India: The Kindness of Strangers in Kashmir

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A supply caravan in Kashmir, India. Bad Mike photos.A supply caravan in Kashmir. Michael Britton photos.


The Kind Roma of Kashmir

‘You do not have a guide?’ I am asked this constantly as I prepare for a four day trek to the Lidderwat Glacier in Kashmir’s Greater Himalaya Range. Laya means home or abode; Hima is snow. ‘A tent? You have a tent?’ No, I reply to the incredulous and complaining eyes of guides eager to provide their services.

A hammock, a blanket and a sleeping bag that I purchased for ten dollars should suffice. My shelter will be the glittering cupola of the Himalaya night sky. And a poncho if it should rain. A tent weighs a minimum of 2.5 kilograms and that would be a significant addition to the weight I will have to lug up the steep paths of mountain scree.

The Yatri (pilgrims) and shepherds who traverse these thin paths carry only a blanket wrapped about their shoulders to hold a few sundry items. Their footwear is the kind of shoe purchased in bargain basements for strolling carpeted office corridors and never intended for high altitude ascents. No one wears socks. My boots are double-stitched paramilitary ware made in Slovakia with a deeply grooved tread.

Even without the cumbersome burden of a tent I feel foolishly over provisioned with four packets each of soup, noodles, oats, a half-kilogram of rice and cookies. Plus a cooking pot, a spoon and the accoutrements, a flint, cotton balls and vaseline, for lighting all-important and comforting camp fires.

Departure from Srinigar

The early morning departure from Srinagar, the summer capital of predominantly Moslem Jammu-Kashmir does not auger well. The bus to Pahalgam, my drop-off point, is cancelled. There are not enough passengers to warrant service.

The first night's campsite.The first night’s campsite.

AdilAdil‘Go over the bridge… to the chowk… sumo to Anantnag… 80 Rupees,’ is all I can make out of the heavily accented voice garbled through the heavy plexiglass of the Jammu-Kashmir Tourist Information booth. What is a chowk?

A sumo is a shared taxi-jeep. You clamber aboard and wait. If you are unlucky you wait for an hour or more until the taxi is filled to absolute capacity. Ten passengers must be shoe-horned into the jeep’s cabin before we trundle south to Anantnag. This is not a lucky morning; I wait in my cramped, claimed seat for over an hour.

From Anantnag, a nondescript and restive town policed by the unwelcome Indian Army—it is an occupation with armed, flak-jacketed troops positioned every ten to twenty meters—I need to take another sumo to Pahalgam, another, more heavily occupied town, and then another to Aru.

If I am to reach the Lidderwat in two days I must break the steep and tiring trailhead and establish my first camp half-way to the glacier field before late afternoon. I will need a few hours to make camp and scavenge for wood to boil water for drinking and for my supper of instant noodles before sunset at eight.

My early morning start is seeping toward noon. There are few passengers to be had and I do not reach Aru, a muddy village with a few guesthouses and two empty restaurants side-by-side, until almost mid-afternoon.

Never Trust a Tourist Map

My map is ludicrous. It is a tourist map, a caricature lacking only cartoon characters to point out the main attractions. My route looks to follow the Lidder River, more or less, northward. ‘You must have a guide,’ I am told again at the trailhead. ‘I have a permit,’ I reply.

The trail ascends through resin scented pine forest, the green-gray Lidder River churns and tumbles through the valley far below on my left. The sound of water is reassuring. It will be both trail marker and sustenance.

After an hour the trail levels out forgivingly traversing an alpine meadow of little white flowers spotted here and there with fluttering blue butterflies. White and blue are the celestial hues of the Buddhist and older B’on beliefs of Tibet and Nepal. Centuries of trade through the Silk Road has indelibly impressed Kashmir with Persia and its traditions. Nonetheless, I welcome the white and blue littering of color as a good omen.

Lidderwat Valley in Kashmir.Lidderwat Valley in Kashmir.The trail, until now, well defined by the treading of horse hoofs ferrying staples from Aru to the highlands, fades into verdant pasture. I spot a foot bridge crossing the Lidder River far below me; my ludicrous map clearly delineates that the trail follows the east bank of the river. With some hesitancy I trust the map and continue onward descending once again into the valley.

The camping looks to be good here: the terrain is flat and well sheltered from the wind by a copse of pine trees, there is plenty of fire wood and water.

