Those were the last few days of my Durga Puja vacations and also of my short stay in Jaipur. I hadn’t quite come to terms with living in a different city doing something I wasn’t really fond of. The monsoon end-semester examinations were right around the corner, and like usual, I hadn’t studied jack throughout the semester. I knew I’d manage everything else except Economics – A subject that I hadn’t studied in school and did not have the finest clue about. I had tried hard to make sense out of the Greek gibberish my professor wrote on the whiteboard, while repeatedly cursing everyone who had ever recommended law as a career because it didn’t have anything to do with Maths. I struggled hard to make sense out of my 2.5kg Economics Study Material until I finally gave up and called Jatin to seek his help. He was eager to help and invited me to his place. It was 3 in the afternoon when I reached his home, this time to study for a change. We went up to his room, where he non-judgementally grappled with my phobia of economics and tried simplifying the indifference curve for me. I was quite psyched that I finally got the gist of the subject, to which he indifferently broke my bubble and informed me that what I had just learned was the alphabet of Economics. My heart sank.
I, loathing in self-pity, blurted out my craving for going on an impromptu road trip. Almost like a predator to his prey, Jatin pounced to the occasion and started listing out hill stations in the Himalayas. I intervened with his little castles-in-the-air and told him that I meant someplace nearby like Udaipur or something. Then almost like a defense counsel, he started marking out the possibilities of going to someplace North for a change. Until now, only the lack of a proper vehicle had prevented me from venturing out on the Himalayan roads. Jatin suggested the idea of taming the mountains in his Mahindra XUV 500 – A beast of a vehicle. This was the first strike.
He then showed me a video he had stumbled upon on YouTube featuring the Autumn, as seen in the Kashmir Valley – The only place in India that witnesses an actual autumn or the Fall (as the Americans call it). That video was simply awe-inspiring, and for the first time, I could actually hear the ‘mountains calling me.’ That was strike two.
I promised him that I would think about it. When I got home, I approached Maa with this idea, and even when she wasn’t totally on board with it, she didn’t seem outrightly opposed to it. Well, that was my first hint. I exploited the leverage and convinced her that I would bear the expenses of this trip on my own and won’t bother her with it. I also promised her to return before Diwali. She reluctantly agreed. Aaand… that was strike three! I immediately informed Jangid that the plan was ON.
He, too, talked his parents out, and surprisingly, we were ready to roll. I googled enough to know what I should be expecting in the land of Haseen Waadiyan. I then churned out a few contacts of my own both in Jammu and Kashmir while Papa called his friend in Jammu for an assurance of safety in visiting the troubled valley then. He assured Papa of no issues involved in travel and tourism despite the occasional militant encounters with the army. We quickly packed up our stuff and geared up for the long ride the next day. We decided to figure out the rest of the itinerary and the necessary logistics on our way to Jammu. The first stretch of the journey was from Jaipur to Jammu via Chandigarh, covering 854km. The next thing I know, we were on NH8. It was indeed, impromptu.
Day 1 – En Route
We left at 7 am from my place instead of the planned 5 am departure, as Jatin was like usual running off schedule. We loaded our home-for-the-next-week with all the necessary supplies like a crate of Red Bulls and packets of backup food and hopped in to embark on our first-of-its-kind journey. We dashed on the NH 8, connecting Jaipur to Delhi and sped along the tarmac under the influence of high adrenaline (josh).
Our first stop was Baba Bharti Dhaba, located right on the Rajasthan-Haryana border edging towards the town of Rewari for breakfast. It was my usual pitstop on this highway, which served humungous Aloo Paranthas dipped in White Looni Ghee (something between Curd and Butter). I had often traveled about 200km from Jaipur, just to feast on those finger-licking Paranthas, and it was always worth it. These were the best Aloo Paranthas I had eaten till that day. But like many things, this too was about to get updated on this trip.
We switched a couple of times to drive the stretch from Jaipur to Chandigarh. Meanwhile, both of us browsed the news for any harbingers that might impact our decisions later. I distinctly remember reading a piece about a militant attack on a BSF van leading to the martyrdom of 3 soldiers in the heart of Srinagar. I dreadfully narrated this news to Jatin, and both of us went blank. We were 2hrs away from Chandigarh, and I asked him if it would be prudent to head back. He looked confused. Almost in the same breath, both of us decided not to return, and brace the uncertainty head-on.
We reached Chandigarh in a record 6hrs, and after breaking for lunch, we continued our journey ahead. We had to reach Jammu before nightfall to be able to make time for Srinagar the next day.
Bracing a tiresome drive throughout the latter half of the day, we made it to Jammu, where we had to spend the night at my Papa’s friend’s place. Now I’m not a family person per se and am extremely awkward around relatives and elders while trying hard not to blurt out something inappropriate, which makes them call me ‘badtameez.’ They lived in a huge but austerely designed house located meters away from the highway. Uncle welcomed us lovingly and considering that we were exhausted from the journey, he courteously asked us to crash almost immediately. It was the first time my back saw some rest that day.
