Kashmir is one of the beauty spots of the world.
Set in a number of valleys on the southwestern elbow of the Himalayan Mountains it has snow covered peaks sporting rugged glaciers. The valley floors tend to be elevated in the 4000 to 6000 foot range with the peaks of the Greater Himalayan range to its north reaching above 17,000 feet.
Its centerpiece is the “Vale of Kashmir” – a luscious valley as rich as anyplace on earth. Nearby my Oregon home is the Hood River Valley, full of apple, pear, plums, ’cots, berry’s, grapes – a magnificent cornucopia of riches – the Vale of Kashmir is probably 5 times its size and just as rich. Emperor Jahangir called it “Paradise on Earth” in the early 1600’s.
Politically it had one of the several post-colonial disaster stories similar to Vietnam and much of the middle-east. India, Pakistan and occasionally China have been fighting over it since The Partition; portions are occupied by high altitude artillery forces and the borders are dangerous – you wouldn’t want to wander near them. It has only been opened to “tourism” for short periods over the last fifty years.
When I was in my mid thirties I was fortunate that it had recently opened and so got to go to Kashmir, starting in Srinagar, its capital, for
several weeks of trekking. We were guided by Hugh Swift, a Himalayan explorer who had written the Sierra Cub trekking guides to all the Himal. (see this fine book on Hugh Swift: The Traveler, An American Odyssey in the Himalayas at Amazon).
We had met in Delhi, flew to Srinagar, and then hiked from Pahalgam up past Mount Kolahoi, (peaking in a pure triangle at 18,000 feet), and its magnificent glacier. Then we intersected the road to Kargil where we hopped on a busted up bus into Ladakh towards its capital town Leh. After a memorable week hiking around that classic country we flew back once more to Srinagar, the Kashmir capital for some sightseeing.
I remember well several things about that 15 days of high altitude trekking.
We had a troop of horses to carry supplies – herded by Balti or Gujjar tribesmen (the easiest way to tell the tribes apart are the style of cap they wear – Balti men have flat wool pancake like ones. We had spent the afternoon before lunch riding the small ponies around Pahalgam and were excited about setting off. Someone called “ hey check this out” and we all surrounded one of the pack horses that had a 5 foot diameter wicker basket tied on. The basket was full of live chickens, 20 or 30 of them, our sole source of protein for the first week or so. Good for a chuckle.
The night before we had set out from Srinagar I had asked Hugh, who would be my tent mate for the three weeks together, if he knew where I could get some hash. I had spent the afternoon out at the city marketplaceasking around with no luck.
We started out on the climb on a dirt path through the luscious fir forest. I had taken the rear guard, which has always been my preferred spot, whether scuba diving or hiking. After 2 miles or so Hugh dropped back to my side. As we walked he said “did you see that guy back there?” He meant a small wooden shopping stand, alone out in the wood, where an oldish man had sat on his elevated floor. “That’s where the good stuff is.” I asked Hugh how he knew. He said these little market stands throughout the mountains always had the fine hand rolled resin; and that as he had walked by him, in Balti dialect, Hugh had asked if he had any. “Ask him for Charas” Hugh said.
A few afternoons later I recall the sense of strolling along a smooth dirt path above 12,000 feet as the sun warmed us, seeming to float above the valleys in the crystalline air. We only lit up a couple of times – we needed no more than what God had provided.
One evening as the sun passed below the ridges,
we climbed through a rough narrow valley headed north to its end.On the west slopes we encountered a stone hamlet where 3 or 4 children stood watching us from the flat, slate roofs. Two women, cloaked in sooty shawls silently stared. These were the summer grazing lands of the Gujjar and these were some of the first families to ascend this spring. The men were not here – they were higher yet with the sheep. Their huts were made out of rude stones, piled without mortar yet clearly standing for probably centuries.