The Lidderwat glacier can be seen from here and the early evening sun lights the horizontal striata of ice and rock with clarion strokes of yellow and orange. Despite some earlier misgivings I am glad that I do not have a guide; this solitude affords me respite from the anxieties that usually taunt me. Alone I can meditate and give myself over to the steady percussions of the Lidder River’s crashing descent and the setting sun’s sighs.

A Freezing Night in Thin Air

The Himalaya night is shockingly cold. Freezing fingers grope at every opportunity to trespass into the cocoon of my sleeping bag and jolt me awake. The nylon fabric of the sleeping bag slips against the nylon of the hammock and drops me into the hammock’s vertex forcing me to sleep in a comic shoulder-stand position with my feet elevated high above my head pointing up toward the gelid white moon and the eternal cosmic panoply of icy galaxies.

The Snow Bridge

This damned map is wrong. After several hours of arduous ascending and descending I come to a dead end. A deep slough with a swift current blocks my way. It cannot be crossed. The foot bridge miles and miles back is the route I should have taken. I curse this bastard map and contemplate a doubtful alternative.

A snow bridge crosses the Lidder River. This is late summer and although the snow bridge looks sounds, maybe it could support my combined weight and backpack of a little over two hundred pounds—its’ twenty-five yard span is a treacherous crossing—a sore miscalculation would mean plunging into the churning icy gray-green river and assured drowning. Still, to my mind, it is the preferred alternative to retracing the long route back to the foot bridge.

Except for a harrowing moment when I slip and slide toward the maw of a watery extinction the crossing is uneventful and I continue on my merry and correct way.

A dark gray mist crouches atop the glacier and steadily stalks me. Within an hour what had began as a warm and sunny morning has turned sullen and the early afternoon is now a forced march through mud and driving sleet.

Roma family.Roma family.

The Kashmir Rom

The foul weather is unrelenting and by late afternoon I grimly scan the near-horizon for possible refuge. Ahead there is an encampment of low lying huts, it is a Rom settlement. I have been warned by prospective guides that the gypsies are thieves and sometimes violent toward trekkers. Especially solitary trekkers who foolishly venture into the mountains without a guide.

I pass through the settlement and continue onward a short distance and select a soggy and forlorn camp site. There is very little fire wood to be found on the ground and what there is is too wet to be of any use. I gloomily make the necessary preparations to lay siege to a shivering miserable night that I know will stretch into awful eternity.

My sodden presence has not gone unnoticed. Four children, three boys and a girl, shyly approach, each carrying an armload of dry wood—a veritable cornucopia of warmth and good cheer. The eldest, a girl of about fourteen years, sets about starting a fire in a spare, yet adequate, sheltered nook near the base of a large pine tree. I am both whelmed and grateful for their unsolicited charity.

I offer them chocolate cookies but they refuse shaking their heads. The youngest boy surrenders to my temptation—I give him four cookies.

They stand in the sleet, wary of approaching closer, as I boil water for tea and soup. The only English word they know is ‘hello’ which they utter whenever they wish to draw my attention. I know nothing of their language which might be Urdu. I never learn their names. They know that I am Mike.

Soon their mother joins our group. She has brought two roti, Indian flat bread, for me. I graciously accept but feel awkward eating the rotis before them alone.

Kashmir and Pakistan are believed to be the original homes of the Rom, a name that is much preferred to the derogatory Gypsy. Gypsy is derived from the Greek Gyphtoi and is based on the slander that the Rom originated in Egypt and were fallen Christians despised for reportedly failing to aid the Holy Family in its flight. And if that slander was not enough to turn the locals against the Rom the other myth was that a Gypsy blacksmith had forged the fourth of the nails used to crucify Christ.

The Kashmir Rom dialect is a subset of one of northern India’s many Indo-Aryan languages. Arya is Sanskrit for Noble. Another theory is that Rom (or Roma) is derived from Ḍōmba, classical Sanskrit meaning a man of low caste who makes his living by singing.

ORoma house.Roma house.m Mani Padme Hum (Amen the Thunderbolt in the Dark Void)

Adil is the clan’s elder. He visits my gloomy camp at late dusk and worryingly reviews my preparations for the long night ahead. I have only the poncho to shelter me in my hammock from the steady sleet. I worryingly review my preparations too.

