In 2016, when the unrest was at its peak in Kashmir valley, we were confined to homes without any work and internet. At that time two groups of boys of Nebripora locality went for trekking to Sheera Sari, a small alpine lake far behind Kudara village in Bandipora, in the successive months of July and August. They stayed there for three days. On coming back, they showed the pictures they had clicked. These were highly attractive with unimaginable natural beauty of the lake and snow-capped mountains around it. The charming visuals of green meadows and clouds close to the ground made me restless to be there as soon as possible. But to be there in a short while was impossible for me and my companions. It was after four years, when the coronavirus pandemic came, that an opportunity also came for us to go hiking up the foothills of Harmukh mountains.
On 14th June 2020, we took a cab to Kudara village early in the morning at around 8am. We were 12 members travelling in a cab. The road condition was very bad, particularly when the driver took a left towards Chuntimulla village at Arin. To ensure safe passage where the road was devastated, we got out of the vehicle and walked. Back in the cab we reached Chuntimulla, where an army soldier of 14 RR gestured us to stop.
‘Kaha jana hai’? (where do you have to go), he asked.
‘Sir, hum Sheer Sar ja rahe hai,’ Adnan replied.
‘Permission hai kya?’ (do you have permission) he again asked.
‘No sir,’ our team leader replied.
‘Sabhi neeche utro aur gadi ko side mai lagao’ (everyone get down park the car on the side), he ordered and we followed.
Two more soldiers came out of the army camp, holding AK-47 rifles, and asked us the same questions. ‘Wapas jao’ (go back), a soldier told us.
‘Lekin sir, DC saab ne bola tha mujhe ki permission ki koi zarurat nahi hai’ (but sir, DC saab told me there’s no need of permission), Adnan replied.
‘Tum kya karte ho’? (what work do you do?), the soldier asked.
‘Sir mai uske office mai kaam karta hu’ (sir, I work in his [DC’s] office), Adnan replied.
The soldier telephoned his officer who was sitting inside the camp. Minutes later, a junior commissioned officer (JCO) came out, followed by armed guards. After some warm interaction with us, he ordered a soldier, Sandeep, to take a group picture of us. In the meantime the soldiers became humble and friendly in their behaviour and we exchanged some words on personal matters and on the current situation, particularly with the JCO.
The solider, Sandeep, came out with papers and asked us our name, name of parents, age, and address to be recorded. He became so friendly with us that he even gave his personal contact number if we needed any help. He was in his early twenties and probably a Punjabi. Someone asked him about the mobile network at Sheer Sar. ‘Ek jagah pay chal raha hai waha’ (it is working there at one place), another soldier replied. Most of us did not mind as we had already heard about the absence of mobile network there.
After the permission documents were prepared, we got back in the vehicle. As the driver accelerated, the soldiers behind shouted at us to stop. Someone had thrown an empty chips packet out of the window.
‘Ghar mai yahi sikhaya jata hai aap ko?’ (Is this what you are taught at home?), the officer rebuked. I quickly volunteered to put the packet in a waste bin. We left the spot thinking about army discipline. When we reached Kudara, again we were stopped by the army. Here, Adnan showed them the document and a group picture was again clicked before we were allowed to go ahead.
Kudara village is inhabited by the Gujjar community and lacks basic facilities. There is no mobile network. Our vehicle stopped at the end of the road. The terrain was now hilly and one had to hike for hours ahead. The way was narrow, rough, muddy. After an hour of trekking, due to extreme tiredness we entrusted all our heavy stuff to a porter and rested a while at a place known as Gunaspathri. The porter also acted as our guide but he took us through a very difficult track. Our health condition was getting bad due to tiredness and we would rest after every ten to 15 yards. Finally, after four hours of trekking, we reached a place called Kubi, where nomadic Bakerwals dwelled. They came here during the summers for grazing their cattle, sheep and goats. Here an acquaintance arranged a kuccha house, called a kotha, for us to spend our four days there.
A kotha is made of heavy logs of pine trees and mud, without any nails used except on the doors. It consists of five small parts that act as bedrooms, kitchen and store. The only means of cooking is the hearth, a small fireplace with a small opening above on the roof to let the smoke out.
