Cities are great: packed with street scenes, foods, activities, and impressive skylines, there’s no quicker way to dive into a culture than in a city. But cities are not all there is to a culture, and cities are not the only places with unique views and experiences to be had. It’s just as important when traveling to get out of the cities, out of the villages even, and up into the wilderness to connect the with oldest aspect of every country: its wilderness. It’s important to see what a wild, untouched, undeveloped world looks like in different cultures, nature creates with similarities, but never repeats herself. To get out into nature in a foreign country is to connect with the land that formed the country itself. In Northern India, the name they give this land is the Himalaya.
There are no mapped trails here, so we hired a guide to lead us through the shepherd trails that lace the mountains in Kashmir. We drove north from Srinagar collecting food, fuel, and whatnot from little shops arrayed along the small winding road. We got out of the car and camped by a stream, spending the afternoon exploring its rocky tributaries and their origins in the pine groves of higher valleys. I spent the night terribly ill but recovered thanks to some Kashmiri medicine. It was rainy, and I was weak, so we hiked only a few miles before coming upon a gypsy camp. My guide secured a spot for me under their canvas tent, lying on rough carpets and drinking tea next to the simple fire. That night, my strength regained, we sat around a huge fire and agreed that in whatever country, politics was madness.
Then we climbed into the mountains, over snowy peaks beyond the tree line. We camped in a clearing and explored the fields of snow that stretched all the way to the rocky cliffs of mountains even higher, vaster, just now revealing themselves with the departure of the misty rain that had dogged us for days. From the top of a small rocky promontory we looked out, shielding our eyes from the glare of the snow, and all we could see, all the way to the horizon, were mountains. They were unspeakably beautiful and understandably humbling. This was not India, this was not Pakistan: this was wilderness. The people here cared only for their sparse flocks, for their simple lives. Politics are madness, but they are abandoned at the gates of the wilderness.
Perhaps this is another reason to get out of the cities: to lose the human bullshit that piles up so readily in close quarters. It’s easy from the crowded confines of Delhi to gain a cynical, jaded view of traveling, a view that holds you above all as a mark, rather than a pilgrim. But in nature you are a pilgrim from the foreign land of humanity, and here, up in the Himalaya, a day or two from the nearest village, you are just another lost soul making your way through the wilderness. In the vast expanse of the Himalaya there is plenty of wilderness for everyone, plenty of forgotten coves and dead end valleys, not just there for exploration but refuge. And you can’t see any of it unless you get a guide, lace up your boots, and go.