Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Travels Through Kashmir

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Mirpur Britain 

There is Great Britain and then there is Mirpur Britain where you can, especially in winters, meet young folks who speak with all sorts of British accents from the deep south to Yorkshire and even up into Scotland. Everyone you meet in this Kashmiri town has close relatives in Britain. And the young college boys I met were all a-raring to head off to ‘Eng laand’ with the accent heavy on the second syllable.

Mirpur houses built with British money. Most houses are either empty or occupied by relatives of those who toil at menial jobs in Britain
Tradition has it that from sometime late in the 19th century, men from Mirpur joined the Royal Indian Navy and merchant marine in large numbers. These were days of coal-fired steam boats and the men were mostly stokers manning the grimy innards with the blazing furnaces and the huge pounding engines. Even when diesel and furnace oil burning ships became usual, the men of Mirpur continued to work in the engine rooms. It is said that they had a knack for working around large machinery.

Neelam Valley
After the end of World War 2, Britain was severely depleted of its male workforce and there was urgent need for manpower to work the factories. And so, it is said, the sons of the men who started out as stokers on ships went away to Britain in large numbers to work the Midlands factories. The trend never stopped. With all the restriction on entry into Britain now in force, young men from Mirpur nevertheless end up getting across because they all wed their cousins for the visa and the good life offered in the West.

It can scarcely be called good, however. With their eyes set on those distant shores, the men of Mirpur care no whit for education for if their grandfathers could make a good life in Britain without education, so can they, they argue. Not one of the twenty or so college students I spoke to were interested in professional education; all they wanted was to finish high school and wait for the wedding and the visa.

Early morning near Kotli
Of all these youngsters, there was only one not interested in going to Britain. He was working through a degree in finance and accounting and was an avid player of football. He said, ‘Men who wouldn’t do a jot of work here at home, get out there and work sixteen hours a day at low-paying menial jobs before eventually working their way to some respectable position.’ And that, he added, was the limit of their ambition. None of them wanted professional training that could land them a white collar job. Britain or Bust is the motto of most young men in Mirpur.

In the early 1960s, Mirpur town underwent a great upheaval. The Jhelum River was to be dammed and the resulting lake was to drown the town which then sat on the slopes of the low hills west of the present town. A new Mirpur was established by the government. Now, we have to admit that we Pakistani Muslims like to exhibit our wealth. And so over the last two decades, very much like the village of Beval near Gujar Khan, Mirpur got a crop of new palatial houses. These are generally three-storeyed houses, coloured and shaped very like coffee icing cakes with large panes of tinted glass on their windows.

Rawlakot looking prim and pretty from afar
Many of them lack the vibrancy that comes from being lived in. They were built at huge costs never to be peopled; their only purpose, like the mansions of Beval, being to show off the wealth of the owners who live in Britain. One such mansion had two cell phone towers on its roof. Two of these with their generators pounding away on the columns and foundations of the house during the long hours of load shedding are bound to reduce the building to rubble by the time the owner comes around for a visit next time. But for the absentee landlord, the tens of thousands of rupees to be had as rent seem to be a good enough justification to shake up the foundations of a house he or she may never live in.

In two days in Mirpur the greatest activity I saw was in the town’s only playground. Situated behind the boys’ college, it was crowded with players. During the afternoons, there were two or three games of football in progress simultaneously. In the morning an equal number of cricket matches took place. In between out of school children played whatever took their fancy. But other than this activity which engaged about a couple of hundred boys, it was hard to gauge what the young people of Mirpur did with their spare time.

 The lake at Bun Jaunsa
None of the boys I had spoken to mentioned being readers of books. Not one of them had a collection at home or went to the local library. There were no cinemas in town to engage them, yet, for some peculiar reason, teenage and early twenties men were missing from the streets in the evenings. Most of the people I saw were trader types with their beards and shalwar-kameez suits of white. They even infested the restaurants.

