Thursday, July 26, 2007

Aru Valley

The vibrant green color of the trees in Kashmir can be compared to the color of pure emerald, and this was the first thought that came to my mind as I was driving along a narrow stretch of metal road ten thousand feet above sea-level, when my eyes scanned a mountain range on the other side of a deep gorge sliced by the eroding action of the “Lidar” - a river formed from the melting of the glaciers in the surrounding Himalayan mountains. The mountain range across the gorge was carpeted with pine trees, but what was more striking were the forest-green plateaus damp from the clouds hugging the trees and skirting across the tundra grass. It was as if a master craftsmen trained in rug weaving in one of Kashmir’s many cottage industries had decided to weave an immense silken rug with absolutely no intricate patterns, albeit all the varying shades of green to which he paid great attention. Never before had I realized that Nature’s paintbrush could color so many shades of green.

Let me introduce the reader to Aru valley which is about ninety kilometers from Srinagar city – the summer capital of the northern most state of Jammu & Kashmir, India. Aru valley is far less famous than “Pahalgam” and one has to go through the latter to get to the former. The name “Pahalgam” is actually two words “Pahal” which in Kashmiri language means shepherd and “Gam” which means village. There is really only one road that connects Srinagar city to Pahalgam, and has been used ever since I was a child and before that when my parents were younger. The journey takes about two hours provided you leave in the wee hours of the morning before the traffic on the national highway overtakes the road, and all hell breaks lose. My reasons for going to Aru were two-fold: to fly-fish and to spend time with my parents.

The Lidar is full of brown, red-spotted, and rainbow trouts. They are not native to Kashmir and were first introduced during the British raj in India back in the middle of the nineteenth century. To get a fishing license one has to go to the fisheries department which operates under the Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Board. These fishing licenses are issued only in Srinagar city, so one has to plan in advance and get several licenses if one wants to go on a week long trip. There is no license granting branch of the fisheries department in Pahalgam.

We left our place at five in the morning. My mother had packed an awesome lunch and some delicious sandwiches for the road while I had packed my fishing gear the night before. We also took a big woolen rug and some pillows. There was absolutely no traffic at this time in the morning and I started dozing off as it was still dark outside. I would open my eyes from time to time to see yet another huge and ugly house taking over the fields in the country side. It was hard for me to believe when my parents said that there were only six hundred thousand people living in Kashmir when they were young. Today the population has grown ten times and is now roughly around six million! The result: too many cars, roads polluted with plastic bags, too many tea stalls, and big, huge, tasteless, and impractical houses adorning the country side.

A few miles out of Srinagar city the first thing that caught my eye was a stretch of road that goes through a vast farming land – bare, naked, and shameless, as far as the eye could see. These fields will be blooming with lilac-colored saffron flowers during the autumn, around October. Kashmir is renowned the world over for the quality, color, aroma and taste of its saffron. We make a special saffron tea here called “qehwa”. The only other saffron growing places in the world that I know of are Iran and Spain. We were an hour on the road and kept passing through villages and occasionally seeing some army patrol on the road or in the nearby fields. The second noticeable thing was the paddy fields full of tall and green rice plantation. They require heat during the month of July for only then will they be ready to be harvested in mid-August when they turn brown. My father stopped to pay his respects at the shrine of two Sufi saints who wandered the valley of Kashmir and spread the Sufi way many hundreds of years ago. We also passed some very old ruins with huge massive stones reminiscent of the construction of some temples in South India. It is believed that the “Pandavs” (from the great Indian epic “Mahabharata”) who were banished from their kingdom spent some time in Kashmir and built a temple while they were here – presumably many centuries before the birth of Christ.

About an hour and half into the drive the air temperature dropped and I could feel a cool breeze on my face. Through some trees I could see the Lidar gushing, and tumbling over smooth boulders and making its journey towards the “Jhelum” river where it will be joined by many similar tributaries. The Jhelum in turn will join the Indus river which will finally weave its way partly through India and partly through Pakistan where it will eventually drain into the Arabian Sea.

