After that super long day, we were reaching the beautiful breathtaking Gangabal lake, one couldn’t see it until one climbed up and about, it was so near yet so far and so worth it when we collectively gasped at what we saw.
The group had splintered, a few went right ahead towards Nandakol campsite while Sanskar had to rush, he was having diarrhoea and Shaukat bhai rushed along with him. Krupa along with Bhim, Bhavik, Ayush, Mayank, the lawyer group, Rajendran were at the lake.
Promptly Bhim jumped into the lake this time prepared with a towel and all. It inspired a couple of lawyer guys to get in, ditto with Mayank, Ayush, Rajendran and later even a badly sun burnt Bhavik got in too. Krupa and I looked at the lake longingly wishing we could get in and swim, it was not just our monthly cycle but the freedom one felt like men, to just jump in with no worry of being watched, judged or feeling safe. To be able to not think of all the above before doing it, we did live in an imbalanced society..
After the swim, the weather was turning to dark clouds with a wind chill, so after a good couple of hours, we made our way to Nandakol campsite. Sanskar was feeling better so in the evening we three- Sanskar, Bhim and I went towards the other side to see the lake. I was glad Indiahikes pitched it far away from the lake, as lots of campsites were pitched there with utter disregard to the place. Bonfires, beer bottles, cigarette butts stashed everywhere, it broke our hearts. We bloody humans take that one pristine place and destroy it.
After the stroll Sanskar came into our tent and he spoke about his life, his close knit joint family, his special girl, what he wanted to do. A simple guy whose objective was to do something good and spend the rest of his life with his one and only. An old soul inside, he cared deeply about his family. I remember Bhavik and I having a chat about various treks, he was very keen on Pin Bhaba pass and I was goading him to do it next year. He could do it, he had it in him.
That evening, because it was the last night we would all camp together( thank god!) there were hours long talks from each of them, usually that’s how it is on the last evening. It was tiring for me, I zoned out totally and waited till I was the last one and mumbled something. I told something random that came in my mind at that moment. It didn’t come from the heart, and for the first time of all my treks I babbled my way through. I didn’t feel anything with the group except with a few and I didn’t want to put on a pretence. That’s the way it is.
Bhim was homesick by now, he kept on saying he shouldn’t be staying away from home so long leaving his mother alone. So when we started descending through the forest towards Naranag he was contemplative. The last day is always like that, one likes to be alone, and definitely it was like that for me. I wanted to be alone and walk in silence for that one day.
The most significant moment of the entire trek was singing the National Anthem with the army on 14th August! As we reached one of the army checkpoints and opened up our bags for them to check thoroughly, the army jawan told us to stand in line together with the battalion. It was 8.15 am and the flag changing time.
A drone was buzzing above us and the army guy joked saying they flicked it from some trekkers like us who were carrying it in their backpacks 😁 With the helicopter circling above and the drone whizzing on front, and cameras on we sang with a lot of pride, our national anthem! What a privilege it was for us to sing our country’s anthem deep in Kashmir valley at 12,000 feet. If this does not drive the message that Kashmir is a part of India, nothing will. So take that people!
The descent was PUNISHING! After a few hours of descent was the very steep descent through the forest, with loose mud and rocks. It plays havoc on your legs. Your knees and ankles are gone and it is all the way till you reach Naranag.
At half way point near a Dhaba, network was on, so all phones came out. Sanskar was worried, he didn’t know if his cousins were in Srinagar or somewhere else. He didn’t have a post paid phone either so he used someone else’s phone and first called his family and became very emotional after talking to them. I pulled his leg saying, Did you go to a bloody war that you are feeling so much?? You will see them in two days!
Bhavik sweetly offered me his phone if I wanted to call someone, as my mobile network was not connecting, did I? Not really, my zoning out was in full form, my loved ones knew my pattern only too well to understand I was not obligated and duty bound like that. I didn’t function that way.
