This was on our third day in Kashmir. We had been to the mandatory sights in Pahalgam and had just come out of Verinag. The plan was to head to kokernag. Our guide was the local family friend we were staying with. Someone informed him that we could get fresh snow on Sinthan Top. Now, that’s a name that was relatively foreign even to him. So, we asked around for directions and ventured towards the the pass. It wasn’t a peak, it was a pass to Baramullah and beyond.
By the time we reached the bottom of the hill, it was 4.30 in the evening and the climb was a good 35 kilometers. We did the calculations and hoped to reach the peak before six. The sun usually set around 7.30, so we hoped that we would have enough light and time at the top.
The hills were wet from recent rains. The roads were dark, wide and in impressively good condition. Some patches were being relaid even if they were perfectly alright. We made good progress and kept time by the milestones. We spotted a shepherd and asked him for weather report.
The herders, with whom I had many interesting interactions, knew the hills like the back of their hands. No matter which peak we climbed, we could always see a the goats and their herders in some distant unimaginable slope. The most memorable of the spottings was this one herder who walked down an almost vertical mountain side with the ease of strolling down the stairs. He didn’t bend or flail his hands for balance. He just looked and not down and walked with a straight back. Not the first herder I fell in love with.
Anyway, the herder we met, was wet from the rain, and informed us that the weather was bad it will be dark soon. So, we had just about enough petrol in the car, warning that it will get darker than usual and a long way to go. But we felt resolute. We were ready to park the car and walk rest the way up. Fortunately, only good things happened on this short trip.
The weather cleared as we climbed. We soon left the thick forest cover behind and came upon more grassy terrain. As you stare out of the window, you wonder how deprived our faculties of memory are. So much to see and so little will be remembered. So far, I seem to remember every turn and every tree perfectly. As we snaked through the cluster of hills, there would always be a frozen stream running down a far hill, a secluded earthen hut built by goat herders (ironically called a kothi by the locals) or a patch of trees that called attention by standing away from others.
I know one should keep every gadget away at times like these, but I gleefully and constantly switched between the phone camera and the handycam (for the zoom). Strangely, the nearly hourlong drive was neither monotonous nor repetitive. Hills just blur past after the initial excitement. But, when you climb too fast, around 6000 feet in 30 kilometers in this case, everything changes before you can truly relish it. From thick forest cover to green grassy hills to nude grey rocky ones, you can see a million year of earthmaking within thirty minutes.
Then, there is the light. It actually grew brighter as we climbed. It was cheerfully sunny at the top. But the light was deceptive, there was no warmth. As we stepped out of the car, we were hit by chilly wind. The trip was unplanned and all of us were unprepared for the cold. I had come in a pair of floaters and a thin cotton shirt. There were two tents and a few tables laid out in the open. A shepherd in a feran was sitting on a chair and smoking on a hukkah. He greeted with a some laughter at our condition and a few jokes about the weather.
In our excitement, we ignored his invitation into the tent and ran around the hilltop like children. And, then the chill hit the bones. We went in and there were two more men huddled inside. The tents served as tea shops. We ordered everything that they sold – tea, biscuit, Maggi and bread omelette. The very handsome, rugged, courteous and shy young man turned out to be the cook. He cooked with such tenderness, the utensils never made a sound, the tea cups were placed carefully as if they were new born babies and he turned the omelettes with a caress. I could see why women love men who cook.
Once we were fed and warm again, we inquired about the snow that had got us here. They told us about a patch of snow which was some distance away on another hill. The hadsome chef, gracious as he was, offered to guide us there. So, we started walking on a very narrow path carved by many feet before us on the very edge of the hill. Sometime later, what we came upon looked nothing like snow. It was a large patch of ice, well set and dirty. This little patch was what we had come so far for, but we were not disappointed. It’s journeys like this that lend credence to the old saying about roads and destinations.
We walked on the set ice, slipped, fell got up and made complete fools of ourselves while the chef looked on. Then he noticed my thin cotton shirt and offered his jacket. With all the show of cooking skills and chivalry, I was glad that my wife was still coming back with me.
It was getting dark and we had to set off. I looked longingly at the tents and the hardy three men who will be the only ones to spend the night here. I would have gladly joined them, life would have taken a different turn. All in all, it may not have been all that bad.