The ‘Tricorne’ Hat of LoCs
Bagtore Cricket bang on the LoC
As I take the route to Bagtore or Izmarg, another LoC point, I notice how precious was firewood – the stray, dry twigs collected soon after snow-melt adds to the list of lifelines of lady Gurez. Gurezi women, mostly elderly, eagle-eyed, pick every tiny bit of wood and accumulate them in strongly fenced open-air godowns. so, despite, a ‘super cold’ day in summers, the firewood is banned for use until winter.
Tourists are not permitted without an express army permit to LoC Bagtore. My description and details have already arrived at the army post. A forking road lifts from Dahi Nallah, a canal, famous for its curds and cows, and takes me to a dreamy zigzag route through picturesque Izmarg village, where mysteries await every turn and bend; in one, a beautiful gnarled tree trunk; at another bend, a Birch tree with gold leaves stands like a sunflower; grasses hanging from trees for winter fodder for domestic livestock; yet another turn sees a seemingly punished goat bleeping continuously begging to be untied. Another bend, reveals mounds of mining of coal, seemingly unchecked. I saw a family digging a trench to store potatoes in the ground for winter food. Wide lush meadows, dotted with tiny hut clusters, side cuts and inflows from the magically swinging road, reaching upto the LoC Bagtore – the Grand plateau of Cricket.
And lo and behold vast pastures greet; where ongoing cricket commentary is more of a light and friendly banter on the mike. Almost five to six cricket pitches are active simultaneously in the vast expanse. The soldiers by day and night have a break, sort of a picnic from heavy-taxing duties. Low steady colorful umbrellas twined to ground tent-pegged for stability underneath the canopy -ice buckets and hot cases of food, fruits, and drinks; and loungers for few army wives to relax, giving it a cricket carnival sportosphere. This piece of vast land is the LoC Bagtore, where alternate peaks are heavily garrisoned by respective rival armies. Indeed it was one of the best cricket grounds in the valley; Dassi Bagtore was being promoted for snow cricket as a novelty for Tourists with locals and army.
And it was indeed my most buoyant moment to be invited to join one of the cricket pitches …Yahooo ! You savor a memory for a lifetime of hitting ball on the LoC!! Almost dreamy, unreal, but, it could turn ghastly, where a sniper’s gun to rip you apart. One-shot could start a war maybe a nuclear war! I brush aside deadly thoughts; after all I am not the President of the US or even an Arvind Kejriwal to be thus targeted! As I turn back, after a euphoric milestone in my life, it soothed me to watch the innocence of Bagtore children having a feast of cricket on their own in the Pasteur nearby. While cattle grazed unmindful of the tangible enmity, close by.
Locals tell me, you can see the refugee camps which have now become permanent settlements for people who crossed over the border from Pakistan to India post-Indo-Pak partition. The settlements are named Refugee-I and Refugee-II. Just a few Kms across LoC Bagtore village the PoK’s village Taobat or Taobutt welcomes the gushing Kishanganga from India that had got christened as Neelum, 9-years after the Partition in 1956. People in Taobat lead almost a mirrored life to the one in Gurez with firewood collections and portering service with army, sharing the same Languages, except, it is here where the Kashmiri language too has a borderline, that doesn’t go beyond, Amin and Muzaffar both Gurezis confirm to me.
Tulail & Kaobal Gali
East of Gurez lays the exotic Tulail valley, less than a Kilometer in width. Gurez sector borders with Astore on the Pakistan side with this Northern tip nearly 9000ft high, with Gurez in the West, Mushkoh Valley and Drass in the East, and Kashmir valley in the South, rising across the Line of Control.
