Sunday, July 25, 2010

Déjà vu- Chapter 2- They'll come tumblin' down the mountains (Gulmarg and back)

The evening of 16th June brought with itself a fair amount of joy and anticipation. Freezing while the rest of the country scorched itself dry was always going to be quite a treat. What would follow would be an overnight visit to the meadows of Gulmarg, about an hour and a half away from Srinagar. After lunch at home in Srinagar, what followed can only be described as a frantic rush, as all of us packed our bags with warm clothes, and our stomachs with more Kashmiri cuisine and quickly boarded, the now familiar green Tata Sumo.

The road to Gulmarg isn't particularly eventful. The lowest level is not very high, so the drive isn't very steep. The day was also a rather cloudy one, so there weren't too many views to be had. Under usual circumstances, this would've been a fairly boring 90 kilometers. We, however, had Shagun with us. After a slow and silent start, it almost seemed as if someone flipped a switch inside here head, and we were kept entertained with some rather animated singing, yelling and dancing, all within the confines of our vehicle. We arrived at Gulmarg towards late evening. It was already getting dark because of the cloud cover, something we hoped would abate the next day. I recalled that the view from Gulmarg was one that you wouldn't want ruined by clouds. Somewhere along the way to our cottage, Manav, overcome by a wave of what I can only call klutzi-ness (for the lack of a more suitable word), managed to drop a rather expensive ring of his into a puddle of rainwater. This one sounds like a no-brainer, but for about fifteen minutes on the evening of 16th June, you could find me, Manav and two helpful Kashmiri men with our hands inside a dirty puddle of freezing rainwater trying to find Manav's ring. The ring was found eventually, and we all settled into our cottage as it began to get dark and cold. Spain began its duel with Switzerland in the World Cup a few minutes later, a duel that would later end in a surprise defeat for Spain. By night, it had become quite cold, and while we retired to our cottage after a nice meal for a night of banter, one was worried for Siraj, our driver who slept in the car. That night we talked till late, recoiled in horror at the news of Spain's defeat, warmed ourselves with some rum, and went off to bed, me with a very welcome electric blanket under me.

The clouds seemed to have parted a little the next morning, as Pathik and I woke up early and decided to take a walk around Gulmarg. This is where I carry out a formal introduction. Gulmarg is essentially a meadow at the base of the Pir Panjal mountains. It is very popular with Indian tourists during summer, and is a popular skiing destination during the winter months. Not long ago, a two-level cable car system was opened, which transported tourists from the base of the mountain at 8000 feet, to the first level at 10,500 feet and onward to the highest level at 14,000 feet. This gondola lift ride is very popular with tourists who visit Gulmarg (the alternative being a three and a half hour mule ride), so we had to get our tickets done in advance. When PP and I returned from our walk, we found everyone up and about, including Siraj, who was now engaging with Mohsin in a candid conversation about family, Kashmir and independence. As I sat there listening to stories of some members of his family and some of his friends, either getting into trouble for stone-pelting or getting caught in the crossfire, I couldn't help but feel that there's no reason why anyone should live with this sense of hurt (the politics of it all, aside). After a rather prolonged conversation, which was taking place as people took turns to get ready, we headed out towards the gondola with our guide, Amin. Soon after, we found ourselves above 10,000 feet for the first time on the trip. It wasn't the most pleasant experience, because it began to pour as soon as we touched down. We ran for cover, inside a restaurant at level one, where we warmed ourselves with the fieriest plate of scrambled eggs we'd ever had. Fortunately for us, the rain abated soon and we were able to take the second leg of the gondola ride, right up to the second level at 14,000 feet. An icy blast of wind greeted us as we stepped out of the gondola, but as soon as we recovered from the cold shock, we saw the beautiful blanket of white that we'd been waiting to see for the longest time. After a quick hire of shoes and some jackets, we found Amin leading us up the mountain. To be precise, Amin was leading, and most of us were puffing our way up the mountain. For one, it proved to be amazingly difficult to get any kind of grip in the snow, given that we were wearing gum boots which were made of rubber and had no spikes. Also creating obstacles, were the extremely high levels of fitness which we had ensured before trying to run up the mountain. At the top of the mountain, however, we found some skiers waiting to take us to a place where we could supposedly view all of the Kashmir valley from. Gulmarg has a new concept called the "ski taxi". The concept is pretty simple. The skier skis to the destination, and you, the fare, stands on his skis wearing rubber boots with no spikes and hang on to his jacket for dear life. If you haven't figured out yet, it's a little bit of a recipe for disaster, as Manav realized. While most of us, at worst, slipped off the skis a few times, Manav took two rather hard tumbles off the skis and face-planted himself in the snow. While I'm sure it was quite a harrowing experience for him, for me, who was on the "ski-taxi" behind him, it was a sight to remember. Manav needed special care after that; I wonder how much all of this must have traumatized the skier. The Kashmir valley chose to not present itself to us that day, and stayed hidden behind a veil of clouds. After a slightly disappointing and very expensive trip to the view point, most of the group decided to take some rest, some feeling slightly heady, others feeling very cold.

