NH 1 is the northernmost East-West (Uri – Leh) highway in India. It is one of the two highways that connects Ladakh to the rest of India. As we left Srinagar, we passed a very picturesque Sonmarg and also Baltal – one of the base camps for Amarnath Yatra.
One notices a drastic change in surroundings once Baltal is crossed. The mountains are still high but the slopes are not green anymore. They are barren, dusty and make you melancholy. The road also becomes deserted post Baltal. A few bikers and an occasional army convoy is all the traffic that you witness and I am not exaggerating when I say that the experience was scary. This road journey stirred so many feelings inside me. The crowd and traffic have become permanent fixtures in our lives. And how often have we complained about them? And here I was, amidst the mountains, longing for the very things I hated about the city.
Dras comprises of houses, hotels and a mosque scattered over a few Kms. on both sides of the NH 1. This small town attained strategic importance in Kargil War and to be honest the scars were visible even after a decade.
Hotel Hill View was to be our shelter for the night, but no one told us that the “hill” of which the hotel offered a “view” was the famous Tiger Hill. I have seen hotels named “Hill View” for so much less. We were told that Dras got electricity for only four hours (two hours during day and two hours at night) every day. So, we freshened up while we could, made ourselves comfortable under the quilts that perhaps weighed more than us and waited to be plunged in the darkness. Electricity was promptly gone as expected.
The dining hall was in the adjoining block and as we stepped out of our block at dinner-time, the sky was lit up with stars. I had never seen so many stars before that night. My eyes beheld the Milky Way, another thing that I had read about so many times, but never witnessed. It was surreal…magnificent. It made us forget the fatigue of the journey and the hunger. It even made us forget ourselves.
Next morning, as we strolled down the highway, we saw a sign board that occupied an inconspicuous corner along the road. In a very subdued signage, it said that Dras is the second coldest inhabited place in the world. Trust me, I read and re-read the words, just to be sure that I understood correctly.
Here was a place torn by a war. A place that had a hotel whose rooms overlooked the Tiger Hill. A place offering the view of Milky Way and the second coldest inhabited place in the world, which got electricity for just four hours every day. And yet, Dras was so modest, so unassuming and so welcoming.
It made me feel very small, unimportant and privileged. It was a wake – up call. One that made us wonder, think and left us speechless. Perhaps, it was an unforgettable lesson in “Kashmiriyat” – the Kashmiri way of life.