Around the time we were in Srinagar two artists from Gwalior also happened to be there. Both of them were reputed artists. One of them, who used to be a friend of my brother, decided to visit Shopian, probably, to take in the Pir Panjaals from closer quarters. We all decided to go in a group.
Shopian is a small town, now a district headquarters, situated south-west of Srinagar only 50-odd kilometres away. It is supposed to be an ancient town and was better known for its location on the old imperial road known as the Mughal Road connecting Kashmir Valley with Lahore. Emperor Akbar used it to conquer Kashmir in late 16th Century and his son Jehangir died on this road near Rajouri while returning from Kashmir. The road is being rebuilt by India as an alternative route to the Valley via Poonch in Jammu & Kashmir crossing over the Pir Panjaals at an elevation of higher than the Banihal Pass that is at more than 11000 ft. It will drastically cut the distance between Srinagar and Poonch.
We were in Shopian in about an hour and a half passing through the saffron town of Pampore and the ancient crumbling settlement of Awantipora. The town is in one of the numerous ‘apple countries’ of the Kashmir Valley. Nothing much to see except a good-looking Jama Masjid, we headed out of town towards the West in an elevated area where the local government had built a rest house. Shopian is around 2000 ft higher than Srinagar in elevation and gets a closer and unrestricted view of Pir Panjaals.
The Pir Panjaal range was shining bright in the sunshine with the blue of the skies for the background making it look majestic. Our artist friend, Rudra Hanji, got to work immediately. A product of Shantineketan, it was interesting to watch him sketching away with his felt pen. I found it amazing to see him work on ordinary paper and within moments he had sketched the likeness of the landscape in front with light deft strokes of the pen. Apparently it was rough work for him to be later finished with colour on canvas. He worked feverishly taking in whatever he saw in almost all the directions. The natural beauty of Kashmir is, after all, fabled.
A beautiful town with picturesque surroundings, Shopian, unfortunately, later fell victim of intense terrorist attacks from across the Cease Fire Line. Infiltration from across the Pir Panjaals has been continuing and off and on, apart from members of the security forces, even locals have fallen victims of terrorist bullets. The place seems to have become unsafe. But, back in 1957 there was no militancy, no infiltration from across the borders and life was safe, peace reigning supreme.
We had heard of Gulmarg much before we ever saw it. The name suggested meadows of flowers. A visit to it was, therefore, obligatory. As it was only about 30 miles away it could be done in a day. The bus took us only up to Tangmarg (a place of pears), then a small town and now a revenue sub-division, from where the climb for Gulmarg commenced. The road to Gulmarg was not till then motor-able, not even jeep-able. Hence, one had to make it on ponies or horses. For the parents horses were organized and we, two brothers, decided to trek it up to Gulmarg. It was only around 5 or 7 miles away but at an elevation of more than 9000 ft. We, however, took the short cut and went up the steep slopes on the tracks that were used by pedestrians – mostly locals.
Although it was supposed to make the distance shorter (I do not have any idea of by how much) it was tough negotiating it. The track ran up the steep hill through thick pine forests and, using as we did ordinary leather footwear with leather soles, the fallen pine needles made it tough for us for climbing. Pine needles are highly slippery and we had to make that extra effort to get traction on those steep slopes.
Occasionally the track opened on to the road as it came winding up the hill. We would on occasions also meet on the road others who too were legging it up. But what stood out were the fantastically beautiful landscapes that met us every time we came out of the deep woods. There were young Westerners who would hang on for minutes to take in Nature at its best and murmur to themselves “lovely country”. We would take the road for some distance and again get back to the track when we found it to be able to reach Gulmarg more or less around the time our parents reached it on horseback.
Huffing and puffing we kept pushing ourselves up and up and a while later we hit what seemed like an opening in the woods, And, lo and behold, at a little lower elevation than ours was an incredibly beautiful sight. Huge expanses of rolling greens on which a few horses happened to be grazing and all around there seemed to be thick forests of pines. It was an amazingly pastoral sight that was so fetching. There were hardly any structures around; it was unqualified nature, uncluttered by human interference barring a few what looked like gravel paths, some low wooden fences and a few tiny wooden bridges. Up in the distance was the range of Pir Panjaal, its whites glistening in the sun. A most magnificent sight, in fact idyllic, that is etched in my mind till this day even after more than fifty years! That is why when I visited Gulmarg again in 2011 I was terribly disappointed. With the road becoming motor-able, the place was chockablock with hotels, SUVs and thousands of tourists and, worse, the greens that had become patchy. Unrestricted tourism has played havoc with the place.
Soon we were down on the greens and met up with the parents who were taken by the men who hired out the horses to a hotel. If my memory serves me right, it was Neadou’s, a branch of the one in Srinagar. It was till then a small outfit given the small number of tourists who would stay overnight at Gulmarg. We all had tea and then went out for a stroll on the pathways between expanses of beautiful green. Very few people were around, some of them being Westerners who were camping in the huts that were unobtrusive and away from the greens and, perhaps, were built before independence. One elderly English lady struck up a conversation with my father. She was delighted to know that he was a teacher, a professor teaching English. As was the wont of English people, she, apparently, was going to be there for some time in nature’s lap. It was she who told us that we would be able to see Nanga Parbat if we were lucky. We were not lucky as it was shrouded in clouds.
We could not attempt a trip to Khilanmarg either. It is at more than 11000 ft and we just did not have time as we had to catch the bus back home. On our way back we stuck to the road, giving a wide berth to the foot tracks infested with pine needles.