A south Indian’s ‘fascinating’ holiday in Kashmir

A south Indian’s ‘fascinating’ holiday in Kashmir

‘The travel dispelled many myths. Though Kashmir witnesses conflicts and natural disasters, people show hospitality and kindness to travellers like me’

 

 

 

 

 

Photos and text: Sharada Balasubramanian

 

I received a phone call from my friend in Srinagar, and he said, “There is curfew here, and it may not be advisable to travel until it’s lifted.” The words echoed in my ears as I was sitting in New Delhi, eagerly looking at the newspaper everyday to know whether curfew in Kashmir has ended and everything is normal.
That did happen on a fine April morning. The curfew was lifted. I could finally see myself heading to Kashmir. The following night, I took a train from Delhi to Jammu.
Hailing from Tamil Nadu, where I do not witness glaciers or fierce winters, I was unsure of how I would cope with the famed Kashmir weather. It was April, alright, but not summer yet in Kashmir.
After a smooth and comfortable train journey, I reached Jammu at about 7 am. My friend and host, Athar, an environmental journalist like me from Srinagar told me to take a shared Sumo from Jammu to Srinagar as buses were not frequent. I walked out of the platform straight to the enquiry counter to find if buses were going to Srinagar just to try my luck. Unfortunately, all the buses had left by 6.30 am. I walked up to the vehicle stand to find a shared Sumo.
My friend did suggest me an easier option to reach Srinagar—take a flight. I was not too comfortable even with the thought of it. To experience the road was different. The roads, people, there were stories all over the place. I would miss all that traversing through whiffs of clouds in fleeting moments of air travel. At the vehicle stand in Jammu, drivers were shouting out ‘Srinagar, Srinagar, Srinagar’! That was actually when a thought flickered: I am far off from home and heading to a place I only dreamt of.
Some taxi drivers asked me if I was going to Srinagar, and I was still thinking what my day ahead would look like. Bhushan Dogra, one of the taxi drivers, looked friendly. I told him I wanted to visit Srinagar, and I was a solo traveller. He saw that speck of doubt on my face, maybe concern. And he said, “Agar travellers ko kuch bhi ho jaata hai, to hum gaadi nahi chala sakte”- which translates into a simple thing for me- if travellers were not safely taken to their destination, they cannot drive, earn, or support their family. I was convinced.
I had a quick chat with him, checking with him on details on when I would reach Srinagar. There were a few other taxi drivers sipping tea. And as I conversed, there was an amazing friendliness and welcoming attitude among people. I told them that I am a journalist and was visiting a friend in Srinagar. It was just then a driver told me: “Oh, my brother is a journalist too. He works with Kashmir Monitor.” I was amazed. It’s not very often I hear someone is a journalist in Tamil Nadu. Definitely not in a casual banter on the streets.
Bhushanji struck a deal when I told him that I wanted to sit on the front seat, next to him. “You would have to spend Rs 100 more,” he said. I gladly obliged. It would help me build a conversation as we travelled on these long stretches of hills. Nine hundred rupees. That is all that I gave for the seat. We waited for more people to fill the vehicle, and then depart. It was almost 10 am by the time we left. I had a hot piping tea and watched around. Army soldiers were standing by the tea stall, chatting, eating bhajiyas, sipping tea, and perhaps wondering what I was doing there.

The path from Jammu to Kashmir, poplar trees swaying in the wind, the paths laden with boulevards, and occasionally trains passing through green roads in the backdrop of mountains. Kashmir can beat Switzerland. By a million fold times. Add hospitality, safety and homeliness to the experience

