Day one -the 5th July Kishtwar to Sonder
(red for road travel, blue for trek)
Preamble: I am writing this at Dr. Masood Shah’s home in Srinagar after completing a 7 day trek from/to as labelled above. This trek is in Kashmir mainly following the Marau River which I get to after taking a shared taxi from Kishtwar to Akhala.
I am fortunate in having access to Masood’s computer to write my initial draft which over a period of time I have updated. (Wednesday, July 13, 2011) It seems like heaven to be clean and tidy. When I arrived Masood quickly decided I was too dirty as my clothes had suffered severely with all the trekking. So in this first rehabilitated picture you can see me in my kurta-pajama.
This trek from Kishtwar to Baltal was the longest and in some ways the most interesting. In an older article I explained how I ended up staying at Dr. Bashir Ahmed Minto’s home in Kishtwar for two nights.
I made an early start (5am) at Dr. Bashir’s suggestion. Wasn’t really
sure why he wanted me to go so early but the long day which followed confirmed that it was the right thing to do. Actually early starts are normal as the best trekking can be done whilst things are cooler.
Already the bus was full so I caught a shared taxi. The road from Kishtwar to Akala gradually deteriates to a track after Palmer. Once you get to Akala you have entered the Wild West. Horses everywhere loading up with all sorts of goods, flour, rice, toilets, corrugated tin, sugar, you name it. Other horses have saddles and carry passengers. The horses looked to be in good condition. Martyr that I am I decided to start out and maybe pick up a horse on the way to Sonder my destination for that night. Sonder is supposedly 16km from Akala. (but let me tell you right now these are the longest kms I have ever walked)
Unfortunately like so much of India’s remote spots the government is building roads. And steep mountain sides and roads usually end up creating an ugly spectacle. But still there were many sections undisturbed as the road makers hadn’t got that far yet. I had every intention of avoiding carrying my bag especially after my first trek over Jalsu Pass. But alas all transport looked loaded and no one was interested in a half leg. Actually the problem was probably that the horses traveled in convoys or say 6 to 8 horses with two minders so my little rucksack was of no interest to them at all.
The deodar trees always look magnificent. On the flats would be walnut trees too. Obviously the perfect place for them to grow as they seem to be in the wild as well as the villages. Here and there army checkpoints, lots of razor wire and idle soldiers probably bored out of their mind carrying machine guns. You always know when you are approaching a dhaba as the rubbish starts to appear. Not much incentive to buy though as only often only sweets, softdrinks and basics. If I did stop I would usually end up buying a mango juice. Then I would suggest to the proprietor that we pick up the rubbish, put it all in a box and light it up. He would just look at me in amazement! Struggling on I followed the river Marau which I would continue to do for many more days reaching Sonder just on dark (after 6pm). On the way I join up with a family from Kishtwar visiting Sonder. But as we plodded on they slowed down and I rallied enough so that they were left behind. I don’t know where they stayed as there were no hotels in Sonder and the PWD or Forest Rest House indicated on my map no longer existed. In this area many of these rest houses have been taken over by the armed forces or the police or simply burnt down.
I suppose this is a good time to mention that not too many foreigners go to Sonder and certainly no further since the area was closed off due to fear of terrorists 20 years ago. As all of this became apparent I wasn’t sure how to ascertain the risk. India has a tendency to remain cautious when such things happen and seems to be reluctant to formally normalize a situation. So I more or less said to the Police and others that no formal restrictions exist anymore and I as an individual must be allowed to enter these areas at my own risk. More on this later.
As I dragged myself up the last hill to a flatter area below Sonder I met a group of villagers getting ready to play volleyball. Kindly they quickly found me a seat and then formed a ring around me. I don’t think the game ever got going as I now became the centre of attention. Where was I from, why had I come to Sonder, have you a wife and children etc? One becomes adept at answering these questions after a while. Give the right sort of info, explain where Tasmania is, explain that Australia whilst No3 in cricket will return to its former No1 position. Congratulate India on being No1 in cricket. Cricket is the glue that unites India and nearly everyone knows Australia’s leading players. Whilst the moral code of Indians is strict it would seem that everyone expects Shane Warne to have as many girlfriends as he likes and do what he wants. In some ways a comparison between cricket players and the Maharajas’ of olden times would be apt.
I was exhausted. And wasn’t sure what to do next having been told that no accommodation was available. Then Om Prakesh came forward and said that “you are my guest and will stay at my place”. The way I was feeling he didn’t have to ask twice. What a nice man. Om is the PE teacher in the local school and took me back to the house that he had built. Om shared the house with his dad, mum, wife and one child. A nice kitchen quite modern, two bedrooms and a dining come living area. Bathing is done outside and toilet further away. Bucket bathing is the norm and is quite pleasant at this time of year. However in winter this area is cut off with snow and then things would be quite different.
Om showed me around his house. Then we had tea on the terrace. Sonder village is nested on the side of the hill with good views to the north and the two nearby villages below. A small Yatra was going to happen the next day too. I should mention that this village was predominantly Hindu but later villages visited in subsequent days were Moslem.
I wanted to buy some nice things to eat. So we walked up the hill to the few shops that were there. No central area in this village but houses, temples and the few shops just strung along the side of the hill. It is here that we met Farook my porter for the next two days of trekking. A wiry weasily sort of guy; but never the less the only person on offer. I can tell you now he got on my nerves at times and certainly was ill equipped to be a porter. Incessantly smoking the local cheroots and complaining about his knees etc etc. By the way charge out rate is 600 rupees/day but this doesn’t include food, accommodation or fees for coming home. Om’s mother wasn’t well so we didn’t really see much of her. An Om’s wife and child were aware in Kishtwar I believe. So that is probably why there was room for me. I was grateful even if I did have to share Om’s bed. Last thing I should mention is whisky. I asked Om if we could get a nip just to remove the aches and pains. Gratefully he managed to find a bottle which was really generous of him as whisky was definitely frowned upon by his father. I think he hid the rest of the bottle under the bed. That just about finishes day. I wish I could include a few photos but alas that is not to be as you will later know that my camera was stolen on the last day.