Monday 27 August 2012

Kudremukha to Kainakary via Kashmir

This road trip was through some of the toughest terrains and roads which are not existing in the maps/GPS in Kashmir. If you want to drive your own vehicle, check out the details from HVK and Lalu KS at Team BHP.

Planning for a trip sounds a cliché; we are ready to roll on at any given motivation. That is what happened on Jul 20th when HV Kumar was chatting about his 'unplanned' Kashmir trip on a Friday evening. Cancelling our train tickets to Alleppey and booking the tickets to Delhi to catch up with him on Sunday afternoon was impulsive. After a few hours , we were on Sugama Travels night bus from Kalasa to Bangalore for the Sunday morning flight. Though flights don't come in our backpacking trips, it was inevitable to reach Delhi on time to board HV's Scorpio.  

To reach Bangalore Airport by late night for an early morning flight, there are Vayu Vajra (Volvo) services up to 1 a.m. from Jayanagar 4th block. Ditching the Indian Railways, we headed to BIAL and boarded Indigo flight at 6 a.m and reached balmy Delhi airport at 9 a.m. Riding the convenient and progressive metro train to Saket, we thoroughly enjoyed hospitality of my maternal uncle Saji's family. After lunch, our meeting point was New Delhi Railway Station at 3pm with Lalu and HVK- never met both of them in person but well known through social media. HVK had been a great help during my solo Northeast trip in 2010. The team set in with ease and good spirit in no time; after all strangers are friends who never met. 

We set out from Delhi City at 4pm and after spending an hour at Sonipet fixing the oil dipstick of Scorpio, we were cruising on the highways through the northern states which I had studied in Social Science classes via Panipat-Karnal-Kurukshetra-Ambala-Ludhiana-Jalandhar-Pathankot and then heading to Jammu on NH 1A. Punjabi Dhabas are ubiquitous on Indian Highways; but relishing a meal at a dhaba in Punjab is a different experience. There are many McDonalds and fancy air conditioned dhabas  on these highways catering to the taste buds of cosmopolitan Delhites. We enjoyed our roti/chana/daal/lassi along vest-dhoti clad drivers at an authentic dhaba sitting cross -legged on a cot coiled with coir . Though we were stopped by PB and JK police displaying their flash lights on our face at the check posts, after spelling our names without a pause, they let us go.

Apart from being the center stage of Indo-Pak political issues, communal  issues surface between nationalist Muslims from Kashmir valley and Hindus in Jammu. Checking the political situation at Jammu for bandhs and curfews is mandatory.

Jammu is 14hours from Delhi by Shalimar Express and by 2017 there will be a railway track to Srinagar crossing the world's highest rail-bridge. . We reached Jammu at wee hours of the day and met with the fifth member of our team- Rohit and his Tata Safari. We used the room he was staying at Hotel Jammu Residency (dbl Rs 600-3500) run by JKTDC (, Tel: 0191-2549065, Mob: 9419212451). After a shower, leaving humid and hot Jammu at the earliest was beneficial not to get lost in the floods of 'Yatri' (pilgrims) to Amarnath. After  afew hours of winding roads  we are at Patnitop JKTDC complex for breakfast. Hotel Maple (dbl Rs 1000, JKTDC) is a an ideal stay at Patnitop.

Our next destination was the Sanasar,  a tranquil valley 20km from Patnitop edged deep within the mountains where life slots to a slower pace. The green  meadows and mud houses of this quaint valley had been promoted to our top-shelf destination. There are plenty of buses from Jammu to Patnitop, but you may hire a taxi to Sanasar. Ashiana Guest House and JKTDC's Hotel Alpine (dbl Rs 800, hut Rs 1500) are accommodations at Sanasar; where spending two days is recommended. Horse rides are offered by the local boys around the valley which looks like a golf course with a pond at the center. After spending a few hours at Sanasar, reached Kishtwar via Batote-Doda cruising through the good roads overlooking the murky Chenab river amidst the mountains with scanty vegetations and active mining sites. We stayed at JKTDC hotel but it is not recommended, Hotel Kishtwar (dbl Rs 700-1500 Paddar Road, Zalna Tel 9797319797) is the best option; though the restaurant doesn't offer anything local. Rajma/rice/roti is the staple diet in this region if you head to a local restaurant. There are buses to bustling town of Kishtwar from Jammu but going further is possible only by local shared taxis.

