Things got pretty crazy on the ride from Kishtwar to Daksum when we rode right into the middle of a protest in a village in Kashmir.
I spent 2 days in Kishtwar doing almost nothing. The bike got a well-deserved breather. Apart from a twice-a-day, 2-odd kilometre ride to the local marketplace to grab some food and an even shorter one in order to get her washed, she was left to be.
For the first time in a long time, I had the chance to be lazy too (by my standards). The most strenuous activity I undertook during those 2 days was a constant three-way battle between my mobile phone, its charging cable and yours truly. About a week before, my phone had started acting up because of a loose connection in its charging dock. This meant that the phone would initially only charge when the charging cable was placed at a certain angle. This progressed to a situation where it charged only when a weight was placed on top of the part where the cable meets the phone, and by the time we reached Kishtwar it was so bad that it would occasionally charge if I was constantly holding the cable and the phone at a specific angle, and this too would work temporarily. The angle was not fixed, and I remember spending several hours hearing nothing but the beep notifying that charging had begun promptly followed by the one that let me know it had ceased to charge. The noise was so constant that it continues to haunt me effortlessly until this day. No phone meant no mobile camera. This was going to be a problem. So, when I did eventually manage to get it charged, I put it on aeroplane mode so that the charge would be retained for longer. It would from here on cease to be used as a phone and would instead only serve as a camera.
When I wasn’t pre-occupied by the battle with my mobile phone, I would walk out to the open ground across the road from where we were staying. The locals referred to this place as a ‘park’ when, in reality, it was more like a sprawling meadow. Apart from being incredibly beautiful, it was a fascinating place to be because it seemed to be the go-to-location in this town. At dawn, it was overrun by the ‘morning-exercise’ brigade. Hundreds of people getting in their morning session of socialising, while a little bit of exercise happened incidentally. The place would be swarming with walkers effortlessly dodging the dollops of horse and sheep dung that was generously deposited all over (or maybe they weren’t dodging it?) without looking down or breaking conversation. The central area was reserved for the more ambitious fitness afficianados, namely those showcasing the progress made in their pursuit to tame a challenging yoga asana, and (my personal favourites) the exponents of deep-breathing exercises. For those who don’t know what deep-breathing exercises are, it’s a cloak provided in order to allow practitioners to not only get away with making weird faces and awful noises in public places but also get to feel good by deeming themselves to be part of the community that actually does physical exercise. Later in the day, the meadow would transform into a cattle-trading market of sorts. Hundreds of horses and thousands of sheep grazed aimlessly, whilst their human folk transacted business on the sidelines (this explained the poop situation). By evening, it would be taken over by the youngsters playing football, cricket and just about anything else that caught their fancy.
In the time that we had spent in Kishtwar we had discovered that we didn’t have to ride back through the route that we had come in order to make our way towards Srinagar. We’d learn of an alternate route that would take us towards our first mountain pass and towards Anantnag through Sinthan Top. This was going to be an even more offbeat route than the one we had just come on, and we didn’t need much convincing. Rather than take on a huge distance in one day, particularly because we were now in territory more unfamiliar than any before, and that we had no idea of what to expect of Sinthan Pass, we decided to break journey at a town called Daksum that lay at the foothills on the other side of the mountain pass. We were told that this journey would take us less than 7 hours in total. So, at around 8 am the next morning, we loaded up the bikes once again and set off to conquer new heights.
The day got off to a good start. Progress was slow, but more than anything else, it felt good to be back on the saddle after some rest. About 60 kilometres from Kishtwar, we were stopped at an Army check-post. The guards on duty asked us to dismount our bikes and enter the cabin to fill in a log. This was not uncommon, we’d had to do it several times in Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir. But just as I was turning to leave, one of them called out to me and handed me a phone to speak to “Major Saab”. That, had never happened before. The officer that I spoke to asked me a few questions about where we were coming from and our intended destination. He then went on to tell me that there was a small protest that had broken out on the route up ahead. He said that they hadn’t yet got any reports that it was unsafe to go further, but we should “proceed with caution”. This was just the kind of conversation I didn’t want to be having in Kashmir and yet, here we were, in a bit of a fix. I spent some time chatting with the personnel at the check post. They seemed pretty confident that riding further ahead would not be a bad idea. They told me that the local police was already on the scene and they would help ensure our safe passage through. Besides, you can always turn around and come back, they said. So, we decided to continue our ride.