My friend Professor Mohiyuddin who teaches psychology at a local college was upset that I was going to form an opinion by meeting only with lower middle class boys who went to government institutions and that I was not seeing youngsters, especially girls, from private colleges. The problem was that I had mistimed my visit and arrived at the end of the week. So the impression may actually be skewed. That having been said, I saw enough to get a sense of the life of young people in Mirpur.

The question of what amusement youngsters engaged in was answered on the second afternoon. In the local park I saw a pair engaged in what could only be one of the earliest dates of their romance: the girl appropriately, if somewhat excessively, bashful and the boy almost falling over himself to impress. Even though I did not point my camera anywhere near their direction, their fast exit may have been because of me. So, the young people of Mirpur did engage in some normal activity.

The greatest attraction that Mirpur has to offer is the northern shore of Mangla Lake. Blue and placid, it had jetty from where boats left for the western side and for picnickers to reach the dramatic Ramkot Fort that sits on a lofty hillock at the spot where the Jhelum and Poonch rivers converge.

I should have expected at least some water sports. But there were none. The only answer to the question why all those Mirpur-wallahs who live in Britain have never thought of setting up a water sports centre in such an ideal situation is that we simply are not adventurous enough for such outdoor activity. Walking hand in hand (same gender) along busy streets is the last limit of our adventures.

 View of the valley from Azeem’s home
There was one thing that excited me: the appearance of the buildings of old Mirpur annually when the level of the lake falls in March. My friend Professor Aslam Chaudhry gave me a graphic enough account to entice me to return again in that month. A mosque, a mausoleum and some houses emerge from the water in almost complete form. By his account, this makes for a regular pilgrimage as everyone heads for the ghost town. Elders can still recognise the streets they lived in and their houses.

This was the town that Frederic Drew, a geologist working for the Maharaja of Kashmir, visited in the 1860s. He noted that Mirpur, sitting on an eroded plateau, was a large town in the lower hills, second only to Jammu. It was a major market where wheat from the neighbouring hills was collected to be freighted down to the plains by boats on the Jhelum River.

Drew also noted the nice, large houses belonging to the Khatris (Hindu traders) who had enriched themselves from this traffic. With partition the Hindus migrated to the other side and this status of Mirpur came to an abrupt end. If the wheat trade still continued, it was dealt the coup de grace by the building of the dam that put an end to river traffic.

Having been built only fifty years ago, Mirpur really has nothing to show for itself. Since the character of cities comes from age, Mirpur is way too young to have acquired it. And that is the only way to describe it. It is simply not a destination. Mirpur is only a place you pass through. It was a rather poor start for a great road trip through our part of Kashmir.

Journey without Maps 

I had never travelled through Kashmir and if there was an area of darkness within the country, for me it was Kashmir. I had kept away on purpose because back in the 1980s I once ventured into the region by local transport. On the rickety, creaking buses, everyone looked at me askance. When I got off and humped my backpack I was always approached by local oldies with the demand, always in English and always ominous, ‘Prove your identity!’

The funny thing was that I, dark of skin with a full head (now sadly very bald) of very black hair and an equally dark and shaggy beard was taken for a westerner. If I replied in Urdu, I was in trouble and once even ended up at the police station. However, if I responded in English, I could get away, but only so far as when some joker thought of inspecting my passport. I did not last through half of the second day of the journey and quit.
  
Now when I got it into my head to see what Kashmir was all about, I resolved to do it by motorcycle. Fearing things could only have got worse with the ‘security setting’ of local folks, I took the precaution of informing my friend General Khalid Shameem Wynne of my project (‘disposition’ in military lingo). He burst out laughing: ‘Oye, have you finally completely cracked up?’ But good man that he is, I soon got a call from his staff to ask what sort of route I planned to follow.