Sach Pass
Going through the roads which are built and opened this year, the next day's drive can be described as the most challenging but scenic. We were safe in HVK's experienced hands through water crossings, slushy roads, water falls and steep climbs. Left at daybreak from Kishtwar taking Paddar road via  Sanskari-Karthai etc to Pangi Valley in Himachal. A newly built Buddhist Goemba was a pleasant surprise in this region. Our lunch stop was at young and dynamic Ravikanth's homely restaurant -pursuing his graduation at Jammu-let us pluck a few apples from the orchards. Crossing a few villages, apricot and apple trees lined roads, we trudged to J&K - HP border check post to Khillar in Himachal.  By this time, we had stocked two or three stones inside the vehicle and was ready to engage them on short notice to prevent the Scorpio from sliding back; learned from the situation Rohit faced while tackling a steep climb. Bhootground- named so because of the fatal avalanches  -was just gray. First time experience for Megha and I- thos huge glaciers- famous with Global Climate Change. At 4390m, Sach Pass welcomed us with  glacier walls on both sides of the road but no snow on the road. Appreciating hot tea at a small tea shop and entering our credentials at the check post, we spent some time at one of the highest passes in India. After crossing Satrundi check post, chasing a cow for almost for 15min, we reached the bucolic village Bairavgarh in Chamba valley. For the night's halt we could find basic and clean Mannat Home Stay (V.P.O Bairagarh, Tehsil Churah, Chamba, H.P, Tel: 94590 63244, 88954 33940, 985777 93722; dbl Rs 700 meals Rs 100). Rakesh Thakur arranges guided treks around these serene locations. Having shower in ice cold water at such locations is an electrifying experience- a way of acclimatization. None of us were hit by AMS as our hydration was frequent, piss stops as well.

Dead End at ITBP check post
The next morning was amazing to see the rain drenched village, thanks to the downpour in the night. Prosperous Tissa  Valley was lit brightly by the crepuscular rays. Roads were wide and the surface tarred; after breakfast our destination was Badarwah - a big town in Pir Panjal Range. After wandering through the winding roads amidst green meadows sighting herds of sheep and nomadic shepherds of Churah Valley, we reached Langera- where the public buses stop service. Another 10km further, we found a closed barricade of ITBP (Indo-Tibetan Boder Police) and learned that we have hit a dead end from where trekking with prior permission is  the only way to reach Badarwah. ITBP folks treated us with hot chai and we spent some time with them chit-chatting about the poor condition of the road work. 

We got back to the main roads at Sundala- we drove along the Ravi River, clearing the confusion over the roads. Crossing a dams site in Himachal, we were back in J&K in a while. At a tricky hairpin bend, a poor mountain goat was run over by our vehicle and got stuck under. The shepherd panicked but did not cost money or a verbal abuse. I was impressed with the ribs of the goat withstanding more than 2 tons of Scorpio with luggage and passengers. If this happens in God's own country, devil's own people will cause deep hole in our pocket followed by a hartal next day. Crossing  a small but busy town Bani and the corn fields, we climbed the mountains to Sarthal- a hamlet where just a few tea shops and a temple situated. Surprisingly a large guest house was available for accommodation, but no water in the toilets; but the location was worth tolerating the filthy toilets. Tea shop owner was helpful and prepared dinner for us with a dash of stories with locals about conflicts and life in mountains. Next day morning, we were near the tiny stream with crystal clear water watching unflustered life of shepherds staying in mud houses at this paradise on earth where time stands still. Watching the Kashmiri sheep and touch and feel of their skin was a charming experience.  If you are lucky to find the caretaker of the guest house, you can stay here. Nalhati Guest House( Vinod Kumar Mob: 9858623638, dbl Rs500) on the way to Badarwah is another option which offers cozy rooms and food.  