It was at that point I realized that the Himalayan Mountains
were not a wilderness; that, although we might see no one for several days, no matter where we were were below 17,000 feet, some shepherd or goatherd was never far away; and that it had been this way for thousands and thousands of years. There is no wilderness in the eastern hemisphere – the only remaining wilderness in the world in the time of our fathers, was in North or South America. All the rest has been cultivated and domesticated over thousands of years. If man can live there he will. This explained the “gently lyrical communication with wild nature” (J.T.Flexner) of our American “Native School” of painting as beautifully described in his book That Wilder Image:
“Gaze on them, till the tears shall dim thy sight, But keep that earlier, wilder image bright.” (W.C.Bryant).
As we descended in twilight from the ridge towards our camp spot for the night my hiking companion, a gal from New York, splashed through some snowmelt marsh and muddied her boots – she cursed me for leading her into it.
It was the next day that we were told that due to a late spring, the snow pack was too heavy for the horses to go over the normal pass.
Hugh asked me to come with him and the wranglers as they took the horses around a different way. After about an hour of climbing we reach a snow covered ridge about 50 yards long with a narrow path above a large snow field dropping off about 500 feet. We unloaded the horses and began to ferry the loads over the snow to the clear path. It was easy enough and not too dangerous – the snow was firm and cold – but enjoyed working with the Balti’s. After they repacked and started down the trail we saw the rest of the trekkers down below the snow field, Hugh said “let’s walk down the snow” … that lasted about three minutes until our boots slipped and we started a long slide down the spring corn snow coming to a gentle slow stop at the flattening bottom.
The husband of the mud-woman came up. He was pissed that I hadn’t asked them to go with us. I told him Hugh had just asked me. I guess he thought I was trying to show off. If Hugh had wanted the other men along he would have asked; not my decision at all.
Along in there sometime we hiked up to the face of the Kolahoi glacier, the largest in these parts.
It is one of the fast retreating glaciers that is meticulously measured in the Himalayan Range. At the time we walked 4 hours up the moraine to the start of its river. It was about 10,000 feet elevation – since then it is estimated to have retreated over 600 meters and is now at about 12,000 feet high. Hugh had been working on writing his new revision to the Sierra Club Guide to Trekking in The Himalaya and as we sat in the hot sun he read to me his new description of the place where “you meet the roaring snout of the glacier as it slides through the mountain like a snake” or something like that.
That night we ate the last chicken. We heard that tomorrow we’d buy a sheep and have lamb. WOW!!! Nothing had ever sounded more delicious. We had been eating chicken for a week. We watched the transaction as we walked in the bright, warm sun the next day. That night we had lamb stew and afterwards sat under the billion stars along with the Balti’s and Gujjar’s singing to each other… we did nursery ditties, old cowboy songs, and Bob Dylan; they sang we know not what. From that day on we had lamb for dinner every evening for another week. When we finally pulled into Leh after a scary but beautiful two day bus drive along the headwaters of the Indus River the owner of the newly opened inn opened his arms to the twelve of us in welcome and made a small speech which he ended with the declaration of a Special Meal in our honor – “roast lamb”. Oy yoi yoi NOT AGAIN!.
Well, just to sum it up a bit we hung out in the Ladakh and the valley of the Indus for 6 or 7 wonderful days. High altitude hiking can be dangerous – an Intel friend, Avtar Saini, had a colleague die in his first day hiking where we had gone; but we were well acclimated. We climbed up into the silent valleys to about 17,000 feet taking pictures of the Bahral sheep and soaring eagles.
The whole country is above the tree line except on the narrow banks of the Indus River which begins its 2000 mile run down through Pakistan to the Arabian Sea. While there we visited the magnificent monasteries and talked with members of this unique and ancient people. It gave us a peek of how majestic Ladakh is. I have been going through pictures we took in 2005 and have decided to write a dedicated post on this marvelous country…stay tuned.
Well shortly after, we returned to Srinagar, this time taking a plane and retracing 15 days of walking and buses in 90 minutes and here starts the tale I meant to spin about Kashmir and Customs.
There is a unique and wonderful place here in the Kashmir Valley. It is called the “Jewel in the Crown of Kashmir”; it is a large shallow lake which spreads out throughout marshes and woods.
