An Indian Lady Talks About Her Solo Trip To Kashmir
Kashmir is one of the few places that can fill you with dread and anticipation at the same time. But on my recent trip I discovered that it’s so much more than just beauty and skirmishes. Kashmir is an experience that grows on you. It’s a state of mind that changes how you think. It’s a beautiful story that you live everyday through your memories. Kashmir, in one word, is Kashmiriyat - the culture, people, their love for all things human. My story of travelling through this picturesque Indian crown was nothing I expected.
When I first started researching Kashmir on Google. I read horror stories of curfews, crackdowns, militant attacks, stone pelting at Lal Chowk, locals waging yet another war with the armed forces. It was the last place I wanted to be. Kashmir may be the most beautiful place in this world, but am I willing to die seeing it? Perhaps not.
But the traveler in me wanted to brave it, and I am glad I did. My 45 days of travel through Kashmir helped me experience it up-close. I stayed in the homes of locals and had steaming cups of Kahwa, I was invited for Eid lunches and Kashmiri weddings, I was helped out of a curfew and offered safe-haven when the highways were closed due to stone-pelting. From the rich businessmen of Srinagar to sheep-grazing nomads, all Kashmiris have one thing in common - they are tied by a string called Kashmiriyat.
The Taste of Ramzan & Curfew
I was immensely fortunate to be in Kashmir during the month of Ramzan. It was strangely calm and people were just so content. My favorite time of the day was during the Azaan, when the call for prayer would waft through the crisp air and reach my bedroom as a morning wake up alarm. In the evening, they would call me at the time of Iftari and I would dig into their freshly cut fruits and dates like I had been fasting all day. It was such a welcome ritual to sit with the locals and break the fast.
In the spirit of Ramzan, one day I decided to go to Hazratbal and experience the festivity that the evening would bring. To my surprise the streets were empty, the shops were closed, save for a few that were selling treats for people who were fasting. Just then the loudspeakers announced Iftar and everyone rushed to the nearest source of water to quench their thirst. It was endearing to watch people make way for each other, bound together by a thread called faith.
It was past 7 by now and time for me to head back. Suddenly the curfewed streets of downtown didn’t appeal to me anymore. I was scared walking alone with the setting sun behind the Zabarwan hills. Just then a man on a bicycle came rushing towards me in horror. He yelled at me for being out during curfew and did all he could to find me an auto. I travelled back in silence, troubled and excited about my experience that day.
I Almost Walked into Pakistan
After traveling through Srinagar, I was ready to explore the rest of Kashmir. I had especially come for Gurez, a small hamlet that I saw in a movie and instantly knew in my bones that I wanted to go to. So I hailed a shared cab from Batmaloo station and left for Dawar, the district headquarters of Gurez.
The difficult 8-hour journey left me speechless, as much by the breathtaking beauty of Habba Khatoon as by the cramped interiors of the cab. The roads were rough to say the least. While I was craning my neck to get a better view, I was asked by a girl travelling with me if I would like to come to her house for a cup of Kahwa. It was a delightful offer, and one I was tempted to take, but passed up because I was more excited about reaching Gurez.
When I arrived, I saw colorful houses lining the streets and shapely Habba Khatoon peak towering over it like a protector. I was in complete awe of its beauty. Who would have thought that I would be skirting the edge of India?
Walking through the village of Tarbal was an experience in itself. I was accompanied by an army officer who mistakenly took us beyond a certain point almost to the Pakistan boundary wall, because it was cloudy and visibility was low. I thanked my stars and walked the muddy trail back. I was surprised at all the help I got to ensure I reached back to the safety of my guest house in Gurez. From Kashmiri officers to the Punjab regiment posted at the border, everyone was willing to help, inviting me into the comfort of their camps and giving me food when it mattered the most.
I was helped by locals at every step of the way, and they were thrilled to know about my journey, despite what media had to say. I never confessed that I was scared as hell when I first took that flight from Delhi to Srinagar. But on the way back, my eyes were filled with tears of gratitude and love, and I left behind a part of me that keeps calling me back.
(Article has already appeared in 101Indian.com)
By Kanika Gupta
Photographs by Kanika Gupta