I had never been to northern Kashmir but I had heard of the Lolab Valley, read in the poetry and folklores of the past; a piece of land in the far north, of sprawling lush green mountains and golden fields of rice below. Carving my way out of a cruel lockdown(s), I and my friends decided to take a bike trip, to the Valley of Lolab and the Satbaran caves, which led ancient traders to Russia — or so the legend goes.
We were seven friends on four bikes. The tall poplar trees along the Srinagar–Baramulla highway soothes every rider’s soul. Besides the rice fields and apple orchards, there is only one significant thing along the National highway which attracts attention: army encampments. There are so many of them that the entire stretch of the National highway resembles a military garrison.
All of us were excited but it was short-lived, turning into trauma the moment we saw an Army trooper atop an armored vehicle, photographing us on the highway. Negative thoughts and much too familiar newspaper headlines — of deaths and disappearances — echoed in my mind.
Traversing through the National Highway we cross the apple town of Sopore and reach to Handwara, a small town in the midst of the Baramulla and Kupwara districts. A central point leading to different parts of the northern districts. We made our first stop here and decided to feel the pulse of this rather ghostly town.
We stopped for tea in the market, near the town’s main square, but our presence had surprised the tea seller and the other shop keepers. On that very square were bunkers on either side of the road. Looking around I again saw a trooper sitting inside a bunker, positioned on a single storey shopping complex, recording our movement and taking photographs. Or so we thought.
We finished our tea and moved towards Kupwara from the main highway. In the midst of the highway, there was a check post where all the cars and personal belongings of passengers were checked one by one, halting the traffic.
Soon, we reached the Kupwara town where we were supposed to gather essentials for our lunch at Lolab. A strange kind of stress had engulfed this border town. As I bought cigarettes from a shop, two Army troopers, who were purchasing milk, interrupted me, and asked for my identification. I was startled. I showed them my credentials and was allowed to proceed with our trip.
A little further towards Lolab, we come to know that the road has been permanently blocked for public movement. The troopers on duty directed us to use an alternate road link, supposed to be an emergency one-way stretch, to Lolab. We move across the beautiful landscape with serene mountains and refreshing streams. Things looked at ease and we moved on, for a while.
A few kilometers down this road, at every point we saw Army and paramilitary troops at every nook and corner. At one point of stretch, we were stopped so that a convoy of government forces could proceed. Big guns were pointed at the civilians moving on this road, it made us feel like aliens in our own land. Stopped, frisked, and harassed at multiple locations, our trip was more traumatic than refreshing. The troopers didn’t allow us to even take selfies. I wonder why.
After travelling 120 kilometers from Srinagar, we finally reached the Satbaran caves. A small pavement leads us towards caves. The name Kalaroos comes from “killa” meaning cave and “Roos”, Russia. We attempted to explore the cave but gave up after a few, afraid of losing our way. A few locals told us that the cave used to be much longer before, as the local legend has it, it was demolished by government forces in the 1990s.
We could see a bird’s eye view of the Kalaroos from the ancient landmark. On one side beyond the mountain lies, the beautiful Neelum Valley in Pakistan-administered-Jammu and Kashmir and on the other side was the Valley of Lolab. Everywhere we looked, every hamlet we saw was under some sort of military vigil. A perpetual feeling of captivity overwhelmed me.
We had lunch at Satbaran in Kalaroos and moved downstream towards Lolab. As the poet Alama Iqbal rightly mentioned the Valley in his poetry, the reflection of his praise is visible to our eyes. Clear skies and meadows make the place poetic. Even if there were forces’ bunkers all around.
On the way back to Srinagar we again stopped at the same square in Handwara. This time we went inside the tea stall and ordered tea with samosas. The morning’s trauma continued — this time the two Army troopers seated close to us, they spoke in the local language and we felt they were sent to snoop on our conversation.
At that point, we felt that even conversation had to be hushed in this land — our land.
The author is an Associate at the Institute of Company Secretaries of India.