“We were going in search of a hidden valley, and that’s all we knew. But there was a belief, that something great was waiting for us, and we might not realize it when we’d reach there, but someday we will.”
Chatpal was an unknown name on the itinerary, none of us knew nothing about this place except that it was situated 3 hours away from Srinagar, and no one goes there.
We alighted at Jammu railway station at 3:30 AM, making our ways through the sleeping passengers on the platform, towards the waiting room. However, a peak into the waiting room made us settle for the benches outside. Sleep was miles away from our eyes, midst the excitement about the journey to start. We were about to be on the road for the next one month, and the cameras had already started emerging from the bag, to capture the moments as they happened.
Half an hour later, as we were busy observing the dull proceedings at the railway station, with our eyes following a solitary shunting locomotive, Altamash bhai waved at us to start moving towards the exit. Altamash had joined us as the financial manager for the trip.
It was still dark outside where our taxies, three of them, waited for us to dump our luggage and ourselves into them and make a move towards our first destination for the trip, Chatpal.
Half an hour later while our taxi moved through the winding roads, as we left Jammu, cutting through darkness and overtaking trucks, I asked our driver if he had ever been to Chatpal, he smiled and replied in negative. So it was confirmed, none of us had ever seen Chatpal, and somewhere this fueled the excitement to be at this place.
The day broke while we were on the way to Udhampur, and the mountains had started filling up the empty spaces around horizon, we were all excited feel the cold fresh air hitting our face, and then we saw a sizeable amount of Indian army presence as we neared Udhampur. It was our reminder of where we were, in a land of our dreams, and some not so dreamy things.
A tea break by Tawi river was our only pit stop until Patni top. As the day broke and sun appeared from behind the mountains outside Udhampur, we saw Tawi cutting through the mountains, Amarnath pilgrims in their pandals by the road, and clouds hanging like cotton balls from the sky, with sun hopping from one cloud to the other.
Breakfast at Patnitop charged us for our journey ahead, as we saw Chenab emerging out of Baglihar dam and then boisterously flowed alongside NH-1A till we crossed the town of Ramban. The road climbed, winded after Ramban, as we continued our journey towards Pir Panjal range, across which laid Kashmir valley as our drivers told us.
The lush green mountains, coupled with clear blue skies were ensuring a fantastic roadtrip, as we saw small waterfalls on the way, tributaries joining Chenab and then by one of those tributaries we travelled till Banihal.
Now personally, I wanted to visit Banihal and check out the railway station, watch trains running in Kashmir valley. Now while I wasn’t able to visit the station, but when everyone was having lunch, I walked towards a clearing and saw the red-white-blue DMU coaches of a train arriving from Srinagar, emerging out of the Banihal tunnel, and then moving through a grassland, as some goats were grazing by the tracks.
Mesmerized by the whole view, I stood there, until someone tapped my shoulder and said,
A nice nap after lunch, sitting in our cars ensured that a 3-hour long traffic jam before Jawahar tunnel didn’t bother us. As we gained height, looking back we could see the roads winding down the mountains, and a line of cars still waiting to move ahead, and beyond them were lush green mountains shining in the bright sunlight, while somewhere above a thin glacier glistened white; we entered Jawahar tunnel.
It’s a different kind of experience to travel through the 2.5 kms long Jawahar tunnel, we had never been in a tunnel that long and with only tunnels lamps guiding us through the one lane road, as the taxi slowly moved ahead towards the other side of Pir Panjal range.
Now I had imagined entering Kashmir valley, I had seen pictures but the moment we emerged out of the Pir Panjal and saw a lush green valley extending into infinity, it was something that took my breath away. We stopped at a check post after the tunnel, and we took our time to step out of the car, sit by the road and just stare at those mountains of Kashmir.
We had arrived to the heaven on earth, and it did feel like one.
