This small piece of land on earth called Kashmir has enchanted me. Nestled between two branches of Himalayas this narrow valley bears natural beauty to its extreme. After my trip to this land in 2012, alongwith my family, I visited it again last month. Occasion was to attend a Yoga Camp organised by Vivekananda Kendra, Kanyakumari at a place called Nagdandi which is near Achabal in Anantnag district. This time my travel was all alone and was also a low budget one. That meant the travel was going to be altogether new experience and I was very much looking forward to it. I felt I was in for some rush of adrenalin as I sensed an adventure. My mobile phone was not going to be working in a land which is infamous for terrorist activities. The valleys and hills have reported natural calamities in the last three years after we visited there. Mr. Razdan, administrative officer at the Nagdandi Ashram, had told me in his assuring voice, "You just come over. There is nothing to worry about."
With my bag stuffed with needful things, I started my journey on 17 June 2016 from Ratnagiri to Delhi in a Rajdhani Express. With lot of food being fed relentlessly on these Rajdhani trains, one does feel giddy on the jerking coaches of the fast moving train. Though a longer part of the journey was done in air conditioned compartments, next leg from Delhi onwards was in second class sleeper compartment which crowded with lots of unreserved passengers trying their best to get a place somewhere to lie down or at least rest some of their body parts. That meant, in spite of having a reserved birth to sleep on, I had to share it with limbs of those unreserved passengers here and there. It was difficult to sleep while I sweated due to intolerable heat that continued into the midnight. Sometime in the night when I got into sleep finally, the train came to a halt and group of people rushed inside and I was suddenly woke up as one woman literally sat on my foot joint without looking here and there. With some arguments she had her way and sat near my leg. Majority of these desperate souls were rushing to Katra with their crying kids to meet their beloved deity Vaishno Devi before the schools reopened by the end of the month after the end of summer vacations.
I had a good sigh of relief with a fresh air breathed in at Jammu Railway Station. At last I had become free from the crowded compartment of that delayed train. I headed to the Jammu bus stand for next leg of my journey. With a hungry stomach and a stressed out body it was quite a comfort to eat those huge parathas by dipping into piping hot spicy potato vegetable. Vaishno Dhabas are doing a great job in this part of the world, I think.
While I was supposed to take a shared taxi for reaching to a place called Khannabal, I found myself seating in a bus heading to a place called Banihal Railway Station. As per my initial plan, travelling by Kashmir Railway was supposed to be during my return journey but I agreed immediately to the proposal of the bus conductor wherein he suggested me that taking the bus plus railway route would be economical plus time saving. With less number of passengers going till the last point, after travel of 60 km upto Udhampur, they abruptly cancelled the travel further. We were put in an another bus that was coming behind ours and had started an hour after. In spite of all that I was enjoying my journey as I kept myself open minded and remained observant. Our bus, full to its capacity, kept running on the winding roads which were cut across the steep hill slopes. The roads were accompanied by the rapidly flowing streams downhill in the valleys. It was highly scenic. People were getting in and out at various stops and junctions. The fair skinned Dogara people of the Jammu hills seemed to have kept themselves very slim and erect with all the climbing up and down those high mountains.
The journey seemed endless however and after a few hours, I started to feel restless. Nobody around was knowing what time we would reach destination. To my questions, everybody was having the same answer, "Yeh pahad ke raste ka kuchh bata nahi sakate. (We cant tell anything about this hill road.)" The bus stopped for a lunch break at Peerah. The place offers beautiful views of the dam constructed on Chenab river. There is a hydropower plant installed at the dam. I went to the driver and asked about reaching destination in time. He also started repeating the same sentences. I got angry and gave him my futile kind of ultimatum. " kuchh bhi karo lekin hamein last train tak pahuncha do. (Do anything but let us catch the last train.)". The young man with his trimmed beard smiled and answered, "you know. I am known to be the roughest driving person on this route and I take seven hours to reach Banihal and still I can't guarantee you anything. But you don't worry. Sit relaxed in the bus."
I tensed. I thought that the whole journey was going to get haywire. After we passed the district town of Ramban, the driver suddenly changed his pace and started driving extremely fast. He started overtaking other vehicles at the blind curves. Almost all the passengers were worried for their lives. The last train from Banihal was scheduled to leave the station at 7.00 pm and we found ourselves reached at the station by 6.47 pm. Everybody rushed in towards the ticket counter. It was a very high frenzy moment I was running upstairs with a large back pack to get in the station. After gettig a ticket I frantically ran to the train and got in one of the compartments. It was another sigh of relief of the day as I sat down on one push back chair of this local train that was going to run through the beautiful Kashmir valley.
Exactly at 7.00 pm, the train started with a slight screech and pushed off. After some time entered into the long dark tunnel and came out after about 15 minutes. Aha! I was on the other side of Pir Panjal Mountains in the valley of Kashmir. High mountains were giving way to low hills covered with alpine forests. Crystal clear water was rushing through the streams. The valley started to become flatter and human presence more distinct. Freshly planted rice paddies, apple orchards, poplar plantations were almost everywhere. Honey bee boxes were kept at some places. Some shepherds were herding their sheep here and there. Women were standing at the crossroads in the villages and were chitchatting. Gigantic Chinar trees dotted the landscapes and their existence with the human settlements made them more beautiful. The air had become cool and the atmosphere so serene in a matter of just few minutes.
It was difficult to believe that I had started my stressful journey two days back and I felt perfectly relaxed in the moment. It was all worth it.
The travel continued further however and so would my story in the next blogpost!
(Written on 5 July 2016)
- Sachin Patwardhan