India's last point, a turn down this road is POK checkpoint
I have to admit that this is one of those blogs that I am writing begrudgingly. Now don't get me wrong, it is not that Kashmir has lost its charm on me. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Every time I explore a new place, I am so awed by it that I want to keep it as my travel secret. On this Kashmir trip, Tangdhar won me over, not because of its beauty that is rampant in Kashmir but because of its simplicity and close proximity to our neighbors, Pakistan.
“What do you do when someone tells you that there is a village so close to Pakistan that you can literally walk into it? A person like me is sold the moment someone mentions a border town.”
The name Tangdhar was thrown at me very nonchalantly by Mr. Asadullah, CEO, Kupwara J&K tourism department. Sipping cups of freshly brewed kahwa with a handsome amount of nuts and saffron, I was already enjoying the hospitality on my latest Kashmir trip. We were discussing about things to see in Kupwara when he said something about Tangdhar. Curious as I always am to explore offbeat Kashmir, I enquired more about the town, especially because it is near the border. I collected as much information as I could from the CEO and decided to give this town a chance. It was a split second decision that opened up a Pandora’s Box of adventure.
“Why Do You Want to Go to Tangdhar, I haven’t met anyone in a long time who wants to go there?” – P.A. to District Magistrate, Kupwara
All roads lead to the mountains!
As is with every border town in Kashmir, except Gurez, you need a permit from the district magistrate’s office. Without this paper, army will not let you through. I went into the office, armed with CEO’s reference to get the written permission. It was to be a smooth ride but it ended up being a Q&A session.
For Pure Offbeat Travel Experience in Kashmir, Go Straight to Gurez
“Why do you want to go there?” “what kind of travel writer are you?,” “What do you want to write about Tangdhar?” To be honest, I was kind of taken aback with all these questions. I thought one call from the CEO will get the job done, everything else is just a formality. Apparently, that was not the case. He asked me a few more questions that I answered smilingly and he signed the paper away, permitting me and France (a French girl travelling with me to Kupwara) to gain access to Tangdhar for 5 days. With the paperwork out of the way, I was ready to take a cab.
Mr. Asadullah helped us get a shared cab from Kupwara that goes all the way to Tangdhar, taking 4-5 hours to get there. We boarded our cab and were ready for a new adventure. Thus began the never ending journey into the perils of traveling close to the border.
“This is protocol madam. You can go but the French girl will have to go back to Srinagar. She does not have the clearance.” - Commanding Officer, Kupwara Sector
Sunset behind Pakistan. That mountain silhouette in the distance is LOC
I was tightly, yet happily, seated in a shared cab with 10 other people, all headed towards the same direction. France and I shared a seat in the front, exchanging places every now and then as one of us was positioned on top of the gearbox! Talk about uncomfortable journey. However, luckily her love for photography and my love for music kept us occupied as the lush mountains of Bangus Valley went rolling by.
We were stopped once in between to check for our permits. After seeing the paper, the army let our cab through and we were now onto our second checkpoint, Sadhna Top.
As we reached here, the cab driver dutifully took the paper and showed it to the army. 1 hour passed. 2 hours passed. We are still waiting at the checkpoint without knowing the reason. It is the month of Ramzan and the 8 other people with us in the cab are getting antsy.
First army checkpoint to validate the permit
Kadha parsaad offered by soliders at Sadhna Top
“what is the holdup?” “At least let us go, we need to reach home before iftaar.” Just as we were confused as to what is causing the delay, an army officer came out and said that their CO wants to have a word with me. I was a little startled by it and hurried inside a tiny room. The CO was very clear in his command. The French girl cannot go. “But I have the permit,” I protested, but to no avail. He said that she doesn’t have the clearance and that they cannot allow her to pass.
In that moment I didn’t know what to do. Should I go further or go back? My mind was racing when he said, “don't worry madam we’ll try to do what we can.” I breathed a sigh of relief. With that he asked his officer to seat us in a waiting room until further notice.
The moment I saw the waiting room, I was overjoyed. I live and die for the uncertainties of the borders and this was one of those moments when I kind of thanked the unpredictability of the situation. We were seated in comfortable room with splendid views of the mountains outside. The markings on the glass window could map the LOC and I could see as far as Pakistan! As if the comforts of the room weren’t enough, they brought us a cup of hot tea, some dry fruits, biscuits, and left us there waiting interminably.
Another hour passed and then it occurred to us that we are accompanied by more people who are still outside in the cab, waiting for us in the cold. We decided to let the cab go and see what fate has in store for us.
It is now 8 PM and we were still as clueless about France’s situation as we were 4 hours ago. Each time the officer came, he parroted the same line, she doesn’t have the clearance. It is now dark outside and we have no clue how this evening will transpire anymore. All this time, I am going back and forth with the SDM Tangdhar on the phone. He is equally confused and troubled by our situation. We are, after all, two girls in a border town way past the safe hour!
By now, we had successfully broken the ice with the officer who was engaging us in conversations. He even fed us tasty maggi while we waited further. Finally, at 8.30 PM he said we have the clearance and we can go now. Hurray! But the question is, how?
The first class waiting room with tea and heating at Sadhna Top
Food for the soul - Maggi
He called a cab that had just reached home in Tangdhar, some 20-25kms from the Sadhna Top and had to make a return journey to pick us up. We boarded the cab with a promise to the officer that we will not go beyond Tangdhar, at least France wont. But this trip stopped being about following orders from the get-go.
