Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Journey into Kashmir by motorcycle

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The original plan was to drive east from Rawlakot all the way across the Haji Pir Pass, make a horseshoe turn and drive back to Bagh the very long way.


The attraction was a Mughal garden on the far side of Haji Pir.

In a ruinous state some years ago, the garden was adopted by the infantry battalion stationed nearby. It was, reportedly, given a makeover by the army and was now in prim state.

But that was a journey that would have added two more days to my fortnight-long trip. I dropped the detour and in consultation with Major Waqas Maan charted a shorter course over Mahmud ni Gali —Mahmud’s Pass — through Lasdanna to Bagh. This way, said the major, I could get to see the border crossing point of Tetrinot.

Leaving Bun Jaunsa early, I drove through still sleeping Khaigala and Hajira. If I was missing the restored Mughal garden, I expected something in Hajira. And that was because of its name.

On the road from Kallar Kahar in the Salt Range to Chinji via Bharpur, there is another Hajira. This village is known for an early Muslim period building, roofless and with walls tapering inward toward the top, it is set amid a sprawling graveyard. In the Salt Range, they had told me all such buildings were called Hajira; one informant even suggesting that the Kashmiri Hajira also had a like structure. This was peculiar, because the only other similar buildings in the Salt Range are on the far west side of the range near Namal Lake. Their domes are intact, if damaged, and they are not called Hajira.

Few people were around and only a couple of shops open. I stopped to ask about old ruined buildings. The thin sliver of a man with a pointy beard to add to his sharp countenance minding a hardware store looked at me aghast, beaky mouth agape. Instead of replying, he asked, astonishment bursting from his every pore, where I had come from. I almost felt for the antennae I seemed to have sprouted.

In my younger years, I would just have driven off. But I challenged him with an appropriate, “You answer my question first and then I answer yours.” He beckoned me into his store. I explained the shape of the building I was looking for, drawing a rough sketch on a piece of paper offered by the man. Watching him study the drawing intensely, I suggested that if there was such a building, it should be common knowledge.

“No,” he said at length slowly shaking his head. “All Hindu temples were destroyed during or after the partition riots,” he added. “But,” said I, “such structures were early Muslim period and were very likely tombs.” The man did a rethink and another hard look at my bad sketch. But he still failed to conjure up a historical building. That was a darn lot better than being sent off on some wild chase in the direction of the Line of Control and into the gun sights of the army on the far side.

Then began the inquisition, the whence and wherefore of my journey. Meanwhile, my age having been ascertained by the doffing of the helmet, the man suddenly warmed to me. Once again the mere mention of travelling because I had never before been in Kashmir completely disarmed him. Over tea, the man instructed me to check out the border crossing at Tetrinot which, so it seemed, was a major development in the area enabling local people to visit relatives across the divide.

It turned out that folks could cross to the Indian side and them to ours without passport and visa. All they need is a simple permit from the district administration for a trip lasting 15 days. This system holds in Balochistan districts bordering on Iran as well as in Gilgit and Hunza for fortnight-long visits to Xinjiang. Incidentally, one does not necessarily have to be a local. Even visiting outsiders can avail the facility, if they ask nicely.

As for the crossings into Afghanistan, there are just no restrictions. If there are, no one gives a fig for them. The few times I crossed at Torkham I watched with interest youngsters from both sides trundling their barrows back and forth with total sangfroid; the border guards not even batting an eye at them.

I cannot help but wonder what evil the Punjabis on both sides of the divide perpetrated that we should be forbidden even getting near the border. Are we punished for the perdition we visited upon each other when our ancient land was cut up? We who have homes on the other side where the spirits of long-dead ancestors and those who lost their lives in the terrible holocaust of 1947 still linger and they whose holiest shrines lie are on our side. Why must only we be denied the facility of free travel? When will I be able to visit Jalandhar freely and my kinsman Sardar Saudagar Singh his village near Shahkot?

Kashmir, that excruciating bone of contention, is making things easier for her people, but not so Punjab. There surely are powers that fear that if the Punjabis on either side mingle freely, the madness of the security state will be lost. The tangible fence that we have erected across mile after mile of countryside will fall. But worse still, the wall raised by the security state within our minds and souls will crumble. That is the fear.

