This is chapter 8 of the Graduate & Live 2016 Summer Tour of Asia, where three traveling freelancers take advantage of their freedom. In this installment, Ryan, Aom and Ashley continue their journey in India. This time they get a taste of village life in the mountains.
Ryan, Aom and I weren't prepared to camp in the Indian wilderness, but there's no way we would miss out on hiking the Himalayas. Mustafa, the owner of the Baktoo Palace houseboat hotels, offered the perfect compromise. We accompanied him on his mission to return Nora to where he belongs, and we got to spend the night in a Kashmiri cabin.
Our chariot to the north was Mustafa's vintage jeep. The ride, without seat belts or air conditioning, was bumpy and precarious. Although I tried to soothe him, Nora, the male goat, left some dingleberries on the floor. I sat with my feet perched on the bench and my head slightly bent to avoid hitting the rigid metal roof.
On the way we stopped to pick up supplies. Mustafa directed us to a side alley, where we drank warm chai tea and ate fresh pretzel bread. We stopped again to grab some green vegetables, which Nora munched on. We also pulled up to an outdoor bakery and grabbed bread that looked like bialys.
Two half hours later, we were in Pahalgam. A small town in the Indian state of Kashmir, Pahalgam offers breathtaking views and a return to traditionalism. Produce is sold by farmers and bread is baked in homes. Though the homes were somewhat modern structurally, the people who lived in the nearby cabins didn't have internet or cell phones.
When we arrived, there was a group of men spending time at the cabin. We sat down, drank chai tea and ate the bread without butter. Nora found a nice spot near the fence and he started to chow down on the shrubbery. As a group, we spent the afternoon chatting about politics and perspectives on life. We discussed Islamophobia, veganism and cultural beliefs like the hijab.
As the sun began to set Mustafa had the boys start to make dinner. Though the shower wasn't too hot, the cabin was a really nice place to spend the night. We listened to my Spotify Discover Weekly playlist and Aom told us the story of how Buddha came to be.
The next day, we would take our hike. Mustafa told us that it was customary to have a local guide us up the mountain on horseback. I was skeptical of using animal labor if it wasn't necessary. We walked out to meet our guide, and he stood there with a single horse. It turned out that we would be taking turns up the mountain.
Ryan was the first to volunteer. I planned to walk next to the horse as I didn't want to sit on top of him, but the trek was longer than we thought. Dozens of different colored sheep passed by. Buses of kids on vacation waved to us. We saw girls singing and working in the fields. We saw rushing rivers flowing cool, clear Himalayan water through the valley.
As we entered the center of a range of Himalayan mountains, we became encircled by pastures of green that stretched out and rose to white-tipped peaks. I felt infinite. I wouldn't trade that moment for the world.
On the way down, I started to chafe, so I hopped off the horse. "I can hike this myself," I thought. Everyone seemed to float down the mountain, and I started to lose my breath. I hopped back on the horse, and off again, and on again.
It was about an hour walk back to the cabin, and with one horse, we lost patience pretty quickly. Aom, the ever fearless one, started to hitchhike, attempting to hail passerbys to pick us up. Finally, we found someone, but they didn't speak great English. We couldn't direct him to the cabin, so we asked our guide, who spoke no English, to show him where we were staying. Our guide approached the car, and moments later, the cab drove away.
Our guide must have told the man that he and his horse had it covered. Aom got another car to pull over, and it turned out he was a history teacher at a school taking a vacation to the mountains. He drove us back to the cabin and gave us each a handful of fresh nuts. Though we politely refused, the people of India just love to give.
The trek to the mountain was perfect because we got to see the center of the Himalayas without sacrificing our comfort. The man loved his horse and took great care of it, stopping multiple times to offer him water and let him rest. Though I don't condone animal exploitation, it seemed like the relationship between the man and his horse was genuine.
Before we left, the boys who had cooked and cleaned for us offered to take us on a tour of the small town. We walked through the terraces and saw cows, chickens and pigs roaming and relaxing on the property. Three Muslim girls walked up to us, and I told them they were beautiful. They giggled and let me take a photo of them before skipping off together.
The boys led us to their fair trade Himalayan cheese factory. Though I am by principle a vegan, I wanted to show them respect. The factory was run out of their house, and they proudly presented a sampler of more than 12 different flavors. The cheese was delicious, and it came in so many different flavors. Their cows were happy, and so was I.