Mountain Meadows of the far North West

Finding ourselves unable to visit the fabled high altitude meadows of Pahalgam in the Vale of Kashmir we spoke to our host about arranging a side trip to the lovely region of Patnitop, well known for its alpine scenery and a mere 70 miles outside of Jammu. This would also have the advantage of reducing the amount of extra time we spent imposing on the family while we waited for our new travel arrangements to be sorted out. Well, Patnitop may have seemed nearby on the map but that was without taking into account the fact that getting there involved travelling on the main Jammu –> Srinagar highway for most of the way. A chaotic attempt to both repair and refurbish this route at the busiest time of year meant that it had deteriorated into an all but stationary procession of heavily loaded lorries for much of its length. Various attempts were being made to clear a few sections at a time and some assistance was being given by a few very overheated police officers to get the smaller vehicles through (presumably before their occupants expired from heat stroke).

This was one of those excursions that begin to seem like less and less of a good idea as the hours pass by but eventually we left the main road and began to climb through some gorgeous, heavily wooded green hills. Arriving at our destination we were taken to the Patnitop Residency, a large, modern chalet-style building that had imposed itself above the village as if it was definitely the only legitimate place to stay. As we were shown inside we couldn’t help noticing that the rose gardens were absolutely gorgeous, something which turned out to be quite an anomaly as everything else about the establishment turned out to be dreadful in the extreme. This must be one of those places that is still able to trade upon its reputation while lackadaisical staff and rapacious management steadily grind its standards of hospitality into the dust.

I don’t think I have ever seen net curtains quite that grey outside of a stately home, the restaurant floor was scattered with dirty napkins left over from from breakfast and, if awards are ever given out for indolence in the service industries, then the staff here were definitely contenders. I was promised a cup of saffron tea on our arrival and, despite the manager making much of the fact that he would send out for the ingredients specially, I am waiting for it still. This oversight may well have something to do with the fact that we refused to let the local shawl seller untie his bundle and show us his wears, even as he followed us outside and persisted in his attempts to get us to buy something as we tried to relax in the aforementioned gardens.

We were only there for one night and our arrangements had been made through various intermediaries so we thought it best to put make the best of the situation and stay put: I laid down a thick layer of insecticide to get rid of the smell in the bathroom and we wandered out to find a pleasant local restaurant where we could take all of our meals. It’s not often that I am tempted to steal anything from a hotel bathroom but a plastic soap dish complete with cigarette burns and faded pine tree logo proved too fitting a memento to leave behind on this occasion. The air was fresh up here and the temperatures moderate so we took an enjoyable walk through the tall, straight pines nearby, where a light sprinkling of sheep, cows and goats grazed under the watchful eyes of the local herds-women. Their colourful but rather bedraggled clothing (the women not the livestock) suggested that they might be tribes-people, as did the occasional thatched wooden dwellings and small kitchen gardens. I especially loved the sight of a small group of these women sitting on the hillside together in the dappled afternoon sunlight. They didn’t seem to be doing very much of anything; maybe just chatting and taking the air before going home to cook dinner.

The simplicity of this bucolic scene contrasted starkly with the behaviour of the Indian holidaymakers (we saw no Europeans at all) who tended to cluster around the specially constructed attractions as if to underscore their unfamiliarity with rural life. Swing-parks, bouncy castles, zip-wires and professional photographers: unfortunately Patnitop and the well-known beauty spot of Sanasar Lake now have them all in profusion. Except for the fact that the snack food is rather more spicy and the women’s clothing more exotically coloured, we found that much of our little stop-over could have been any specially engineered recreational destination back home. Fortunately, the holiday theme park does not extend across the whole region and we still had the breathtaking views of Nathatop to enjoy. At nearly 3,000 meters it is considerably higher than its more popular neighbour and a distinct chill told us that the snows had not long been absent. The springy grass of the hilltop meadow was peppered with tiny flowers and these in turn attracted butterflies and insects of many varieties. Looking out over endless ranges of distant purple hills we could make out the magnificent Brammah range, not so much snow-capped as snow-clad, the three highest peaks of the Kishtwar Himalayas sent quite a shiver down the spine.

Enjoying the cool air and the lack of tourists we looked around and saw that, despite what must be a much shorter growing season, the whole landscape was sprinkled with simple stone structures, shelters for either people or livestock, and criss-crossed with narrow roads. The region may look rather bleak but it obviously supports quite a number of people. There may have been no visitors up here but we had to stop for selfies at a military outpost because the young watch commander had promised his wife photos of any passing strangers. He had recently transferred from Delhi and obviously a bit homesick already. We stopped off at a roadside cafe on the way down for saffron tea tea and “saffron eggs”: boiled eggs whose yolks were so golden and flavoursome they made a simple snack into the food of the gods.

It took even longer to get back to Jammu and on the next day we fought our way through the sweltering streets to the airport only to find that we had been booked onto a flight from Srinagar –> Leh instead of Jammu –> Leh and that we would have to pay quite a bit more to get a place on the correct flight on the following day. I, of course, had taken on the responsibility for planning this trip and it was me that hadn’t checked the small print on the e-mailed copy of our ticket. When I looked back through the exchange of messages I saw that I had indeed requested Jammu → Leh but that didn’t make up for a very difficult few hours and a day less at our next destination. Fortunately, when we turned up back at the house, our hosts were kindness itself and even professed themselves sorry to see us eventually leave. Those huge extra suitcases of children’s clothes that we’d carted across Delhi for the mission must have been very well received and I found myself making promises to return with more donations and one or more of my grandchildren in tow when the time was right.

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