I never knew that one day I would be visiting Kashmir and Ladakh. When the day came, I was oblivious to the unstable political situation between India and Pakistan and India and China and the possibility that I could be caught in the crossfire between countries. I had trusted the word of my travel agent that it was perfectly safe to stay on a houseboat in Srinagar, visit the beautiful Kashmiri valleys and take the highest gondola in the world to the top of a snow-covered peak in Gulmarg and stop by interesting villages to walk amongst the locals to savour the sights and sounds of the markets.
After experiencing Kashmir, we would travel by car with our personal guide across the breath-taking Zanskar mountain range towards Leh in Ladakh so that we could slowly acclimatise to the increasing altitudes and fend off the possibility of high altitude sickness. It was a good travel plan and it had indeed materialised into a wonderful experience that was most importantly, safe for my husband and me and for the guides and drivers who accompanied us.
From a personal perspective, what can I say about my trip to Kashmir and Ladakh? Firstly, I felt privileged for not having to share the greatness of God's creations from millions of years ago with busloads of loud and callous tourists who thankfully were eliminated by the inability of the narrow mountain roads to accommodate them. Instead, most tourists were three-generational families from India travelling in their own vehicles or hired 12-seater vans, honeymooning couples and motocycle groups. It was more pleasant to encounter these family and friend groups than the ubiquitous tour groups of thirty or forty people swarming around a scenic spot scrambling for the best picture-taking position.
Secondly, I felt really fortunate that I was not adversely affected by the high altitude (the highest was at Khardong Pass at 18,370 feet) and was able to fully feel with my senses the warm embrace of the spirit of the mountains, an ancient spirit that was present in the waters of the melting snow and the rushing rivers and in the languid flow of the River Indus. I felt its presence also in the gentle contours of the mountains in Kashmir and rugged folds of the massive rock formations in Ladakh. It lives in the shepherds, nomads and farmers who look after the numerous mountain ponies, cows, sheep and Pashmina goats that dot the landscape here and there. The spirit of the mountains resides in the isolated monasteries on the mountain sides and in the air where prayers were carried to their destination by the wind.
At times it morphed into soft cotton clouds floating across skies so blue you could cry with joy inside. As a reminder of the instability of life, the spirit takes the protective form of the prominent Indian army stationing their soldiers and camps at strategic locations throughout the endangered territory. Yes, I sensed the spirit of these mountains - their majestic beauty as well as the undercurrents of threat and fear that could tear apart and destroy the spirit of the land which I hope will never happen. I have had a lovely spiritual experience with Mother Nature simply because I did not see danger round every corner choosing to respond with spontaneity rather than fear.
Lastly, if someone were to ask me if travelling to Kashmir and Ladakh is safe, I would be unable to provide any assurance based on my experience that it would be. There were incidents that occurred after we had left a particular place that sent shudders down our spines. We were certainly guided through dangers by divine hands and we moved from place to place, from lower to higher elevations, from the lush and picturesque valleys of Kashmir to the semi-arid desert that was the Ladakhian landscape, unscathed. I, at least, had not thought about the consequences of a potential deluge of thick ice cover upon us when our car was stalled for 2 hours while waiting in a snowfall for an avalanche ahead to be cleared. I did not imagine that that in those seemingly peaceful mountains, a mortar shell could come my way nor did I fear that the car would careen off the slippery, rocky and narrow mountain road at heights beyond 12,000 feet. I did not befriend fear because I had placed my faith in the prayers of people who cared for me and in the spirit of the mountains whom I believe would be kind to me and my spouse.
So, if you want to visit these awesome mountains someday, you have to have blind faith like me and a belief that there is a time to depart this earth that is written somewhere for each of us and we can be taken even in the safest of places. From the huge presence of the Indian army in Kashmir and Ladakh, you will be reminded daily and at regular intervals about the tussle for control at the borders between India and Pakistan and between India and China and commiserate with the people living there. In Ladakh I feel sorry for those who feed their insecurities with the need to extend their power and intrude. In Kashmir, I feel sorry that history did not do right by the people resulting in the ongoing unhappiness and conflict internally and externally.
I have seen and been on mountains in some parts of the world but so far, only these mountains in Kashmir and Ladakh have touched me deeply enough to make me think of Himalayan mountains as a meaningful and fulfilling travel destination in future. So do not seek advice from people who have visited Kashmir and Ladakh. You will get differing and conflicting views. Just follow your heart, pray and go or stay at home or go some place where you think you will be safe.