Leafless tall trees line the smooth two-way road from Srinagar to Kupwara, with a backdrop of a dry valley and occasional snow. A friend was on his way to Dardpora in Kupwara region and I had a perfect opportunity to travel to a remote part of Kashmir that is not on ‘must see’ list, so couple of us tagged along.
On route, heavily guarded army vans pass by every now and then. Our van is stopped and three of us, quite visibly the only outsiders crammed with locals, are asked for IDs.
A local teacher from Kupwara with his fractured arm plastered and tied to his neck joins us at the back of our shared van. His manner is gentle and conversation effortless. As soon as he gets down, we exclaim in unison ‘how handsome is he!’ Given the two friends with me were guys, I wonder if girls had any hope of learning from this teacher! Kashmiris are arguably the most attractive people.
Sitting in a rickety bus in Kupwara town, I turn to my neighbor to confirm the route for Dardpora. Every single passenger in the fully occupied bus eagerly start giving us suggestions, some in local language and some translating in Hindi. Suppressing a smile, I am heartened to see such warmth, something I rarely got to witness in many of Kashmir’s popular locations. We take their advice and board a shared taxi.
The full beauty of Kashmir is evident as we move away from Kupwara on the narrow remote roads. Dry apple orchards, fresh snow on branches, ice laden rooftops and open fields, small villages, patches of fertile farm lands and rugged mountains lining the valley, all caked in a layer of mist. It doesn’t take long for me to fall in love with this region, even before we reach Dardpora, a small village tucked away amidst nature’s beauty.
I am visibly shivering under several layers of clothes in sub-zero December cold, envying locals who move around comfortably, even if they look heavily pregnant. Almost everyone in Kashmir wears the long woolen overcoats called Phiren, carrying underneath the coats a Kangri (small pot filled with red hot charcoals), jokingly referred to as Winter Wife.
We head to our destination, a local hospital. Sitting in a room spread with cold worn mattresses, I try to warm up by the half functional gas heater. There is no electricity and no other heating equipment. Water has to be manually carried up for all needs. My jaw drops on hearing that there is a lady in labor next door in a barely lit cold room.
When we ask if all is peaceful in the valley, people respond casually “it has been peaceful for some months now. Occasionally things escalate, but generally it has been quite.” Dard meaning pain, and pora loosely meaning a place, seems an apt name for a place that has seen more than its share of militant intrusions and army encounters.
There are no guest houses in Dardpora. While the hospital offers to accommodate us and provide food, we reluctantly decide to leave to avoid burdening them. The place is beautiful and the temptation to see a sunrise in this open valley is strong, so only a quarter of my heart follows us back.
The cab drops us at the only hotel in Kupwara, right opposite an army checkpost. After settling into the cold basement room, we walk into the restaurant, which looks more like a community sit out. Several men are gathered around the only tandoor heater. Some of them move out making room for us. If it was in the back of my mind that I am the only woman in this place, it certainly didn’t make me uncomfortable. People here are friendly, modest and lovable in their simplicity. They do not gawk or stare, or intrude us with questions. For a community generally known to be conservative, people in Kashmir seem to be anything but narrow. The only thing they seemed to be bothered with is making us feel comfortable and a cricket match on TV.
My friends are treated to a lavish variety of local non-vegetarian dishes that they relish quite evidently with their moans, while I stick to the Kashmiri vegetarian pulao.
Sleep was impossible in the cold basement room. Middle of the night, bed starts shaking. Before we could analyse what caused it, the entire room starts shaking like a rag doll. We race up the steps, dragging a sleepy partner along who was more keen on finding his shoes than surviving. Several men are already gathered in the reception area, talking simultaneously. It was an earthquake.
It was about -4°C and almost everyone was out in pajamas. Talk about choice ….freezing to death or buried under rubble. Thankfully, neither happened and the rest of the cold night was spent in excited conversations .
The following day, we visited more villages around Kupwara before departing to Jammu, carrying with us images that we would rehash over and over again with the same disbelief and childish excitement.
The mystical beauty of the valley and equally attractive features of its’ men and women; simplicity and warmth of the people; extreme weather that people have grown accustomed to; minimal comforts of living; harsh reality of intrusions; the ones that fight to protect it and the ones that are victims of it. This I realised was Kashmir, a place that we often hear summed up as ‘heaven on earth.’