Bhim had his own problems, one call to his mom and she told him to come back home immediately and it was the first time that he heard her panic like that, so he started calling the airlines to leave the same evening, instead of leaving after two days. He got the full low down from his friends about his mother’s panic attack and anxiety and he kept mumbling I shouldn’t have left her alone.
There was such a conflict inside him, first was the guilt about leaving her and coming on this trek yet he had a life too, he couldn’t be 24 hours at home, yet the paradox, the emotional pull and pressure. It’s a journey only he had to go through. The best thing to do as a friend was to leave him alone to sort it out. He would figure out his way.
And figure out he did, it made no sense to leave that evening because it was the eve of our Independence Day, 14th August, and there were flights only upto Delhi, after that was a long layover the entire night till he could take a morning flight to Bangalore. So he was able to book one on 15th August morning flight, atleast he would get to spend an evening relaxing in the houseboat. Once he made the booking and told his mum, she relaxed and so did he.
The descent was so hard on the body, it was brutal, imagine descending right down steep for the next 5 hours. The body wants to give up but the mind resolutely stays strong then roles reverse where the body keeps going on while the mind wants to give up, it’s a sadomasochistic feeling, we put ourselves through this every single time!
Finally, when we reached Naranag we were an exhausted super hungry bunch! Not eating enough on this trek took it’s toll on me big time for which am recovering even now after a month! Bhim and I promptly got a table, and we ordered our favourite paneer with local greens and local rice, Sanskar sat with us and enjoyed his chicken fry.
By that point we were completely off the group and Bhim said I am glad I don’t have to see their faces ever again! 😂 Once we ate to our hearts content we said our goodbyes, I only said Bye to the people I wanted to! No bullshit. Sanskar was going in another vehicle so we bunched up with the lawyers back to Srinagar.
Once we sat in the vehicle, Bhim and I felt so free, he was singing songs and I was humming along with him. But the lawyer uncles true colours came out. From the openness they projected, they grumbled the whole time on the trip just like old fuddy duddies! Gone was their witty repartee and being cool and out came their conventional views, opinions, and mumble.
Once Mushtaqji picked us up from the transport location in Srinagar, our faces lit up! We were dead tired and happy and that’s when we saw our faces and laughed loud. Super burnt faces, like homeless people and clothes sticking on us thanks to 7 days of no bath! I was craving for fruits all the while and Bhim was so amused when I kept on telling Mushtaqji to stop at a fruit stall. Ha that bite of a crunchy apple or pear! Bhim also couldn’t resist and bought a dozen bananas 😂
I was happy atleast Bhim was staying in for the night instead of rushing off to the airport that evening. He could get to spend some quality time in the houseboat. As we were walking towards the houseboat Lateefji’s wave and a big smile felt like home! To get back to the tranquility of Nigeen lake was a blessing after the din of the group.
We totally relaxed as Shafiji walked in and chatted a bit, and one of Bhim’s former colleague, a Kashmiri girl came to meet him. I got to know something very interesting. She told Bhim that her great grandfather was a Kashmiri pandit and they had to convert! I was amazed by her honesty because most of them talk as if they have come directly from the prophet’s family and they are not converts. The idea of convert or die slogan in Kashmir came to my mind.. It was not recent but happening for hundreds of years, just because you are not aware of it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. He also noticed that the moment the Azaan – the evening prayers came out from nearby mosques she covered her head with the dupatta in middle of the conversation.
Bhim finally enjoyed the dinner at the houseboat, a sumptuous spread, I had told them he doesn’t eat even egg and can they make something in paneer? And so they did.
The next day early morning, it was time for Bhim to leave. It was Aug 15th, so he had to leave much earlier because the security checks would be tripled and the wait would be really long.
As I bid goodbye to Bhim I truly didn’t know when we would meet like this again. No I don’t mean, not meeting him ever, we always had each other’s cities which we would visit and spend time. But our treks and travels which we did together for almost 5 years suddenly seemed like a thing of the past. The present was this reality, and one had to adapt.
It was time for me to enjoy my solitude..
The last blog for this series tomorrow 💙