excited us every morning was the process of getting to them.
Achabal main road-Anantnag taxi stand-new location.
Look for a Sumo jeep with the front seats empty. So we could take photos from a moving jeep.
“Are you two related?”
“Married, really? Do you have your wedding photos?”
“No kids? May Allah bless you with many.”
All of this became the routine ice breaker.
It was amazing how these Sumo jeeps became our level playing fields.
“How much money do you make in Mumbai?” to “But you don’t have our apple orchards” and “Your house has only 3 rooms?” – we loved that we were answering as many questions as we were asking.
These Sumo taxis were where we got travel tips which no one else gave. And then they would debate about whether we were “capable” enough to go to these places.
“Naah, don’t try to get there, it’s very far”
“Arre, they are travelling with us in these jeeps, they’ll manage walking 4/8/10 km as well”.
These conversations were as heartening as they were amusing.
And when a random stranger you’ve just had eye-to-eye contact with as he looks at you clicking a picture of him working in his farm calls you over, takes you home and asks you to wait for dinner you are overwhelmed.
Tea is tea, but a sharing cup of tea in someone’s home – with their kids, parents and friends – that’s not just a beverage. It is a stranger letting you be part of their most trusted space – their home. It is a basic human connection, as raw and real as it gets.
And we were fast learning that travel was really about these connections, not about the places!
(To be continued… Part 3 is here)