With a bit more driving we could finally see the beautiful valley of Pahalgam and the unmistakable craftsmanship of the Lidar. Since we were heading upstream, the river was gaining in speed, volume and strength. Before we entered Pahalgam we saw a huge Indian army checkpost where they asked us to disembark from our car and thoroughly searched it for arms and/or ammunition. This month is also the time when Hindu devotees make their annual pilgrimage to “Amarnath” cave deep in one of the Himalayan ranges. In order to ensure the safety of these pilgrims the Indian army regularly patrols the mountains surrounding Pahalgam. Each year thousands of pilgrims come to Pahalgam for this gruesome journey which takes them through some harsh terrain and hardy weather. It was heart wrenching for me to see how these pilgrims have polluted this beautiful valley with hundreds of plastic bags choking the Lidar. There is very little provision for hygienic outdoor restrooms. Most of the people end up relieving themselves near the river beds.

We left Pahalgam behind and made our way through a busy market/bazaar and finally started our ascent to Aru. The constant roar and gurgle of the Lidar was ringing in our ears. There is something soothing about this sound, something nostalgic, something otherworldly – Nature’s way of telling mankind that I am tolerating your tantrums and your misbehavior for right now because in the span of my existence you are just a little bleep and I cannot be bothered with such trivialities.

The ascent was quite steep and we kept gaining altitude. At some point as I looked over my shoulder I could see a thin sliver of the Lidar while towards the opposite end I could see a couple of huge grooves in the mountain side made from melting glacial waters. My mother pointed me to a huge glacier which was so brown from the mud and silt that it was hard to discern. One has to realize that one is surrounded my mountains on all sides. They are right there in your face, staring at you, awe-inspiring, grand, beautiful, bold, with a strong personality. It is as if they are guarding the valley and its precious resources from the prying eyes of humans, but welcoming at the same time. With a further four to five miles of this upward ascent we could finally see the cottage of the fisheries department a few hundred feet below the road. We parked our car, and carried the fishing gear, food, rug and pillows down to the cottage. We were met by a “rakha” which in Kashmiri language means guardian. He was a government employee and in charge of guarding the fish population and from stopping the local people living in the surrounding villages from indiscriminate fishing. Even though the speed of the waters in the Lidar is very strong the trout is able to thrive in natural pools that are formed from boulders sunk in the river. So during autumn when the water level goes down, it is quite easy to cast a net and catch a large number of fish. This is how the villagers take undue advantage of Nature’s bounty.

The fisheries cottage came with a spacious patio facing the river. While my parents laid out the rug and the pillows and set up the place, I talked with the “shikari” (which in Kashmiri means hunter, but you can think of him as a guide) about where to start and the kind of flies that the fish were biting on that morning. I used a fishing rod that my father had purchased for me more than fifteen years ago and which I have used on many fishing trips. After we set up the gear and hooked three different flies to the casting line we were ready to start our hunt. About ten minutes of casting, I got several bites and I caught two small red-spotted trouts which I released back into the river. I only keep a couple of big fish which are over one pound in weight, while I release the rest. Unfortunately the fish were not biting that morning because the weather was cloudy and it had rained the night before and I could see low rain clouds on some distant mountain ranges. The water was not muddy but it was very milky and not transparent at all. In such a situation it is hard for the fish to discern the fly and so they don’t bite and even if they do, they only take partial bites.

We started making our way downstream and casting into the various pools. I must emphasize to the reader that the terrain around the Lidar is quite tough to navigate. The rocks are slippery, and one has to climb over many big boulders with a rather long fishing pole in your hand. It is quite a balancing act if you are not used to it. The shikari kept walking as if there were no rocks and boulders. His stamina, agility and the ability to navigate was remarkable. After three hours I began to get frustrated because the trout were not biting on the flies. In the end we came to a rather large pool and decided to use live bait (earthworms). The moment I let the bait into the river, the trout started to bite and I could feel the end of the fishing pole bend and vibrate vigorously. I caught a brown trout which weighed around one pound. Soon afterwards it started raining and by the time I made my way back to the cottage, which was around one in the afternoon, I was more or less drenched.

I was beat and tired, but so happy and rejuvenated. While the clouds danced in the trees, and the Lidar kept roaring and gushing away I enjoyed my mother’s delicious food and sandwiches. She kept insisting that this place is God, and even though I am not a staunch believer in deities and things of such nature, I could understand how someone could get an idea in a place like this. I would have loved to take a long hike but the rain was constantly pouring and I had not brought a rain jacket with me. At some point the rain let up a bit and the clouds started to withdraw from the mountains when for just a brief moment we saw this beautiful mountain peak make an appearance for just a few minutes. When you are surrounded by these green mountains, you tend to forget that you are situated in only a tiny part of a huge mountain range, and that you are sitting in only one of countless green valleys.

