Mid-August I was getting ready to accompany students on a study tour to Cuttak, Odisha. It is one of the few states of the country that I have never visited. Naturally, there was some excitement. A week or so before we were scheduled to leave TH casually asked if we shouldn’t go to Ladakh instead. You don’t just wake up one morning and decide you want to get behind the wheel and take a road trip to Ladakh. Or, maybe you just do! It had been on TH’s mind a long time. Even so, this seemed sudden. But being the good spouse that I obviously am, I didn’t bat an eyelid, and replied equally nonchalantly, “Yeah, sure.”
The following week the car underwent a thorough service at the garage and the mechanics there assured us that the Maruti SX4 was game for whatever the Himalayas might throw at her. There was a long list of supplies, food and other items, that had to be procured. Driving in the Himalayas is not be taken lightly, and you are advised to stock survival rations for at least a couple of days. The weather is unpredictable and takes a heavy toll on the roads. It is not unusual to find yourself stranded for the night or longer. Some of the places on our itinerary were remote and isolated, and we were traveling at a time when the tourist traffic would be past its peak. We stocked up on non-perishable food items that included some junk-food but also nuts and cheese. Our survival bags included sunscreen, tow-rope, flashlights, and oxygen canisters. Winter woolies were dug out and we were good to go.
Day 1, August 30, 2014
Delhi-Jammu (620km, 14 hours)
Loading everything into the car took longer than we had planned for. We were supposed to meet up with the rest of the group at 6:00am at India Gate for introductions and a group photo. A morning drizzle dismissed the group-photo opportunity. We left home at 6:30 and met up with Abhey and Bhavna, the couple behind TerraQuest Expeditions, near the Azadpur flyover. The other cars were a little ahead, which was to become the norm for the trip.
At Murthal, we joined the rest of the group for breakfast at AmrikSukhdev that had transformed itself from just a year ago and was no longer a dhaba by any stretch of the word! Murthal dhabas are an institution though the stuffed paranthas they offer are no longer exceptional. Over aloo-paranthas and fresh-churned butter we noted that the rest of the group seemed to be in their mid to late twenties and wondered what had kept us from taking this trip a few decades sooner like much of the rest of the world seemed to be doing. Onwards and Upwards, with positive thoughts…
Enroute, at Chandigarh, we were joined by the ninth member (at the time, tenth), Anand, who had flown in from Mumbai. His shock of grey hair was much consolation though he turned out to be much younger than at first glance. We picked him up and were on our way to Ropar.
The roads were lined with Babool, a native tree that is becoming rare around Delhi, in full bloom. I took a few pictures but from inside the moving car so as not to hamper our convoy movement. The lunch halt was Prakriti, an Eco-farm near Ropar (read more about it on The Shooting Star). Better known as the Captain’s Farm, it is a venture of the Kaushals to improve a landscape of highly erodible soils dissected by ravines. It is an uphill task to cultivate this land and grow anything. The detour to the farm is through a dirt track which starts to feel like a rally track with pot-holes, wet patches, and piled-sand obstacles. One may be forgiven for believing that his was a deliberate attempt to ease us into (test us for?) a road trip that was going to be challenging.
I am told Prakriti Ecofarm has a mention in Lonely Planet but my impression was of a place not quite ready, not because the landscape is a work in progress but because the owners seemed a little overwhelmed. They were very hospitable but the place needs to be managed better with smoother functioning. Right now it seems a bit rough around the edges.
The lunch of rajma-chawal, a mixed vegetable dish, roti, salad, and raita was nothing to write home about (unless you happen to be an alien in India and tasting vegetarian food for the first time in your life). Someone needs to watch over the cook – the garlic in the rajma had been fried a tad too much and you could taste the bitterness. It is not much of a retreat during the hot months, in any case.
The TerraQuest team stood out in sharp contrast. Bhavna, Abhey, and Bharat are informal yet very professional. Nothing betrayed that this was their first official expedition! Bhavna went about filling and filing information, collecting dues, making us sign indemnity declarations, and distributing the goody bags that included stickers and trash bags. We spent the afternoon sticker-ing the vehicles, walking around the farm (not recommended in that heat!), eating lunch, and generally getting to know the rest. Ravi and Co., not ones to miss an opportunity, took a dip in the water tank that had been refilled when the power came back on briefly.
