Returning to Kashmir for me is always bitter-sweet. It was here on a chill autumn morning 33 years ago that life changed forever, as I woke to find my fiancée Melanie dying beside me.
For two weeks we’d been staying on a houseboat on Dal Lake, enjoying the lazy life that young backpackers do; drifting around the lakes on endless shikara rides, wandering the old town in search of trinkets, haggling with jewellery sellers that came to our boat. We were in our mid-twenties, happy in love, living a great adventure, with the whole of our lives lying before us. And then one morning she was gone. And with her, the life I thought I was going to lead.
I won’t elaborate too much about that experience here. Having written a trilogy of books about it - and the subsequent adventures it led to - I think I have probably said enough on the subject. But suffice to say it is the defining moment of my life, as it led to all that has followed - including Wild Frontiers and meeting my wife, Anna.
(Anyone that is interested and doesn’t wish to trawl through 900 pages of my life and adventures, can read Ashlea Halpern’s excellent, and much shorter, take on the story in the March 2022 Love & Travel edition of Condé Nast Traveller by clicking here.)
And so here I am again, back in Srinagar, back on Dal Lake, back enjoying shikar rides and walks through the old town. Having set up Wild Frontiers in 1998, running trips to Pakistan, I was keen to get back to Kashmir as soon as the security situation allowed. The nineties had been terrible in Kashmir with a militant insurgency, suppressed by a ruthless Indian army, claiming up to 60,000 lives. But in 2002, the leaders of India and Pakistan got together and started to smooth things out. In 2004, I returned and the following year we started running trips here – the first British company to do so.
Returning for the first time was, of course, strange. But with a mission to find and develop small group tours for my nascent business, I kept myself busy checking out suitable houseboats, restaurants, experiences and reccying routes up from Delhi and over to Ladakh. I returned four years later with a Condé Nast journalist and photographer. But again, so occupied had I been showing them around, that I hadn’t the time to dwell on the past.
It was when I returned for the fourth time, in August 2012, with Anna, that I think I really dwelled on the past for the first time and perhaps in a cathartic way, put the story to bed. We returned to the same houseboat - the Dream Palace - and met the family that had helped me so much 22 years before (believe me, dealing with a death in Kashmir at the time was not at all straightforward!) We drank tea, talked and laughed. Melanie’s death had shocked and affected them deeply, and we discovered we shared a deep bond that all those years had not diminished.
I have returned to Kashmir three times since and now when I visit, I don’t think about the tragic way that first trip ended. With the passing of time, I now look back on Melanie and our life together - and the time I’ve spent here - with happiness and contentment, knowing that for me it has led to a good and interesting life.
Kashmir, and in particular Srinagar and the lakes that surround it, will forever be a part of me and I will always enjoy returning.