Long walk to freedom
Waking up in the morning has never been my forte. Sometimes I need a spike of oxytocin to be released in my brain to wake myself up (Google the rest yourself). So when it is the coldest time of the day (4 am to 5 am), your mind tries to make sure that your appendages don’t respond to its stimulus. Or I might have gone limp due to frost bite (Highly unlikely). I am just being lazy.
Firdoz boiya does this ingenious trick of folding his blanket right on top of my face. The dust and the wool particles from the blanket instantly makes me sneeze. So instead of the oxytocin, it was the histamine which wakes me up. I get up to try and control my sneeze.
This is an ingenious way to wake up lazy fucks like me. Water has been thrown on me, the fans been turned off, my dog’s tongue has been unleashed on my face and even the news of Sir Alex’s death has been used as a strategy to get me up. But none as subtle as this. Respects Firdoz boiya.
Everyone is almost set, I am still in my thermals trying to fold the sleeping bag. When it is that cold, your fingers lose their dexterity. It was like all my fingers were responding to stimulus like Internet Explorer in the 2000s. I try my best to pack the bag up. Everyone is almost out by this time. Now I am rushed and they keep calling – Kerala, Kerala hurry up. I packed all my shit as fast as I could, put the wrong socks on the wrong feet and then without even saying goodbye to Shuhail and my man crush, I left the mosque. I looked back at the door for a millisecond and said thank you.
I learned that you never know when it’s your last goodbye. So make every single one count.
We walk towards the place where the bus stopped. I am tempted to ask for a cigarette. Russia taught me the nicotine somehow makes me perceive my body temperature to be higher than what it should be. But I fight that urge. The last one was at a mountain top in Munnar. Let’s not start again up on another one. At the bus stand, there is a convoy of two vehicles. One is already full. The second one has just enough seats for us. I imagine what the fuck I would have done if I had made this trip alone. The only reason these vehicles are here is because of the Boiyas. I thank the travel gods again.
I throw up my rucksack. I ask them if there would be any rain or hail or snow. They trust the weather reports enough to assure me that my bag will get there, dry. I make myself comfortable in the back of the SUV. It was one of those Tavera type SUV’s that people only use to ferry tourists through treacherous roads up a mountainside. And that is exactly the roads we are taking now.
I put the camera bag on my legs and doze off. I could feel the locomotion and I drift in and out of consciousness in intervals. It is still pitch dark and the roads are empty and eery. Time would be around 5. The sun is still hidden by the clouds. We go around a turn and the car stops. The vehicle in front of us is already stationary. We get out the back and stare at a ditch. It’s dark and all I can see is a chasm which has no end. Everyone is staring at that and I can only assume that something must have gone down. One of the Boiyas tell me that the locals heard something crash. A vehicle must have probably gone down. I don’t see any skid marks or visible signs of an out of control vehicle. We get back in.
Remember what I told about “inshallah”. In Kashmir, they mean it when they say it. There are a lot of variables which are not within our control and we have to respect that. Absolutely respect that.
My respect for the driver just went up 10 fold and I make a small prayer that the supposed crash was a false alarm and that no one is hurt. I don’t think we could have done anything more in that condition.
I drift back to sleep again.
The vehicle moves on and at one point I get up to adjust my posture and I see this giant block of ice on the side of the road. No, not snow, but a giant block of ice. I look around I see snow-capped mountains. Usually when I do that, I am marvelling at it from the bottom. Now they were in my line of sight. I have reached the altitude where the snow caps are. Holy shit, I have reached the promised land.
A childhood of watching Hollywood movies during Christmas has conditioned my mind to consider snow to be the most amazing experience a person could have. Ice age, Home Alone, Frozen, Titanic, Die Hard. Every single one of them romanticised snow (With acutely varied outcomes). And every time I go somewhere where there is suppose to be snow, I miss either because it is not the season or some weather anomaly has delayed winter by a month. But now there it was, in all its beauty. Winter has come.
Now, our motion was a bit haphazard. We were stationary for a good interval of time and then the traffic in front of us moves just a little bit and we would come to a stop. That day, the traffic was unidirectional with trucks and cars being let in from Jammu to Sri. With roads that twist over a cliff and margins of error too tight to take a chance, I can see why. There are an array of supply trucks all halted. The small vehicles are making their way through the space which the trucks leave. It is like the drivers have set up camp inside. And that was exactly the case when I saw a Punjabi driver brewing a chai over a small campfire he set up on the side of the road.
That small halt turned into what seemed like the end of the road for us. We decided to ditch the Tavera for our feet. Yup, at that point I was more in favour of walking with 20 Kgs on my back, with freezing winds drying up my lips, than waiting mundanely in the cab. Like most things in life, it is what you don’t do that you regret more than what you end up doing. Good or bad.
I pay my fare, around Rs 250. If I was a tourist, without any Kashmiris with me, I am sure a zero would have been added to the extreme right end of that figure, cause that’s how much difficult it was to get up there. Again, I thank my stars for making me cross paths with the Kashmiri boiyas and also I thank the driver for getting us so far, safe.
Now I get this instant shot of energy I had been looking for. Again this adventure went up a gear. We get news that a landslide has blocked the road further ahead and we are 4 km off Banihal railway station. I am marvelling at my surroundings, it is a sensory overload with the landscape leaving you breathless and the fact that you are hiking up a Himalayan road literally making that the case. Like in Munnar, the cold alpine air makes your lungs appreciate the ether of the world. It’s like the bronchioles can sense sweetness in the air. The last time that happened, I vowed never to smoke again. This time, I wanted to take in that moment forever.