It’s not South Africa’s famous Blue Train, nor is it Europe’s Orient Express; it’s not Rajasthan’s Palace on Wheels or even Karnataka’s Golden Chariot.
It doesn’t have a catchy name, it doesn’t cost a fortune and there is no plush service on board. In fact, the only thing it has in common with the famous luxury trains that I’ve mentioned, is the promise of unforgettable vistas. Yet a brief hour’s ride on a spanking new red-and-blue train of the just opened Baramulla-Anantnag rail link changed my entire perception of a state that is at once iconic and unsettling at the same time: Kashmir.
As I prepared to embark on my first-ever visit to the Himalayan paradise, my teenage son protested, “Are you mad? Srinagar? Baramulla? Sopore? Anantnag? Don’t you see how these places make it to the papers every day? And you’re haring off there to see a train?!” It did sound kind of crazy even to me, after all I was no hard-nosed reporter of militancy and Indo-Pak issues. I dealt with the good life — travel, food, wine…
What was I doing courting trouble? Yet, the prospect of actually seeing for myself a state that seemed to make it to the headlines for all the wrong reasons was too enticing to forego. Moreover, the thought that Kashmir Valley has actually got a train 155 years after the first one ran in India between Bombay and Pune in 1853 was too piquant not to explore further! How could anyone have resisted linking Paradise to the rest of India with bands of steel for so long?
Thus, with equal amounts of trepidation and excitement, I set off for Srinagar with my photographer colleague. The 80-minute flight was scarcely enough to gulp down some soggy lunch on board before craning our necks to see the craggy, still-snowy tops of the formidable Pir Panjal range, one of the Valley’s rocky guardians and the Jammu-Srinagar rail link’s most implacable hurdle!
On the horizon, the even higher, white peaks of the Zanskar spurs glimmered through the clouds. Was that Nanga Parbat, rearing its proud head above the other massifs? Or was it my imagination, given my life-long fascination for mountains? The Himalayas looked grand even from 35,000 ft, but as the aircraft began its rather precipitous descent into the Valley, they seemed to grow taller. Below, the green expanse of the valley beckoned like Shangri-La—an oasis amid the bare rocks and snow.
No wonder saints and seers, emperors and philosophers, poets and travellers alike have been enchanted by the valley for millennia. I could imagine why Jehangir kept returning there with his beloved Noorjehan, why Jesus was said to have spent his missing years here imbibing its unique syncretic ethos, and indeed why India has been sacrificing so many of our men in uniform for decades to protect this valley from vivisection. This was indeed paradise, and Srinagar its entre-pot!
Srinagar, for most people (this writer included) means the Dal lake, flat-bottomed houseboats and skimming shikaras, flower-laden gardens dating back to the Mughal era and handicrafts — images bolstered by Bollywood movies of yore. More recently Srinagar has meant bandhs at Lal Chowk, hartal calls by the Hurriyat, burning buses, flag marches by troops in camouflage fatigues, stone-throwing, scowling young men, and tales of militant attacks and casualties in ‘encounters’. I barely saw either stereotypical image!
Of the first, I had but a glimpse every day, from the beautifully manicured lawns of the imposing Lalit Grand Palace, the century-old colonial building, once the seat of Kashmir‘s royal family. Today it’s Srinagar’s only five-star hotel, perched atop a hill at the head of the high-security Gupkar Road with fabulous views of the Dal Lake below.
We whizzed through the state capital on our way to various Northern Railway sites—including the superlative main station at Srinagar with its unbelievably beautiful carved wooden panelling in the portico and waiting room—but that was about as much as we saw of the ‘usual’ sights, good or bad. No sullen mobs, no shut shops, but yes, plenty of uniforms of all kinds, including two amiable armed J&K Police men who were there to guard our ‘expert’ guide, the deputy chief engineer of the railway project.
We also couldn’t miss the speeding Army convoys and eagle-eyed, armed CRPF personnel in trucks guarding hordes of Amarnath yatris in a gaggle of buses, vans, cars and tempos on the highway. At one point a speeding CRPF bus tumbled straight into a paddy field, narrowly missing an old woman. Concerned, we stopped to help. A clearly tense paramilitary officer rudely told us to go away if anything happened to the old woman, an ‘incident’ might ensue and we wouldn’t want to be caught in the middle of it…. We obeyed. How could life go on under the shadow of a gun, militant or military, I wondered, not surprisingly. Yet it did.
As we ventured off the highway down winding country roads (just what tourists are advised not to do) and as we looked out of train windows, a timeless Kashmir unveiled itself. Each turn brought into view bucolic village habitations with Swiss chalet-like sloping roofs full of hay. The lowing of cows and baa-ing of sheep made the atmosphere even more Heidi-like! Only, instead of a cherubic Swiss girl, chattering little schoolboys straggling along in twos and threes, looked curiously as our Scorpio or train went by zipping in the mountains. – TOI