Ditching the popular tourist spots of Kashmir, our contributor sets out to #discovertheundiscovered regions of the Union Territory that are usually beyond the reach of civilians. Text by Santosh Ojha; photographs by Vivek Sharma
In an army lookout on the 3,000-metre-high Nastachun Pass, two large-framed black-and-white images of Sadhana, the Bollywood actress of yesteryear, clung to a wall. Sporting her famous fringe, Sadhana was posing seductively in one image and proudly displaying a trout, which she had presumably caught, in the other. The pictures looked out of place in the stark landscape of the pass, from where Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) was just a few kilometres away as the crow flies.
We had started off from Kupwara—13 adventurers in a convoy of six four-by-four vehicles. It was February and, as expected, bitterly cold. Our plan was to cross the formidable Shamshabari Ridge through three different passes, staying overnight and returning to Kupwara each time. Shamshabari Ridge lies in the northwest of Kashmir, roughly along the LoC. Nastachun Pass was the first of the three passes on our list. Nastachun means ‘cut nose’ in Kashmiri; in other words, how your nose tip feels in subzero temperatures. An invitation to enter a heated office for tea and samosas from the young major commanding the post was a welcome break. He also solved the Sadhana mystery for us. During the 1965 war with Pakistan, Sadhana visited the area to support the Indian troops, who then rechristened the pass as ‘Sadhana Top’. A fringe haircut is a lot better than a cut nose, I think to myself.
Bollywood’s love affair with Kashmir goes way back. Srinagar, Pahalgam, and Gulmarg have featured in many blockbusters and attract tourists every year. But we were a bunch of off-roading enthusiasts who had flown into Srinagar for a 10-day journey to explore the areas beyond the tourism circuit.
The expedition was led by Nidhi Salgame and Col Satty Malik SM (retd), who run Wander Beyond Boundaries. The company specialises in self-driven expeditions to remote places. I had travelled with them to Nagaland and Kyrgyzstan earlier. But this Kashmir drive was different—our route would go through areas close to the LoC (Line of Control). I’d heard of places like Kupwara, Bandipora, and Macchal only in news reports on counterinsurgency operations. In fact, the organisers had to obtain permissions from the Indian Army to drive into areas where civilians are not allowed.
National Highway 1 from Srinagar to Kupwara is like any other chaotic Indian road, except for the presence of gun-toting soldiers and frequent appearances of army trucks with troopers perched on top, wearing bulletproof vests and carrying light machine guns to deal with any threat. Arshid Peerzada, 33, and his uncle Bashir Ahmad, 68, were our hosts in a Kupwara homestay. True to Kashmiri custom, we sat on a thick carpet in their large living room with quilts draped over our legs. A dastarkhwan spread in front of us was piled with a succession of snacks, which were washed down with kahwa. A ritual handwash ensued before we could begin our meal—one of our hosts went around the room with tash-naer (a traditional basin and hot water jug). The wazwaan that followed lived up to its reputation: mutton kebab, chicken, rista, dhaniwal korma, mirchi korma, tomato paneer, yakhni, and gushtaba with heaps of rice. It was rounded off with noon chai, a Kashmiri hot beverage made with green tea, salt, baking soda, and milk. The hearty meal and heavy quilts were enough to induce deep sleep, but our next pit stop, Kalaroos Caves, beckoned.
Kalaroos is an adulteration of the original moniker, Qila-e-Roos, which translates to ‘fortress of Russia’. Many kids from the nearby village of Lashtiyal gathered around us as we arrived at the starting point of our climb. I requested two of the older boys to guide me. Ishaq Khan and Nasir Lone—both 15 years old—exercised extreme patience as they pointed out accessible detours, suggested rest stops, and recounted stories of their village. They waxed eloquent about leopard attacks in the area, the flowers that bloom in spring, and the therapeutic properties of a mountain stream en route.
Soon, I could see a giant stone up the slope, the first and arguably most famous site of Kalaroos. Locals call it Satbaran. The stone structure has seven doors carved out; these are called sath barr. No one knows their origins. Some say that the Pandavas made them, and each of the cavities originally held idols for worship. Some say that the cavities point towards seven countries in Central Asia. Later, we walked another kilometre to Tramkhan, a tunnel buried in a mountainside. Despite enough evidence to the contrary, locals believe that the tunnel leads to Russia! More credible stories (and the name itself) suggest it’s an abandoned copper mine.
The second pass on our route, Zamindar Khan Gali, was as formidable as it sounded. The weather gods decided to throw an extra challenge our way with heavy snowfall. Crossing it became a litmus test of our driving skill, but we endured. Machhal garrison, our stay across the pass for the night, sits barely six kilometres from the LoC. Some of us made the short walk to Machhal village, where the village head Habibullah welcomed us into his house. A bukhari (traditional heater) was a welcome relief from the cold outside. Over cups of kahwa, we discussed local matters. I was amazed to learn that the development the locals were most thrilled about was the installation of a mobile tower—the village was now connected to the world. Machhal village is set along a snow-clad slope and surrounded by hills. The hamlet was almost deserted at the time of our visit because most residents relocate to the warmer climes of Kupwara, Srinagar, and Jammu to escape the harsh winter.
Razdan Pass, which leads to Gurez Valley, was the last on our list of passes to be crossed. We were warned that the road conditions were bad and advised to reconsider our plans. We made a valiant attempt nonetheless, but the snow was so thick that we had to abort our mission midway. Upon our return, we checked into a guesthouse at Watlab in Bandipora district for our last night in North Kashmir. The guesthouse lies on the banks of Lake Wular, and our hosts, Fasil Ali Dar and Arsullah Habib had arranged for a delightful surprise. A local singer, Muntazir Nissar, filled our last evening with soulful Kashmiri songs, his fingers caressing the harmonium and his face wearing a faraway look. Just 30 years old and blind since birth, Nissar sang in the local tongue. Though I was unable to understand his words, the emotion with which he sang touched us all. A learned Kashmiri friend later translated a verse from one of his songs for me, “I gave up my physical form in your longing, my beautiful, as you distanced yourself from me. To find your beauty is as difficult as finding a spotless pearl in a necklace.”
Looking back at the trip and its culmination today, Nissar’s song sounds like an ode to Kashmir and a message to its visitors. The beauty of the land has not distanced itself from us. We just need to travel beyond our comfort zones and find all the spotless pearls for ourselves.
The international airport nearest to Kupwara is Sheikh-ul-Alam International Airport (93 km) in Srinagar. Sopore and Baramulla are the closest railheads.
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