19th September 2015 (Saturday)….Baramulla to Kupwara…160 km
I remember the night spent inside the car parked at a taxi stand in Baramulla main road. I was conscious of the fact that these are some of the areas which are always in the news for all the wrong reasons, bunds, strikes, stone pelting, infiltration and killings. To ward off uneasiness I listened to ‘Aap ki farmaish’ on fm radio for early part of the night. Around midnight sleep took over, thereafter had uninterrupted sleep.
Some activity around the car woke me up early. Commuters had started arriving to catch buses and taxis. To the surprise of many onlookers, I stepped out of the car and went for little stroll to ward off embarrassment. It was good to see many sikh gentlemen and women walking among a horde of morning walkers. It was a consolation of sorts that things were not as bad as were being projected by our politicians as well as media.
Baramulla, the 4th largest city of Kashmir, lies on the highway connecting Srinagar to Muzaffarabad (Pakistan). River Jhelum passes right through the middle of the city. A number of bridges crisscross the city, connecting the old city to the new one.
I did not stay in Baramulla for long though. After freshening up, quickly drove to Sopore and then to Handwara. I was advised to remain alert as the area is notorious for infiltrations and clashes. An agitation was going on and there was a fear of clashes between strikers and the security forces.
There were a large number of migrants from UP and Bihar in Handwara. They told me that they did not face any trouble at all. I had breakfast and asked for directions to Bangus valley. The road to Bangus bifurcates to the left near Handwara. Till the first army check post the road was all along a beautiful stream with apple orchards on the other side. Since it was early morning I saw many young girls and boys walking their way to schools. I interacted with some of them, they were intelligent, warm and welcoming. Many of them were curious to know why I was there all alone.
The pristine Bangus Valley is located just inside the Indo-Pak LOC at the north-western end of the Kashmir Valley. It is a trekker’s paradise in summer, although permits are required and only guided day treks are allowed at the moment.
A sign board on the right of the road welcomed me. I drove on that unpaved dirt road and after a while found abandoned tourist huts. No one was there at the huts. Few minutes later, I saw a bakkarwala descending from the mountainous path through the forest. He told me that the valley was too far away and not good for a solo trekker. In any case I was not willing to trek solo, my only purpose was to see if there was someone else, and if possible join them the next day after taking due permission.
There were some Bakkarwala huts near bifurcation of trek to Bangus. Their nomadic way of living and surviving in the hostile environment has always fascinated me. Although the road was good and seem to be in use and leading further, the traffic was scant. I walked closer to one of the huts and met a very nice bakkarwala women. She told me that the road lead to some tribal villages ahead and that I could go as far as I could.
A few kilometers drive from that point, an army check post greeted. It was good to see some jawan from Punjab. They greeted me warmly and offered tea. I was told that private vehicles were not permitted from that point and need a permit, and that the entire area was very sensitive especially the one near Bangus valley which was frequently used by infiltrators to cross over into India from Pakistan and that exchange of fire between the army and infiltrators was very common in the area.
So abandoned any plan of getting into Bangus, I turned back from the army check post. The road and landscape was pretty good. It was a typical kashmiri countryside. A gurgling brook was winding its way all along the road.
I noticed a board mentioning tourist rest house Reshwari and decided to have a look at it. The manager of the rest house was very nice person and he gave me lot of information about the area. He allowed me to have a look at the place for future plans if any. The rest house situated right on the banks of a brook, looked a nice place for family outings.
It was that time of the year when apples were fully ripe and ready to be plucked. Big apple orchards all around presented a pretty sight. A number of overripe or rotten apples were lying scattered on both sides of the road like we have ‘ber’ in Punjab. I plucked few good ones from the trees which were right on the road to serve as replacement of meals for a solo traveller like me.
Yes, it’s a true statement. Quite often in the past too I have found and enjoyed sudden secrets that bump up more than the one’s I came looking for. I returned back to Handwara on the main road and drove off to Kupwara.
Kupwara is a border district city famous for beautiful Lolab, Bangus valleys and Tangdhar. It is a kashmiri muslim dominated area with few Sikh families. It is also a hotbed of infiltration and is in news for wrong reasons lately.
It was bit hazy, still the landscape around was pretty good. It was harvesting time, majority of people were busy harvesting ripe paddy. It was good to see the entire families working together in the fields. The things looked very normal and unlike the one’s that get reported in the news. Me enjoying and clicking pictures was a kind of surprise to many as not many tourist visit this area even though the valleys here are very beautiful and virgin. Golden hue all around in the backdrop of green and brown mountains looked good.
Lolab Valley , an oval shaped valley, begins at 9 kilometers to the north of Kupwara. It is around 25 kilometer long with an average width of 3 kilometers. Neelam Valley (Pakistan) lies across the LOC at the end of the Lolab Valley.
It was afternoon and still some time before the day was over. So I decided to drive straight to Lolab and explore Kupwara later. I drove all through the valley until the army check post beyond which private vehicles were not allowed. The drive was beautiful and passed through some busy villages, meadows, dense pine and fir forests. Nature all around had created such an amazing atmosphere.
But some of us are bent upon creating unrest in the lives of people. The atmosphere around in that sense was not very good. Army was everywhere in the area and they were ready with weapons as anything could happen any time. I met people of Lolab at Chandigham. They have lot of complaints against the Govt and the politicians. They want development in the area and want to live peacefully. Unlike projected in the media, they were well meaning people, I found their grudges to be very genuine.
Frankly overall atmosphere of Lolab was not conducive for a free solo traveler like me. There was hardly any tourists around. The only accommodation in the area TRC Chandigham was all vacant. So did not feel like staying there for long and drove back to Kupwara.
There was lot of crowd in Kupwara. It was a busy happening place. I parked the car and went walking in the crowded lanes of Kupwara. It was good to observe the activities of natives of the area. I noticed there were many tall, lean, sharp featured tribal men and women. Shops selling meat, bakery and medicine outnumbered other shops. I met a Sardar ji and had nice talk with him. He told me although there are 15-20 Sikh/Hindu families in the city but they live under constant fear.
Evening in Kupwara was one of the best. After parking the car on one side of the road I went for a long walk. It was good observing people, their activities and talking to myself… reflecting on life and this amazing trip so far. It was quite unusual driving solo in all parts of Kashmir, to some of the most difficult places, sleeping inside the car and spending majority of time all by myself….no family, no friends, all strangers, no newspaper, no tv, no nothing of the comfort of home and still having time of my life.
It was good to see activity of the people all around till late hours in the night. There seemed no problem at all. There were migrants from UP and Bihar working in dhabas, restaurants, guest houses, shops, rehires….without any fear.
After dinner and soulful walking and introspection, I parked the car in front of a hotel on the main road, army picket being on the other side of the road, slipped inside the car and went into sleep………..at one of the most infamous places!!!