With a farewell drink of cooling buttermilk we were off again at around 3 o’clock. All stickered-up, the cars were now a convoy.
Let me introduce the group and their cars:
The Pathfinders: Abhey and Bhavna (Mahindra Scorpio)
Tridev: Ravi, Abhishek, and Vishal (Maruti Ertiga)
The Pajero: Vikas, Prateek (till day 2), and Anand (day 3 onwards) (Mitsubishi Pajero)
The Mad Hatters (aka The Profs): Vijay and Anita (Maruti SX4)
The Dust Collector: Bharat, with Karan (refurbished Maruti Gypsy)
With only a short break for tea (Bhavna had brought along some homemade cake!), we drove through Pathankot to reach Jammu late at night, at 9:00pm. After a quick forgettable dinner (manchurian balls, highly-avoidable soup, mixed vegetable stir fry, chicken curry, roti, and gulabjamun) at the hotel and we were all off to bed.
Day 2, August 31, 2014
Jammu-Sonamarg (370km, 10 hours)
We started off from Jammu not as early as we should have. It was past 7am by the time we were all gathered in the forecourt of the hotel after breakfast. The day started with the first of the daily morning briefings. Abhey informed us about the route to take and covered routine safety precautions. Taking view of the increased military activity on the border with Pakistan we decided to forgo the scenic Mughal Road route in favour of the Jammu-Srinagar Highway (NH44) that passes through the historic Banihal Tunnel (Jawahar Tunnel). This 2.5km long tunnel was commissioned in 1956 to provide an all-season route through the treacherous Banihal Pass.
The Highway looked more like a true highway, not at all the narrow road of childhood summer journeys to my hometown. I was taking this journey after 25 long years. That is how long ago the Kashmiri Pandits were driven out of their homeland. It is a paradise lost to them forever. We seem to be welcome as tourists though.
It was as well that we had chosen to drive through Srinagar on to Sonmarg, our night halt for Day 2. I was not ready yet to walk the streets of Bur-bur Shah and see my grandfather’s house, and those of his neighbours, occupied by strangers, or to cross the bridge across the canal to my nani’s house and look at the charred remains of the house I was born in.
The spot where you catch the first view of the Valley is now an official viewpoint called Titanic Point, for some reason. We stopped here to take in the views. From this point onwards the drive up to Sonamarg is on almost flat ground though the views around place you in the Lesser Himalayas, with the Pir Panjal Range on the South-West and the Zanskar Himalayas on the North-East. There are many spots worth visiting on the way – Verinag, the spring that forms the source of the river Vitasta or Jhelum, The Martand Sun Temple dating back to 8C AD. We drove past the Avantiswami Temple ruins at Avantipora… habitation now choking it from all around.
On we drove, through the saffron-fields of Pampore, through the city of Srinagar. Dusk was falling as I tried to read the addresses on the storefronts and get a sense of where we were. Rainawari – my aunt used to live here – where we had countless extended visits with the cousins; NIT – Srinagar, the erstwhile REC, where so many of my cousins studied… The lit Hari Parbat fort looked imposing as it glowed in the evening sky. We made our way through the streets of Srinagar but the fading light didn’t allow any photography for remembrance-sake. It was as if I hadn’t visited.
The rest of the scenic route was shrouded in darkness. We arrived at Sonamarg, the Meadow of Gold, to an evening chill of 13 degrees C and a light drzzle.
The kong-chai (kahva with saffron) was just the welcome drink all of us needed. Just then Prateek got a call from home about his grandma being ill. He made plans to fly back from Srinagar the next morning.
After freshening up in our rooms we gathered in the dining room for a dinner of (no prizes for guessing) highly-avoidable soup (Chinese-type), the mandatory mixed-vegetable subzi, chicken curry, tandoori roti, and gulabjamun! This was certainly not going to be the foodie trip I had hoped for. I tried to showoff a little by using my limited Kashmiri to complain about the lack of local cuisine options and to ask if I could at least be given a bowl of zamu-daud with the rice. No, ma’m, no dahi at dinner.
We went to our rooms, slipped between the covers, and promptly fell asleep only to be woken up in the middle of the night by the sound of rain dripping down the eaves onto a sheet of metal right by our bedroom window. We tried our best to sleep through the racket.
To be Contd.