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When people hear of our long term and slow travel stories, we are often asked questions – how do we plan, what do we plan and for how long do we plan. And when we say that we don’t really plan anything at all, more questions follow. We have always said that serendipity is a big part of our travel and we let the road lead the way.
We are starting this series from our first long term trip (well, it wasn’t THAT long but for us, it was, at the time) – our 3 months in the Himalayas. We won’t talk much about the place and our experience but about how did we decide the next destination, how we moved ahead and how the decision panned out. We will just “write out loud” what was going on in our minds. We hope this series throws light into the psyche of long term travel and acts as a guiding tool for future aspirants.
Dispatch #21 – Transit, transit, transit
All our stuff was still at the hotel in Pahalgam which meant we couldn’t linger too long in Sonmarg. It was late evening and we went straight to the Nunwan base camp. Got our bags from the hotel the next morning and thought we would leave the same day for Gulmarg. But the exhaustion had got to us. We just needed to be steady “doing nothing”. We decided to spend another day at the base camp itself.
We left Pahalgam the next day with the intention of going to Gulmarg via Srinagar. We spoke to Mr Shafkat Ahmed on the way and he happened to be in Srinagar. “Nice, let’s meet.”
So we met him at the Srinagar TRC updating him on our Amarnath yatra.
“Would you like to go to Reshwari? We have a guest house there and it’s beautiful. Untouched.”
Gulmarg could wait. A place we had never heard of before obviously took precedence.
So it meant spending that night in Srinagar. We looked for a place in a quieter part and found a homestay. “Quieter” turned out to be so far off that out autorickshaw driver had to wish us, “better luck next time”! But it was a perfect place for us that day. They had Wifi, so we could finally send some pictures to our friends and family. (The website didn’t really exist back then, we didn’t have any readers waiting for stories.)
Our host and his family had always lived in Srinagar. “Reshwari? I’ve never heard of it. Just make sure it’s safe.”
If it wasn’t, Shafkat wouldn’t have suggested we go there.
The next morning, we began our long journey to Reshwari. First went to the Srinagar railway station, this time to board a train in the opposite direction – to Baramulla. A shared jeep to Handwara and the final one to Reshwari (which the locals referred to as Nowgam).
We had gotten used to seeing the army in Kashmir. But here, we felt an increased presence. Barbed wires, bottles on those wires – it was all a different world.
What were we going to see in such heightened security?
Dispatch #22 – Did that just happen?
A tourism officer and his wife were at the Reshwari guest house when we got there. After the usual exchanges, they asked us if we’d be interested in visiting peer baba. Another religious visit after Amarnath didn’t sound all that exciting.
But they said it would take an entire day, which meant seeing a new place.
“Okay, we’ll come along.”
“You will need to register. Bashir (the caretaker) is going to Handwara to do the procedure. Give him your identity cards. He’ll register you guys as well.”
We were a little lost. What and where exactly was this peer baba?
Early the next morning, we knew something was grossly abnormal about this trip. Firstly, the visit to peer baba was actually a tour, the jeeps had numbers and a list indicated who had to sit in which one. An Indian Army officer welcomed us. We travelled in a convoy of seven jeeps led and trailed by the Indian Army trucks. Just ten minutes ahead of our guest house, we reached a point after which civilians weren’t permitted. It was only the Indian Army from here on.
Turns out, this was the “sadbhavna tour” conducted by the Indian Army for only 15 days a year, for the locals to visit peer baba. And we happened to be there just at that time!
The landscape was untouched, to say the least. It wasn’t like anything we had seen in over one month in Kashmir. Mountain slopes, perfectly manicured as only nature can.
And then, the manager of this tour started telling us – this is the Indian Army’s picket. That’s Pakistan Army’s. And those shiny tin roofs are beyond the LOC!
After several hours of a backbreaking drive, we made it to peer baba. We were very matter of factly informed that we were just 25 meters from the LOC!
No – that’s not a typo. We were really that close. The Indian Army personnel were quite shocked to see us.
“We’ve never seen an outsider here.”
