We all look for reasons to find that escape route when nothing matters to us except for one thing, which we love the most. For me, it’s travelling to the unknown. Kashmir is an unexplored country for me. The smell of pine, choir of wood, glaciers of blue ice, streams dancing through alleys of alpine peaks give me the penultimate high. “I am high on nature” Sajid said with a grin and a laugh while tossing tea into a hot kettle, I looked around and found myself surrounded by tall pine trees with raindrops falling through sky covered with snow-capped peaks. I was high on nature too.
“We encourage you to take the road less travelled. Do something extraordinary and step outside your comfort zone. Feel the sheer joy of exploring the wild and beautiful”; says Kashmir Off-Road, a club of locals from Kashmir founded by Ali Sajid who’s an adrenaline junkie and thus leading the pack to the less travelled roads. Luckily for me I found myself in their cavalcade starting from Hazratbal, it was a different feeling altogether, something I had not done before.
A group of 16 men in 8 cars figuring out what kind of stove to take along without knowing where the road lead; we started our expedition heading to Manasbal Lake to Bandipore via Wullar Lake (which happens to be Asia’s largest fresh water lake too).
An uphill journey to Razdan Pass, which swayed through deep forest and tall pine trees, we witnessed a group of woman laden with firewood on their backs perhaps a common sight for us, the Kashmiris. The mighty pass placed atop at 3300m, was still under snow; as a skier all I could see were amazing piste slopes untouched and steep.
Our first checkpoint (numerous followed), “Drivers name, passengers name, car registration number and reason of visit?” asked a trooper. A mandatory procedure, so no qualms about it. Gurez being a border area we had secured permissions from tourism Department who coordinated with DC Bandipora, SSP Bandipora and army stationed in the area.
Peek-a-boo-I-see-you!!! Mount Harmukh, my favourite peak for its grandeur and beauty in our region. You could see the back side of it through pines, the sun shone on its peak and it looked more beautiful than ever.
We commenced our journey downhill through rough road and steep gorges, all of this didn’t matter as I witnessed a community of Paper Trees (Burza). We find them in Gulmarg but these were different, they looked few centuries old.
Next was a small hamlet Kunzalwan, where border is just across the hills. Life there seemed happier than normal. We reached Dawar, which is the main town of Gurez, few miles from us we could see, the glaring rooftops indicating human life ahead. Sajid took an off-road track and settled on the banks of Kishenganga that flows 180 miles to Pakistan through Gurez. The gorgeous river has bestowed Gurez with abundant water adding quality to the picturesque peaks around.
A snow-capped peak with terraces of rice fields at its foot. A huge green pasture perfect for a lunch place overtook my hunger; I jumped off the gypsy and ran straight towards the stream. The breeze touched my face and I knew it then, I had come home. A sudden smile on everyone’s face proved me right, the only thing that mattered was the moment. It was beautiful, I felt like I had been cradled in natures lap; all I could see was a vale surrounded by peaks. I heard it was the epicentre of ancient Silk Route, something so mystical about it. We finished our lunch, kudos to Sajid for bringing such sumptuous lunch; I mean home-made biryani around the banks of Kishenganga explains it all. An army Major stopped by, he had information about us visiting; he was delighted by our visit, said he would want more people to come and explore this part of the valley.
Habba Khatoon- most beautiful mountain in Kashmir. We had driven 8 hours to reach this marvel. It rained persistently but that didn’t stop me from staring the mountain. What did we all think at that moment? How do we explain that feeling? It was getting late and we had to move ahead some 20 kms to find a camping site, the place would still reverb in my mind. But we were driving ahead which brought excitement to us; it was like walking into a beautiful dream. I mean when you drive to the LOC and have no idea where you going.
Up next was Dawar town, small wood-logged huts with European styled rooftops, happy faced people and a generous smile on everyone’s lips. Dawar being the main town in Gurez. We halted at the local Tourist Reception Centre where arrangements had been made for our overnight stay. But we all decided to camp out instead and left Dawar. Driving for about 10 kms, we landed at our camp site called AP Bagh, it must have been an army camp before being abandoned; in the middle of nowhere there were barb-wires and base plinths for army quarters. Our first night was set, complete with a big bon-fire and mutton/chicken barbequed skewers for dinner. All night we spoke and ate with tea in our hands, the pitching of tents was a task for some but then there were helping hands around and so night went into a deep slumber with crackling sound of burning wood.
Next morning woke us up to drizzle and sunshine; tea was being prepared with the smell of pine around. I held my cup of tea and sat in my tent scribbling some words which were still resonating in my mind. We packed our tents and stuff back to our cars; ready to hit the road again.
Through glaciers and broken bridges we reached Telail, life looked difficult here. People here speak Shina, a language of ancient Dardic tribe, so beautiful it felt when they spoke I didn’t want to hear anything else. I felt like an alien in my own land, these were my brothers and sisters and it just made me wonder how diverse our country was.
Seven months of road closure separates Gurez from the rest of the valley. Still hope lingers on and paves way for something extraordinary. An essential supplies truck on the way brought cheer and happiness to the faces of these resilient people of Gurez. “Aaj sab ke ghar mei murga banega” laughed the chicken vendor. The chicken had landed after seven months and it was a celebration indeed. We bought a few too. My brother Shadaab who I guess has never done anything like that before was busy cleaning, marinating the chicken for dinner and boy! He made it good.
To reach the next camping site at Badoab, we had to cross a stream and marshy land; that brought smiles and yays on my comrades faces. Somewhere they could off-road now, all of a sudden entire village came running and saw these men with machines doing what seemed crazy. With water splashing all over, wheels churning the marshy land, a huge cheer came from the crowd while the watching our 4x4’s doing what they do best. A Hollywood movie set it seemed, one by one we all came across the stream to the camping site.
A group photo against the backdrop of half-hidden mountain under a blanket of white cloud with sun striking at its snow-capped peaks.
Nature speaks to us in such a way where a man becomes completely numb. We were listening to U2- Where the streets have no name; I was trying to figure out where we were. I tried to Google on my cell phone but luckily it didn’t work. The place still remains a mystery to me and I can only connect to it with the song that was playing. This feeling of being lost and to wander into unexplored lands of Kashmir.
We spent our night under the stars with peaks shining as metal; I looked from the window of my tent, it was cold and peaceful. The stars had come out and everyone seemed delighted to be a part of this adventure trip. I slept at peace that night. Music of cellos and there I stood in the middle witnessing it all happen; stars, the night, sound of the stream, burning fire and the feeling of being at peace.
Personally I don’t like endings; there will be another journey and another story to write. We left in the morning with our souls behind, we had been touched and Gurez had become a part of us. Gurez is unexplored and it should remain such, we the non-conformists don’t want it to turn into a commercial mess.
Times when you leave your comfort zone and traverse into extreme wilderness. The people there are the most hospitable and loving. Hamlet after hamlet, smile after smile; it just took my heart away. A journey on the road, of the soul which wanders into the unknown. With or without you my love I always seek you through sunrise and sunset. Like a violin in the sky, clouds make it more musical than ever. For love she wrote; for nature I wander. Gurez the mystical land.