I was sitting in the pub with a very dear friend of mine who was talking animatedly about something or other. I am a little hazy on the details as although I was looking at him and occasionally nodding or mumbling in agreement I was miles away. Nearly 6,000 miles away to be precise and daydreaming about Kashmir; walking under a cloudless blue sky, jagged snow-capped peaks, fields full of bright flowers, and occasionally a shepherd leading a flock of sheep.
A couple of weeks later, the dream was true. I was in Kashmir, sat on the roof terrace of a magnificent houseboat called Sukoon, eating fruit salad with curd, drinking sweetly spiced chai, and staring at the Pir Panjal mountains reflecting in the glassy waters of Srinagar’s beautiful Dal Lake. A luminous shikara glided silently past, the boatman gently nodding ‘good morning’. A bright white egret slowly picked its way through the shallows at the side of the boat before clumsily taking flight. The air was cool and crisp but the sun was steadily growing in strength. Perfect weather for the day’s activity, a walk and picnic lunch in the forested valleys around Yusmarg – 2 hour’s drive away.
The road from Srinagar to Yusmarg was frankly unremarkable at first, but after a while, the houses and shops thinned out, and gorgeous yellow fields of mustard began to dominate the landscape. The mountains were our constant companion – tall, spiky, and brooding. Deep into April, they were covered in snow and strongly hinting at adventure. Our wonderful guide Mansur spoke of largely unexplored multi-day trekking routes where walkers are accompanied by porters carrying food, water, and tents. Snow leopards are said to call these mountains home.
Arriving into Yusmarg we parked the car and jumped out. We were met by a group of men wearing pheran, traditional knee-length cloaks, some of whom led horses. A sign listed destinations and prices and it became clear that horse riding trips to points of interest in the valley were being offered. In the interests of research, we decided to deviate from our planned walk and instead to ‘saddle up’.
Within minutes we had left the concrete path and were descending some rough-cut stone steps by a gurgling stream. I am by no means a skilled horseman, having only ridden once before, but the going was slow and I soon settled into the saddle allowing myself to enjoy the magnificent scenery as we emerged from the trees into a clearing with a wider stretch of boulder-strewn river, tall towering pine trees, and views of snow-capped peaks. This was the Kashmir I had day-dreamed about and it was magnificent!