Day 1 – Journey
I asked everyone else to leave by car, and took metro myself. I wanted to walk alone to the railway station, I tried to not be nervous before the trip.
I was nervous, I walked through the crowd, stood among the crowd, pushed through the crowd, I entered the different coach, I walked through the coach, I walked and walked, only so I could calm myself down before I saw the other nine Xplorians sitting in the coach. And when I reached there, I kept down my bags and walked till the locomotive that was hauling our train.
I walked past the whole train and waited for the train to start. Then I got in the first coach, and walked through the whole train to reach the coach we were sitting in and sat down staring at everyone’s smiling face.
I saw their smiles being passed from one face to other, along with the aloo paranthas that Krish’s mother had packed. I saw Astha finally opening up as we ate the cookies she baked for us, we stared out of the window, I saw the window pane reflecting Tapshi’s thoughts to me, I heard Sumi’s thoughts being synced to the clattering sounds of the railways tracks, I saw Sakshi giggling, I heard Gurveer mesmerizing us all with his voice, Rashi was still trying to sink in what had happened with her during the past two days and Udit just couldn’t stop roaming around the train, like a nomad.
Later, I stood by the door, I stood by my dreams, I stood by the earth moving under my feet, people passed, cities passed, villages passed by us, the past went by, taking along the present and future, and nothing remained, except me and the journey to come by. And slowly, I was already in the tight embrace of the journey.
Then we crossed Ravi, somewhere around midnight, and Jammu came a bit too early. I wanted to sleep some more, I wanted to stare out of the window some more.
We took our bags, all our bags, too many bags, and it was funny how many bags there were. The taxis were waiting for us outside, Patnitop was waiting for us for breakfast, Banihal was waiting for us for lunch, the jam outside Jawahar tunnel was waiting for us to take a nap, the valleys of Kashmir was waiting for Tapshi to sit by the road, and Krish to start capturing it all in his new camera.
Jhelum emerging from Verinag garden waited for our conversations, a setting sun near Achabal waited for us to embrace the beauty of Kashmir, and Chatpal desperately waited for us as I desperately waited for it.
Day 2: (16th July)
I was still tired, but Chatpal was too beautiful for us to keep sleeping till late. I wanted to explore all the mountains around Chatpal, I wanted to meet everyone, I wanted to go by the stream that I heard roaring into our ears the night before.
I woke up to some thoughts hovering in my mind, I could see few houses on the mountains across ours, I met some bakarwals on my morning walk, so I knew there were stories waiting for us. There could be stories in the maize fields visible in the valley, across the brook, stories disguised in the form of villagers tending to their crops.
The day was constantly whispering in my ear, asking me to leave. I left for a walk to the nearby village, called Thimran, with Astha. I wanted to see the jungle, I wanted the mud to smear my shoes, I wanted the brook to splash its cold water on my face, I wanted to drink that water, I wanted to lie under the leafless tree growing tall by that brook. I met a man on the way who told me the stream has a name, it was called Arpath nullah.
It’s a funny thing, how in cities nullah means the drain that carries our mess outside civilization, whereas in mountains nullah is being used to define a fresh water stream bringing spring water into civilization.
So, then I went by the brook, listened to it speaking to me in tongues, I tried to decipher all the meanings, I tried to decipher all the signs I’ve been seeing around me since the start of the trip.
It was getting too much for me, the trip seems to be filled with too many stories and incidents for me to collect and I felt like bracing myself for what was there to come. However, before that I walked ahead with Astha, talking about the natural beauty of the region, finding ourselves a perfect meadow to lie down and take a nap.
After the nap we met Mr Ghani, a butcher from a nearby village Dethu, who told us about his life, his views on Islam, his family, and then invited us to visit his home.
We listened to him for an hour that afternoon; there was still time for me to sit down and listen to myself.
I was in Kashmir, and this thought was exciting me every moment.
I wanted to embrace this thought, I wanted to embrace much more. But for the day, Chatpal was turning out to be a perfect hideout from the outside world.
Day 3 – July 17th
You mustn’t fall in love while travelling, or maybe you should.