My new found spindly friend bade me safe journey. According to my map, Hajira sits in the valley of the Rangar Nala which I had followed downstream (south) to its junction with the Poonch River at Dharmsal through a wide and picturesque valley. Houses, tree-shaded and bordering a meandering river were surrounded by neat squares of cultivation. It was just the kind of place one would wish to find a small inn and doss down for a day or so, sit in the balcony and read of other journeys by other men of greater stature.

At the junction of the Rangar with the Poonch River, the road swung east along the latter. Somewhere past the romantically named village of Nain Sukh, another river coming down from the north joined the Poonch. Strangely enough, by the map, this new river was also called Rangar Nala.

By my reckoning, Tetrinot should be somewhere at this junction. But my map had no name like that. The village was pretty enough, though: thickly shaded by broad-leaf trees alive with birdsong and houses sprinkled in fields where ripe maize stood ready for the harvest. A short row of shops served as the main bazaar where some tea-sipping oldies paused to point me in the direction of the border gate. As I drove off, I was followed by a shouted warning, “You cannot take your motorcycle across!”

The Tetrinot crossing was just by the bazaar. About 50 metres from the iron gate through which I could see Indian soldiers, a smart Pathan of the Baloch Regiment appeared from behind a cubicle and waved me down. He said I could not go any further and I said I did not intend to for I had only come looking. We got talking and he, much to my surprise, was pleasant and amicable even without my disclosing my ex-army antecedents, devoid of all paranoia about me being some spy.

Buses went across twice a week, he said.

But he was not sure if I could benefit from the faculty of the permit to cross. Poonch, he said, was just a short drive away.

The soldier pointed me in the direction of the road to Mahmud ni Gali. Past the village, the road became a lovely avenue of trees. Thick stands of wild olive grew on both sides and the peace of far off places where no one ventures. Superlatives for Kashmir rang through my mind and I wondered why more people were not travelling through this lovely country.

Down the other side through Lasdanna I made my way to Bagh. On the morrow, as I lay awake in bed at just before five, the earthquake struck, seven years and four days on from the previous terror. I got up to grab my camera bag when the tremor subsided.

Muzaffarabad was made in the evening over the Haji Pir Pass. Thence the journey on to Kel was a flurry. Already eight days on the road, I was flagging, my mind crammed with images and names. Weather became rather a damper with intermittent sunshine and light drizzles. At Dudniyal in the Neelam Valley where I was staying with the army, the rain came down in earnest.

It cleared enough to permit me the drive on to Kel. But then the skies opened up with snow above 2800 metres. And I had checked past weather records to learn that October was the driest month in Kashmir! Disregarding the advice of my host Colonel Attique, I headed back through miserable cold. A day later as I rode through thick fog between Muzaffarabad and Murree I screamed in my helmet, “When on earth is it going to get warm again?”

But the die was cast: this was just a foretaste of many more journeys into Kashmir by motorcycle —shorter more manageable trips— where they no longer treat outsiders as spies as they did back in the 1980s.

Related: Kashmir Diaries 

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 2:51 PM,

6 Comments:

At May 6, 2014 at 11:40 AM, Blogger Amardeep Singh said...

"if the Punjabis on either side mingle freely, the madness of the security state will be lost." JUST LOVE THIS LINE.

 
At May 6, 2014 at 11:42 AM, Blogger Amardeep Singh said...

Rangar Nala....My family name is Rangar and my ancestors belong to Muzzafrabad, Abbotabad, Uri area. As a child I have heard fascinating stories of this region from my parents and uncles. Thanks for touching my childhood chords.

 
At June 14, 2016 at 5:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

More pictures added to the articles would be much appreciated

 
At September 8, 2017 at 10:12 AM, Blogger Waleed Javaid said...

Gar firdous bar ru-yi zameen ast
Hamin ast, u humin ast u humin ast

 
At September 8, 2017 at 11:37 AM, Blogger Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Waleed. I think that was Babur, but cannot be certain. However, the words are very true.

 
At September 8, 2017 at 1:53 PM, Blogger Waleed Javaid said...

They are jahangeer's for Kashmir was spared from Babar Vani if I were to use Guru Nanak's phrase.

 

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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand


Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

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