It was now I learned that my U-502 Sheet Number NI-43-10, compiled in 1954 from a survey not updated from ten years earlier, was way out of date. There were roads where it showed none and its lower margin warned, ‘Road classification should be referred to with caution.’ It was going to be very like travelling without a map and meant that I would have to go asking directions.

And so, I set out of Mirpur on a roundabout route to Rawlakot via Kotli. En route I planned to stop for the night at the home of a friend’s sister in the village of Nanghala. From Mirpur, I followed the road around Mangla Lake and up along the Poonch River in a northerly direction. It was through fields of ripening corn in small irregular blocks cut across by dry ravines. At village Palak (pronounced ‘plaque’), the road climbed up into the richly forested slopes leading up to Pir Gali – Saint’s Pass.

I was hoping to find a tomb painted garishly and festooned with pennants. Instead I ran into a barricade manned by a young policeman who looked like he meant serious business. Pointing to my panniers, he rather aggressively asked what they contained. Thinking this was the beginning of the ‘Prove your identity’ routine, I told him they contained my personal effects. More questions followed concerning what included personal effects. ‘Smelly socks and underwear, to begin with,’ I said breezily.

That went down rather badly. The man poked the bags with his rifle barrel and before he could shoot them to pieces, I asked to see his officer. I was ushered into the shack by the side of the road where a uniformed sub inspector was just finishing breakfast. I had meanwhile taken off my helmet and noticed with pleasure that my bald pate and silver fringe having sufficiently established my venerable age, had a salubrious affect on the company.

The senior man asked for my driving licence. As I was fishing it out he had a change of heart and told me to forget it. There followed a friendly inquiry about my place of origin and destination for the day. The mention of Lahore raised eyebrows. And why was I travelling? Simply stating my purpose was to see Kashmir pleased their Kashmiri hearts no end. I was kept long enough to be served a tepid and very sweet cup of tea. Well, I thought as I drove off, that’s a pleasant change from the paranoia of the 1980s. And, in a way, this set the pace.

The road entered the forest of Saneha. Rich and unspoiled, it smelled luxuriously of pine resin coupled with the mustiness of ferns lingering in the moist ditches by the road. The road took a turn and I was surprised by a large sign and a building announcing Punjun Valley Hotel. Time was when even the larger urban centres in Kashmir had only the most basic doss houses. And here we were in the middle of a very picturesque and rather secluded valley called Punjnutta (Five Nuts?) with a fine looking inn to hand. This was the place I was staying overnight on the next visit.

My friend’s sister and her husband Azeem are both school teachers in Nanghala. In the absence of a map, I had been given a set of landmarks to reach their village. At the village of Charhoi, I was to look for Amanat at the adda. A tall and well-built man, he was bursting with self-confidence. He feared I would lose the way in the next some kilometres to the village and insisted on riding with me. I refused, telling him if I could get to Charhoi from Lahore, there was every likelihood of making it to Nanghala too.

Reluctantly he gave me directions. As I was about to set off, he wrote down his telephone number for me. In case the police or other highwaymen bothered me, I was to tell them I was his guest and also to immediately call him. Thus reassured, I motorcycled through another patch of lovely forest before fetching up at the row of shops with the puncture repair shop where I was to ask for Azeem.

Azeem, fortyish, strolled up, introduced himself and taking part of my gear pointed to his house just visible on the crest of the ridge about a hundred metres above the road. His family, Kashmiri Jats, had migrated from across the border in 1965 and he was born in Pakistan. The spot his father selected to build his home and raise his brood was as good as it could have got: it offered expansive uncluttered views all around. Here the family made a life as farmers and herders.

We sat outside the guest room sipping tea and looking out on a vast all-round panorama. After many years I saw white-backed vultures in large numbers, some even flying so low above us that I could clearly hear the wind soughing through their wide-spreading wings. These majestic and very useful scavengers were exterminated from Pakistan by the use of the analgesic drug diclofenac on animals. Vultures are susceptible to renal failure in case they feed on cadavers ridden with the drug. And so, over the years, we exterminated the birds.

