Patni Top is about four hours from Jammu by a public bus. It is a high place among passing clouds. Surrounded by pine forest on all sides, its has a cool climate. Coming to Patni Top is a welcome relief from the uncomfortable heat of Jammu. No sooner than I get off the bus a tout approaches me for rooms. I ask around instead for something cheaper.
‘You can try the hostel on top,’ points out a policeman.
I walk past a government run hotel where the cheapest rooms are thousand rupees a night. From the looks of the place, such a steep price does not seem worthwhile. I find the hostel and walk in. The floor is wet and muddy. I find four men sitting around in the manager’s room.
‘We can’t help it,’ says one of them as he points to the floor. I’ve been staring at the floor. ‘The fog comes inside and condenses,’ he explains.
‘Do you have a bed for tonight?’ I come to the point.
‘Sit down. We’ll figure out something,’ says the manager.
That’s all the invitation I need. I set down my backpack and take a seat. One of them goes to the kitchen and comes back with a cup of tea. We chat about my travels and later I ask them about the hostel.
‘Tonight we have a group of fifty on a seven-day trek. This is part of National Heritage Trek 2010 (29 Apr – 15 Jul),’ explains the manager. ‘Groups keep coming almost everyday. They stay at hostels like this one along the trekking route.’
Seeing that it’s past the programme’s end date I ask, ‘Shouldn’t it be over by now?’ It’s 18th July today.’
‘There have been delays due to tension in Kashmir and curfew in Srinagar.’
‘Where will I sleep tonight?’ I ask.
‘We have tents outside. You can stay there,’ he replies. He reflects for a moment and adds, ‘Toilet is a problem outside. Perhaps you can sleep in this room.’ The manager’s room has a spare bed.
‘What do you do?’ someone else in the rooms asks.
‘I’m an engineer. Telecom engineer,’ I reply.
‘How much do you get?’ asks the manager. I quote a figure. I can see that everyone is impressed.
‘Engineer sahib ke liye kuch karo yaar,’ tells the manager’s boss sitting next to me. Eventually I end up with a separate double room with a large balcony almost hugging the deodars towering beside it. The common bathrooms and toilets stink but the sheets in the room are clean. It is amazing what a little bit of status can do. Service comes with status and the expectation of a healthy tip. Later that night I am served for dinner rice, daal with rajma and a tasty pumpkin stew.
When I step out into the surrounding woods, I see the mist rolling in. Tourists are many but there are no foreigners at Patni Top. It is one of those places not yet popular, and probably never will be, with international travel books. Horse rides are popular and so are roasted corn. I see gujjars hiking up to Patni Top from lower slopes with bags filled with fresh corn. They roast them over coal by roadsides and sell to tourists. It is the same gujjars who offer horse rides among the meadows and even through forest tracks to distant viewpoints. Their horses are colourfully decorated. The saddles are cushioned with knitted blankets and embroidered wraps ending in colourful tassels. I pass a gujjar campsite of large tents. These are the homes of gujjars, nomads who come here in summer and move to warmer climates in winter. The men generally wear a long kurta and pyjama. Many sport beards. They have sharp noses and penetrating eyes. They are pleasant people. They don’t hound you for horse rides, only one polite request.
I take to a path leaving Patni Top and disappearing into forest darkness. I cut across a power distribution line. I see terraced fields of corn in the distance. A woman is raking sand on the flat roof of her house in the middle of such fields. The forests around her are thick and the paths through them quite narrow. I pass a woman leading her sheep homeward. Behind her, an old man walks with a log of wood balanced on his shoulder. I walk for an hour till I reach a little waterfall. I return the same way to the meadows where tourists are having fun.
Pines at Patni Top make a composition on their own. Even if one were to strip away the hills, the meadows and the streams, nothing would be lost. Pine trees would stand together in wonderful compositions and perspectives. Sometimes they tower high, reaching for heavenly light. Sometimes they stand silhouetted on a backlit canvas. When the sun has set, they are painted over with a bluish tinge and they are as beings escaped from a fairy tale. When the mist covers the hilltops, the trees stand in many shades of grey receding and merging with the mist. The roots span out on sloping ground. Theirs is a marriage with the hills.
I can’t seem to escape the pines at Patni Top. Dry fine needles get into my boots, cling to my backpack and my clothes. At dinner, I find a pine needle in my rice!