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
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.”
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.