he times have changed. So has the Srinagar airport. It no longer offers me an opportunity of setting my foot on the land of my forefathers immediately after coming out of the airplane. You now deplane through an aerobridge. I wonder if aerobridge is actually a pressing requirement or a yet another senseless concession to the local people.
Lots of things have changed at Srinagar airport since I was there last, a few years back. It has become more spacious. There is an element of modernity to it now but passenger amenities seem to be on discount. I look around for some assistance and after sometime resign myself to helplessness. The famous Kashmir hospitality seems to be history. Meanwhile, we have been in the arrival lounge for more than 45 minutes. The pieces of luggage on conveyor belt are running a regular game of hide and seek. For every ten odd pieces of passenger luggage there is a frustrating site of empty conveyor trudging along for huge minutes. I venture to explore the reasons for such inexcusable inefficiency. The process of loading the trolley on the tarmac, carting it to the head of belt and putting the luggage on the conveyor is being done by a single frail looking young man. There is palpable restlessness in the lounge but no vocal resentment. Since, apart from my family there are no Kashmiri passengers there is no accusing India for yet another conspiracy of harassing the locals.
I step out of the terminal, set my foot on the lost land of my forefathers and feel no excitement brewing within. I have no special feelings. The process of coming out of the airport, looking around for the local contact and then being lead towards the waiting cab is similar to that of any other airport on any other day. Deep down my heart I realize I am just a tourist here. Usually, travelers have no emotional connect with the place they are going through.
We have prearranged to bypass Srinagar city and proceed directly to Kargil. In between my children demand some Kashmiri bakery products to savour during the long journey. Our escort stops outside a huge bakery shop. There are quite a few sales men standing behind the counters. The owner is sitting behind a small table in one corner of the shop looking intently at the TV put strategically on the opposite wall. He is totally oblivious to our presence. On the TV screen Helen is at her seductive best in one of the olden era movies. His attention is only diverted towards us when my children speak in Kashmiri. His expression is not only that of surprise but of astonishment as well. A little distance away we walk into another shop for a supply of bottled water and cold drinks. The TV set near the counter is playing a Hindi movie. I wonder what has happened to the militant diktat of banning Indian movies for being responsible of corrupting the moral values of the people.
We are having an uninterrupted journey through lush green paddy fields and Popular lined roads. There is hardly any traffic on the road and soon we reach the Sumbal Bridge. We are stopped by policemen who happen to our first sighting of men in uniform after landing in Srinagar. They look inside our vehicle and demand to know if we are proceeding for Amarnath yatra? This group of local JK police personnel is very polite towards us. We speak to them only in Kashmiri and they converse only in heavily accented Hindustani.
To call the road beyond Baltal and on both sides of Zojilla Pass as treacherous will be a gross understatement. An unending mountainous trail of uneven mud and loose dirt strewn with large doses of stones, boulders and rocks goes by the name of road on this stretch. You are totally at HIS mercy. A split second mistake by the driver and you are a history. And thinking about it this is the road which our security forces need to maneuver at great risk to their life. It is no wonder a less than 200km distance between Sonamarg and Kargil takes us eight and a half hours to accomplish.
Kargil at this hour is a deserted town. We don’t have any confirmed hotel booking. Our escort knows of a hotel supposed to be the best in the town. Before that we check with another hotel and find it fully occupied. The attendant scares with the suggestion of no rooms being available in the town. In a few moments, we apprehensively make inquiries with our original choice. The manager recognizes us as Kashmiris and welcomes us enthusiastically. Abdul Rashid belongs to Sumbal in Kashmir. “How can I refuse a room to a brother,” he says and adds a sarcastic note, “you ditched us and left us to get killed.” Getting rooms is my priority and I don’t enter into any argument with him. He is very courteous towards us but surprises me with quote for the room rent. Such type of tariffs is usually offered by very decent hotels in class 1 cities of the country. We have no choice. Still we manage to get a fair discount, which he insists is only available to us because of being his brethren. Abdul Rashid shoots quick instructions to his staff for preparing dinner for us. Six hours later in the morning we find the whole hotel brimming with Indian tourists. Abdul Rashid walks up to me and inquires about our welfare. He wants us to leave after having breakfast, which we politely decline. While checking out, I hear a group of residents talking about the room rent they need to pay. It appears I have paid at least 25% more than them.