Day 2 – The Highway
The next morning, both of us inevitably skipped our planned departure of 5 am and kept on sleeping till 8 until uncle himself woke us up. I was greeted with his tasteful jibe at our lofty promises of leaving for Srinagar before sunrise. I laughed along while devouring on the delicious breakfast cooked by aunty. She was a delightful lady. She insisted on packing us a lunchbox for our way ahead, as the arrival time in Srinagar was uncertain due to the bad state of the Jammu-Srinagar Highway.
With heavy stomachs, we left for Srinagar. I had heard all sorts of tales about the condition of this highway. It was the only road connecting Kashmir to the mainland and due to that, at times, extremely clogged, to the extent that the traffic was allowed to move only in a single direction at a time. All those horrifying stories suddenly came to a reality when we got stuck in a maddeningly long traffic jam. I remember a point where we were stationary for about 4hrs.
We frequently got out of the car either to shoot or to chat with a few co-jammed drivers. Drivers are the best story-tellers of adventures on the road. They tell tales of all sorts; stories of horrific accidents, encounters with wildlife, and often local folklore. I’ve always enjoyed talking to the men on the road as these are the people who experience life per kilometer.
One such interaction occurred when we saw an RJ labeled truck registered in Bikaner. Both Jangid and I pounced on the opportunity of chatting with fellow Rajasthanis in a habitat opposite to our own, far-away from home. I distinctly remember the expression of surprise mixed with a hint of disgust on the driver’s face when we told him that both of us had decided to travel to Kashmir alone. He colloquially asked us, “Kyami aaya ho itti durr, bumb-bhatta pad jaasi” (Why have you come this far, you’ll be bombed or stoned to death). This statement wasn’t particularly encouraging for the 20-year old desert-boys that we were. We laughed it off and told him that we were determined to see what lay ahead. Thankfully, the abrupt movement in the traffic supported our sly escape from the awkwardly stereotypical conversation. We hopped in our car and crawled our way ahead for the next few hours, humming to Coldplay and some occasional Badshah.
It was the men in uniform who cleared the traffic ahead and made way for the movement. I have always admired the army men but watching them commandingly take over a hopeless situation to provide for a solution was a different feeling altogether. Indian Army begins work where the limits end.
Now, on our way to Jammu, Jatin had chosen to dine at a decent looking ‘restaurant’ that night. It was my turn to choose the place for our dinner that day to save us some bucks, after all, I was the Baniya (Business caste Hindus stereotyped for being financially prudent, and rightly so). I chose this modest-looking Dhaba with the adequately dirty-looking kitchen so that we could dine there. (Pro Tip: The taste of the food at a Dhaba is directly proportional to the number of trucks parked outside it).
Jatin, to this date, cannot believe the price at which we ate the lavish meal. We ordered a plate of spicy Rajma Curry and calorific Dal Makhani with butter-soaked Tandoori Rotis. That dinner still holds a very prestigious rank in the list of the best dinners I have ever had. All of that ‘rich’ food came at a meager cost of Rs.200. My ancestors would have been proud of me that day. We complimented the cook on making such great food and promised to return on our way back too. They smiled and waved goodbye.
After a sumptuous meal, we continued our struggle towards reaching Srinagar that night. Just a few km from the dhaba was the famous Jawahar Tunnel – the former longest tunnel of India also called the Banihal Pass. I had heard stories about this one too and was expecting a sprawling concrete structure catapulting me into a deep cavity within the mountain. Instead, I was greeted with a hole in the wall, which looked more like a Nazi bunker. The width of the road was just enough to accommodate a single car at a time. And then I remembered a faint detail that I had missed out; this tunnel was built in 1954 by the British for the passage of just 150 vehicles per day; and there we were, with about 300-400 vehicles in a queue striving hard to reach the other end. I felt my faith in the integrity of the structure plummet instantly. Nevertheless, driving in this historical engineering marvel was a matter of pride. And of course, I trusted BRO. (I wanted to say that for a long time).
After safely crossing the tunnel, the road broadened, and we made our way towards Srinagar. I confidently drove into the endless night, trying terribly hard to keep my focus on the road that was dropping challenges at every curve. After subjecting my tender corneas to blinding headlights, we finally got on to the much-awaited 4-lane highway – practically everyone on the 12hr drive had promised us about. For the first time that day, I had hammered the massive Mahindra into the 4th gear. We reached Srinagar in no time after that switch. But there was just one problem; we didn’t have a reservation at a hotel. I had looked up a few OYOs earlier on the trip, and Jatin hastily booked one from the shortlist as we approached the heavenly city of Srinagar.
Embracing the deserted streets of the valley capital, we tried to find our way to the hotel. All the prejudices and hearsay about Kashmir were repetitively haunting me. When we couldn’t spot our hotel, despite Google Maps pointing to a random building that clearly wasn’t it, I unwillingly pulled my window down to ask a lone man visible on the road for an OYO nearby. He pointed South and asked us to take the way going downhill to reach an OYO there. We dreadfully followed his instructions, fearing a bomb blast at every corner of the street. (I hate to admit it, but that’s the kind of mentality that develops after years of biased news coverage).
We reached a building that flamboyantly said OYO. I honked at the jarred gates of the hotel. After about 5 minutes, a suspicious-looking guy opened the door for us. We informed him of our booking and asked for a parking space. I asked Jatin to talk to the manager while I parked the vehicle and got the luggage. Another apprehensive looking fellow greeted us with an unusually wide smile. He insisted on showing us the rooms despite our protests that we didn’t care. He showed us a room, and only after we explicitly approved of it, he took us to ‘his’ own room to give us the keys. Now, this is a vivid scene etched lucidly in my memory.
