Monday 13 July 2020

S is for Shangri-La

The Kashmir railhead lies at Jammu, some 600 km and 15 hours by train from Delhi. The journey along the only road from Jammu to Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir, takes another 12 hours. Two thirds of that is uphill.

As the road winds its way round mountain after mountain, leaving the narrow valley floors further and further behind, the landscape gradually changes. Trees give way to low shrubs, then barren scrubland. With each hairpin twist of the snaking road, the landscape to the south folds itself, pleating the horizon with soft-contoured hills. The road peaks at 3000 metres, then begins a partial descent.

The dusty valleys are exchanged for a deep gorge: below lies the huge River Cherab. From this height, its surface is deceptively still and jade-like. The conjunction of placid glistening water with ranks of mountains shouldering each other into the distance looks like nothing so much as the Lake District - writ five times larger.

As the road follows the Cherab upstream, the gorge gives way to a narrow valley, with fertile land edging the river. Small villages are visible among the neatly-parcelled fields with their low mud walls. To conserve valuable space, some houses hug sheer rock faces shrouded in shadow like a colony of bats. Thin, sill-like terraces are carved into the steep concave bowl of the mountainside to eke out the arable land yet further.

The road turns off, following a tributary; its valley rises and narrows to nothing. The land begins to spread out before the final wall of mountain tops. The Jawarhar tunnel under them is long, dark and damp - a last rite of passage before entering the light and spacious Vale of Kashmir itself. As you emerge from the tunnel, and turn a couple of corners, the whole valley is spread out before you with the clarity of a map.

It is ringed by majestic mountain peaks which block out the world. To the west is Afghanistan, to the north Uzbekistan, and to the east, the Himalayas. The Vale itself lies at over 1500m, and is about 100 km long by 20 km wide. It is flat and abundantly fertile.

To understand and appreciate Kashmir, its position as an impossible kingdom must be grasped. This is best done by arriving slowly overland. As each metre in height and kilometre in distance is dearly won, and each hour paid out in the journey, so the true co-ordinates of Kashmir are fixed within you.

In contrast, departure should be a swift and effortless escape that allows the essence of the Vale to carried away intact. A flight is ideal. As you rise out of Srinagar airport, the valley contracts to a giant's footprint. Like the old land it is, creases run over its smooth surface. To the north, the great snow-capped peak of Nanga Parbat gleams like a fang; to the east, the Himalayas lie like hundreds of huge, jagged flints. Set amidst this frozen sea of raging peaks, the calm and peace of the Kashmir valley is all the more miraculous. It can be no coincidence that an anagram of Srinagar is Sangri-ra.

A Partial India A to Z

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