Tulail, is the most stunning expanse of Gurez. The Kishanganga waters enter Gurez after crossing the alpine meadows of Sonmarg from Tulail’s center Badugam. Among its lilting music locales sit some of the most exotic scenery in the villages of Burnai, Badoab, Niru, and Sheikhpora. Towards Drass LoC, the last villages are Burnai and Chakwali. Taking a shared ride to Tulail in a local taxi with friends, we aimed to reach Chakwali from where we had permission to go upto Kaobal Gali (pronounced like the capital of Afghanistan). En route, several locals wave to us, we waved back in glee at their so friendly gesture; they were actually asking for a lift. We shared the taxi between the three of us and had ample space to fill in, so took on two local men, whose toothy smiles didn’t leave them all through.
Our car stopped at another check-post, nearly a dozen local men flocked around our vehicle and urged the locals traveling with us to spare them a seat also. As we said yes to two more, another ran after the taxi and entreated us to take him, we stopped, and he ran back and brought his goat held by another; our driver shooed him away angrily in Kashmiri language. The rest of the locals laughed in glee and to tease him kept waving to him as the car left, we too joined in the fun and laughed and waved to him till he was visible. He too waved back. The whole thing felt as innocent as the purity of the mountains and the endearing mountain folk of Tulail. The smile and laughter stamped on my memory chip for life.
On the way, we stopped at Badoab a check-post short of Chakwali (last point for civilians) the ever-helpful army guys courteously offered us Tea and Maggi. “We have clearance for Kaobal Gali (hardest to get). We shall definitely take you on your gracious offer on our way back”, I told the army commander of the station. Little did we know the gentleman that he was, he didn’t want to discourage us by saying it was too late to reach Kaobal Gali and the way was cracked, potholed and washed away in parts. The to and fro journey in the mountains was impossible without a ready disaster, with a wind-face slowly forming on higher reaches and landslide spillovers all the way. However, he waved us goodbye and off we went unknowingly happily towards Chakwali.
It is pertinent to mention that the road to Kaobal is highly risky and a hazardous restricted area that is only used by the army. It is absolutely at the discretion of the army to give clearance or withhold –no questions asked – policy. Ahead, the Kaobal road connects to Mushkoh valley and Drass sectors that are bang on the (LoC) “Line of Control”.
It may also be recalled that Drass was the prime location where the theater of the Indo-Pak Kargil war of 1999 unfolded and led to the death of more than 535 Indian soldiers with Pakistan incurring a loss of more than 4000 men. I had already visited Drass and had seen the nearly 2-3 feet thick stone wall, facing the peaks encroached upon by Pakistan – the Tiger Hill, Tololing, Point 4590, Point 5353, and others falling on the arterial road connecting Kargil to Leh. This major Drass route was planned to be blown off, to cut off Kargil and Leh by the Kargil war whose main architect was the former President of Pakistan Gen Parvez Musharaff.
However, an alternate route Leh-Manali Highway in Himachal Pradesh connects the two areas. The Drass wall though left battered as a historic reminder had faced heavy bombardment from the Pakistan side besides which is the War memorial where soldiers’ headstones can shake you uncontrollably. The Bofors gun boomed here, the gun whose purchase brought down a government. The clandestine makeshift modular igloos by Pak infilterators, on Indian peaks, were providentially detected by an Indian shepherd, followed by Kargil War. The first war broadcast live on TV, was credited to ace journalist Barkha Dutt whose photograph in a newspaper then, adorns the photo gallery of the War memorial.
Reaching Chakwali check-post, we couldn’t get the clearance; probably the commandant had refused to risk our lives. It seemed a long wait for clearance and deciding on the futility of pursuing further we turned the vehicles back. In hindsight, it was a correct decision as night fell halfway back to Dawar and maneuvering the rough roads was challenging even then. That it was dangerous was an understatement although the local driver has the skills of a great maneuver in the art of mountain driving.
It is strongly being proposed to open the “Chakwali Kaobal Gali Tulail” section to connect Gurez with Kargil and Drass and have an alternate route for the snow-bound areas to remain connected to the world as the Zojila was an all-weather Tunnel, that is slated for inauguration in the year 2024. (To be concluded)
Pics and text by author who can be contacted at: [email protected]