Inside his room sat two garishly dressed women, who I naively thought were his relatives. I abruptly backed off from the room, to which the remarkably helpful man insisted me to enter and said, and I quote, “Take a look.” Something felt off about this, and behind me, Jatin’s facial expressions faded. He went pale as if he saw a ghost. He had everything figured out by then, while my stupid ass kept playing Sherlock. We hurriedly exited the scene, and moments, after we had bolted our door, our bellboy for the night, knocked and asked us if we need anything, assuring us of all forms of ‘services’ available without ‘no issues involved.’ I remained oblivious to reality. Jatin rudely sent this guy off, making it clear that we didn’t need anything. As soon as he was out of earshot, Jatin shouted that we were, let’s just say, not at the right kind of hotel. It all made sense to me almost instantly. All the dots connected, and my mouth gasped open. While Jatin was visibly agitated, I was unabashedly amused. There it was again – circumstances making my trip unique and memorable. Jatin prayed to Hanumanji for our safety that night as we quietly plugged out the day.
Day 3 – Srinagar
The next morning, we were supposed to get up early to check out of that hotel before the police did it for us. But as usual, we kept sleeping till 10. I woke up and realized the blunder we’d made and hurriedly freshened up. I woke Jatin up while I finished off the packing, ensuring that we didn’t leave anything behind. We stole some toilet paper for emergencies and quickly rushed to the checkout counter to get the fuck out of there. We exited the hotel and began our tryst with the magnificent yet tumultuous valley.
Our first stop was a charming little café, which we spotted as quite out-of-place in the whole natural rustic setting of the streets. The place seemed expensive, and only after some intense deliberation, we decided to eat there. I ordered a cup of Hot Chocolate on the side of Alfredo Pasta. We relished not only on the dishes but also on the ornately creative interior, shooting and snapping everything in sight. I’m sure the waiter judged us severely. Sitting there, we figured out the places we’d visit that day. We also noticed that the Indian army had been deployed throughout the city of Srinagar strategically at every 100m. This was the first bell of danger and a silent warning that we had to be cautious.
Our first stop that day was Shalimar Bagh, the famous Mughal contribution to the city and also the most visited spot in Srinagar and the whole of Kashmir. We had expected it to be quite mainstream but continued anyway since we’d had enough adventure for the day. A regular sight wouldn’t have hurt. The irony was that it ‘wasn’t’ a regular sight to our used-to-barren-brown eyes. As I entered the precincts of the garden, my brain secreted an extra dose of dopamine as a reaction to the visual of the fiery red Chinar trees visible at a distance. I loaded my ‘gun’ with the battery and SD Card and prepared for my first encounter with the beauty of Kashmir.
Trust me; I didn’t feel anything less than Jehangir while entering the massive Mughal crafted green expanse. The garden looked like a vibrant painting. It was as if God had gone wild with his palate and had thrown in all possible shades of Orange, Yellow, Red, Green, and Blue onto the canvas. I opened my eyes as wide as I could to soak in all of what I saw as if to etch the moment permanently in my memory. After a brief moment of being awestruck, we proceeded further into the garden.
Now, Jatin had earlier asked me to shoot for a travel film he planned to shoot for this trip. I readily agreed as this was something I hadn’t done before and would have loved to try my hands on. That was the beginning of my love for shooting films. Now, we were running here and there trying to make something creative from all possible angles. To a bystander, we might’ve looked like aliens collecting data on an intergalactic mission, perhaps, performing a better job than the Mars Rover. We shot everything and filmed everything around us, from close-ups of fallen leaves to wide landscape shots. After sort of consuming the place, we decided to head out for other destinations.
We came out of Shalimar Bagh famished and affirmatively decided to go back on our word of skipping lunch. There were a few stalls right outside the garden. Considering that they catered to the tourists who visited this place, we trusted their authenticity and quality. I ordered the most Kashmiri (Veg) item I saw on the menu – Kashmiri Pulao. Now I don’t know what Kashmiri Pulao tastes like, but that shit was horrendous.
We then decided to ditch going to any landmark and instead roamed around the streets of Srinagar until sunset. Unexpectedly, while we were looking for a place to stop, we simply got mesmerized by the tall, sharp yellow-leaved trees and spent the next 2hrs shooting yellow leaves and each other with them.
After spending enough time idiotically with bare leaves on the roadside, we moved forward towards the Dal Lake. I spotted a sweet colorful spot on the banks of the lake, making a beautiful frame for me. We spent some time there taking pictures of the lake with fiery Chinar leaves scattered on the water.
Here we met a cool local who told us a thing or two about Srinagar and recommended some offbeat places to see. He also told me that he was a photographer and wanted to make a film on Autumn in Kashmir. I told him that we had a similar plan of our own. He asked for my Insta id, and upon spotting the famous ‘Kejriwal’ in my name, he asked me if I really was a Kejriwal or just a big fan of his. I told him I really was one. He got pretty psyched at hearing that and quite erratically asked me for my autograph. I was both flattered and shocked. Shocked first :P. He clarified that it was his pleasure to meet a Kejriwal, and he’s going to remember this moment forever. Even though this wasn’t how I imagined my first time giving an autograph, I fondly signed on his forearm. We shared a laugh and promised to stay in touch.
