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  • Heaven on Earth

    Posted on October 6th, 2009 Sheila Yair 3 comments

    kashmir1We set out to the Kashmiri countryside in search of heaven on earth, that is how all Kashmiris refer to Kashmir. You can not have a conversation with anybody here without them stating at least once how Kashmir is heaven on earth. We also want to give Kashmir another chance as we were quite disappointed with Srinagar and figure the rural people will be more laid back. The first place we explore is Gulmarg. It is 1 hour from Srinagar and many people told us it is a must see. The name means field of flowers in Kashmiri so it definitely sounds promising. When we get there we find out it is a big ski resort. Since it is summer they offer only two attractions, pony riding and taking the ski lift up to the top, with a third one on the way (they are building a golf course to be complete next year). None of these are our cup of Kashmiri tea. We break out of the circle of people trying to sell us pony rides and head up into the hills. We see very few flowers but many big pine trees. About halfway up we come upon a mountain shepherd village. I have heard about these mountain people, the Kashmiris call them gypsies or nomads but they really only move between a summer grazing place and a winter base. So in Kashmir terms a lot of people I know are actually nomads. They live in very basic and low wooden cabins that are built on a slant with half the cabin underground. That way come winter they are covered with the best natural insulation, snow. Their life has not been affected much by modern advancements. They live without electricity, running water, cars or modern schools. It is like little house on a cold and slanted prairie. They raise water buffalo, cattle and sheep for milk and meat which they sell to the villages below to get everything else they need. During the cold winters they also make pashmina yarn which they sell to Srinagar’s big shawl industry and handicrafts mostly rugs. It is a great contrast to see this village in the middle of a ski resort. I wonder if people ski right through the village and if they do what do these mountain shepherds think of all these bright colored ski suits zooming by as they try to survive the cold while carefully preserving their meager winter supplies. We reach the top of the mountain, walk around a bit and go back down. Before we leave we step into one of the restaurants to have a little lunch. Our expectations are not high as these touristy places usually serve western or Chinese fair. You don’t come all the way to India or Kashmir to have great pasta. We are happily surprised with a splendid Kashmiri lunch of fried cheese and vegetables in a spicy aromatic cream sauce.

    kashmir2OK this wasn’t exactly heaven on earth but we got a good lunch and we have one more place to check. The next day we head out to Pahalgan. We are a little worried it might be another ski resort but we are giving it a chance nonetheless. The minute we get off the jeep taxi there are about 20 people around us shoving cards and brochures in our faces. We walk around the station to try and shake some off but no luck all 20 are still here without a single brochure missing. We take all our new enthusiastic friends and walk to the tourist information center figuring we will just stay at a tourist bungalow. Twice people manage to penetrate our tight entourage and solicit us for tea or lunch at their restaurant. They realize we are very annoyed and keep apologizing for not letting us breath saying they are very nice people they are village people not like the house boat people. I tell them that’s why I stay at the YMCA, but the joke falls on deaf ears. If house boat people are mosquitoes these village people are wasps. When we get to the tourist center the guy at the desk just joins the wasp nest and starts soliciting his friend’s place saying it is very nice and cheap price. His friend will take us in his car to see. At this point Sheila breaks down and says she just wants to get out of here. Turn around and go back. We head to the bus that goes back down to Anantnag. When they see how serious Sheila is they tell each other to back off but they can’t last for 2 seconds before all of them start hovering around us again. I see a bus coming up and convince Sheila to get on that one instead of going back, remember these might be the gates of heaven on earth and we shouldn’t miss it. We tell the ticket guy we want to go to the last stop wherever it is. He nodes his head and overcharges us with a smile. By the price I figure we have about 10 kilometers to go. Out of the 20 people only 3 board the bus. I tell them whoever talks to the madam his hotel is automatically disqualified. The bus stops a kilometer and a half later telling us this is the last stop. I look at a few hotels but they are all pretty dodgy. We are down to two solicitators, the two finalists. We go with the one that offers us kitchen facilities. I feel a little bad for the other kid we didn’t go with. But we have to go with someone and we can only stay in one place.

    We settle in and after saying no to dinner offers and pony tour offers made by Nazir, our host we head in to town. Pahalgan is a one street town with hotels and arts and crafts stores. Of course we are invited several times by each and every shop to come and see inside, looking is free. The mountains around are covered with massive pine trees it reminds me a lot of pictures I saw of Colorado. Consulting a big drawing of the area (I can’t bring myself to call it a map) in the center of town we start to plan some hikes. There seems to be many little lakes around.

