Trekking With Kids in Kashmir

On a crisp October afternoon in Kashmir’s Lidderwat Valley, I scrambled ahead of our caravan to snap the perfect photo: My four-year-old daughter, Kiran, descending a winding trail on a pony, flanked by the milky blue Lidder River and the blazing yellow foliage of giant chinar trees. But as she rounded the bend I could tell that something had gone horribly wrong. Her face in tears, she held up a bloody pinky finger and screamed, “Daaaddyyy!”

Trekking with small children in Kashmir, one of the most rugged (not to mention politically volatile) parts of South Asia, is not for the faint of heart. Even before her latest accident, Kiran was already weak from a bout of tummy trouble—she had binged on bananas—and straining to adjust to the thin, 10,000-foot air. Examining her  finger—she’d smashed it between the saddle horn and a boulder—I wondered if we should cut the trip short. As I studied our guide’s arsenal of medical supplies, my wife rocked her until her eyes ran dry. The Kashmiris taught us a lot about enduring crises. Just fifteen minutes later, our guide had Kiran back atop her horse, laughing.

kiran on horse happy

Like many Northern California parents, my wife and I often reminisce about the days when we could hike deep into the wilderness. Backpacking with kids would have to wait until they were old enough to carry their own gear and chip in around the campfire—or so I thought, until we looked into trekking in Kashmir.  Trekking guides there offer a travel by pony option for young kids, reminding my wife of several months she had spent trekking in Nepal as a student. In Kashmir, for just $200 a day, five guides and six ponies would take our children, along with one other Indian family, on a four-day trip through some of the most beautiful high country on the planet. Oh, and they’d also cook and clean for us. All we had to do was show up.

We flew from Delhi to Srinagar, Kashmir’s largest city, and the next morning drove three hours to Pahlgam, a quaint and mostly empty hill station nestled in the scenic, glacier-ringed Arun Valley. Along the way we passed seemingly endless military convoys. Beside the road in every dusty village, clusters of masked soldiers brandished assault rifles. Not the most tourist friendly look…

guy with gun

The almost daily conflicts between Indian security forces and Kashmiri separatists can certainly snarl traffic, potentially thwarting a tightly planned travel itinerary. Yet we never felt unsafe; the many Kashmiri separatists we met were universally friendly and warmly welcomed Indian and foreign visitors.

Kids at wedding

In Pahlgam we connected with our guide, Lone Shaban, whom I’d chosen based on his excellent reviews on TripAdvisor.  A short drive up a narrow road in a Tata SUV led us to the trailhead, where our airport rollerbags were strapped to ponies. The short, stocky Kashmiri horses are perfectly suited to threading rocky mountain passes—and also great for children. The kids thrilled at the feeling of riding by themselves, even if their steeds basically piloted themselves, goaded here and there by a guttural “TUK TUK” from their adult minders.

Notwithstanding help from our four-legged friends, this was no kiddie-league trek. Less than 100 yards up the trail, my wife urgently detoured to a village loo. Our heads throbbing from the change in altitude, the two of us wheezed up the mountainside, pausing every couple of minutes to catch our breath. But our eight year old son had iron lungs. “Come on,” Rohan kept shouting. “Why are you and mommy so slow?”

selfie

We followed the Lidder River up a steep gorge lined with tall pines and firs, eventually emerging into a clearing dotted with majestic chinar trees, their maple-like leaves awash in autumn colors. Though most trekkers visit Kashmir during its emerald green summer months, October is far less crowded and affords daytime highs in the upper 60s—perfect hiking weather.

