4th September 2015 (Friday)….Kishtwar to Kokernag…160 km
First night sleeping inside the car in Jammu and Kashmir was fabulous. Infact it took away lot of my unfounded fears. Although the scenes and activities all around were quite different than what I was used to still they did not arise any fear. There was hustle and bustle in the market till late in the night. Taxis and people kept coming and going throughout the night till I slept.
The sight of gun wielding security personnel reminded me the days of militancy in our area. It arose both fear and consolation at the same time. Fear in the sense, heavy movement of security meant there was fear of trouble and consoling in the sense, there was enough security to keep the trouble mongers at bay.
Kishtwar is a small town and district head quarter. The district is famous for blue sapphire, gypsum, saffron and Machail Mata Yatra. East of Kishtwar lies Kishtwar National Park and beyond the high mountains lies the Zanskar Valley.
The town was abuzz with activity very early up. My sleep was interrupted with the sounds of taxis, buses and voices calling out to passengers. It was kind of embarrassing coming out of the car while surrounded by huge number of commuters and taxi walas. I tried my best to act as if I was not sleeping in the car but without much success judging by the looks on the faces of the people.
After two cups of tea and early morning rituals, drove around the city to have a look. The roads of the city were quite good, crowded and littered like any other Indian city. Houses looked bit different. Almost all of them had windows and women were peeking through them. There were few temples in the town, all of which were heavily guarded. Most of the females were wearing burkas, even the young school going young girls too. Meat shops were aplenty and open quite early. There were lots of bakery shops and saw people que up very early to buy kashmiri bread for eating with noon chai..
Drove to Chowgan, a large grassy ground situated right in the middle of the town. It was huge, surrounded by chinar, deodar and different kinds of trees. Lofty, green, hazy mountains in the background were giving it an amazing look. A number of people present at the ground were engaged in various activities. The whole ground was littered with garbage and gave it an ugly look.
After spending some time at Chowgan I decided to drive for my next leg of the trip. The plan was to cross Simthan Top and reach Kashmir Valley that day. Drive to Bandar Koot (12 km) was quite good. The road was narrow and continuous descend. At one bend the road became so narrow that all the vehicles had to reverse around 50 meters to give way to the up coming traffic. The road descended till the meeting point of two rivers, Chandrabhaga and Marau at Bandar koot. The river is called Chenab by the local people from here onwards.
There was a security check post at Bandar Koot where I was thoroughly questioned, documents checked, details registered and videographed. All this process was done in a very polite manner though. The road from thereon runs along the beautiful Chatroo river till Mughal Maidan (8 km). Mughal Maidan is a small village with few shops on the road side. There is nothing much to see in Mughal Maidan as seems to be suggested by the name. There is a small fish hatchery here. The road is a continuous steady ascent from hereon till Simthan Maidan/Chingam.
Stopped at a small village just before Simthan Maidan (60 km from Kishtwar) and enjoyed salty pink kashmiri chai while chit chatting with local people. While the road was good till that point, it was surprising to know that there was no electricity and mobile connectivity in the area. On knowing that I was from Punjab, Amritsar and traveling solo to Kashmir, the people became even more friendly. The shopkeeper refused to take money for the tea.
They had lot of grudge with the state the govt. and had many things to say against it.
There were two more check posts on the way where I was politely asked to show my id and tell purpose of travel. The road till Simthan Maidan was quite good. There were few dhabas near the check post. I took lunch comprising chicken curry and rice which was very disappointing. The drive from thereon for about 24 kilometers till Simthan Top was all on a dirt trek. It passed through large alpine pastures and beautiful landscape. The pastures were dotted with scattered bakkarwala huts and the childern lined up at many places hoping for some toffees and money.
Simthan pass, situated at 12500 ft above sea level in Anantnag district of J&K, connects Kashmir valley with Jammu province and is snow-capped for most of the year. It lies on Anantnag-Kokernag-Kishtwar NH1B Highway. Kishtwar is 83 kilometers from Simthan Top and Kokernag is 48 kilometers towards Anantnag. While most of the road towards Kishtwar is good barring last 30 kilometers, the road towards Kokernag is all turmac and is a beauty. The pass is a huge ridge with amazing 360 degree views of adjoining hills and valleys. A lone small dhaba serves basic food and few tents are available in case of night stay.
Since I drove on some of the most challenging roads for the previous two days, the drive all the way to Simthan Pass was just a piece of cake. Enjoyed every bit of it. Weather was sunny and pleasant. The sights were great. I arrived well in time at around 2pm and had ample time to relax and explore the area. Simthan Pass looked more like Triund in Himachal Pradesh. The ridge was bigger and larger though.
Few couples and families from Kashmir were playing, eating and making merry. There are many off roading tracks on all directions from the the road which passes through the middle of the ridge. I walked around to have a look at 360 degree view of the valleys around. All in all it was sheer pleasure being there on the pass. It was quite different than all the passes I have been to. It was more of a picnic spot than a tough pass.
I was having great time when man at the small eatery asked me to come for tea. When I went to his tent few people were already having tea. One of the gentleman from Shopian asked me the purpose of my visit. On knowing that I was driving solo to Kashmir, he offered me to be his guest at Shopian. He was an influential person, an office bearer of the apple growers association. After awhile he along with his associates left. When I asked to pay for the tea, the eatery man told me that the the Shopian gentleman has already paid for it.
