Six Weeks in India: Trekking Kashmir

I’ve been to a little over 20 countries now, but the longest, most intense, most exciting trip I’ve taken so far would have to be my trip to India in the summer of 2015. My travel buddies were fellow expats teaching in Saudi Arabia: 2 Americans and 1 Canadian. The plan was to spend 3 weeks hiking in Kashmir with a licensed tour guide and then 3 more weeks bouncing from city to city.

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My travel mates from left to right: me, Sara, Alanna, and Bob.

We flew from Dammam to New Delhi and from New Delhi to Srinagar in the North of India.

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This was all I brought for the 6 week trip. Incidentally, this was the only trip I’ve ever under packed for.

We spent a few nights in Srinagar in one of the house boats on Dal Lake. The scenery and the lodging was absolutely beautiful.

We felt like rock stars everywhere we went.  Locals wanted to get their picture taken with us. Sometimes it was overwhelming and we’d find ourselves surrounded by curious locals wanting to ask us questions and take pictures with us.

After acclimating to the altitude for a few days, it was time to begin the trek. I can’t remember the exact route we took, but we had a licensed tour group take us from Srinagar to Leh, or at least that was the plan.

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Included in the itinerary: licensed guides and hired workers who set up camp and cooked our meals (they carried live chickens in cages throughout the trip). They had 4 donkeys to carry all the supplies. From the start of our trip, however, there were serious issues:

  • The meals were not at all sufficient for the amount of walking we were doing. Each of us ended up losing weight.  We did on average about 7 – 10 hours of walking a day with a small breakfast, even smaller lunch, and a dinner.
  • The trek had changed significantly due to climate change.  Much of the glaciers in the Himalayas had melted and the river was much larger than when our guides had last done this trek a few decades earlier.
  • Twice we got lost on the trip and found ourselves in a dangerous situation: soaking wet in the middle of the Himalayan mountains, miles away from the nearest village with the sun setting fast.  Fortunately, our guides made due, and set up camp though often times not on the original route.

Along our route, we’d stop through small villages.  The people there were incredibly kind and friendly.  Many of them had never even seen a Westerner and due to the political strife in Kashmir, tourism was mostly a thing of the past, so we were a rare site for sure.

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Local village girls gathered around our tent to peer inside.

The scenery in the Himalayan mountains is stunning. We had to go uphill much of the way. We experienced all four seasons: it rained on us, it snowed on us, some days were blistering hot, and others were quite chilly. Somehow we managed to survive.

The hardest day of the trek took almost 15 hours of walking and I couldn’t go any further. I have a lot of pride, and I wanted to complete the trek, but by the end of the day I was in too much pain and the guide suggested I ride the horse the rest of the way there. I was reluctant (and by reluctant I mean a bit hysterical) but ultimately, it was a wise decision. After that day, we trekked one more day, another dangerous one, before deciding to finish the trek a week early and hitch a ride to our hotel at the end of our trek.

The trek was equally hard for the hired help. I think they underestimated just how difficult it was. I know I did!

But we survived and spent a few days in a tiny town. There we visited a monastery high up on a hill where Bob helped organize the scripts and we were offered tea and good company.

I was so relieved when we decided to end the trek early.  I had no idea just how out of shape I was until attempting the trek. If you’re going to do something like this, make sure you prepare in advance. We hitchhiked to our end location and even though we didn’t do the whole trek, I was still proud of myself for doing as much as we did. We took a treacherous bike ride down the mountain.  I only participated a little bit because I was terrified, but I got on the bike and did it.

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We visited a small village where the people lived in tiny huts.  We also took a trip out to a field full of piles of plastic.  We learned that the cows would eat the rubbish in the streets and subsequently pieces of plastic.  The plastic would stay in their digestive track until they eventually died out in this field. The hide, meat, and bones would all be gone (from scavengers or scroungers) and all that would be left was the plastic. It was a very eye-opening look at the impact mankind has on nature.

I can’t even remember all the cities we visited, but I know on the list was Jaipur, New Delhi, Agra, Bikaner, and Varanasi (the last place we visited). We went to more than one museum, but my favorite was the Gandhi Museum in New Delhi.

We saw a lot of amazing things in the cities. It’s so crowded and noisy and difficult to navigate.  The traffic is slow but crazy and full of cows, bicycles, dogs, mopeds, tuk tuks, and all manner of vehicles and pedestrians. If you don’t like noise, you might not enjoy the city life of India.

We did a lot of fun activities as well. I ate street food and managed not to get sick (though on that note, every single of us one ended up with “Delhi Belly” by the end of the trip. If you’ve got a weak stomach, India might not be for you.) We had henna done. And we sampled a very, very hallucinogenic drink called Bangh Lassi. That was an interesting night.

And of course we dressed up in the local Saris.

The craziest thing I saw by far was the rat temple in Bikaner. It’s exactly how it sounds: a temple full of rats all being fed with bowls of milk and grain. Inside you have to take your shoes off. It’s not for the faint of heart. In addition to that temple was the Monkey Temple, which was much more frightening because these monkeys are not afraid of humans. They’d come right up to you and try to steal your bag. Unfortunately, photography was not allowed inside the Monkey Temple.

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The Rat Temple in Bikaner

We saw the Taj Mahal and it was breathtaking.  I can’t even begin to describe it.  It’s like looking at a mirage until you walk up to it and see that it’s really there in front of you. Pictures simply don’t do it justice.

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We ended our trip in Varanasi on the Ganges river.  There we observed the practice of cremation. We saw several funeral processions: people chanting, wearing orange, and throwing flowers. It was so much more beautiful than the funerals in the West, in my opinion. Here, death is a celebration. The Ganges River is quite a sight, one of the most polluted places in the world I’ve read, and for good reason. Yet despite this, the people still swim, play, and drink out of the water, just a few yards down from where bodies are being burned and washed in its waters!

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So much happened in the six weeks I spent in India, I’ll never be able to remember it all. But it remains one of the most exciting, exhilarating, at times frightening places I’ve ever been. If you have a taste for adventure, you’ll absolutely love it!

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