In the 14th century, the Sufi poet, Amir Khusrau alluded Kashmir to paradise on earth. There appears in the records of Emperor Jahangir that he too held this observation in the 17th century. Through the hundreds of years that followed, it seems that nature has not faulted on this North Indian territory. Still before you, and beyond, are majestic mountain ranges; tranquil bodies of water and crystal-clear lakes; rivers and streams leaving fresh trails on the landscape. Verdant and lavish greenery carpet the valleys and meadows. Kashmir is blessed with nature’s bounties.
An Adventure Basking In Kashmir’s Bountiful Nature
This is Kashmir’s promise and many have succumbed to her beauty.
We were no exceptions. Loving an adventure amidst the beauty of nature, the time was ripe for Mona and I to bump it up to the top of our bucket list. We settled down to exercising due diligence on the feasibility of marrying a hiking adventure and the indulgence of a dream. Keeping watch on the news in India, we found ourselves constantly weighing the safety issues as Kashmir is known for her constant strife.
Never Have I Ever
This trip was to be a moment of firsts for me. Very much a novice in hiking, this was my first adventure beyond the boundaries of my homeland in Malaysia. And, in all my years this was my first camping escapade ever!
Was I apprehensive? Not entirely.
With the exception of wondering how to keep myself regular out in the wilds. Not wishing to be graphic, this preoccupation has resulted in the numerous rolls of toilet paper, wet wipes and sanitisers all jostling for space in my luggage.
Tarsar Lake: Our Destination Of Choice Among Nature’s Bounty
We paid homage to the nature in Kashmir with a modest hike into the Great Himalaya Range; seeking Tarsar Lake that rests at 3,900 metres. It is known as an Alpine lake, a common classification for lakes that are at altitudes above 3,000 metres.
It was a three-hour drive from Srinagar to Aru Valley, the base camp for trekkers heading out to the Tarsar-Marsar Lakes. Here we assembled at one of the homes in the village; suited up for the trek and gathered our guides, crew and horsemen.
Our journey began through pine-lined hillocks and grassy slopes. Horses and grazing sheep dotted the landscape; the roaring waters of the Lidder River completed this over-whelming audio visual presentation. As we trekked to the camp, we would cross paths with the nomadic Gujjars; shepherds who were making their way to and from their summer encampment in the mountains.
Enraptured by the scenery and overawed by the experience, the entire afternoon was simply surreal.
Enjoying The Gift Of Nature And That First Night In A Tent
We set up camp at Lidderwat, a valley that had already reached up to 2,783 metres.This was a sweet spot to view the day’s magical sunset. It was picture perfect for me; the sun settling behind the mountain range, leaving delicate traces of pink in its wake.
Suitably exhausted by the five-hour trek to the camp, I slept like a baby. Somehow I had managed to navigate the tent in the sleeping bag as I slumbered through the rainy night, waking up on the opposite end. Bless Mona for her tolerance!
The second day at camp was a leisurely pursuit; we ambled through the grassland, waded in the river and tried to befriend the grazing sheep. This was the idyllic setting to remove the fatigue of the previous day’s trek and acclimatise ourselves to the altitude.
For the curious, I was able to duly observe the morning routines; surprised that it all came easily to me! Perhaps the backdrop of the toilet tent made a difference.
On To Shekwas – And Keeping Up To The Changes In Nature
The third day took us to Shekwas; the shepherd’s rest. We paced ourselves through the mountains, crossing streams and navigating hillsides. Most times trudging through the rocky terrain.
As the afternoon hours went by, the weather had altered to something blustery. The sky was no longer startling blue when we reached Shekwas. This transition from light to dark was swift; our crew worked at a feverish pace to set up camp. I had hoped to soak in the atmosphere, to savour the surrounding mountains, to perch myself on the rock and be musically entertained at the sound of the running water. Instead, I had to make do with the sound of the thundering rain and the howl of the relentless wind; our only option thereafter was to have an early dinner and settle in for the night.
The Trek To Tarsar Lake
As we left camp we looked behind to the Kolahoi Peak, and noted that the previous night had left a dusting of snow. All around us the mountain ranges were sparsely white, the changing season evident. It was indeed cold last night. We trekked over ridges and through valleys, the wind in our faces sometimes gentle, oft times brisk. A morning ramble it was not. The undulating terrain and boulder crossings laid that notion to rest. For most part of the trek I was anxious as it seemed like a journey into the unknown. How much farther to the lake? How much more difficult is this journey?
