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Private peaks | In a corner that counts

Private peaks | In a corner that counts

The pahari region in Jammu and Kashmir is different from the Kashmir Valley, which forms most people’s idea of Kashmir. We have no shikaras, open green meadows, or running background santoor music. We’re all about mountains, rocks, subsistence farming, livestock and hardiness. Our way of life in the mountains is different from that in the valley. We speak Kashmiri too, but our accent and local slang differ. Cast aside also notions of fair, rosy-cheeked Kashmiris with full red lips. The mountain sun has turned us into a wrinkled, hardy people with tanned leather for skin and crow’s feet around smiling eyes.

Nature trail: The Chenab valley.

In late 2008, everything changed. I decided I wanted to help at home and left the city suddenly. What I do now is run the Haji Public School with my family—it’s a school we set up in our ancestral village in the mountains of Doda, at an altitude of approximately 7,100ft overlooking the Chenab river, with no motorable roads going all the way up even today. It’s really the most wonderful corner of the world.

My great grandfather established the village in the early 1900s; today, almost every resident of Breswana is family—by blood or marriage. In every sense of the word, it is home.

My work has me shuttling between Jammu (“the big city") and the school in Breswana throughout the year. It’s a whole day’s travel, with mixed measures of driving, walking and horse riding. Jammu is where my town house is, and I head there every time I need to catch up on paperwork, have official meetings, purchase supplies or access proper Internet. This is at least once a month, if not more often.

It is a beautiful, if exhausting, journey. I haven’t tired of it yet and it’s been five years of scampering uphill and down, and driving on the national highway in all seasons. There are three legs of the journey from city to village: Jammu to Doda—183km by road; Doda to Premnagar, the last motorable stop—16km again by road; and horseback/trek to Breswana up the mountain horse trails, rocks, ravines and forest (oh, and a water mill)—8km on mountain trails, upwards.

On horseback up the mountain.

Somewhere after Batote, you’ll spot the river Chenab for the first time, going the other way; it will accompany you on the left of the highway for the remaining portion of the journey.

On the highway, you will see Gujjars and Bakarwals moving north in the summer, taking their animals to higher reaches for a season of grazing. Before the winter, you can see them heading down with their livestock in the thousands. Traffic moves slowly during these seasonal migrations in the state.

On the Jammu-Doda stretch, our family has gravitated towards certain establishments for their good food and quick service: Manhas Dhaba at Samroli, Prem Sweets at Kud, a chai (tea) stall at a pine-covered corner of Patnitop (a popular hill station about 3 hours out of Jammu), and, most importantly, Sharma Vaishno Dhaba at Bagar (pronounced like the rude word) for its flawless victory with rajma dal-chawal and desi ghee.

My favourite stretch of the journey to the village is the last, horse-borne bit. Nothing compares to riding a good mountain horse on tough mountain trails. Our family has always had horses, both local stock as well as the matchless Zanskaris. Everything about horses brings out the romantic in me. They’re gorgeous animals, and it’s quite incredible the way they manage our mountain slopes. With horses and me, it’s a case of true love, and I have my father to thank for showing us the ropes well as children and making us comfortable with them. I know of people screwing up their noses when confronted with horse smells, but I am immediately taken back to Breswana, to my trips home.

The bridge across the Chenab. Photographs by Beata Labikova

There’s a wooden footbridge over the Chenab at Premnagar which we cross to where the horses wait. If you look up at this point, you can spot Breswana on the neck of the mountain towering above the town. Here onwards, all luggage goes up on pack animals or on the backs of men/women. It’s a 7km, steep and uphill route on rocky trails that takes 3-4 hours to cover. We stop a few times along the way to rest the horses. Again, we have our preferred spots for resting—shade, wind and water being the deciding factors.

This final ride is where one gets to see pahari Jammu and Kashmir, still untouched by the outside world. We pass through villages, where we see people go about their daily lives and work through different seasons. Things carry on as they used to, farmers still follow traditional farming methods, and the villages look more or less as they always have as far back as I can remember. Everyone knows everything about everyone else in the mountains and much current information is traded between travellers going up and down.

It’s always a physically demanding trip, this one between Jammu and Breswana, leading to an aching back, a sore backside and tired legs. But a day later, sitting in the favourite spot in front of my cottage, waiting for a Web page to load on the mobile phone, with schoolchildren chattering in the distance and the sun warming my back, I find I really cannot complain.

At all. Just get me some Internet up here.

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