A week-long escape into mountains ended with the silent drive to the airport, through the deserted streets of old vintage city Srinagar. Boarded the plane and into my first travel memories overlooking “Srinagar” board with a sigh. I guess that’s fine, considering the early morning hike to the Sankaracharya hill to get the whole city view and satisfy the ‘ one last time’ urge.
I always wondered if I can be the mountain and beach person at the same time. Thus, my Pan India travel started from the top—Kashmir. Mountains happened this year at last and are mesmerizing for sure.
They say Kashmir enjoys a characteristic color for each season. The color I happened to choose is green. On the whole, Kashmir is witnessing the snow melting into blue streams, which then blossoms into lush green meadows, over a cup of tea. Kashmir is purely an experience.
Dal Lake was a simple tourist interest in my mind until one fresh morning it transformed into a way of life. In the view of Shikara races and locals visiting us from the inside colonies of the lake, the sun rose over the pirpanjal mountains only after 7.30 in the morning. The floating markets and rides coupled with their people tales of both beauty and terror, the sufiness of that famous Sufi land came alive again.
In other parts of India, the name Kashmir resembles a dangerous place. In fact, after crossing the Srinagar and Anantnag, army presence is less, especially in tourist places. The security threat is little over hyped in Kashmir. Although reluctant a while, I could not wait to explore more of the valley.
On the way to Pahalgam, often we would see army vehicles and convoys passing by. We passed through a Kashmiri willow bat factory, Awantipora Ruins – famous for a temple built by King Awanti varman. Pampore Saffron fields and other places like Sangam, Bijbhera etc too lay on the way. I thought of familiarity of some of these names. Wondered why I always associated these places with terrorist attacks, like ‘Pampore attack’. Maybe that’s the only thing I heard about these towns.
As we moved towards the inner parts, I realized the countryside of Kashmir and its people look very beautiful. The journey through small villages, clean water streams was pristine. One or two stops to experience the innovative living of few Kashmiri Pahadi people reminded me of the Swades movie.
Further, saw a few abandoned houses which turned out to belong to the Pandit families who left them in the early 90s. Those empty houses, courtyards and black inked walls reflected the trauma the common people went through. To leave your home and everything behind to save your life, under those circumstances, was terrible. But it was good to know many people who left are gradually returning. By all means, to hear firsthand accounts like these were heartening and reassuring.
Despite I was relatively sure that everything would be safe, I could not let go of the possibility of an attack or sudden disturbance which might compel me to cancel plans. With these thoughts in mind, we have reached the priceless property of our beautiful host in Pahalgam.
Pahalgam looked like it’s stuck between being a tourist attraction and a traveler’s destination. The Lidder valley is one of the most scenic places in Kashmir. The serene Pahalgam town lies upstream on the river. We had covered Aru and Betaab valleys along with Chandanwari glacier. I couldn’t believe such calm and peaceful places have terrorist activities in the first place and some Amarnath yatries were indeed shot dead a few days back.
Valleys and lakes were less crowded devoid of tourists and I enjoyed the calm and soothing water flow from melting glacier in silence. Except for some annoying touts, the experience was awesome. Owing to the friendly driver, our little trip there was fun with Kashmiri songs and corn, walnuts picked up from his farm.
The following long journey days were accompanied by interesting discussions about the both good and evil across religions. The greatest tragedy of the history is that the evil ends up being more powerful. But, even under current goodness still exist all around, especially in need of some strength and reassurance.
Staying in that rural setup for two-three days with impeccable hospitality is relaxing. Apart from a long trek to the Baisaran valley among the other new activities, visiting Ammaji’s house in the inner village was an amazing experience. He walked us through the woods to his home for tea one evening. Kashmiri houses are usually carpeted. People sit on the floor and use the designed cushions to rest their backs on the wall. With everyone sitting at the same level, having a casual conversation over tea ‘Kahwah’ and some dry fruits become so much easier.
After the visit of scenic meadows of Doodhpathri and experiencing mountain farming practices, our last stop was Gulmarg. Gulmarg is a beautiful congruence of breathtaking snow, rain, and the sun all at one go. Made a mental note to visit again in winter when it snows. The solo trip I started ultimately didn’t end like one. I made some amazing new friends and beautiful memories of many post dessert conversations.
Though I am not a shopping person, a little shopping happened in Lalchowk, Srinagar. Everyone worries about the total absence of business this season. Locals are very helpful. Everywhere in the valley, they all were excited to see non- localities. Almost everybody, yes, everybody invited us for a cup of tea.
The unrest in the valley last year had hit the tourism sector hard. While there was a complete shutdown in 2016, this year that was not the case. With minimal tourists, the valley streets looked slight lonely. The locals blamed it on the media, which ceaselessly portray Kashmir as a perpetual war zone.
Every talk in Kashmir ultimately drifts towards the Kashmir issue. Through the many conversations I had there, I realized the massive anger inside everyone towards India. And the mental distance between Kashmir and the rest of India has reached to unimaginable levels. It will be a very tedious task for India to reduce this distance.
Although, it is true that Jammu and Kashmir is a big security and political issue for India. But there is much more to the place. We have completely overlooked the human aspect of Kashmir. Apart from gun-holding, stone pelting image portrayed by media about Kashmiri commoners, the warm, non-judgmental acceptance of people is also a story of Kashmir. Every student, shawl weaver, Paper Mache artist, Shepherd, farmer, Shikara-wala, laborer, the driver from the valley will have their own personal story, and reasons for the angst, the emptiness inside them.
All these stories are quite like our stories back at home. They portray the same hope, determination, hesitations, confusions, victories, and defeats. They are simple tales of human emotions and experiences, devoid of any politics and religion. Every Kashmiri I met expressed the same wish that they hope for the day when the curse on the beauty lifts off permanently. Therefore, to win their minds and trust, it is important for India to embrace their stories. Else, we stay just the tourists and guests.
After three-four days of into my travel, the contrast of the royalty of Himalayas, as well as the warmth of kashmiriyat, suddenly seems more eloquent for my camera just like my words. As has been noted, the other side of hope in that caged paradise also successfully re-instigated the new hope in me towards life.