Climbing in Kaghan in 1991, I had been kept company by these same white-backed vultures right up to 4500 metres. Thereafter, I rarely saw one. Punjab was especially blighted by their absence. Even in Sindh and faraway Thar, all I ever saw was the smaller Egyptian vulture. Only last winter (2011) in Thar, I saw a solitary long-billed vulture roosting in a prosopis tree. Just one, where once they were plentiful.

Azeem told me that we were no longer in the ‘Little England’ part of of Kashmir. Here scarcely anyone had a relative in England and the young men did not dream the same dreams as their counterparts in Mirpur. But here, since most of the older generation was only semi-educated, it was a rare youngster who took school seriously. The dream of most young men was to be pipe fitters and brick layers in the Middle East. Some joined the army. Others farmed the family’s small agricultural plots and minded livestock. Few regarded schooling as important.

My route from Nanghala to Rawlakot went almost due north through Kotli, Sarsawa, Trarkhel and Bun Jaunsa. From the bottom of the valley at Nanghala, the road rose up into the hills with little villages spilling down the slopes into the early morning mist at the bottom. The road was completely deserted and at seven in the morning the landscape seemed utterly lifeless but for the languidly rising smoke from the homes.

Forty-five minutes on a delightfully lonely road took me past Kotli sitting on a high shelf above the river and looking very prim. It being still too early, I skirted the village and carried on into the hills. The forest was pristine, the road under the blue sky was lonely and the contours of the valley below softened by the smoke and haze.

Similar mountain country in, say, Kaghan or Swat would be ravaged clean of forest – not to mention be crowded with idle men as well. Here, I could not stop marvelling at the unspoiled beauty of the trees. Though some lopping had been done on the pine trees to serve as fuel wood, the cover was by and large thick. Later in Rawlakot I asked a young major if it was because of the security situation and the presence of the army that the forest was spared. Very graciously the young man said that it was an effort in equal measure of the civilians and the army.

At Kotehra a little north of Trarkhel I paused to ask if I was on the right road to Bun Jaunsa and Rawlakot. The portly, bearded man said it was nearly impossible to get lost in Kashmir. Nonplussed, I asked how that was. ‘There’s only one road, that’s how,’ and he burst out laughing.

He was a retired subedar from the army and now a storekeeper who stocked his shop from Azam Cloth Market in Lahore and promised to visit me when he next came shopping. Tea was ordered and he leaned forward to ask, somewhat conspiratorially, what brought me to his country. Here we go with the paranoid security business, I thought. But I had not been in Kashmir for more than twenty years and things had indeed changed. The man was delighted to find an oldie like himself purposelessly drifting through the country only looking, looking, looking.

Done with the tea he instructed me not to miss Bun Jaunsa some ways up north. I told him that place was indeed on my itinerary. We said our farewells and, when I got there, drove right through Bun Jaunsa to Rawlakot. I did not pause because I knew I was coming back for an overnight stint.

Rawlakot 

Hitting Rawlakot from the south was disappointing. Having once been there for a couple of days before the 2005 earthquake, I remembered a small town with the centre concentrated in a shallow bowl. Now it sprawled with maddening traffic and roads, unpaved and dusty; unending. But there were traffic policemen in smart grey uniforms.

I was pulled over for going the wrong way in a one-way street. Why, in Lahore we only have Hall Road that goes one way; every other one-way has been abolished because no one ever gave a fig about it. And here in Rawlakot they were pulling folks over. The man checked my licence and said he was letting me go with a warning because I was from out of town. Mighty nice of him. But he did not tell me not to carry on along the same road.

Five minutes later, at the next crossing, an older policeman stopped me. Having told me I was violating the law, he handed me over to a younger officer. Again, upon seeing my license, this man let me off. Since there were few one-way markers, he instructed me to ask before entering any street. And that was my practice thereafter.

