So we’re in the jeep gunning it to the hiking trailhead of Naranagh, in central Kashmir. We are: my guide, Salim, the driver Daba and a small white chicken from Delhi.
Daba, who’s young and cheerful, has an eye for the ladies, and the flash of a sequined dupatta (scarf) has his attention wandering from the road to the fields where such well-dressed winsome creatures are working.
Thankfully, the chicken kicks up a racket if Daba takes the corners too sharply, which send the little white bird skidding across the back seat. His rebuke makes Daba slow down, and for that I’m happy.
The fields are lined with fresh green poplars and fields of bright yellow mustard flowers and there’s still snow on the high peaks.
A hundred roadsigns flash by. Reading roadsigns in Kashmir is like reading a Forrest Gump book: “Life is a journey. Complete it.” “Mountains are for pleasure. Only if you drive at leisure.” And my favourite, obviously targeting female Punjabi tourists, “Don’t gossip, let him drive.”
For a region so torn apart by war (which of course everyone here blames on Pakistan), Kashmir is obsessed with safety.
We reach the camp and dump our gear and I check out my tent for the night. Lots of blankets. Hot water bottle. Torch. Toilet paper. Excellent. But I’m worried about the chicken. Will it survive the cold night? I should have let the guys sacrifice it on the butcher’s concrete steps the minute we bought it.
However, back in the kitchen tent for hot milky tea and macaroons, I hear a familiar squeak and it’s the chicken, nosing around the camp stove. It gets greedy for warmth and with a squawk, it’s singed its features and is running around the tent, screeching. Into your box this minute, chicken.
The village of Naranagh is dominated by an old Hindu temple, whose picturesque ruins sit on green grass nibbled to MCG levels by a battalion of trekking ponies, making it the perfect place for … a game of cricket.
All Kashmiri boys play cricket and, it appears, all Kashmiri boys can bowl. After admiring their skill while the girls are schlepping past with urns of water on their heads, we take a preparatory trek up to a local beauty spot, two hours up, an hour back along a rushing river fed by the summer thaw. It’s good to be in the clean air after the fug of Delhi, but my thighs aren’t so grateful.
That night, the scent of fragrant Kashmiri tea, with its cardamom, cinnamon and sugar, pervades the tent, the guys joke in a mix of Kashmiri and the local gypsy dialect, the chicken is having chicken dreams and chirrups in its sleep and all is well in the world.