The Zojilla Leh landscape is something unimaginable. The long chain of mountainous ranges, though all barren yet each different is colour, appearance and grandeur constantly create an illusion of being part of some different world. The long, winding up hill roads, often in body rattling shape, make you wonder at the routine hardships faced by the locals in their day to day life. Yet, my own insignificance comes to the fore before the simple unassuming people of the region. Perhaps, their life long communion with the Mother Nature in its pristine form imparts purity to their life. We are at Khaltsey. It is time for lunch.
Atop Lama Yuru, before serpentine road down hill, we stop to soak in the incredible 360 degree view. At this height you really feel the world at your feet. The sky above seems just an arm length away. The only noise you hear is the sound of your own breath. The only company you have is of the nature in its purest and peaceful form. The only feeling you have is of a blissful solitude. You look around to become a microscopic dot submerged in the extensive network of breath taking mountainous ranges extending way beyond where your sight reaches. You don’t want to depart too soon. My children remark how lovely it would be to have a tent and live here away from the maddening humanity for some days.
My escort, Aamir, who is also driving our SUV strikes a conversation with me. Perhaps, for keeping his attention alert on the treacherous road. I also probe him to know him better. He is a nice and cultured young man. My guess is he would have been no more than five in the year 1990. He would be totally ignorant about the events of those fateful days in 1990. His impressions about those dark days in the history of Kashmir would only be what have been impregnated on his innocent mind. I consciously avoid the mention of any inconvenient subject. He admits knowing no Pandits. He acknowledges his total lack of knowledge about the Pandit way of life. He confesses the Pandits don’t find mention in any discussion or debate either in his friend circle or in his peer group. He is also not sure if it would be good idea for Pandits to resettle in Kashmir. He only remembers his grandfather mentioning once a while that Pandits were good teachers and better doctors.
There is a forced stoppage ahead. It seems a huge boulder has skidded down the mountain slope and come to rest in the middle of the narrow road. It needs to be blasted. It also means we are stuck up for at least three hours. Since you are on the road in Ladakh region, the barren mountains in different shapes, hues and basking in the glorious sunshine would keep your imagination occupied for hours. And if you throw in transparent waters of a fast flowing stream nearby for the company, the boredom only lives on the other side of the mountains.
The route between Kargil and Leh is fraught with many inconveniences. There aren’t many avenues for catering to any emergencies. You hardly get any thing to satiate your abdominal hunger. Only places you can procure some rudimentary provisions are a few small hamlets dotting the highway. There aren’t many of these in any case. However, there is no limit to your amazing experiences while wondering at the nature’s marvel. The entire route is a path carved out of continuous mountain ranges with each mountain being different from the rest yet congruent with each other. Each mountain, totally bereft of any vegetation is a painting with a myriad expression of emotions. They come alive to your presence and engage you in a sublime conversation that transcends the normal human perceptual faculties.
There is still some time for the road to be thrown open to traffic. We are in no hurry. My children are thoroughly enjoying the enchanting beauty of the nature. Aamir walks up to me and rues the absence of any eateries around. “The momos we had for lunch were no good,” he says. I agree. “Come to Srinagar and I will treat you to some extra-ordinary momos and challenge you to find similar stuff anywhere else.” I ask, “What do they stuff in; chicken or mutton?” “No, no they fill the momos with beef and you will definitely relish those for a long time.” I am not offended. Aamir is the product of the generation growing up in a totalitarian society. It is natural for him to be ignorant about the sensitivities of a religion that is not part of the social milieu around him. He has grown under the shade of Koh-e-Maran (Hari Parbat) while admiring the grandeur of Takht-e-Suleiman (Shankaracharya Hill).
Leh is a buzzing town. The influence of Tibetan and Budhist philosophy on the architecture, food and local attire is clearly visible in profound abundance. It is a small town with a large influx of Kashmiri traders. The markets, shops, restaurants, guest houses, hotels and monasteries are aplomb with overflowing tourists, both national and international. There is remarkable order in every thing. There are no traces of the greatest tragedy that befell the place when a massive cloud burst and the resultant flash flood razed half of the town to sand and dust around a year back. The success of an autonomous Ladakh Development Council, free from the administrative and the bureaucratic control of Kashmir valley is clearly visible all across.