The problem is that it’ll be an ‘in the moment thing’, while at times it’s the most beautiful phase, and at the other it’s also really painful. However, love isn’t far away when you’re in Kashmir, and you aren’t far away from love when you’re travelling.
Love happens, it sneaks through the lush green valley of Kashmir, it bathes in the Arpath Nullah cutting across the valley where Chatpal is situated, it greets the passers by calling ‘Assallam-e-alequm’ while crawling towards you, it gets surrounded by strangers in Chattergul, it sits by the Lidder watching it flow towards unknown, it roams the streets of Anantnag, it holds your hand and walks through the streets of Maatan, it stares out of the window and observes the interiors of Kashmir valley, wondering why it all feels so surreal. And then it comes and embraces you.
You know you’re in love, or something like. You know you’ve traveled so far for a reason, and all the signs on the way for thousands of miles are now making sense, and you’ve no idea what to do.
Love doesn’t make any sense, nor do you when you’re in this phase. But one thing that does make sense is that you want to travel, you want to know more about the village you’ve been staring at from past two days, you want to talk to the people who’re standing on the other-side of the window pane, and you want to sit in their homes, listening to their stories over a cup of tea.
Love happens, and there’s more to your life, it’s upto you to make it happen.
I guess I’m learning my first lesson of the trip. My heart breaks at every moment for I feel in love once again, it breaks for no reason, but I know there’s more to this trip, more to this life, more to this journey we are on.
There’s more to me, and there’s more to this love.
I have been surprised after discovering that the locals call Anantnag as Islamabad, where we went in the morning to buy traditional wear for all the Xplorians for Eid celebrations the next day. I bought the perfectly sized Kurtas for all the male members of the team, except for myself, my Kurta ended up being undersized.
Everyone that night was happy to have received an Eid gift, and was excited about the celebrations next day. We’ve been invited by Firdaus bhai, who’s a friend of Altamash, who have been travelling with us as a financial incharge of the trip.
It has been a few years since I last celebrated Eid.
Day 4 (18th July):
Picked my camera, the other lens, my mp3 player, a bottle of water, and a chocolate bar. I wanted to go for a long walk today morning, I wanted to see more of the region around the village, I wanted to spend sometime alone exploring the place while everyone else was sleeping.
I walk into Thimran village. Kids runs past me behind a goat. Two boys came running AND they’re wearing new clothes as it’s Eid. I met few men and greeted them Eid Mubarak. They invited me to their houses but I had to refuse politely. They seem a bit hurt. I just want to take a long walk and return back to the base at the earliest, to get dressed for the Eid celebration in Firdaus bhai’s village.
“Eid mubarak bhaijaan, kahan se hain?” I hear a voice calling me.
I turn around and see a bunch of men staring at me, I walk towards them with a smile on my face, which then gets transferred from my face to their faces and after a round of introductions, I hear a female voice asking if I’d like to have a cup of tea.
Shamima begum was carrying a bucket in her hand, with dupatta covering most of her face, I could still make out that she had sharp features and would’ve been a beautiful during her youth. She was still beautiful.
Mohammed Yusuf asked the same question, he was Shamima’s husband, and I couldn’t refuse this time. I followed them to their house where Nadia and Ghazala, their daughters, were peeking out of the window, trying to have a good look at the stranger walking in their house.
Shamima begum served me tea, roti, and a chocolate cake from the nearby bakery. Master Salim then took me around the village, telling me about the area, showing me the origin of Arpath nullah, the massive waterfall. Manzoor bhai and his son Adil then invited me for tea and told me about the seven secret lakes in the mountains near Chatpal.
Later, Firdaus bhai and family greeted us with kisses and hugs, they served us the most lavish of the lunch spreads I’ve ever seen. We sat on the carpet, and filled ourselves with Yakhini, kadam sag and love. He then took us through his apple orchards. We watched the rivers overflow in Ahoo Paisan village, and guessed where cloudburst might have happened.
Then Qader bhai invited us to his house in Dethu village, where we spent a lot of time hanging out with his family. The family then grew into the whole locality, and we couldn’t keep a count of people there, wanting to talk to us, wanting to know more about us, and we too wanted to know all about them. They had surrounded us all the while we were there, until we sat in the car, wished them goodbye, we didn’t want to wish them goodbye, but we wished them goodbye and left for Martand Sun temple.