    The next day we start with a homemade breakfast, omelets, salad, butter and bagel-like bread with coffee on milk for Sheila, the luxury of having a kitchen. We go to the tourist office to ask about some places. We decide to go up to Baisaran, a small village in the hills. A guy volunteers to take us there, he says he is going there anyway. All the way up he tells me about his two guesthouses and the treks that he can guide us on. I keep telling him I will think about it. After a little over an hour of climbing we get to a clearing where we can see the whole Lidder valley. There is a little village of mountain shepherds (the so called gypsies) and a nice river coming down from the mountains. He points to a few peaks telling me there are glacier lakes behind them. That plants some ideas in my head for tomorrow. There are also of course some locals selling the usual Kashmiri things. There goes my promise to Sheila of walking in the woods with no people hassling us. But we end up having our first real conversation with Kashmiris. We need to refuse all the shawls for half an hour at the beginning then half an hour refusal of saffron (coming down from $16 to $2 for 100 grams) as we bid farewell but in between many non-commercial words are exchanged. We ask many questions as the merchants draw a descriptive picture of Kashmiri life. Their customs, life in the countryside, Srinagar, the Indian army the struggle for freedom and of course the big pashmina industry. I am very surprised to hear that actually most of the pashmina comes from Ladakh. A few more tourists are led to the clearing, some come on ponies some come like us with people who are “going there anyway”. We go down with the river and through the village we intended on visiting. That night we use our kitchen facilities once again and make some Mediterranean Kashmiri fusion food. I have missed cooking a great deal.

    kashmir3We decide to hike up and try and find one of the glacier lakes. Our host is a very paranoid person. He always insists we lock all the windows and draw the curtains, a few times he even came in to make sure. In the morning just as we are about to leave he asks me to accompany him. I am not sure where he is taking me, he says to register. We arrive at the police station and go straight to the commissioner’s office. The commissioner is still sleeping he gets up and receives us sitting up in bed. He asks me for my passport my visa where am I going, neither one of them knows how far the lake is so confidently I say it is only 10 kilometers away (might be true). He scribbles all this info in a little notebook. It is pretty obvious no one has come here before to register. The last thing he requests is a letter from me confirming I am going with no guide and out of my own free will. After that he tells me I can go camping but only for one night. As we get back to the guesthouse Nazir decides he also wants a letter from me, so I write and sign the same letter I left at the police station. Now that all Kashmir has covered their pashmina butt we are granted permission to leave. We start heading up the mountain. We have to reach the peak then there is a saddle where the river goes through after which we just follow the river to the lake. The climb is a lot longer than what it seemed from below but after a few arduous hours of climbing we find the saddle. We start walking with the river. There is an abundance of oregano so for lunch we have nice Italian tomato with cheese and oregano sandwiches. Neither one of us really knows how far the lake is but we keep seeing fake peaks where we are sure the lake lies just to find out it is another plateau. We camp in a big plateau right before the valley curves. It can’t be too far now. In the morning we start off early, after about an hour climb we are there. The lake is small but beautiful, emerald green set in a field of purple flowers to the foot of an ice blue glacier. We sit for a long moment in awe of the beauty. On the way down we run in to a group of Israelis with a guide. They are doing the same trek. They came up the same day as we did but are walking slower and do not like to start-off before 11am. They of course didn’t register with the commissioner, the guide just laughs when I tell him the story. Nazir and his hysteria. We go back by way of the river. We want to get some swimming in as it is a gorgeous day. We also have a liter of milk some rice and apples and Sheila has been craving sweet rice. So what better than a long lunch break by a nice natural pool? When I go to light the fire we see we only have one match left. That’s fine it is warm and dry. I set all the paper and small sticks, I have only one try. But the match is wet and crumbles before it even lights. We look around to see what else we have, our sunglasses are useless and the rocks are all limestone no flint. Than I remember our zoom lens. A zoom lens is usually made out of a biconvex lens along with a plano-convex one. Together they can’t really help but luckily this lens is easy to screw apart. I take the biconvex out and focus it on the fire. After less than two minutes of only smoke the flames appear. I knew I was dragging this lens around for something. We have a nice warm meal and head down to the village. As we reach the bus station we meet the kid to whose hotel we didn’t go, probably waiting for tourists. We ask him if he is open for dinner. He says yes. We have a huge and splendid Kashmiri meal and are a little sorry we didn’t go to his place as it seems a lot nicer and less uptight. Well you can’t win them all.

    The next day we head out to Jammu. Did we find heaven on earth? Well the camping was amazing as it always is. Earth itself is heaven, supporting so much life in such beautiful surroundings. I would say the Kashmiri mountains are heaven but sometimes the villages are a little more like that other H place.

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