We started packing our things at four in the afternoon. In the meantime the shikari had caught a couple of more trout fish and was nice enough to clean them for us to take home. We thanked the rakha and the shikari for their hospitality and started on our long drive back to Srinagar. By the time we got into the car it was raining heavily. In Pahalgam the pilgrims and the local people were drenched. We were lucky that we got to stay in a nice, dry cottage with a spectacular view of Aru. There are so many beautiful and majestic mountain peaks in Kashmir and so many valleys far spectacular that are yet undiscovered. I would love to trek further beyond Aru where after fifty miles or so one comes to this beautiful glacial-capped peak called “Kolahai”. My parents and my uncles and aunts kept telling me how when they were in high school the teachers and the principal would organize trekking and camping trips to all these places. I envy them, for they have seen these hidden treasures and have beautiful and cherished memories of Kashmir.

I do not know when I will be able to return to Aru again, but I hope that when I do, it will not have been overtaken by progress. There are some things in this world that should just be left alone and not touched by technology or greedy humans. There is a Kashmiri folklore that says that there is a mountain peak in Kashmir called “Harmukh” where a man after he trekked to the place, tired, sweaty and exhausted finally lifted his head to see the peak and swore that he saw God. I do not about the latter, but I can say that in Aru my heart and my mind both were at peace – a rare thing in itself. Perhaps that’s the God that each one of us is trying to find within ourselves.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

On Top of The Roof of The World - Literally!

I sat on top of a craggy boulder in the middle of a sunny afternoon in a place called “Kongdur” watching milky clouds swirling and shifting above my head, like a whirling dervish donned in his white robe. It is one thing to see the formation of clouds from the patio of your house, or when you look up stretched on a grassy lawn, while it is quite another when you see them appear, dance and disappear at fifteen thousand feet. Before this experience, I never realized that clouds have a distinct smell, a smell so unique that it would be unfair on my part to draw a simile with anything else in the physical world.

Kongdur, which in Kashmiri means a saffron-drawstring, is a place that is ensconced in the valley of Gulmarg which is about forty miles south-west of Srinagar – the summer capital of the northern-most state of Jammu & Kashmir. I left with my parents at around seven in the morning and it took us a couple of hours to reach Gulmarg. We left early in the morning as we wanted to avoid the traffic that engulfs the national highway after nine. While I was in the car, I noticed how the country side has changed over the last several years. For one, huge and distasteful houses have taken over the greenery of rice paddy fields destroying the natural beauty of the country side. While every village corner has small shops advertising the latest cellular phones and the cheapest deals, electronic life and technology have not completely taken over the Kashmiri villager or the surroundings. As we drove towards our destination, I realized that one cannot escape the different Himalayan mountain ranges. Through the windshield, the mountains loomed in the distance. I could also see them in my rear view mirrors. I felt as if I was driving from one end of a massive tea cup to another.

I realized that we were nearing our destination when I saw a road barrier with a man holding toll vouchers. After we paid our toll, we drove up a rather long and twisted road that took us through a dense forest of pine, fir and spruce that is hundreds of years old. The forest floor was covered with white flowers that have medicinal value and have been used by the local villagers to treat boils and other skin ailments. When we finally reached the top, we were stopped by an army personnel who asked us our business in Gulmarg and after we told him we were here for some sight seeing and trekking he pointed us towards a very narrow pass. As we made our way through, a huge meadow covered with thousands of white flowers awaited us. It was truly a sight that took my breath away. I had imagined and anticipated this view in my mind over the last several days, but on seeing it again with my eyes, my mind froze to take in the colors and the freshness of the place. It seemed as if cotton flakes had fallen over miles and miles of green undulating meadows the night before.

