Saturday, July 30, 2016

The Great Kashmir Lakes Trek - I

Just as I was thinking that this Nemesis that was stalking me on every trek had turned its attention to someone else, up it pops again and says that it was only taking a break last year. Every trek I have been on in the few years before then have been brushes with disaster. Who goes on a trip to Badami when the entire Gadag region drowns in rain? Yours truly! Who is on trek in the Leh/Ladakh region when Leh gets cut off by rains? Yours truly! Who gets stranded in the middle when the Uttaranchal disaster strikes? Yours truly! Just as I was wondering whether the weather reporters should abandon following things like El Nino and start chasing after me, the treks of last year came as a respite. And now...NOW I am waking up with nightmares of Arnab Goswami screaming in my ears, "Where are you going next? India wants to KNOW."

It all started rather innocuously, though...boringly, in fact. I mean, if one lands up at 2 PM on the 7th  of July at the Srinagar Airport, and has to wait till 6 PM before the rest of the group can join in, it is unlikely that the said person will have an interesting time. Four hours of sight-seeing in the Srinagar Airport, lugging a couple of bags, was four hours more than I wanted to spend in ANY airport but, if you have no clue where the group has arranged to stay and have a non-functioning prepaid mobile, you have little choice but to admire the car-park, the tea-shop and the canteen till the rest deign to land. I even managed to snooze at the waiting hall, where the cabbies rest in between ferrying passengers.

We did, eventually, hook up and landed at the houseboat - Aristotle, if you can believe it, which was paired with Plato - by around 7.30 PM. Since it was not named Socrates, we did arrange for beer and dinner, without any fears of being served hemlock. Shekhar, Ravi, Rammohan and I were the tipplers with Hari Sethuraman sticking to the less elevating drinks. Vinod was expected the next day and Chandru, having crocked his knee back home, skipped the trek, leaving his brother Rammohan to hold up the family banner.

The next day, we left to take in the sights at Gulmarg, having informed the Houseboat chaps to admit Vinod into the boat, despite what they may feel about him at first sight. Ravi who, in his previous avatar, was a Colonel in the 'Golden Gurkha Gunners' - the only artillery Gurkha regiment in the world - had organised lunch at his regiment.

The gondola ride and the views from the top were amazing. For trekkers, though, I'd say it was more of an everyday affair since the views on a daily basis are equally as amazing and you do not either have to line up in haphazard queues to get tickets or have the serenity marred by screaming tourists. One of the things I never have managed to understand. Why does a sense of enjoyment involve making SO much noise?

The lunch in the regimental mess was an eye-opener. The military way of life is something that has been a closed book to me till then. (not that I have suddenly become the military expert who will come now on Arnab's show and plead with him to get a word in edge-ways.) It was an education to see the impeccable hospitality of the young CO, who was simultaneously engaged in handling reports from his men who were on patrol to nab a vehicle with intruders from across the border. The trophies of the regiment gave me to think. These were the guys, who were putting their lives on the line, to safeguard the country; the guys who carried out the orders of civilian governments in the process of carrying out their duties. Yet, when they risked their lives to carry out one set of orders, they were heroes to be lauded across the length and breadth of the country and, if they did the same to carry out another set of orders, they were demonized and vilified by anyone with a platform and a mike. The vice if any, one would have thought, was in the orders and, thus, the blame, if any, was that of those who gave the orders. Seemed to me that the journalists both want the military to be subordinated to the civilian government and, yet, question or refuse to carry out those orders that the journalists consider incorrect. Whether they ever bother to think about the inherent contradictions in their expectations, I would not know.

An interesting aside to that visit was the information that the father of Chetan Bhagat was once the CO of this regiment, and our Ravi was once his adjutant.

By the time we returned to the houseboat, leaving Ravi back at his regiment, Wani had been killed and the TV reported a tense situation. The cab that dropped Ravi the next morning was also pelted with stones on the way back, apparently. We were advised to stick to the vicinity of Dal lake, since the tourist areas are normally left alone by any rioters.

Vinod, who had come in while we were away had taken a long Shikara ride on the Dal Lake the previous day and, if you know Vinod, his joy in anything is communicated so infectiously that you regret the time you spent almost anywhere else except where he was enjoying himself. We took the Shikara ride on the Dal lake and the tour, especially the non-touristy areas, was so lovely and serene that it more than lived up to Vinod's billing. It is such a pity that the lake, in the vicinity of the Houseboats, is so full of the muck thrown in by the people who stay in them.

Around lunch-time, when we were supposed to leave for the base camp, the situation had still not improved and the trek hung in the balance. After a brief nap, we decided to go out for dinner, instead of having it on the houseboat, also in order to meet up with the other members of the trek who had come in from Mumbai, Pune and Delhi and were staying in other houseboats.

We took a long walk along the lake since the other lot was on a Shikara ride of their own and would be some time in getting back. In the meantime, Ravi talked to the India Hikes guys, who were the organizers of the trek, and we were informed that we should be leaving at 3.30 AM from Srinagar so that we could take advantage of the sleeping habits of potential stone-pelters to go over safely to the base camp. Since the arrival at the base camp would be in the morning, we would have to proceed on the trek, as per the original schedule, right away.

Deciding not to wait for the others, in order to maximize our sleep, we had dinner at a nearby restaurant. I was just stepping out of the restaurant when a crowd of lathi-wielding youth landed up. Luckily for me, the restaurant owner was swift to down the shutters and the lathis thudded into them. THAT was when I understood why the CRPF could not adopt a 'Now! Now! Don't be like that' sort of indulgent attitude when faced with stone-pelting mobs. After all, people have been killing each other with sticks and stones for far longer than with other weapons and I rather doubt that wearing a uniform makes them any less likely to get injured or killed.

We stayed put in the restaurant, shivering to the tune of drumming lathis for a while. Once all was silent, we crept out and went to the ghat to await the shikara from our houseboat to pick us up. The boatsmen at the ghat were telling us that, in thirty years, this area had been undisturbed and this was the first time that these rioters had asked them to take away the shikaras from the ghat. Notwithstanding that, they were still there to ferry any tourists. It is that part of Kashmir which was amazing - the friendliness of the people running in tandem with rioting.

Having to wake up at 2 AM is not one of my favorite ideas - THAT being the time I tend to go to sleep normally - but when needs must, one does have to adjust. The next day we would start on the main business of this visit - the Great Kashmir lakes trek.

Pictures : Neha


  1. Well, well, well--the Master is back and in full flow! I had heard of Rainmakers and twister chasers but I guess this is the first time I am hearing of Disaster magnets--Err, where were you when the Tsunami struck?

    I do hope we wake up soon and resolve the K imbroglio, the way some people are milking it for their own ends is sickening. Your views on why the forces should not ever be maligned are well taken--they are often caught in situations not of their making and whatever they do, one section will praise them and the other revile them--a sad state indeed!

    As always, a wonderful article, Suresh--enjoyed reading it...

  2. You do zoom into the thick of things when on holiday.Good,that you returned safely.
    Arnab would not be wrong in asking you that question,hahaha.

    1. I don't :) It is things that swarm thick where I go :)

  3. Wow !! What a rollicking start !!!. eagerly glued on

  4. Floods, rain, riots or whatever, I so envy all the fun you have...take me....take mee...take meee...with you on your next trip to wherever-land..

    1. You have the time of your life too with your traveling group :)

  5. From one fry pan to another fire sums up your itineraries:) Very interesting read.