Largie Cas­tle, A Ri­fled Nest Day 56

At that time, 18 years be­fore I dis­cov­ered An­gus’s let­ters in my mother’s desk, I was un­aware that I was fol­low­ing in my un­cle’s foot­steps

The Courier & Advertiser (Angus and The Mearns Edition) - - Serial - © 2017 Mary C Glad­stone, all rights re­served, cour­tesy of the au­thor and Fire­fall­me­dia; avail­able in hardcover and pa­per­back on­line and from all book­sellers.

To­day the road is a mo­torised high­way sup­ply­ing the needs of the In­dian Army. An­gus’s plan was to walk 80 miles north un­til he reached Dras. They ar­rived first at rice and maize fields as they tramped past the vil­lages of Gan­der­bal, Kan­gan and Gund. Af­ter three days, in which they trekked 60 miles, they reached Sona­marg, which means Meadow of Gold, given the hosts of flow­ers that grow there in spring.

The name could have a metaphor­i­cal mean­ing also, as the town held a strate­gic po­si­tion in the days when it was on a ma­jor trad­ing route into Cen­tral Asia.

Un­de­ni­ably, An­gus was as im­pressed as Wil­son, who com­mented that the “loveli­est wild alpine flow­ers I have ever seen” grew there. My un­cle fully an­tic­i­pated car­pets of gen­tians, sax­ifrage, alpine aster, rock jas­mine, and moun­tain or­chid, warn­ing Esther in his let­ter that “I am go­ing to try and take some coloured pho­tographs”.

He may well have achieved his aim and even sent them to his mother but, like the carved box, they were pushed out of sight be­cause their ex­is­tence only re­minded her of her lost son.

Lush and green

When my un­cle reached the foot of “an 11,000 foot pass,” the Zoji-La, mark­ing the en­trance into Ladakh, he found the lush, green Kash­miri coun­try­side gave way to a bar­ren, lonely scenery.

Even in late May the Zoji-La is still cov­ered in snow, and a track passes through the re­gion where the Dras River has its source.

The Zoji-La climb was steep but for a fit young man it pre­sented lit­tle dif­fi­culty. Four hours from the sum­mit they reached the rest house at Matayan but their des­ti­na­tion was Dras, famed for its freez­ing tem­per­a­tures and heavy win­ter snow.

Here, An­gus took up his nul­lah or beat. “I hope to be able to wan­der about for about 10 days and shoot,” he wrote.

Wil­son dis­missed his ret­inue and got down to “some se­ri­ous stalk­ing”. Com­pared to the stalk­ing of red deer at the father of his sis­ter-in-law’s ef­fi­cient­lykept deer for­est at Cor­rour in In­ver­ness-shire, An­gus’s Kash­miri ex­pe­ri­ence was less pro­duc­tive.

But the thrill of shikar was not so much in the kill but in be­ing alone in the fresh air on the moun­tain­side. And all at a price he could af­ford.

An­gus was un­aware he was one of the last of his kind to en­joy such a priv­i­lege, and that he was wit­ness­ing a world that would soon dis­ap­pear.

In 1947 In­dia gained in­de­pen­dence and these north­ern re­gions came un­der hot dis­pute. Both In­dia and Pak­istan claimed Kash­mir.

When China in­vaded Ti­bet in 1959, ten­sion in the re­gion in­creased, re­sult­ing in a heavy mil­i­tary pres­ence. This fact was not lost on me when, on a visit to Kash­mir in 1983, I saw con­voys of army ve­hi­cles chok­ing the roads.

At that time, 18 years be­fore I dis­cov­ered An­gus’s let­ters in my mother’s desk, I was un­aware that I was fol­low­ing in my un­cle’s foot­steps.

Like him but 44 years later, I wished to es­cape from In­dia’s hot plains and ex­plore the moun­tains and val­leys of Kash­mir and Ladakh.

I fol­lowed a sim­i­lar route but trav­elled in the op­po­site di­rec­tion to An­gus. From Simla in north In­dia I headed north to Manali, a town in the foothills of the West­ern Hi­malayas, and joined a trek into the Zan­skar val­ley east of Kash­mir. I walked west over the Phirtse La Pass as far as Padam.


From this town, I jumped into the back of a truck which con­veyed me, other trekkers, and lo­cal road­work­ers to Kargil, a vil­lage on the road from Leh to Srinagar.

The road­men were car­ry­ing home the corpse of their col­league. When these som­bre men reached their vil­lage and alighted, “we all fell silent as the body took its leave.

“The men car­ried it shoul­der-high up the hill in the moon­light. No­body wanted to oc­cupy the space where the corpse lay, ex­cept for a pushy Swiss guy!” I wrote in my di­ary. I found Kargil “a dump and much like a wild-west fron­tier town. Dirty gutters and ex­pen­sive!”

The next day I sought a bus and af­ter de­posit­ing my ruck­sack on the roof of the bus, I en­tered and was hor­ri­fied by the lack of legroom by my seat.

“It’s im­pos­si­ble for some­one as tall as I to sit com­fort­ably! When we get mov­ing, it’s hellish. None of the win­dows stays open,” I wrote.

“My knees rub against the back of the seat in front.

“The coun­try­side is like Zan­skar with steep moun­tains, fast rivers and few trees. Soon we move into alpine-type scenery with wild flow­ers and fir trees. It is early morn­ing, and peo­ple in the fields are har­vest­ing some form of grain. The roads are very rough. At one stage the bus fol­lows a hair-rais­ing de­scent, and I hope the brakes won’t fail and we all go ca­reer­ing over a steep precipice. We stop at Dras, which is not much of a place, and at Sona­marg where I wait in a café to be served an omelette.

“When we ap­proach Srinagar it be­comes more wooded with old, wooden houses; then we reach the city’s out­skirts with the Dal Lake, cov­ered in green slime, and see the house­boats.”

I stayed in Srinagar for at least five days and en­joyed the com­forts of a de­cent ho­tel over­look­ing the lake. Noisy, with car and scooter-taxi horns blar­ing, it was hard for a woman in a Mus­lim coun­try.

“Srinagar is where you are ha­rassed sex­u­ally, com­mer­cially and by beg­gars. These peo­ple can be re­ally cheeky. One had ex­traor­di­nar­ily twisted limbs so that he stood on all fours.”

Hard sell

If I had known that An­gus had pre­ceded me, I would have re­alised that he too would have had to han­dle the Kash­niri hard sell: in a govern­ment-owned shop on the Jhelum river I in­spected carved wooden ob­jects, bas­ket-work, nee­dle-work, wo­ven rugs and clothes in wool and silk.

In his time, there was no tourist cen­tre. To­day, the state-con­trolled or­gan­i­sa­tion fixes the price of any­thing from house­boat rates to sport.

Shikar is strictly reg­u­lated, and en­dan­gered species like the snow leop­ard and tiger are pro­tected.

I’m sure that when I viewed the Dal Lake in the early 1980s, I saw a sim­i­lar scene to the one that An­gus came across in 1939.

At that time, many house­boats were moored in the wa­ter. From the be­gin­ning of the cen­tury, the Bri­tish hired them when they vis­ited, as they were de­nied own­er­ship or rental of houses on dry land.

More to­mor­row

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