shaban

Trekking guide Lone Shaban

A few miles up the trail we joined an adventurous Mumbai family of four that never been hiking or experienced weather colder than the inside of a shopping mall. “When Tariq turned forty, he started to get a little crazy,” joked the wife about her husband’s new wild streak. They’d already traded self-propulsion for pony power, albeit reluctantly. “I’m scared,” their preteen son repeated as we zig-zagged up switchbacks. That kid is smart. The paths were often very narrow, the drop-off hair-raising. A travel tip: Older kids, like adults, might take more coaxing to reach outside their comfort zone. (We first learned this from the amazing Dan and Larry, who offer bareback and barefoot horseback riding lessons at Dan’s ranch in the Santa Barbara mountains. Let’s just say Kiran had better success at hands-free jumping than Rohan.)

horses on cliff.jpg

Most trekking guides have far more experience with 20-something foreign tourists than with families––Shabanbhai had never taken a child as young as Kiran on a multi-day trek. But that’s changing as trekking becomes more popular with Indians looking for out-of-the ordinary family vacations. Shabanbhai seemed thrilled to have kids along for once, teasing and playing with them late into the evening (in his culture kids tag along for almost everything––just don’t expect set bedtimes).

group photo

Our first evening we stayed at the base of a stunning granite cliff in a rustic, A-frame guesthouse.

aframe

Shabanbhai roasted lamb skewers over a bonfire and served us an impressive multi-course Kashmiri meal, starting with kawva, Kasmiri herbal tea.

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I would have preferred a tent to our room, which sometimes smelled of food and cooking gas, yet Shabanbhai—thinking kids first, as always—feared we’d be too cold in tents. The kids were plenty warm, and slept better than I did.

If you’ve never trekked in the Himalayas, one of the first things that strikes you—other than the incredible natural beauty—is the trash. Marring the pristine mountain steams were countless biscuit wrappers, empty water bottles, and cigarette packets, often left by Western trekkers who probably sort their recycling at home. Since we’re home-schooling the kids this year, it became a teaching moment. They also became trash collectors for a day.picking up trash

The trash mostly disappeared the following day as we climbed above the tree line, past fields of thistles and deer berries, towards Kolahoi Glacier.

kiran high alpine

Shabanbhai normally makes the journey in two days, but feared that the kids would freeze if we slept at a higher elevation this late in the season (and I wasn’t about to second-guess him). Though Rohan was disappointed that we turned back around before we made it to the snow, he quickly forgot his complaints when he discovered the joys of skipping rocks in mountain streams.

skipping rocks

On the final day of our journey, Rohan and Kiran were confident enough to forge out across the valley on their own.

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Trekking, say lots of homeschooling families like the Tougases and Thompsons, helps kids build grit and self-confidence. Mostly though, I wanted to share a wonderfully rich cultural and natural experience with my kids. I never doubted that Rohan would have a blast, but was less sure about little Kiran. She was a bit under the weather the whole time, and is the family homebody. But at the end of the week, after we checked into a hotel for a much-needed shower, I knew I’d made the right decision. Splayed out on a couch in the warm room, staring up at the wood ceiling tiles, she said to no one in particular: “That was fun.”

Some practical advice:

When to go: Anytime from June to mid-October is great, but if you want to camp in tents at high elevations, shoot to arrive in mid to late summer.

How to get there: Fly to Srinagar and then take a car to Pahalgam (about a 3-hour drive). The car fare should be around $40 (Rs. 2500). Your trekking guide or hotel can set it up.

Where to stay: I suggest the Hotel Dar es Salam in Srinigar and the Pahalgam Hotel in Pahalgam. Rates at the time we visited were around $125/night (Rs. 8,000) but may be higher during the summer. 

What to bring:  You don’t need much if you go with a full-service outfitter, but be sure to take comfortable shoes, rain gear, and lots of layers. You might also consider riding helmets for your kids. Local guides don’t provide them.

Who to go with: Costs for trekking guides vary widely in Kashmir, as does the quality of the services they provide. Lone Shaban is on the high end of the price scale ($50/day per person) but speaks excellent English, serves delicious food (as far as backcountry camping goes), and is great with kids of all ages. If you forget your sleeping bags or hiking boots, chances are he has extra ones you can use free of charge.

Josh Harkinson
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