Ladakh – Part Three

… After Part 1 and Part 2

31st May 2015 – Day 2

Entered the Paradise, finally

Came out of the hotel. Last night I parked my bike inside their reception room at the ground floor. It’s a temporary room made of glass sheets – everything visible from outside. So I was bit anxious. But my bike was OK, quite ready to start the second day’s journey. But, … am I ready? The whole body is paining like hell, and it’s paining till my fingertips. It was quite expected, covering 600 kilometers at a single stretch, without any physical preparation, the body should take its toll. I have never done any physical exercise, never lifted any heavy material except the shopping bags. I had applied Volini spray last night, so the pain is still within limits, but it’s not fully gone. Now there’s no scope of taking rest ahead before the fifth day – as per my plan I have to run continuously for first four days till I reach Leh. Today is the second day. Today’s destination is Srinagar. Not as long route as yesterday, it’s just three hundred kilometers, so I can start a bit late today. But the difference is, previous day the entire route was on plains, today I’ll start covering hilly roads. So my pulsar will not run as fast as the previous day. It will take longer time.

The sky is cloudy. Fruit sellers on the opposite side of the road are waiting for their morning customers – bargaining with them. It’s totally a different weather today, not as dry and hot as yesterday. The worst is, probably, over. I asked at the reception, is it raining everyday here, or has it started raining just today? The receptionist young man replied, it’s the first rainfall of this season. Till yesterday it was too hot here. But nothing to worry, rain will subside in no moments.

Rain stopped by 8:00 am. I came down with my luggage, put the rain gear on, and strapped the saddle bag first. It was the same exercise with the second bag and the nylon ropes, and it was the same experience of seeing it getting loose at one end after I finished tying up the other end. I have probably by now gone beyond my frustration limit.

I started at around 8:45 am. Blue sky is being visible from the back of the clouds. This blue sky cannot be seen from Delhi. Filled up my tank at a filling station, and in some time I hit the expressway outside the Jammu city. Small brownish hillocks at both side of the expressway, super smooth tarmac laying ahead in a zig-zag fashion, and blue silhouettes far away giving hints to me that the real Himalaya was not far away.

This is a toll road, but two wheelers are exempted. After running for an hour, I stopped at a small restaurants for breakfast. The luggage was till then OK. Probably I have tied it properly today. As I was eating bread-omelet – I was watching some tourists, and some local drivers were gathering around my bike, inquisitive. A bike with luggage, a Delhi numberplate – these are enough reasons to raise interest among locals. So, before they started their questionnaire, I started the bike and I went ahead.

Passed two small well-lit tunnels en route. Then came the toll plaza, I passed it through left lane.

A big signboard says “Katra-Udhampur-Patnitop-Srinagar” with a straight arrow mark. I was bit skeptical, Katra is the entry point of Vaishnodevi. Does it fall in the route to Srinagar? I went to Vaishnodevi via Katra back in 2001. Anyway, after sometime, the road quality degraded, it became narrow, ordinary road and then it was all broken road. And no signage anywhere to see. The moment road became bumpy, my luggage started troubling me again, so I had to make two stops to tie them again. I did not have any sense in my hands by then, the pain was so severe. I was just using hands mechanically.

Stopped at a checking point, J&K police with carbines stopped me at the side – where are you from? Where are you going? … I answered. Next question, What’s there inside your luggage? I answered calmly. Next question, Are you alone? I lied this time – no, I have my friend, he has fallen back, we’ll meet somewhere ahead. I was not sure – if the police knows I was alone, they may try to harass me. After all, India.

The cop then asked me finally, Are you carrying any bottle containing alcohol?

Well, well, come to the point, man! I smiled, no, I don’t drink.

The cop seemed visibly down, should I search your bag? I smartly answered, yes, you can, but this rope takes half an hour to untie, and another half an hour to tie. If you open it, you have to tie it again. Now your call, do you want to see my luggage?

The cop was intelligent, waved me to move forward.

Suddenly I stopped at a junction. There are four lanes going in four directions, all filled up with Vaishnodevi related hoardings, posters – which road to take?

There was a traffic cop, I asked him about the correct route. I learnt from him that I actually have missed the right way back in the good expressway. There was a diversion for Udhampur, I should have taken that, instead I missed that diversion, continued straight, and now I have landed in Katra. I can still go back to the desired road, I have to go back for five kilometers, then take left turn, that lane would take me to the Udhampur connector.