After some time the weather became cloudy, foggy and more romantic. I could see couples around the pass were more happy now. Some families exchanged greetings with me. There was one forest officer having nice time with his family. On knowing that I planned to visit warwan valley, he gave me lot of good information about the area. He had been to warwan as the warwan forest division fell under his jurisdiction. He advised me to stay at forest rest house at Inshan. Contrary to the notion, the people of the area were very warm, welcoming and helpful.
After enjoying for over two hours at the top and with the pledge to be back here with the family, I drove down towards Kokernag, Kashmir Valley. The drive down from Simthan top to Kokernag was just amazing. The road was a black tarmac beauty, the landscape mesmerising and weather absolutely heavenly.
The drive was through an alpine countryside. For a moment I felt as if I was driving in some european country. Although I have never been to any but knew there were some beautiful roads through the alpine meadows. I have been to many roads and passes through the Indian himalayas but never saw such a beautiful road. I can recall very few roads where I enjoyed driving so much.
The one I remember was moray plains on Manali-Leh highway and the other being road from Loma to Hanle in Ladakh. After descending to the valley, the road passed through a dense forest. I knew now I was in Kashmir and immediately recalled why mughal emperor Shah Jahan called it Agar Firdaus bar rōy-e zamin ast, hamin ast-o hamin ast-o hamin ast meaning If there is a paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.
Lalpari was passing through kashmir countryside now. The atmosphere all around was quite different. The people looked sharp featured and fair complexioned. The structure and built of the homes was quite different. There were orchards laden with ripe apples, pears and walnuts on both sides of the road. People were busy in their respective activities. Women wearing traditional kashmiri dress and scarf were seen sitting outside their homes. Menfolk wearing long fern with arms tugged inside were walking along the road. Children were playing cricket on the streets.
My next day’s plan was to drive to warwan valley through margan top. The road to warwan valley bifurcates in between Daksum and Vailoo. I did not feel like staying at Daksum and continued driving further. Soon I reached Vailoo which looked more bustling town than Daksum. Enquired about the road to warwan and checked few guest houses. Did not feel like staying there and continued driving further.
Soon I reached Daksum. There was a hotel on the left side of the road. Some boys were playing volleyball. There was a mosque also on the left of the road and a large park near the stream on the right. I parked the car outside the park and enjoyed walking in the park. Daksum is a natural scenic spot situated along a gurgling stream.
Soon I was in Kokernag and immediately liked the place. Kokernag is famous for the largest natural freshwater spring in Kashmir, gardens and largest rainbow trout fish hatchery in north India. There was tourist rest house, entry to the spring and hatchery on the left side of the road and a CRPF camp, police station, hospital and few hotels on the right. There was a large parking place adjoining to the entry to the spring and a number of shops and restaurants nearby.
It was early evening and still quite a rush of people going in and coming out from the garden. Parking lot was full with cars, taxis, maxi cabs and other tourist vehicles. There were number of hawkers selling all kind of stuff ranging from toys to fast food. There was lot activity all around.
I parked the car in the parking lot. Went inside a restaurant, enjoyed tea and asked few questions to the restaurant man to know more about the area. After tea decided to relax and have a little walk on the road. Weather and atmosphere was very soothing. I kept on walking, contemplating and observing all the newer kind of activities happening all around. Many people also looked at me with curiosity and made me feel like stranger.
I was not sure whether to sleep inside the car or look for a suitable place to stay. I had a fabulous time the previous night at Kishtwar and Kokernag looked an amiable place too. So my heart was in favour of sleeping inside the car. Still I decided to have a look around and checked few guest houses including the tourist rest house. Did not feel like staying in any of them though.
When I returned back to the parking lot, the scenario had changed. The crowd was sparse now. The day revellers were going home and there were very few vehicles parked inside the parking lot. The number of hawkers reduced drastically too. I went inside the same tea shop again and had another cup of tea. It was still quite early. Decided to walk on the other side of the road. There was a police station, hospital and CRPF camp on this side.
A gentleman met me and chit chatted for a while. He asked me to be his guest for the night, which I declined politely as I wanted to stay inside the car.I loved walking, reflecting and observing all the activities around. There were some other people walking too. The traffic was sparse and noise level was very low. Weather was little cool but pleasant.
I must have walked for over 10 kilometers that evening. When I arrived back at the parking place, the whole scenario had changed dramatically. There was only one vehicle parked in the whole parking area, it was mine. All the tourists, hawkers and day revellers had disappeared. Almost all the shops and restaurants were closed. Street light was very dim and the whole area gave a very deserted look.
I was in a fix now, what to do. There was ample light in the hospital premises though. The OPD remains open throughout the night. Police station was also nearby. So I decided to park the car inside the hospital instead of parking area. So took the car in the hospital premises and parked the car under the light. There were still one or two restaurants open but I did not feel like eating.
Although my sleep was interrupted a number of times that night due to hospital ambulance coming in and going out and gang of dogs kept barking throughout the night, I still remember that evening spent at Kokernag fondly and enjoyed whatever sleep I had!!!