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.