I visited Jammu & Kashmir in 2011, a decade after Kargil War and almost a decade before Article 370 was revoked and the state was divided into two Union Territories. But in spite of the former and irrespective of the latter, my narrative remains unaltered because, to me, Kashmir was, is and will always remain an epitome of simplicity, beauty and resilience. I left a part of me behind and brought a part of Kashmir with me.
Since times immemorial, travellers, traders and visitors have sung praises about the beauty of Kashmir and yet, I would say Kashmir is so much more. The difference in the Himalayan landscape that one witnesses while travelling from Jammu (middle Himalayas) to Srinagar (greater Himalayas) and further to Ladakh (Trans Himalayan ranges) is stark. But it never ceases to be appealing and inviting.
Jammu is located in the middle Himalayan Region. As we travel on NH44 towards Srinagar, lush green landscape surrounds us. NH44 winds its way around the Pir Panjal Range, climbing higher at each turn, albeit quite steadily. The Greater Himalayas still seem distant as the road takes us through Katra (base camp for Vaishno Devi) amidst the chants of Jai Mata Di. Another constant feature are the numerous road side dhabas, serving Rajma – Chawal and the famous anaar-dana chutney. It’s mid-day and we have a delicious lunch in nature’s lap at Patni-Top.
Post lunch, we resume our journey and reach Banihal Tunnel, the magic hole, upon crossing which you start noticing the change in landscape. The mountains are taller, roads steeper and valleys deeper. The mountain slopes are still green, but the deciduous forests are now replaced by coniferous forests. You still see small villages and scattered houses but they are comparatively sparse.
Passing through eerily silent and subdued towns of Pampore and Awantipora, we finally reach Srinagar at 7 o’ clock in the evening. It is quite dark but contrary to our expectations, Srinagar is full of life. The roads are full of pilgrims travelling towards Pahalgam for Amarnath Yatra and bazaars are bustling with tourists. And what a relief it is! Nevertheless, tired to the bone, we have a quiet dinner and go to sleep. Because tomorrow we are hitting the NH1, towards our next destination – Leh!