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.
…Continued from Part 3
Dispatch #16 – Practice makes perfect
A tedious route of Achabal-Anantnag-Srinagar-Chanapora-Chadoora-Char-e-Sharif-Yusmarg took half a day. Abdul Rashid, the tourism officer at Yusmarg was waiting for us. When you’re spending days on the road, this simple act of someone “waiting for you” becomes a special one.
He showed us to the tourist bungalow, which was just as we had now come to expect. Right on the meadows, a small, warm, sweet-smelling wooden cabin with views to die for – everything was right there, perfect!
But unlike Chatpal, this wasn’t a “holiday”. We had come to Yusmarg with a specific purpose – of preparing for the Amarnath yatra.
Abdul Rashid, in his office, had hand-drawn the various day treks possible from Yusmarg in all directions. With that reference, we charted out a plan.
Roam around the meadows, maybe walk down to the stream called Doodhganga. A day trek to the lake of Nilnag the next.
“This one also you can go on your own”, he told us. We were instructed to not take the forest route. “The left turn soon after you climb up from these meadows will take you via the village, take that route. You might lose way in the forest.”
We never realised when the left came, we just kept walking. It took a while for us to realise that we had most likely done what we were instructed not to.
Hmm, so in the forest, it’s really easy to lose your way – and you won’t even know it!
Thankfully, the Nilnag lake did show up. We had our lunch by the lake and rested in the shade for a while.
Then headed to find the village Gojipathri where Abdul Rashid had spoken to a retired BSF personnel who lived there to let us rest in his house for a while. He and his family welcomed us as if we were their personal guests. Tea and biscuits followed. They insisted we have lunch which we had to decline. We had a long walk ahead to Yusmarg and we didn’t want to do that with our stomachs full.
We reached the meadows of Yusmarg in time to see it turn golden for the sunset.
Tomorrow, we would head further ahead!
Dispatch #17 – Now we are talking!
“We can’t let you go alone. You are our guest. Shafkat Sir has gives us your responsibility. Please take a guide”, Abdul Rashid told us for our trek the next morning.
We didn’t have a counter-argument for such an emotional statement, we agreed to take a guide. Rashid Dar, the guide, didn’t disappoint. He had been the guide for the Indian Army as well when needed!
When we told him we wanted to prepare for the Amarnath yatra, he looked at us (especially me) with suspicion.
“Okay, let’s leave for today, first!”
“Do you think it’ll rain today?”
“If I knew this, I would be God.”
Alright! Guide with an attitude…in a good way! The day looked promising.
We soon left the Yusmarg meadows, entered the forest, crossed streams climbed further and landed on another meadow. These were the meadows of Dragdolan, accessible only by foot. Rashid Dar pointed what was Dragdolan 1 and 2 and where the horsemen wrongly took you till when you rode to Dragdolan (far before the actual meadows!).
In the summer, the Gujjars had set up base here. We took a break in the house of one such family where Rashid Dar had his hukka break. They helped us with water to fill our bottles and gave us a taste of milk roti.
We walked ahead till Barga and after lunch turned back towards Yusmarg. This time our guide had more confidence in us.
“I didn’t expect you to walk so much. You guys were good, didn’t complain at all!”
We told him we had a great time and asked him if we thought we were okay for the Amarnath yatra.
“Of course”, our guide certified.
When we told the tourism officer Abdul Rashid that we were planning to leave Yusmarg, he was a little upset. He wanted us to stay longer. “We don’t get many tourists like you, you stayed like a foreigner”, he told us. He was probably referring to our refusal to go on horseback and preferring to walk instead.
We could’ve trekked a lot more in Yusmarg but to catch the Amarnath yatra at the beginning, we needed to move.
Dispatch #18 – Lost…in the forest and people
The traditional route for starting the Amarnath yatra was from Pahalgam. Another long route of Yusmarg-Pehripora-Pulwama-Anantnag-Pahalgam took almost half a day. We got to Pahalgam by late afternoon and went in somewhat of a shock. In the last couple of weeks, we had lost touch with dealing places like this.
Too many people, too many shops selling too many things. Too many restaurants, too much variety of food. Our first impression of Pahalgam was, “Gosh, THIS is where people come when they come to Kashmir?”
We couldn’t bring ourselves to stay in any of the hotels near the markets of Pahalgam. Besides, they were mind-bogglingly expensive – 2000-3000 INR, “which is what tourists pay”, we thought.
Yeah, we had started thinking “like that” by then.
After two weeks of spending time in the unknown unheard villages of Kashmir, we were lost for options in Pahalgam, the most popular tourist destination in Kashmir.
We started wandering aimlessly in the market of Pahalgam asking people if they knew of a hotel that was away from the crowds. And just like that, a tall, smart guy walked up to us and asked if we were looking for a hotel. The sacks on our backs clearly said we didn’t mind walking. “I have one but it’s far. You will have to walk 3 km to get to it. There will only be nomad settlements around.”
“Perfect! Anything to be away from this” – we pointed to the market street.
“Okay, come with me.”