The ambiance was horrible, as it happens in any typical Hindu religious spots – broken roads filled up with unruly vehicles, horses, mules and their shits. I retreated for five kilometers, got the desired cut in left. The shopkeepers confirmed that this road takes me to Udhampur Highway. I would need to ride for fifteen kilometers, then I’d reach the Udhampur highway.

I parked the bike at the corner of the lane. Need to drink water. The luggage has also slipped to the right side – if I request the shopkeeper, probably he would help me tying the luggage. I requested the gentleman, and he happily agreed to help me.

In the meantime, a truck has arrived from back, it wants to enter the lane but cannot enter because of my parked bike. I have to remove it from that position and then put it on the main stand so that luggage can be tied up properly. So I pulled the bike backward and then it happened suddenly.

I did not realize that the center of gravity of the bike had been shifted rightward because of the tilted luggage, I tried to remove the side stand and the bike toppled on the right side; in a second the right view finder broke away, my helmet was put on that – it also toppled and finally stopped behind the front wheel of the truck.

The bike weighed ninety eight kilogram, I knew that, but along with the luggage it had gained thirty kg more – I could not hold back that total mass of 128 kg. I myself am of 60 kg, how can I hold it back?

It happened so fast, that I could not do anything. I was feeling like, I would cry out loudly. My favorite bike, my Pulsar 200 NS, on the second day I broke its view finder! The shopkeeper and another person helped to get the bike straight on its wheels, they put the main stand, I collected the helmet from under the truck. We both now tied the luggage, it was better than my single effort, of course. The shopkeeper suggested to purchase some nylon rope from any hardware shop ahead and re-tie it. Best would be, if I get jute rope. Because nylon rope has a general tendency of getting slipped.

But Katra is a holy religious place, it was highly unlikely that I would get a hardware shop there. Anyway, I thanked the gentleman and moved ahead, this time without my right view finder. It’s extremely dangerous – if someone tries to overtake me from the right side, I cannot see. So, I need to be extremely cautious.

Slowly I crossed that fifteen kilometers stretch, and finally I was back again in the Udhampur highway. Now I could easily find the signage marking Patnitop and Srinagar. Stopped the bike, re-tied the luggage and moved forward.

After traveling a lengthy stretch, the expressway ended and ordinary road started. It was not as smooth as the expressway, but not too bad. Then came a place called “Garhi” where I found a hardware shop selling nylon ropes. A young chap was there, I explained him the problem and asked him to help me with whatever type of rope he has, and whatever rope he feels would be good for tying up my luggage.

The guy was expert. He untied my rope and found a slimmer nylon rope from his inventory, added it with mine, and finally he alone tied the luggage on my bike’s backseat in such a manner, leave the bumpy road, even if the bike falls down the hill, the bike may break, but the ropes will not loosen.

He took just `20 for the entire job, including price of the rope.

It was then 12:00 noon, the heat was increasing. I came out of my rain gear, and packed it inside my backpack, and finally started. … And, indeed, the luggage did not create any problem for the rest of my journey that day, roads were equally good and bad in the entire stretch.

At 2:30 pm I reached Patnitop. It’s the highest point between Jammu and Srinagar. The heat reduced and I started feeling cold, but my pullovers etc. were inside my luggage, and I did not want to untie the luggage before I reach Srinagar today. So, put on the raingear again and rode on.

It’s again descend after Patnitop. At around 3:30 pm I found a small restaurant where I did my lunch. I was feeling extremely tired by then. Opened WhatsApp, updated about my status, called up home and finished my lunch. There were more tourist groups having lunch there, met with a Bengali family, encountered the expressions which are already cliché to me now, like, “You have come on Bike!” “You have come so far from your home on bike!!” “Oh my God, you are traveling alone!!!” etc.

I started at 4:15 pm, Srinagar is still one hundred fifty kilometers away, and ninety kilometers away is the Jawahar Tunnel. Beyond the tunnel the Srinagar Valley starts.

The journey is now being bit boring, monotonous. Sometimes good road, sometimes bad road, so adjusting speed accordingly.

Two kilometers before the Jawahar Tunnel there is a check-post. An aged gentleman stopped me, just for checking purpose, asked the common questions, where am I from, where would I go, who are all with me. Somehow he sensed my tiredness seeing me. He offered me tea. I politely refused and asked for water. I was extremely thirsty. He came back with a water jug. Asked me to take rest for 10 minutes before I start. I listened to him.

