14 March 2006

The Second Coldest Stat

We’d only heard of Drass as a militant-infested district of Kashmir. What we didn’t know was the fact that Drass is the second coldest inhabited place on earth. There is a signboard stating “Drass… 2nd coldest… -65 C… Jan 1995” welcoming us to the town. Joy spent an hour, filming and photographing the stat-board from all possible angles. I think that stat is going to be the highlight of his doc film. Given that Drass is not particularly high up, it’s hard to imagine that -40 C is common during the winters. The place has a gloomy look to it, with dark clouds hovering above and a certain dampness in the air at all times.

That was the last of the cold nights. We woke up early, and found that the bathroom had a glass window the size of a door. While the idea of having a good, panoramic view is appreciated, they forget that the view is two-way. Anyway, the view happened to be that of Tiger Hill – the strategic peak that India lost and recaptured during the Kargil War.

While at the cramped hotel in Drass, we met a Brit who suffered from a colonial hangover. He passed generalized nasty comments demeaning advertising professionals, which annoyed Gopal. He never missed an opportunity to point out how everything (eg : Royal Enfield) is from Briton and that nothing has changed after independence. We felt enraged and sincerely prayed that he meets with an accident, hopefully in some godforsaken place like that old abandoned road near Lamayuru.

Negative thoughts aside, fresh snow is a treat to the eyes. It looks like someone strewed fine white talcum dust from top. So, early next morning, as we rode on to Zojila pass, we ogled at the dark peaks capped with fresh snow. I remember mocking at the name Zojila during 8th class geography classes. Never did I dream that I’d land there someday. Being a damp day, we rode on slush and loose earth, but crossing Zojila (~13,000 ft) was a piece of cake compared to the high passes of Ladakh.

We halted at an army check post, and the wonderfully polite chaps invited us for tea. Hot chai in a steel tumbler was the perfect antidote to the numbing cold that had bothered us all morning. As we looked down at the valley, we saw thousands of little tents littered all over, for the Amarnath Yatra. The army guys were shocked that, having traveled so far, we didn’t intend to check out the Amarnath Yatra. Joy threw this don’t-you-know-I’m-interested-in-stats look, not making an effort to hide his disgust at the idea. I tried explaining how we’d been thru so much emptiness and sheer natural beauty in Ladakh, that we were really not interested in crowded places of religious interest. But my struggles with Hindi meant that Gopal had to come to my rescue and he mentioned some non-existing train, which we had to catch two days later.

As we rode downhill, the road improved rapidly, and before we knew it, the roads were 30-40 feet wide, neatly laid… and swarming with steely-eyed army jawans holding AK-47s. Welcome to Kashmir.

2 March 2006

Under Enemy Observation

Jammu & Kashmir can be divided into the Islamic east– Kashmir, and the Buddhist west– Ladakh. The little town of Mulbekh is the divide between the two halves. This is where Buddhism ends and Islam begins.

The next town on our path was Kargil. What is essentially a quiet, dreary village became synonymous with the war with Pakistan in 1999. The ultra-wide, neatly done road (there is usually just one road going thru these villages) contrasts sharply with the diminutive character of the village. It's funny how it took a full-scale war to spur development.

We could feel our proximity to the Line Of Control with Pakistan. Heavily armed guards are present on every road, bridge or any mentionable form of infrastructure. It took us 30 mins to get a chance to make phone calls from a public telephone – the place was swarming with army guys. Oh, and they hate cameras in these places.

Next up was the LoC. Those were some of the most amazing hours of the trip. Beas (or Sindh?) thundered right next to the road, and on the other side of the river was Pakistan – nay, Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. The road bisected the slopes studded with bunkers and artillery pointed skywards. There was an unmistakable air of aggression and tension.

Just to make us feel at ease, a signboard read "You are now under enemy observation". Notice the word 'enemy'. Not too far from here, we have guys who play cricket, meet up occasionally to boost the Indo-Pak bhai-bhai sentiment, develop feel-good Confidence-Building-Measures… bullshit! Hypocrisy is the name of the game… absolutely nobody has the balls to speak out the truth sans all the sugar-coating and diplomatic gas. The media feeds us deceptive stories and loads of lies that comfortably shield us from reality. Kids coming for surgeries, musicians, actors, cricketers, diplomats, politicians giving out well-rehearsed lines… it's all such a messy farce. The mutual distrust is thick in the air. Infiltration is clear and present, and it's a very real danger to our country. The fear and suspicion in the eyes of the army men is unmissable. How can we shamelessly accept these lies when our army men live and die in fear?

The worst part is that there isn't a hint of an end to the terror, and to the problem itself. Men are going to die, suffer deep mental scars due to the perpetual fear and suspicion, Pak Generals will be extended warm receptions and taken to the Taj Mahal, not long after orchestrating a bloody war which claimed thousands of lives, Indian Ministers will meekly cry at the need for an end to terrorist camps in Pak, shamelessly begging for some western power to help them clean their mess, cricketers will play series after series after series and hog media-space like they were building peace-bridges and laugh all the way to the bank… and people just sit back and watch on… oh, and where is my pop-corn?