By the time we arrived in Gulmarg, it was still nine in the morning and we felt that breakfast was in order and so we headed towards “Highland Park” – a hotel that has marked one of the meadows in Gulmarg for as long as I can remember. As we came up to a bend in the road that would lead us to the hotel, I saw the world’s highest golf course and I wished I had brought my golf set with me. We were greeted by the hotel staff some of whom remembered me from when I used to come here as a child. Our plan was to have breakfast, unwind for an hour and then make our way to these newly constructed cable cars that would take us all the way up to Kongdur. I should remind the readers that the hotel where we were having our breakfast stood at around nine thousand feet. I could certainly feel shortness in my breath as I gobbled down two scrumptiously cooked omelets with some local bread and tea. We sat in comfortable lawn chairs while we took in shifting patterns of the meadows. Wild horses grazed and galloped in the meadows while we saw other hotels and some shops in the distance waking up to the hustle and bustle of a fresh Gulmarg morning.

Next on our agenda was to check out the cable cars that would take us to the top of one of the many mountains surrounding Gulmarg. The cable car station opened at half past ten which gave us plenty of time to get there. This was my second time to go in one of these cable cars. Last time when I was in Gulmarg, the government had completed only the first phase of the “Gondola Project”, which took the people a couple of thousand feet to another station from whence you changed cars and then climbed five thousand feet to the top of the mountain, completing the second phase. This second cable car station is built on top of a plateau which is called Kongdur and has been so named by the local gypsy tribe called the “gujars”. I could not wait to get to the mountain top and so we changed cable cars and climbed further up into the clouds leaving the plateau behind. I looked back at the vastness of the pine forests and the countless valleys beneath and beyond.

It took us a good five to ten minutes to reach the mountain top. As I disembarked, I could only see huge boulders in front of me, Kongdur five thousand feet below and vast glaciers several hundred square meters which seemed only a few feet away. Clouds rushed up and went through our skin, cooling us, though the rarified atmosphere and the open sun had a vendetta of their own. At fourteen thousand feet, sitting on one of the highest roofs of the world one has relatively little protection against UV radiation. My mother and I climbed further up so that we could see all the way to the other side. It was a rather steep climb and after about every twenty paces we had to stop and catch our breath. There were tourists being hauled up and helped by the local guides and trekkers. There were tourists sliding down the glaciers and reveling in the snow and ice. I asked one of the guides to point me towards a famous peak called “Nanga Parbat” which means “the naked peak”. They pointed east but I could not see anything as that direction was completely covered in clouds. I was dismayed as I had heard from my parents and my uncles that it is a peak whose beauty comes very close to that of Everest in Tibet and K-2 in Pakistan. I looked towards a mountain range in the southerly direction and I saw two absolutely gorgeous snow-capped peaks jutting above the rest of the range. I should emphasize here that in Kashmir there are mountain ranges as far as the eye can see. From the corner of my left eye I saw a break in the clouds and Nanga Parbat flashed before me. It was truly a sight to behold - a peak with perfect symmetry on both sides and milky white even in the middle of summer.

Never in my life have I been so humbled, so impressed by the majesty of Nature’s handiwork. I believe though I am not sure that Nanga Parbat might be the third or fourth highest mountain peak in the world. While I was basking in its beauty, I heard my mother ask one of the guides about an alpine lake called “Alpathar” (the rock) on the other side of the mountain top on which we were standing. The guide said that it would take at least two more hours to get there and that the trek which was treacherous would involve climbing and walking over huge boulders. Moreover, we would have to get permission from the Indian army to see the lake as it lies very close to the Pakistani border and there is already an Indian army base there. I heard my mother describe the lake and its sheer beauty – at how huge glacier chunks are submerged in this lake, the waters crystal clear, the stones and rocks surrounding the lake smoother than the granite top of a kitchen counter. She had seen this lake many years ago when her high school took her on a trek and so had my father and my uncles. Here I was sitting in Kashmir and thinking that I had to get permission from some soldier to see a lake that is part of my heritage. I was sad, annoyed, a bit angry and a bit helpless.

As I looked at my wrist-watch it struck three and I knew that it was time to leave. I thought about this past year and how much I have grown and matured. I thought about my personal hardships, my internal struggles, my friends and their tribulations back in the United States and above all my little sister all alone in Singapore. I looked over my shoulder and saw my parents, not as young as they used to be, but certainly adventurous and youthful in their hearts. I looked over my left shoulder and realized that majesty, grace, strength, beauty, simplicity, and humility are ageless and timeless just like the Nanga Parbat in front of me.