He declines my offer of tea and cookies. I think he is inviting me to dinner. The language barrier leaves me hesitant; I do not want to impose myself as an uninvited guest. I assure Adil that I will be fine. I try to assure myself too.

My sleeping bag is cold and wet even before the nocturnal ordeal gets underway. With shivering trepidation I strip off my pants and shirt and stuff them into a dry sack. This will purchase me dry clothes should I survive to the morning. I clamber into my soggy sleeping bag and curl into a tight shivering ball.

The wind picks up and drives the sleet horizontally. The poncho, suspended by a rope a few inches above me, flaps wildly, panicking, signals surrender before the wind’s brutality. This Himalaya night will take no prisoners; I fear a languishing exit into the bitter void.

Einstein remarked that the only real time is that of the observer, who carries with him his own time and space. I am hoping that hours have passed as I struggle with fitful attempts at sleep. Checking my watch plunges me to despair. Seventeen… only seventeen minutes measure this agony. It is 8:33, 20:33: a gaping bleakness exceeding the breadth of hell yawns immeasurably before this dawn will be breached.

I am shivering uncontrollably and curl tighter into a ball like a stick prodded garden slug. Hypothermia victims have been found, dead, of course, stripped of their clothing. The capillaries beneath the skin burst sending spasms of heat coursing through the body; the frantic delusion of burning up convinces the doomed to tear off their clothes. It is death’s little prank. I can hardly wait.

A Rescue and No Pants

Adil taps me on the shoulder and forcefully beckons me to follow him. I require little encouragement and pull on my boots. Through the dense sleet he leads me to his family’s home. Inside it is smoky and dimly illuminated by a fire. The ceiling is low forcing me to beetle in a simian crouch to the spot that Adil points out. His wife drapes a sheep skin over my shoulders and wraps another around my legs. I have forgotten my pants. The eldest daughter brings me tea stuffed with ginger bits and sweetened with honey. I cannot stop shivering and saying thank you.

With the evening’s prayers concluded mats are dragged out from a dark, unseen corner and aligned perpendicular to the wall. Blankets and sheep skins are piled on and everyone piles in to radiant warmth.

The night has passed instantaneously when I hear Adil’s wife preparing breakfast. A dutiful check of my watch reveals that it is a little before four.

Breakfast is rice and a spicy, unfamiliar, unknown to me, vegetable with roti and tea. It is warm and filling. I slide back down into my blankets and resume a thick, luxurious sleep.

This spare home is built from the rocks that litter the valley; the walls are plastered with dried mud and grass. The floors are carpeted with coarse and threadbare carpets. The cooking fire is held in a large tin can whose upper half has been sawed off. There is a hole in the roof that flues the fire’s smoke, There is no furniture, life is conducted in a twilight of candles on the carpets and mats.

My underwear and t-shirt are damp and I am painfully bashful of my near naked state. The sleet has given way to rain; my abandoned camp has the appearance of having been ransacked by yeti delinquents; my sleeping bag wallows in a deep puddle; it has been torn out of its hammock, ravaged then abandoned like an unfortunate Sabine. My poncho hangs limp, utterly defeated. It is doubtful that there will be sun today.

The Lidderwat is only a few miles north. In my sad state of sodden disrepair it would be foolish to march onward. A disappointing retreat to Aru is the wiser option where a hot shower will salve my beaten spirit.

Adil and his children help me gather my equipment and I pack it as best I can. Adil refuses my thank you offering of soggy cookies. The youngest son surreptitiously accepts them. I wish that I had a better gift to offer but I haven’t anything I can spare.

Postscript

This was the beginning of the rains, the worst in a century that would devastate Kashmir and leave over 560 dead and a million displaced. In one mosque in Srinigar there were only eight doctors struggling to treat over twenty thousand refugees many stricken with conjunctivitis and gastroenteritis.

There is very little news of the remote areas. Communications are unreliable at best. I worry about Adil and his family. Their encampment next to the Lidder River (that was beginning to boil over when I left) and bounded by high cliffs allow little opportunity for escape.

michael britton


Bad Mike, or Michael Britton, is a perpetual traveler, writer and artist. He is the author of Spanking the Children of Paradise and Other Travel Tales of Cosmic Despair.

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