(Above: Clockwise from top left: Gulmarg, all of us at the 2nd level, the mountains from level one, and Manav hanging on to dear life on the "ski-taxi")

Mohsin, Amin and I took a walk to a spot from where we were told the LoC would be visible. It was encouraging to see that neither Mohsin nor I were feeling any severe effects of altitude, considering that we had a trek planned for later. As we waited for about half an hour for the clouds to part, we engaged Amin in some political discourse. It became quite clear that he was an employee of the government and wouldn't dare say anything against it, even if he wanted to. The viewing odds, however, weren't stacked in our favour, and the clouds only parted for a short while to help us catch a glimpse of the view around. The three of us headed back down to the gondola stop where we were re-united with the rest of the gang. The clouds began to disperse quickly as we made our way down to the first level, and it became very clear that some time needed to be spent in clicking pictures at the first level. Shagun, Mohsin and Ruchira carried on to the base, and the remaining five of us stayed around at the first level for about half an hour more so that we could soak up some of the mountain sun and click a few pictures. Soon, it was time to bid farewell to Gulmarg. We went back down to our cottage, where Siraj was waiting for us to take us back to Srinagar.

It was Thursday afternoon as we drove into Srinagar, meeting Siraj's brother Imran along the way. Imran would be driving us to Kargil two days from now. Given that we had the evening to ourselves, a group I now call "Three and a half men" headed for Srinagar town, where PP wanted to buy a replacement for the jacket he'd mistakenly left home; a jacket that would save him from freezing as we travelled to Leh. On that little mini-tour of Srinagar, Manav would also find that one nerve of Mohsin's that he would pick for the next week. We reached back home fairly late in the night, owing to long traffic jams along the boulevard on the banks of the Dal lake. No one had the energy for conversation that night, and we all retired early, with the exception of those of us who saw the dying minutes of the day's last football game. Roy was to arrive for a three day trip to Srinagar the next day, and the group would swell to its maximum size.

The next morning was a relaxed one; tired from the previous day's road journey, most of us slept till late. Fridays are eventful days in Srinagar. People assemble together for Friday prayers, and community sentiment is at a fever pitch. It's not uncommon for protests and stone-throwing to break out right before or after the Friday prayers in various parts around the city; "Twenty20", as Siraj put it. Shaoli went along with Manav and PP on another shikara tour of the Dal lake, and returned rather excited at having driven past a procession that was beginning to form near the lake. Some other forces were at work in the background. Shagun had been called by a company for a job interview which might have had to attend a few days from then. This meant that there was a possibility that she would not accompany us to Leh. As Roy arrived, we began to wonder if the city that was on the edge would hold its nerve and not break into violence. This was especially important because some of us had planned to visit the Hazratbal shrine later that afternoon. The shrine is in the old city, which is a particularly volatile area, should any violence break out. Thankfully, though, the city was calm in the afternoon and five of us along with Firdous headed towards Hazratbal, while the rest headed out in a different direction. The two groups planned to reunite a couple of hours later on the Dal. I make it a point to visit Hazratbal every time I visit Srinagar. Hazratbal is a mosque by the Dal, in the old city, and houses a single strand of hair from Prophet Muhammad's beard. Visiting Hazratbal is always a very calming experience for me, so I have made it a point to visit it every one of the three times I have been in Srinagar. We arrived at Hazratbal just as the evening prayers were beginning. PP, Manav and I went in to the main prayer hall with Firdous, where many men stood in prayer, voicing their prayers in unison, led by the Imam. It was a very intense moment as we stood right there in the midst of such fervent prayer. After spending some time in the lawns of Hazratbal, all of us headed to our rendezvous point where Roy, Shagun and Mohsin were waiting for us with Ruchira's birthday cake. We had delayed celebrations for Ruchira's birthday until Roy's arrival, and I'm sure she would attest to the fact that this was perhaps one of the most scenic backdrops against which one could cut one's birthday cake. For the next one hour, we floated on the Dal in two shikaras and watched sun drown into the lake, leaving behind the marvellous hues of evening.