The green of the mountains was mixing with the blue of skies while the yellow wildflowers danced in a light breeze, the cars passed us along with the time as we sat by the road, just looking onwards to what once seemed like a dream. The reality was way more beautiful, and we were taking our own sweet time to immerse in it, until Mangu bhaiya, one of our drivers called us saying that we were getting late.
Finally we called up at the guest house in Chatpal, where Qader bhai picked up the call and said that since the market was far away, we should carry groceries with us. We turned the cars, and moved towards Verinag. The grasslands gave way to fields, and in between fields were wooden houses belonging to local Kashmiris; we waved at them, and they smiled in return, blue eyed boys walking in groups, group of little girls giggling, and men staring at us as if we might’ve lost our way.
“Not many tourists come here,” said chacha while we shopped for groceries at Verinag’s market. The sunset was still far away, but everyone was getting ready for Iftaar, breaking of fast, and called us to spend the evening with them. However, Chatpal was still a good 2 hours away, and we were approaching sunset.
A quick visit to the Verinag’s Mughal garden brought us to the point where Jhelum emerges before flowing down the Kashmir valley. Where we sat with our feet dipped in the cold waters of Jhelum, and conversed sitting under Chinar trees.Picture Credit – Rishab Jain
However, we were running late on time, and soon started for Chatpal. Crossing numerous fields and villages, as Jhelum flowed by the road, growing in size after every few hundred meters. The mountains rose beyond the fields, and the far away sun was setting like a glowing ball of fire, ready to be consumed by the horizon. And this battle ensued a multi-coloured sky, as we stared out of our windows, trying to soak it all in.
Kashmir looked different from what we had imagined, it wasn’t all about mountains and lakes, it was much more than that. We gazed at the beautiful houses of the villages passing us by, greeting the passers by and asking them for the way ahead. After Verinag, Achabal was our next destination, from where we had to take the road to Chatpal.
However, we lost our way during the journey and found ourselves in the bylanes of some village in as the dusk arrived. People from village emerged from their houses, helping us out and inviting us to their homes for dinner, and maybe to stay for the night.
While Mangu and Vicky bhaiya, our drivers, busied themselves in gaining some information about the road to Chatpal, we conversed with the villagers who were curious about our whereabouts, and were puzzled by the fact that instead of going to one of the touristy destinations, we had chosen Chatpal as our first stop in Kashmir.
“Janab, jagah toh bahut khoob hai, par wahan koi nahin jaata.” (Sir, the place is great, but no one goes there)
“Isiliye toh jaa rahe hain.” (That’s why we’re going there)
Once back on the main road, we were again cutting through the darkness, four hours late in our journey to Chatpal. Villages came and went by, but all we saw were deserted road, until we looked at the night sky and found it full of skies.
As the cars moved from Achabal to Chatpal, we rolled down our windows and looked up at the sky, staring at the stars, and somewhere across the valley, I saw a faint silhoutte of the mountains, moving closer to us by every passing moment. And little did anyone realized, that on our journey from Achabal to Chatpal, we were gaining elevation, as it was evident by sudden coldness in the air.
At half past ten, after losing our way once again, we reached the road end, where a wide trail took us to Chatpal. And while we expected a village, all we got a government bungalow in the middle of nowhere with its lights being the only ones visible in the whole valley.
And somewhere in the background, we could hear the roar of a mountain stream as we took our bags out of the cars and carried them to the bungalow. Tired after a long journey, we slept soon after. We slept without any knowledge about where we were, and all we knew that we were in the middle of nowhere with a starry sky above us and a stream singing lullabies in our ears.
And as we slept, somewhere outside the wind blew, gathering clouds from down in the valley, and stream roared a little louder sometime in the night, as if announcing the news of our arrival. And the stars too slept peacefully that night, like us, before being concealed by the clouds, which brought with them a faint streak of morning light.
And as the sun rose above the mountains, we saw it all. The valley that previous night hid from us, the valley that was going to be our home for the next few days.
We were finally there, in Chatpal.