This was the first time I was dropping out of a trek halfway. But, then, this was the first time I was about to do a High Altitude (OR any altitude) horse ride for any length of time. So, it was in any case a new experience for me - though I would miss not being to see those lovely lakes. (The pics in this post are the places I missed, and the one below is where Vinod misses me since I'd have been the only guy who would have given him company in taking dips in freezing waters)
To take the ponies for the way back, I had to cross the boulders, first. AND falling thrice in the process of doing so, thanks to that proud, unbending knee, underscored the wisdom of my having decided to drop off the trek (or I would probably have dropped off some abyss and, no, THAT would not be good riddance!)
I had this vision of my sitting on the mule in a trance, drinking in all the beauties of nature that huffing and puffing up and down would not allow me to do, while the mule huffed and puffed in my stead. THAT, apparently, was not how a mule ride would be. Shaukat, the guide who was along for our ride, kept exhorting me to keep my balance, lean backward when the mule was descending and lean forward when it was ascending. I nodded religiously, held grimly on to the pommel of the saddle and did exactly the reverse. The mule would probably had fared better if I had not got all that advice - I would have at least sat rigidly upright, praying to all the gods I remembered to keep me seated on the mule, instead of slipping off gracefully.
The mule, on its part, had its own problems. The poor thing kept looking back at me hoping that I would get off. It looked so piteously that I was reduced to telling the poor thing, "Sorry! If it were not for this leg..." It, of course, was not possible for me to shed some 20kg of weight on the instant and the sheer agony in its eyes made me cast apprehensive glances behind me to see if the SPCA was gunning for me.
I did not know how good this one was till we stopped off near the muleteer's current residence to change mules. (Evidence of the friendliness of the Kashmiris is the fact that we were given a glass of goat milk, each, which tasted...err...like goat's milk.) The next mule that I sat on reared high as my weight settled on it that I was thrown forward and, literally, bumped noses with it. THAT, though, was not the start of a beautiful friendship.
This one had its own ideas of travel. For it, the shortest distance between two points was a sine curve. The problem, though, was that I did not know whether its idea of the two points were the same as mine; whether it was heading where I wanted to head. The sight of a few resting mules would make it run towards them to partake in their leisure. At times, it would decide that going downhill, with my weight on it, would be easier, and head off the track. AND, then, there were those instances when it would run uphill AND why it should have thought THAT would ease its burden only it could know. Keeping your balance on the mule involved turning your body to where the nose of the mule points at any point in time but it would have taken a corkscrew revolving at high speed to keep up with the twists and turns of THIS mule. I was holding on so grimly and so tightly to the pommel of the saddle that I developed blisters in the hand.
THOSE were the only blisters I could SHOW, though. Any ideas that riding a mule was fun were blasted out of my hide, that day. The problem is that you get scant sympathy at the end of the day. Any attempt at showing off your blisters and wounds would have seemed like an invitation to 'unnatural sex'.
Suffice to say that by the time we hit Sonamarg, I was only too glad to get off that mule and the mule, rather impolitely I thought, pranced around in joy to exhibit ITS gladness at being rid of me.
Dushyant of India Hikes suggested that we stay at their place but with the knee the way it was I could not countenance the idea of an Eastern Toilet. With the Amarnath tourists backed up due to curfews across Kashmir, hotels were full and we ended up at Rah Villas.
The stay would have been very pleasant and enjoyable, with excellent food and a Coimbatore-born manager to talk to, but for the fact that the situation in Kashmir seemed so grim that we were wondering about whether we would get across to Srinagar and back to our homes. Rumors of Amarnath yatris being pelted and rumors of the abnormal killing of a driver, who seemed to have disappeared after ferrying tourists, from Gund were not very heartening.
We stayed put, instead of advancing our journey, and Dushyant ferried us to Naranag where we would join the rest of our group. Four kilometers from Naranag, the road was blocked by locals and further travel by vehicle proscribed. After a wait, we decided to walk it. Just as my leg, which had been relatively all right since only THAT morning, started twinging again some vehicles from another route came along and gave us a lift to Naranag.
The rest of the group seemed to have had a gala time on their trek. The return to Srinagar, though, seemed fraught with risk. Eventually, we left Naranag in the middle of the night and hit Srinagar at about 1.30 AM. The rest of the crowd opted not to risk the possibility of a curfew making them miss their flights and headed straight to the Airport. We took the India Hikes rooms, snoozed till 5 AM and hit the Airport by 6 AM for our afternoon flights. (Yeah! We ARE foolhardy but not ALL that foolhardy!)
The Airport was like a fairground; passengers all over the place with luggage, vendors selling tea and snacks, the works. About the only things missing was jugglers, merry-go-rounds and balloon-vendors. We hung around till 11.30 AM, when we were allowed to check-in. The rest, as they say, is anti-climax.
Apart from the regrets of not being able to visit those lovely lakes, there is also the regret of not really bonding with the guys from Mumbai, Pune and Delhi. They seemed such a great crowd and it was such a pity that I could not spend those extra five days that would have made friends out of relative strangers. But, then, c'est la vie. Maybe I shall bump into them some time in the future.
Meanwhile, another trek over - even if not completed. AND, right now, the ONE unforgettable being that I added to my list of acquaintances is THAT mule!