“A good traveller has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.”
– Lao Tzu
I’d been absorbing that quote during my obsessive viewing of Discovery Travel & Living on T.V. the last few weeks, nay months, when I had grown too desperate for a holiday. The channel let me travel places I wasn’t going to be at, at least this summer: France, Spain, Greece, China. And let me want more than ever to be out of the depressive heat, the monotonous routine and the exhausting work hours.
Last week, after much deliberation over how and when, The Guy and I managed to take off for a much needed, much awaited holiday. I needed it because one and a half years of gruelling work, setting up a new venture – eating, breathing, sleeping and thinking every waking minute about it – had taken a toll on my efficiency. This was the first time I’d worked without a break for that long and I needed to replenish my energies to focus on things afresh. The Guy needed the holiday because, well, his wife needed one. Since the conception of the idea and its birth, we’d both been waiting to see our little baby of a business stand on its own two feet, before we could go off on a holiday. ‘Now’ seemed to be the time for it.
But coming back to Lao Tzu’s very interesting quote that was impressed on my mind, I was wondering how I was ever going to be able to enjoy the travel as much as the destination. It’s not me, you know, to look through the window pane of a moving car and stare into nothingness and lose myself in it; I’ve always been in a hurry to arrive where I set out for. But the valleys of Kashmir made the task very simple. There was a view from the window, every window, that you could wonder at!
It was awe-inspiring, the scenery. My first feel of the snow, between my fingers, under my feet that struggled to find a foothold in it. The clouds that kissed the mountains peaks and became intangible tufts of feathery mist as they descended upon us. The gurgling of the water streams, the smell of pine trees on the hills. The blues and the greens of the skies, waters and the trees, as they intermingled and became one. The sloping roofs of the lone house on a hilltop and the winding roads that led up to it. The flowers in full bloom – the bright purples and oranges, pastel pinks and mauves, creations of nature we’d never seen before. The sunset on the Dal Lake and how it turned the water golden, orange and amber. The shikara full of flowers that came early morning to lure foolish romantics like me. The horses trotting up and down the mountain sides, carrying wide-eyed holidayers like us. The natural springs that gushed forth clear, cool waters. The sunlight as it lit up half a mountain peak. The chill in the night under the star-speckled, clear skies.
You know how it feels when you’re falling in love? If I could paint that feeling, I’d paint a picture of Kashmir.
During our holiday to Australia, I’d felt practically ashamed of myself to be so far from home, exploring a foreign land when I’d seen so little of my own country. And that’s when I’d decided I was going to see India and love it more for its beauty than I already did. Kashmir topped my list of must-see places then and was I glad to be where alone Paradise could be, if one existed on Earth.
We’d been hearing of travel tales to Kashmir from friends and family who’d been there recently. Yet, it was difficult to forget about security issues while planning a trip there. Pa-in-law went as far as to suggest we try some place safer like Manali. But I’d set my heart on the northern-most state of the country and wasn’t going to let some terrorists I’d never seen spoil my plan!
Once there, we were told by just about every local that things have been under control from the last 5 years and that any blasts now are wholly engineered by politicians and the media. But like they say in a very cliched way, there’s no smoke without fire. There was just enough proof of that on the highways and roads where jawaans were posted at a distance of every 100 metres, at the airport where we went through security checks 4 times before we could finally board the flight from Srinagar, at the long military cavalcades that all cars maintained their distance from, at the highest snow clad mountain we could climbe in Gulmarg where the BSF personnel forbade our Kashmiri guide from going any further because the LoC was only a few minutes’ trek away…
We were not there to see the Kashmir ravaged by years of militancy, yet it was a past that spoke to us through the deliberate silence of the Kashmiris trying to make a living out of the improving tourism in the state.
According to rather believable estimates, there were some 2 lakh tourists in Kashmir at the same time as us. So could you blame the locals for trying to make the most of it? A lunch of Maggi, a measly and unappetising portion of pulao, aloo paratha inedible noodles cost us approximately Rs. 500! The taxi we hired in Kashmir was not allowed on the roads of Gulmarg once it had dropped us off at the hotel; from then on our only mode of transport could be horse-back because the ghoreywalas also had a living to make! A bottle of beer that comes with an MRP tag of Rs. 30 cost us Rs. 140 there. My friend was sold bulbs for blue roses that are available only in Srinagar. Shopping for Kashmiri shawls and carpets was like trying to find the real Cinderella among all the fake ones. And then, there was a commission set for the taxi driver/hotelier who recommended the shop to you.
But the hospitality more than made up for everything. The aged owner of our house boat stayed up to serve us dinner. And another white-haired, agile Kashmiri refused to let us order our choice of dishes at a restaurant. Instead, he insisted on serving what he thought was the specialty there: rista, gushtaba and rogan josh. We didn’t regret giving in to his gentle persuasion.
And then there were the stories, the unmissable, ingenuous stories that made all journeys so entertaining. The horsemen sold us incredulous tales of tigers who ate up lambs and trekkers; a shikara wala shared with us his love affair with a Delhi girl, the man Friday at our house boat told of a marriage proposal from a foreign tourist that came up against VISA problems, a steward talked of young men from his village who had turned into terrorists. All of them believable, and yet not quite.
Like the beauty of Kashmir.