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 long term trip (well, it wasn’t THAT long but for us, it was, at the time) – 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 #11 – Same same but different
Close to the mountains and streams cities did exist in Kashmir – is what we were realising. Where people went to work in the day, shopped for everyday needs from the local grocer, fruit seller, baker.
“How lucky for them to have the best of both worlds!”, we thought, with a bit of jealousy.
So one day, we set out to walk in the local Anantnag market. And felt like we had stepped back at least a few decades. Selling stuff that we could relate to, but the how and where was a revelation.
And we overheard talks of fluctuations in the copper prices and the quality of horse saddles.
“Well, this is a different world, altogether!”
One moment, we could relate to everything. The next, nothing was the same.
We are all so different and yet so much the same!
Dispatch #12 – So much to do and such little time (even with all the time)
After the garden hopping we headed a little further away from our home base in Achabal. The Aharbal waterfalls are a popular outing for the local people. We had to change Sumo jeeps twice, once at Anantnag and then at Kulgam.
In the second taxi, we met a family on their way to a condolence visit to their friend’s house.
“Mumbai? I loved it there! I used to visit every year for almost 20 years. Every hotel had the carpets that I supplied.”
Marine drive-apricot trees-apple orchards-the sea and the heat, one moment in the Himalayas, the other on the bustling streets of Mumbai.
“Now I do zamindari”. He had apple orchards of his own and people to work in them. He was doing well, “But…”, he said, looking distantly, “Those were the days. I miss that time.”
“After the Aharbal waterfalls, go to Kungwatar, only 2-3 km ahead”, he said.
The jeep dropped us at Aharbal and the family went ahead into the village.
At the Aharbal waterfalls in pursuit of a picture of a lizard, Chetan got stung by the sharp Kashmiri grass and was shown its antidote plant right next to it by a local couple. Needless to say, the walk and the waterfall were all breathtaking.
But now, the seed of Kungwatar had been planted. “What exactly would that be?”, we were wondering.
We started walking in the direction that they had told us to. Soon, the road ended and a muddy path followed. It went high up alongside a stream. Deodar trees were all around. There was nobody around. It was a picture-perfect scene and we were right in the middle of it. But where were we going? Did this lead to Kungwatar and how far it really was?
After a while, we heard bleating sounds. There were herds of goats and sheep now followed by a family heading our way. We were as happy to see someone on the way as they were surprised to see us.
“You will take at least 3 hours.”
“What! We were told 3 km. There isn’t enough time.”
“So what? Stay the night in our camps, we will light a fire, it’ll be warm. Everyone will be there. Return back in the morning.”
They were the “bakrawals”, taking their herds high up the mountains for the summer. And not having nightclothes, food or a place to stay wasn’t reason at all to not stay back.
We knew that the caretaker chacha back in Achabal would go crazy if we didn’t return and reluctantly declined this polite offer.
Already, we were finding reasons to visit again!
Dispatch #13 – Challenge accepted
We had been in Achabal for almost a week travelling to new places every day, meeting new people. It was now time for a holiday (or a challenge, depending on how you look at it).
Mr Shafkat Ahmed mentioned Chatpal. They were trying to make it a mini Pahalgam.
“We have a bungalow ready there. I will send a caretaker with you. Let me know if you’re interested.”
Why wouldn’t we be interested? A new place, everything is taken care of – what was not to like? Why the question if we are interested?
“Is it one of your expensive destinations?”
“No no, we haven’t yet opened it for tourism.”
Yumm! We were totally in!
“Okay, great! I will call the caretaker. He will also travel with you so you don’t have to worry.”
“Just charge your phones and cameras here in Chatpal, the bungalow there doesn’t have electricity there. You can stay as long as you want.”
Aha! That’s why the question! How long could we survive without electricity?
The weather became rather fickle as we left for our “holiday” to Chatpal. We crossed Chitergul, the last village on this route as the path then went into the mountains.
It was cold and freezing by the time we reached the bungalow at Chatpal – also know as a fairy tale, a paradise or heaven or any such similar term.
Who cared for electricity – when THIS is what you had?
Bring on the challenge of no electricity. We might be city-bred, but we are no slaves to human comfort.
Being in the midst of spotless nature like this – green and bountiful and full of life – was indeed causing a mind-shift!
Dispatch #14 – I’ll take you trekking
It rained pretty hard in Chatpal. Honestly, we didn’t quite mind because everything was still extremely pretty. We stayed under our thick layer of the quilt with the kangri inside and looked out of the window even as the young guys who were working on the construction of another bungalow played shirtless cricket and teased us, “This isn’t cold! This is summer. Come out!”
“Not where we come from”, we told them. They weren’t quite impressed.
People passed by the tourist bungalow on their way to the higher mountains to gather firewood or bring back a stray sheep who refused to return home.
On the second evening, Shaukat from the neighbouring village said the weather would be good the next day since the clouds had cleared.
“I will take you trekking. I will be here in the morning”, he announced. No more questions.
Our reply was something like, “Okay, if that’s what you say!”
We trekked up to his village, crossed the nomadic Gujjar settlements and into the coniferous forest. It was a perfect day to spend outdoors. Without a worry in the world, we climbed higher and higher up the mountain. We had nowhere to reach, nothing to do. Just be!
All of this was broken by severe hunger pangs. Both Chetan and I had upset our stomachs a bit in Chatpal and had left that morning without eating anything. Yeah, we know, a trekker’s mistake. With only the Gujjar settlements around, Shaukat asked them if they could help us out.
That’s how we had our first tea in a nomad’s hut!
We knew we were bitten by the trekking bug. We hadn’t arrived in Kashmir with any agenda at all but now we knew we had to do some trekking.
Back at the bungalow in the evening, we met another tourism officer who was spending the Sunday with his family. We got chatting and the officer mentioned that the Amarnath yatra would start soon.
“You should trek up to Amarnath.”
And as we left Chatpal, we met Imran a horseman who was on his way to Pahalgam for the Amarnath yatra. “I have the best horse during the yatra, look out for me if you go there!”
Was this all a sign?
Dispatch #15 – Time to move on
We said goodbye to Chatpal and returned home to Achabal. Our old room was waiting for us as was everyone at the tourist guest house. We did our laundry. We threw a tantrum saying we couldn’t see any more potatoes and they made us a traditional gourd-yogurt subzi with rajma. We slept through the day on our old familiar bed – basically did everything you do after you’re back from a holiday.
Then we asked Shafkat what he thought about us going for a trek in Kashmir. “For just the two of you, it’ll be an expensive affair. But the Amarnath yatra will start soon, why don’t you go for that?”
Amarnath it is then!
But, we needed to prepare ourselves, gain some fitness, “practice” trekking.
“Yusmarg will be perfect for you. We have a bungalow there. I’ll call the officer to tell him you’re coming. Hope that’s okay.”
That evening we went for a short outing to the sun temple at Martand and returned early to finish packing and sleep early.
This tiny little village called Achabal – which we had never ever heard of before we got there, had been “home” in every which way. Our first home away from home. But now it was now time to move on.
It was awesome how things were so smoothly just falling in place.
To be continued…(Part 4 here)