About 5 kilometres down the road, we were stopped at a police checkpost. It was now their turn to get us to fill up a register. Their warning was less severe. They told us that there were policemen at the village where trouble had been reported and that we would probably be able to ride through without an issue. Besides, you can always turn around and come back, they said. So, we decided to continue our ride.
Less than 2 kilometres later, we came to a halt once again. There were three policemen lined-up across the road and they weren’t letting any vehicles through (who needs barricades when policemen can themselves be the barricade). A few cars were parked on the side of the road, as were several police trucks. I was told by the policemen that the protest had broken out because one of the men from the village had been found dead in the nearby river, and the villagers believed that he had been killed by the army. They alleged that the death was due to an abuse of power by the army and they now wanted some action to be taken to provide justice.
The policemen at the barricade suggested that I go speak to the officer-in-charge in order to see whether we would be able to pass. So I walked further into the village and eventually found the policeman who was in charge of the scene. I was now standing ten feet from the protest itself. A 100 or more people were gathered in a circle. There were tyres and other things that had been set on fire and strewn around. It looked like the crowd had only assembled a short while ago, because things were fairly quiet. A significantly larger crowd had gathered on the walls and around the protest area to witness what was going on.
I had to wait for a few minutes before I could get the officer’s attention. It was during this time that I began to realise just where I was. Relying on the several reassurances that I had received along the way, I had successfully landed up a few metres away from the situation that every single person in the world who visits Kashmir is advised to avoid. Technically, there was no way I could have known that this was what lay in store, given that until now I had been led to believe that we would be able to pass through the area. But as I stood there, I knew that these people weren’t going to let anyone through for any reason. When the officer finally spoke to me a few minutes later, he confirmed what I had suspected. No one was going to be going through the village until these folks were convinced to stand down. The police could do nothing.
For over an hour, we waited on the side of the road. We watched as more senior police officials came to the scene, followed by bureaucrats. But the protest only seemed to be gaining momentum. When I went to take a look at the situation again, the crowd had grown sizeably and there was a lot more sloganeering. The situation did not look good.
Rather than continuing to stay in such close proximity to the drama that was unfolding, I figured that it might be a good idea to retrace our steps to find a place that at least felt a bit safer. All the people around us were confident that the road would be opened soon, so we didn’t see a need to go all the way back to Kishtwar just yet. I had seen a little tea shop on the road just before the police check-post. Given that we hadn’t even had breakfast yet, and there was nothing available to eat or drink in this village, there was an additional reason for us to slip away. When we hopped on our bikes and turned to leave, we realised that the villagers had by now blocked the road from that side too. They came running to stop our bikes and told us that none was going to be allowed to leave the place. I don’t know whether it was because we were hungry, or just an instinctive reaction to the situation, but instead of cowering and doing as told, we started speaking to them and explaining the fact that we had not eaten yet and were only heading back so that we could get some food. I remember telling one chap that we would stay if they gave us food, or that they should let us go and not worry about it because after we eat, we would come back and be their captives once again. If I had been taught how to react to such a situation, I’m sure this response would not have been on the suggested list of things to do. But, it worked. Maybe the fact that I was saying something so ridiculous made them feel something other than anger for a few minutes. The end result was what we wanted, and they were gracious enough to let us go.