Quite suddenly there she was, Tarsar Lake. Its waters gently shimmering in the breeze and all was quiet and calm. This was our focal point, the mysterious almond shape jewel that saddles the Greater Himalaya Range in Kashmir. I was momentarily peaceful in isolation. It was a worthy trek that took us approximately ninety minutes.
The Hospitable Gujjars
Our return to Lidder Valley is almost a nine-kilometre trek. We were fortunate to encounter a nomadic family still camped in the mountains; many would have already headed back to Anantnag (known locally as Islamabad) to ride out the winter.
Our guides, Asif and Fayaz, arranged for tea with the Gujjars. Without a moment’s hesitance, the womenfolk began preparing food from their simple kitchen, their welcome immediately resonating with us. The Gujjars were impeccable hosts and were, quite literally, generous “to a T”. Our cups of chai were continuously topped-up. With their offerings of freshly baked breads. We attempted to reciprocate their generosity with our dwindling supplies of snacks from our backpacks.
Within that hour among the Gujjars, their hospitality was apparent, their humility heartwarming. We searched our belongings in the hopes of leaving them a memory of our thanks. All we could find were small bottles of hand sanitiser and sun block, and a hair-tie. Such a paltry swap in lieu of the memory of their kindness and happy faces immortalised on our digital devices.
Sufism is a mystic dimension of Islam that preaches peace, tolerance and pluralism. The essence of their ideology is the perception of displacing the material presence through compassion, persuasion and gentle discourse.
The Kashmir valley has been known as a land of Sufis. The arrival of Sayyed Sharfuddin Abdur Rahman, fondly remembered as Hazrat Bulbul Shah, in the 14th century had sown the seeds of Islam in Kashmir. A continuous stream of Sufi saints and scholars visited Kashmir and many stayed, having referred to the valley as home.
To the untrained, the Kashmiris’ acceptance of their current predicament is a wonder. Having grasped the basis of Sufism, one realises that the nature of this belief has become a coping mechanism for the populace. This has been ingrained into the Kashmiri society by the Sufi saints and their centuries-old teachings. In educating the people of Islam, the understanding of Allah (SWT) and the Prophet Muhammad PBH, the followers are spiritually inspired, persuaded to devote themselves in utmost sincerity.
The Music Of The Sufi
At the end of our hike we were in transit for a few hours at a modest home in Aru. We were treated to the live performance of Sufi music; devotional renditions, inspired by the works of famous Sufi poets. The afternoon was a jam session of sorts with two popular local Sufi musicians at the helm and our guide Asif joining the vocals. With the rubab, harmonium and the Kashmiri nott as accompaniment, this was the perfect curtain call to our dabbling in the Kashmiri culture, her people, their thoughts and belief. A fitting finale to our sensory pleasures.
Kashmir Two Years On
That trip was almost two years ago. In August 2019 we had planned a return visit to Kashmir. On the eve of our departure a travel advisory was issued. The Indian government prohibited the Hindu pilgrimage to Amarnath cave and all tourists were requested to leave the region. The announcement of a curfew followed soon after.
Clearly the political situation in the state of Jammu and Kashmir shifts from peaceful to dangerous in the blink of an eye. It is the accepted nature of the region.
Will The Adventure Of Kashmir’s Nature Continue To Remain In Our Travelling Cards?
Kashmir harbours a sense of mixed emotions for us. We remain grateful for having thrown caution to the wind, and proceeding with our original trip. It was an exceptionally adventurous and memorable journey made possible during a fleeting moment of peace in Kashmir.
In our quiet moments, Mona and I often ponder on the possibility of returning to the region. There remains one other hike begging our indulgence – The Kashmir Great Lakes; touted as one of the most beautiful treks in India.
Needless to say, our return to Kashmir would not just be about hiking. We reveled in our experiences and wish for an extended exposure to the cuisine, their arts and culture. Most of all we long to return to the hospitality and mystic sensibilities of the Kashmiris.
Always we pray for peace, preferring to preserve the memory of the boundless tranquility in the nature of Kashmir.
We engaged Kashmir Mountain Adventures to facilitate our trek to Tarsar Lake. Please note that company is closed for the moment due to the travel restrictions imposed by the government and the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in India.
Copyright of all images belong to Azlina Ali, Mona Jamaluddin and Mohammad Asif.