I had spent the night gazing at the framed views of Nun-Kun peaks from a little village in Suru Valley called Parkachik. While hitchhiking in a truck from Padum to Rangdum, the lunch break had enabled me to speak to a lady from New Zealand who promptly offered me a seat in the cab that she was travelling in. It was the 13th of August and I was fully charged by the break in Padum after making the epic solo trek from Darcha to Padum.
Read more on that here :
I was in no mood to spend the night in Kargil even though I had to get to Srinagar by the 15th to be on a trek that was beginning on the 16th. I was also aware of the gravity of travelling on the 15th of August and ideally wanted to be safely away on a houseboat.
The lady had to show her passport at the check post at Parkachik and that gave us the opportunity to enjoy views of the twin peaks of Nun & Kun. There was only one available room at the JKTDC Rest House in Panikhar and I had offered it to her saying I will go somewhere else.
After that we had got talking; she was a big fan of Shivya’s writings – I told her I was Shivya’s online acquaintance and a travel blogger myself. The taxi guys hadn’t left yet and we asked them to take us to Parkachik so that we may try our luck at the JKTDC Rest House there. It was nearly 5 in the evening and no room here would have meant going to Sankoo or Kargil which wasn’t a very pleasurable idea. We were in for a big surprise though after finding 2 rooms and a jolly caretaker who made tasty food. The rest of the evening was spent admiring the glorious views of the Nun Kun massif.
We woke up at 5 am to witness the beauty of sunrise, I was happy when the first shared taxi for Kargil came at 6. After a quick breakfast in Kargil, I went to the taxi stand only to find out that a transport strike had been called for and no buses or taxis were going to ply. It was 14th August and almost 9 o’ clock; I didn’t know what to do. The locals weren’t helping either.
After buying some tea leaves and apricot oil from Kargil Market, I sat in a local sumo with locals from Kargil and we were supposed to be dropped near a check post on the highway for 20 rupees each. Instead, everyone was stopped by unruly youth before we could get far, I was on the outskirts of Kargil. I chose to walk my way out of Kargil.
A river flowed on the side of the road and it was quite hot with the full force of sun as the clock approached noon, I tried to amble along in the shade of the tall poplars which were planted beside lovely houses located in the middle of lush green fields. Apricots hung from the branches of the trees and some found their way to my hands. There was a forest check post nearby and I was asked to go there and try my luck. I was loving 2015.
After chatting with the officers for a bit and watching cars and trucks zip past, I finally got lucky when a truck stopped. I hoisted myself and made some space to sit as there were already 3 people inside. The truck people belonged to Srinagar. Like most people in Kashmir they hated the army and spewed venom whenever they saw someone in a uniform.
The scenery was breathtaking, a clear stream from Pakistan joined the river. We passed the sizeable town of Drass in the afternoon and there was distinct quietness on the street, a traffic jam at Zoji La killed some time before the mesmerising green grasslands of Gumri took my breath away. In a never ending expanse of green; horses, cows, sheep and goats grazed while Kashmiri shepherds chatted near their prettily coloured tents.
From the barren landscapes of Kargil to the green paradise of Kashmir.
It was almost 4 when we reached Sonamarg; I was quite hungry and expressed a desire to be dropped at a dhaba in Sonamarg. I was asked a cool 300 rupees for the hike, that was a new one for me. Usually if someone wanted money for the ride, they used to ask beforehand. This being a special day of a taxi strike in Kargil Taxi Union, I paid the money without any fuss and thanked them profusely for the help.
Devotees to the Amarnath Yatra seemed to be crowding every place in Sonamarg, I had a quick thali and stood on the road again. Srinagar was only 80 kms away (2 hours) and daylight in these parts lasted till 730 in the evening. I was lucky again when a shared taxi took me in and asked for 150 Rupees till Kangan. I said yes, it was time to speed along with the roaring Sindh river for company while the pines beckoned.
I admired the pretty villages on the other side set in alpine scenery while Kashmiri folk songs had me in a happy mood. A quiet tear escaped my eye, I had lost my heart yet again on the road. It was an overwhelming experience to travel with locals who were keen to acquaint me with the nuances of culture and history of Kashmir.