Above: Left to right: The Hazratbal shrine, a scenic sunset on the Dal)

After having experienced the sunset on the Dal, we headed to the plush Grand Palace hotel (now called The Lalit, but I refrain from doing so, owing to threats I have received) for a birthday dinner. We reached home rather late that night. In the meantime, it had been ascertained that Shagun would have to leave for the interview. This meant that we would be leaving behind Shagun and Roy when we left for Kargil next morning. We stayed up till very late that night, a decision that would cost us valuable time the next morning. No one really cared though, and who would? The next day, our road trip would truly begin, and along with it, the most scenic part of our trip!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Déjà vu- Chapter 1- In the beginning (Introduction to Srinagar)

In the beginning, there was light; a little too much of it perhaps. It was mid-June in Delhi and the sun was relentless. It'd hide for a few hours, and just when hope was at its peak, the sun would pop out again and dry out any trace of moisture in the air. By the time the first pack of five arrived at the airport to board our flights to Srinagar, there was much anticipation for the trip ahead. This trip had begun to take flight right after I had come back from Ladakh in 2008 and showed Mohsin the photographs. Around April this year, we began to put rough plans in place. One by one, people began to add to the troupe that would be invading the mountains, come June. All plans had been made, all tickets had been booked and all the bags had been packed, when a child died in firing in Srinagar. This is one of the things one needs to be prepared for when travelling to Kashmir- a sudden change of plans. We had an emergency meeting on the eve of our departure, and decided to go anyway, considering Mohsin's house was in a very safe locality very close to the airport. Anchors away, it was.

On the morning of 15th of June, Mohsin, Shaoli, Shagun, Ruchira and I set out for Srinagar. I was on a flight that arrived an hour and a half before the rest, so as I crossed the cloud covered Pir-Panjal range and my plane began to circle into Srinagar airport, I knew I had plenty of time to kill. An initial scare did manage to throw me off a little bit. My backpack fell off the inclined conveyor belt at the airport, concealed from my view. For the next fifteen minutes, I anxiously waited for my luggage to appear on the belt. The belt stopped, everyone left, and I was left wondering whether I would have to spend the next twenty days with just the clothes on my back. Thankfully, a short search yielded my backpack lying adjacent to the belt, shaken but not stirred. I spent the rest of my time reading my copy of Crime and Punishment (that I haven't managed to finish in 6 months) and trying to block out an exceptionally loud contingent of three families, who were making an embarrassment of themselves, and whose kids were making my life miserable.
The hour passed by quite quickly and I was reunited with the rest of the group, after which we headed straight for Mohsin's beautiful house; a place I now call the Bhat Palace (right). At the Bhat Palace, we met the inimitable caretaker of the house, Firdous. He would go on to take a special liking for Manav later, and also try and convert me to Islam. The rest of the afternoon was spent in taking in the cool climes, stuffing ourselves full with Kashmiri food and getting used to the gunshot sounds, that thankfully were only the sound of the army practicing in the nearby shooting range. The sound of security, as Mohsin puts it. In the evening, we proceeded to do the basics- a shikara ride to the Char Chinaari (below), a small island in the middle of the Dal lake with four Chinaar trees on it (hence the name). The weather in the hills had been pretty turbulent off late, so the pakoras followed by the bhuna gosht were quite a delight when it began to pour.

