I am only too glad to leave boring Kargil but getting out of here seems to be a problem. Visiting Kashmir is not on the cards. The curfew continues in Srinagar and the Kashmir Valley. Violence has intensified. I have to get back to Delhi and return to Bangalore. My tour of the far north has come to an end.
The safe route to Delhi is via Leh but this is a circuitous route. I need to spend a night in Leh. I know that buses from Leh to Keylong are booked few days in advance in these times. So I may be delayed at Leh for some days till I get a seat to Keylong. Upon leaving Keylong the next morning and past Rohtang Pass, one more night would be wasted in Manali. It is an expensive way to get to Delhi. The alternative is via Srinagar. I could be in Delhi tomorrow night. There are no buses and I have to share a private jeep with others.
‘There may be a vehicle leaving this afternoon,’ tells me someone at the square from where vehicles depart. ‘The safest way is to drive through Srinagar at night.’
It is still early in the day. I am asked to come back at 10 am. There are a handful of vehicles going to Leh or Srinagar but I need a vehicle that can take me all the way to Jammu. Getting stuck in Srinagar would be a big problem.
I buy some fresh apricots, so commonly available in these parts. I walk about Kargil town. I ask for a newspaper. The guy gives me yesterday’s paper. Apparently, today’s paper will arrive into town only in the evening.
Back at the busy and impossibly jammed square, among the many jeeps and other small vehicles parked thoughtlessly, I find my man. The ride to Jammu will cost Rs. 1500. At any other time, this might be considered outrageously expensive but not today. This is the only vehicle going to Jammu. The driver will not budge from his initial price. I weigh my options. If I take the longer route via Leh, I not only lose many days but I will end up spending more overall. I book my seat. There are still three hours to departure.
Although the jeep, a Mahindra Maxx vehicle, fills up we are slow to depart. A couple of passengers arrive late. We wait a little longer for some luggage. I sit around chatting with the driver, a confident chap who gives the impression that he has done this many times over.
‘Wherever you go in Kargil, its only Muslim food. I can’t eat that,’ he complains. ‘There is a Punjabi dhaba here but it is horrible.’
We leave Kargil at half past two. We make quick progress through mountain terrain but somehow nature’s wonders don’t impress me anymore. I am more worried about getting safely past Srinagar. We take a short break at Dras. A board announces proudly that this is the “second coldest inhabited place in the world.” My fellow travellers sit around in a restaurant drinking tea. A Mumbai army jawan travelling with us is gorging on a meal. I munch on a green pear followed closely by a handful of apricots.
Standing by the main road in Dras, I can see the famous Tiger Hill. Capturing this hill has been crucial to winning the Kargil War. The peak rises sharply in a gloomy blackness. The high slopes are touched here and there with patches of snow. Many lives on both sides have been lost on this hill. Dras is a place that has been at the heart of Kargil War. Locals say that bombs fell right in the heart of Dras town.
Back in the jeep, some nap. Others get acquainted with their fellow travellers. There are a couple of guys from Kargil. They should be of some help to us. Kashmiris do not hate Kargil folks as much as they hate Indians. Whether all this hatred is a ground reality, it is hard to say. Jobless youths are paid to throw stones and create trouble. Someone somewhere holds the strings and runs the show. It could be the hardliner Syed Ali Gilani.
By the time of sunset we have driven past the Zoji Pass, commonly called Zoji La. I can hardly remember anything to recall about this pass. Perhaps, I was tired. Perhaps I have been bored of these mountains. Once in a while we pass army camps or cross a river at a truss bridge built by the BRO (Border Roads Organization). Closer to sunset, by a narrow high road, we approach the valley leading to Sonamarg. The road is so narrow that we are forced to wait for overloaded trucks to pass us on their way to Zoji La. It is a real struggle for the trucks even on a slight upward climb.
‘This is called Caption Mode,’ says the driver as we take our break. The story goes that there was some sort of an argument between a certain army caption and his superior. In the subsequent fight both of them fell into the gorge below. The ghost of the caption is known to still haunt the place.