As we clambered up the mountains, the road was bad. Huge cranes were put to work for setting up the four-lane road uphill, and it raised a dust storm. The path to Srinagar was breath-taking. We traversed through huge barren snow-capped mountains. And then there is greenery all over the place.
The mighty Chenab river travelled with us. You witness the splendour of the gushing river deep below you, and around you, there are these gigantic mountains. The river went beyond us, to Pakistan. They did breathe freedom, uncontrolled, and beyond human geographical boundaries. The roads—tiny, narrow, winding, with sharp curves. Vehicles were coming on the other side and driving was no joke. God bless Bhushanji. Earning a livelihood like this was not easy.
In the afternoon, we stopped by a dhaba for lunch. I savoured the local rajma and chawal, and just before I could tell the person serving me not to add ghee, I see four spoons of ghee floating on my rajma. The expression was needless to say. This was my month’s quota of ghee.
The dhaba was an old one, and Bhushanji told me that former Chief Minister of Kashmir, Farooq Abdullah, ate at this dhaba. He also paid money to the owner when the shop was battered in a landslide. Ah, the stories!
As the clock ticked, chill winds swept in. The clouds turned grey blue. An Asian Paradise Flycatcher flew, its white wings, swinging, starkly in the backdrop of the deep dark sky. Bhushanji stopped before a tunnel entrance. “I will be right back”, he said. We traversed through the two kilometre Jawahar tunnel; most definitely the longest tunnel ride of my life, yet.
At one point of journey, in late evening, a line of vehicles stopped on the road. It was almost 6 pm. I stepped out of the vehicle, only to see myself standing on a road surrounded by snow-capped mountains. The sun was setting, and the rays, glittering away on the white snow. I cannot possibly explain the feeling. It was cold outside.
My fellow travellers were from different parts of the country. There were two army soldiers from Andhra Pradesh. They conversed with me in Tamil and asked me where I was going. “You must go to Ladakh,” they said. “I will”, I replied. And that was my plan. To go as farther as I could. After all, one does not come to Kashmir everyday.
The path from Jammu to Kashmir, poplar trees swaying in the wind, the paths laden with boulevards, and occasionally trains passing through these green roads in the backdrop of snowy mountains. Kashmir can beat Switzerland. By a million fold times. Add hospitality, safety and homeliness to the experience.
As we moved closer to Srinagar, Bhushanji showed me saffron plantations. It was dark already, and I could barely see the fields. I reached Srinagar at about 9 pm. My fellow passenger said if my friend could not come, he would take me to his house if I had the address. Bhushanji said he would wait with me till my friend arrived. Kindness. I experience it every time I go solo. Travelling solo opens you up to people, you hear out different life stories, and this experience enriches your life in not one but many ways.
Here I was. Finally. At Srinagar. In Kashmir. All my tiredness waned after meeting my friend Athar and his wife Roshan.
The first thing they asked me when I reached their home was: are you not feeling cold? I realised I was just in a pair of jeans and T-shirt. In all this excitement, I never thought about the inclement weather. I smiled and said I was fine.
An authentic Kashmiri dinner awaited me, and I could not wait to pounce on the food. Being a vegetarian, there was little I could experiment in savouring the local food, but I would, in whatever capacity I could. The bed awaited me. I longed to crash after a backbreaking road trip. It was 14 hours since I had left Jammu. This was now home. After two days of long sleep and adjusting to the cold weather, I set off to the long boulevard lane of Dal Lake. On a sunny cold morning, my friend dropped me off at the lake.
On the lakeshore, empty shikaras were lined up. Not a tourist was in sight at the wee hours of morning. A red double-decker fancy hop on hop off bus stood on the edge of the road adjacent to the lake. We need 15 people to start the bus, I was told.
I slowly walked up to the Botanical garden. I was hoping to get a glimpse of the tulips, but the season was over. I walked alone in the garden, sat under a huge willow tree, watching a clean lake, and literally feeling and breathing the jannat here.
I was fascinated by reading about the grand Mughal gardens and decided to visit Chashma Shahi. Built in 1632 AD, the beautiful garden with old trees, gushing fresh water spring, in the backdrop of snow-capped mountains, fascinated me. The weeping willows, the riot of colours in flowers, just took me to a different world.

After a quick tour of the garden, I asked a few taxi drivers if I could get a vehicle to head back to the Botanical garden. Unfortunately, there was no public transport, or private taxis to head back home. The taxi driver was friendly, and said, “I am waiting to drop some tourists, else I would have dropped you.” I smiled at him, and told him that I can walk my way. I crossed the long tree-lined road, enjoying the cool weather, hearing the chirping of birds. I barely crossed a kilometre, after which a vehicle stopped right next to me. It was the same taxi driver, and he told me to hop in. There were some tourists from Maharashtra and I tagged along with them to Nishat garden, another Mughal garden in the city.