Yet, the scenes inside peer baba’s dargah could be from any other place of faith.
At the end of that day, we could put our heads around what this day had been all about.
Dispatch #23 – Unknown valley and back “home”
We returned back to Reshwari after what was an intense day. That night we had dinner with the tourism officer and his wife and discussed what we could do the next day.
“Chalo, I’ll take you around. I’ve got my car, you pay for the fuel, I’ll show you around Lolab valley.”
Lolab valley – another place in Kashmir we had never heard of. We left the Reshwari guesthouse in the morning the next day. Drove through the lush green fields to reach the guest house at Chandigham. Followed by visit to a mysterious cave – Satbern at Kalaroos. Most places hadn’t seen visitors before and the excitement on seeing us, “different people” was quite visible.
Our final stop for the day was supposed to be Khumriyal. But the tourism officer decided to head back home to Srinagar instead.
“Do you want to come home with us?”
We decided to go with them instead of staying back and for the first time in several weeks, we stayed in a home. We had dinner together in their dining room. An slept in their children’s bedroom. Their son was pursuing his engineering in Chandigarh. Their daughter, a skiing champion was in Malaysia for her higher studies.
These were urban folks, well-educated people with good jobs and a beautiful home. They were different from the farmers and nomads whose hospitality we had enjoyed until then. And yet, they had opened their home and hearts to a couple whom they had met just two days back. Would we have done this back in Mumbai? It’s a troubling question.
We were supposed to leave for Gulmarg but the weather looked dicey. Instead, they took us around parts of Srinagar we hadn’t seen earlier. By the time we returned, they got the news that Ramzan had started so would their roza. Uncle (by now, they were uncle and aunty to us) left for namaz.
The next morning, despite practising roza, aunty made us a breakfast of parathas and potatoes. We had a hearty brunch. Told them we would forever be grateful for their kindness.
And did the hard part of saying goodbye.
Dispatch #24 – One last time on the meadows
Gulmarg is very much a part of the big four in Kashmir. Which definitely means pricey accommodation. “Stay in Tangmarg instead”, we had been told. So we got off the jeep at Tangmarg. Asked a few hotels, they all quoted prices upwards of 1000 INR.
“We are looking for a simple room, we don’t want anything fancy.”
There was an older man in one of the hotels who looked at us curiously, trying to figure out why we weren’t acting like the regular tourists.
Then, his friend prodded him. “Come on, it’s the first day of Ramzan. These are college kids, give them the price they want.”
College kids? Okay – it that’s what makes them happy! The room was ours for 600 INR.
We spent the evening walking to the power plant at Drung, sitting by the stream with nobody around, visiting an old ruins site (which also had rocks to practice rock climbing – sadly no one used these facilities) and walked back through the village.
The next morning we visited the meadows of Gulmarg. A green Gulmarg was unlike all the snow-covered images of Gulmarg we had seen. The meadows were covered in yellow and white wildflowers. We spotted birds and chased butterflies. But prominently felt an absence of unassuming locals.
The next morning, we visited the shrine of Baba Rishi, expecting it to be located down a picturesque trail, but it turned out to be just a big tin structure on the road.
All the intense experiences in Kashmir had probably taken a toll, we couldn’t appreciate anything mainstream any more. The newness of everything was also probably wearing us down.
Our hearts told us it was time for a change. But what kind? And where could we go to get this change?
End of the Kashmir part
This marks the end of the 24-part series we wrote of our travels in the Kashmir valley. Before we move ahead, sharing some photos from this journey which might have gotten missed earlier.
If you are planning a visit to Kashmir, especially to the places beyond Srinagar, Pahalgam, Gulmarg and Sonmarg, we have written a detailed travel guide for Kashmir.
We honestly believe it’ll be of help if you are looking for an absorbing, enriching experience in Kashmir. This guide includes links to all the travel stories from Kashmir we have written on our blog.
And in case you haven’t followed this series so far and wondering what this is all about, just look for #LongtermTravelWithSandeepaChetan.
(To be continued…Part 6 here)