Think of the second half of a thriller movie. The background has been set. The pace suddenly quickens; the plot thickens. You are on pins and needles, the excitement soaring as the climax draws closer. All that you had been waiting for is about to reveal itself. Well, that's how we felt when we took off from Patnitop. It's not about the destination, it's about the journey. I've heard that one too. But often it is wisdom in hindsight, ain't it? Mere mortals we are, our eyes forever planted on a distant horizon. We would be in Srinagar by late afternoon - the face of Kashmir that bears testimony to unearthly beauty and ungodly vehemence. Soon it would beckon - a beacon of light from the roof of the world. And we couldn't wait to get there.
Going down from Patnitop to Srinagar is like skydiving. You get the best view of the valley when you are higher up. By the time you get to the bottom of the mountainous path, it would have gotten to you - the imposing aura of a gargantuan gimmick of nature that wouldn't budge until all hell broke loose. The build up is perfect. We stopped at a roadside shack for breakfast. As the two of us settled into the crude comfort of a wooden bench facing the fireplace where our chaiwala boiled tea leaves, a herd of mountain goats marked in saffron, made their way through the crawling traffic. While relishing the roti and dal he offered us, little did we imagine that our next meal would be at ten in the night. We got to know from the news that a harthal was declared in Srinagar to protest against the beef issue which was at its peak at the time. Just before we entered the city, there was a blockade on the way. Azal unintentionally followed a truck that took a diversion moments before the road we were on, got closed. We simply got lucky. At Lethapora, a village on the outskirts, we stopped to buy some saffron (kesar) and dry fruits from Gulistan Kesar House. The price is half of that back home and the quality is impeccable. We reached Srinagar a little after three in the afternoon. Our stay for the night was booked at New Jersey Houseboat on Nigeen Lake. Nigeen or Nagin is one of the four basins of Dal lake, referred to as the 'Jewel in the crown of Kashmir' due to its popularity and commercial significance. We checked into our room - a maroon, richly embellished, carpeted space with a Kashmiri getup. A sit out was fashioned around the foredeck of the boat, from where we could gaze at the waters mirroring all that stood on its surface. Living and dining rooms, adorned with antique furniture, transported us to the interiors of an affluent mahal with a Persian influence. The houseboat could easily accommodate a large family in its many rooms. Sammy hopped on the boat, raring to go in. We had to lock her up in the carpeted washroom for fear of her fur soiling the carpets and upholstery. As a welcome gesture, we were served a cup of homegrown Kahwah, lightly fragrant and exotically spiced to tantalize the senses.
From the time we started thinking about this trip, I'd stated categorically that a touch-and-go is not what I wanted to do in Srinagar. Like most Indians, Kashmir has been one of my dream destinations since childhood. I was looking forward to a flavorful evening, seated under the decorative canopy of a shikara staying afloat like a lotus on the enamoring Dal lake. I wanted to visit the city's heritage gardens brimming with color and taste its exuberant food. It was these romantic notions that clouded my imagination when I jumped into the trip wagon. But my husband came from a different world. Being an off-roading enthusiast, he dreamed of going to Ladakh from the time he chanced upon this other-worldly location in auto magazines. That was when he was quite young. Like the chapter from Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being which talks about the nuances of semantics when two people come together, the word 'trip' held different connotations for each of us, ones which didn't quite overlap. And this dissonance has been the main reason we had those red-hot arguments that made up for the lack of excitement in the first leg of our journey. I cribbed as we bypassed Ajmer, home to the celebrated dargah, and Pilani, the quaint town where I spent the formative years of my youth, and even Suratgarh, where my best friend from secondary school lived. I'd made it clear that there was no way I was going to let the fiasco repeat in Srinagar. And Azal agreed like he always does.
We had one evening to do all that I wished to do. As we loitered in the houseboat after drinking the magical Kahwah, our host introduced us to a gemstone merchant who had come to sell his handcrafted jewelery. Now I am a woman with a fetish for gems. You cannot expect me to turn away when he was doling out his precious creations out of a suitcase. I bought a silver earring studded with moonstone, to mark the memory of that day. Time was flying. We took a quick shower and headed to the Mughal gardens, agreeing to be back at the houseboat by 6:30 for a shikara ride under the twilight sky. Shalimar bagh was the first stop. It was built by Emperor Jahangir for his wife Noor Jahan and is widely regarded as the epitome of Mughal horticulture. We got ourselves clicked in traditional attire - the invariable touristy thing to do. With his mind firmly fixed on Ladakh and body weary from continuous travel, Azal wasn't excited about this bit. But he played along merely to keep his promise. Then we visited Chashme Shahi, the smallest of the gardens located in the Zabarwan range overlooking the Dal lake. It houses a spring believed to have medicinal properties and flowing down the garden in three terraces. The garden, named after the female saint who discovered the spring, was built by Emperor Shah Jahan as a gift for his son Dara Shikoh. From the locals I found out that the famous tulip garden of Srinagar, located beside Chashme Shahi, opens only for a few days in April every year, when the flowers are in full bloom.
