Contemplating on my own thoughts seemed a little too ironical in the beginning, but after a while one starts appreciating the value and transience of it. Hence, this time I thought it might be a better idea to write and share, since the trail gets lost otherwise. Last year has been a whirlwind of emotional and physical travelling and adjusting to new shifts, just as I thought there is finally some semblance of certainty in life. I did not intend to make this a piece on “my year in thoughts”, but that is how it is when you write, I have come to understand. As it happens, memories are intertwined with travels and increasingly it feels one is here to wander. For 2015, it began with a nightmarish trip to Jaipur in January, when I got stuck at Agra station for 4 hours in the dead of the night. The heightened frustrations of a lone woman in a small town railway waiting room, stinking with pee and violating stares is something that will be remembered for a long time. Coming back to Bhopal I find out that my partner is going to move to Shimla (a popular hill station in the Himalayan foothills, sounded charming but for the distance!) and was not very sure what it means for us.
Meanwhile, we had planned a holiday to Kashmir in March and there was a ruckus around it with the initially intended travel mates which left a bad taste. I realized that time spent on nonsense conversations should be limited to minimum, especially around bitter people who have already decided on not listening to you. Eventually we landed in Srinagar with another set of company, welcomed by inclement weather and proceeded to stay in a guest house opposite a massive mountain at Sonamarg (Gagangir, to be precise). I cannot be honest without saying that I felt the trip was cursed, to begin with.
Discovering electric blankets to sleep on was a surprize in that dingy little hotel (if you are not familiar, these are blankets used like bedsheets, with a plugged in power system and keep your sleeping area warm. It is quite popular in Kashmir). Woken up by friends I was astounded- massive mountains rising like snow clad walls outside your window, fragile snowflakes wafting all around and the crisp rushing voice of an unstoppable river- Kashmir has to reveal more wonders in the next ten days, is what I thought, as I stepped outside to the rolling eyes of my travel mates.
I felt transported from the hotel room to a Russian Folk Tale setting and it could just have been possible to see Silver Hoof right there! All those fairytale houses, trees, mountains and horses were right there, all the miracles I grew up reading about! Just then, I discover that I forgot packing any woollens for myself in the rush of last moment work, visa filing, appointment fixing and approvals ahead of a busy month after the vacation. So I clad myself in oversized jackets and sweaters from my partner, borrow a pair of life saving woollen socks and head band from friends and continue!
The rest of the trip ran parallel to floods, non stop snow for first 4 days, adventurous detours and getting to know the most optimistic pair of driver and guide in my life. Kashmir. Firdaus. No other place like it, no other word for it. One could sense the impact of Jehangir’s “Gar firdaus, ruhe zamin ast, hamin asto, hamin asto, hamin ast..” come urgently alive as the one felt the stinging cold snow on bare palms, the call of a dangerously curvaceous, passion filled river and Pines rustling and rising in conjunction with the overpowering happiness.
We proceeded to Gulmarg soon after breakfast, crossing flooded villages, taking unknown detours and reaching a very slippery ascent to the destination. Snow chains, weight and gear tricks were tried as we patiently waited to see if our destiny allows us a glimpse of the fabled Gulmarg. The road up was magical. Oaks, Firs, Pines and Birches laden with snow, their green calming our eyes against the monotonous, omnipresent white cushion. Kahwa, the traditional Kashmiri chai with spices kept us company.
When we reached, knee deep snow and a line of stuck cars welcomed us. As the male company searched for a room we went for a pee in the snow, behind our car, leaving a trail of dehydrated yellow. YES. It was a sight. Searching for alcohol in the evening I realized how difficult it is to walk on snow. We did not find any alcohol but learnt that it is banned in Gulmarg area. Lesson. To keep warm, face unlikely weather, deal with snow dampening your vacation prospects, carry your own bottle. I managed to burn my socks on a hideous kerosene heater provided in the room (and which gave us all terrible headaches after a while). We obsessively watched miserable hindi movies huddled on a bed till dead tired. The wooden ceiling was creaking with family drama and kids’ stomping on the floor above as I closed my eyes for the day. The next day we walked through a vast expanse of snow and mist around the place, pursued relentlessly by sledge-walas, ate soul satisfying Kashmiri Pulao (the real deal) and Rajma and had tonne fills of Kahwa.
As our driver felt confident the next morning, we left for Pahalgam. The moment we entered here I knew this is where I will come back. A perfect little tourist village, with many opportunities for charming walks and finding a secluded spot to write, to photograph and to just think. Because of the weather a number of tourist bookings had been cancelled, which provided us with an entire floor of a home-stay to ourselves. However, with only half of the electric blanket working, both the rooms had groggy, angry inhabitants waiting to fight with the manager next morning. So, the second night, after feeling heavily dejected with ANOTHER grey day of rain and snow, we had a little drinks party, joined our beds and blankets in the same room and slept as one muttered “tomorrow there shall be light” and others echoed “Amen”. Actually, we woke up to sunshine next morning and walked languidly on the streets of Pahalgam. We captured star trails from our forest guest house cottage (discovered how cheap and picturesque they are, by accident), extended our stay by a day and had the best evening of the trip.
Weather finally opened up further and we were back in Shrinagar. Witnessing the miracle that is spring, in the famous Mughal Gardens, we went to Dachigam National Park and figured we were the lone visitors in this wildly beautiful reserved forest, walked beside the Dal to annoying shikara walas and ate more Rajma Chawal. Our last day of houseboat stay at Nigeen lake, left me gaping in wonder at the mirage that Kashmir offered me.
Apart from the spellbinding natural beauty, I also saw a lot of army deployment and desperation. They watch you all the bloody time! But my doubts were dispelled by Javed, our companion, about the army presence. He says they never bothered them unnecessarily. I decide to take it with a pinch of salt, all said and done. Given the political stand I have right now, almost exactly an year on, I feel there is definitely more than the literal conversations that happen when you meet a local for a few days and build your stories from their subjective perceptions.
Camera is risky at some places. there were patches of villages we crossed that were notoriously infiltrated (around Anantnag) and one was advised to be cautious. Tourists are not bothered generally, however it was not easy to shed the discomfort of knowing that well, yes, we do not know anything about what happens in the daily lives of people in a state of insurgency and heavy militancy. Tourism had been low that season and you could sense the desperation amongst craft sellers, houseboat and hotel people, guides and drivers. One recommendation though, do not buy crafts here, they are invariably more expensive than what you find in Delhi (or even Shimla and McLeodganj!). If looking for authentic stuff, roam in the back alleys of smaller places like Pahalgam rather than wait for your turn to shop in Shrinagar. It was a blessing to be here with the most gentle, go getter set of travel companions. Though our friends were not new to us, travelling opened up new faces of each other to us and calmed us when we were unsure. A memorable trip, for reasons more than I can count.