We have a serious problem at hand. We are around 150 kms away from Leh, five Kms away from the base camp of Pangong Lake and a few kms before the last Indian village on this side. Our locally hired SUV has a tyre burst with no spare wheel. The nearest repair shop is roughly thirty kms away. No vehicles usually traverse this road. We are truly stranded. Our only option is to tread the rocky distance back to Pangong Lake base. It is not a pleasant idea in rarified atmosphere of high altitude. Since we have no other choice, we make a start and soon find ourselves breathless and gasping for oxygen. The driver decides to drive back alone with the burst tyre. We take all this sportingly and treat this as a part of our adventure. The crystal clear transparent blue waters of expansive Pangong Lake on our right serve the inspiration for our voyage.
It is 3PM and the day is beginning to wind up at Pangong Lake. Most of the travelers have left for Leh and others are in the process of doing so. Our drivers has managed to borrow a spare wheel for his SUV, which in not in a condition to take the collective weight of all of us. We will have to some how manage our way to tyre repair shop around 30 kms away. Our hope is two JK State road transport buses parked at a small distance. I approach the drivers. They are Kashmiri Muslims. They are carrying a group of SP College students on an educational tour of the region. I explain my predicament and they agree to give us a lift only because we are brethren. We are awaiting the departure. One of the drivers approaches me and drops a bombshell. The professor, incharge of the group has refused them permission for carrying us along. I am now desperate. I approach the bearded professor and he easily accedes to my request. I am surprised at the driver’s attitude but soon come across his cunningness.
Four of us need to split into two groups. My two daughters board the bus predominantly occupied by girl students. There is a no smoking banner prominently displayed in the bus that we board. There are three teachers accompanying the students in this bus. All the passengers, including us, are ethnic Kashmiris, yet I and my wife feel like aliens their company. No body takes any notice of us. It is sort of a royal ignore. The two teachers sitting in front offer each other cigarettes and fill the bus with aroma filled smoke. Soon our SUV catches with us. We thank the teachers and board our vehicle. We are about to start when one of the drivers beckons us from behind. We stop and he thrusts his head inside our SUV. He demands Rs 500.00 for the twenty odd kms we have journeyed with them. It is already very late and I am in no mood to argue. I hand him four one hundred rupee notes.
They five days in Ladakh have been a life time experience. We have seen magical waters of Pangong Lake that extend well up to China. We have savored Maggi noodles at Khardung La the highest motorable pass in the world. We have witnessed the magnificence of silver sand dunes in Nubra Valley. We have also felt humbled by the divine positivity in various Budhist monasteries that dot the entire region. It is now the time to say good bye. I climb down the stairs to settle my bills. My friend Bitta Mott ’ who runs the lease on this property has taken time off from his main business elsewhere to see us off. The manager refuses to settle our bills. Bitta has instructed him our stay is complimentary.
Kamal Hak is a displaced Kashmiri Hindu living in NOIDA for last 22 years. Besides frequently commenting upon various contours of Kashmiri Pandit struggle in exile, he is a Panun Kashmir activist for last two decades. As National Spokesperson of Panun Kashmir, he gets the opportunity of articulating Kashmiri Pandit cause before various forums
|Copyrights © 2007
. Any content, including but not limited to text, software, music, sound, photographs, video, graphics or other material contained may not be modified, copied, reproduced, republished, uploaded, posted, or distributed in any form or context without written permission.
Terms & Conditions.
The views expressed are solely the author's and not necessarily the views of Shehjar or its owners. Content and posts from such authors are provided "AS IS", with no warranties, and confer no rights. The material and information provided iare for general information only and should not, in any respect, be relied on as professional advice. Neither Shehjar.kashmirgroup.com nor kashmirgroup.com represent or endorse the accuracy or reliability of any advice, opinion, statement, or other information displayed, uploaded, or distributed through the Service by any user, information provider or any other person or entity. You acknowledge that any reliance upon any such opinion, advice, statement, memorandum, or information shall be at your sole risk.
Kamla Ji/Shehjar ~ Thanks for the write up and picz.I have copied the Sumbal milestone pic for my FB profile. When was it clicked?
Added By Rajeev Sumbly