I am now almost at Atholi. Atholi is one of my favourite villages which I have been wanting to return to for some time. I am hungry, hot and thirsty as I approach Atholi on the Kishtwar road. The men I meet seem sullen too and perhaps that is the effect of Ramadan. Children pass me on there way home from school shy but curious. Who is this old man traipsing along the road. Most of them have head scarves but not birkars.
The main road skirts Atholi and that is one of the things that attracted me to the village. A bypass road skirts the lower corn fields and runs under the eaves of the adjoining mountainside. Some small bridges cross mountain streams until the road climbs up to the village on a crest overlooking the main road and the river along which it runs close to.
I walk through the village and come to the town centre which like last time seems slightly abandoned and unkept. I walk towards the eastern end of the town near where I stayed in the forest guest house some years ago and find the same shop opened that I ate at before. The people here are very friendly and there is a mixture of eaters and non-eaters. Not necessarily I expect along religious lines but just along the individuals will which is the way it should be.
Refreshed both in food and company I then set off for Gulab Garth where the trail is supposed to start. Gulab Garth isn’t too far away and can be seen across the river much lower down than Atholi. It isn’t nearly as attractive as Atholi but is a very busy dusty trucking town supplying many of the villages in the surrounding valleys. There are also more road connections the main one being the extension to Killar and thence to Laddakh or Manali.
To get to Gulab Garth last time you took a lovely footpath down the ridge to the bridge in the cusp of the valley and thence swung to the left to a large flat and rocky plain where Gulab Garth was settled. Unfortunately not much was left off the old path down to the highway as the excavator was demolishing it in front of my eyes as I descended. Preserving charm is not a highlight in India’s progress. One of the reasons Gulab Garth is growing too is that it has a large buddhist population and probably Hindu. So it is a melting pot of religions.
As I walked into Gulab Garth my immediate need was to get some advice on how to get to this trail and just where did it start and for that matter how far how the road been built. There are lots of activity in Gulab Garth not only because it is a trucking rendevue and bus terminus b. I stopped at one of the first shops for a drink and check out the possibility of leaving my bag there whilst I looked around. But it soon turned out that I had found all I would need from a young police constable Sanjeev Singe who was going home for the weekend to be with his wife and family.
He offered to take me with him. In return I bought some chicken which we drove down to the other end of town to pick up. But I baulked at buying whisky as I felt this might not be the right thing to do. But maybe that cautiousness has infiltrated my thinking after being with Muslim families for so long. We set off in his small low hung car eventually dodging potholes along the way. the road didn’t seem to go very far before we reached the end and where blasting was going on. We found a spot to leave the car and were soon joined up with four young guys who were returning from a pilgrimage. They all had the surnames Kumar but they didn’t look to be related. Apparently they had been camping at another Pilgrimage site somewhere towards Killar and were in very good spirits for what had obviously been a successful adventure for them.