This was my first encounter with the Kashmir traffic police and I was impressed. They meant business which does not happen in Punjab. Here when they pull someone over, the person immediately calls his mother’s boyfriend or someone, who is highly placed either politically or in the police and hands over his phone to the police officer. Whoever is on the other end threatens the poor law enforcer with suspension or worse and the offender is let off. Someone in Kashmir sees to it that the business of the traffic police is not meddled with. At least not so far. I wonder how long this ideal situation will continue.

I was a guest of the brigade headquarter which lay clear across town on the north. Major Waqas Maan, the Brigade Major, was like a dynamo. He could talk into two telephones simultaneously without a mix up, read and sign letters at the same time, light his cigarette and inhale, tell the runner to get me tea and even signal me to bear with him just a bit more. I became breathless simply watching the man at work. I knew then that this young man was going places.

Very businesslike, Major Waqas asked if there was anything special I wished to do. Since there was nothing particular, he pulled out a file and read my programme from it. I was free for the rest of the day and part of the following morning to do whatever took my fancy. Meal times were flexible, he said, and I could order anything I wished from the mess. But my vegetarianism seemed to disappoint the young man. Every other aspect of my programme was fine-tuned in proper military fashion.

‘In the afternoon tomorrow, you drive to Bun Jaunsa to spend the night there, sir. Thereafter you can proceed to Bagh.’ I was in a military operation for the first time in thirty-four years since quitting the army after a hardly illustrious career of only six years.

I was planted in Valley View Lodge; a very comfortable guest room within the precincts of the brigade headquarter. It offered wonderful view across a tree-choked depression to a colourful Rawlakot spread out on the far slopes. From this vantage, there was only one word to describe Rawlakot: beautiful. The buildings rose through four, five or six storeys, all brightly painted in yellows, reds, greens and blues with a marked partiality for blue and red on the roofs. I was reminded of Italian villages in the Gulf of Genoa.

But when I drove back into town, I failed to find the city even half as pretty as it looked from afar. It may perhaps have been the broken roads and clouds of dust that obscured the beauty. Clearly the town was in a frenzy of rebuilding after the earthquake of 2005. Going by the new buildings it was evident that Rawlakot was entering a reincarnation.

A friend had once told me that young women in Rawlakot were keener on education than their male counterparts. So, my friend Professor Mohiyuddin in Mirpur arranged that I have a chat with some students in the local girls’ college. And what a bunch of smart young women they were. Vocal, self-assured, clear-headed and definite about their goals in life, they spoke with confidence. Diffidence was not a word they knew. At least three of them came from homes that maintained modest libraries.
Earlier I had engaged in a similar exercise in the boys’ college and had found them considerably better than those from Mirpur. Though none of those fifteen youngsters read anything but their curriculum and loafed in their spare time, those in the graduate programme were all pursuing goals they had set for themselves. Not one of them had a family to join in Britain.

Meanwhile, Bun Jaunsa – Forest of Jaunsa [Khan] – beckoned. In any case, Major Waqas had ‘ordered’ that I should get there in good time to do some photography and then sit on the patio of the army guest house and watch the night descending on the lake. And so early afternoon found me on the forested shores of the lake.

It is said that sometime after the 18th century Afghan irruptions, a group of Sadozai Pathans moved into Kashmir to make it their home. One man, Jaunsa Khan, settled in this area and gave the forest his name. Other than that, if there are stories, I did not get to hear them. Nevertheless the man’s forest is now a resort.

In 1974, Prime Minister Bhutto visited Bun Jaunsa and was taken in by its scenic setting. So he ordered the valley to be dammed on the lower side in order to trap the runoff from the slopes. The result is an irregular oblong of a lake about ten metres deep and fringed on all sides by tall pine trees. Just about thirty minutes from Rawlakot, this was Mr Bhutto’s everlasting gift to the city’s people. But like all resorts in Pakistan, Bun Jaunsa is littered and, if you ask me, a trifle over-rated.

