In the deepest recesses of every Indian is a desire to visit Kashmir, a desire that remains unfulfilled for most of us because of several notions and fears about the valley.
I managed to relive my childhood thrill and landed in Kashmir for an intensive trek. And what a time it was. Before the trek actually started, I roamed around Srinagar, Gulmarg and Pahalgam - all while being severely sick, cold, fever and perhaps reeling under the fact that the low atmospheric pressure was playing with my brain.
However, when the trek started, all worries seemed to end. The camp-site, the first camp-site was phenomenal and the first briefing was as good as it gets. Walking around, still unwell, the drink from a mountain spring enriched my inner senses. It was a grand start to something great that might happen. My observations on the next few days are as follows.
1. The trek on the first day to Shekdur was a learning session on birch trees, bhojpatras, deodars and endemic maple. Also the settings of the Gujjars will continue to haunt us for a long time to come.
2. The passes were never easy to climb, made more difficult by the slightest burst of rain, enough to chill and burn us simultaneously. Walking up, one step at a time, those moments of rest every few minutes were like bliss, when the oxygen came in heavy gasps. Who cared for the climb when the rest was more valued. It was learning to see everyone fighting his own inner demon, some losing their control, others walking like Captain Haddock 'full steam ahead', yet others stopping to take group photos, some hankering down the boulders for a fine view of the hill beyond, yet some praying for the torment to end, passes can teach us enough to last a lifetime. Zach pass, thou shall not test us more!!!
3. The lakes were themselves beyond words. Which was better, Vishnusar with the moon shining bright, Kishansar with us dipping our legs for as long as we could, Gadsar with the most beautiful location in the entire trek, Satsar for the lakeside walk we could do for so long or Gangabal with twin magic on the last night. Each one better than the other, inspiring awe that stole words from our mouths. I could just walk on that trek again and again for the the beauty was past compare.
4. Sometimes in the high Himalayas, meeting people can turn out to be a great experience. Meeting Kashmiris and hearing their story of the past twenty years, Gujjars and Bakarwals who maintain an independent relationships with their neighbours, the Indiahikes support staff, the faujis who could do with assimilating more of kashmir into them, other trekkers who were running from Israel to Malana and above all trekmates who were a group of wonderful people. The doc who took official care, the other five docs who helped along too, the gangs from all parts of the country, yellow raincoat walley, full high tech kit walley, no kit no prep walley, the legend of Dr. and his son, the knowledge gained through Sarath's presence, Arjun with his calmness - born out of lifetime spent in the hills, Man Singh's food - it was all too much of a cauldron of spirits without the alcohol.
5. One wishes that this beauty that evokes humility remains the way it is. Trekkers should remain responsible, garbage can kill this place and IH needs to get the credit for playing its part. The organisation almost seems philanthropic in the guise of a corporate venture. It looks like someone's desire to give back and make enough to break a few rotis at home every night, earn enough but never at a cost. I hope IH refines its waste collection to the point that it enters into every trekkers consciousness.
6. My thoughts on Kashmir have just got muddled and permanently at that. I was always for the right to self-determination of a people wronged. Justice needs to provided and not as a benevolent measure but because it is the right of the Kashmiri. Yet at the same time, I realised that there are several voices floating around in the valley and this excludes Ladakh and Jammu. Within the valley, there are Sikhs, hindus, Bakarwals, Gujjars, people living an isolated life such as in Gurez and we need to hear them. Most importantly, try as hard as possible to neglect it, but the presence of ancient ancient religions literally at every step in the valley makes it a confusing decision. Temples abound, lakes are all dripping with stories, talk of lineage and a lot of them trace back to old UP/Rajasthan links. Anthropological studies of the valley, if conducted and shared in earnest is going to create serious trouble for fervent nationalists on all sides. Though still unattached, Kashmir seems to have the panindian smell about it. India, it is time to reconcile, time to bring closure to injustices, time to ask for forgiveness and time to learn.
7. Lastly, few things that will stay on forever, not as a life-changer but as pleasant memories. Riaz's solidity and Mushtaq's ableness, Man Singh's great food, saving that horse when it could have died, the rainbow a thousand feet below us, seeing vistas after reaching the pass every day, the rain and our huddling in tents, Abhishek's lust for life, drinking out of spring water and with no lifestraw in hand, Indians helping each other, the mental toughness of the entire group that pulled us through, that view of Gurez sector afar and life lived in complete blankness for so many days. No fear, no concern, only pure Himalayan joy.