I sat under a large tree in the Nishat garden. An old Kashmiri caretaker of the garden sat next to me. He spoke about the garden, the trees here. He pointed his finger to one corner of the garden and said, “This is where I live. Why do not you come home?”
I was left speechless. One after the other, people were so warm and compassionate that they went out of the way to help me, invited me to their homes, and made me feel that people are one, and it was just my first day in Srinagar. I smiled at him. He spoke such an impeccable English. Our conversation lasted for long. Suddenly, the skies turned dark, and rains started pouring. I ran to a coffee shop next to the lake, waiting for the rains to stop. I sipped my coffee, watched the rain, and the tourists who were running helter-skelter to safety.
That day I took an auto back home. It was my first day out in Srinagar, and I sort of figured out the way to my friend’s house.  The auto ride was a bit expensive, but I was happy the option was there. The auto driver, like the other Kashmiris, struck an intense conversation: how they cope with extreme winters and life in Srinagar.
It was a great day 1 in Srinagar.

Traveling, like a local
I was very clear about one thing: I wanted to, and have always travelled like a local person. Not taking fancy cabs, but taking public transport, finding history, discovering people and their lives, and understanding how they live there. The public transport in Srinagar is mini buses, or shared Sumos. There are no usual public buses in Srinagar, and I got around in the city in one of these vehicles or jammed buses. But even here, I got to meet local people. A young student, who sat next to me in the bus, talked about how he volunteered during severe floods in the city in 2014. These very stories would not reach my ears if I took private cars.
My friend told me that glaciers must be on the list. And I so wanted to see a glacier in this beautiful land. Gulmarg is not far, just do a day trip there, he suggested.
I got to the usual point where shared Sumos ply. From there, I asked the driver if any vehicle was going to Tangmarg. I hopped into one vehicle and the road just went straight, in the direction of a snowy mountain. The shared Sumo is one of the most used transports in Srinagar, as there are fewer buses.
From Tangmarg, I took another shared vehicle to head to Gulmarg. There were people all over the place. I was hungry. I sat at one eating place and ordered parathas. I was surprised to hear some voices in Tamil. A tour guide was constantly talking to me, and asked me if I wanted to take a pony ride. I was really disturbed watching the white snow overtaken by muddy brown colour; the number of tourists in the place said it all. Gulmarg was one of the tourist hotspots, and looking at the number of people, I wondered how this beautiful glacier was taking this much of a human pressure.

I was fascinated by reading about the grand Mughal gardens and decided to visit Chashma Shahi. Built in 1632 AD, the beautiful garden with old trees, gushing fresh water spring, in the backdrop of snow-capped mountains, fascinated me. The weeping willows, the riot of colours in flowers, just took me to a different world

