And then the day to leave Chatpal arrived. I hate to wake up early in such mornings. It’s like a dream ending too soon, and you don’t want to wake up.
“Yousmarg is way more beautiful,” whispers Mangu, one of the drivers, in my ears.
It’s still not enough to make me leave my bed, but then everyone else has started packing their bags and I join the momentum as well.
It has been pouring, as if the sky has been crying at our departure. There’s a solemn environment all across the bungalow, everyone is trying to hide their sadness at leaving Chatpal by busying themselves in running around, getting their bags packed and ensuring they hadn’t left anything behind, but everyone knows they’re leaving behind a part of their soul. Everyone knows that.
The car journey from Chatpal starts under an overcast skies, but the light improves as we move forward, as if the nature was paving way for us to move ahead. Yousmarg has been waiting for us, and we had decided to skip Srinagar for this next of relatively undiscovered destination.
Breakfast at Anantnag, Lunch break in Srinagar, the journey is again becoming a lengthy one but I don’t mind. I don’t want to traverse through Kashmir too fast. My mind has been hovering since last night, I’ve been observing everything too closely, instead of speaking too much.
We stop at Avantiswamin temple on our way to Yousmarg, another set of ruins that have been excavated, and are now a wonderful place for a pit spot on your way to Srinagar.
There are these sights on the way, Jhelum, ruins, Charar-i-shareef dargah, the gardens of Srinagar, the beautiful mountain ranges etc. But there’s more to Kashmir, I’m trying to grasp that, I’m trying to grasp the intricacies of this region, of how it’s so similar to the mainland India and yet maintain its own identity.
The people here are more polite, they’re way more helpful, but there’s this inquisitiveness in their eyes, they’ve seen more than I’ve seen. They know way more than I’ll ever know. And yet, they’re humble to the point, where I feel bigger in stature than them. But I’m not, they are. They’re the ones full of love, and I’m just a man who still has to decide whom to love and whom to not.
Kashmir is a lesson in love, I guess. It teaches you to love, it teaches to not think before you love.
You’re not just the sum total of people you meet, you’re not what they collectively think you are. You’re more than that, I’m more than that.
I’m as beautiful as the experiences I have, and as powerful as passionate are my moments. I’m as mysterious as the forests I walk through, and as radiant as the sunlight that pours through the canopy of trees in that forest. I’m as gentle as the waters of lake situated in between the forest, and as thunderous as the clouds waiting to drench us all.
Eight days on the road with nine other people can get a bit overwhelming and therefore, it’s important to keep taking some time out for yourself.
I woke up early and sat down with Rafiq bhai who owns Shareif Hotel in Yousmarg. We’re lucky to be staying with him in his well-managed, albeit simple, property, since the government lodges were overbooked and expensive.
Rafiq bhai have been telling me about the region, the inhabitants of jungles around Yousmarg, their poor economic states, their mode of income and the town of Charar-i-shareef. We shared a breakfast of coffee and Kashmiri tandoori roti, waiting for Ashraf bhai to mark his presence and take me to Nilnag, the blue lake.
There have been a few things clouding my mind during the past few days, they’ve been bothering me, upsetting me and making me doubt myself at times. And somewhere, the search for Nilnag through the forest also became a search for myself.
Meanwhile, on returning to the base, I found Udit sitting on a horse with his equipment and being ready to leave for the interiors of the forests around Yousmarg. It has been our dreams to cover the lives of Bakarwals, the shepherd community of Kashmir, and while I opted to stay back in Yousmarg for the day, he left in search of them.
The clouds roared, the trees swayed in the strong gush of wind, and I prayed for his safe return.
Tapshi and I sat on the bench by the reservoir in the Yousmarg park. There weren’t many people around, to listen to our conversations. The birds tweeted, I noted down the colours of all the wild flowers blooming around us, blue, red, violet, yellow, white etc, and the Azaan filled the air for a few minutes.
The skies were blue, but the clouds were slowly moving towards the meadows, the bakarwals had left their homes with the sheeps, horses were grazing across the meadow, two kids were running away from their mother. We conversed a bit, and then we sat silently staring away at the horizon.
Silences are so beautiful, and specially if you have someone to share them with. Tapshi is one person I’ve shared a lot during this trip, but I shared the most with her when we sat silently that afternoon.
Later that evening we left for Charar-i-shareef, had a late lunch in a small cafe, ran around the town searching for a good internet connection, and then returned without doing much.
They all wanted to party that night by the bonfire, I retired early to my room for I was tired. I wasn’t physically tired, but a lot had been going through my head and it was time I let it all go.
Yousmarg is our last stop in Kashmir, and tomorrow we leave for Ladakh, with a night’s break in Srinagar in between.
Yousmarg is a beauty, it’s an absolutely mindblowing place, and a meadow as beautiful as you’ll ever see. The people are helpful, our host Rafiq bhai was amazing, but the place, it’s like heaven.
Yousmarg made me believe that Kashmir is truly the heaven on earth, and there’s no other place that I can compare with Yousmarg. It’s probably the most scenic place I’ve ever been, it’s magical, and then when you climb up one of the meadows till a certain point and turn around, you see the snow covered Pir Panjal range quietly rising from behind the forests, and starting a journey that’d only end in Uttarakhand.
There are small lakes and shrines in these forests, the Bakarwals, their villages, and many a stories floating in the cold winds of forests. I want to read them all, I want to write a lot about Yousmarg. I want to spend a whole lot more time, but for now I’ll have to leave.