It was mesmerising to feel like a Kashmiri among the chaos of the market in Kangan. Another shared taxi ride took me to Srinagar while the dusk scenes whizzed past across the verdant rice fields of Ganderbal. It was almost dark when the taxi dropped me near TRC (Tourist Reception Centre) in Srinagar; I was keen to make my way to Dal Gate No. 7, still apprehensive of staying on land as it was 15th August the next day and also because the New Zealand lady had given me the contact of a budget houseboat owner.
I had struck a deal with the houseboat guy for Rs. 800 per day including all my meals, tea, qahwa and also transfers from land to the houseboat in a shikara. I have known travellers to be smart charged by the houseboat owners and thats why opted to fix the rates in advance.
After more than two weeks of being without a network, free wifi at the houseboat made me dizzy with happiness. I connected with the world on social media and posted my updates on Facebook, instagram and twitter. The houseboat was new and my room had the aroma of fresh pine.
There was the viewing area or balcony to begin with, here I was supposed to take off my footwear so that the carpeted floor of the houseboat wasn’t spoiled. Inside was a drawing room with a television leading to two bedrooms on either sides. The bathroom was clean and I was happy with continuous hot water supply. My bedroom window was covered by flimsy curtains and opened up to a vast expanse of greenery in the middle of Dal Lake.
After a quick welcome with a Kashmiri qahwa chai (Also : Kehwa or Kahwah or Kahwa) – traditional tea enjoyed without milk in Kashmir, many elders joined my host for the evening, conversations flow while they smoke hookah. Inevitably the talk turns to Kashmir and insurgency of the 90s; the oldies narrate how Kashmir is a profitable business for all parties concerned and why nobody really wants a solution!
A cool breeze blew across the Dal, dinner was a simple home cooked meal enjoyed with Kashmiri songs that my host played on his mobile. The bed was comfortable and the weather was just perfect for me to dive into the warm and fuzzy blanket and let myself be taken away into the world of dreams.
I woke up to the call of the muezzin and sound of the azaan, Srinagar seemed pretty quiet and I was even more glad to have made the decision to not stay on land. So, here I was – Living like a king on a houseboat for 800 rupees and news came the next day that the army had roughed up an outsider on the eve of Independence Day. I thanked my stars.
Kids played and laughed while geese swam and cackled in unison. There was a pretty house right in front of my balcony where the geese congregated. I had great pleasure watching the proceedings of local life on Dal Lake while savouring breakfast of tea with Kashmiri bread. There was no possibility nor any desire to go anywhere else but be on the Dal.
I had made some local friends while chatting up and they offered to take me on a round to see more of Dal Lake; nobody had any work today because everything was closed. Srinagar’s loss was my gain – there was no morning market that day but sellers knocked on my window asking if I wanted any saffron. There was a furniture seller too, who wanted to offer me a special discount on items made from the Kashmiri speciality walnut wood.
It was a delightful experience to see how locals made the lack of space in Srinagar an opportunity and houseboats were born. Life continued like on land, there were shops selling daily use items on Dal Lake. Kebab sellers would come floating and offer their delights. I spent the day washing clothes dirty from the earlier trek to prepare myself for the Tarsar Marsar Trek.
The palpable tension in the air dissipated as evening came; Independence Day was soon forgotten and life came back to normal. Next day, I left in the morning, brought pears and explored the downtown area of Srinagar near Khayyam chowk and TRC before joining my partners for the glorious trek that began in Aru near Pahalgam.
I made promises to the houseboat owner to come back after the trek ended and stay on for a longer period, alas that was never to come. The sight of men in uniform was too much for me to handle after the tranquility of being alone while trekking and I took a flight as soon as I could.
Also check : Stunning beauty of Kashmir, in pictures – Part II
Gulon mein rang bhare baad-e-naubahaar chale
Chale bhi aao ke gulshan ka kaarobaar chale….
How I wish flowers take new colours!
And the breeze brings fresh winds of change.
I plead you, come to me now, my love,
Maybe, if you come, my garden may bloom again.
~ Faiz Ahmed Faiz.