As the sun neared the horizon, we briskly ran to the docks to rent a Shikara and sail into the flood of colors. And again, this wasn’t how I had imagined my first time on Shikara to be like, but then that’s life. We had hijacked the famous ‘boat of love’ to turn it into some kind of an ‘on duty’ vehicle. We leaned at both sides to maintain the balance of the boat while shooting. I filmed some of the most beautiful clips that I have ever have.
After satisfying myself with the shots I had made, I hopped into the absolute nose of the boat and assisted our boatman in wrangling it forward. To this day, I can feel the satisfaction of rowing through the calm waters of Dal Lake. The absolute still water, minimally displaced, almost out of respect to the tranquillity of the lake as we rowed ahead. The subtle trickling of the water and the chirping of aquatic birds was the music that played all along with the ride. I spent the next few minutes imbibing this moment by just sinking in the serenity of the peaceful lake.
As the night fell on us, we slowly made our way to the dock, where we paid for the ride and boarded our banal terrestrial vehicle.
Calling OYO to our aid again, I had booked a houseboat for the 2nd night in Srinagar. We reserved a room for pennies. We parked our vehicle at parking owned by a Dhaba nearby and boarded a shikara that had been sent by the hotel owner to take us to our bed for the night, well, on water. The boat penetrated deep into the gentle night towards our houseboat parked somewhere on the water. Into the eerie night, we glided slowly towards a series of houseboats parked. One of them was our hotel. A bellboy was waiting for us to deboard and took our luggage into our rooms.
Now, friends, I’ll tell you some facts about houseboats. They are made of wood. There are separate rooms carved out by partitioning the entire surface into various chambers. Now, these partitions are also made of wood and have no forms of sound-proofing. Even, a related fact, that a lot of couples in India choose these houseboats as their honeymoon destination. I think you can infer certain conclusions from the facts stated above. Let’s just say that our night wasn’t pleasant, while our neighbor’s was. While actively trying to avoid the disturbing image despite all the sounds, we tried to force ourselves to sleep. I so wanted to bump into them the next morning and creepily whisper “I heard” in the dude’s ear to make his rest of the stay tremendously awkward.
With a firm decision to never rent a room in a houseboat again, I dozed off that night.
Day 4 – Adventure
The next morning, we woke up to the fresh breeze of the Dal Lake. We quickly freshened up and prepared to board our water taxi towards the shore. The boatman was kind enough to take a slight detour to give us a short tour of the lake market. It was shocking how houses and shops stood on a bunch of tall wooden poles suspended from beneath the surface of the water. These shops were selling everything – fruits, vegetables, flowers, clothes, and even handicrafts and furniture. It was a whole different world out here – an excellent display of architecture and remarkable survival instincts. We laid calmly in our little wooden palace on the lake, and quietly soaked in the beauty of the lake. After a brief tour of the water kingdom, we were dropped off at the shore of the lake.
We ate at the same Dhaba we had parked our car at, and hurriedly left for our next destination – Shankaracharya Hill. Well, there wasn’t any destination, to be honest. We had chosen the Shankaracharya Hill because of the splendid mix of orange and yellow hues we’d be able to capture on the single lane hill road. We leisurely drove uphill and stopped wherever we saw a tree yellower than usual. We continued this for a while until we reached the temple atop the hill. Both of us contemporaneously decided not to go inside and instead continue spending more time with the fallen leaves.
After overexposing our eyes and cameras to the yellow, we finally came back to the epicenter of Srinagar, trying to figure out where to head next. I punched in a few keywords to scout for our next shoot location on Google. I figured Naseem Bagh seemed like a pretty bet. So, I quickly brought out the navigation route to Naseem Bagh on Google Maps and zoomed towards it. The location was oddly far from the central Srinagar. Inadvertently, we continued speeding towards our destination following the lead of Madam Google while struggling to comprehend her out-of-place American navigation lingo. We took a few exits on the roundabouts and switched a few lanes only to land up in one of the most congested and cramped up localities of Srinagar. We were driving in an alley so narrow that only a single car could pass through at once. I was at the wheel. Typically, these conditions wouldn’t have challenged me in my dad’s old white sedan, which I was used to. But in the massive gas-guzzling SUV with a reasonable number of blind spots, I got in a tight spot. I maneuvered the heavy vehicle on the tiny shrunken streets of Srinagar with a constant fear of fucking up.
Thankfully, we hadn’t been even close to any mishap at that very wrong place to be then. I hurled the mean machine forward out of the cramped-up market only to enter a relatively rural side of Srinagar. That is precisely when my men at Google thought, “These little fuckers seem brave, let’s mess with their lives.” Google lost signal and went completely haywire with the directions. While Jatin struggled to figure out the road ahead, I kept on driving. Suddenly, a man appeared on the way out of nowhere and viciously made gestures questioning us where we were headed. I thought of him as some madman not minding his own business. But then as we whizzed past him, he hurriedly took out a phone and started dialing someone. Both Jatin and I saw this in the side rearview mirror. We looked at each other and almost telepathically I knew that we had to turn back. There’s definitely something ahead someone doesn’t want us to see. On the single track of road that we were on, I made an aggressive U-turn and accelerated as hard as I could. I forgot that this was not my vehicle and piloted that thing commandingly. The man was still standing at the corner of the road staring at us with blood in his eyes. To date, I cannot forget his face that I had glanced through my peripheral vision. My heart raced faster than our car. I pedaled hard just to get out of there.
