"It had nothing to do with gear or footwear or the backpacking fads or philosophies of any particular era or even with getting from point A to point B. It had to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles with no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way." - An extract from the book Wild by Cheryl Strayed.
The journey to Neelum Valley was perhaps the craziest, happiest and most unforgettable experience of my life. It will stay in my heart forever, of that I'm sure.
It wasn't until the very last minute that the military gave me permission to enter Kashmir. This meant that everything was a huge rush. I still remember how relieved I was when I finally got onto the bus and relaxed. But that was just the beginning of the challenges that lay ahead.
The journey from Kashmir to Lahore was very long. It took more than 12 hours to get there. There wasn't much to do on the bus, and I had to go through lots of security checkpoints. As the Pakistani governemnt wants to perserve Neelum Valley, foreigners are restricted in the area. I am Chinese, and no matter how hard I try, I will still look Chinese. It felt like it was going to be impossible for me to make it to Neelum Valley.
After more than a day, we finally arrived at the trail into Neelum Valley, but the challenges only became tougher and tougher.
The trail was the hardest I have ever attempted. The road was rugged, wet and littered with broken stones. The worst part was when we hiked at night and ran out of water. For a lot of the people in our group, it was the first time they had hiked. Because of this, they didn't have proper hiking gear or shoes. Everyone was completely exhausted, some people even got sick.
Luckily, I had two friends who accompanied me for the entire journey: Murad, my security guard and surrogate daddy in Pakistan, and Ramish, my spiritual friend.
I remember how tired Murad was, but he still put my safety in front of his own. I also remember how Ramish cheered us up when we almost got lost in the valley. We would often slip and fall on the harsh trail. But we had each other. Whenever someone fell behind, there was always someone to help them and encourage them. For me, that's the meaning of true friendship.
We arrived at the valley at 10pm. The first gift from the valley was the starry, starry night. It felt like I had arrived in heaven. The beauty of the mountains left me awestruck.
I wish I could have taken pictures but I simply couldn’t as it would disrupt the calmness and absolute serenity of the valley. Even if I had taken photos they wouldn't have done the valley any justice. Some things just need to be experienced, and live on only in your memory.
Best of all, I finally found peace. Lots of things happened this year and no matter how hard I tried to change things, they were still there. In the valley I felt I could finally let them go. And that peace made me cry again. The valley was so wild and so powerful, but at the same time it was so calm.I felt so lost in the love around me, I really couldn’t explain it. The most magical part was that no language was needed as love explained it all. The welcoming smiles of the locals made me feel safe; the hymns sung by the girls in the Mosques echoed beautifully through nature, and the warm tea from the elderly residents warmed my body.
Yet, just like every fairytale, it must come to an end. Both the trip to Neelum Valley and my journey to Pakistan; no matter how much I wanted to stay. As always, I feel there is still lots and lots of things I want to say, and lots and lots of people I want to thank.
Live every day like it's your last, and live in the moment.