That’s exactly how I described the scene after having it photo-captured in 64 megapixels – Far from the maddening crowd. And I am sure the picture does not even provide one-tenth of the detail. Some 15-20 kilometers from Srinagar, as I was having my bella-ciao moment at the ridge that begins from Harwan Dara, I realized that the end of the world was still a remote possibility. Just imagine how much scare a small virus can cause – hopping from place to place and people to people.
Before taking the day out, and I literally mean the day out, we tried some small treks in Srinagar. On evenings, a bunch of locked-down trekkers would assemble at the foothills of Zabarwan. This is just a warm-up exercise in case you find interest in losing yourself out to the heights of Kashmir.
Perhaps one of the takeaways for the passive months that resulted in bearded faces and pot-bellied men is that people have become more conscious about meaningful life, about nature, about places that are just at the corner but still not explored.
I read this article on a credible website, on jobs and how people are changing their preferences after being plagued by virus. People throughout the world are trying to rediscover things that really matter – quality life it is called. And the first thing that comes to mind is nature, which at least seems at peace with itself. People are moving away from corporate and city chaos and taking refuge in the quieter parts. My fellow trekkers, who I think must have their own reasons for climbing and sweating it out, were no exception. We tried the Zabarwan trek for a few weeks, and got bored. Finding a new place that wasn’t far from the city yet tranquille was for the few expert climbers. So, when they were talking about names like Fakir Gujri and Astan Marg, I kind of thought they were on another planet.
Starting early, we were there in less than an hour, not the top of the ridge but the last point where cars are generally parked. Like other unexplored places, the road is rough and rugged terrain. You have to cover the distance by your feet. We did see an overenthusiastic motorsports fan who had reached the summit in a car. But that is a bad idea, for the yacht in the sea is no match to the adventure on board. But yes, there are people who are into such things, as travel by car even to those places where you would hate the sound of the revving engines.
So, I was there, at the base of Astan Marg, wondering why it had been named so. Dara Harwan, besides its beauty, is also popular among people for homing faith-healers. Faith and geography in fact have a very close connection. Calm and serene places are known to be abodes of saints and monks. So, if you want to play a monk sometimes in your life, go for it. But please, not in the car, because that defeats the whole idea of getting away.
For good or for worse, I hardly saw anyone in those few hours of wandering in the wilderness. So, nothing about the nomenclature. But I will try to make a picture for you, describe this getaway that you can manage in a day or even half. Astan Marg is beautiful when you are at its summit. You can see Dal lake, some portions of the city, Zabarwan range, and other nearby hills. And it is pretty. You also feel on top of the world, like a small world not the Everest kind. If you see straight, you can find clouds because you are already at an elevation of above 8500 feet. Astan Marg can be reached either from Harwan Dara, Fakir Gujri on the north and east or from the Khimber from west.
Honestly, there is nothing on the ridge, which is the best part. So, we were well-off enough to carry the food and water. There is a small stream that runs down on the Khimber side, but to reach there takes about an hour or more.
The trek is normal, steep at some points, but comfortable otherwise. There are only a couple of flat-faced grounds where you can sit down for a while.
I am again not sure why anyone must go to this place. But if you really want a day’s escape it’s worth it. For young trekkers and climbers Astan Marg is a good place to begin the endless journey of scaling Kashmir’s heights.
At the summit you can see the corridors of human settlement. Back there, I was having a different high. The sun was more than piercing and about a dozen times I cursed for not carrying any protection.
To my more informed and well-read friends who go by all nuances, there is, if not a subtle but difference between madding and maddening. For people suffering from both, the getaway is what you should look forward to.
A day before starting for the ridge, I tried to find the maps, coordinates and information about this place. The information does not help much as it is more about experience than about making your brain cells work. An interesting thing I remember about the research was that it was mentioned to be developed into a paragliding destination. We don’t know how that fits, but yes, the elevation and the climb are suited for the sport.
There are dozens of places like Astan Marg in Kashmir, which just don’t need anything but visits. We know that new places are regularly being added to the trotters list. Unfortunately, as soon as some getaway is discovered its pollution follows. It starts with small food vendors and as popularity and visits by people grow, it is followed by constructions and modernization. The place, like others, needs to be protected from such designs.
A big fan of shooting birds (with camera), I didn’t find much there. The place is not far from Dachigam National Park. So, expect wild encounters, especially during spring time.
The wilderness is unmistakable, vegetation is sparse and there is no human intervention other than rearing goats by tribals. There is at least one place of religious importance on the summit, but nothing more.
The ridge connects on the north-eastern side with other summits and gradually slopes down to Khimber locality in the northwest. There is no need to carry any special provisions except water. Hiking shoes and a walking stick are all you need.
I don’t know how people who are into places and tourism have tried to sell it. But my experience about this place is just that of an ideal short trek. It can be promoted and even developed if it is called so with some adventure sports activities. But that will take some time.
Summits and ridges have one particular advantage over other places that attract the traveler’s interest. With the local population growing at a tremendous pace, all places that are at level run the risk of being encroached upon. The same is not true for heights as they continue to be abandoned and forlorn. About Astan Marg and its surroundings, human settlements have expanded and reach the foothills, but beyond the cliff or ascent there is no intervention as of now. Although these places or higher grounds are taken by gypsies and tribals, the natural settings remain intact.
For the city dwellers who may find themselves caught between the rock and the hard place, the trek is desirable. It leaves a good effect on mental health. It is not like any usual picnic place as the climb is taxing. But some quiet minutes on those heights provides a quick relief to the otherwise stressful day.