The best journey I’ve ever undertaken, anywhere, was a 7-week trek through the Kashmiri Himalayas. No other trip even comes close.
After a quick 2-day stop in Delhi to get organized, I hopped on a bus for the 33-hour drive to Srinagar. I think it was 3 hours before we left what I considered an urban landscape, and the first portion of the trip was broken up by stops at Punjabi vegetarian dhabas – rest stops with hot, generally delicious, curries. Then the road began to climb. And climb. And climb some more. Twisting, turning, switchbacking up the Himalayan foothills with the rear of the bus swinging out over the vertical edge of the road whenever the bus rounded a particularly sharp bend. The incessant screeching of horns and lightning-fast braking reflexes of drivers attempting to pass around blind curves were cringe-inducing, especially after looking at the mangled wreckage of trucks that had plunged off the side under less fortunate circumstances.
And that was just the ride to get there! The ride back was even longer – 54 hours between Leh and Delhi, to be exact – with a night spent sleeping on the pavement between our bus and the one in front of us while government crews cleared the road of a head-on collision earlier in the day.
But my days between those memorable rides were incredible and well worth every bumpy, hot, dusty turn in the road.
I was met by my host Ajay upon arriving in Srinagar, who escorted me to the houseboat he and his family owned on Lake Dal. Entering the boat’s living room (it really is a house boat), I was stunned by the intricacy of the hand-carved woodwork on every surface and the heavily patterned rug covering the floor. I had one day to explore the city before the Indian army imposed a 24-hour curfew as a result of students protesting the army’s presence in Kashmir. I managed to visit the incredible Jama Masjid mosque, capable of hosting almost 100,000 devotees at a time, and the Rauza Bal shrine, where Kashmiris of many faiths believe Jesus Christ is buried. (For a fascinating look into the belief that Jesus studied under Buddhist monks as a young man before returning to the Holy Land, survived his execution by the Romans, and escaped to Kashmir to live and teach into his 80s, read the well-researched and -documented Jesus in India by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad.) My days under curfew were spent pursuing less cultural objectives – I water skied around Lake Dal in a hand-made boat powered by a Chevrolet short block engine from the 1950s.
Trekking up to and above snow line was disorienting. I’d been in the mountains before, but never on this scale (obviously). What appeared to be tiny rocks in the landscape would loom up larger than apartment buildings as we drew nearer. Little meandering streams became raging torrents of ice water tens of meters across. Distances I thought would take a few minutes to cross dragged on for hours. We camped along a stream that provided fresh trout for our nightly curry dinner, as well as the coldest baths I’ve ever taken. Climbing to some of the peaks surrounding our camp, it was possible to see many tens of kilometers into Pakistan, for we were only a few kilometers from the infamous Line of Control that divides the parts of Kashmir claimed by India and Pakistan. For a region that has a reputation for being supremely dangerous, it was surprisingly peaceful.
After 8 days along the Line of Control, we took a local bus down into the Zanskar Valley, where the culture changed from Islam to Buddhism, and the appearance of the people changed from south Asian to east Asian. One thing that didn’t change, however, was the warmth, openness, and generosity of the people I met. Hearing so much in the news about the hostile differences between the world’s ‘great religions’, it was beautiful to experience a place where major faiths overlap and the people who follow them get along easily. The unifying idea I heard everywhere was, “We want the Indians and the Pakistanis out so that we can be free Kashmiris.”
The ancient Buddhist monasteries were beautifully adorned inside, and (for me at least) surprisingly old, with some of them dating back almost 1,000 years. While I was there in midsummer wearing multiple layers of modern mountaineering gear, it was difficult to fathom how people survived the brutal winters for so many centuries in such a harsh and isolated landscape. I’m guessing that’s where some of the stereotypical Buddhist stoicism arose.
My wandering across the landscape and through ancient villages eventually had end, and I regretfully made my way back to Delhi via the aforementioned 54-hour bus ride. Ajay’s brother and mother hosted my last two nights in India, so that I was able to enjoy a few family meals and explore the anonymous corner of Delhi where I got the impression very few tourists ever venture.
If I could repeat only one trip I’ve taken in my life, it would be this one. Kashmir rocks.