Till date, we dont know whether the intruder was a militant or an accomplice or just another concerned by-stander. But the impact he had on our morale and confidence was harsh and it drove us to a corner of concern and suspicion throughout the trip.
We felt like we were being followed. I quickly called our local friend, Sandeep bhaiya, who lived in Avantipura, some 30km south of Srinagar. We didn’t tell him about the recent turn of events, fearing that it might lead to unnecessary panic. We raced towards the location he had asked us to reach. I asked Jatin to keep a watch behind us while I tried to drive as fast as I could hiding between vehicles to lose the trail (if any).
We exited the 4-lane highway into the old Jammu-Srinagar highway to reach the location Sandeep Bhaiya had sent us. FYI, I hadn’t known him before this trip, and he was my dad’s friend’s son’s friend. So, we were highly skeptical about meeting a local, especially after our recent encounter. He met us at a tiny Dhaba on the old national highway and requested us to join him for a quick tea-nashta. We entered the humble-looking Dhaba run by a reasonably young and muscular Amritdhari Sikh – Sonu Singh.
We politely refused to any favors, but then as Punjabi as he was, he convinced us to have tea with him. After we had established some trust, we filled him in about our horrific encounter. He didn’t seem surprised at all. In fact, his facial expression didn’t change for the slightest. While we had thought we were in a safe space, he casually mentioned that Avantipura, the place we were at, was, in fact, the hub of militancy in Kashmir. My face went pale. I couldn’t believe that I had walked into the red zone myself. He noticed the change in my expression and quickly reassured that I was with him, and there was nothing to worry about at all. He asked us to stay with him for the night and suggested that we leave for Pahalgam the next morning. We quickly agreed.
We went to his place, which, contrary to our expectations, was an extremely modest room for one. He lived in a single room cum kitchen with another roommate of his. It was a tiny space that was barely sufficient for one person to live. He managed to thrive there with a roommate. It was simply beautiful. To our utmost surprise, he gave us his room and went to sleep with his roommate in the room adjacent, which was more of a warehouse than an apartment. He gave us his only heater and the warmest of blankets just to ensure that we have a sound sleep at his ‘home’.
Later that night, we sat at his terrace and talked at length about anything and everything. He callously spoke about the Kashmir issue without the faintest hint of discomfort in his voice. Having lived in Kashmir for 10-12 years, teaching young kids at a government school, he was fairly acquainted with the sentiments of Kashmiriyat. He told us about his friend who was a surrendered militant and a few others who were away on training under LeT. We simply talked about facts and circumstances without taking any political stance. It was one of the most informative and productive discussions I have ever had on politics.
He then took us to the same Dhaba for dinner, where I ate the best Aloo Paranthas of my life. Period. The meal was so friggin delicious that I forgot to take any glamorous picture of it and gobbled more than I should have. I practically drank butter than night. To top it up, a few localites and truck drivers had gathered at the place and made it super lively. We spent hours joking and talking about life experiences. A truck driver told us about his hilarious encounters on the road, and I couldn’t admire him more. I took his number and promised to call him whenever I would be ready to become a truck driver. He readily agreed.
That night, I learned the most important lesson of my life; if your heart is big enough, the size of your room doesn’t matter. Sandeep bhaiya was my hero. To me, his hospitality could’ve given any 5-star hotel a run for its money – a true epitome of Atithi Devo Bhava. In that little room and the sweet little Dhaba blossomed a friendship of a lifetime.
Wishfully thinking, I gave in to the exhaustion and slept peacefully.
Day 5 – Pahalgam
This was the first morning on the whole trip when we got up early, well, all thanks to Sandeep bhaiya, who woke us up. We quickly freshened up and joined him at the Dhaba for breakfast. We feasted over the mouth-watering Paranthas dipped in butter and sipped on some sugary masala tea. Sandeep bhaiya and his roommate both worked as teachers in the local government schools around Avantipura. Sandeep bhaiya taught English at a primary school, and his roommate – Arjun bhaiya taught, well, guess what, ECO-fucking-NOMICS. It was like a slap in my face. Almost like the ghost of Eco warning me that I could leave Eco, but Eco wouldn’t leave me.
Arjun bhaiya apprised us that his school was on our way to Pahalgam, and he could accompany us halfway through our journey. We readily agreed. Even though we had woken up early that day (for a change), we got late while eating and left Avantipura by 11 pm. This time we had no fear while heading anywhere; we now had a local by our side. Quite predictably, we took multiple pitstops on our way to shoot anything and everything that seemed appealing on the road. I still remember that amused look on bhaiya’s face whenever we stopped to shoot random trees, fallen leaves, people walking, any blue sight of water, scenic views of the valley, and everything in between.
