Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Srinagar, Kashmir. 27th Aug - 6th Sept

About 10 years ago, I came on holiday for the first time with WildFrontiers. The destination was Rajestan and it was a fantastic holiday, with great people who I'm still in touch with now. One of the local guides was called Ratan Singh and he was a great man not only in his knowledge of India but also his good humour. I distinctly remember during the course of many conversations that he described Kashmir as heaven on earth. This nestled in my mind and imagination ever since so meeting Sophie in Kashmir seemed like a perfect holiday to have within this vegibike trip.

I got to Srinagar a day before Sophie arrived. She had done a lot of research on trip advisor.com and booked us stay on a houseboat run by a certain Mr Butts. I think he must be a bit of a legend, along with the houseboats that he runs. In the main part of the Dal Lake nearest the town, there are literally thousands of house boats that have varying reputations, and it is a bit of a lottery if you do not have recommendations or prior knowledge of them. However Butt's Clermont House Boats are well away from the crowd, moored on private property and very well run. Mr Butts himself is a great character that varies between a fussing father and a bit of a showoff when it comes to him name dropping all his famous guests. They include George Harrison, endless American and British ambassadors and of course Michael Palin.

Much to my joy, not only did Sophie bring herself, but also a bottle of delicious claret, some slow gin, a fine pork pie, a slab of Denhay Cheddar and some pickle. Great treats and did not last long.

Please note that all the good photos on these next few posts are taken by Sophie.

We spent one night there, and booked a further three for when we returned from a five-day trek. So peaceful, delightful service and a place of immediate relaxation.  Batty was allowed to stay in their garage which was a kindness and a relief.

I mentioned Hassan before in Shimla. After his yarns about the delights of the Kashmir mountains and the treks that he organises, I had booked a trek with him. He came to pick us up mid-morning and took us to a village called Aru where we got out and climbed for four or five hours up to our first nights camp. We had been slightly under the impression that we were going to be alone on this trip, however what I hadn't understood, or in fact ever been told, was that Hassan and many guides like him link into an already existing local camping and packhorse system and you become part of a ready-made tour run by somebody else. As it was there were about six others, four Israeli who left the next morning and then there was Vid and Annie who we got to know over the next few days..
Shepherds moving down from the high ground...chickens and all

My faithful 20 year old boots finally give up the ghost

Camp on the river plain

Vid and H discussing a vital matter no doubt

Shepherds Huts

Some say that this was not a dignified way to cross a river?

Shepherd kids

A great shot of how and where the shepherds live at 4000m

Supper time

This chap and his family welcomed us in for tea. he owns 2000 sheep and 100 cattle, promising a good dowry for his daughter 

Tarsar Lake

It had rained a lot the previous few days and there was concern about whether it would clear enough for us to carry on. Luckily the morning broke fine and we set off from the Lidderwat Valley (2000m) where we had stayed for the Tarsar Lake (4000M) 14 km up. It was quite a climb for this saddle fit, but not really walking fit fellow but did not find it as impossible as I had feared, and very thankful that I had stopped smoking.

We had a bit of a clarification with Hassan on the way up as despite his muddled efforts to say what we were doing over the next few days, it was even less clear now that we were there. Eventually we got out of him that we were camping in the same place again before moving on to another spot and spending two nights there before returning to spend a night with with his family in a village an hour or two away. We had thought that the trek would involve the camp being broken every night and then the pack horses follow us to set up camp as we covered the route. I was a bit grumpy about this but there was precious little we could do and it was in a stunning place. There was no hint of modern man, no phones, no vehicles, no aeroplanes, no TV etc. We were many hours away in a mountain wilderness that was sometimes like a big scale Highlands of Scotland and other times an Alpine elder brother.

When you are brought to such a special place it is very easy to forgive one's once trusted guide his economies with the actualité. Maybe they get away with it every time.

