I was invited by Daniel Pepper and his parents, who happen to be visiting India, to go on a short, three-day trip with them to Kashmir. It was an action-packed trip to a part of India that was fascinating and very different from what I had seen in Delhi. Kashmir is an absolutely gorgeous place. Upon entering the Kashmir Valley, you are greeted with a sign that says, "Welcome to Heaven on Earth." It was a very beautiful and, I am sure at one point, tranquil place.
Being a Westerner born in 1979, my central understanding of Kashmir is it is a conflict zone. Daniel assured his parents and me that this period had ended. I guess that if your frame of reference is that of a war journalist, the violence is over. To the average tourist, however, this is not the case. The entire region is a veritable military base; the Indian army patrol empty wheat fields. It was a little over-the-top.
Our accommodations, however, were amazing. Luminaries such as George Harrison and Nelson Rockefeller once stayed in the same series of houseboats on greater Dal Lake in Srinagar. The houseboat’s proprietor was the gushing and gregarious Mr. Butts. Mr. Butts was similar to Newhart’s innkeeper Dick Loudon after drinking one quart of strong coffee and another quart of low quality whiskey. He was probably the moodiest man I have ever encountered. This innate emotionalism was exacerbated by the fact that his entire livelihood relied on the tourism industry in a recovering war zone. The accommodations were something special. The grand boats were sculpted from carved wood and were docked in a lake in the middle of the mountains. At night, we slept in beds with hot water bottles. It was certainly a throwback to older and better times for the Kashmir tourism industry.
The next day was interesting as well. Daniel and I were in the center of the state capital Srinagar, browsing through a local bazaar, when we heard an earsplitting blast. Having lived through a much closer bomb blast in Israel in 1997, I was pretty sure that’s what it was. We debated for fifteen seconds as to whether it was actually a bomb blast. I said yes; Dan said no. Suddenly, we saw every person in the area running away from the blast—well, everyone save one, lone man, clutching a camera and running towards the source of the sound. Like any first-rate photojournalist, Dan immediately sprinted toward the blast. The bomb exploded around a half kilometer from where we were standing and hurt a few people in the crowd. One person eventually died from his injuries. Following the blast, everyone we asked in Kashmir and at the houseboat assured us that everything was OK and that this was not a big deal. There was a huge difference in what they wanted to show us, as tourists, and the harsher reality that they preferred to hide.
My favorite experience in Kashmir was our skiing trip in the Himalayas. I went with Daniel, who has not skied since adolescence, and a guide. Daniel gets big props for even attempting this feat. I have posted some of the pictures. The experience was unlike any skiing I have previously done. Skiing while listening to music is one of my all-time favorite things to do, and having the entire mountain to myself with almost no other skiers was a once in a lifetime experience. To scale the mountain, we took a gondola to the top of a 13,500-foot peak. The gondola was relatively crowded with Indian tourists; many were simply going to the top of the mountain to enjoy the view. The ride down was totally empty and peaceful. The experience was a far cry from skiing anywhere in the US.
At one point, our guide stopped me as we went down the mountain; he pointed across the valley to a range around 13,000 to 15,000 feet high. Above the range was a layer of cloud cover. Pointing out the cloud cover, he said, "How beautiful is that?" And he was right. It was an amazing sight. Then he slowly lifted his ski pole and drew a line through the cloud cover, showing me a mountaintop that was 2.5 times higher than the 13,000-foot range across the valley. It was Nanga Parbat, the ninth highest mountain in the world. I’ve never seen anything that could compare to Nanga Parbat; the mountain was visible just above the cloud line and extended into the sky. Just as I regained control of my jaw, he pointed out a more distant peak—K-2, the second highest mountain in the world.
The skiing was unusual, because the mountains are not groomed at all. Toward the end of the day, we got a fresh layer of powder which made the skiing that much more enjoyable.