It was during one such shot, that I soaked my shoes wet while living my little Ilahi moment standing on the top of two massive rocks submerged in the water.
After spending more time on the road than we should’ve, bhaiya took us to explore his school. It was a picturesque little structure with extensive playgrounds nestled in the center of the valley. We went at the wrong time. The students were writing their exams out in the open. Using wooden boards as support beneath their answer sheets, the poor children wrote the exam under the watchful eyes of several teachers surrounding the space like CCTVs covering all angles. Bhaiya introduced us to the Principal of the school. She was a lovely lady. She politely asked us how we liked Kashmir and then asked bhaiya to take the day off to take us around. He gladly agreed and decided to head to Pahalgam with us. We took a few shots of the school and then left for Pahalgam, which was about 30-40km from there. We had booked an OYO already and had decided to stay there for the night.
As soon as we reached the main market of Pahalgam, we headed straight for Aru Valley, a photographer’s paradise, as suggested by Arjun bhaiya. The road to the final point of the valley was dangerously narrow and dilapidated in many stretches.
After quite a lot of delay due to you-know-what, we reached the last motorable point of the valley, which was landmarked by a J&K Tourism Dept.’s hotel. An aesthetically designed structure, the deep olive green stood out from the dark background forming an excellent subject in the valley laden with colorful flowers. I kept shooting the tiny flowers with the beautiful mountain home, while Jatin decided to make a time-lapse.
After spending some moments of solitude in the valley, we decided to head back before sunset, as bhaiya had to leave for Avantipura. We decided to have dinner at a restaurant called Punjabi Tadka conveniently located near the bus/taxi stand. The food was there was undoubtedly delicious, and the owner was quite hospitable. Looking quite surprised at our age, he asked us some personal questions which turned friendlier with every answer. He served us extra butter free of charge and started talking to us about his life there. He delightfully informed us that it had snowed in the day time at the hill above ours, and it was likely that it could snow in Pahalgam too that night. He said, “If you are lucky, you’ll witness a White Pahalgam.” It sounded like a fairytale statement to me, and I assumed some latent exaggeration in it. But oh, how wrong I was.
It was almost dark. Arjun Bhaiya took a shared taxi back to Avantipura despite our repeated requests of letting us drop him. He waved us goodbye, as he boarded the taxi with 7 others. We had booked an OYO 5 mins away from the center of the hill town. We checked in, dropped our luggage, and headed out for a stroll. Minutes away from our hotel ran a tiny brook. We brisked towards the water as it was getting darker. I took some handheld long exposure shots of the roaring water while constantly regretting not bringing my tripod along. As the last ray of light compromised with the darkness, we decided to head back to our hotel while talking to a few people on the way. They told us that snowfall was imminent that night.
The bellboy at our hotel was a 16-17yr old boy. I instantly made friends with him and asked him to wake me up if there was snowfall at night. Asking him to do this, we called it a night and sank in the cozy bed under warm blankets succumbing to fatigue.
Day 5 – The Other Fall
At about 5 am, the lobby boy started banging our door viciously. Alarmed, I got up and ran to answer. There he stood smiling and pointing towards the outside. It was snowing! Tiny shards of snow kept drizzling from the sky, coloring the ground and everything over it – white. I almost shrieked. All my discomfort of standing in the cold lobby in shorts disappeared. I admired the sight unfolding in front of my eyes. For me, this scene was straight out of a movie; keeping all the stereotypes aside, being born and raised in Rajasthan does have a lot of implications on your conditioning. Watching something that you had thought was only a myth turn to reality is something quite inexplicable. A lot of my friends back home had various absurd notions regarding how the snow felt. Some asked me how the snow tasted while others asked if I made a snowman.
I rushed inside to wake Jatin up and immediately asked him to get ready. We were going out. He got up lazily, resisted for a while, and then finally gave in. We put on our clothes and bulky jackets to head out in the snow.
Now, my shoes were all wet, and looking at the weather outside, they were not going to dry up any soon. The only other footwear in sight was my slippers. I donned them in my feet and grabbed my thick jacket to head out. Everything around us had magically turned white. The windshield of our car was layered with a thick blanket of snow. We took a kachra uthaane wala tool (I don’t know what it’s called) to clean the windshield and the side windows of the snow. Then we headed to the main town to see what it looked like and also have some tea and breakfast if we could. We cruised on the streets slowly without the protection of snow chains. The road was quite motorable – devoid of any snow thwarting the way. We went straight to the Dhaba we had dined at the other day. Thankfully, it was open. We ordered some hot piping Aloo Paranthas dipped in butter and some sugary ginger tea. Gazing outside at the snow, we sumptuously ate and carefully planned our day.
We had decided that it would be our last day here in Kashmir, and we’d leave for Jaipur the next morning. We had to return before Diwali anyhow to prevent antagonizing our mothers. So, I browsed the net for a while to decide on our next spot for the day. We decided to head to the Baisaran Valley, which the locals fondly called the Switzerland of Kashmir. I held high hopes from the place, the moment it was compared with Switzerland. We slowly drove to our hotel to imbibe the beauty around us. It began snowing again. We stopped the car in the middle of the road since no one was to be seen for kilometers. We got out and started taking pictures of each other. This was the exact moment I regretted wetting my shoes the most. I stood there almost bare feet in the freezing temperature and falling snow. I could feel the cold bite my toes and finding its way within. We quickly took some shots and hurried our way into the car to blast the heater at its full intensity on my feet.
