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I am a wanderer and an explorer, I will travel to any corner of this planet if it intrigues me or catches my fancy. Somewhere in 2017, I decided that I must travel to Kashmir, maybe I was attracted to the place as it was a boiling cauldron of careless politics and tragic lives. It is strange to think about it now, as I sit and type away in my relatively comfortable and humble setting in Delhi. Not once before my travel did I really expect to be blown away by the sheer beauty, I guess I was more excited about the stories that awaited me.

Our landing in Srinagar was spectacular, we were greeted by the Himalayan range on either side. My mouth wide open, I stared in amazement as I had never been this close to the mighty Himalayas.I was just getting my head around the snow-covered ranges, my body and mind filled with excitement that I didn’t realize when I walked into the members of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). These men clad in brown uniforms were everywhere and to describe the feeling accurately, it was a rather “quick low after a good high.” Many instances during my travel through the Valley this feeling kept resurfacing.

The air was cold, if I remember, it must have been one degree the day we landed. The chill was secondary, I was well equipped as traveling to Kashmir in the winter is no laughing matter for someone who has grown up in the warm climate of South India. Primarily I was interested in taking in whatever I could like a greedy child, but the ride from the airport to my hotel, felt a bit dystopian (I am saying it felt not that it is). But that changed very quickly as we reached the Boulevard road and we drove past Dal Lake, everything changed that minute. The houseboats on the lake made me feel at ease and I started noticing the men and women in their pherans (Kashmiri dress), noticing me.

That night I slept in a beautiful house in Wakil Colony which was under the care of the nicest and warmest family, who gave us cups of Kahwa at the very mention of “chai.” The temperatures must have dropped to minus four but I slept like a child wrapped in flannel blankets. The next morning was hard, it took me a good two hours to get myself out of bed as it was freezing. But the “kangri”, which is a Kashmiri essential, is defined by many as the firepot that helps keep Kashmir warm, was a life-saver and helped in getting by the morning.

A road trip in Kashmir requires a trustworthy car and a driver who is a good story teller, trust me the Valley is full of stories, but you will need a good imagination to fathom them all. Driving around Srinagar transported me almost immediately to a Tim Burton film, dark and gothic. The Chinar trees lining the roadside had lost all of their cover that brought out a different personality. The gardens be it Shalimar Bagh or the Chashme Shahi, were similar yet different. On that cold winter day, it was difficult to imagine the Mughals walking through these paths. Despite the eeriness around me, I felt comfortable, I felt at ease and not a for a moment, did I feel I do not belong. But why should I not belong? Why was the feeling of ease in the Valley a surprise? Is it part of the Indian psyche to look at Kashmir and its people with doubt? These questions trouble me now, but didn’t really matter as we drove higher into the mountains.

Amir Khusro’s also known as the “father of Qawwali” was responsible to bring the gazal style of music to India, which still exists here as well as Pakistan. Something amongst many others that the two countries share in common, but I digress why I remembered the Sufi poet was his famous poem on Kashmir,

“Agar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast,
Hameen ast-o hameen ast-o hameen ast.”

which translates into:

“If there is a paradise on earth,
It is this, it is this, it is this.”

It is almost as though I can hear Khusro insist that if there is paradise on Earth, it is in Kashmir. I heard him while I walked through the soft white snow in Gulmarg, with every sinking step, I could swear by the marvel around me. There was no getting away from the cold, as Mushtaq bhai told me in Srinagar “In Kashmir, just simply enjoy the cold.” His words had a whole new meaning 8000 ft in the mountains, hot cups of tea and bowls of maggi really added to the experience. In Gulmarg you can forget the Kashmir you read in the papers, amongst the frolicking travelers. I surely forgot, I was too busy imagining how Gulmarg in the next couple of months would turn into the valley of flowers. Once the sun becomes strong enough, how all the snow will melt away and give way to new life. But that’s how nature works and possibly every winter the scars of unrest are covered temporarily.

No trip to Kashmir is complete without the visit to Pahalgam, it was on the top of my list. I don’t say this because of all the famous Bollywood movies that were shot there. The locals will very proudly tell you about the various points in the beautiful valleys of Pahalgam, where Salman Khan displayed his acting skills for Bhajrangi Bhaijaan or the fact that the film “Betaab” was named after the Betaab Valley. Pahalgam is also famous as many enthusiastic Hindus begin the journey to the Amarnath temple, which is a 5 day trek from this town. The interesting fact, is that out of respect for the yatris, it is almost impossible to find the spread of meat dishes that you will find elsewhere in Kashmir. I found this action by locals endearing, an act of embracing the diversity.

There were many moments in Pahalgam when words fail and you can’t express what you see before your eyes. Sometimes these very words failwhen you hear things spoken by the men and women in the Valley. We were at the end of our journey and traveling through the saffron fields of Pampore back to Srinagar. There was news about shooting of some jawans in Pulwama, which is not very far from where we were, almost immediately our kind Kashmiri driver Amir, responded “It is because of a handful of people that Kashmir’s name is ruined all over the country.” He further added “ Why would we not want to live in peace, after all we are Indians as well.” The car fell silent, not because we were surprised at what he said, but, the fact that he had to justify on behalf of all Kashmiris which side they were on.

As we drove past the naked Chinars, I felt sad and helpless, I really couldn’t say anything to comfort this man or his family or his community. It’s best if I said nothing as I am part of the problem. The problem that lives in Delhi and very rarely raises the voice about the reality of people in the Valley. The problem that uses twitter to voice an opinion but feels that there is nothing else one can do. As we approach Srinagar, we discuss politics as we pass by posh houses of Ministers. Amir points out to Omar Abdullah’s home (ex CM of J&K) and tells me about the tragedy of the current government and he hopes to have Abdullah back in power. I see his point and empathize with his/their reality but say nothing as we drive towards the Dal Lake, where I spend the last few hours of my travel, taking in every bit of beauty which is now mired in reality.

Neha Saigal, Traveler and Development Consultant

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