Dal Lake is its name and it is famous throughout the Indian subcontinent. It is fed by small streams, springs, and the run off of the hills and mountains beyond which provide a rich nutrient basin for dozens of types of water plants including reeds, lotus, water roses, water lily’s, ferns, and poppy’s. The water is slow moving and quiet. Channels cut in narrow wanderings through the small jungled islands and floating gardens lead to boat based market gatherings. There are magnificent gardens here.
It is a romantic place. One stays in large houseboats with the insides lined with carved sandal wood – living in an incense box.
The lake is covered with small, flat bottom gondola’s gently moving across the green water, carrying them around on their business or just for pleasure. The little two person boats are poled by hand with the poler standing on the small rear deck. So you can imagine, you and your partner sit in the cool shade under a paisley awning on soft mattress and cushions while you glide through the rushes and market boats. An evening glide with a willing partner can lead to romance I am sure, as the pole man hums and sings under the stars.
Well, since the houseboats are on the lake, the floating markets come to you. Each morning a stream of gondola’s passes by the outdoor deck of you houseboat, where you sit drinking tea, offering you an array of pleasures for your day.
First comes the fruit boat selling mangos and bananas,
then the flower boat with bundles and arrays,
then the veggie guy,
soon a meat chap with chickens under ice.
Eggs and dairy,
bread and chapatti’s,
supplies and fabrics,
they all come to you in the little dinghies. The houseboy asks what you want for dinner and then gets the herbs and spices from the herb boat.
Of course if you need soap or tooth paste you merely wait for the drug store boat who has just about anything you might desire in that “segment”, legal or illegal including every addictive drug known to man. This is how I happened to end up with two hand rolled balls of local black Kashmiri, a stamped piece of government Pakistani, a jawbreaker size piece of opium, and a sweaty encounter with the US Customs Service.
So it happened there was romance from different direction also on this trip. Waynette, my wife of 6 years, and I had been having some rough spots; learning things about each other that were unexpected, and sometimes pretty troubling. This 4 week trip was kind of a time to get away from each other and see how we felt.
One of the things that seems a bit symbolic today, although not to me at the time, was we had jointly decided to have her wedding ring redesigned. We had bought a diamond from a fellow named Harvey Dinstman, an important New York manufacturer of Omega watch cases and a well connected man in the worldwide jewelry business but Waynette had never liked the white gold, simple design. An Indian colleague had introduced us to one of the finest jewelers in Delhi. As you may know for centuries Indian families kept their wealth in ornate, heavy, large format, and beautifully complex gold jewelry. They have some of the greatest jewelers in the world and their work can be flawless. Buying jewelry is a family affair and it was fun to take on the project. So prior to heading up to Kashmir, I had left the diamond ring to be redesigned into a fluid, art nouveau-ish, yellow gold, single ring with added rubies.
So when we returned from Leh to Delhi, and before we flew out on the long trip home on Pan Am 002 (0r 001), I grabbed a putt putt from the Delhi Oberoi to the jewelers where the lovely, redesigned ring awaited. I picked it up, returned to a chinese dinner which made me sick, and in the middle of the night took off to Hong Kong, sated with a barrage of strange culture over the last month.
I have been close to trouble with customs three times in my life – and they all involved cannabis. The first was bringing back a 20 pack of “mama-san” rolled, filtered numbers of pure Vietnamese herb, which, in my stupor from a last night party in the NCO club at CamRahnBay, I had left on the top of my suitcase right where the customs inspectors at McCord AFB would have seen them if they had asked this Lieutenant to open my suitcase, which they didn’t – RHIP (Rank Has Its Privleges).
The second was the full cavity search in the mid-night crossing of the RioGrande which I wrote about in https://gerrythetravelhund.wordpress.com/2012/09/22/return-from-the-void-part-2/ .
And the return from Kashmir was the last.
As I hung out in the Hong Kong Mandarin stranded by a typhoon ( see https://gerrythetravelhund.wordpress.com/2015/01/05/fan-tan-macau-1981/ ) I carefully packed the hashish and opium. I bought candles, opened up the windows wide, and dripped fragrant wax all over the plastic and paper wrapped black slugs. Then put them in carefully unwashed socks, also fragrant; then I pushed them into the toes of my hiking boots and stuffed dirty underwear down in the boots.
