Friday, March 04, 2011

A welcome of empty streets

The crowded taxi sped on towards Banihal. The road snaked its way though a large construction site. Half built pillars leading to a big hole in the mountain side. The beginning of a long tunnel. The taxi lurched to a sudden halt in front of a check point. And another gaping hole in the mountain side. The tunnel under the Pir Panjal, the road into the valley. The road stretched out in front of us, sparsely lit by yellow lights, dark and strangely quiet. Now and then, the rush of a passing truck would fill the tunnel with noise, and then the quite would return. Greeted by sunshine after a good fifteen minutes, the valley beckoned.

Getting down at Anantnag, I asked around for the railway station. People I asked wondered why. To ride the train! I said. But the trains aren't running, they said. And with the tracks being damaged during protests near Baramulla, they haven't been running for over a month. With no other option left, I got into a shared taxi on its way to Srinagar and beyond. As the taxi stopped now and then to let off people, I wondered where I had to go. I had no idea where the taxi was actually headed. Just that it would be passing via Srinagar. Eventually, the driver asked where I needed to go. Not knowing the first thing about the city, I asked to be dropped off at the bus stand, hoping there would be a main bus stand. Unprepared as I was, the driver then asked me which bus stand. For want of a better answer, I asked for the bus stand from where buses to Kargil departed. He immediately came to a halt, pointed to a street, and told me that the bus stand was a few minutes down that road. The chill creeped into my sparse clothes as I stepped out onto the street. The area was surprisingly quiet. I saw not one car or bike on the street. The few pedestrians walked quickly huddled in thick winter garments. After a slow amble of a few minutes, I reached the bus stand. Probably the only central bus stand I have been to where I could hear the rustle of the leaves in the wind.

The owner of the houseboat was a bit of a grouch. With a very unnerving way of getting straight to the point. After being paid for the two days I wanted to stay, he left me in the company of his son Wasim and his droll humour. Wasim ran the boat and looked after the guests. The surrounding Dal lake was covered in a wispy layer of mist gathering slowly in the late afternoon sunshine. As the wind picked up, I realised the inadequacy of the warm clothing I had packed. I went inside and, in the comparably warm interior of the boat, started to root around in the bag for something resembling a warm jacket. Finding none, I settled for multiple layers of clothing. The boat was very well appointed, and quite a bargain given that winters in Kashmir were not exactly peak tourist seasons. Feeling really chilly, I asked for a hot bath, and Wasim opened the tap in the tiny bathroom for the cold water to run out. The hot water would begin to pour out of the tap in a few minutes, he told me. After a good wait of a fifteen minutes, and not finding any hot water in the tap, I turned it off and went back to the porch. A few minutes later, Wasim returned to tell me that supper would be served at around eight. He asked if the water was warm enough. There was no hot water, I replied, and I closed the tap instead of wasting so much water. He laughed. There is no shortage of water in Kashmir, he said. Since there is nothing much else left in Kashmir anyway, we might as well use the water before that too runs out.

Finding transportation in the middle of a general strike was hard. And it was a perfectly beautiful day outside, with the sun just rising above the mist shrouded mountains. After a very comfortable sleep the previous night, and wanting to stretch my legs, I decided to take a walk. The six kilometre hike up the hill to Shankaracharya was filled with spectacular views of early morning Srinagar. The road, lined with trees sporting their brightly coloured autumn foliage, did not feel tiring. Though my camera was taken away from me at the top by the security. My wish to take pictures of the city from the very top remained unfulfilled. Walking down, my next destination was the Moghul gardens. A good five kilometres away atleast. But, the streets were empty, and the pace leisurely. After roaming the gardens, I realised that the walk to the gardens along the peaceful tree lined avenues of Srinagar was more enjoyable. The road along the banks of the Dal lake especially. With early evening approaching, I walked towards the city, towards Lal Chowk and onwards to Hazratbal. Before I left in the morning, Wasim had pointedly warned me to avoid Lal Chowk in the morning. Evening would be better he had said. Lal Chowk was deserted. All the shops were closed and with very few people in the streets. Hazratbal though, was filled to the brim. And with my camera having been taken away by the security even before I approached the main entrance, I had to satisfy myself with staring at the shrine from outside. Tired after a long day, and planning to take an early morning shared taxi to Kargil, I decided to head back to the boat. A very tasty supper awaited me.

The taxis have all left, the man said. And there would be no more for the day. Waking up unreasonably early and walking to the taxi stand had been a waste. With the strike showing no sign of being lifted, I decided to go to Gulmarg. After a small lunch at a hotel in which I was the only guest, I hiked for a few hours among the silent pine forests of Gulmarg. I had to be back in the village before three in the afternoon to catch the last taxi back to Srinagar, which left me plenty of time for a small nap in the forest. The taxi back was driven a pleasant fellow named Mushtaq. Who shattered the pleasantness of the drive by narrating a gruesome tale involving nine terrorists, the army and villagers caught in the middle. A story which ended with a man being dismembered and his body parts strewn along the main road. Back in Srinagar, I decided to stay at the JKTDC hotel by the main bus stand. The next morning, in my hurry to catch the lone taxi to Kargil at six in the morning, I forgot my towel back in the room. As the taxi sped away from Srinagar, the prospect of a bath in the cold of Kargil seemed remote. The towel wasn't missed.


Unknown said...

A true hitchhiker never leaves his towel behind. Or maybe he does.

Unknown said...

@ASO: No he doesn't. Next time, I must be extra careful.