“Madam are you not scared to be here in the night, travelling on these dark roads?” – Ahmed, Cab Driver
“You tell me,” I said. “Should I be scared?” Ahmed smiled and the ice was broken.
When he arrived outside the army camp, Ahmed was clearly upset because he had to come all the way back for us. He had probably not eaten still and it is already past 9 PM. But as they say, small talk goes a long way in breaking the ice. He played some local Kashmiri music that I enjoyed as I looked at the dark road ahead of me, untarred and menacing, accompanied by white snow-covered mountains lit up by the moonlight.
This is the kind of stuff you see in movies. Going into the night’s darkness, throwing caution to the wind, and just enjoying the freedom that comes with being intrepid. I was loving it and as for France, I think she was indifferent because she didn’t realize the gravity of situation we were in. She was enjoying the stillness of the night and the fact that everything is under control, even though it didn’t look like that a few hours ago.
I checked my phone, it had no signal. I relished the quietness, filled only by the sound of music. Just then the silence was pierced by the shrill ringing of my phone. The SDM was on the call, hysterical and worried.
“Where are you? It is almost 10, you do realize that you are not in a safe zone.” I told him to calm down and filled him in on my situation. I am not sure if he was relieved or deeply agitated by my nonchalance, whatever it was, his voice didn’t give it away. He asked me to reach the SDM guesthouse and meet Javed. He is waiting and has prepared dinner for us.
We reached the guesthouse, safe and sound. Javed came out running and was as nervous as the SDM sounded on the phone. He quickly helped us out of the cab and into our rooms. The room was spacious and comfortable. I could hear the Kishanganga River flowing outside. I was excited to see what this town looks like in the broad daylight. But first, we will have Kahwa!
“My guy will come, he will take you to Teethwal and show you the border.” Javed, caretaker at SDM guesthouse
Dusty mountain roads leading to Tithwal
I woke up at 9 AM to a loud pounding at my door. Javed was dutiful and he ensured that I had tea at the agreed upon time. He didn’t care that I was fast asleep and that I am probably swearing under my breath for being disturbed. I opened the door and asked him to leave the teapot in my room. He set the tray on the table and sat down to talk. I was livid. I wanted to sleep but Javed had plans for me!
Reluctantly, I allowed myself to be fully awake so as to get ready for the Teethwal Day celebration in an actual border town that actually borders Pakistan. But before that, I had to get another permit, this time from the local police.
Just as was preparing for the day, I asked France what her plan is, considering she was not allowed to go anywhere near an actual border. By this time, Javed’s guy arrived and he seemed very confident that he can sneak France in.
“Did you just say sneak a foreign national to a border town past the army? Did I hear that right? It seemed wrong but had adventure written all over it. So naturally, I agreed.”
“Securing permits from a local police station was a breeze. I walked in empty handed and came out with a stamped paper and a dinner invite in less than 10 minutes.”
We were all set to go to Teethwal and be a part of Teethwal Day celebration organized by the Indian Army and the local school children. Fayaz, Javed’s guy in action, knew his way around and, true to his word, somehow managed to get France past the checkpoints.
“That village, on your left, is Pakistan” – Fayaz
The last village on the Indian side.
Arriving in Tithwal was exciting. Unfortunately, the celebrations were over by the time we arrived but we met a few school kids who were incredibly excited to find us in their midst. They spoke good English and were especially intrigued by France. They probably never saw a white tourist that far into Kashmir.
We spent about 15-20 minutes at the Teethwal Day ground and decided to go explore the last point on this road, also India’s last point.
I could crane my neck and see Pakistan on my left, separated by Kishanganga River/Neelum River. I could hear their azaan, sometimes I could see people walking on their smooth as fuck roads. Their buses were so cute and their trucks were so different. I was amazed, intrigued, and super excited. One last checkpoint, a little begging, and we were on our way to go farther than most civilians can.
The last checkopoint before the POK border
Somewhere along the way, we stopped and decided to sit by the raging river and listen to the sounds of nature. The reverie was broken by the sounds of Azaan first in India, then in Pakistan, because 30 minutes’ time difference!
The roads on our side were bruised and battered while the ones in Pakistan were smooth like a breeze. A lone bridge that connected India to Pakistan opens twice a month when people with visa cross over to either side. It would be such a beautiful thing to watch, sadly today was not the day.
“Do you know what you just did is illegal? You could get shot” – Army officer, Tithwal Post
As adventurous as I can be sometimes, I did try to get close to the border bridge that was now chained and guarded by heavy barbed wires. I jumped a ledge to get closer to it and capture it on my camera. Fayaz was still trying to talk his way in as I transgressed into their safe haven. The officer was furious by my action and told me to never do that in a sensitive border area lest I want to get shot. Err.. point taken!
I didn’t get to see the border properly because he politely asked me to get lost but I did catch a glimpse and that was enough.
The border towns of Tangdhar and Teethwal are unique in so many ways. Their Kashmiri was a lot like Punjabi that I could understand, unlike the one I hear in Srinagar. The people were so calm and shared a good relation with the army.
If you are wondering if this border village is safe, just ask yourself this, how can a place this heavily guarded be unsafe? There is army everywhere. These men are trained to protect you. You are perhaps way safer in these places than you’ll be anywhere else in Kashmir!
Demystifying the how safe is Kashmir question
So are ready to visit another border village with me? Let me know your thoughts! Meanwhile, I am off exploring more towns and villages to bring you more stories.
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