I must be going soft in my old age because my recent journey to Azad Kashmir had me crying over the smallest things! Please be prepared for lots of sentimental ramblings over the next few weeks: I plan to take full advantage of this most welcomed end to my writer’s block.
A week before our trip, I wrote Kashmir: 5 Things You Should Know but I had forgotten just how heart-breaking it is to say goodbye to this little piece of heaven. As a means to cope with this inexplicable homesickness (more on that in a later post), allow me to tell you even more things about AK – Azad Kashmir and our time there…
The Dreaded Journey – Pir Gali
The nearest international airport for us guys living in AK is Islamabad Airport. I had yet to see the new airport so I was still expecting the old-fashioned welcome…you know, ‘Suitcase main kya hai, isko kolo, usko kolo …’
‘hamdullilah, the new airport is drastically different but the journey after it hasn’t changed much.
From Islamabad, we drive for what feels like daaaaayys to get back to the village (about 6 hours). The route that takes us home is called Pir Gali (the ‘Alley of Saints’). It is a meandering snake-like path, worn out in many places by trucks carrying loads 10 times the maximum limit. In other places, it is so narrow there’s barely enough space for one car let alone two:
Over the years there have been numerous deaths where cars or buses have literally plummeted over cliffs and not a single person has survived. Of course, it doesn’t help that people drive like maniacs or that, like my beloved brother-in-law VD, they are blind but don’t own specs(!). No matter how old I am, I still have the same thoughts each time I encounter Pir Gali, “Why on earth don’t they fix this road?” followed by, “Oh god, this is how I am going to die…”
Despite the obvious negatives of death looming overhead, you momentarily forget this might be your last living moment thanks to the spectacular scenery and funny surprises:
If you’re wondering why, over the last 20-something years, the road hasn’t been fixed it is because of this oft-repeated desi-uncle saying: “Mulk teek karte karte adha pesa to hud kaa jate hain, kanjer kahin k.”
Village Life – a humdrum of sounds
There is nothing more boring than going all the way to AK – or any place in the world for that matter – and staying in the city, or in a hotel. Seriously. Immersive experiences with family or the locals are the most valuable parts of travelling. Some of my best memories are of going to the fields with my nani and cutting crops, looking after the farmyard animals, helping around the home, and best of all, going to the stream on laundry day and jumping into the water for a swim afterwards.
Okay, sometimes the electricity disappears and because of the India-Pak conflict, access to mobile or internet gets cut off, and if World War Three broke out this part of the world would be the last to know. Also, there isn’t much to eat other than roti, chai, roti, chai and god help my bladder, more chai, but people pay thousands for retreats like this. Being cut off from the constant on-the-go-ness (can’t think of another word) of modern life and technology is refreshing. The day feels a lot longer and you actually talk to people because no-one is glued to their phone screen. Why would you need phones when you’re surrounded by unrivaled beauty?
One of the best things about April in AK is sleeping under a star-filled sky. At night, the village is still alive and sensory-heavy. Crickets create a deafening hum, interrupted by hooting owls, a stray cat looking for the milk-bucket, or howling jackals riling up pet-dogs. As children, stupidly, we’d tell scary stories all day and then at night we’d regretfully lay awake, alert to every sound. We’d convince ourselves a churayl (with long hair and backwards-feet) is looking for us but we mustn’t say or even think of the word ‘churayl’ because she can read your mind and she’ll rip out your heart and eat it and drink your blood. Basically.
If you’re still(!) wondering why living in the city is unadvised, then this desi-parent one-liner from my father-in-law says it how it is: “Zoya puthar, tujhe kisne kaha Mirpur jao? Mirpur nerah thrakk hai.”
The Serious Stuff: in-laws, war, and the global impact of plastic pollution.
Let me get real for one minute: I was shitting bricks about going back to AK. For someone like me – who, since childhood, was extremely shy and used to the loneliness that comes from belonging to a tiny family – getting married and joining an extended family was petrifying. And now, after 4.5 years of marriage I was about to experience ‘Meet The In-Laws’ all over again but in another country.
But, I needn’t have bothered worrying because first of all, being in the village is always like heaven for my soul and seeing as hubby’s family literally live around the corner from my grandparents, I felt like I was at ‘home’ (as opposed to, for example, if he lived in Lahore). I built up an instant rapport with so many women from hubby’s village because, even though I might not be blood, we shared the same roots or were from the same maternal village. What’s more, AK is a place where the old proverb rings trues: people’s hearts are definitely bigger than their homes and you are made to feel so welcome, so loved, so special in just a matter of days.
And last but not least, the highlight of this trip was I got to meet my awesome brothers/sister in laws and their kids. It was like a visit to the UK and a visit to AK and a holiday, rolled up into one (happy days!).
As refreshing as it was to visit a place that has somehow begun to mean more and more to me with each passing year, I couldn’t help but notice the aftermath of war. Doors and walls were pock-marked with holes from shelling; the army’s presence meant we couldn’t use the internet or even make calls (emergency only) for the whole time we were there. Animals – peacocks, monkeys, dogs, fleeing from India-controlled Kashmir now populated our somewhat safer area. I felt equally heartbroken and disgusted at the immense amount of plastic littering the rivers and fields. There are no accessible or decent roads to many places (see above point about Pir Gali), aggravated further by a non-existent trash collection system: plastic is choking our world at an abhorrent speed.
Irrespective of the negatives, my answer to the much-asked question: “Pasand aya hamara Kashmir?” will always be affirmative. After all, how can I not love it? It’s called heaven on earth for a reason.
While proof-reading this post, I just realised what a mish-mash the memes and images are. This is partly a result of me having a fever and being unable to take photos, and partly due to the fact that my phone – like me – overheated and died. I am going to choose to believe the images are a nice reflection of the mish-mash nature of British-Kashmiris in general. If you’re still not happy, you can check out my last post: Kashmir in pictures.