The next day we walked gently up for about five hours through a beautiful valley and camp was made by the river. Annie and Vid regaled us with their tales of 17 previous Himalayan treks amongst many other anecdotes of life. They have spent the last 2 1/2 years doing different treks over different parts of the mountain range and reckon that they had another year to go before the task was done. They were both retired, he as a US accident and emergency doctor and she from teaching. I think he was the first person I've ever met who was at Woodstock and was very candid about how at the time the medical profession was actively encouraging and then monitoring the use of LSD and cannabis in their young doctors. I rather got the impression that it was an experiment he thoroughly enjoyed being part of. Anyway they were having a fantastic retirement and keeping themselves exceptionally fit, easily seeing this writer in their wake.

The next day we headed off from camp up to the Kolohol Glacier (3000m)whose river we had been following for the last couple of days. We had lunch there before heading back. It seems that the standard fare for luncheon is 2 boiled eggs and two boiled potatoes….Seemingly not very inspiring, but surprisingly delicious and fulfilling, right up until you see the guides and bearers tucking into curry and rice.

We were being chased by the rain clouds a fair amount of the time, but luckily intended to rain at night and not so much during the day. One night we were woken to a very heavy downpour that went on for hours and hours. We were camped in a floodplain and my over active imagination had us all being swept away by a burst river. My suggestion of putting on our clothes in preparation for evacuation was not well met and countered with the suggestion of going outside and have a look at the river. Luckily there were then some torches being shown around which led me to conclude that our guides were making sure everything was safe. The next morning it turned out that the guides had not been out of their tent, nor have they been remotely worried or even woken by the torrential rain. The torches must have been from the shepherds looking out for their flocks apparently.

At the end of this stunning and fun few days trek and after a night in a very nice hotel called the Himalayan in Pahalagam we went to spend the night at Hassan's family home. It was great to see life off the tourist trail and in a quiet and vibrant village in the heart of the Kashmir Valley. It is so rich and abundant in terms of crops and relatively easy survival, you can understand why it has been fought over throughout history.

                                               Hassan with his mother and sister 

Their rice crop nearly ready for harvest
Going native

We were treated to probably the best dinner I have had in India by his mother and sister and were given the main room as a bedroom, which was rather spoiling, but in tune with the generous manner in which we have been welcomed.

Back to Gulam Butts' houseboats, where we explored the old town of Srinagar (with top guide called Rashid, of River Songs Kashmir ,  welcome.kashmir@gmail.com), the Dal Lake and generally had a near perfect a few days. By chance on the afternoon before we left we were introduced to Julian Evans, the  Deputy British High Commissioner and his various colleagues having tea at Butts Clermont. They were visiting Srinagar and Kashmir on a bit of a fact-finding mission. Currently the Foreign Office advice is to not visit Kashmir and if you do, only stick to the main cities. That is why we have hardly seen any Brits here, bonkers when the rest of the world is enjoying this heavenly place and it seems a little ridiculous from the experience we have had. It is true that it is one of the most militarised areas in the world, but the fight for independence and with neighbours is pretty quiet at the moment and it is certainly not a fight being raised against tourists. It was an interesting conversation and they were fascinated by the vegibike journey, wishing me every success and offering any support I might need both in India and around the world via his connections in the FO. Something rather useful to have up one's sleeve.

Our sitting room

Riverside view of Old town Srinegar

Kingfisher snapping

Old town

Cotton tread merchant

Old Town

ours was the one in the middle

These are from the early morning veg lake market. Too early for me, but Sophie made it...

Lake fishermen

Amazing water lillies

Lassa, probably the best lake guide there is...such a charming man. Never went to school and cannot read or write, yet can name every bird and fauna there is and speaks English as if he was brought up in the Royal court 

During the course of our trek, Sophie had said that she wanted to come with me to Leh, which is about 450 km. She had been to Leh three or four times before and would be a great guide for this newby. However this did involve signing up to being a pillion on Batty. Other than a few short jaunts in London, she had never been on a bike for any significant time. I changed the sprocket on the front of the chain to lower the gearing significantly, praying that it would be enough to carry us both over the high passes that awaited us.


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