When I set out to reach Tangdhar, the North-West corner of Jammu & Kashmir State, I had never heard of Teetwal.
Faizal at Kashmir Travelogue, the place from where I rented the bullet for my adventure, did not tell me about Teetwal thinking that I would probably not reach that far. But that’s the fun in not having plans – I was not bound by anything; I planned on-the-go, and decided based on local recommendations.
Teetwal was one such destination, which I explored entirely based on recommendations from the people I met at Tangdhar, Karnah.
By the time I reached Tangdhar in the evening, it was already drizzling. As I settled down at Daak Bangalow, rain had stopped and I was blessed with the golden sunset while sipping hot kahwa in the balcony of my room.
Surprised at my journey, Javed, the caretaker at Daak Bangalow, Tangdhar, came to have a little conversation with me; of course, I was thrilled.
In his excitement he told me, “Madam, aap itne duur aaye ho, isliye apko VIP room diya maine. Ye VIP room last year hi phir se bana tha jab CM Madam aayi thi aur sara furniture naya aaya tha.” (“Madam, I have given you the VIP room because you have come from so far away. This VIP room was renovated last year when CM Madam had come to visit this region and all the furniture here is new).”
After braving the challenging bike journey from Kupwara to Tangdhar that crossed Sadhna Pass, my body gave up and I decided to rest and explore Tangdhar village the next day morning. Javed made all the arrangements for my dinner; and after having a sumptuous meal, I was off to my dreamland.
Laying on my bed appreciating the intricate Kashmiri wooden work on furniture placed in one corner of the room, my last thought was, “so this is how Mehbooba Mufti must have felt in this room!”
With the soothing sound of the gushing water from the stream flowing beside the Daak Bangalow, I dozed off pretty soon.
Morning was not at all what I was expecting it to be. I suddenly woke up at wee hour by the thunderous sound of lightning; it was pouring pretty hard and my heart started pounding hearing the constant sharp loud cracks, mixed with the sound of unruly stream.
Trust me, the magnitude of thunder in an area surrounded by mountains is much more than in the plains.
I knew, there was no way this thunder was going to stop anytime soon. So, I changed my plan of exploring Tangdhar in the morning, pulled my quilt, covered my head and went to sleep again.
By the time I woke up comfortably around 9 am, weather improved and thunder changed to mild drizzle.
Since it was raining, me, along with other guests (two Kashmiri guys who definitely were not from Karnah region) at Daak Bangalow, could not go out. This also meant that we got the opportunity to interact.
After initial introduction, I came to know that they were Government officials from State Electricity Transmission Division; they had come from Srinagar to check the feasibility of projects regarding electricity generation and transmission in this region.
Having worked in the legal domain of electricity sector for past 8 years, I enjoyed talking with them on the techo-legal front of electricity sector in Jammu & Kashmir. Such an unexpected discussion at such unexpected location!
As noon approached, the weather became clearer and I took the bike to a mechanic for maintenance check-up. Slushy roads on the way to Tangdhar from Sadhna Top had made the brakes completely ineffective.
While the local mechanic was working wonders on the bike, I roamed around the village, which seemed to belong to a different era. Tangdhar is the main village in Karnah Tehsil and has the biggest market in the region.
I walked around the rain washed charming old wooden houses stacked one over another with narrow lanes. Small shops and many bakeries lined up the market and the smell of fresh Kashmiri biscuits and rotis filled up my lungs.
Being a lone woman walking around the market, I obviously drew a lot of attention. But, honestly, not in the creepy way; but more of a shock.
As I talked with the locals, one thing was clear – these people did not speak the usual Kashmiri language that I was used to hearing in Srinagar; they were Pahari and their main language was Pahari.
In fact, because of their location, food and language, sometimes people don’t even consider them as part of Kashmir valley; they are sometimes labelled as “the other”.
But, just like Kashmiris elsewhere, every person I talked to, without an exception, invited me for tea and/or lunch.
About Teetwal and its permit
Honestly, I was so ecstatic with the journey to Tangdhar, that I didn’t even consider doing anything else. But when I told people in Tangdhar that my only plan is to stay in Tangdhar and go back the next day, they were shocked.
“What is the point of coming this far and not going to see the last border village?” they asked me surprisingly.
“You will get to see the other side of the border,” they told to convince me.
The moment I heard the words “LOC” and “Border,” I got convinced 😊
Although Tangdhar is located near the border area, Teetwal is the actual last village before LOC on the North-West frontier of Kashmir. Teetwal is around 14 km from Tangdhar. Due to its proximity to the LOC, a separate permit is required to visit Teetwal.
So, as soon as my bike was ready and rain stopped, I went to the Tangdhar Police Station and sought the permission to visit Teetwal. After general interaction, more out of curiosity, the Police stamped my initial permit (the one I had secured from Kupwara to visit Tangdhar) and granted me permission to visit Teetwal.