On reaching the hotel, I enquired around for the way to Baisaran Valley. The locals there told me that the only way to reach Baisaran would be on a mule as the trail isn’t motorable. I negotiated the rates with them and booked a guy to take us to Baisaran. The mule owner gave us the snow clothes and snow boots to wear that came complementary. We didn’t even have any mittens on us, so we stopped on the way to buy a pair each from a shop that was, fortunately, open that morning. The best decision we made that morning was to depart early for the valley.
This was the first snowfall of the winter season in Pahalgam. Just as we began the ascent towards the valley, at a relatively higher point on the way, we could spot the entire town of Pahalgam covered with snow. It was indeed WHITE. We took multiple pictures here and continued our journey upwards. The trail was covered entirely with snow. To avoid the inconvenience of mounting and unmounting the mule, I took the call to walk the rest of the distance, while Jatin and our guide for the day continued on the mulebacks.
After approximately an hour of a hike, we reached the valley. It was a gigantic enclosed park of some sort. It was fenced and bordered by various shacks, presumably selling food. Since it was way early in the morning, we were the first visitors of the day, and as a matter of fact, the first visitors of the Winter Season 2018-19. I could see a vast white space in front of my eyes. I was surprised to look at the thickness of the snow cover. A valley that was a bright green yesterday had now magically turned into a bright white. I frantically ran and slid in the snow. I slyly made a snowball and threw it right at Jatin’s face, catching him off-guard. And inevitably, it led to a snow fight. From an ariel view, we must’ve have looked utterly stupid and immature, but then who gives a shit about birds. I was living my childhood dream. After we were done hitting each other, with me taking a headshot, I ran to the middle of the valley to start making a snowman.
This was the moment I’d have loved to share with my friend Mukul with whom I had attempted the stupidest of things shown in cartoons back in the day. We had once tried to make a treehouse in the park in front of my place. We dug holes in the ground to build swimming pools in the monsoon. And I guess I owed him this one too. So, I decided to make the coolest snowman ever. Jatin followed suit, and both of us dropped our stuff to start making snowmen, something neither of us had ever done before or knew how to. But we were determined. One should never underestimate a child’s determination. We began gathering snow around us until the ground around the area was visible. It took us about an hour to build a passable snowman. Both of our snowmen were poles apart from each other, almost like our personalities. One in its prime youth, the other one in its sulking old age. We used some paraphernalia to decorate our latest creations, which was off-screen for a change.
By the time we were done with our creative construction, tourists had started pouring in, riddling the valley with dots of various colors. Some of them came to see our contribution to the valley, and suddenly, the snowmen became a hit. It became like a monument every tourist decided to pay homage to. Roughly ten dozen people came to see the snowmen we’d built and started taking pictures with it. It was a proud moment. However, it led me to a strange realization of the ugly truth of the Indian Tourism industry. None of those people attempted to make a snowman of their own or did anything to enjoy their presence in the valley. They simply ran like shutterbugs taking pictures as proof of their visit and trotted back as soon as they were done.
While I stood there pitying them so much, it occurred to me that I too did the same at times. Without staying to imbibe the beauty of the place, I visited places only to snap pictures of it to post on social media. I saw myself in those poor souls who missed out on so much fun despite spending so much to reach there. I looked back on my trip. It could have been quantified in the number of pictures, rather than being qualified in memories or moments. In the foresight, this realization changed the way I traveled.
We recollected the stuff that we had scattered around us and quickly took a few shots before deciding to leave. I was expecting to shoot the snowy view of Pahalgam on my way back down. But I was grossly mistaken about the ethos of snow. It had melted away in the 4hrs we were up in the valley. We had decided to walk back instead of sitting on the mules as it was getting atrociously difficult to sit upright on those poor animals. As it turned out, walking alongside them was more difficult. You see, snow boots are made for SNOW and not mud. We struggled to walk on the loose mud that was meandered by tiny streams of water. I saved myself from tripping multiple times, but Jatin couldn’t. He took a fall of his own before getting back on his mule.
I took a prolonged hot water bath as soon as we got back from the expedition. After relaxing for a while, we went back to the main market to buy some local produce for home – Saffron, Cardamom (imported from Pakistan), and Kahwa Tea for a friend. We stopped for some pictures and went back to our hotel only after eating dinner at a restaurant in the market.
The trip had almost come to an end. We sat together to back the data up as we wouldn’t have gotten much time after returning. We packed up and called it a night. I spent the moments before I slid into sleep recollecting all the moments spent on the trip. I rewinded through all the views I had exposed my eyes to. While our rendezvous with the beautiful valley had come to an end, the journey hadn’t. We had to go back 1200km to reach home before Diwali.
Day 6 – The Departure
The next morning, like disciplined adults, we got up early in the morning to leave for Jammu. Our hotel manager had suggested leaving as early as we could to avoid most of the traffic on the tiresome Jammu-Srinagar highway. We adhered to his advice and left Pahalgam at about 6 am. We opted for a different route this time to witness diverse views on the way and also to avoid the traffic. This route was less traveled as it took us through the arterial roads and not the main highway. We occasionally halted to take some pictures on the roadside.
