Now his 43rd wife wanted to relieve herself and Rinzi Rinchen found the vein in his forehead throbbing dangerously.
The rugged Mongol was leading his caravan to Turkey from Örgöö (modern-day Ulan Bator) through the highest reaches of Hindustan in the summer of 1703 because his chief had requested him to escort some monks to the Alchi Gompa. He’d chosen 14 of his youngest wives to travel with him, but the entire harem of 58 had insisted on coming along. There hadn’t been a moment’s peace on the entire trip and here he still was, on the summit of the Zoji La, with a large part of Hindustan to be covered before he could take on the Baluchistani desert and then the Persian plains before finally getting to Turkey.
Cold gold:melting snow in the spring feeds the rivers and streams. Rishad Saam Mehta
And now, one of his wives wanting to use the “ladies room” meant putting up an elaborate screen, gathering maids to escort the wife and then taking down the screen. The whole process would take at least 30 minutes.
To cool his rage, Rinzi Rinchen dug the spurs into his steed and galloped ahead of his entourage. Rounding the corner, the beast reared suddenly—and as his master lifted his chin from his breast, his heart leapt into his mouth. Had he died and gone to heaven? What else could explain this vista, this unearthly beauty that rolled away before his eyes?
More than 300 years later, at the crack of dawn, tired, hungry and a little scared, I drove across Zoji La, the high altitude pass that marks the border of Ladakh and Kashmir. I’d been driving through the night along the Line of Control (LoC) in the bone-chilling cold and near-impenetrable darkness. Ominous signboards—“Caution! You are in direct view of the enemy”—had stretched my nerves and added to the fatigue.
But a few kilometres down Zoji La, after a right-hander, I saw Sonmarg unspool below, with its rolling green meadows and pine-forested gentle slopes giving way to lofty white caps. And it simply sorted me out, the way it must have eased the worries of many a traveller down the ages.
Also See Trip Planner / Sonmarg (Graphic)
On a trip back, I steered clear of Rinzi’s path and drove up 86km from Srinagar through the heart of rural Kashmir. In March, the car’s windows were cold to the touch, a reminder that even though spring had started chasing away winter, there was still a chill in the air.
Because of its height—around 10,000ft—the snow builds up deep and thick in Sonmarg and lingers late into spring. On summer visits, I’d seen the hamlets green and bright, with merrily gurgling streams and sun-drenched fields. Now, we encountered a glacier 7km from Sonmarg: During winter, snowfall forces the glaciers down the mountain slopes and into the valley. The sides of the mountains themselves were patchy with snow or bare brown. The wild flowers that would push their heads up from the ground were still weeks away—their time is around mid-April—but the birds were already singing.
The Hazratbal mosque reflected in Srinagar’s Dal Lake.Rishad Saam Mehta
Neither wholly winter nor a full-fledged spring, this strange dichotomy of seasons is typical of Sonmarg. A shepherd we met told us that the mustard fields we’d seen on our drive had been sown before winter. The seeds lie dormant in the cold and germinate as soon as the snow melts, erupting in an exuberant burst of yellow against a backdrop still clinging to its white shroud.
The last time I’d driven down this road, tired and dusty, the wizened old Pahari proprietor of Hotel Sonmarg Glacier had welcomed me with fresh bread and hot tea. This time, the periphery of the place was still under snow and the owner was away in Srinagar, but the staff welcomed us with toast, eggs and chocolate malt milk.
Replete, we stepped out, only to be mobbed by 50-odd guides, each one eager to be the one to escort us up the icy slopes. This determined hustling for the tourist rupee is a stark sign of how the common man has been affected by the troubles in the valley: Many locals made a living as porters, cooks or guides for trekking parties—now all but a memory.
Bahadur Khan, who marketed himself the most aggressively to us, prepped us for our hour-long walk with the kind of dedication and gusto that would have earned a nod of appreciation from Tenzing Norgay, and produced two pairs of snowboots, both size 8. My size 11 feet hit a dead end even before my heel had found its place, so we abandoned that plan and began the walk in trainers.
The initial trek was over hard ground, which gave way to sludgy slopes. In the higher reaches, our legs were sinking up to the knees in snow. None of it deterred the two sledmen who had attached themselves to us with the tenacity of limpets. Finally, with our toes threatening to fall off to frostbite, their perseverance paid off. A little bargaining and we each had our own sled and were whizzing down the mountain at breakneck speed. It took us 7 minutes flat to zip back to where we had started 46 minutes ago.
By this time, Sonmarg was getting crowded. So we drove off towards the outskirts of the town and parked where we’d noticed a small trickle earlier in the day. It was a voluminous flow now, typical of a spring day when, as the sun gets hotter, the snow melts more rapidly and the rivers flow stronger.
I got out my electric coffee percolator, which plugs into the car’s cigarette lighter, and put some fresh coffee to brew. Into the cups went a dollop of condensed milk and we relished freshly brewed coffee in those scenic surroundings.
Even a late afternoon start from Sonmarg would have us back in Srinagar in time for an indulgent Kashmiri meal at the Ahdoos restaurant at Lal Chowk, so we sat there, on an exposed rock in the middle of a white river, drinking in the view and sipping on coffee. I remember looking around, trying to capture it all in my mind’s eye, having already packed my camera in despair at the sheer hopelessness of trying to digitize such natural beauty.
Now, when the urban grind threatens to get too much, I get myself a cup of black coffee, close my eyes, take a sip and let the multiplex of my mind play scenes from Sonmarg in all their splendour. These are pictures I will carry to my grave—I am quite certain Rinzi Rinchen did too.
Write to email@example.com