Umassi La- the climb begins

I am now almost at Atholi. Atholi is one of my favourite villages which I have been wanting to return to for some time. I am hungry, hot and thirsty as I approach Atholi on the Kishtwar road. The men I meet seem sullen too and perhaps that is the effect of Ramadan. Children pass me on there way home from school shy but curious. Who is this old man traipsing along the road. Most of them have head scarves but not birkars.

enjoying good company and some food at Atholi

The main road skirts Atholi and that is one of the things that attracted me to the village. A bypass road skirts the lower corn fields and runs under the eaves of the adjoining mountainside. Some small bridges cross mountain streams until the road climbs up to the village on a crest overlooking the main road and the river along which it runs close to.

I walk through the village and come to the town centre which like last time seems slightly abandoned and unkept. I walk towards the eastern end of the town near where I stayed in the forest guest house some years ago and find the same shop opened  that I ate at before. The people here are very friendly and there is a mixture of eaters and non-eaters. Not necessarily I expect along religious lines but just along the individuals will which is the way it should be.

Refreshed both in food and company I then set off for Gulab Garth where the trail is supposed to start. Gulab Garth isn’t too far away and can be seen across the river much lower down than Atholi. It isn’t nearly as attractive as Atholi but is a very busy dusty trucking town supplying many of the villages in the surrounding valleys. There are also more road connections the main one being the extension to Killar and thence to Laddakh or Manali.

To get to Gulab Garth last time you took a lovely footpath down the ridge to the bridge in the cusp of the valley and thence swung to the left to a large flat and rocky plain where Gulab Garth was settled. Unfortunately not much was left off the old path  down to the highway as the excavator was demolishing it in front of my eyes as I descended. Preserving charm is not a highlight in India’s progress. One of the reasons Gulab Garth is growing too is that it has a large buddhist population and probably Hindu. So it is a melting pot of religions.

As I walked into Gulab Garth my immediate need was to get some advice on how to get to this trail and just where did it start and for that matter how far how the road been built. There are lots of activity in Gulab Garth not only because it is a trucking rendevue and bus terminus b. I stopped at one of the first shops for a drink and check out the possibility of leaving my bag there whilst I looked around. But it soon turned out that I had found all I would need from a young police constable  Sanjeev Singe  who was going home for the weekend to be with his wife and family.

at the beginning

Sanjeev the policeman on the left with the Kumar boys

He offered to take me with him. In return I bought some chicken which we drove down to the other end of town to pick up. But I baulked at buying whisky as I felt this might not be the right thing to do. But maybe that cautiousness has infiltrated my thinking after being with Muslim families for so long. We set off in his small low hung car eventually dodging potholes along the way. the road didn’t seem to go very far before we reached the end and where blasting was going on. We found a spot to leave the car and were soon joined up with four young guys who were returning from a pilgrimage. They all had the surnames Kumar but they didn’t look to be related. Apparently they had been camping at another Pilgrimage site somewhere towards  Killar and were in very good spirits for what had obviously been a successful adventure for them.

Floods in Kashmir

from my friend Chris Zandee ‘It is madness but it looks you are nice and busy.
We have distributed food and will help with pumping water.
business has been paused as the whole valley has been paused and stopped for now 2 weeks.
It will take months and some years to recover. Financial loss is high.
Agricultural loss is also huge to trees animals and harvest.’

bridge washed away

the Jhelam River in flood – near Srinagar

It is so hard to visualise how quickly your life can change. When I was there in July everything looked good with crops growing well and not nearly as dry as previous years. Now so much has been lost and the setbacks will take years to recover from.

the Marwah Valley near Nowpachi. Water mill for grinding flour seen in upper section destroyed by rubble and mud carried down by the floods photo by Nasir Lone

Morainal river valleys upheaved by floods- photo by Nasir Lone

Chris Zandee
Himalayan Products
Langanbal, Pahalgam, J&K.

The Marwah Valley – FINALLY

Last year I was fortunate enough to visit the Marwah Valley as part of my trek from Sonder to Baital . This was a great adventure but the need to return even if only to see parts of it again seemed important to me. I was especially upset when my camera disappeared in the final hours probably stolen on the bus I took from Baital to Waya at the very end of this long walk.

On this trek I was hosted by many families as paid accommodation doesn’t seem to exist although it has been written up in older documents that Forestry provide rest houses. I did see a few of these on route but they looked as if they hadn’t been used for some time. Rather than try to make do in such a lonely place I naturally succumbed very quickly to the hospitality that was offered.