At 10-11 am, we got caught in a snowstorm near Verinag, forcing us to halt momentarily. We sat in the car, waiting for the storm to subside. I briefly got outside only to be pushed back in by the vicious force of the wind. After withstanding the storm for a while, we resumed our journey again. We crossed the Jawahar Tunnel quicker than the last time and took advantage of the relatively freer flow of traffic. We reached Jammu at around 8 pm and decided to stop only in Delhi, covering the majority of the distance in a single day since we had the advantage of two drivers in the car.
At around 8 pm, when Jatin was at the wheel, I spotted a milestone indicating Amritsar being 200km away from there. I casually remarked that I’d never been to a Gurudwara in my life. Jatin was surprised at hearing this and suggested that we take a detour towards Amritsar to fulfill my dream. The detour added some 100km to our journey, but the ingrained wanderlust prevented us from considering it. We reached Amritsar in exactly 2hrs from the moment we decided to visit Harminder Sahib. It was a record performance by Jatin. It was almost 10 pm when Google told us that the main shrine closes its doors at 10. We reached the outskirts of Amritsar at about 9:45. With about 15mins at hand, Jatin pedaled hard and cruised on the streets of Amritsar to reach the parking by 9:56.
We hastily parked and ran towards the temple, but by the time we reached the main gate of the campus, it was already 10. So, we slowed down and decided to meditate at the banks of the lake as the campus remained open for the public round the clock. Jatin had visited this place earlier and was familiar with the etiquette of praying in a gurudwara. He instructed me to cover my head with a handkerchief and wash my hands and feet at the community tap. We had left the camera gear in the car for this visit. For the first time, I saw the historical Golden Temple with the naked eye. We spent about half an hour meditating on the banks of the lake before we proceeded out to have our final trip dinner. The vibe of the temple was something else. It was so pristine despite bustling with the activity of thousands of people. I was glad that my first visit to a Gurudwara was to the best one.
Jatin’s friend had referenced him to eat at Kesar da Dhaba – one of the most popular dhabas of Amritsar. The specialty of this place was the mouth-watering Dal Makhani that was cooked overnight to bring out the buttery taste in it. We had to try this one! Amritsar is a city of foodies that was visible from the moment we left the Golden Temple; as I couldn’t spot a single non-obese person on the entire 15min e-rickshaw ride to our dhaba. Fitness wasn’t the priority of the people of this city, and so wasn’t ours.
We ordered a Lachha Parantha and Dal Makhani Thali. I find myself at a loss of words to describe the taste of the food. You should go and find it out yourself. And yeah, do remember to bless me when the savory meal hits your taste buds.
We were determined to reach Delhi that day itself. It was midnight, and we decided not to stay in Amritsar for the night, and instead make our way towards Noida where we can rest at my friend – Abhijeet’s flat. We decided to switch a couple of times to endure the 500km long drive. However, just as we set out towards Delhi, the Dal Makhani reacted with Jangid’s system and drove him to sleep. I popped open a can of Red Bull and accepted the 500km long challenge. I passed my time with some casual ego races on the highway (which I’m not proud of), and a heavy dose of my eclectic playlist. Now I don’t know whether it was the excess caffeine from the Red Bull or the accelerated adrenaline in my veins, we reached Noida in exactly 5hrs from departure. At 5 am, I called to wake Abhijeet up, who was fast asleep, assuming our ETA to be 7-8 am. Startled, he woke up and came to the main entrance to pick us up. He couldn’t believe that we drove 500km in 5hrs, averaging the speed of 100kmph. That was the last time I drove that fast. Ever since that, I have been an extremely safe driver, operating with the intent of churning out the best mileage by maintaining a reasonable speed. The Garam Khoon has now been cooled down to the room temperature. We spent the night, or whatever was left of it at Abhijeet’s place. He decided to accompany us to Jaipur the next day.
Gazing out of the window, in the most cliched sight ever, I thought about the lessons I had learned on this trip. The love showered by Papa’s friend and then by his acquaintance we had met for the first time. The wholesome hospitality of Sandeep bhaiya’s place and his newly formed friendship was one of the biggest takeaways from the trip.
At the age of 20, I had the fortune of experiencing something that eludes people for a lifetime. I was grateful for everything. For such amazing parents, who believed that the best school for me was the world outside. I still can’t believe how they even allowed me to head to one of the most volatile places in the country at such a tender age. But it is only because of their faith in me that I can grapple the challenges of life fearlessly today. Parenting isn’t about solving your kid’s problems. Instead, it’s about empowering them to solve them on their own, and my parents were a living example of the same.
I thanked Jatin for being such an amazing and trustworthy companion on one of the best road trips that I’d ever taken. He tried hard to match my level of madness despite not being an amusing character himself. I was thankful for his company and support throughout. He had also introduced me to filming – a love affair that’ll last a lifetime.
To me, this trip wasn’t just about the pictures that I had brought back. It was more about the relationships I had fostered on the journey, the time I spent pondering over crucial life decisions, and the lessons of life I was forced to learn amidst challenges. Like a breath of fresh air, I soaked in all of what Kashmir had to offer – in a single puff.
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