We found our way back to the tea shop near the police checkpost without further incident. It was 11:00 am by now and I was suddenly overcome by extreme hunger. But ,I wasn’t going get to eat just yet. Almost as soon as we sat down at a table, we were joined by the head inspector of the neighbouring police station and 2 constables. Even though we had passed by the very same check-post just an hour or so ago, it was now being manned by a different policeman, and he wanted to ‘interrogate’ us. I didn’t mind being interrogated (after all that had happened on this day, this seemed like a minor convenience) but I really really wanted to get something to eat. So, after the first few minutes of ‘interrogation’, I suggested to Amin Saab (the policeman) that the process continue over some food, or a cup of tea at least. He found this request amusing and guffawed heartily for at least a minute before accepting the proposal. This conversation also was the ice-breaker that was needed to overcome the initial sense of mutual distrust (I was obviously less than comfortable in the situation, and they were sceptical about the lads who clearly looked like they were a long way from home). The ‘interrogation’ then became a conversation, and we were joined by a lot more people, including the owner of the tea shop, his nephew and a few other people that were sitting around. We had unintentionally created a community table, of sorts, where tea and bowls of instant noodles flowed freely. Speaking of those noodles, they were the best Ive ever eaten. Not because of the noodles itself, which are obviously the same everywhere, but because of the home-made paneer (cottage cheese) that was served in generous quantities in every bowl.
That tea-shop was our home for the next 5 hours. On several occasions we wondered whether we should give up on the idea of riding further that day and head back to Kishtwar. But the decision eventually always seemed like a bad idea. Subash, the nephew of the owner of the shop, had by now also offered to give us a place to sleep for the night in case the road didn’t open up in time for us to proceed further. With that sorted, there really was no reason to go anywhere. So, we continued to sit around and make attempts at being patient.
By now, the word had spread around the village (and possibly to some nearby) that two strange looking fellows were chilling at the local tea shop. Several people came by to speak to us. Almost every person we met was warm and welcoming. They were incredibly curious, but that was understandable. Tea was on endless supply and I was obliged to drink a cup with every group of people that I spoke to. I’d never imagined that it would be possible for me to overdose on tea, but it happened to me that day.
Subash and his Uncle went out of their way to make sure that we were comfortable where we were. A bench that was normally used as seating was cleared and reserved to be used as a bed in case we wanted to rest at any point. They kept watch over our bikes while we took a walk to explore the river and the areas around. They even made sure to introduce us to all the locals as guests of their house, which instantly made everyone a lot more comfortable with us. I will forever remain grateful to them for all that they did. Without needing to be asked, they stepped in and did whatever it took to ensure that we wouldn’t remember their part of the world for the trouble that we ran into, but more for the lovely people that we met that day.
In all of this time, several vehicles had driven past us in the direction of the blockade, and most of them had turned around and gone back the way the came. There was no traffic from the other direction. After several false updates about the road opening, finally, at around 3 in the afternoon, we saw a car coming towards us which none of us had seeing passing before. Subash flagged it down. The driver burst out bearing the good news that the road had finally been opened again. We still had at least 3 hours of riding left to do, including our first attempt at riding through a mountain pass. So, as soon as we got this news, we said our goodbyes in a hurry and set off towards Sinthan Top.
Fast Forward: I had assumed that I would never see or hear from them ever again, but Subash recently added me on Facebook. I’ve never been more happy about being on Facebook. I sent him the link to the video that I made of my ride through his part of the world, which included a picture taken at the tea shop with Subash, his Uncle and Amin Saab. He’s shown it to everyone in the village and was damn kicked to see that a picture of them featured in it.
To Sinthan Top
By the time we made our way back to the village where the protest had occurred all the cars that were waiting there had already vanished. This police had cleared out entirely, as had the locals. The place looked like a ghost town. It was raining and the several things that had been set on fire were now spewing smoke which made things seem even more gloomy. We rode through cautiously. I had a sense that we were being watched, which was confirmed when I spotted a man peering at us from the window of a building on the side of the road. It was spooky, to say the least, and we cleared the area as quickly as we could.
