Gulabgarh was a hell hole after the sights we had greedily soaked in over the last one month. Over the last four days, we had crossed over from Zanskar into Kishtwar by the notorious Hagshu La. A two days halt had followed at Sumchum, followed by a two day walk to Gulabgarh.
Piles of garbage lay strewn on both sides of the road. Shady, flea infested dhabas took up most space in the market square. The hot and humid climate invited all sorts of insects to come crawling into our tent. The icing on the cake…our host had happily locked his house and left for his village. I didn’t fancy pitching my tent in the midst of this mayhem and chaos. Then there was the pressing issue of answering nature’s call. While you are in the mountains, it is a different matter, but civilisation brings it own set of troubles. Well, the FRH was quicky ruled after we were informed that there is no provision of a toilet in the complex and PWD was full. ( We later learnt that this town, which gets over 1 lakh visitors during yatra time, has no toilets anywhere. No house, no hotel. Everyone simply goes to the fields..)
Disappointed, we pitched our tent in the small space outside his house, under the watchful of atleast 20 children, 10 adults and two mules for company.
Jammu had been burning for the last month that we had spent tucked away in the mountains, over the Amarnath fiasco. The possibility of a state wide curfew meant no transporation from the following day. It was imperative for us to exit from Kishtwar without delay.
A journey that began with the adventurous drive from Manali to Leh, led into Zanskar, involved crossing it lengthwise and finally exit from Kishtwar. The entire circuit had taken 35 days with well over 3 weeks of high altitude trekking.
My mind was in flashback mode. It always is, as my feet find their way back to the city. Apart from the sheer delight of viewing breathtaking sunrises and sunsets, it is the people who cross our paths on these journeys that make the effort worth it. So it happened on this trip that I met Nishu and her family…
It was later than usual, by the time we left from Sumchum. We weren’t in a hurry, since it was to take us only 6 hours to our campsite, half way to Gulabgarh. After a hearty meal of local greens, rotis and chai; a lenghty photo session; and distribution of medicines, we set out for our destination. A muleteer accompanied us with his two mules ( he called them khotas). The gradient was gentle, the path snaking through lush green forest. On one side, the mountain river roared past. In the far distance, but seemigly close, loomed snow capped mountains,with the glacier clearly visible. I was excited. I had heard tales of the majestic beauty of these meadows and mountains for almost forever. Now I had an opportunity to walk through them!
Kishtwar was once the hub of militancy, and though aggressive Army action had sanitised the area, the possibility of running into trouble was not unlikely. I admit there would have been nothing heroic, if the situation had occured. But there is something deeply attractive about being in places and situations you should not be. The mind conjures a thousand images and inevitably we make up stories, enough to publish a digest, in our heads. Of course in your own version, you always act bravely and do everything right.
I was soaking in every dulation of the mountain, trying to hold in my memory the fragrance of cedar and pine, sense the moist cold on my face as we walked through mist and cloud. As we neared Machel ( the mid point of our walk), the heavens opened its doors and we were happily caught in the rain. After 4 hours, we reached Machel. It is an important town in these parts. A religious Yatra makes it way from Gulabgarh till here each August to pay obeisance at the kali temple. We didn’t get to see the inside of the temple since it was time for ‘God’s afternoon siesta’, but over a lakh people descend to this place for those two weeks. From here, the trail follows a ‘nullah’ all the way to the city. It is called the Bhoot (meaning ghost) nullah, which was no suprise. The water was angry, loud and very aggressive. At most places, it fell at steep gradients; deep pools forming at the bottom, resembling a belching beast hidden beneath the surface. The trail fell and rose, following the water. We had walked for six hours…with no campsite in sight. It was 4pm. My knee had begun to pain terribly. I could almost feel the patella separately from the joint. I managed walking uphill but downhill was another matter. First, I had to firmly anchor my right foot to the ground and then drag my right knee, without bending to the same position.
The sun was slowly falling behind the mountains, the fading sunlight beckoning night to take over. It was well over 6 hours and after 6pm before the muleteer indicated we had still an hour or more of walking to do before pitching tents. Walking through dense forest, under the blanket of darkness was not a wise idea. My knee wasn’t helping matters. I knew at my pace it would take even longer. Ultimately around 7pm, we came across a small shop on the edge of the trail. A 16 year old something was locking up as we approached the shop. Even as the muleteer began explaining the situation to her, enquiring whether there was a place closeby we could crash for the night, Nishu walked across to me and asked me to follow her. En route, she explained that she had decided to take us home with her. We would be her family’s guest for the night.
I was admittedly suprised at her confidence. No adult had been present when she chose to take us home. It was entirely her choice. At home, she introduced us to her beautiful and sprightly grandmother, who was positively delighted to have guests, her younger brother and their dog. Her parents were still out in the fields. The verandah was sweeped clean and a jute bag was laid on the floor for us to sit. Soon her parents arrived. I will never quite forget their expressions. They walk into the house to find two strangers sitting comfortably sipping tea..Neither batted an eyelid, no look of suprise crossed their faces even as Nishu explained the situation to them, concluding with her decision to get us home.
They only smiled, accepting, without question. Soon enough the lady of the house got busy in the kitchen and we were fed sumptuous Rajma-Chawal with pure Desi ghee. While I helped out in the kitchen, Satya had broken ice with the sons and was busy helping them out with mathematical equations. I was pleasantly suprised to know that all five children, including Nishu were studying in good schools nearby. The parents struggled to put together all their savings in order to give their children an opportunity to build better lives.
Later that night, we all sat together, exchanging stories from our two separate worlds, each as alien to the other. The house was perched on the edge, with the nullah roaring by down below. It was a clear night, a million stars dotted the sky, the air was cold, everything was perfect. The younger boy sat with the empty box of oil between his legs, using it like a Tabla, while his sister sang folk songs. In between, the whole family would join in. Just before we all retired to sleep, the mother and daughter sang two bhajans (religious songs), their voices slowly fading and becoming one with the sound of the water below and the skies above.
As I slept under the watchful eyes of the stars that night, I felt at home..Peaceful.