Bagtore Cricket hits the LoC
As I take the road to Bagtore or Izmarg, another LoC point, I notice how valuable the firewood was – the dry, stray twigs collected soon after the snow melts add to the list of lifelines by Lady Gurez. The mostly elderly, eagle-eyed Gurezi women pick up every scrap of wood and pile it up in heavily fenced open-air godowns. thus, despite a “super cold” day in summer, firewood is prohibited from use until winter.
Tourists are not allowed without an express permit from the army in LoC Bagtore. My description and details have already arrived at the army station. A branching road starts from Dahi Nallah, a canal famous for its curds and cows, and takes me on a dreamy zigzag road through the picturesque village of Izmarg, where mysteries await every twist and turn; in one, a beautiful gnarled tree trunk; at another bend, a birch with golden leaves rises like a sunflower; grasses hanging from trees as winter fodder for domestic livestock; yet another round sees a seemingly punished goat beeping continuously begging to be untied. Another bend reveals mounds of seemingly uncontrolled coal mining. I saw a family digging a trench to store potatoes in the ground for winter food. Wide lush grasslands, dotted with small clusters of huts, sidecuts and influxes of the magically swinging road, reaching as far as the LoC Bagtore – the Great Cricket Plateau.
And behold, vast pastures salute; where ongoing cricket commentary is more of a light, friendly banter on the mic. Nearly five to six cricket grounds are active simultaneously in the vast expanse. Day and night soldiers have a break, a kind of picnic after heavy duties. Low, stable colorful umbrellas tied to the ground for stability under the canopy – ice buckets and hot crates of food, fruit and drink; and lounge chairs for a few army women to relax in, giving it a cricket carnival sportosphere. This vast piece of 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 along with locals and the military.
And that was indeed my most exciting moment to be invited to join one of the cricket grounds…Yahooo! You savor a memory for a lifetime of hitting the ball on the LoC!! Almost dreamy, unreal, but, it could get dreadful, where a sniper rifle to tear you apart. A single hit could start a war, possibly a nuclear war! I dismiss mortal thoughts; after all, I am not the President of the United States or even an Arvind Kejriwal to be so targeted! As I turn back from a euphoric stage in my life, it has soothed me to see the innocence of the Bagtore children throwing a cricket feast alone in the nearby Pastor. As the cattle grazed heedless of the tangible enmity nearby.
Locals tell me that you can see the refugee camps which have now become permanent settlements for people who crossed the border from Pakistan to India after the Indo-Pakistan partition. The colonies are named Refugee-I and Refugee-II. A few kilometers from the village of LoC Bagtore, the village of Taobat or Taobutt hosts the gushing Kishanganga of India who had been baptized Neelum, 9 years after the partition in 1956. The inhabitants of Taobat lead a life almost mirroring that of Gurez with collections of firewood and porter service with the army, sharing the same languages, except that it is here that the Kashmiri language also has a border, which does not go beyond, Amin and Muzaffar confirm to me, the two Gurezis.
Tulail & Kaobal Gali
East of Gurez is the exotic Tulail Valley, less than a kilometer wide. The Gurez Sector borders Astore on the Pakistani side with this northern tip nearly 9000 feet high, with Gurez to the west, the Mushkoh and Drass Valley to the east and the Kashmir Valley to the south, rising to across the line of control.
Tulail, is Gurez’s most stunning stretch. The waters of Kishanganga enter Gurez after crossing the Sonmarg alpine meadows from the center of Tulail, Badugam. Among its lilting music venues are some of the most exotic landscapes in the villages of Burnai, Badoab, Niru and Sheikhpora. Towards Drass LoC, the last villages are Burnai and Chakwali. Taking a shared tour in Tulail in a local taxi with friends, we aim to reach Chakwali from where we got permission to go all the way to Kaobal Gali (pronounced as the capital of Afghanistan). On the way, several inhabitants greet us, we joyfully return their friendly gesture; they were actually asking for an elevator. We split the taxi between the three of us and had plenty of space to fill, so we took two local men, whose toothy smiles didn’t let them pass.
Our car stopped at another checkpoint, nearly a dozen local men crowded around our vehicle and urged locals traveling with us to spare them a seat as well. As we said yes to two others, another ran after the taxi and begged us to take it, we stopped, and he came running back and brought back his goat held by another; our driver angrily chased him away in Kashmiri language. The rest of the locals laughed with joy and to tease him he kept waving at him as the car drove away, we too joined in the fun and laughed and waved at him until he be visible. He too waved his hand. It all seemed as innocent as the purity of the mountains and the endearing mountain people of Tulail. The smile and the laugh engraved on my memory chip for life.
On the way we stopped at Badoab a checkpoint before Chakwali (last point for civilians) the ever helpful army guys courteously offered us Tea and Maggi. “We have an authorization for Kaobal Gali (the most difficult to obtain). We will certainly accept your gracious offer on the way back,” I told the army commander at the station. We didn’t know the gentleman he was, he didn’t want to discourage us saying it was too late to reach Kaobal Gali and the path was cracked, rutted and washed out in places. The trip up and back in the mountains was impossible without immediate disaster, with a wind face slowly forming on the high ground and landslides all the way. However, he said goodbye to us and we unknowingly left happily towards Chakwali.
It is pertinent to mention that the road to Kaobal is very risky and a dangerous restricted area which is only used by the army. It is absolutely at the military’s discretion whether to allow or deny – no questions asked – the policy. Further on, the Kaobal Road connects to the Mushkoh Valley and Drass sectors which are right on the “Line of Control” (LoC).
It can also be recalled that Drass was the privileged place where the theater of the Indo-Pak Kargil war of 1999 took place and resulted in the death of more than 535 Indian soldiers, Pakistan having suffered a loss of more than 4000 men. I had visited Drass before and saw the nearly 2-3ft thick stone wall facing the peaks encroached by Pakistan – Tiger Hill, Tololing, Point 4590, Point 5353 and others falling on the arterial road linking Kargil to Leh. This major Drass route was to be blown out, to cut off Kargil and Leh by the Kargil War whose main architect was the former President of Pakistan, General Parvez Musharaff.
However, an alternative route Leh-Manali Highway in Himachal Pradesh connects the two areas. The Drass wall, although left battered as a historical reminder, suffered heavy shelling from the Pakistani side, next to which is the war memorial where soldiers’ headstones can shake you uncontrollably. The Bofors gun exploded here, the gun whose purchase brought down a government. The clandestine makeshift modular igloos of the Pak infiltrators, on the Indian peaks, were providentially detected by an Indian shepherd, followed by the Kargil war. The first war, broadcast live on television, was attributed to the ace of journalist Barkha Dutt, whose photograph in a newspaper from the time adorns the photo gallery of the War Memorial.
When we arrived at the Chakwali checkpoint, we were unable to obtain authorization; probably the commander had refused to risk our lives. It seemed like a long wait for clearance and deciding on the futility of proceeding further, we backed the vehicles up. In hindsight, it was a good decision as it got dark halfway through Dawar and maneuvering the rough roads was already a challenge. That it was dangerous was an understatement although the local driver had the skills of a great maneuver in the art of mountain driving.
It is strongly proposed to open the “Chakwali Kaobal Gali Tulail” section to connect Gurez to Kargil and Drass and have an alternative route to keep the snowy areas connected to the world as the Zojila was an all-weather tunnel, which is planned for the inauguration in 2024. (To be concluded)
Photos and text by the author who can be contacted at: [email protected]