We walked up the street that goes towards the general hospital, took a right and started walking an uphill road, clearly carved through a forest. One turn, then another and another. We passed boards of hotels, guest houses and resorts but this young dude (his name is now lost on us, it’ll be great if the internet connects us with him!) kept walking. Finally, after 45 minutes we reached the hotel, high up above the market and the Lidder river, surrounded by the cedar forest with the view of the Pissu top peak from our room window – all for 400 INR!
From Pahalgam, we visited the Aru valley, caught a glimpse of the Betaab valley while stuck in a traffic jam on the way to Chandanwari. But our main task was the registration for Amarnath. We had to make several trips to Anantnag and Srinagar. The route of Srinagar-Pampore-Avantipoora-Anantnag became our daily “office commute”. One of those days in Srinagar we caught up with Mr Shafkat Ahmed – old friend! He wished us luck for the Amarnath yatra, even asking us if we needed any money for the journey. It felt like a dear friend wishing us well!
One of those days, we managed to get late on the way to our hotel in Pahalgam. It was getting dark, so instead of following the road, we decided to take a “short cut” through the forest. Well, we kept walking, it got dark and everything looked the same. We didn’t know where we were. Thankfully, we met a couple of Gujjars who said we were walking in the wrong direction. “Walk back along this path, all the hotels are there.”
We followed their instructions, while promptly blaming each other for putting us in the situation. Suddenly, a spotlight fell on us. “Who is it?”, someone from the Indian Army camp yelled. “We are lost”, we managed to say meekly.
They instructed us to not turn off our torches and walk towards their camp. We knew the camp and they probably were also aware of us two trouble makers staying in the hotel above. They pointed us to the hotel, sternly warning us to never ever walk in the forest in the dark.
It was all anti-climatic from there. We got our admission cards for the Amarnath yatra, bought titbits like almonds and walnuts, the yatra SIM cards et al. Our hotel let us keep our luggage with them while we were gone.
Finally, early morning on our assigned day, we stepped out of our safe cocoon of the Pahalgam hotel to start our Amarnath yatra trek.
Dispatch #19 – Trekking and shades of people
In the midst of excitement and apprehension, our Amarnath yatra trek began. We didn’t know what to expect so everything was welcome. From the incessant calls to hire horses, the sea of people on the mountain to strangers thrusting fists of dry fruits in our hands – it all happened right at the start.
“The climb at Pissutop kills you”, we had been told. But after reaching the top, our reaction was, “THAT’S IT for the scary Pissutop?”. Weeks in the mountains had probably make it seem all easy.
The beauty of Sheshnag, Panchtarini, Poshpathri was beyond what we had imagined. Actually walking up to these places definitely made them that much more special. The lifelessness at Mahagunas Top, the highest point of the Amarnath yatra with only the “chocolate-vanilla” snow and rock mountains and the Indian Army serving hot drinking water to all the pilgrims was overwhelming.
We met all kinds of people. It was our first interaction with the sadhus. Some had reached there after walking for months from as far as South India. Some were barefoot like they had been every year. Most were without any warm wear.
Also met many youngsters travelling on horses or a palanquin. Overheard Indian Army personnel asking them if they were unwell or something. “NO? Then why aren’t you walking?”
Met some trying to break the queues for food at the free bhandaras. Others, who had just landed by helicopters (ones with clean clothes and untanned faces!) trying to get ahead of those who had walked up to there for the past three days.
Met the strong, brave and compassionate men of the Indian Army, responsible for everything and everyone. And met portraits of resilience and inner strength. Some say it’s the power of faith. Some say it was their true calling.
For us, it was a live demonstration of what a human mind is capable of.
Dispatch #20 – And then this happened
We ended the Amarnath yatra in Baltal. Stayed in the camp overnight and had a lavish meal of Sarson ka saag and makke ki roti. For several days Amarnath yatra and its preparations had been on our minds and it felt wonderful to have accomplished it.
The next morning we took a jeep for Sonmarg but got off at a village named Sarbal. Then hopped into a jeep going to Srinagar with other pilgrims and hopped off at Sonmarg. Found a room in the tourist bungalow. After several days had a bath! I had to discard my trousers because they were stinking of horse-shit. One less piece of clothing…yaay!
Refreshed after a shower, lunch and sleep (on a bed!) we started walking toward the Thajiwas glacier. Took some photos of the stream and the mountains on the way. Until one little guy approached us and said, “baksheesh?”
We had observed this for a while now, little kids asking us for money by saying, “baksheesh.”
We asked this kid where his house was. Where he was from. How old was he? Then we asked him if he knew what baksheesh meant.
“Baksheesh is money.”
We then tried to explain to him that baksheesh was a reward for doing something good. We were walking with him all this while and the little kid was listening intently to what we were saying. His friends had probably been observing him. One by one they all came towards us and the same thing happened.
We then asked this little kid to explain to his friends what baksheesh meant. He told them what we had told him. One of them took the lead and said, “I can sing.”
And then it started! Songs, numbers, letters.
“See I can dance too, take my photo.”
“Oh, see my pose, this is better, take my photo.”
They were relentless. After an hour or so, when it started to get dark, we told them we had to leave. We gave them a chocolate bar we had leftover from Amarnath. They were all delighted.
We never reached the Thajiwas glacier but we didn’t care.
How could we when we had just experienced magic?
To be continued…(Part 5 here)