The sun had set when we got out. As we were walking back to our jeep, a young American woman requested us to drop her on the main road because she had missed the bus. We welcomed her into our earthy machine. She was a solo traveler, a chef by profession, who came in search of inspiration to India, the mystical land of a myriad flavors. Setting foot in Kolkata, the city that intrigues with its insinuating malignance as much as it delights with its joyous offerings, she meandered through the bewildering maze which India is, to arrive at the crown, the magical valley of Kashmir. Having been in Srinagar for two weeks by then, she was totally in love with it. Rapt in conversation with this adventurer, we went further down the main road to drop her. It was then that we realized we were quite late. The boatman would be waiting for us in his Shikara. We rushed to the houseboat. Azal was famished and irritable, only wanting to go back to the room. But we had already commissioned the Shikara and he didn't feel good canceling the ride after making the man wait for that long. I, on the other hand, was living a dream and would not let my co-traveler's depressing vibes get to me. So we climbed onto the Shikara at quarter to eight, for a late evening rendezvous with the sentient waters of Dal.
Before we knew it, the good-humored boatman won our hearts with the music in his soul, gripping stories about his valley and the characteristic hospitality of his people. Midway, he stopped to prepare some perfumed teaon a kerosene stove that served as his makeshift kitchen. In the shade of the youthful night, the lake resounded with the rustic notes of folk music. We rested our sore backs against the wooden plank, sipping a cup of nectar, watching the silhouette of faraway hills drift by as the boatman steered his oars at nightfall and hummed a tune he carried in his old heart - it was hypnotic. Azal, feeling breezy after the ride, even went on to say that what he experienced on the shikara was the best part of the trip till then. The boatman recommended that before we left, we ought to try the Wazwan at Ahdoos - the traditional multi-course meal comprising of exotic dishes made from lamb and chicken. While the staple diet is rajma chawal, the Wazwan is prepared on auspicious occasions like marriage. It was late and the restaurant was about 10 km away. Azal was in two minds, perturbed by the distance and the volatile atmosphere prevailing in the capital, but I was hell-bent on going. And so we went. Ahdoos was open and there were a few customers inside. We ordered the Wazwan and ate till our hearts were content. Going back to the houseboat was kind of unnerving with little streetlight on the deserted lanes. We had to take a diversion to avoid a procession coming our way. When we got to our room, both of us could not bear the sight of the other. We went to sleep looking in opposite directions. And thus one of the most romantic locales in the world happened to be not quite so in my experience.
While leaving the houseboat in the morning, we saw a fleet of Royal Enfield motorcycles parked near the gate. When Azal was getting the Thar ready, one of the bikers, a Britisher of Indian origin, struck up a conversation with him. A paramedic by profession and a biker by passion, he was planning a cross-country trip. In the meanwhile, I took Sammy out to the nearby garden for her morning walk. We started at half past eight and headed for Sonamarg or the Meadow of Gold. Shortly after, we got stuck in a traffic jam at Hazratbal for more than thirty minutes. On learning that we were headed for Sonamarg, one of the truckers asked us to follow their vehicle to get back on the highway. They were amused seeing Sammy seated on my lap, staring wide-eyed at all the commotion happening outside. This happened in the same city in which we were fretful, being on the road late at night. It is a pity that this perceivably hospitable land of good-natured people turns into a hotbed of violence every now and then. We followed the truck to get to a picturesque countryside. The three hour drive was pleasant. Our spirits were up again. Before reaching Sonamarg we stopped at a rivulet by the road to dip our feet in the freezing cold water, a gift from the glaciers atop the Himalayas.
We stayed at Hotel Sonamarg Palace, a conveniently located average-looking hotel with captivating views. There was nothing palatial about it. Post lunch, we rode on horseback to the Thajiwas glacier. The distance was more than 15 km up and down; the path was treacherous. The azure sky blended into the slatish mountains topped with pockets of snow. The terrain was mostly green with huge crests and troughs. The water trickling down from the glacier formed streamlets which threaded through the bed of pebbles and rocks. We got off the horse at the foot of a rocky hillock and climbed our way up to the glacier. Born off-balance, I was jittery, struggling not to fall on the rocks as I clenched Azal's hand. The tables had turned. For dinner, we had a generous portion of bona fide rogan josh and roti from a restaurant down the road. I also bought some hand-embroidered pouches to gift our folks back home.