Remember the song Bismil from Haider was filmed here, told our drivers. We didn’t care much about that, we cared about wandering midst the ruins and watching sun setting across the ruins.
Eid was special. It was beautiful. We were happier than we expected.
Day 5 (19th July):
Chatpal has been slowly growing on us, and it is our fifth day here. We were supposed to leave on 18th morning, and move to Srinagar. But slowly Srinagar is moving out of our travel plans, and we might be going somewhere else, however, for now Chatpal continues to be our home in the middle of nowhere.
The other nine people are slowly getting used to each other, used to me, and I’m also getting used to them. There have been some differences, some problems, and I’ve been trying to sort them. There has been no electricity for 24 hours now, we are running on power-banks. However, we don’t need much battery, since most of the phones aren’t getting any networks.
The Arpath nullah continues to flow and overcast skies are getting more turbulent by every passing moment, there have been short spells of thundershowers, and we are drinking chai all the time, since the weather is getting colder. We have already stopped taking baths, something that had to happen from Kargil onwards.
We have a movie screening scheduled for the night, as the villagers wanted to show us visuals from seven secret lakes lying up in the mountains near Chatpal, they claim that people from outside world don’t know about these lakes.
Few of the girls in the team have been gushing about this handsome boy the nearby village. Udit has been telling me about how he can’t have potato gravy and rice anymore at the bungalow in Chatpal, that makes me laugh and we plan a trip to Achabal. I have heard that in Achabal one gets halwa-parantha, and then I wanted to visit the Mughal gardens of Achabal.
The day is progressing, and I’m getting immersed in going-ons, I haven’t worked much in last two days, mostly because I’m trying to soak in what’s been happening, and trying to help others with their exploration tasks.
But I wonder if these are just excuses, am I getting enchanted by the beauty of Chatpal. I have this feeling of staying in Chatpal for a longer duration, and then I’ve also fallen in love with someone here.
Chatpal makes me smile for many reason.
Day 6 (July 20):
Chattargul means three flowers, Shia, Sunni and Kashmiri pandit. Seven kms from Chatpal, Chattargul is the main market for that region, and has also been associated with militant activities in the recent past. However, it’s all gone now, the region is as peaceful as it can get. However, the locals remain curious about these bunch of outsiders visiting their region.
Firdaus bhai told us about their curiosity, but it’s getting on our nerves at times. I can understand what’s happening here, but not everyone can. Curiosity is making them enter the bungalow, and interact with the female members of the team, who aren’t too comfortable, but they’ve never seen so many outsiders at once.
They don’t know what’s happening, as they stand on the otherside of the car’s window, and inside the car, we can’t comprehend why they’re standing with that look in their eyes outside our cars. It’s the meeting point of two worlds, and it’s quite unpleasant at times.
The locals are taking their time to get used to us, however, we too are becoming vary of locals, by their ways, which are different from the ways of us, the city-dwellers. Chatpal is slowly becoming an interesting case study for us.
Today we were invited by a high-school to take workshops with kids, where while Tapshi interacted with primary classes, Rishabh took science walks with middle school students.
And Rashid sir sat down with Tapshi and me after the class, and told us about the militant activities and their effect on schools of the region, during the sensitive times. He told us about how much he and other teachers had to struggle to ensure that kids keep getting education.
The kids we met were going to be the first fully-educated generation of that region. The situation is still bleak, but they say it’s improving.
Firdaus bhai said that Xplorience will be written about in the first chapter, when the history of Chatpal will be compiled.
I disagree, it’s them, the people working at grass-root level, Firdaus bhai, Abdrashid sir, Manzoor Ahmed, Adil, Qader bhai, Shaukat, Halil, Bilal Hasan Manto, Shamima Begum, Farthat Sir, they’re the heroes. They’re the reasons why Chatpal will survive. They’re the reason why it exists. The ground level heroes, and Chatpal is a home to a lot of them.
Today is our last evening in Chatpal, and I am dedicating all my thoughts to them. I need to visit Chatpal again, soon.
For those seven hidden lakes in the mountains.