‘In spring when the road reopens, no traffic goes this way till the caption’s wife does a puja here,’ the driver points to a little shrine at a turning built in the memory of the caption.
From here the view of the valley below is magnificent. In this impossibly isolated place, there is crowd down there. Hundreds of vehicles are parked. Hundreds of tents have been pitched. This is a campsite of Amarnath yatris. We think it’s a good idea to camp here and join the yatris on their way to Jammu. But our driver is overconfident. He thinks we can reach Jammu on our own.
The same music is being played again and again. I am quite bored with it but the Mumbaikar is enjoying it. We pass Sonamarg. It is a tourist place famed for its views and as the name suggests, golden meadows. It is a beautiful place but it is not any greater than Patni Top, Bhadarwah or Triund. I am beginning to get the feeling that Kashmir is overrated.
We are now driving in the first darkness of the night. Not long after passing Sonamarg we bump into the first trouble spot of the Kashmir Valley. A group of youths block the road. We quickly lower our windows. Someone says he has to get to Jammu for an exam. Another claims he has to get to a hospital in Jammu. The youths are not taken in by these lies.
‘Ham kya chahte hai?’ shouts out one youth while weilding his stick. Others have come with their own sticks and stones.
‘Azaadi,’ exclaims one of our Kargil guys. This satisfies the group. They spit on a map of India drawn in chalk on the road.
‘Azaad Kashmir…,’ shouts the leader.
‘…Zindabad!’ comes the response in chorus. This goes on for a few seconds.
They spit again on the map and command us to drive over it. It has been a close call. The road to Srinagar is full of rocks and makeshift barricades laid out by revolting Kashmiri youths. Sometimes we have to get down from our vehicle to move aside these road blocks. We get stopped by youths once more but thankfully the miscreants get distracted by another vehicle behind us. We escape safely while the other vehicle gets attacked and its windshield shattered.
At about 9 pm we get stopped at a police checkpost. We are directed to a campsite dedicated to Amarnath yatris. It is a welcome break for all of us. Free food and drinks are being handed out at the campsite for one and all. Loud devotional music is playing in an open tent. People are dancing to the tune, some in near ecstasy. Coming here, you wouldn’t guess that Kashmir is in so much trouble. We have our dinner. It is an excellent dinner, cleanly prepared and served with a smile. We wait and wait. I take a nap in the jeep.
At half past two in the morning, the police give us the green signal to proceed to Srinagar, but not alone. A convoy of Amarnath yatris and other tourist vechicles, about thirty vehicles in all, is on its way to Srinagar. We will be joining them. There is safety in numbers. All the vehicles get lined up in a long train. Ours is the first. Before us are two CRPF vans and the policemen are all armed. A police jeep precedes the convoy. An officer comes to the driver, gathers necessary details and gives a number to call in case of emergency. Like an expedition of some sort, we leave in orderly fashion. For once, there is discipline on this Indian road and no one overtakes.
The rest of the journey is eventless. We pass Srinagar in darkness. All the great things I had listed on my travel itinerary will remain unseen. The Dal Lake is a black expanse with a few lights at its margins and their shimmering reflections. The crowds have dispersed and all is silent. Mangled vehicles lie by some roads. A couple of jeeps are still burning.
The Mumbaikar wants to listen to the same old songs. No one is really in a mood to entertain him. I can sense that everyone is praying. Although Srinagar has been passed, the danger is not fully behind us. With the first morning light breaking into the Kashmir Valley, some of the night’s anxiety is relieved. Light does wonderful things. For the rest of the way to Jammu, we are frequently delayed by painfully slow moving traffic. It looks like many have journeyed across Srinagar last night and everyone is heading south.
Kashmir is a lost valley, lost not in the romantic sense of Atlantis, the Lost City of Gold but in the sorry sense of being at some place and not knowing where to go, wandering in a self-willed chaos. This could have been heaven but it is hell.