The bag are being kept in the car, but not before I saw a beautiful rainbow appearing over the meadow of Yousmarg, it was a twin rainbow, and I stood there watching it, knowing everyone else was still sleeping and maybe it was a sign for the time to come.
A rainbow just for my eyes.
Car moved through the winding roads, down the valley, towards Charar-i-shareef. Tapshi was hanging out of the window, making a video, while Udit was busy making us listen to his fantastic playlist. I love his song collection, and Sumi asked us to stop at a point where she wanted to sit for sometime. Rashi, and Tapshi joined her.
Charar-i-Shareef glowed in bright sunlight that morning, as we entered the Dargah and let it enchant us.
When I started planning this trip, this Dargah was always a main landmark in the itinerary, and spending only an hour felt like a bit too less. However, I promised myself to return soon, to this Dargah, to Yousmarg.
However, until then I have to travel further, towards Zanskar and Ladakh, but there’s Srinagar before that, where we’re going to spend the night on a houseboat in Dal Lake.
Now, I’m not a big fan of houseboat, but the thought has been changing. I spent the previous evening sitting by the deck, and staring at the sun going down into the lake. The orange of the sky reflected my mood on the gentle waters of Dal, and the night brought stars along. I saw the stars and then came the clouds with drizzles, after drizzle came the sleep to overpower me.
The morning came with the news that cloudburst has delayed our progress to Kargil, and now all I wanted was to roam around Srinagar. While half the team left for a day trip to Gulmarg, rest of us decided to go out in Srinagar, only to find out that it was closed for the day due to some tensions.
That evening I left for the interiors of Dal lake on a shikara, I asked the oarsman to take me into a non-tourist zone, I wanted to feel the silence in the hidden corners of Dal lake. He took me to a part, where he said he hadn’t brought any Indian tourist ever.
He didn’t speak much, I didn’t ask much. I just lied down on shikara, with my hand dipped in the waters of Dal, I saw many a locals pass us by on their personal boat. I saw a family arriving at their home on a boat, after the Eid holiday, I saw a lady serving tea to the guests sitting in the boat, I saw a girl carrying some sheep in a boat back home, and two school going kids were rowing their own small boat, laughing at their own jokes.
I saw a life beyond the life we usually see, I saw the people of water, I saw the smiles that don’t belong to lands, I saw eyes that look for the messages appearing through the water, I felt a stillness that didn’t scare me, it wasn’t a stillness that belonged to stagnation, it was a still of past, present and future.
It was a stillness of a life that knew a different way, stillness of a path previously unknown to me. I felt the stillness of Dal seeping within me. And I felt calm, I smiled at the kid waving at me from a house by the banks of Dal.
Was there really a kid waving at me, or was it an apparition?
Another cloud burst in Baltal, and we are still stuck in Srinagar. I want to go out and click some pictures, Srinagar has become our refuge, until the Srinagar-Leh highway clears up.
I want to be in Zanskar, I want to see Sonamarg, I want Sumi to see those snow clad mountains. She is one of my biggest reasons of this trip, she hasn’t seen the Himalayas ever, the only person in the group who hasn’t. I can’t wait to see how she’d react to those might mountain ranges. I am going to sit with her in the car, the day we move towards Kargil from Srinagar. But as of now, it doesn’t look likely, thanks to the cloudburst.
Sakshi and I decide to have breakfast at 14th Avenue. I don’t know what is 14th Avenue, but she seems to know that it’s a great place, and I believe her the moment we arrive.
It’s a small cafe with a whole lot of character, and we saw the boats floating in Jhelum, which flows right across the windows. We are sitting on this side of the window, indulge ourselves in conversations and shakes, while on the other side a white tomb of a mosque is peeking from between a maze of discolored houses, the muddy waters of Jhelum are failing to reflect the dark overcast skies, while inside we’re sitting in a relatively more comfortable environment.
I decided to return to the houseboat after the breakfast, and in the meanwhile we heard the news of Srinagar being shut all of a sudden. Sensing tension in the air, we preferred to sit in the houseboat for rest of the day, and only using Shikara rides in Dal as our escape from the boredom of a houseboat.
I’ve come to realize that houseboat aren’t all that great, as they make them sound. While Shikara rides are way better than I thought.
It’s a slow day, the trip has slowed down. But I hope we leave for Kargil soon.
It’s unacceptable, says my heart.
But there’s no other way, says my mind.
Naim is here, and we have decided to cancel the rest of journey at this point. The cloudburst can’t stop happening, and the road to Kargil has been washed away, ahead of Sonmarg. There’s no way we can go ahead, and there’s no other option left for us, than to pack our bag and return to Delhi.
None of us want to do that, and it’s evident in everyone’s eyes since last night, when it was decided that we should return, keeping in mind everyone’s safety. I think that’s a right decision, since I’m not travelling alone and the other nine people are our responsibility.
As the car moves through the Kashmir valley, back to Jammu, everything flashes past my mind. Chatpal, Achchabal, Martand, Patnitop, Yousmarg, Srinagar, everything, I am trying hard not to let it show on my face. I am sporting a smile, I know that I’ll return, but it’ll take sometime.
I wanted us to move through Srinagar to Kargil, I wanted to see Sumi’s reactions, I wanted us to cross Zozila Pass, stop at Drass, spend a night in Kargil, attend Sani monastery festival in Zanskar, dance by the banks of Tso Moriri, camp at Nubra, and much more. We had so many plans, but life has some other plans.
And through my travels I’ve learned to believe, even when all your beliefs seem to have shaken up. I believe that the road back to Delhi is not an end, but a new start. And so I’ll see you again, at that new start.
Until then, I must accept what has been given to me in the space of these 13 days.