Thursday, July 26, 2007
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.
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