Unfortunately, there is rather more trekking and far less pony action that I’d hoped on this pony trek in the Kashmir valley.
Not too early this morning, after a small temper tantrum about sitting on an animal whose legs are only marginally longer than mine, I team up with Balah (‘White’ in Kashmiri) and Moonti (aka ‘Pearl’), the ever-patient Salim and the ponies’ owner, Aktor, to climb up to where the snow starts on what is apparently classed as a mid-Himalayan hike.
At 19, Aktar, with his Bollywood looks, bemoans his inflamed wisdom teeth and betrothal to a girl he doesn’t like. Balah and Moonti take us down toward the village, past women collecting rare medicinal mushrooms that reap 10,000 rupees (about $250) a kilo (hmmm, that sounds SO suss when I put it like that) or balancing massive loads of firewood on their heads, then we turn right, straight up the hill.
“Come with us!” calls one of the women from a small group, energetically pacing the track in scarves and flowing trousers. They’d leave me for dead. Mind you, so do the ponies, who once Aktar decides it is too rough to ride them, run off up the mountain to leave me gasping in their wake.
It’s too early in the season to do the celebrated ridge-top circuits. The peaks are still crowned with snow that’s melting into the rushing river that passes my tent with a roar like Delhi traffic.
So we climb to the point where the snow peters out and the wildflowers start – little purple wannabe-orchids, yellow cowslips and small clusters of pretty white blooms. In another couple of weeks, the pastures will be full of gypsies and their goats, sheep and ponies. They’re on the way up here, from 600km from down south, droving their animals up to the summer grazing.
But for now, it’s just the five of us, a picnic of boiled eggs, potatoes, carrots and more fabulous macaroons, and the whoosh of the wind through the pine trees.