“If you see in oblivion to the bizarre reality, Kashmir is an enticing heaven.”
“This is the spot,” he said with a matter-of-fact indifference. I didn’t look at him, only heard his voice, I didn’t know why I avoided looking at him at that particular moment. If there was a hidden desire in him to catch an anticipated sense of unease on my face, perhaps, I had no desire to let him have the pleasure.
Where would you expect your tourist guide or taxi driver to stop while escorting you to a romantic, picturesque hill station? A viewpoint, a waterfall, or perhaps a restaurant, isn’t it? But this was not in the cards.
“They came from there,” Parvez pointed towards a muddy byway leading from the main highway. His trailing voice steered my gaze into the greenery of a beautiful forest. A dense verdant line of trees and plantations at the foothills of mountains, the clear vibrance of a beautiful morning sky, a few patches of village houses amidst the greenery, and an endless road, that was the image captured by my eyes. But the mind also fumbled with the paradox, the Ubi Sunt. Standing on the Jammu Srinagar highway, I was staring at the village Lethpora in Pulwama district where in 2019, a car carrying explosives rammed a bus carrying security personnel, killing 40 soldiers.
The blast was so powerful that it broke the doors and windows of the shops situated even half a kilometer away. That was the point when I looked at the other side of the road to a series of shops selling dry fruits. He took us into one of them, we were served Kahwa on arrival. Kahwa was tasty and so were the dried cherries and the pistachios. Tasty, despite the nagging sense of anxiety about the Pulwama massacre clouding my mental faculties. The pistachios were from Kabul. My wife felt these were the best pistachios she had ever tasted. So, if you are looking for authentic dry fruits, saffron, and Shilajit, then you know this is the place. We picked up our quota on the way to Pahalgam.
The distance between Srinagar to Pahalgam is about ninety kilometer, and in usual circumstances it should take around three hours to reach, but in this part of the country, the circumstances are seldom usual, I felt. One needs to leave early to avoid interjections with the passing army convoys. Sometimes these convoys could be horrendously long, and could hold up traffic for hours. Perhaps, owing to the the Amarnath Yatra being just a couple of days away, there was an unusually heavy deployment of forces along the entire route. Even otherwise, the stationing is considerable. There are about 14 lakh soldiers in Indian army, and seventy percent of them are currently deployed in the valley.
Soldiers have infiltrated every nook and cranny, every shops and kiosks, corner of streets and even in open grasslands standing vigilant directly under the scorching sun. Blue, green and white armored vehicles of different shapes and sizes belonging to different army platoons and J&K police were planted at every possible strategic location.
At the beginning of this travelogue, at some point, I mentioned that this narration would take detours against the quintessential norms to highlight the contradiction between the reining beauty of Kashmir and the human insensitivity towards it. But, this does not mean I wasn’t awed by it’s overpowering pulchritude.
On the way to Pahalgam, we took a short interlude at the bank of the Lidder river. I must say, nature has been overly generous with this part of earth when it comes to sharing its bliss. The essentiality of a water body to enhance a landscape was never too evident. There’s no dearth of waterways in the valley.
Pahalgam had the sight of fresh greenery amongst the rustic smell of wood and horse dung. It was a short layoff there, barely about a day, but not short enough to avoid admiring the allure of Betab Valley, a sprawling meadow blessed with a rejuvenating stream. Apparently the valley is named after the famous bollywood flick with the same name that was fimed here.
Kashmir has quite interesting Bollywood connections. The spots are tiled in relations to the movies shot, or the celebrities visited. So, a high mountain pass is named Sadhana top to remember legendary actress’s stopover for a shooting.
I wonder if these nomenclature are fascinations for Hindi cinema, or a paucity of worthwhile historical heritage.
Tangdhar, the LOC
It was now the time to meet our host, an army officer stationed at Kupwara. The name itself sent an unnerving alarm, and visuals one sees in news media about the terrorist encounters in Sopore and Kupwara flashed past my mental perimeter. In reality the optics were same but on a larger frame and confined to 41 inch LED. The streets leading into a dense cage of tall trees, isolated patches of village houses and a skyline of scenic mountain range. If you see in oblivion to the bizarre reality, Kashmir is an enticing heaven.
Tangdhar is the last village on the Indian side at one of the many touchpoints of the LOC. This one separates us from POK. Needless to say that the journey was as beautiful as the destination. Driving along a running stream with a canvas of verdant mountains and the beautiful villages, was in itself the fulfillment of my travel thirst.
I was amazed at the lingering prosperity of the area, I hadn’t expected the houses to be so richly build in a far reaching hamlet. Upon query, I was informed that everything is being taken care of by the army. These villagers are employed by the army as porters and other workers and Indian army pays them handsomely for their work. Their monthly earning are to the tune of 40-50 thousand per month.
The same query, when put forth to Parvez, the answer had an addendum. “When this region was devasted by floods, a lot of money was infused here from the gulf countries more than the…” he paused for a second as his gaze shifted momentarily towards me and adjusted his sentence, “…almost as much as the Indian government.” he completed. Any other man perhaps would not have noticed his hesitancy, but for me it couldn’t avoid hitting my nationalist pride as if his tone had a definite tinge of alienation. My imagination, perhaps!
We crossed the Sadhna top when the sun was till rising up the sky and descended into a ravishing gorge. With an army gipsy scouting ahead of us, I leisurely stretched my arms out of the window to bisect the bellowing breeze with an elated sense of authority.
At the Loc, the arena was beautiful beyond words. We were greeted by very hospitable staff. He not only briefed about the landscape but also walked us right up to the White line in the middle of the bridge that separates POK from us.
The mountain on the other side of the bridge belonged to us before 1948, before our beloved Nehru gave it away, citing his administrative incapability to manage the terrain. I could see the vehicles moving on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and wondered how many times have we faltered. Four gravest mistakes of my India.
“Standing right at the LOC, in the middle of the bridge that oscillates like the Laxman Jhoola, a cool breeze brushing past me, the gurgling beneath, I look at the majestic sun and dare the enemy with my heightened pride.”
So folks, I’ll be signing off for now but not before leaving you with this beautiful video to admire. See yo in the last and the final part of this travelogue to tell you about the tour finale, Gurez.