2020 hadn’t started well. I was just coming to terms with losing my mother when COVID struck and sent the world into lockdown. The third body blow came when the company I led shut down. What followed was months of chaos and uncertainty, which got aggravated each time I spoke to friends or family. Advice was coming in thick and fast. What baffled me was the fear people had of the unknown—and mind you, these were the privileged one-percenters. I must confess, at one point, this pall of gloom started wearing me down.
To break free, I did the only thing that came naturally to me: head further out into the unknown, but literally. The idea was to go someplace without a plan, survive a month and, in the end, come out stronger and refreshed to take on the challenges of life. This was to be my #40DayChallenge, all through October.
Two days before I left, I went for a haircut to my friend and celebrity stylist Savio John Pereira in Mumbai’s Bandra. I happened to mention my drive to the Himalayas. That was the end of that, till later that evening when I got a message from Savio: it was his flight ticket. The idea of heading out without a plan had surreptitiously excited Savio. Having seen the pressure he was under through the lockdown, his family nudged him on. Our travel party now had two members.
I landed in Srinagar on 1 October. Kashmir, for me, starts and ends with Yaseen Khan and his family and I proudly say that they had graciously taken me in as one of their own. A resident of Gulmarg from where he operates his adventure travel business, Yaseen Bhai is a legend in the trekking world, an absolute authority on the mountains: their terrain, routes, people. He was also instrumental in setting up Skiing in Gulmarg. Like always, Yaseen bhai’s son Arif met me at the Srinagar airport.
Now, I know Arif but had never spent much time with him. Being a national skiing champion, Asia Gold medalist and the only Indian to qualify for four world championships, Arif spent most of the year abroad for training and racing. But COVID kept him home this year and before I knew it, our Himalayan heist had member number three. Together we finalised on a five-day trip to Gurez.
The trip began with Arif and me (Savio would join us later). We were headed to Gurez, but we didn’t have any idea about the place: where to stay, what to expect. What we knew was that it was mesmerising and off the regular tourist circuit. The Valley of Gurez, once a spur of the Silk Road and situated on the Northern fringes of Kashmir lived up to its reputation and more.
After having travelled through so many countries I had never seen anything like Gurez. I could spend a lifetime just admiring the beauty of Gurez. The villages, mountains, the people untouched by time, the wooden houses witness to centuries and hordes of traders on the silk route. The unique culture, food habits, bee-keepers, barbed wires, dusty tracks, the omnipresent armed forces, Pakistani army postings in the distance… So much more to see. Gurez, in some ways, is a magical frontier. It whispers of a rich past of a tough race of people. Of relationships broken by the border. All that and the absence of any mobile connectivity, and electricity makes you feel like you’re somewhere on the Silk Route of yore.
It is also in Gurez that I had the closest encounter with death. I suffered carbon monoxide poisoning and it’s a miracle that I am alive today and penning this down. Had it not been for Dr Iliyas and his deputy Nisar I would not be alive. After four hours of oxygen, antibiotics, cardio treatment, the loving care and determination to save me and keep me alive, I was finally out of danger.
After Gurez, we crossed Razdaan pass once again and headed to Gulmarg via Bandipora where we were joined by Savio to start his Himalayan journey. Once in Gulmarg, we joined Dilshad and the family of our dear friend Akshay. Akshay Kumar was the person who started rafting in India and has many firsts to his name. He was a legend in the adventure travel business. Couple of weeks before my trip, we lost Akshay to a heart attack. Given Akshay’s love for Kashmir and particularly Gulmarg, we had to take his ashes to the ski slopes. This was our final goodbye to Akshay.
From Gulmarg, our journey took us to Tandaar region of Kupwara district, which shares borders with Pakistan. Here we went to Teetwal where the bridge is used for cross over for trade and promotion of people-to-people contact in better times. We could see the arterial road to the Karakoram highway, Pakistani post and lots of onlookers looking into India from the Pakistani side. We also crossed Sadhna pass and headed to Bangus valley where we trekked up to the meadows.
