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Flawed, yet a paradise

Sohaila Kapur, Jan 20 2018, 22:43 IST

Baramulla, in Kashmir's North West, is mainly known for terrorist encounters. So is Sopore, a city in that district. The area also witnessed the worst looting and destruction by Lashkars from across the border in 1947. Is it any wonder then, that there's hardly been any tourist footfall there since Independence.

So, when I decide on a weekend trip, many eyebrows are raised. People joke that I would probably hear the rhythm of gunshots accompanying birdsong in the crisp morning air. My cousin, who is a co-traveller, threatens to shoot me if we get abducted by terrorists.

All this banter amuses my host, a Mumbai-based art director, who has a family home in the district. I am the biggest don here, he grins on FaceTime€ and then on a more serious note, says, "I want you to come and see for yourself how normal life is over here and that Kashmiri hospitality is very much intact." His earnestness disarms my cousin, too, and we take our early-morning flight to Srinagar with less trepidation.

Well-guarded

My friend receives us at Srinagar airport and drives us through the VIP area of Rajbagh and Gupkar roads, which is dotted with the mansions of the chief minister and other politicians. You can't see the houses because they are concealed behind thick foliage and security guards.

We tuck into some delicious cakes at a grand old property nestling against a hill and facing Dal Lake, which was once the Oberoi Hotel. Many childhood memories come rushing back to me as I recall the famous terraced gardens where we now enjoy our tea.

Later, we take that inevitable shikara ride and watch the empty floating markets, the docked and lonely houseboats and listen sympathetically to the complaints of the hawkers who mourn the loss of visitors, as they float alongside us.

Snacking on some tender water-lily bulbs, we hop off the boat and start for Baramulla.

We drive through Lal Chowk, the main market, some of whose buildings still bear the scars of the pitched battles between civilians and the police. We speed past Jahangir Chowk, the rambling High Court, the Secretariat, with the Indian and the State flags fluttering high on the top, Batmaloo bus stop and finally catch the highway to Baramulla.

The drive takes about four hours. En route, our host takes a picturesque detour, so we can drink in the beauty of the Jhelum Valley.

This is an international highway, he informs us. If we continue on this, we will enter Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK). He points out a portion of the old Silk
Route that traverses the area.

Spotting locally grown maize, we stop to taste it.

At lunchtime, we reach Baramulla city, and stopping our car in front of a women's college, we cross the dirt road to eat biryani and rasmalai at Lovely Sweets, a local dhaba. It is full of working men, busily eating their midday meal. We are the only women around, and obviously outsiders. Instinctively, we cover our heads.

After lunch, we head in the direction of Uri, about 27 km away, the location of one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in 2016. Uri is about 10 km away from the Pakistan border. We overtake army vehicles that are ubiquitous in Baramulla and Srinagar, their occupants standing with cocked rifles, ready for instant action, if required. It is a routine sight that gets special attention only from us, the wide-eyed tourists from the capital.

We cross sheltering walnut trees and stop to taste some fallen on the road. Scraping off their green covering, we crack the brown shell and get to the tender and sweet kernel.

Bunches of schoolgirls walk past us€.in white salwar kameezes, with hijabs covering their heads. Older women wear abayas, revealing only their eyes. The men never stop to gape or stare or make lewd comments, so common in our metropolises. The houses are drab and falling apart, even though the surrounding foliage is fresh and green. The inhabitants are just as poor and dusty as their homes, but their beauty, like nature, is lustrous. The skin is burnished, the noses sharp, and the eyes are hazel under thick, knitted brows.

Soon we come upon the village of Boniyar and its hydropower project that harnesses River Jhelum's current.

From there we retrace our steps through Sheeri village. I spot a tree with gigantic, ripening pears rising majestically behind a brick wall. When I get off to photograph it, the lady of the house, a Gujjar, spots me and invites us into her house. We are fed freshly harvested, juicy pears. Her brothers come out of the house and ask us in for a cup of tea.

Our host is nervous and swivels his eyes in admonition. Yes, the traditional Kashmiri hospitality still exists, but suspicion has also set in. Though they invite us in, we notice their narrowed eyes. Who are we? Where have we come from? Our host tells a white lie and bundles us off into the car.

We return to Baramullah, and heading towards Sopore, we catch another highway to Bandipora district. We climb the mountains and the stunning bejewelled valley of paddy and apple orchards falls away beneath us. This is the Wular Valley. It looks like a river but is really a lake, the largest freshwater one in Asia. It winds its way like a glistening snake through the valley. At the top of the hill is the shrine of one of the area's patron saints, Hazrat Baba Shukur€“Ud-Din Sahab. It is one of the several Sufi shrines in North Kashmir. There is a breathtaking view of the valley from here.

It is dusk and we haven't yet reached the end of our journey. We zoom down the hills at top speed and finally reach our destination€ his family home in Janwara village. A traditional Kashmiri welcome full of smiles and hugs awaits us, as does the mouth-watering wazwan!

The rista, and gustaba, meatballs in red and white sauce, have been beaten for hours to become as tender as they are. They are delicious.

So is the yakhni, which is lamb spare ribs in yoghurt sauce and haaq, their traditional spinach dish. We compliment our host's mother and sister, who have been working since the morning to make us our first major meal of the day.

We spend the night under soft comforters and embroidered bedsheets, and leave for Gulmarg the following day. That is perhaps the only conventional part of our trip. We decide to see it because it is completely bereft of snow, which is a novelty for me. The ski slopes are soft and green, making Gulmarg look like the English countryside with its gently sloping hills and wooden houses with vertical roofs.

We sip delicious kehwa (Kashmiri tea) at a spanking-new resort and then lunch at Hotel Hilltop, before starting our journey towards Srinagar again. We cross Tanmarg, a town and a tehsil, just below Gulmarg, and take a turn towards Bandipora, via Haji.

Keeping a secret

We finally reach Bandipora and move towards our secret destination, a quiet resort in the lap of mountains and streams, hidden by nature. This is Aouthwooth, where we stop for toast and tea. Only locals know about this stunning area, surrounded by peaks. From the resort, we return to Bandipora and take in many picturesque villages - Astingoo, Aloosa, Quensa - all nestled within green paddy fields, finally reaching Janwara. If there is beauty in poverty, it is here, I muse.

On our third and final day, we start our journey towards Srinagar, via Sopore. This time, we enter the ill-reputed town. It is crowded and peaceful, with people going about their businesses. Reaching Srinagar, we go shopping at Koker Bazaar, where we buy embroidered stoles and fresh dry fruits. We return to Delhi exhausted but wiser, having left behind some broken myths and preconceived notions.

(With inputs from Rashid Sheikh)

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