Complete with two government-owned rest houses sited rather picturesquely on the north shore, the lake also had a large private inn. I arrived just in time to see the last of its walls crashing to the ground in a cloud of dust. A very friendly policeman in mufti informed me that the inn-and-shop complex was owned by a politician whose own home stood just behind the inn that was now a huge pile of debris. Since his party was not in power, the rulers had decided that the inn had been constructed illegally and called for demolition.

The business had done well for the past four or five years, said the policeman. Why, last summer there was drove after drove of motorcycling youth from Lahore who occupied the now ruined motel without a free day for two months from mid-June. And it will rise from the debris again once the owner’s party resumes power. With a shake of his head and a mirthless smile he added what a strange way the sorry country worked.

Mid-October was way past the tourist season and I had Bun Jaunsa to myself. I walked around the lake marvelling at the birds that thronged the trees. Of particular note was the beautiful red-billed blue magpie constantly on the move as if to draw attention to its colours. And of course Himalayan pied woodpeckers; way past summer breeding but still in pairs they zoomed through the trees in colourful streaks.

The night did indeed fall beautifully on Bun Jaunsa, as if cued by Major Waqas in Rawlakot. The western horizon became a fiery red for a brief while; the cloudless sky above struggling to match with a pastel lilac. As the sun went down, the red paled and the pastel darkened until the first stars flickered on the eastern horizon. The mountainsides began to twinkle with the artificial light of homes and by and by the entire sky was as a vast sheet of richly sequined dark velvet. There were no horns, no screaming televisions, no zooming traffic. The only sound was the faint whirr of the beetles doing their aerobatics around the lights on the patio complimented by the scent of pine resin and a bracing chill.

This was just the beginning and I was already in love with what I saw. Whoever said India had the most beautiful part of Kashmir had never seen this side. And I was still in the vicinity of Rawlakot. The more exciting journey lay ahead.

Over Mahmud’s Pass

The original plan was to drive east from Rawlakot all the way across the Haji Pir Pass, make a horseshoe turn and drive back to Bagh the very long way. The attraction was a Mughal garden on the far side of Haji Pir. In a ruinous state some years ago, the garden was adopted by the infantry battalion stationed nearby. It was, reportedly, given a makeover by the army and was now in prim state.

But that was a journey that would have added two more days to my fortnight-long trip. I dropped the detour and in consultation with Major Waqas Maan charted a shorter course over Mahmud ni Gali – Mahmud’s Pass – through Lasdanna to Bagh. This way, said the major, I could get to see the border crossing point of Tetrinot.

Leaving Bun Jaunsa early, I drove through still sleeping Khaigala and Hajira. If I was missing the restored Mughal garden, I expected something in Hajira. And that was because of its name.

On the road from Kallar Kahar in the Salt Range to Chinji via Bharpur, there is another Hajira. This village is known for an early Muslim period building, roofless and with walls tapering inward toward the top, it is set amid a sprawling graveyard. In the Salt Range, they had told me all such buildings were called Hajira; one informant even suggesting that the Kashmiri Hajira also had a like structure. Peculiar, because the only other similar buildings in the Salt Range are on the far west side of the range near Namal Lake. Their domes are intact, if damaged, and they are not called Hajira.

Few people were around and only a couple of shops open. I stopped to ask about old ruined buildings. The thin sliver of a man with a pointy beard to add to his sharp countenance minding a hardware store looked at me aghast, beaky mouth agape. Instead of replying he asked, astonishment bursting from his every pore, where I had come from. I almost felt for the antennae I seemed to have sprouted on my head.

In my younger years, I would just have driven off. But I challenged him with an appropriate, ‘You answer my question first and then I answer yours.’ He beckoned me into his store. I explained the shape of the building I was looking for, drawing a rough sketch on a piece of paper offered by the man. Watching him study the drawing intensely, I suggested that if there was such a building, it should be common knowledge.