Back to Kishtwar
Going through Chattargilla Pass through the poplar edged roads, we headed to Badarwah. Incessant drizzling did not provide any great views but the roads were not so bad with occasional landslides and under construction zones. Badarwah is a lively city with transport connectivity and banks. Brunch and data backup, then we headed to a nearby tourist location by the name Jai. Igloo look-alike studio apartments at these green pastures were something new -contact Anjil Kotwal (09419824219, 09858286176 Rs 1500) for a stay at Jai -where Snow Festival is hosted annually. Returning to Badarwah, we drove to Kishtwar via Doda.We stayed at Hotel Kishtwar overlooking the well lit-up modern prison, but dinner at the restaurant did not go well with my intestines.

At 6 a.m we started to Srinagar- summer capital of JK via Sinthan Pass-Daksum-Kokernag-Anantnag-Pampore. Relished the national food of India - Maggi Noodles -our breakfast at Sintan Pass (3785m), check post was noticebaly absent. Much awaited flat tire happened to Scorpio and we got the spare wheel fixed in no time. After a while the terrain changes to more alluvial plains and the houses get bigger.  Rohit bid adieu on the way and it was only Scorpio going through Chinnar trees lined roads, Jhelum River close by.  HVK reminded us about the reduction in security check points. The unfinished cricket bats hung on the road side made of willow tree was interesting. Cruising through the heavy traffic we drove along the iconic Dal Lake and Mughal Gardens and the panoramic view from Shankaracharya Temple is remarkable with details from HVK. Had a luxurious Wazwan cuisine lunch at Hotel Adhoos ( living up to the heritage since 1920, friendly middle aged staff helped us to choose authentic dishes - Nandroo Yakhni, Hak Saag, Mirchi Mutton, Tandoor Roti. Wallet factor was Rs 1000 for four and we realized that we were missing Rohit while pulling an extra chair for him. I never saw Lalu so happy in the entire trip, relishing the mutton curry. Running after mechanics and shop owners, we got a spare wheel in next two hours. After rushing through a few gardens and driving around the entire Dal Lake, spent the night at Hotel Malik opposite to Dal Lake (dbl Rs 1400, Tel: 0194-2473672, 990619762). 

Mughal Road (Srinagar-Jammu)
The recently opened Mughal Road from Srinagar to Jammu was the last exciting chapter of our trip crossing Peer-Ki-Gali (3490m), an excellent route which drives through a dense forest with a population of red assed monkeys. Many girls going to school showed the importance given to girls' education in this region. Some parts of the road were so close to Pakistan that we got Pak FM in our car radio. We reached the sweaty Jammu and got fixed the headlight switch assembly with the help of HVK's friend Ajay Wali who insisted on treating us with a lunch. 

By night, we were struggling through the Punjab traffic and railway crossings to get to Amritsar for a glimpse of the Golden Temple. HVK's sense of humor made this drive even more enthralling. The volunteers at this largest Sikh temple was a humbling experience and sitting at the lake and gawping the reflections of temple till 11p.m was really relaxing.  A long all night drive to Delhi was exasperating for all of us, left us dizzy at the morning when we reached HPTDC hotel at Sonipet.

Konkan (Monsoon) Railways
Taking shared autos to border and then to Jahangir Puri, we were back to Saket for a day's rest and a nap. Keeping up the legacy of tatkal ticket, we booked one to Ernakulam and boarded Mangala Lakshadweep next morning escaping narrowly from one of the world's largest power crisis. Our train had changed to a diesel engine in Maharashtra when the power outage worsened. After 3D/2N chugging through the numerous tunnels and bridges of Konkan Railways, rain soaked Western Ghats was in alluring hues of green and I was romancing with Indian Railways. We reached home on Aug 1st, just in time to watch the preparations for Nehru Trophy boat race at Kainakary.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” - Mark Twain