Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Valley Of The Shepherds

As usual, plans changed at the last second. Instead of heading northeast to Sonamarg we went southeast to Pahalgam. We were 5: Yasir, who I met in Kajuraho, his charming uncle Niyaz, a friend of theirs named Shabir, and Chihiro, a Japanese woman staying in the houseboat next to mine. Chihiro speaks very little English, and nobody has the patience to explain what's going on to her, so I doubt she has any idea that plans ever changed at all. She seems happy to be led around, taken care of, and to sit silently as indecipherable noises issue from the lips of those around her and eventually result in decisions. I, in contrast, am often driven to the peak of frustration and paranoia by the constant surrender of will and consciousness required in my current situation, so I ask a lot of questions.

When I asked why we had changed directions, I received two different answers from two different people. Yasir said, "It's winter so they are coming down." And Niyaz said, "No, there is snow." Either of those reasons, militants or snow descending from the mountains, is good enough for me, so off we went to Pahalgam, Valley of the Shepherds.

Typical of a camping trip, our gear-gathering took longer than anticipated, and we didn’t get on the road until early afternoon. We had a two and a half hour drive, and then we stopped at a local market for provisions. By the time we pulled into the valley, it was already dark, so we took rooms at a guest-house. All was quiet except for the river, and the air was damp and cold. I had two choices to keep from shivering, take a brisk walk, or get into bed. I was told it was not safe to go outside alone; so after dinner,having already pushed the limits of my sociability for the day, I went to bed.

the river in the morining

The next morning, Yasir found a cook/caretaker for our campsite. Niyaz and Shabir took us to the site, and as we were setting up tents, they left for Srinagar, promising to come back for us in a few days. I was enjoying some yoga on a sunny patch of grass overlooking the river when, three horses arrived, led by a rosy-brown faced man with merry eyes wearing a bark colored feran (the traditional Kashmiri woolen cloak).

horses appear

I thought I had given up on horse-riding in Mongolia, but when I saw them, I again felt the desire to ride a fast and well-trained horse. And now, having some experience with horse groups and their guides, I was going to have my way. It always goes like this: there is one hearty horse who wants to run and that one always leads. The others are docile and only follow the lead horse halfheartedly and with much prodding. So, I identified the spirited horse (a tall black one as opposed to the shorter brown ones) and demanded to ride it. As predicted, I was told that the horse was too powerfull for me and that it would cause problems, leading me here and there.

I gave in and Yasir (being the man of the trio) mounted the black horse. We had a 12 kilometer ride ahead of us, and as soon as we left the campsite, the black horse shot down the road. My horse followed, refusing to go any faster than a bone-jarring trot, and Chihiro’s horse walked slowly along, led by the horse guide, because she was terrified of falling off. Yasir waited for us about a kilometer down the road.

By the time we caught up with the man and the black horse, I was irate; for me, there are few things more frustrating than riding a horse that refuses to gallop. To make things worse, Yasir was laughing and gloating about having a faster horse. That did it; I started yelling at him. In short, I said, “Every fucking time I pay for a horse I get the a fucking slow lazy old one just because I’m a woman! I’m so fucking sick of it!” More smirking from Yasir prompted, “You think it’s funny? I’m a better rider than you, so why are you on the fast horse!” He just kept laughing, and I rode off, nearly in tears. A few minutes later, he relented, and I mounted the black horse and left him in the dust. And what a fine horse it was, feet barely touching the ground as the road wound up the mountain.

After a bit of a ride, I stopped and waited for Yasir and Chihiro. When Yasir arrived, he was so mad about the horse that I told him we could trade off. So I took the black until we reached our destination, a lovely, high altitude meadow, and he mounted it for the way back, several hours later. Near the begining of our return ride, with the horse in motion, Yasir fell off. It’s frightening to see someone fall off a horse, so my initial reaction was concern, but when it became clear that he wasn’t seriously injured, I went ahead and indulged myself in the last laugh. Obviously, I had the lead horse for the duration of our stay in Pahalgam.

Is that a smirk I'm wearing?

That day, our destination was Baisran, a huge, rolling meadow surrounded by pine trees. Unfortunately, we weren't allowed to ride our horses into the meadow, so we took a walk instead and eventually settled against a rock to take in the sun and scenery. This was the perfect place and time for some yoga, so I found a private spot under a tree, and Chihiro wandered over for a lesson. Relaxed and invigorated, we ambled back to the rock where Yasir and the horse guide were chatting. A boy came from one of the huts in the forest and watched us. Later, he took me to a spring to fill my water bottle. Coming from the hillside in a tiny stream, the water was clear and sweet.

the meadow

pensive boy

That night in the tent was the coldest I have spent in a very long time. My neck was warm, because I had a pashmina, but the parts of me that touched the ground were freezing. It was a restless night for all of us. Somewhere in between tosses and turns I thought I might be able to sleep if I emptied my bladder. It wasn't any colder outside than it was inside, so I lit a cigarette outside the tent and stood, stamping my feet and looking alternately at the ground and the sky. Out of nowhere, a large, dark bird flew across my field of vision and then disappeared, leaving a fierce, double cry behind. I'm guessing it was a hunting hawk, but if there's anything I've learned in the past few months it is that I know nothing about plants and creatures.

campsite at dusk

The next morning, stiff and sleep deprived, we broke camp and took another 13 kilometer ride further along the valley but gianing altitude, to Aru. Along the way I tried to teach Chihiro something about reins and riding, but I eventually gave up and went for a gallop.

At Aru, wanting to sleep that night, we took a room at another guest house. We had some tea and sandwiches, and then took a nap. We had planned to take a hike that day, but nobody could move, and by the time we arose, the evening chill was already settling in. So, we had dinner in the clapboard room of the cook, next to the kitchen. He fed the wood stove with kerosene; frightening.

from the road to Aru

All three of slept in the same bed, for warmth, and we woke up well-rested. We took a van back to our starting point and waited for Niyaz to show up. Eventually, he did, and in the meantime I took one last ride.

We arrived back in Srinagar in the evening, and I was reinstalled in the Gulrose, which has no electricity at the moment. By now I've lost track of the number of days I've been back. 3, 4, 5, 2? I do know that it's Saturday, that it's raining, that I've become enchanted by the ever-changing mirror that I'm living on, and that I'm in love with Kashmiri carpets.

Nonetheless, I'll be heading south sometime in the next few days. Sometimes I try to remeber what I expected from life when I was 16. It certainly wasn't this.


Blogger Mike and Jess Pachler said...

Wow, just wow.

8:30 PM GMT-5  

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