x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Warm memories of Kashmir hearths

As I stepped out of the plane at Srinagar into the grey, drizzly cold, I knew I¿d been conned.

As I stepped out of the plane at Srinagar into the grey, drizzly cold, I knew I'd been conned. The travel agent in Delhi had assured me the weather in Kashmir would be "marvellous", despite the fact that it had been snowing in the region for weeks. "No, no, my friend, winter is over, summer starting now."

In truth, I'd allowed myself to be conned. I had originally planned to get a train to Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh, the state below Kashmir, and spend four or five days trekking there, but when I arrived in India I found I didn't have the train ticket I thought I'd booked online - I was on a waiting list. With 41 people ahead of me.

I was only going to be in India for a week and the travel agent - the industry equivalent of a Texan snake-oil salesman - informed me with faux sympathy that there were no available train seats to Dharamsala for the next three days and given that it was an overnight journey from Delhi, it wouldn't really be feasible for me to get there and have time to organise a trek.

So he showed me pictures of Kashmir on his laptop, a place of lush green valleys and crystal glacial lakes abundant with trout (and big commissions for travel agents, I later discovered). A trekker's dream. Only those pictures were taken in summer. But what to do? I was in Delhi, without a plan, my first day already over. I needed to move fast to have any chance of seeing some nature. So I chanced it, and handed over an exorbitant sum of cash.

The next day, in the damp misery of Srinagar, my heart sank. And that was just the beginning.

After spending the night in a rickety, unheated boathouse I was picked up by my guide for the next four days, Nizar. A short, stocky fellow with thick black hair and moustache, he told me that, "Insha'Allah", the weather in the Naranag valley, our destination, would be much better.

It was clear after about an hour of ascending through the winding Himalayan roads that this wouldn't be the case. The higher we went the colder and whiter it got. When we arrived in Naranag we found it blanketed in snow.

I hate trekking in snow. Apart from the trudging, sinking and slipping, it renders the landscape a boring white and the cold purges the air of the rich, tangy scents of nature.

Nizar tried cheering me up, assuring me the weather would improve in a day or two. In the meantime we would stay with one of the local families.

So we unloaded our things in the frigid winter air and trundled downhill to the house, a stone structure with a wooden second-storey extension and a tin roof, where we were welcomed by Ashraf and two of his sons.

They were smiling and hospitable and put their arms around me, and I forced a smile and some chit-chat. But all I was really thinking about was phoning the travel agent and rearranging my holiday.

We were ushered inside into a small living room with a fireplace where other family members were sitting around the carpeted floor drinking tea and eating chapati. There was another tin firebox by the wall and the place was warm and inviting.

Nizar came in and set up gas stoves and started cooking our lunch, and before long the aroma of curried chicken - the meat bought fresh from the market on the way to Naranag - potatoes and vegetables filled the air.

Straight away the kids were on top of me - five-year-old Erfaz, his brother, Naseem, nine, and their (slightly) more reserved sister, Rubeena, 11 - examining my clothes and bag and the magazines I had bought at the airport. They asked for sweets and 10 rupees and, strangely, pens.

Ashraf shooed them away as Nizar set out our food. Neither of us had eaten yet that day and we devoured the meal greedily, eating with our hands.

Then came the sweet Kashmiri tea, cup after cup of it, and questions from the family, through Nizar and Ashraf, about where I was from and what I did and so on. More friends and relatives arrived, some saying hello, others, the older ones usually, just smiling and then turning their attention to getting some tea.

People talked and smoked, some played cards, the kids wrestled around on the floor. Ashraf's wife arrived with their two-year-old girl, who entertained us all with her playful assaults on her siblings.

Several hours passed in this way and without my even noticing, it had gotten dark outside. And also without my noticing, I was feeling a lot better about things.

Still, as we went to bed that night, clothes and hair smelling strongly of fire smoke, I had it in mind to call the travel agent in the morning to see if he could get me down to Dharamsala or somewhere else trekkable.

The next morning the valley was still snow-covered and freezing. I called the agent, who told me the weather couldn't be helped and there was effectively no way of getting anywhere - roads were closed, flights were booked up. I could go back to Srinagar and sit around on a houseboat if I liked. I called him a liar (and a few other things), hung up and went back inside to the living room.

Nizar was at the stove, making me an omelette and toast and brewing tea. He knew I was angry and to try and cheer me up he started waxing philosophical. "You got a bad deal, OK. But you are here now for three more days - try to accept your situation, forget about other places and enjoy yourself."

He was right, of course. And there was something about this place.

After breakfast we went out for a walk, struggling through the snow and slush to explore the village and its surroundings. A gypsy settlement with a population of about 1,000, it is located in the middle of a sheer forested valley. The land juts out in much of the lower parts like giant steps and it is on these levels of flat land that people have their houses and vegetable plots and grazing patches. Apart from when you are on the main road running through the village, where there is a small school, a rarely-used government building, a couple of shops and some houses, you are always walking up- or downhill.

Each day we walked as far as we could in a different direction, beyond the village, up different hills. We couldn't get very far, but we found in the snow higher up the tracks of various animals, some large and possibly of black bears or snow leopards, both of which live in the mountains there.

After an hour or two we would stop in at other houses and dry off what needed to be dried by the fire and have tea and smoke cigarettes with whoever was home.

Then we would go back to the house to sit with the family and Nizar would cook lunch. As well as his chicken curry he cooked up some cracking mutton and beef dishes. He was a fine chef.

Throughout the day in that house people came and went. Friends and relatives would come in, sit down to chat and pour themselves tea. In fact, so many bodies would come and go, and so casually, that I only knew for certain who actually lived there when night fell and people either got ready for bed or left.

The family didn't have a television, and instead of staring at a screen, people spent their evenings like they spent their days, talking, playing cards, watching the children, drinking tea.

As the hours passed in this way, the simplest things became fascinating: the grandmother making bread; the children wrestling on the carpet; neighbours and relatives arriving, bringing news of what was going on two doors down.

I found myself becoming enthralled in their lives. And strangely, I felt part of it all.

jspollen@thenational.ae

Next week: Jonathan Spollen begins to enjoy life in Naranag