Finding Solitude in Kashmir

by Ashley Ruback

Flying over Kashmir and seeing the vastness of the Himalaya range, I felt a growing excitement about my decision to travel there. The other places on this most recent trip to India were familiar. Kashmir was totally new and I had no idea what to expect. As Swamiji in Rishikesh said to the 2008 International Yoga Festival attendees, “Never expect anything. Expectation is the root of discontent and frustration. For when you expect something, it is so easy to be disappointed.” As we began our landing process, this grandmother sitting next to me began talking to me. She liked that I was from America. She liked that I helped her daughter deal with her twin baby boys. She asked me for my address and gave me hers. She kept kissing me and invited me to come have chai at their house. I politely declined since I had a ride picking me up. Talk about friendly...already I liked this place.

Gulzar, the Kashmiri owner of the Annex Hotel in McCleod Ganj who had convinced me to visit this region, picked me up in his brand new SUV. As we made the two hour journey to Pahalgam, or the Shepherd’s Valley, I couldn’t believe how peaceful it was. There were no cows, only a few motorbikes and not that many people in general. There were actually times when there were no other cars except ours. The quiet felt so foreign me out after having been in Varanasi, Agra and Delhi all too recently. Mountains surrounded every direction as we drove through fields of mustard and saffron. Ah…saffron country! Next to Spain, Kashmir produces the best saffron in the world and I was lucky enough to score it straight from the saffron guy

We arrived at the Himalaya House in the early afternoon. It was a quaint guesthouse right on the river. The lovely garden in front was perfect for a group to practice yoga. My room, decorated in typical Kashmiri embroidered curtains, duvet and rugs, was just what the doctor ordered after leading back-to-back groups of adults and teenagers for the month prior. After a brief rest, I embarked on a shorter hike around the valley in order to get my bearings. It was lightly raining and my guide, Ransam, insisted I take an umbrella. I politely replied, “No thanks, I live in Oregon. It rains all the time. I never use an umbrella.” He took it anyway. Thank God because within 30 minutes, I was soaked and desperately needed the rainbow colored umbrella!

The village reminded me of Telluride, Colorado. Set at the end of a valley with picturesque mountains in every direction, the small houses and make shift mosques dotted the landscape. Children played hopscotch and cricket in every street. Chickens and a few cows ran amok. The villagers had much lighter skin and the most incredible green eyes that sparkled with an infectious smile. Virtually everyone wore a thin wool cloak over his or her clothes called a Faren and carried a small basket filled with charcoal that they used to warm their hands.

A rural community for the most part, each family had their own small plot of land in which to grow their own food. Each October, they harvest corn and potatoes for the winter. Some depend on tourism for their livelihood and they were all so friendly to me (since it was the early season, I think there were only 5 foreigners in town). With very few cars around, most people walked and said hello to me along the way. One afternoon a couple of schoolgirls invited me to their house for Chai and I accepted the invitation. They thought my Western outfit was horrible so they gave me a Faren and also put on lipstick, nail polish and a headband. Now I fit in and within minutes we were all drinking real Kashmiri Chai – a salty, milk tea that has millet powder on the bottom – definitely not Indian Chai and definitely an acquired taste! It tasted better by dipping rock hard bread in it to soak up the salt. They didn’t understand why I hadn’t drunk the millet powder at the bottom. I didn’t realize I was supposed to so I chugged it.  I pretended like it was fantastic but politely declined seconds. After some time of exchanging cultural differences and taking photos, I told them I would be back and gave them my Nike running shoes in return for my new (used) Faren.

The next couple of days consisted of early morning meditation and yoga > breakfast > 4-5 hours of hiking > nap > bath > dinner and a lot of reading. My dream schedule! Gulzar and his crew totally took care of me. A guide escorted me on all the hikes showing me the local terrain and explaining village life. They cooked nutritious vegetarian meals that were simple and delicious. Each night I took the most amazing bath with unlimited super hot water followed by Gulam, the cook, sending me to bed with two hot water bottles and a pot of tea.

The day hikes were spectacular. My favorite day we hiked a steep ridgeline for over two hours. I officially ditched my running shoes and opted for my Teva flip-flops that I had grown so accustomed to. Hiking in the snow in sandals was definitely a new one but I found the yoga in this new style and it was fantastic. My toes were able to spread and grip the earth so much better and my balance felt centered and strong. The view from the top was stunning…360 degrees of the glorious Himalayas…rugged and HUGE! At 14,500 feet, these were small mountains in comparison to those on the interior. I could only imagine the views on an actual multi-day trek and couldn’t wait to start planning the next Redback Travels trip when I got back to the guesthouse. We cruised down and at one point came up to a large snow patch. I looked at my guide and asked, “Can we glissade?” He answered, “You like?” Of course I like! We glissaded down on our butts laughing all the way.

No stay in Kashmir would be complete without staying in a houseboat on Dal Lake. I had my doubts since all the books talk about it and it seemed super touristy. But since this was a scoping expedition I had to see for myself. Gulzar, the other guide Wali and I drove to Shrinigar, the biggest city in Kashmir. The houseboat was amazing with six bedrooms, a living room, deck and a dining room. It reminded me of a shotgun house in New Orleans only totally ornate and reminiscent of the British era. We enjoyed a lovely dinner and I was sad to have to leave the next morning. I left the lake with one last morning yoga session at sunrise with the most magical light hitting the water and the surrounding boats.

Kashmir was definitely nothing like what I had expected. For years I had wanted to go there and for years was afraid to due to what I had read in the newspapers. This trip I decided to listen to my instinct and follow my heart. I decided to trust Gulzar when he said that it was safe for travel. The media can twist one’s perception and I was so glad to see the Kashmiri culture firsthand. I felt like an explorer sent to report on the real state of Kashmir…to be the voice and the eyes for a people who need tourism to survive. As the voice, I can honestly say that Kashmir is a unique place to India and to the world. The military presence is a part of the landscape and acts as a reminder of the tumultuous past. But, the scenery is so spectacular and the people so genuinely nice that they overshadowed this element and their presence simply made me feel safe. Pahalgam is an adventurer’s paradise and the peace I felt upon arrival lasted throughout my stay. My meditation practice deepened and my yoga practice softened. There is nothing better than a sunrise practice with the sound of roosters and the river running in the distance. No computers, no cars, no distractions, just myself surrounded by nature. Kashmir is a region that few get to visit but that anyone who does, knows they have seen something special. I went with no expectations and left with a renewed sense of self and with a feeling that it was my dharma to spread the word.

For information on the Himalaya House in Pahalgam and The Annex Hotel in McCleod Ganj, visit www.himalayafunandtours.com. Both are owned by the Hakeem Brothers. Ask for Gulzar.

To sign up for a yoga and trekking tour of Kashmir and Ladakh or to go on a spiritual journey in North and South India, visit www.redbacktravels.com