I began my 2 month long journey with Xplorience, an online platform for offbeat travel stories from people like me. It all started from a tiny valley called Chatpal in the Kashmir Valley
Chatpal is a valley located in Anantnag district of Kashmir. It had a tainted history of being a victim of terrorism and militant predominance for the longest time. It has been fifteen years now that peace has prevailed in this valley. Last year Jammu and Kashmir government placed Chatpal on the tourism map and is still waiting for tourists with open arms and a warm heart.
A PWD guest house is the only option for accommodation in Chatpal. It’s resting in the lap of one of the most beautiful valleys of Kashmir. There are three caretakers who will cook for you, make kangris for you so that you can stay warm, make you the most amazing teas and khewa anytime of the day as many times you want.
Chatpal, A memoir
So a day has already been passed since I began this journey with 9 other people with whom I will be travelling to mystic places for the rest of the month. How we look for that person who you think might be that travelling partner who will make the journey memorable and complete for you. I saw that partner in Udit and Sumi. After reaching Jammu, I shared a cab with Udit and Altamash. It was a pleasant drive with music that was like the background score for the journey.
I came to know that Udit and I had worked on the same project, while being in different agencies, and it was the first work for both of us. Soon after we both had quit the job. There was the first connection I made in the beginning on the trip. I look forward to more. I also came to know that Sumi was a copywriter in a flourishing agency who recently quit her job. I have a very good feeling about this journey that we’ve embarked upon. I have a feeling that it’s going to change our lives for ever.
We drove through bad conditions and narrow roads, crossed broken bridges in more than a single attempt to a village called Chatpal. We reached there in the dark of the night only to wake up in the middle of a valley in a wooden bungalow resting on a lush meadow.
Three days ago I had to make a hard choice between my career and my dream. I was sitting in front of my laptop and staring at the screen blankly. I was very happy with my work, my colleagues, my boss. I had a perfectly satisfying job. Do I really want to risk all that for a road trip, I wondered. After all it’s just a road trip to the Himalayas, for just one month, all sponsored with a bunch of like minded people. Sure I’ll get an opportunity like this again. Do I really want to do this? I certainly wish to…No, I have to do this. So, I did.
I write this sitting under a pine tree, sheltering myself from the rain overlooking the valley transform from green to grey and white as it pours like crazy. Listening to the sound of the river going wild, I smiled, I looked at the tiny ice crystals of the hailstorm around me and I laughed. As the ground beneath me started to get wet I began walking down the mountain and realised that it’s not a regular rain, it’s a storm.
All the mountain trails which I took to get there have transformed into mini rivers. There’s a road a little ahead which has about 6 inches deep water gushing down. It almost looks like the river. I slipped, fell and tumbled several times before I reached the riverbed. Covered in mud and slush I realised I’m far far away from the bridge and the path which was dry ground some thirty minutes ago, is now a fast flowing stream. I had to get to the higher ground to find the bridge but then I located the tree that stood beside the bridge and followed it. I could barely see anything in the dense rain but I somehow managed to take a few pictures of the misfortune. I followed a couple of goats who lead me up to the main road, about 500 meters away from the usual path but at least I was on the path. I met a shepherd there who then warned me about this weather.
I returned home all drenched, disoriented and relieved, complaining about my wet shoes, in the middle of a harmonium jam session conducted by the caretakers of the guest house, 😀 I’m loving it!
Today was full of contrast. I crossed the most picturesque fields, most heavenly mountains, I walked among the clouds and photographed the most vibrant flowers. Then I heard stories of violence and bloodshed that has haunted the people here for decades. So much that you can read it on their faces, hear it in their voice, see it in their smile and read it in the lines on their faces, the fear they have lived with and still live with.
It was strange how quickly my feelings were changing with every road we drove on and every field we passed. One moment I’m admiring the greens and blues that surround me for miles and the next moment I see the presence of red that has stained this valley over the years.
One moment I see the happiness in the people’s smiles and the next moment those smiles look like a temporary relief from the scars of their tormented past. The people are still unsure and wary of the strangers who step into their land. One moment I run free under the open skies and the next moment I am not allowed to step out of the car. I have never seen such contrast anywhere.
Both heaven and hell have had their time here. I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel. Although this place has made peace with time, there is still a cold numbness here that has enveloped me.