Then it occurred to me that if I just put the redesigned engagement ring in my pocket I wouldn’t have to declare it and pay the duty, (with all the hassle of proving the diamond and gold had not in fact been purchased). But of course since Waynette was looking forward to seeing the new ring, I had to retain the little ring box to repack after landing and present to her. So I threw the empty box into the suitcase as I took off for Kai Tak airport and the non-stop PanAm flight to San Francisco.
The 747 from Hong Kong landed in SFO at the usual morning hour. I was a bit nervous with the opium and hash in my jungle boots tip but figured the wax and dirty socks would mask the smell and so was not expecting too much of a chance that I’d end up in the calaboose. It was 1981 and the first “Drug Czar” appointment under President G.H.W. Bush was still 8 years away so the heat was not red hot. (By the way twas a mere 12 years after the first Drug Czar appointment that the “War on Drugs” was declared a failure by the “Global Commission on Drug Policy”). Anyway it was San Francisco, which had always been soft on drugs, and I looked more like a businessman than a drug-mule.
Never the less I was nervous as I walked into the industrial drab, cramped customs “hall” with a beat up Samsonite and a large blue trekking duffle. There were 3 lines and tables as I lined up for the bag inspection. ( I don’t know when they stopped opening the bags nor why they did so – seems like the customs inspections have all been delegated to our four legged sniff-dog friends). I was two people back in line when I realized that I was going to be inspected by a woman. I immediately flashed on the female border guard at the Rio Grand bridge in Laredo and the full body search.
She made me open the Samsonite. After pushing a few clothes around she stopped, saw the small jewelry box, checked the declarations form, reached over, picked up the box and looked at me. “Where’s the ring”? was all she uttered. It took me a second to process but almost immediately I said, “In my pocket” with a small shrug. Time stood still as we looked at each other. Then she raised her arm and pointed to what I knew was the door to a private room, THE private room. “Ok you go over…” as my heart stood still she paused for a second …. the frown on her face deepened as her eyes turned to steel..then she said “Aw, just get out of here, go on”.
WOW!! salvation – she was giving me a pass, on the ring, on the full luggage search, on the customs fee, on punishment for the stupid attempt to avoid a hundred bucks duty, and for most importantly relief from what would have been a massive legal mess, charges potentially for drug smuggling, maybe a felony charge, probably a firing from my job, maybe time in the hoosegow, certainly a big fine. Oh Mama Mia.. It had been close.
So as I walked out of customs and met up with my wife my feelings turned to her. The trip had started out a a tentative parting, and as we re-engaged it was clear that our differences were still there but I also knew that there was an exciting world out there with people who I could bond with. It had been a great month away and I felt the freedom knowing that our marriage was a choice not a sentence and with that we recommited to each other and our family and many more years of raising our wonderful children.
Postscript: Well what happened to the hash and opium one might wonder? Well when we first started dating Waynette introduced me to an old friend of her – Joe Pinciaro. They had worked together at Paul Masson Winery.
(Many of our first friends together were from the Santa Clara Valley wine business which was California’s premier wine region before the ascension of Napa – Mirassou, Almaden, and later Ridge were populated with old friends of Joe and Waynette). Joe became a close friend and later our brother-in-law as he married my younger sister Meg and they had our lovely niece Katie Elizabeth. Joe was working and living in Sacramento, while we had our bought our first house in Santa Clara. I had gone on a long business trip when one evening Joe turned up to spend the evening at Casa Greeve with Waynette and Jenny. After dinner and putting Jen to bed they pulled out the Himalayan stash…they lit up the opium. Joe reported later that “it didn’t seem to do anything while we were hanging at the house but I started driving the 2 hours to Sacramento and when I go to Vallejo it seemed like the whole world changed” … ??? Waynette took the hash and rest of the opium and flushed it down the toilet. She couldn’t recall why! So I never got to try it. Kooks, all of us.