But I am digressing. The purpose of this article is now to take you to Yordu and to Bilal’s family home. Bilal’s family hosted me last year and his brother Umfat was my guide and porter for several days last  year. So I was looking forward to meeting them again and perhaps getting to know them more. Contact however and prearrangement’s are very difficult to make as there is no communication channels to these people. Whether the reason for this is due to the terrain or the army’s viewpoint that the region is dangerous for terrorists I was unable to determine. So as I walked down the valley I really had no idea who would be at home.

But my hosts had an inkling that I would turn up as we are able to communicate in the winter months when they move from the valley to stay in Kishtwar which has full facilities and remains open all year.

So when I woke up that morning  after a hectic night with the J&K police in the shared jeep I was keen to be on my way. The horse-camp is really at the end of the traffic able road from Inshan. It is the 22nd of July and Ramadan is in full swing. Prayers are 8 times a day and fasting commences from daylight to dusk. And fasting is not only for food but liquids as well. The people seem very adept in their acceptance and their doesn’t seem to be many sneaking an odd snack. However however difficult it may be for them they seem to instinctively accept that I am not of their ilk and I am constantly offered tea or food whenever it is available. The pony men seem to be an exception to the rule. They don’t eat but they might have some water. So after some tea, rice and sweet biscuits I am ready to depart. Of course everyone wants me to take a photo of our group for what reason I don’t know as they will probably never get to see them.

A excavator is desecrating the existing track but the old footbridge still effectively divides the old world from the rest of the world. What a beautiful day I was full of mounting enthusiasm. As I noted in my diary ‘that the road is smashing its way down the valley with the help of this excavator which does its deed in the few months of summer. I am calling it a road but it is more like a destructive serpent. It has already destroyed the layout of the old path with its carefully laid flagstones and pleasant little footbridges which cross the many side streams. Even since last year the extent of the damage has multiplied with the excavator already beyond Yordu having crossed the river in the winter months when the flows stop and what remains of the river probably ices over.’

lets change kashmir


a letter to the English Kasmeri papers in Srinagar submitted 31/7/2012:

Isn’t it time Kashmir changed its approach to confrontation……


looking down on the Merau River from Yordu

I am writing this short article as an independent traveler from Australia who has fallen in love with the beautiful Himalayas that form a backdrop to much of Kashmir. For the last 5 years I have been coming to India in what is our winter time namely late June and July.  I come from a similarly beautiful part of the world namely Tasmania which is located in the southern most part of Australia and enjoys a similar climate to Kashmir although not as cold in winter and being in the southern hemisphere a 6 months time difference.

Being summer in India it didn’t take me long to realise that the best places to visit at this time of year was in the Himalayas and especially in those regions that were not two affected by the monsoons which predominate in the easterly regions of this country. So gradually I spent quite a bit of time exploring Himachal Pradesh , Laddakh and then finally Kashmir. For many years I avoided my wandering too much into Kashmir because of the emergency contingencies which waxed and waned from year to year. But all of that has changed for me these last two years when I realised that although risks did still exist from parties in armed conflict with each other that perhaps to a person such as myself they were no more dangerous than say crossing a road in Lal Chowk Srinagar.

Last year I traveled from Kishwar to Baital mainly by walking up the Merau River and passing through the towns of Sonder, Hanzal Yordu Inshen Sukhnoi before crossing the mountain range to Shesnag and falling in with the Yatra procession to Amarnath and finally finishing up in Baltal in a much exhausted but elated state. Somehow in the last couple of hours I mislaid my camera and that was my only disappointment with this trek. During the intervening year I resolved to go back to some of these places I had been through and meet some of those persons who had befriended me last year and of course take as many photos as possible. To that extent that objective has just been completed.

What I want to talk about now is how I feel about these people and how their lives have been restricted by this Contingency for so many years by all in control and not just the forces in the field such as the army, the J&K police but by the politicians and their bureaucrats.

approaching Yordu

the Mawrah Valley

It is really India’s Shangri-La by which I mean it is really a precious hidden valley which has probably escaped too much attention because it was shut down to tourists for perhaps more than 20 years because of the Contingency.

I often think to myself where would I like to be  if I served in the police or army. Of all the places in India this would be one of the best places to be stationed. Why then would one want an emergency situation to disappear? During my visit last week I have been told by the Army that there are 6 terrorists operating in the area. ( the police said 4 terrorists or maybe it was the other way around). The villagers however seem to hold a different viewpoint and say there have been no problems for several years. To be honest I sort of lean to their viewpoint.