Finding home in Kashmir: Part 1

Kashmir is not just a place for me, it’s a feeling, a feeling of being at home, a feeling of being free again, a feeling of finding serenity in the chaos.

Kashmir functions at extreme ends, though not really by choice. Sometimes, it’s a valley of profound happiness, other times of sorrow and chaos. My experience in Kashmir consisted of both, but the former way more than the latter. While the happiness part I experienced by myself, the chaos and sorrow I felt when the Kashmiris shared their stories of death and remorse, making me teary eyed. What was even more heartbreaking was the ease with which they shared about the deaths of their friends and colleagues. I would never wish that on anyone. To get so comfortable with the idea of Death, to have to live such a life, and to be that strong to get accustomed to such pain.

This blog is going to talk about the various beautiful places I covered in Kashmir, the best stays, the hospitality of Kashmiris, the must-try places for delicious food, the costs and the like (wait for the second part, it is even longer, and consists of most of these). But it would cover something much more with it. This blog is not just about the external beauty of the Kashmiris, about the beautiful snow-clad mountains, or the valley of apple trees that we witness when we look at Kashmir from the outside. It’s about the internal beauty of Kashmir, about the simplicity and hospitality of Kashmiris, about what actually lies within the heart of this beautiful valley which has always been considered as a region of chaos and fear by our media and in the minds of many of the people living in India.

From the moment I left for Kashmir, to the present, dozens of people asked me in one way or another, if I felt safe in Kashmir, as a female solo traveler or even just as a person. I think it would suffice to say I felt way safer than I have ever felt in Delhi. I felt safe enough to do what all I did that I am going to share in the upcoming stories and I didn’t ever have to think twice or be scared.

My first three days in Kashmir were beautiful. I stayed in Gulmarg, Sonmarg, and a houseboat in Sri Nagar, and wholeheartedly witnessed the beauty of Kashmir. The snow-clad mountains that I so love, hiking around them, playing around in the snow, I did whatever my heart desired and I was surprised as well as exhilarated at how much my knee had supported me throughout.

In these three days, I was very happy with the hospitality of the Kashmiris that I witnessed everywhere, whether in the staff of the hotels we stayed at, the cab driver, Mazrat bhaiya, who drove us around, or the various guides or people we met. Enough, to make me know already that the Kashmiris are good people at heart and mean us well. I was ecstatic that I had come to Kashmir and traveled after so long and witnessed such beautiful regions.

As I said bye to my family on the fourth day to travel solo, I didn’t have any pre made plans in mind. All I thought was that I will probably read and write a lot and experience the serenity around. Fate obviously had other plans. I think it wanted me to experience whatever emotions and kindness I experienced next to bring to you in the reasons to visit Kashmir, something much more than the external beauty it possesses.

If before my trip, or even before I bid farewell to my family to travel solo, someone would have told me that I would love something more than the snow-clad mountains of Kashmir, I would have never believed them. After all, I am the girl who wrote love letters to the mountains on Valentine’s Day.

But these past few trips have changed my perspective a lot, they have made me realise that travelling is about so much more than just the place. When I sat and thought about it, I realised that travelling has always been more about the people. It doesn’t matter whether you are traveling solo, with a travel company, or your friends. It’s the people: locals, strangers or friends, who are going to change your life for forever.

So, as I bid farewell to my family, and boarded a cab to Pahalgam, I sat on the front seat. It had become instinctive now, but it started as a conscious decision sometime back. I had this close friend in my life who I noticed one day sitting in the front as he left from my place to go back to his. Curious as I was, I called him and asked him why he did so. He explained to me how he didn’t want the cab driver to feel like just a driver, to feel he is doing something less of a job, to feel menial in any way at all. It may seem like a very small thing, maybe something even insignificant, something even I never thought about, but that friend’s words made me sit and ponder about it, and I realised that if this small gesture could really provide even a bit of happiness, satisfaction, respect, or any of those to the person driving me to my destination then why not. And I can tell you today, some of the most interesting conversations I have had about the places I visited, some of the beautiful beginnings to my journey and solo travel have been with cab drivers. Even though I am referring to them as cab drivers for you here, they are usually Jai bhaiya, Yahiya bhaiya, Mazrat Bhaiya, Rayees bhaiya for me. I am glad I am gifted in a way that I usually always remember the names of the people I meet or converse with.

As the drive to Pahalgam began, we started talking, Rayees bhaiya and me. It started mostly with him telling me things about Kashmir, Kashmiris and himself and asking questions about me, and why am I traveling solo. We talked about Delhi, Kashmir, the people, the contrasts, the similarities, humanity and so much more. Initially I was mostly silent, listening, way more than speaking, knowing he had things to share, witnessing him opening up, and also realising how my one action of deciding to sit in the front, gave a way to these conversations.

We bonded over our thoughts on humanity, our wishes to spread happiness, our small dreams related to travel and so much more. But what struck me more than anything else was his will to show me Kashmir, the way not many people who get to explore witness, to take me to places which hardly any travelers get to see unless you spend months there, places which only locals know about. His observations about me without even knowing any of my backstory also made me realise what really happens when you constantly meet new people every day, how you learn to read them in a way even the people closest to them might miss. He said I seemed like a person who has gone through a lot of difficulties in life, who finds her solace in mountains, who is innocent yet has the courage needed to trust strangers, and my heart smiled knowing how correct he was.

As we reached my hotel in Pahalgam, and I unloaded my luggage, he hesitantly asked me if I would like to hang out for a while since he was also staying back in Pahalgam for the rest of the day. I happily agreed and we drove away from my hotel. As the drive started, he asked me if I would like to see his two favorite places in Pahalgam, and I excitedly said yes. So, his first favorite spot that we drove to was in the middle of nowhere, where I couldn’t see a single soul. We hopped on boulders and stones to reach this place. The first word that hit me as I sat on a stone there, listening to the sound of the water gushing through, feeling the wind in my hair, was ‘sukoon’ (peace). There was a certain feel in that place that just filled my heart with warmth despite the harsh cold outside and made me glad already for deciding to join Rayees bhaiya on this journey.
As I left from this place, little reluctant to leave, but also eager now to see the second place, we headed to the road towards Chandanwari. We went to this small basti, and as we reached this second place, he explained to me how this was his second home, and not just his, a lot of other people’s too. It didn’t take me long to figure out why, will come to that in the next part. As I merrily waved and talked to the children there whose innocent faces beamed a smile on my face, Rayees came back with an uncle and together we started hiking to unforeseen trails. As I climbed higher and higher up, not knowing where we are headed, I heard a voice in my head, a voice of caution that came from the society, from my family and from the countless others who keep on telling me how reckless I am and how easily I trust. My steps faltered a little as that voice asked me what am I doing, where I am headed with these strangers who I hardly know. I let that voice linger for 4-5 seconds before I smiled and told it, that I trust them, and more than them, I trust myself and I trust humanity so shoo away and go tell the society I follow my heart, and always will.

And today, when I look back to that day, I am glad I decided to do that. Because the faith I showed that day in those people transpired the beautiful series of events that I experienced further. From that hike in the forest, to ending up finding not one but two special places/homes in Kashmir, my trip was just starting, and who could have thought at that time that it would lead to such intense emotions by the last day that I would end up leaving my laptop as a gift for someone I met there just a few hours ago.

Wait for my second blog to know what happens next and how I fell in love with Kashmir even more.

Hi! I’m Kajal and I love to travel. Follow along as I travel around the globe and share my favorite places.

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