One would think that we had had enough drama for one day. By my standards, I believed that the day had already been more dramatic than required. But, a few kilometres later, we began the ascent up Sinthan Pass (which leads to Sinthan Top). We were climbing to a height of 12,500 feet. Tarmac was non-existent. The rains had made the narrow mud roads slushy and slippery. As we gained altitude, snow joined in to make the ride more challenging. It got ridiculously cold and the strong crosswind only made it feel a lot colder, and made riding more difficult. The ascent was intense, and I rode with insane amounts of focus for over 3 hours.
We reached the top only after 6:00 pm. The temperature couldn’t have been more than 1 or 2 degrees. The strong winds made it feel a lot colder than that too. The sun had almost set, and iwe still had distance to cover. And if the roads on the way down were anything like the ones that we had just taken to come up, we were in some serious trouble. Because of the extreme weather at the top, we couldn’t just pitch tent and camp there for the night. Our bodies were not used to it, and even if we didn’t wake up frozen the next day, we would have definitely faced altitude related issues. We found a tent with 4 men in it. They told us that they were the only people who lived in that place. We bought a few cups of tea from them and knocked them back quickly, desperate for some warmth. But, the few seconds for which our hands were out of our gloves proved quite damaging, when I realised that I could no longer feel my fingers. I was trying to strap my helmet on, but it took me more than 5 minutes to complete the simple action of sliding a strap through a buckle because I could not feel anything.
The bikes too were feeling the cold. When I got mine started to go, she refused to stay running for more than a few seconds. I had no idea how we were going to do it, but I knew we needed to get to lower ground really quickly. So we started riding again as the afterglow of the sunset began to fade. The first and biggest relief was discovering that the road that we needed to use to descend towards Daksum was entirely paved. Beautiful tarmac meant that we could cover distance quickly. As we descended, I began to regain sensation in my hands. Riding a motorcycle down a mountain when you can’t feel your hands is not particularly fun and its definitely not safe. So being re-introduced to my fingers was something that I was extremely grateful for. The bike too began to run better as we moved lower. By the time darkness hit, we had descended to a significantly more comfortable altitude. My addition LED lights came of great use as we made our way through a jungle in absolute darkness. We didn’t run into any other cars and saw no signs of civilisation. It was not even 7 pm yet, but it felt like it was 2 in the morning.
We would have ended up riding past Daksum, and the JK Tourism guest house that we planned to stay at, if it hadn’t been for the small light that caught my attention. It was the first sign of civilisation that I’d seen in a while, so I stopped to ask for directions to the guest house. The shopkeeper pointed to the opposite side of the road. We had gotten lucky yet again, on the same day.
As things would turn out, the guest house was full. We weren’t going to be able to find alternate accommodation nearby at this hour, and while we could have pitched tents, we were keen to sleep somewhere more warm, if it was possible. Realising an opportunity to make a quick buck, the caretaker offered us a tiny room (that probably was otherwise used as a broom cupboard) at a premium rate of INR 500 for the night. It was a complete rip-off. But if there ever was a day when we would willingly pay for a decent and warm bed to sleep on, this was it.
Unloading and wrap-up for the day was done in record time. After a warm shower, we feasted on a 6-course meal of dal and rice (in this case, of course, all 6 courses were just dal and rice). With the last reserves of energy I dragged myself into bed and lay there thinking about the events of the day. To say it had been action-packed would be an understatement. Relying on instincts for decision-making and dealing with the several situation had, fortunately for us, all worked out well. Any one of the situations that we had been in that day could have ended very differently if any one thing (and not necessarily anything within our control) had gone differently. I felt fortunate and grateful for having been able to experience the lows of a journey through Kashmir and emerging with memories that could make me look back on the day fondly. But it also made me realise that journeying through this region was going to be more intense than anything I had done before. We needed to be adventurous, but we also needed to be very careful. I don’t remember when I slipped into a deep slumber.