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Travel

A road less travelled

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The newly minted Mughal Road in Kashmir is steeped in history and rugged grandeur of the Pir Panjal.

The Mughal gardens in Srinagar - Shalimar, Nishat, Chashmeshahi - are pretty enough with their summer blooms and sweeping views to justify being the tourist magnets they are. Yet they represent everything that is wrong with tourism in Kashmir. Located within a misplaced narrative of normalcy, these manicured gardens serve as disembodied bubbles for the Indian tourist to live out the fantasies that our films have peddled us for the past half-a-century.

For a more authentic, full bodied close up of Kashmir, a better bet is to chase the charms of a completely different Mughal legacy: a newly minted road. Called, simply, the Mughal Road, it traces the path 16th century Mughal caravans used to take while traveling from Lahore, their erstwhile capital, to the valley of Kashmir. All along its 84 winding kilometers that run from Shopian in south Kashmir to Bafliaz in the border district of Poonch (less than 50 kms from the LoC), remnants of that past are strewn, making it an important part of Kashmir's history.

For Kashmiris, what also makes this road truly historic is that it paves the way, literally, for people cleaved by the mountains of Pir Panjal to come closer. For nearly six decades now, Poonch and Rajouri - the two border districts of Jammu administrative division that have much in common with Kashmir, not least its religion and politics - have had to rely on a circuitous route that goes via Jammu city to reach Srinagar: a distance of nearly 600 kilometers. The Mughal Road transforms this prohibitive journey into a scenic drive of just under 180 kilometers. The road also brings Pakistani markets closer (closer even than Jammu) for the fruit growers of Shopian and Pulwama, boosting demand and new trade links. Moreover, for economically underdeveloped Poonch and Rajouri, it makes access to Srinagar's higher education institutions and medical facilities much easier even as it allows travelers and outsiders to venture further and deeper into Kashmir's landscape beyond traditional favourites.

Besides, unlike the tourist traffic that crowd the streets en route, say, Gulmarg or Pahalgam, the Mughal Road offers a different type of humsafar. Instead of a dreadlocked German looking to ride a pony up a mountain, you are likely to be sitting next to a shy man from Srinagar, thrilled that he can see his fiancêe in Poonch more often now. Instead of tedious talk about resorts and high altitude golf courses, you are likely to overhear village gossip.

The beauty of the Pir Panjal is another highlight. Through soaring mountains and idyllic meadows, past bottlegreen forests and glacial rubble, between craggy reliefs and flocks of sheep, the Mughal Road lifts you up and hurls you into the beating heart of the Pir Panjal.

It all begins at Lal Chowk in Srinagar - the same place where Nehru famously spoke of Kashmir's political future being decided in the "hearts and minds" of Kashmiris. Rs 300 gets you to the apple town of Shopian, where the Mughal Road originates. From here, the Pir Panjal seems a brushstroke of green and gold, its sun dappled slopes lined with rows of statuesque deodars and dwarfish apple orchards of Shopian.

The road after Dubjan (20 km in) ascends quickly and the views open up. Mountains fall over each other's shoulders to peek at you and the forests in the upper reaches give way to grassy meadows. The Mughals too were enticed by such delicate charms and had built 'sarais' (inns) all along this stretch for their kafilas to stop and rest. The first marked spot is Sukh Serai, followed by Aliabad where a Mughal ruin still survives. Aliabad has acquired a something of a flash reputation ever since rumours about the curative properties of the waters coursing through it began to gain wind. Through the day, you can spot a line of locals scrambling over rocky trails to fill their jerry cans and tiffin carriers.

After Aliabad, the mountains grow gruff. On this austere stretch, the only relief is an unlikely meadow that dress these skinhead mountaintops with a buzz cut made pretty with a field of wild flowers. It's an easy place to miss unless you are looking up as you wind around the curve;if you do, you have missed what is easily the most innocent and feminine of views on this otherwise rather macho road.

And so on and up as the elevation rises rapidly, reaching its highest point at 11, 500 feet above sea level and at the doorstep of a sufi shrine that gives this spot its name: Pir ki Gali. The shrine also marks the end of the Heerpora Wildlife Sanctuary, which you enter about 12 kilometers into the Mughal Road. On a good day, you will be rewarded with rich sightings of rare birds, including the spotted forkbill and rock bunting. But the prize of the sanctuary is the endangered Markhor, the largest wild goat in the world, for which this is prime habitat.

From hereon, the road deteriorates steadily. The greens almost entirely disappear and a certain aridness marks the scene. It heightens the drama, turning this ascetic, puritanical stretch into also the most handsome, with ochres, oranges, rusts, tans and nudes dressing the open wounds of the mountains, their flesh and bone blasted by excavating explosives. In places, breakaway bits of glacial rocks mix with the rubble, their icy brilliance an instant eye catcher in these muddy tracks.

At Chandimarh, a common tea-break point which lies about 10 kilometers east of Bafliaz, Kashmiri is replaced with Pahari, which sounds like coarse Punjabi. Men here wear pathani suits and the elders wear elaborate turbans. The texture is how one imagines the North West frontier to be and the feeling intensifies as you drive deeper into Poonch.

The Mughal Road ends in Bafliaz town but most drive onto Surankote, a large tehsil with famous waterfalls (Noori Chhamb), bounding streams and picturesque valleys, or onto Poonch proper. Poonch town is small and provincial and there is little to look out for besides one crumbling but dignified looking 18th-century fort. Yet Poonch is not without its reputation: during the peak years of the conflict, this town was at the heart of the "tehreek" or the resistance, and even today you will find former militants smoking cheap cigarettes and talking politics in neighbourhood tea stalls. These days, conversations often turn to the discovery of a few thousand unidentified graves in Poonch and elsewhere in Kashmir, something that locals feel will lead them to solving the mystery of 'disappearances' (a politically loaded term in Kashmir) that have taken place over the past two decades.

From Poonch town, another 7 odd kilometers takes you to the Cross LoC Trade Centre, which lies within an eyeshot of the barbwire of the actual LoC. Through Tuesdays to Fridays, the place bustles with trucks coming from and going to Pakistan and the camaraderie of these truckers and traders offer a different vision of Indo-Pak relations.

On the journey back, with the sun setting behind you, the colours are soft and the dusk dissolves the mountains into watercolor. The remainder of the journey is made in silence, the windows chilled to a light fog and the car careening around mountain curves. Kerouac's lines come to mind: The air was soft, the stars so fine, the promise of every cobbled alley (or, in this case, every jagged turn) so great, that I thought I was in a dream.

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