The guide, Imran, was friendly, and addressed me as ‘Didi’. I took his offer to ride the hills on pony. I thought maybe this was the only way the locals earned income. Enroute, I crossed skiing tourists posing for pictures and selfies. I wanted to run away in isolation. In a place like this, I would perhaps, only want to spend time with nature, soak in the air, and feel the wind, and not hear human cacophony.
“I want to go to the mountain top, without people in my sight. Can you take me up there,” I asked Imran. He said I could go, but I would not be able to walk on the ice with my shoes. He said we could take a sledge and go there. Imran called a sledge puller, and I slid my way up the white mountains, taking breaks in the midst. I walked in deep snow for some time. I also wondered how the sledge puller worked here. It was not an easy job. We almost reached the top. I felt drops of snow falling on me. It was almost 3 pm then. The three of us sat in quietness.
“That is the Pakistan across the LoC”, pointed Imran. I watched that gigantic snow mountain covered in clean white colour, and mist soon engulfed it, making the mountain almost invisible. I sat under a pine tree, sipping juice, and had this heavenly feeling.
“Let’s head back soon, the weather in Kashmir is not predictable,” said Imran. As we were returning, rains poured. I thanked Imran a hundred times for taking me safely to the mountains. “We will never harm a tourist,” he said. And I could see why.
My journey here was not yet done. When I asked my friend if I could see anything else close to Gulmarg, Roshan chipped in: “Yes, you can go to Baba Reshi dargah near Tangmarg.” After getting off at Tangmarg, I asked a few people on getting to Reshi Baba dargah. A young student pointed me to a shared Sumo and told me “this vehicle will take you there. I can come with you if you want.” I was amazed at such respect and protectiveness. I politely refused his help and went on my own.
In the Sumo, I was the only traveller. The rest were local people visiting the dargah. An old man looked at me and smiled. After a quiet drive into the woods, we reached the dargah. The rains were pouring incessantly. I got out of the vehicle and dragged myself to the steps of the dargah. I was pushing myself to climb the steps, and was breathing heavily. Just then, a man held my hand. I turned around to see the old man. “Come, hold my hand, let’s go to the dargah,” he said.
I walked up the steps as fast as I could. He smiled and said, “There you are. Go in.” Holding a heavy sack he walked into the dargah premises. I went into the dargah, drenched soaked in the rain. I closed my eyes tightly, praying. There were no thoughts on my head then. I was feeling bitterly cold, and was trying my best to keep myself warm. As I opened my eyes, the rains had disappeared. From the glass walls of the dargah I could see the snowy mountains clearly. All the clouds had faded away. For me, it was a moment of realization. Everything is just so transient.
I looked for the old man who held my hand, but could not find him. There were some people around me, curious to know what a non-Kashmiri was doing in the dargah, and when they heard I hailed from southern India, there was more surprise in their eyes.
As I trotted down the steps of the dargah, another old man stopped me and asked where I was from. He was a tea seller, who lived six kilometres away from the dargah. We had a long conversation. He even invited me to his home, spoke about his family. You will be my third daughter, he said, and you should marry a Kashmiri boy. I laughed and said, “Find me one, and I will settle down in this beautiful place.”
On a piece of paper, he took down my number and gave his son’s number. Back home, I narrated my day to my friend. I asked Athar and Roshan to pick places for me, and I chose to experience these places in an absolutely raw way. I dropped Sonmarg off my travel list. On a piece of paper, Athar wrote: Charar-e-Sharif, Makhdoom Sahib, Burzhama. Roshan added: you should go to Baba Shakoordin’s dargah. You will see Wular Lake, one of the largest freshwater lakes.
Happy with this list, I took off to Hazratbal the next day. White, pristine and quaint, this dargah was one place where I closed my eyes and forgot where I was. I felt one with the Divine. As I walked down the white steps, I saw a small water channel, where men were sitting away on their boats, chatting mildly without disturbing anyone. Children were playing in the lush green grass. There was complete serenity. As I walked out of the gate, thousands of pigeons fluttered around. I ambled my way to find an auto that would take me to Burzhama, an archaeological site.
The auto passed through narrow roads a little uphill. In the backdrop of the snowy mountains stood tall pillars that took me back in time. There was not a single soul here. I walked on the meadows where cows were relaxing. A rusty ASI protected site board caught my attention. After spending time alone in this beautiful blend of nature and history, I walked back to the auto, and was aghast to see a pile of plastic chips packet, and biscuit wrappers on the green grass, left behind by school children touring here. It did pain me that a beautiful archaeological site was taken so lightly.
From here, I went to Makhdoom Sahib. The shrine lies just below a magnificent Afghan fort. From the top of the shrine, there is a resplendent view of the mountains. After visiting the shrine, I sat on a wall, overlooking the mountains, and the historic fort was right in front of my eyes.
It was almost 3.30 pm, and I realised I had not eaten anything. Being a vegetarian, I realised my choices were limited. As I trotted down the lane, I saw the Gurudwara that Athar was talking about. After walking inside and praying, I saw an old man standing outside. Have you eaten anything, he asked. Very hesitatingly I said no. Come, have some rotis, he said. I ate really well, and ended with a nice hot tea over yet another long conversation. I really did have a glimpse of attractions in Srinagar that day. Enroute, I also caught a glimpse of Kashmir University.

