I’m lying in a cocoon of sleeping bags and blankets staring at the single bare light globe outside our room. I have no idea what the time is, but know it must be very early morning. I can’t turn out the light. There is no switch in the room in the gypsy hut we have called home for the past two nights.
This is the only light for the hut, which houses three generations of the one family – the parents, their three sons, daughter-in-law and grandchild.
We will be leaving early the next morning, but now I am left remembering every step of my climb from that day, convinced that I will struggle to walk when dawn actually breaks.
We are in the Indian Himalayas in a town called Naranag, about two hours’ drive from Srinigar in Kashmir. We are here with a cook, who has travelled with us from Srinigar.
The day started early, after a night in which there was no light switched on at any time. When we first arrived in the town our cook pointed to the highest of the peaks that surrounded us and said “tomorrow you climb that”. We laughed, sure that we had told our travel agent in Srinigar that we wanted to do “a bit of a hike” but weren’t very fit. We couldn’t possibly walk up the steep peak in front of us.
But this morning it was clear he wasn’t kidding. We set out with our guides – two of the gypsy sons from the house we are staying in. I couldn’t help but notice their shoes as we ambled up the side of the mountain. The black loafers they were wearing were barely held together and looked like something my grandfather might have once worn to church – not, I imagine, the most comfortable walking shoes, but my husband and I in our new and expensive Kathmandu hiking boots struggled to keep up with them as they hiked easily up the mountainside.
We were hiking from 10,000 feet to 13,000 feet over steep, rocky terrain – just us, our guides, and the horse we hired to help carry us part of the way. Ade and I took it in turns riding as we got tired, though the horse looked more exhausted than we were most of the time and our guides refused to let Ade ride on the steepest sections for fear the horse would collapse – it did indeed stumble, with me on its back as we were gingerly making our way up a steep gravel incline, picking our way between two large boulders. It was a surefire way to ensure I too wouldn’t ride him on the steepest sections of the mountain.
We climbed higher and higher until we could just see the town below, nestled into the base of the mountain. The views were breathtaking. From here we could see across the Himalayas to Gangabal Laken and a glacier, if we had another day we could hike across to the glacier, but alas, we just had the one day on this mountain so instead we sat and gazed across the peaks as we ate lunch. It was so peaceful in the mountains – seemingly a world away from the armies still stationed in Srinigar. We only saw two other people on the mountain – interestingly a couple also from Australia – bounding up the mountain with their guides.
We sat enjoying the 360 degree views and the serenity for an hour before we had to leave for the trek back down. Our horse had given up and one of our guides had taken him home already, so for the journey back, we were on our own.
The walk down was only marginally better than the journey up. We followed the steep winding track back to our hut and got back just in time for dinner – chicken soup followed by chicken curry.
After dinner the Gypsy family invited us into their living room for a cup of tea. We sat on the floor in front of the open fire place that doubled as the family’s stove. As well as being the family living and dining room, the room was the parent’s bedroom. A mudbrick ledge divided the sitting area from the sleeping areas. Our hosts were very nice, despite the language barrier they included us in their discussions – it didn’t work but we had a good laugh trying to understand each other and spent a very pleasant couple of hours passing time in front of the fire, drinking tea.
The following morning we are up early again, this time to wait for the car that will take us back to Srinigar. Surprisingly, we can both move – no aching joints. At least we feel ok until we start the hike up to the road – 500 metres straight up, it is nothing compared to the walk we completed the day before, yet I struggle to put one foot in front of the other.
We get to the road and as we wait for our car, dwarfed by the mountain we conquered just 24 hours earlier, we watch as young kids make their way to school and line up outside their classroom. For them, it is just another day but their small hamlet has made an impression that will not be forgotten anytime soon.
Note: Srinigar and Kashmir are not for the faint-hearted. The Australian Government website advises against travel to Kashmir, however for those who make the journey, it is very rewarding.