Preamble: I am writing this at Dr. Masood’s home in Srinagar. I am fortunate in having access to computer. (Wednesday, July 13, 2011) It seems like heaven to be clean and tidy. Dr. 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.

In these next few posts I am going to talk about my trek  from Kishtwar to Baltal which  was the longest and in some ways the most interestin of the 4 treks that I have done this year.  In an older email I mentioned that I had stayed at Dr. Bashir Ahmed Minto’s home in Kishtwar for two nights.

Day one -the 5th July 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 in 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 1. 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.

Day two- the 6th July It was not the early start this day as Om and myself were enjoying each others company over breakfast on their terrace. Farook, my porter turned up at 7am as agreed looking no different as to when I saw him last night. Already he was asking for cheroots which I declined to supply. Dressed in black kupi-pyjamas and wearing plastic shoes I was already wondering how things would turn out with this shylock.

We left for the lower village of Tachna eventually. The track winds down the hill and crosses the gorge with a typical cantilevered bridge made of deodar trees. On the left in the valley is a mill powered by water from the gorge. Up and down the hill on the other side and we enter a small village. MD, Dr. Bashir’s servant had given me a contact there to meet. When we did find him we were invited for the inevitable tea and biscuits. Then along comes the CID telling me quite firmly that the area we are about to enter is unsafe and we should not go any further. Yes , I was a little unnerved as they all seem to think that the terrorists were just waiting to have a pot shot at me. I guess up to now I had been thinking that leopards or black bears would be the main danger.

I guess in the end I began to doubt their knowledge and presumed answers that were being given were long ago scripted and had never been reassessed. Probably what most motivated me to continue on was the thought that I might have to retrace my steps to Akhala. It was then that I decided I would be a journalist seeking the truth and hoping that by writing an article on the area reopen it to tourism. And in any case I informed my CID friends that their was nothing set out in the information on India prescribing that I couldn’t go ahead.

So onwards to the next stoppage. Shortly after leaving this house we ran into a large group on an Yartra up the Nanth Nala river. This seem to be all the villagers from that area as well as a police and military protection squad. No problem going the Yartra way but certainly strong reservations about going to Hanzal. Somehow they let me go down the hill to the police station where I had to give all my details again and go through the story of my determination. Nods, and hand shaking and a couple of hours later we were finally allowed to go. However we were provided with a police escort to the village of Sirshi. Sirshi is less than a km from Tachna. To get to Sirshi you cross another big traditional wooden bridge with a deep gorge under you. Why the escort I will never know. He was also unarmed and therefore probably of no use in a crisis. Just when I was getting used to him he disappeared.

This section turned out to be great walking country. Farook suggested some short cuts for which I was suspicious at first. We followed the levees protecting the rice paddies until we were upstream of Sirshi. We then started to climb until we reached a water supply channel. Walking along the water supply channel turned out to be a great idea as the gradient is very gentle. We seemed to follow this for quite a wild entering deodar forests with beech, walnuts and other deciduous trees along the valley floor. At times we had to leave the channel as it crossed gulleys in conduits made of the deodar tree. On the right side as we walked the Marau River roared. In some places it tumbled over boulders at a frightening speed and then leveled out with a quiet and inviting beach of white sand.

Another villager from Hanzal joined us. So we stopped when tired or needing a drink of water from one of the side streams but otherwise saw few others or habitation. Needless to say it was beautiful and in every way unspoilt. Nothing like having an area proclaimed dangerous to protect it from dhabas, rubbish, barb wire and all the detritus that happens when humans invade an area.

It was a long day with only a break at a dhaba for Farook’s lunch. He had been moaning for ages that he was starving. Rice and dal 20 rupees. I couldn’t bring myself to eat what was on offer. It is quite easy to diet under such circumstances. I just watched the chickens around my feet looking for morsels.

We arrived in Hanzal towards evening. On the outskirts of town was a dhaba where the men congregated and I guess talked about the days events. I sat down with them and asked where we might stay the night. No one really came up with anything or so I supposed. (not much was really understood as no one seem to speak English) So I was about to set off and do some sort of door knock when one of the elders Shamtar announced that I would be the guest of his home. So it turned out that we were shown a lovely room with lots of Persian type carpets in a traditional deodar wooden house. The only real change to the building is that the long split shingles made of deodar had been replaced with sheets of corrugated tin.

Hanzal is a Moslem town.  The women are in general dressed smartly in trouser/top combos. I always wonder how they look so tidy when they toil all day either carrying wood or working in a dusty environment in their homes over a wooden fire.

The toilet was the bush and showering was the bucket but at a common area on the edge of town. Toilets or wash facilities seemed to have been made but were no longer used.

During the evening many of the townsfolk would visit and wish to know more about me. But it was a nice place to stay as the military presence wasn’t there and the town seemed to get along quite well without any help from the outside world. Needless to say there was no mobile reception and the shop that I visited was very poorly stocked. Horse traffic in this village also seemed to be much less than in all the other villages that I visited or would visit.

That just about finishes day 2.

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