No, he said at length slowly shaking his head. All Hindu temples were destroyed during or after the partition riots, he added. But, said I, such structures were early Muslim period and were very likely tombs. The man did a rethink and another hard look at my bad sketch. But he still failed to conjure up a historical building. That was a darn lot better than being sent off on some wild chase in the direction of the Line of Control and into the gun sights of the army on the far side.

Then began the inquisition, the whence and wherefore of my journey. Meanwhile, my age having been ascertained by the doffing of the helmet, the man suddenly warmed to me. Once again the mere mention of travelling because I had never before been in Kashmir completely disarmed him. Over tea the man instructed me to check out the border crossing at Tetrinot which, so it seemed, was a major development in the area enabling local people to visit relatives across the divide.

It turned out that folks could cross to the Indian side and they to ours without passport and visa. All they need is a simple permit from the district administration for a trip lasting fifteen days. This system holds in Balochistan districts bordering on Iran as well as in Gilgit and Hunza for fortnight-long visits to Xinjiang. Incidentally, one does not necessarily have to be a local. Even visiting outsiders can avail the facility, if they ask nicely.

As for the crossings into Afghanistan, there are just no restrictions. If there are, no one gives a fig for them. The few times I crossed at Torkham I watched with interest youngsters from both sides trundling their barrows back and forth with total sangfroid; the border guards not even batting an eye at them.

I cannot help but wonder what evil the Punjabis on both sides of the divide perpetrated that we should be forbidden even getting near the border. Are we punished for the perdition we visited upon each other when our ancient land was cut up? We who have homes on the other side where the spirits of long-dead ancestors and those who lost their lives in the terrible holocaust of 1947 still linger and they whose holiest shrines lie are on our side. Why must only we be denied the facility of free travel? When will I be able to visit Jalandhar freely and my kinsman Sardar Saudagar Singh come home to his village near Shahkot?

Kashmir, that excruciating bone of contention, is making things easier for her people, but not so Punjab. There surely are powers that fear that if the Punjabis on either side mingle freely, the madness of the security state will erode. The tangible fence that we have erected across mile after mile of countryside will fall. But worse still, the wall raised by the security state within our minds and souls will crumble. That is the fear.

My new found spindly friend bade me safe journey. According to my map, Hajira sits in the valley of the Rangar Nala which I had followed downstream (south) to its junction with the Poonch River at Dharmsal through a wide and picturesque valley. Houses, tree-shaded and bordering a meandering river were surrounded by neat squares of cultivation. It was just the kind of place one would wish to find a small inn and doss down for a day or so, sit in the balcony and read of other journeys by other men of greater stature.

At the junction of the Rangar with the Poonch River, the road swung east along the later. Somewhere past the romantically named village of Nain Sukh, another river coming down from the north joined the Poonch. Strangely enough, by the map, this new river was also called Rangar Nala.

By my reckoning, Tetrinot should be somewhere at this junction. But my map had no name like that. The village was pretty enough, though: thickly shaded by broad-leaf trees alive with birdsong and houses sprinkled in fields where ripe maize stood ready for the harvest. A short row of shops served as the main bazaar where some tea-sipping oldies paused to point me in the direction of the border gate. As I drove off, I was followed by a shouted warning, ‘You cannot take your motorcycle across!’


The Tetrinot crossing was just by the bazaar. About fifty metres from the iron gate trough which I could see Indian soldiers, a smart Pathan of the Baloch Regiment appeared from behind a cubicle and waved me down. He said I could not go any further and I said I did not intend to for I had only come looking. We got talking and he, much to my surprise, was pleasant and amicable even without my disclosing my ex-army antecedents, devoid of all paranoia about me being some spy. Buses went across twice a week, he said. But he was not sure if I could benefit from the faculty of the permit to cross. Poonch town, he said, was just a short drive away.

