Chatpal is a heaven hidden in the interiors of Shangus district.
It is the line I wrote on our first morning in Chatpal, as I walked barefoot above the glistening dew drops with a cup of tea in my hand.
“Shabnam, as we call it. Walking on it barefoot can increase your lifespan,” said Hilal, with a big smile on his face. He was one of the caretakers at the Chatpal tourist bungalow, that stood behind him, with the mountain range providing the perfect backdrop.
It felt like a dream, a home in the middle of nowhere, and unfamiliarity surrounding us all. There were mountains laden with Pine trees all around us and sounds from the brook cutting through the valley reverberated around.
We wanted to listen to stories that haven’t been heard, we wanted to unearth the experience that we had never known about, and I guess that’s what played a role in making Chatpal as our first destination upon entering Kashmir valley.
Corn fields from across the lush green valley grabbed my attention as I continued my conversations with Hilal, discussing about the life in Chatpal, about the region for it was visible to me that Chatpal was nothing but a small meadow, used by Bakarwals to pitch their tents once upon a time, and a local picnic spot for people around the region. It wasn’t a village, it wasn’t a place where I would have found human faces all around, there were stories to be heard. And the unfamiliarity I could around me looked perfect for some exploration.
“Thimran, it’s the last village of the valley,” Hilal replied, while also mentioning that it was his village as well.
I was walking through the bushes, lost in my thoughts as a goat crossed my path, and a Bakarwal kid went running by, and stopped at a distance, staring at me with eyes full of curiosity. I continued descending to the level of the brook, where a dry tree stood at its bank like a guard and a wooden bridge led one to the other side of the valley. As I stood on the bridge, staring at the water gushing down my feet, I realized that it was a feeling every traveler yearns for.
The water’s sound, drowned every other noise around me, as I stood there alone with my own thoughts for company, and the droplets jumping out of the stream were hitting my face every now and then bringing me back to the reality, while others with me waited for me to join them on the other side of the bridge.
Chatpal looked beautiful in the morning, but once one cross over to the other side of the valley and turn around to look at the bungalow where we were staying, then one sees beyond the brook a wooden house standing on a tiny meadow and behind it the mountain rises, and small trails go up into the pine forests, only to disappear quickly.
One wonders what creatures might exist in those forests, what views one would be able to see if they climb till the top of that mountain, and in between you’re distracted by the stream that curves down towards the only outlet of the valley one is standing in.
Thimran lies a few minutes walk away from Chatpal, a small village but rich in experiences. The people here doesn’t mind before promptly asking you to join them in their houses for a round of tea, and meals as well.
The kids running around, would stare at you with curiosity, while the elders would greet you and shower you with all sorts of question. They’d want to know from where you belong, before looking at your camera and asking if you’re a reporter trying to capture their lives for a newspaper.
Back in Delhi, before the trip when we discussed about Chatpal, everyone was confused why this was chosen as the first destination, there wasn’t much information about the place and we weren’t even getting the contact information about the tourist bungalow here. There was an idea that once we’d reach Chatpal we’d be without electricity and phone network. For a moment we even thought about skipping it.
But the sense of unfamiliarity, mystery that the name Chatpal carried was something that spurred us on, and we ended up finalizing on it.
Thimran is a village of stories, as varied as they can get. And I knew I’d be building my own, when I heard Shamima Begum and her husband, call me for a cup of tea at their place, when I was standing and chatting with Salim bhai at the village’s square.
A walk through a short muddy lane lead me to their house, built out of wood, with two kids staring from a small window overhead. I walked through the narrow staircase, with my head bent low, into a larger space, where already a man was smoking from a hukkah.
Mudassar bhai, told me about their daily lives, while also making it a point to ask about mine, as we sat on the rug that graced the floor, while Shamima prepared tea for me.
Outside the window I could still see our Bungalow in the Chatpal, while inside the room I was having my rendezvous with Kashmir. Meeting the people who form the land, the stories that exist in the region, the true interiors that always remain untouched when we travel through a region. When suddenly Nadia came running along with her younger sister, and suddenly stopped in their paths after noticing the presence of a stranger.
Nadia hid behind her mother, and glanced at me with curious eyes, while I was engaged in conversation with men of the house. Mudassar bhai, told me about their life in winter time, while Shamima begum was telling me about her brother-in-law who got cookies for them from Delhi, that were given to me along with the tea.
I was then lead through the village my Salim bhai, who was a teacher in a nearby school, and he showed me the village mosque, village school, told me about the history of the village, about which nobody knows except for the fact that it was the last village of the valley on the route that Bakarwals take, while going in search of pasture for their livestock.
When we left from Jammu, neither us nor taxi drivers had any clue about Chatpal. We weren’t even sure if we would make it to the Chatpal or we’d have to take a stop somewhere on the way that night. And it did took us a lot of time to reach Chatpal, which included getting stuck in a village we had no idea about.
But we did reach Chatpal safely, in the dead of the night, when all we could see were the stars in the sky and as much as the car’s headlights allowed. The villages on the way passed us by, with few men on the streets and lights from the houses as our only evidences of them being occupied. While our drivers kept telling us stories about how it’s unsafe to be in the interiors of Kashmir.
Adil and his family treated me for breakfast, I had just greeted them but their willingness to accept a stranger in their space was something that was putting me at ease.
Everyone around me in Chatpal wanted to know about us, they wanted to tell us more about their region, and with a big smile on their face, they seemed to welcome us all.
While I kept losing myself in the beauty of Chatpal, it was the people there that left a huge impact on me. They were going out of their way to help us, or whenever I walked through a village, I was asked to join them for a meal, and all I had to do while having my meal was to talk to them, ask them about their lives, and tell them about mine.
I found Hasan, liked Manto while he was doing a distance learning course from University in Srinagar, whereas Mushtaq Bhai, the school teacher in the village told me about his interest in science and astronomy, which made us approach a nearby school in Chakilpora and conduct a science workshop for the middle school kids.
During first two days in Chatpal, I had already fallen in love with Kashmir and the people here. There wasn’t any dearth of beauty there, as the mountain ranges used to shine in the dying sunlight at the evening, while the pristine brook always sang lullabies deep in the night
With a cup of Kahwa, I sat in the verandah searching for the stars in a sky occupied by the rain clouds, I wondered if the original plan of two and a half days was enough for Chatpal.
When we sat down at the drawing board, we were to leave from Chatpal on 17th July evening, and move to Srinagar to celebrate Eid. Chatpal was a small settlement for us, with few treks and settlements nearby. That was all we knew about it, and that’s how we had decided to stay there for a shorter span.
Little did we know that it’d be a mistake to leave early, and we ended up spending six nights, instead of two as we originally planned.
To be continued…