That night, the eve of Ruchira's birthday, we sat in Mohsin's backyard, hearing the rain and freezing along with it, talking about life and sundry things. We did take the occasional break from talking to wish Ruchira a happy birthday, of course. The next morning was a pleasant one. The clouds had rained themselves out and the sun was shining, something we didn't think was particularly pleasant in Delhi at that time. Shagun, Shaoli and I, accompanied by Firdous decided to pay a short visit to the Mughal Garden called Nishat. Those of you who read The Circle of Life, might recall that I was rather disappointed with my last visit to Nishat. The fountains in the beautiful garden had turned into a swimming pool for pot-bellied and middle aged tourists. Fortunately, there seems to have been a crackdown on aquatic activity of this kind, in recent times. If nothing else, the cold weather ensured that no one felt obliged to take their clothes off a take a dip. The recent cold weather, however, also meant that the flowers were not in bloom. Nishat did afford us, however, a nice view of the Dal (below).

Shortly after our return back home, Manav and PP arrived. Manav was already bursting at the seams with joy (and it takes a lot for Manav to burst out of his rather wide seams) after finally having made it to Kashmir. There wasn't much time to waste, however, because right after lunch we were on the road to Gulmarg. Finding snow in June would be quite a treat!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Déjà vu- Preface

Two years ago when I wrote The Circle of Life, I signed off wondering when I'll visit Ladakh next. As it turns out, it didn't take long for me turn on my heels and head to the mountains once again; this time with a larger group of Ladakh enthusiasts.

I recently returned from an eighteen-day-long trip of Jammu and Kashmir. This was my third, and thus far, my longest visit to J&K. Over these eighteen days, I covered by road, Kashmir, Ladakh and Zanskar. For the completely uninitiated, J&K is the northernmost state of India. It's disputed territory, and the ceasefire line called (Line of Control), runs right through the state and serves as a de-facto border of sorts, so there'll be many who will argue against that last statement I made. Let us, for the purpose of this discussion, consider that as a purely geographical, and not a political statement. The state is as riddled with mountain ranges and pristine lakes as it is with conflict and complex humanitarian situations. A land so beautiful is obviously coveted, ergo fought over. In these few days that I spent in the region, I experienced a heady mix of all of the above, leaving me with a taste in my mouth that would be hard to forget.

I've always loved road travel. I feel that the slower one travels, the more one learns about the land. I'd personally prefer to walk through these mountains if my body could take it. But a long road journey in the hills, aside from throwing up the meal you indiscriminately gorged on, also throw up a bunch of stories and interesting anecdotes you're left narrating for life. This story has a number of characters. The six main characters are myself, Mohsin, Ruchira, Shaoli (aka Shao), Manav and Pathik (aka PP). Prashant (aka Roy) and Shagun make a short appearance. Khalid and Hussain (aka Balli) light up the proceedings towards the end. Also thrown in are a motley crew of other characters such as Rohit the civil engineer-cum-amateur ornithologist, John the travelling septuagenarian and Jigme, who Mohsin correctly describes as the coolest guy in all of Ladakh (that expression really loses meaning sometimes in a place like that).

On to why this book is titled thus. This being my third trip to J&K overall, and my second trip to Ladakh, gave me in a lot of places, a deep sense of familiarity; almost like a dream I'd woken up from and fallen right back into. Many of the places that I visited, I recalled distinctly from my last trip there. It was nice to see that many of these places hadn't changed much from the last time I went there. Déjà vu literally means "already seen", but that I feel, is a far cry from what I felt when I revisited this beautiful land. Déjà vu for me, means return to a land that I felt welcomed in, again.

Over the next few posts, I will chronicle sights, sounds and stories from our long journey through Kashmir, Ladakh and Zanskar.

Let me begin where I left with The Circle of Life:

"A travelling fool is better than a sitting wise man"