Trekking in Kashmir: Where nuclear powers once clashed
Kashmir – torn by nuclear rivals India and Pakistan – hopes new trekking business will divert timber smugglers and help reivive the economy.
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Bhat, his wife, son, and 10 head of cattle stay here for the summer. When snow comes, they head back down the valley, and the cattle owner pays him $135 total for their care.Skip to next paragraph
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After some cups of pink, salty tea known as noon chai, Bhat told us of his sons. His eldest, Ghulam Mohammad, has been in prison for 11 years. As Bhat tells it, his son got wind of a plot by three Ikhwanis to blackmail a village. So he preemptively killed them. (The Ikhwanis are former Kashmiri separatists who were captured by India and flipped to fight as counterinsurgents for the Indian government. Some Ikhwanis turned to banditry after the armed insurgency was crushed in the 1990s.)
Another of Bhat's sons, Nazir Ahmad, turned up dead in 2008 in a ravine we'd walked past earlier in the day. Bhat has his suspicions about who tortured and killed his son, but won't say until police agree to file a report and open an investigation. "I often think that the people should be brought to justice," he says, "but ... I have a son alive in jail and ... so my whole energy is to release him."
The next morning, two women showed up at our camp with bags of chili powder and turmeric.
Someone had forgotten to pack the spices. The discovery the night before caused such a stir that one of my companions called his wife in Novroz Baba, the village where we started. Within two hours she and a friend covered the distance we'd taken five hours of slogging to climb. A horse even carried my pack and I still hit the grass hard every time we stopped.
I felt bad about sticking the horse with my pack, especially after the animal tumbled into the ravine where Bhat's son had been found. But I was reassured when I learned that horses are normally used to smuggle out massive tree trunks.
As we resumed our marches, my guides told me how illegal logging works. The trees can be cut quietly by day: Thieves use axes and handsaws to fell two-foot-thick fir and deodar trunks. At night, they come back with horses. A tree is cut into about seven logs; a horse can carry two logs at a time, making it a four-night job. Prices vary, but here a whole tree can fetch $320. But that's not all profit: One former smuggler on the trail with me regularly paid $70 to bribe the forest officer and $45 to bribe the police.
Still, $50 a day is big money here. The government price for a trekking guide is $11 a day. But that hasn't discouraged Trekking for Trees.
"We make them aware and educate them about the value of the forest. If there will be no trees, there will be no [lasting] snow. And there will be landslides on these mountains," says Sheikh Ghulam Rasool, one of the organization's leaders who is hiking with us.
Trekking for Trees is looking for other alternative livelihoods for villages, such as guesthouses and orchards.
One of the quietest and gentlest guides told me that "through this profession, there is honor and through timber smuggling there is no honor."
On the afternoon of the second day, we reached a wide-open meadow ringed by mountains. Thousands of trees and thousands of sheep dotted the slopes. In a few corners lay stumps and wood chips: Timber thieves had done their dishonorable deed. The trade-off between honor and economic security, as the smuggler-turned-guide described it, will continue to be too great for many Kashmiris until more legitimate development comes.
After setting up camp, I followed three of the city boys in my group to look at the cuttings: Abid Hussain, a sports reporter for the newspaper Greater Kashmir; his buddy Sameer Ahmed; and Muneer Ahmed, a Trekking for Trees driver.