After cleaning ourselves, we brought small branches of pine trees with which to make the bed as the floor of the kotha was uncomfortable to sleep on. On the branches we put some polythene and blankets. We cooked dinner outside, using heavy firewood. It was evening and the surrounding dwellers came and gathered near the cooking spot.
As night fell, the temperature also fell. We put on warm clothes and stood near the fire, where the dinner was being prepared by our experts, especially Akil. We talked, joked, laughed and punched the backs of each other. Meanwhile, some senior members of Bakerwal families came in their traditional dresses and we had a happy and interesting interaction with them. They told us about the tracks leading to Sheera Sar. I was feeling adventurous and excited at listening about life in the jungle. We served tea and biscuits to the Bakerwal elders and also invited them to dinner.
Later, we took all the cooking items inside and kept rice and meat on the hearth. Outside was complete darkness, the atmosphere somewhat scary. After an hour of chitchat, somebody knocked on the door loudly. It reminded us of Basharat Peer’s novel, ‘ Curfewed Night’, where in the ’90s militants knocked at night to ask for food and shelter. Two of us went to open the door with mobile flash lights switched on. Akil opened the door and it was a Bakerwal elder, Shareefudin, who had accepted our invitation for dinner. Another old person, Ramzan chacha, was with him.
The temperature was in the minus now, probably. Akil put some firewood in the hearth to keep the kotha warm. We threw blankets upon us and lay down in a semi-circle around Ramzan chacha, listening to his tales and laughing at his dialect. He didn’t mind it. It was an amazing experience in that kotha in the night, filled with the sound of the rushing river at a distance. Meanwhile, dinner was served but Ramzan chacha didn’t participate. On much insistence, he took some meat pieces in a bowl for his family.
The part of the kotha where I had lain down was wet and muddy and close to a wall that had a big hole in it. Through this hole came chilly air, making me shiver. I had made a blunder by underestimating the weather, as it was summer. The blankets I had didn’t work, but thanks to Junaid for providing me with a sleeping bag.
In the kotha I observed a lack of collective concern. Everybody was concerned only for their own cover. At such places one should also think of the safety and health of others.
Trekking throughout the day was showing its effects now. My legs were in pain and I kept tossing and turning till 3am. The intensity of the cold was such that others also woke up and after a round of tea was served, we felt some relief.
In the morning it was decided that we were not going to hike. I along with Adnan and Salim went to check out the surrounding areas. After crossing a nearby mountain, we reached a breathtaking view point. It was a sunny day, the mountains covered with thick layers of snow across the river shining in the light. We saw some lizards and took their pictures. I remembered the soldier’s words about mobile network working somewhere around where we were. I put on my cell phone’s aeroplane mode on when I turned it off, the network came. After spending some time on social networking sites, we sent a message of our being safe and secure to our families.
Next morning, we all left towards Sheera Sar, the ‘Lake of Spirits’. On the way we saw some interesting sights: a small river passing under a roof of rocks, an animal like a cat but bigger in size, one I had never seen before. We moved along the bank of the river that originates from the lake and followed it, walking in a queue like a column of soldiers. A large number of sheep were grazing in Minimarg. We reached snowy terrain and crossed the river through a bridge made of ice. We saw a small range of mountains – bare, rough, and almost vertical, like those usually found in Ladakh.
Sheera Sar, at first sight, is like seeing the Taj Mahal. It is such a beautiful and breathtaking lake, with mountains thickly covered with layers of snow providing pure and fresh water to it. The water was shining like a mirror, reflecting sun rays, and it was difficult to take in the entire view at once. Some nomadic boys were busy catching fish with their rods dipped into the lake. I was getting irritated by the excessive photography by my companions. Small iceberg-like pieces were floating in the lake, adding more charm to it. The lake serves as the base camp for the climb to Harmukh’s summit. According to my neighbour, a young man who has extensively explored the area from Sheera Sar to Gangbal Lake, there are fifteen small and big lakes in this region.
Suddenly, the weather changed. Black clouds started hovering over us and we made our way back quickly to the kotha in Kubi. On our fourth and last day, we left for home.
I just want to convey a small message that whenever you go for camping there, make sure to keep the place neat and clean. Don’t leave any waste, particularly polythene.
The writer is from Nebripora, Bandipora. [email protected]