This April, my friends and I went on our annual get-together to Lolab.
LOLAB is named after Maharaja Lolo. It falls under the jurisdiction of Sogam in Kupwara district of North Kashmir. The place is stunning, with amazingly thick, verdant forests and sprawling pastures. The river Lalkul goes singing through adding to its bounties. Lolab is known for its gushing streams and canals which merge into this river.
Dense deodar forests beautifully cover every inch of the tall mountains everywhere. I don’t remember having seen such thick forests anywhere else in the Kashmir Valley. We saw walnut trees too in much abundance.
Lolab has several towns however accommodation is not available everywhere. In fact, you would not find any private hotels or even any B&Bs on that side. We had booked JKTDC’s guest house at Chandigam, in advance, as was suggested by the tourism office. We were in Gulmarg, so had to drive down from there, which took us around 4 hours to do so. The journey itself was so beautiful that the hours never seemed to weigh us down. We crossed Sopore, Handwara, Kupwara, and Sogam to finally zero in onthis village of Chandigam. (It should take almost the same time from Srinagar too).
The housekeeper, Abdul Hamid, had been in touch with us for several weeks and was eagerly waiting to receive us. The Guest House was set in a very idyllic location against a backdrop of tall deodar forests and surrounded by walnut orchards on the other three sides. Hamid welcomed us with a smile that lit his eyes and quickly showed us into our rooms, where we freshened up and headed straight to the dining hall for lunch. He had cooked home-like meals, and being famished, we polished off the rice, chicken, potato & beans, and haakh (collard greens)in no time.
It was a crisp spring afternoon and we wanted to head out. We decided to drive over to a quaint little village called Kalaroos. We had heard a lot about these mysterious caves. The village gets its name from Qile Roos, which means the fort of Russia! An old myth prevalent here says that there are caves in Kalaroos that have secret tunnels which lead to Russia! These caves are located between the villages of Lastial and Madhmadu.
We thought a guide would be helpful to help us solve this mystery! Hamid connected us to a local from the village called Mohd Gulzar, who met us near his house in his village in Kalaroos. Gulzar was a pro and knew the terrain like the back of his hand. He gave us a detailed background of the two places we were to hike to that day. He was ready with his answer and a hearty laugh when we excitedly enquired about the Russia theory!
We walked out of the hamlet through a slushy but green trail that went up into the mountains. A short hike of about 30 min took us to a place called Satbaran — the Seven Doors! It was a huge monolith at a plateaued clearing on the mountain. There were seven niches chiselled into this huge rock with one different-looking additional niche on either side of these. We sat down and listened to Gulzar explain the most logical explanation for these niches, as there was no documentation or any ASI plaque that gave relevant information on this shrine-like structure. In absence of any written documents, village folk often rely on oral history that has been passed down from the older generations. This gentleman, however, had spent a lot of time with government officials too visiting the site, which had further added to his expertise.
He said, in all probability, these niches held stone sculptures or idols of Devis and Devtas. He particularly pointed out the niche in the middle, which was larger than the rest and he believed that it would have belonged to Parvati. He pointed out several carvings in the rock that supported his theory — like uniformly cut grooves on either side of each niche which would have served as Diyas or oil lamps. There were tiny holes carved out along the margins of each niche which he said would have been used for holding curtains over each shrine. A few years back, even he himself had retrieved an idol from the mountains which he had then handed over to the authorities.
We could see the full expanse of the Lolab Valley from the top of this monolith. Gulzar pointed out the LOC not very far from there, right behind a few mountains.
The second part of the journey was to the caves. It was a further climb of another 20 minutes. This mountain that we were climbing has a local name — Tramkhan (Kashmiri for copper mines). The place, including the caves, has been explored by geologists and it has been established that it is rich in several minerals, especially copper. As for the mystery behind the caves, it didn’t seem to need a Nancy Drew! Many archaeologists and geologists from within and outside the country have ventured into them. They found that the caves run several miles deep but most are blocked at some point. Though nothing really has been established yet, there’s little chance that they lead to Russia!
We went into a few caves, barring the ones with claustrophobia! Some caves were narrow and with steep undulations. At times, we had to double down and crawl. Some led us into a big caverns and in some we had to crawl up & down sharp, rocky surfaces. A pair of good hiking shoes and a good torch are must. The caves seemed endless but we didn’t risk beyond a point as the innermost parts were infested with bats which came screeching out now and then. The best part is the myriad colours of different metallic ores that you see on the walls of the caves.
We felt quite accomplished at the end of the adventure. Climbing down the mountains was much easier for most of us, but we were thirsty and exhausted by now. Gulzar’s family was waiting for us in the village where our cab was waiting too. They insisted that we have tea at their home. He had a beautiful family and they went out of their way to make us comfortable. We washed up and sat down to eat some home made bread with noon chai (salt tea).
Lolab is a big valley with many more exotic locations to explore within and in the surrounding areas in Handwara and Kupwara. The next day was already planned. In my subsequent blogs, I shall take you through that.
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