And the dargah journey continues
“I did not know you were so keen to visit dargahs. Why do not you go to Wular lake, it is one of the largest freshwater lakes here. And, there is Baba Shakoordin’s dargah there,” Roshan suggested. The following morning, she accompanied me to Shalteng Pass, and told the driver to take me to Sopore. There were some curious people, especially women, who wondered how I was traveling alone.
After reaching Sopore, I witnessed a crowded road—fruit sellers on pavements, and a vibrant environment. I stood there quietly, thinking how I would reach Wular lake. An old man approached me. I told him I wanted to go to Baba Shakoordin’s dargah. He offered to take me there. I felt warmth and protection in his eyes and voice. I went to the dargah in his vehicle. The journey uphill was visually soothing. The people there were all locals. I walked into the dargah, read about the place, and stood outside, admiring the beauty of the lake. At a small tea stall outside, I chatted up with the locals. There are more places to see, and you can contact us if you need to travel, some people said. One of them was the president of the taxi club in the area. I gladly took their cards.
After spending a few hours watching the lake, I set off downhill. The driver said he would take a different route, just to show me another landscape. As I was going past the lake, I witnessed some people raising voices on ‘Azad Kashmir’.
The last dargah on my list was Charar-e-Sharif in Budgam district. It is over 600-years-old shrine, and one of the key heritage sites in Kashmir. I took a bus, and walked a long way to take another shared Sumo. After living in Srinagar for ten odd days, I knew there was nothing to be scared of—the people are so kind, loving, caring and generous that they took care of me as one of their own.
Small shops dotted the path to the dargah. It reminded me of a small hill station in southern India. I walked inside the dargah and found a place to sit down. A few women then approached me and asked: “Are you a Hindu?” My answer in affirmative surprised them. How are you inside a dargah, they questioned. I believe in all religions, I said, and smiled.

I sat under a large tree in the Nishat garden. An old Kashmiri caretaker of the garden sat next to me. He spoke about the garden, the trees here. He pointed his finger to one corner of the garden and said, “This is where I live. Why do not you come home?”

They were warm. Once you finish your prayer, join us for lunch, a woman said. And I was not surprised. I was used to the hospitality generosity of Kashmiris. It is really unbeatable. I walked out of the shrine. I then spoke to the dargah authorities on the history. During India-Pakistan war, then militancy times, the dargah was destroyed, but constant efforts were made to restore it. Even then, work was going on.
The travel within Kashmir dispelled many myths. Though Kashmir witnesses conflicts, natural disasters, people have bore it all, and beyond all these problems, they show hospitality and kindness to travellers like me. I did visit the Dal lake for a shikara ride. As much as I was surprised to see floating medical and grocery shops, people asking me if I wanted photos in local attire, traversing across in an adjacent boat, or students coming back from school on boats. There were equally shocking moments. Plastic bottles on the lake surface and lying on the corners did break my heart. One cannot imagine how tourism has taken a toll on this beautiful lake. The shikara owner told me: “Earlier, we could even drink the water from Dal. It was so pure, but just look at the destruction now. Floating plastics and algae. Something needs to be done about this. Else, this lake will vanish without a trace.” As my journey was coming to an end, I thought how days flew by in this beautiful place.
I was gearing up for my next destination: Leh. By road from Srinagar. I was eagerly waiting for the day when the roads would open up for me to leave. I visited the TRC office a few times, and then I was told that on 6 May 6 the roads will open. I requested the TRC people to block a ticket for me, and promised to show up at 8 am, sharply. That last day, I went to Polo Street, did very sparse shopping (I am not a shopping person), got home to pack my bags and leave.
There are still so many places in Kashmir that I missed out, but I am saving all that up for my next trip. For now, Leh was calling!

Sharada Balasubramanian is a Coimbatore-based journalist. The travelogue appeared in August 2018 issue of Kashmir Narrator. For subscribing to hard copy of the magazine, contact: kashmirnarrator@gmail.com or call at 7298102560

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