We started early the next day. The real adventure had begun. Leh calling! Our first and arguably, the toughest mountain pass, Zoji La, was right after Sonamarg. Azal's driving skills, Sammy's adaptability, the Thar's mettle and my grit and gumption were put to test. At an altitude of 3528 m, it is the second highest pass on Srinagar - Leh National Highway. We knew the trial was on when the roads tapered to a heavily pitted pathway with a high rocky wall threatening to crumble any moment on one side and a hideous ravine on the other. I hugged Sammy tight lest the jerks agitated her. We did not dare to let our attention slip even for a second. And in the end, we made it. We passed the first of the many dangerous passes. At the highest point on the pass, the Border Roads Organization or BRO has erected a yellow milestone stating its altitude. Like a certification for the feat we had achieved.
Now that we had surmounted the first hurdle, we were ready - ready for the ones yet to come our way. We had to cross two more passes to get to Leh - Namika La and Fotu La. At the base of Zoji La is Dras, the coldest inhabited place in India also called the 'Gateway to Ladakh'. The Kargil War Memorial is located here on the foothills of Tololing Hill. The memorial pays tribute to the soldiers who fought for the country during the Kargil War, recapturing areas into which Pakistani forces had infiltrated in 1999. From the memorial complex we could see the snow-capped peak of Tiger Hill. Being the highest peak in the zone overlooking the Srinagar - Leh National Highway 1D , the militants had begun to use it as a vantage point by establishing their forces there. Realizing this, the Indian Army braved the numbing cold and freezing rain and launched a surprise attack, shelling and firing the enemy's positions from multiple directions. After five days of ceaseless warfare at an altitude of more than 5000 metres, our soldiers recaptured Tiger Hill. It became one of the milestones of the war. Many died, many suffered severe injuries due to continuous exposure to cold weather. In the gallery exhibiting photographs of the war, my eyes fell on a heart-wrenching letter written by a soldier to his wife, a few days before he died. I could only imagine the intensity of emotions lurking behind every iota of that note.
We had some tea and snacks from the army canteen before resuming our journey. Two more mountain passes lay between us and Leh, Namika La and Fotu La. In Ladakhi language, 'La' means a pass. After Kargil town, we began to notice a change in terrain. The roads turned smooth. We even gave a lift to a soldier looking for transport in that forlorn stretch. A couple of bikers passed by, their rugged machines loaded to the brim. The bouldered hills on the sides, interspersed by grey streams and accidental greens had given way to a seamless expanse of ridged peaks. They glistened in the afternoon sun like silky, golden tresses swaying to the call of the wind. Or like the frolicking waves of a boundless ocean taking us into a sweeping embrace. The reflections perfected an ombre finish. The deep lines formed moon-like craters. It was unlike anything we had ever witnessed or imagined. We gasped in awe. Even Sammy was on her toes marveling at this wondrous phenomenon. Up into the distant sky, jutted a claw-like outgrowth. Like a pillar in the sky. That was Namika La at an altitude of 3700 metres. 36 km down the road was Fotu La. 4108 metres high, it is the highest pass on the NH 1D highway. We paused to record our accomplishment. The unruly winds tossed us around as we posed next to the BRO summit sign that said, "Highest point on the Srinagar - Leh Road". The Buddhist prayer flags fluttered in the wind. We moved on.
Lamayuru was approaching. At a distance, we could see some boxed buildings surrounded by spurts of bushy trees. The gompa / monastery at Lamayuru is one of the oldest and largest in Ladakh. The monasteries are usually located at an altitude, a flight of steps leading to the gompa. I was too tired to go all the way up. While Azal went ahead, Sammy and I hung around near the stupa below, chatting up with local women welcoming us into their bewitching land. We ordered a bowl of thukpa from a shack near the monastery. By the time we were done eating, the sun had disappeared behind the hills. As we prepared to leave, they called out, 'Julley! Julley!!' with a smile so genuine that it shone out of their puffy eyelids. I asked them what Julley meant. "Namaste", swift came the reply.
It was getting dark and Leh was another 127 km away. The sky got murkier by the minute as we crossed the 'moonscape' of Lamayuru - unusual geological formations that resemble the surface of the moon due to its crater-like appearance. Though we kept an eye out for the magnetic hill as we neared Leh, we weren't able to locate it. We must have passed it by without falling for the uphill illusion. We entered Leh after ten. When we set out on this trip, we had decided that we would try to avoid traveling after dusk. Yet, we ended up doing just that on most days. Dorjee and Ringchen eagerly awaited our arrival at Ling's Guest House, our home for the next two days. Ringchen prepared a Ladakhi dish called Skyu for dinner. The pasta-based dish was prepared from fresh vegetables grown in their home garden. Having quietened our revolting bodies, we sunk into the comforting warmth of the bed, hiding it under multiple layers of soft blanket.
Trip first published on Travel Memoirs