En-route Teetwal: Check-post disaster
I kept the permit and my ID in my day pack, crossed a small helipad and soon I was out of Tangdhar, on my way to Teetwal.
Drive to Teetwal was nothing but unspoilt raw beauty. Huge mountains sat at a distance in all directions, while green farmlands were at the centre of those mountain ranges; it looked more like a huge green bowl.
Crossing the farms, tiny villages, walnut gardens and streams, I arrived at the first check post. As requested by the Army personal, I showed my permit. After having a closer look at my permit, he declared,
“You cannot go further. This permit is not acceptable.”
“But why? As advised by the locals, I took the permit from the Police Station, Tangdhar.” I argued desperately.
“Madam, you need to have the permit from the SDM, Tangdhar, and not the Police Station.”
“But nobody told me that!”
While all this was going on, one gentleman (not sure if he was Army officer) came and checked my so-called permit, asked me about my trip and saw my ID. After hearing me, he also requested the Army personal to let me go ahead.
“Look, this lady has come from so far to see this village. And it is Sunday, so the office of SDM is not open. Also, she has to return the next day. Do you want her to come this far and not see Teetwal? She has already secured the permit from Police Station.” He reasoned.
“I can’t allow that Sir.” The Army personal dismissed the request.
“Ok, let me call the boss.” After saying this, this gentleman actually called someone (I am not sure who that person was – probably someone from the SDM office or may be the SDM himself) on his mobile and let him talk to the Army personal.
And the next thing I knew, I was let go. I thanked them dearly and left hurriedly before they changed their mind.
Exploring Teetwal: POK in sight
After crossing couple of more check posts, I finally arrived at Teetwal. Reaching Teetwal was pure joy; not because of its spellbound scenic location, but because I could see Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) (locals refer to it as Azad Kashmir).
Being the last border village, Teetwal was pretty sleepy and laid-back village. Nestled between huge mountain ranges and located on the banks of Kishan Ganga River (also called Neelum River), it hardly showed any sign of modernity.
This was not the case before 1947 though. Earlier, Teetwal was the trading hub where hundreds of shops lined up selling ghee, honey and walnut kernels. Those commodities would reach Teetwal from Karnah, Leepa and Neelam valleys. Everything changed after the conflict in Kashmir started in 1947-48.
Here, instead of barbed wire, Kishan Ganga river separated India and POK.
The village on the POK side was literally just a stone throw away. The difference between the standard of living in the border villages of both the sides was stark.
With the help of the Army men, who happily lent me their binoculars to have a closer look at the other side, I saw a well-maintained highway, colourful public buses filled with people and a bustling village on the POK side.
The reason for such flourishing village on the POK side was the creation of the highway with the aid from China, to reach China crossing the POK via Gilgit area. This highway is basically the lifeline for Gilgit in POK.
It is precisely for this reason that, once a major conflict area, has transformed into a much quieter place, with hardly any untoward incidents being reported. With the crucial highway directly on the target of Indian Army, there is not much tension in this region anymore.
The Indian-POK Bridge
Although heavily guarded by Army on both the sides, Kishan Ganga River also has a bridge that connects India and POK.
Near the bridge, Indian flag stood high; whereas, on the other side of the bridge I could see two flags; I identified one flag as that of Pakistan, but wasn’t aware of the second flag. The Army personal stationed there informed me that the other flag was of POK.
From the conversations with the locals I came to know that many families were separated when the LOC was formed in the year 1948. A family living on the India side, has relatives living on the POK side. Earlier, in order to communicate, they would tie a letter/message with a stone and throw it to the other side of the river.
However, later with things heating up politically, such means of communication turned to a nuisance. And, so it was prohibited.
To give some respite to the families of both sides, an understanding was reached. The bridge over Kishan Ganga River is officially opened, almost twice a month, for family members, who are then allowed to meet their relatives from the other side for a brief period of time.
So close, yet so far!
As I tried to observe the other side as closely as possible with the help of binoculars, I could see a group of tourists standing outside their car parked beside the highway. They spotted me, just like I spotted them; curiosity, that engulfed me after seeing POK so close, was also visible on their faces as they looked at the Indian side. And all we did was – smiled and waved at each other.
Funnily enough, right after that, I moved the binocular towards the bridge and saw POK’s army officials coming out of their tiny rooms and taking out their binoculars to watch me. And, again, instantaneously, the only gesture exchanged between us was – smile and a wave.
So different, yet so similar!
So close, yet so far!
“…and it strikes her, as she walks, that borders, like hatred, are exaggerated precisely because otherwise they would cease to exist altogether. ”
― Colum McCann, Zoli
With that thought, I bid adieu to Teetwal and POK and came back to Tangdhar.