Parked the bike and sat at the side of his cabin. He kept on asking me questions on my bike, what is the model, what is the make, what are the specialties of this bike, why there’s no exhaust, why there’s no view finder mirror on the right side – and finally, getting all answers from me he congratulated me for my effort. I thanked him and stood up. Time to go. The gentleman bid me good luck.

There was a long queue before the tunnel. Armymen with LMGs on their hands were standing at certain distance. They waved at me, bikers should go to the front of the queue. I reached at the beginning of the tunnel. The moment I tried to click a photo, the tunnel opened, then the traffic started moving and all the bikers waiting there went inside the tunnel. I quickly closed my camera and started the bike. First, the bikes, followed by the four wheelers. Overtaking is prohibited inside Jawahar Tunnel – in fact there’s no space to overtake either.

The entire tunnel is 2531 meters long. Apart from a stinky smell throughout, it was a unique journey. In few minutes I came out of the tunnel, and the relief changed in front of me. The Srinagar valley exposed itself with its beauty. I stopped at the Titanic View Point.

The place is named “Banihal”. It’s drizzling outside the tunnel, cool breeze is blowing. Gone is the summer heat, it’s slightly cold. The signage was saying Srinagar was still eighty kilometers away, after Anantnag, Avantipora and Pampore. So far I have crossed two third of my today’s journey.

Reached Anantnag. Srinagar is still 68 kilometers away. It happens in such long journeys. The nearer you come to your destination, it seems the smaller distance is not covering up. Even last ten kilometers seem to be an endless journey.

The hilly road ends at Anantnag. Now I have entered the Kashmir valley, it’s plain and straight road. Greenery at both side, small villages and small populations here and there. Most of the trees are long and conical in shape. It’s 6:00 pm in the afternoon. Because it is June, I would have two more hours of daylight, enough to reach Srinagar.

Then I reached Avantipora, it was unique to see endless shops of cricket bats at the left side of the road. Hundreds of bad, of different tones, different sizes, in different shops. Some were donning Virat Kohli’s big poster size photo, some were donning MS Dhoni, some of some Pakistani players (I don’t watch cricket, so I didn’t know the names)

The moment the row of shops ended, the sky became dark, and soon it started raining.

Today’s experience is entirely different from yesterday. No heat at all, rather I was feeling cold. Though I had raingear put on, but still I was feeling cold. The road was good but there was no immediate shelter on the roadside, so I kept on moving.

The city is approaching, traffic was increasing accordingly. Srinagar was twenty five kilometers away, I spotted a big tree at the side of the road.

Waited there for some time, hoping the rain would subside. Switched on my mobile to search a decent hotel, but none of them matched my budget actually. All the hotels listed in MakeMyTrip were either at Dal Lake or at Boulevard Road, most costly areas of Srinagar.

In the meantime a villager came forward and started typical questions – where am I from, where was I going, who are all with me, etcetera. I was in no mood to repeat the answers, but I was cautious – this is Kashmir. Here the number of civilian population is almost equal to Army population. I should not make any gesture that creates doubt in their mind. So I kept on answering his questions, and the moment I realized rain had subsided, I jumped on my bike and started.

On the way I decided in my mind, I would find a budget hotel at Lal Chowk. I have seen Dal Lake, so there’s nothing to miss if I don’t stay at that area, I just needed a room to sleep at night.

I reached at Lal Chowk at around 8:30 pm. All the shops were closed by then. Got a hotel, got a room at `700. But there’s no provision to park the bike at Lal Chowk – Army would not allow. (Lal Chowk is the most disturbed area of Srinagar, most of the grenade attack, terrorist attack, stoning by local Kashmiris take place at Lal Chowk – Srinagar’s Business center)

The guy at the reception told me that there’s an authorized parking lot nearby, just 500 meters away, I could park my bike there for 10 Rupees a night.

Good suggestion. A boy escorted me to the parking lot. I checked the trip meter – I have covered 306 kilometers today. Came back to hotel by walking, had dinner with Chicken Korma and Tandoori Roti.

So far I have travelled slightly more than 900 kilometers, in two days. Previous day I finished my journey half-parched, hit by extreme heat-wave of North India, today I ended in semi-frozen condition.

After dinner, slept immediately. No truck chased me in my dream tonight. Tomorrow, I’d cross the first ice-wall, Jozila Pass.


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