It all started when I decided to take the advice of an old Indian man at Kashmiri Gate in Delhi. I went there to check whether the road from Delhi to Ladakh will be open. I was planning for this daring adventure in Kashmir for months. However, the road to Ladakh is closed a large part of the year, whether because of bad weather conditions or security reasons.
This Alpine Switzerland of the East is the reason for an ongoing dispute between India and Pakistan. If that’s not enough, even China is involved claiming the eastern parts of Kashmir as its own. Therefore, there are armed groups present in the mountains, causing increased security measures by the Indian government. That explains why the staff at the bus station in Delhi wasn’t sure whether the road to Ladakh will be open or not.
That was the time when I met the old man at the bus station. He claimed that the road from Delhi through Manali to Ladakh was open. Without asking any questions, I took the bus to Manali. When I reached Manali I found out that the road from Manali to Ladakh was closed, of course. After speaking to the people at the counter they said that I’ll have to get a 16-hour bus to Jammu. Then another one from Jammu to Srinagar (7 hours), and from there make my way to Ladakh. That’s exactly what I did and 47 hours after departure I finally reached the summer capital of Kashmir: Srinagar.
Srinagar is kind of like a winter Venice, with Jhelul river, and its three diamonds, Dal, Nagin and Wular Lake. The city is most beautiful when it puts its winter clothes on. When the temperature drops below zero, the lakes freeze and people go and play cricket on the frozen lakes. However, despite the temptation, I didn’t spend much time there and I went conquering the heavenly Kashmiri mountaintops.
The natural beauty and the mountain-esque charm of Kashmir are undisputed, but I couldn’t help to notice the influence of politics on the everyday life of local people. The roads are terrible, water and electricity issues are common, and Internet is almost non-existent except for a few big cities, like Srinagar and Kargil. I named this ‘the vicious circle of Kashmir’. The Indian Government is afraid to invest in the region, because of the secession probability. The locals, on the other hand, feel discriminated by their government, resulting in many of them supporting the armed rebels.
As I kept traveling East, Kashmir was slowly beginning to unveil its secrets to me, with every next view being more majestic than the previous one. The shared ride I took made a stop in Drass, a city known as the Gateway to Ladakh. This is also the second coldest inhabited place in the world according to the sign proudly placed at the centre of the village. I decided to use the time to go for a hike to the nearest mountaintop, accompanied by few of the other passengers that I was sharing the ride with.
While walking on the trek we were intercepted by an armed group that appeared on their motorbikes out of nowhere. They were speaking in what I believe it was Urdu. I realized what’s happening right away: we were getting robbed. Outnumbered and unarmed, we had no other choice but to hand them our things.
I could see genuine empathy at the faces of the locals in the restaurant we went after we came down. ‘Things like that don’t happen in our village. ‘Someone must have told them that we have a white tourist wandering around Drass. You know that doesn’t happen often here’, they concluded.
I didn’t allow this incident to influence my decision to continue my journey, not even for a moment. I finally reached Ladakh the next day. The hotel owner gave me a huge discount after hearing my story. He told me he feels awful that something like that happened to me in his home state. That was the first time I felt the warmth of the Kashmiri people.
I spent the next couple of days exploring the mountains surrounding Ladakh. I didn’t have any other choice, since I needed to wait a couple of days to get a permit to enter Aksai Chin, which is another disputed region, between India and China.
The next morning, the hotel owner introduced me to his friend Tashi, who was going towards Nubra and was supposed to give me a ride. Tashi picked me up from the hotel and we were on the way. The first goal was hiking all the way up to the Stok Kangri (6,153 m). My budget was drastically decreased because of the robbery, so I couldn’t afford to buy oxygen tanks. Despite all the warnings from the locals about the thin air and the need for oxygen tanks, I decided to go for the hike.
I spent around 7 hours walking up to the top with the headache due to the thin air, being my faithful companion for this journey. That’s why even today, my memories from this hike are covered in fog. I remember reaching the top and looking at the flags left by people that were there previously, trying to find my country’s flag. ‘Where are you from?’ asked me one of the soldiers that were securing the area. ‘Macedonia’, I said. ‘Well, congratulations, I don’t think we ever had anyone from Macedonia here before’, he replied.
My headache was getting worse and I remember almost fainting on the way down, as the thin air finally started getting the better of me. Fortunately, I was able to get down safely. Even I don’t know how I pulled that out. I was feeling disoriented and I can’t describe the instant feel of relieve I felt when I saw Tashi drinking tea in the small improvised mountain restaurant. I was foolish, I know, but I’m always in pursuit of daring adventure. Plus, the view from the mountaintop was completely worth it!
After that unforgettable experience, we proceeded to Nubra Valley and the road to Nubra was just as magnificent as the valley itself. One of the main lessons I learned in Kashmir was that the journey is just as important as the destination. The people you get to meet on the way, the stories you are going to hear, the new lessons that you are going to learn, the emotions you are going to feel… Here I realized that the final destination isn’t a mere place, but rather a new way of seeing things.
In the evening we stopped by at the cold dessert and we enjoyed the sunset while riding Bactrian (triple hump) camels, a species only to be found in the Tibetian Plateau. The night started to slowly pour itself over the desert, changing the sky’s outfit to purple. This desert is one of those places where you see nothing, hear nothing, but yet through the silence something always throbs…
By this time, I thought my journey to Kashmir reached the ceiling. But, I was wrong. Tashi, knowing the situation I was in and what happened to me back in Drass, offered me to stay at his house for the night. And he wasn’t taking a no for an answer. We had a very nice traditional Kashmiri food prepared by Tashi and his wife. It was an experience I will remember for the rest of my life.
The last day was all about the most beautiful place in Kashmir, and one of the most beautiful ones I’ve seen my life: Pangong Tso lake. Located at a height of 4,350 meters, this lake is the real mountain pearl of Kashmir. Pangong Tso leaves even the greatest wordsmiths speechless. It’s like that beautiful girl that you gather the guts to approach with months but when you finally do so, you suddenly forget how to speak. That’s the impression Pangong Tso usually leaves on people, and I was no exception…
Kashmir will always remain in my memories as a cold place with warm people. I stayed there for two weeks, constantly interacting with locals and I saw their part of the story. The media part of the story is that Kashmir is a dangerous place filled with terrorists and that local people are under their influence. That’s one of the reasons why I had the urge to write this story and share it with the world. Because it shows a different perspective. Travelers, people like me, have the ability to feel the air, take a peek inside the houses, converse with the local people, live their life and show their part of the story.