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How this South African Man and a Local Kashmiri Tour Guide Founded “Kashmir Trekking Company”

Interview by Manan M

Tell us about yourself

My name is Marc Schroeder. I was born on the 7th of October 1978 in South Africa. At school, the subjects I loved most were History and English. However, as is the case within most middle-class families, I was subject to the encouragement to study business. I took up a job as a financial advisor with a prestigious firm and began to make lots of money. However, there was something definitely wrong with me. As I dived deeper into the ‘rat race’ so too did a drug habit I had developed begin to intensify. After a near death experience, I quit my job and my so-called security, ever since then the most incredible things that are difficult to understand have been happening in my life. 

I don’t understand the financial world and why so many people spend their lives trying to accumulate so many things. I was once burdened with that, it made me very sick. My definition of success has changed dramatically over the course of my life. I used to think you were successful if you were able to generate lots of money. Now I believe you are successful if you live a joyous life and if you are healthy. Simple as that. Money has nothing to do with it. The beauty of the universe was there before the capitalist system and it will be there long after we have all eaten ourselves.

How did you start Kashmir Trekking company

Through a series of bizarre coincidences and after being ripped off heavily by some tour operators I found myself in Naranag Village in Kashmir in May 2016.

On arrival in the little town at the end of the line, population 300, the first thing I noticed was that it was cleaner than any other town I had passed through. I was soon joined by Aslam, the tour leader and Aslam 2, the horseman. I struck up a conversation with Aslam about his life. I was curious to know how much the Delhi operators pay him for these expeditions. I knew I had been overcharged yet there was little I could do. So, I asked Aslam how much of the 180,000 rupees that I had paid over to the crooked tour operators he received. He told me nothing. I checked again. Nothing was his reply. There was much confusion, how could the man that makes it all possible earn nothing. He told me that he was supposed to get 10,000 rupees per trek but he hadn’t been paid for a while and he was still owed 60,000 rupees. They bring him willing trekkers, like myself, who tip him. I felt agitated that I had been so badly skinned by the operators but was even more aggrieved for my friend Aslam who it appeared was being totally screwed over by the tour operators, for years.

We walked along in silence, progressing up the hillside. Aslam would point out interesting flora, species of birds and monkey. He helped me relax a little, yet that pang of nervousness was still with me, and I was still cross about us being ripped off. We carried on in silence, except for my increasingly heavy panting as the air thinned. Nervous tension building in my body. Aslam was ahead of me, he was smiling and looking over my head to something behind, the smile revealed it was something special. I reached him and turned around. It was the most beautiful sight I had seen yet, the peaks running away to forever. The nervous tension seemed to escalate, my body started to shake. I slumped to the earth and sat staring, mesmerized with my elbows resting on my knees, my chin supported in my hands. And tears started to run from my eyes down my cheeks. They were, at first, tears of sadness for how badly I had let my life slide and how much life I had spent chasing down a dream that was never mine. The next foray of tears were of gratitude for having finally made this trip, I could feel it was going to change my life forever. 

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When I was having tea with Aslam on that first day in his house and he told me his wishes were to be his own boss, to send his kids to school and to see the sea.  I had a lump in my throat not only because I felt sad for his situation but also because I knew I had the power to make his dreams come true.  He also had the power to make my dreams come true, as I was desperately in need of a good reason to return to Naranag Village, hopefully for the rest of my life.  Our searches had finally brought us together, the possibility of achieving our goals had become a reality. In that moment the idea for the Kashmir Trekking company was born. Founded and sealed with a handshake between Aslam and myself.

What does Kashmir Trekking Company do?

We offer trekking and camping across all treks in the Kashmir, such as the world famous Great Lakes Trek.  We customize tours based on your levels of fitness and time frames for travel.

Our mission is to provide an experience that takes out all of the stress and worry that travelers have. The KTC will always look for the quieter, lesser explored routes and fishing spots. We prefer to camp over at discreet and remote campsites for a few nights at a time, taking a day or two to explore the incredible surrounds before heading off to a new site. In this regard we believe our offering to be unique, other operators will limit the amount of time you are able to stay at any particular site.  

How has your experience in Kashmir been

I only had one bad experience when I was ripped off. But that has not stopped me from falling in love with this beautiful country. I want people to experience it for all her greatness. The great lakes and the green mountains can heal even the most broken heart.

How have Kashmiris treated you

Excellently, especially the people of Narang Village, they have been so kind and opened the homes to me, and feeding me! Oh, I love the Kashmir Wazwan, we stay on La La Rukh houseboat, they arrange the finest of Wazwan when I visit Dal Lake.

Which is your favorite place in Kashmir?

Definitely Narang Village. It is such a peaceful, beautiful village that is the gateway to the great lakes and of course the mythical Haremukh. My brother, Aslam, and his family live there, I miss them when I am away from visiting the Kashmir. It feels like home to me.

You have written a book ” Sleeping with Dogs” tell us about that

This book is dedicated to my three dogs who looked after me while I was caught up in a terrible drug addiction. In the book, I use ‘wolves’ as a metaphor for the addiction. I experienced something incredible, when I left my big money job I got better, after that I followed the trail that ended in Naranag Village, and the birth of the exciting project ‘The Kashmir Trekking Company’. The message of the book is that money can’t buy true happiness. You need to find that within.

The book will be available on Amazon from around mid-December. I will be back in the Kashmir next year and will bring 100 copies, for anyone interested to buy a hard copy.

Any message for people who are thinking should they travel to Kashmir or not?

Well, I come from South Africa, one of the more dangerous places on earth, but I love it. If we believe everything we see in the news, we may remain afraid of travel, and then eventually we are too old to travel, and this happens to many people. Most people will never know what is like to walk and camp and fish along the beautiful green trails of the Kashmir, I feel sad about this. I understand the Kashmir strife, I feel for her people. I think tourism to the region should be encouraged, and I feel it is definitely worth the risks. There is a greater chance of dying in a car crash in your home country than anything terrible happening to you, as a tourist, in the Kashmir. I will not hesitate to return and to go on treks with my family and friends.

For bookings mail on [email protected]

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