In London, where I live, people are eager to shed their layers of clothing as soon as the sun comes out. But the people of Kashmir, the mountainous region in the Indian subcontinent where I was born, are quick to put them back on when the sun disappears behind the clouds and rain begins to fall. This is one of the many ways the two worlds I come from juxtapose each other.
During my previous summer visits to Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir, I would always ask a friend or a relative when it had last rained. For me, the rain is as much a part of the landscape as the Himalayas and winding rivers. But when I visited this past summer, I soon experienced the rain for myself when it came shortly after my arrival, instantly making the vegetation look luxuriant.
The temperature had risen to 40 C in London two weeks before I travelled. I looked at these digits on the screen of my phone in disbelief. And so it was a relief of sorts to find the temperature in Srinagar in the mid-thirties.
It had been a few years since I travelled to Kashmir with my family. My son and I had to leave halfway through a trip in 2019 when a military lockdown was imposed on Srinagar, which lasted for seven months. It was followed by the pandemic – travel and tourism the world over came to a halt.
This time, longing for the views of the high Himalayas, come as they may with rain and stifling temperatures, I had come with my son once again – but he would stay behind with his grandparents while I embarked on a road trip with friends, from Kashmir to Ladakh, to the east. We had done this journey together before and were eager to set off once again.
My friends and I left Srinagar mid-morning. We planned to stay in same hotel as last time in Kargil, about five hours from Srinagar, located on a bend in the Suru River. We had greatly enjoyed our time there and, in fact, the receptionist who welcomed us recognized us from our previous visit. And you always arrive with elation at a familiar hotel.
A full moon had appeared on the horizon and the moonlight covered the entire landscape in reams of silver, bringing to my mind Yeats’s Song of Wandering Aengus – “the silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun” – written about a journey of self-discovery.
I eagerly waited for daybreak as I wanted to walk up a road that zigzagged one of the mountains flanking the river valley. Our walk during our previous visit had taken us on a narrow trail through the trees laden with small but sweet apricots.
As we climbed the next morning, sunbeams lit up the mountain slopes from their ridges downwards, but the deep valley and its poplar trees were still shaded. My friend remarked that it was easier to climb up a mountain than climb down a steep slope. It sounded counterintuitive to me at first but made good sense when I started the descent back to our hotel, even with good hiking sandals on.
We left Kargil mid-morning to travel farther east to Leh. My friend Shabir had booked a hotel there through one of his contacts but it turned out to be what is euphemistically known as a work in progress. The third floor of the building was still under construction. I would have liked to spend the night there even though it was only semi-habitable, but Shabir felt cheated by the photos he had seen of this hotel and wanted to find accommodation elsewhere. Photographs are sometimes certainly deceptive.
We drove back toward the town centre and tried a few hotels but they were fully booked. One of the hotels we walked into had a couple of rooms built on the roof terrace but my friends decided to keep looking. Luckily, we found a hotel that had two rooms left to fill. I accepted their asking price, skipping the customary dance of negotiation in this part of the world.
We had eaten in a rooftop restaurant during our previous visit and headed straight there for dinner, after which we strolled in Leh Bazaar. There were many people about as the shops, which sold mostly Kashmiri merchandise, were still open. It was a far cry from Srinagar where shops have closed at dusk for the last three decades.
How I had yearned to be back here during the COVID-19 lockdowns in London! To feel the energy of familiar places, to experience the vivid sights, sounds and scents of home. With the onset of the pandemic and the screeching halt of travel, not only had I been unable to return home, but I had also lost the job I held for two decades in a hotel in London. Hence it became a time for soul-searching. A trip with friends, surrounded by familiarity – be it the humid rain and muggy heat; the hotels, restaurants and shops, all moving in a certain rhythm; or the spectacular mountain views – rooted me in place, a feeling I would take with me when my journey was complete.
Now, countries around the world have reopened their borders and the hospitality industry has bounced back. I found a job once again in a hotel in London.
I had resolved to spend more time in Kashmir this year as I wanted to be reunited with the mountains of my childhood, which are always on my mind, like the Irish god Aengus who falls in love with a woman he sees only in his dreams.
Travelling to Ladakh from Kashmir through the high mountain passes turned out to be a journey of self-discovery.
Iqbal Ahmed was born in Kashmir in 1968 and has lived in London since 1994. His first two publications were chosen as Books of the Year: Sorrows of the Moon in The Guardian and The Independent on Sunday, and Empire of the Mind in The Economist. He is currently working on a memoir, Portrait of a Friend: Arne Sorenson.
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