On this trip, we were joined by young Raja Khan, all of 22 years. He also happens to be the national snowboarding champion and the younger brother of Arif. Along with an eclectic bunch of three other adventure seekers smitten by the same zeal for the Himalayas, we decided to take the metaphorical bull by its horns and travel with no predetermined plans, no method in madness and no treading the beaten paths. The only plan was to let the mountains guide us.
The next destination was Kargil and whatever lay beyond. Over the next 20 days, our two jeeps would cross six high-mountain passes, climb up to nearly 17,000 ft. Kargil, Drass, Batalik, Suru, Padum, and eventually to Manali. From here, we turned around, and made our way back through Pangi Valley, on what is considered one of the most dangerous roads in the world and survived yet another round of white-knuckle driving before we finally arrived in South Kashmir.
The roads varied. Some were among the best you will find. Others were punishing: 60-degree inclines in some parts, and long stretches that were iced out with unforgiving 4,000-foot drops if you went over. We would take another COVID test. Savio would style hair for a local Aryan girl. We would arrive in ghost towns with little food and bare minimum shelter. But each time, we would find someone who’d open their warm homes and warmer hearts.
The journey that changed us
And somewhere along the journey, I observed a shift in the hearts and minds of all my travelling companions. I saw each one member of my team gain their foothold in the mountains as they learnt to embrace Mother Nature. If at the start of the journey, they were overwhelmed by everything they saw and left all the trip decisions to me, by the end of it, they were more assertive and confident of the unknown and started trusting the alchemy of the mountains. If initially, their reaction towards the hill-folk was, ‘How do these people live here?”, by the end of it, the curiosity had turned to admiration, even envy. As my travel comrades soaked in more of the mountains and its people, their sense of adventure was kindled and they started enjoying the unknown. Up until a few months before this trip, each one of us had had to deal COVID’s crippling unpredictability. Savio John Periera’s business had taken a hit, leaving him dispirited. But once in the lap of nature, he would stop our vehicle in the middle of nowhere and with child-like innocence, dance like no one was watching (unaware that we often had our cameras on).
Arif, who was otherwise a man of few words, opened up as well. There was this time when our eyes met and our telepathic conversation made us realise that we both wanted to climb a glacier. He was enchanted by the glacier and right there was born a dream of making India the greatest skiing spot in the years to come. Nature’s non-judgmental silence gave him a maternal comfort where he let the horses of his imagination run amok, dreaming up ways to help the locals build a world-class winter sports destination.
The youngest member of our team, Raja the snowboarding champion—all of 22—found his calling in the mountains. While he had a leaning towards making environmental conservation his career, this trip into the unknown, amidst unspoilt nature reinforced, those feelings and he is more convinced now than ever.
As for me, as my journey came to an end, I reflected on the vastness and the sheer beauty that nature offers to us and realized that when men and mountains meet, magic happens and the chemistry cannot be found whilst jostling in the urban streets. After all, we wander for distraction but when we travel, we travel for fulfillment. I came back to the plains carrying the peace and solitude of the mountains, having conquered the inner turmoil of the city life in me and with a greater sense of confidence and a healing that goes past rejuvenation of the soul.
When I started the journey I had decided to just live it up and discover myself along the uncharted terrains and navigate through my inner strengths while navigating the hard roads of one of the world’s highest terrains. My travel companions who joined me a week later transformed my solo journey into a kindred companionship with like-minded adventure junkies who were simply relying on their gut and penchant for the unexplored. This journey taught me that sometimes impromptu decisions can be the best decisions of your life.
The vast stretches where land and sky seemed to meet, there were no souls, no habitation to be found and in that sense of solitude where the silent and vast mountains dwarfed us with their sheer majesty, we were thrilled in our newfound sense of loneliness.
One of the biggest gains from the trip was the rediscovery of my never-say-die spirit. I came back to the plains ready to take on the challenges that these unique and crazy times have presented us. I recognised that I have the heart and soul of an explorer. I learnt to acknowledge to myself that I am a fighter and a survivor and there is no problem I cannot overcome. That there is nothing to fear. This too shall pass, maybe like a kidney stone. But it shall pass.
All photographs courtesy Zulfikar Khan