The soldier pointed me in the direction of the road to Mahmud ni Gali. Past the village, the road became a lovely avenue of trees. Thick stands of wild olive grew on both sides and there was the peace of far off places where no one ventures. Superlatives for Kashmir rang through my mind and I wondered why more people were not travelling through this lovely country.

Down the other side through Lasdanna I made Bagh. On the morrow, as I lay awake in bed at just before five, the earthquake struck, seven years and four days on from the previous terror. I got up to grab my camera bag when the tremor subsided.

Muzaffarabad from the fort
Muzaffarabad was made in the evening over the Haji Pir Pass. Thence the journey on to Kel was a flurry. Already eight days on the road, I was flagging, my mind crammed with images and names. Weather became rather a damper with intermittent sunshine and light drizzles. At Dudniyal in the Neelam Valley where I was staying with the army, the rain came down in earnest.

It cleared enough to permit me the drive on to Kel. But then the skies opened up with snow above 2800 metres. And I had checked past weather records to learn that October was the driest month in Kashmir! Disregarding the advice of my host Colonel Attique, I headed back through miserable cold. A day later as I rode through thick fog between Muzaffarabad and Murree I screamed in my helmet, ‘When on earth is it going to get warm again?’

Neelam Valley, almost Switzerland
But the die was cast: this was just a foretaste of many more journeys into Kashmir by motorcycle. Shorter more manageable trips to meander through Kashmir where they no longer treat outsiders as spies as they did back in the 1980s.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,

10 Comments:

At May 14, 2014 at 4:29 AM, Blogger Amardeep Singh said...

From my father, I used to hear stories about our family's roots in Muzaffarabad area. The heat in the plains Gorakhpur (Uttar pradesh, India) is what my father and his brothers hated the most and were always nostalgic about the life prior to partition. This region beckons me to step in the land of my forefathers. I wonder when it will become a reality!

 
At May 14, 2014 at 10:04 PM, Anonymous muhammad athar said...

One can only see dead investment in the shape beautiful residential buildings unoccupied, the same amount could have been used for some welfare project.

 
At May 14, 2014 at 10:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If heaven on earth is a choice, which place is your choice?

 
At May 15, 2014 at 10:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sir, reading this , my heady days in Kashmir ( indian side) come back to mind.....meher

 
At May 15, 2014 at 11:33 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Anonymous, There are many heavens for me on earth. Parts of Kashmir being one. But I'll run out of space counting.

 
At May 15, 2014 at 11:34 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

You are lucky, Meher, to have travelled on that side.

 
At May 15, 2014 at 11:41 AM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Athar, We are exhibitionists. We want our wealth to be seen. that is why places with large expat populations have these eyesores. Mirpur is not the only one. Village Beval in Gujar Khan is UGLY!

 
At May 15, 2014 at 12:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sir,
Which other areas of Pakistan have such communities? Are the Gujar khan guys mostly settled in England too? As for England, I've heard that more than half of Pakistanis are from Mirpur.
Really enjoyed reading this piece and LOVE your blog.

 
At May 15, 2014 at 7:04 PM, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you for the appreciation. Though people from all over the country are abroad, only some communities waste their resources to show off like this. Gujar Khan is a fine example. And of course, Mirpur has a huge presence in Britain. They resettled when Mangla Lake drowned the real Mirpur.

 
At May 15, 2014 at 7:30 PM, Anonymous Huda A. Bukhari said...

What a wondrous wondrous travel through Kashmir via your eyes! I enjoyed the journey immensely. Immaculate use of words painted gorgeous pictures in my head!

Since I love colors, my favorite part was your account on Ban Jusa. I could picture the entire scene. "The western horizon became a fiery red for a brief while; the cloudless sky above struggling to match with a pastel lilac. As the sun went down, the red paled and the pastel darkened until the first stars flickered on the eastern horizon." - Magical.

A comical yet majestic overview through history and present day Kashmir - Outstanding.

 

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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand


Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

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