Today is Eid. I have never celebrated Eid before. I got a beautiful Phiren for myself. Excitement was consuming me. I felt so pretty.
We all did! We made heads turn wherever we went. The people here were astonished to see us outsiders trying to blend in as they smiled in amusement.
With every stranger passing, I felt an unfamiliar gaze on me. I wasn’t sure about the nature of this unfamiliarity but it felt like it’s from someone I could know. Like a friend or a stranger with whom you could form a connection simply through eye contact.
Today was all about connections and love in the purest form. I learnt how to hug. How to hug like you mean it. How you transmit all the love you feel for a stranger in just 5 seconds of physical contact. Why did a stranger’s hug leave me in tears? I feel like I haven’t hugged anyone all my life.
And then there was an unspoilt, untouched, unbelievable beauty in every face I saw. How can the stunning beauty of the people here be hidden from the world, I wondered…I wanted to capture every face there, talk to everyone of them, and get to know their lives, their past, their present and their future. I felt like I could be one of them or maybe, I already am.
I went to a village today and was invited for tea by a family. Seeing their uneven wooden houses from outside, I could’ve never anticipated the symmetry they displayed inside. Their kitchen, carpets, windows and structure all looked like a pattern thoughtfully arranged to achieve perfection. Their love towards strangers like me was overwhelming. So much warmth and love in every word they say, every smile they share, every look they give.
The kids from the entire village encircled me curiously starting at me, my clothes, my camera, my hair. One of the girls, Aabiroo, was very outgoing and loved to talk. She had a great sense of humour. All the women and the girls were so pretty and had red apple like cheeks. In that room, sat the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen in my life.
The kids took me to a meadow just a little hike up the village. More kids joined as we walked our way up. The kids whispering in each other’s ears, laughing and shying away as I talk to them. It was beautiful. They danced and sang wanting to get their pictures clicked. I took about a hundred shots of them playing in the meadow, jumping around from one rock to the other.
Soon it started to rain and we ran down to Aabiroo’s house again and had more tea and met the rest of the family members; male members that is. The older men of the village, don’t speak much to women. The younger ones are very shy. I met two boys of the family who were shy at first but slowly got comfortable talking to me. Both had a lot of questions about my life in the city, their career, culture etc. Their father offered me a ride back to the guest house as it continued to pour heavily. They came by later in the night to show us a video of the trek to the seven lakes across the valley when I met one of the older boys again. His name is Aadil. We talked a lot as he told me all about the treks. We connected really well and talked for hours. He’s a wonderful, wise and the most handsome Kashmiri boy I’ve come across.
It’s our last day in Chatpal. We’ve waited for the sun to shine for the past 5 days but today we’re admiring the monsoon because we’re so in love with this valley already. Nostalgia is consuming us. There’s a sadness that’s enveloping me. I want to see more of this valley. Spend more time in the rain. Sit on the steps in the night just smoking and looking into the endless nothingness of the distant mountains against the dark cloudy sky. Feel the moisture on my skin, smell the freshness in the air. Meet more people, see more places.
I waited for the rain to stop but it didn’t. So I put on my rain jacket and shoes and decided to go for a run in the village. Me and the girls were talking about Aadil, that how much of a heartthrob he is when Sumi spotted a guy in white, standing with a horse near a wooden house in the vast green meadow and said “Is that Aadil?”. Yes…It was him! We started jumping up and down waving at him and screaming his name like a bunch of school girls “Aadil…Aadil…Aadil”.
As he appeared out of the rain, his eyes shy and sparkling, his face glittering with the tiny droplets that the rain had left, his hair shiny and wet, his cheeks red, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. How can someone be so gorgeous, so pristine, so humble and so good, I wondered as my eyes admired his beautiful existence. He radiates so much goodness, so much light and so much love that it melts my heart. We talked for a while and he couldn’t stop blushing. His cheeks grew red and I left him with the girls and went for a run.
I ran across the bridge to another village and met the kids I saw earlier at school. I smiled at every face I saw on the way. The villagers had a very confused look on their faces which quickly transformed as soon as I greeted them. They must be wondering why is this girl running all alone in the rain. I ran back to Aadil and we walked our way back to the guest house and hugged him tight before we said our goodbyes.