DH: Travel/Gulmarg, Kashmir


27 November 1988 

                                     In the Forest


                                                                                      PHOTO: J&K TOURISM   


The heart of Gulmarg lies in its pine forests. I lived there for a year and it was like a sabbatical from the harsher realities of life in the plains. The forests that encircle the green meadows of Gulmarg became my haunt, and I came to know them all intimately. Here I must add that I was lucky enough not to encounter any hostile wild animal during my forest treks.

When I first came to Gulmarg, it was during the `wet.` The steady, incessant but gently falling rain made walking in the forest  an unique experience. Deep inside, on the heathery paths, raindrops sparkled on low pine branches and a hundred crickets chirped loudly. I'd pick up a large branch and use it as a walking stick, and alos to remove the foot-long orange slugs that occasionally  wandered onto my  path. Fir cones would gleam, and I'd come upon sudden clearings would reveal the valley below shrouded in a soft yet impenetrable mist that moved in enveloping swirls.

In autumn, the woods took on a golden hue. Orange and gold pine firs carpeted the forest tracks, and white and red mushrooms, the edible frilled umbrella and the poisonous toadstool variety, sprouted in patches. Even  the flowers turned autumnal--- the blues and violets giving way to the yellow of buttercups, wildflowers, daffodils, and the lovely little yemberzal. Though the sun shone brightly, it lacked real warmth, and woollens were necessary to ward off the chilly wind which penetrated even the densest part of the forests.

Once the snows of winter arrived, the forests got their surface coating of white on treetop and ground. Clumps of fresh, brittle snow would weigh down the slender pine branches and deposit their burden, in a sudden onslaught, on the head of the unwary trekker. The cold wintry sun would gild the woods and make the sun gleam so white, it hurt the naked eye.

I would deliberately venture out into the forest during a light blizzard, for the untrammeled joy of having huge snowflakes fall gently on my head, melt on my outstretched tongue, form giant teardrops on my eyelashes.

By now I knew the forests well enough to gingerly skirt the crevices deceptively covered over with a few feet of snow, and my sturdy snow boots made sure I did not slip while walking across the frozen stream that lay at the foot of the forest hills.

The thaw curtailed my treks, for the snow now became a mass of slush and dangerously slippery ice. But spring was quick to follow, bringing a new beauty all its own. The sun would frequently play truant and freshly melted snow turned the forest stream into a roaring fury, heard deep inside the forest. The trees and indeed the earth, took on a lovely mint green shade, and I found a large hollow tree in which I sheltered many a time when springtime sleet would sweep across Gulmarg, whipping great pieces of ice across one's vulnerable face and body at great velocity.

After spring came the queen of all seasons, summer. The whole Kashmir valley dazzled and shone, and my beloved forests took on a cool green look, with bright patches of colour: a mass of riotous colour, violet, blue, yellow, orange, white, pink, . large parts of the woods would turn into carpets of moon daisies and elsewhere grew wild roses, at aloof and inaccessible heights.

As flora came alive, the fauna too came to the forests; squirrels, marmots, hedgehogs, chakors, wild goats; shy creatures that scurried away from human beings.

And like the predictable fly in the ointment, the forests would suddenly be teeming with another kind of seasonal creature-- the tourists, who would leave a Hansel and Gretel trail of crumpled  beer cans, empty wafer packets and cigarette stubs. 

The arrival of the tourists coincided with my departure from Gulmarg. Apart from converting my erstwhile indifference to a keen interest and indeed, love for nature, the pine forests also taught me to value and cherish solitude. For the glades of Gulmarg, I realised, would grant intimacy only to one who walked the forest paths alone.

(This piece was titled `Haunts of Mist and Gold` when it was originally published.)