As the day of departure neared, I chickened out and quickly got the Fortuner serviced and cleaned. It was lying idle after the Spiti drive during the early part of the year.
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We always wanted to do a Kashmir drive and thought this Apr-May would be a good time to realize the dream. We hoped to get a good drive and get some car snaps clicked against snow clad peaks. But there were difficulties. First and foremost were the roads especially in J&K. The infamous stretch from Jammu to Srinagar gave us sleepless nights. I used to check the J&K traffic police updates on twitter daily for the road status as landslides, tunnel work, accidents or an all too often occurring jam were common. Getting into the valley was only half the battle. The roads to other beautiful parts of the valley were also a challenge and required carefulhances of manouvering at many places. To make matters worse, the forecast was for rain during our Kashmir leg and that compounded issues due to chances of unexpected landslides and road closures. It was a risk taking a lowered car to these unfamiliar roads but the captivating beauty of the valley and the grossglockner like road shots were a big draw.
As the day of departure neared, I chickened out and quickly got the Fortuner serviced and cleaned. It was lying idle after the Spiti drive during the early part of the year. The moment I was seated in the fortuner, everything was sorted and I knew I could make the trip without hassles. But the thought of a lovely bimmer on a mountain road with snow clad peaks in the background made me switch loyalties again. I unloaded luggage from the Fortuner the night before the journey and started loading up the car. It immediately dawned on me that one is called a seven seater SUV for a reason. We had to be very choosy with our luggage if we were taking the car. Anyway, I wasnt even sure if the car would clear the speed humps in the society and make it to the road outside the apartment with all that luggage.
Now that we had decided on doing the trip in the car, there wasnt much to do apart from a Fastag balance check, a tank up and all necessary documents. The car had just come from a quick service at dcheckautomotive, Kochi. The iDrive hard disk had failed and so I could not stream any music in the car as the phone could not be paired. Did not have the time to clone a new disk either. This meant a long drive in silence for the full distance. I was reminded of the Thar drive to Sikkim in 2014 where the lovely bare interiors of the Thar (no music) made me sing to myself and I arrived in Sikkim with a throat that was on the verge of shutting down. Finally, took the plunge and drove from Bangalore and made my way to Jammu. Chose the Nagpur-Gwalior-Delhi route. Jammu was quite warm and I stayed at the Hari Niwas palace hotel that shared space with the Amar Mahal museum(great place). Had a small belly rub in the car parking zone at the hotel and winced at the thought of what was going to happen later in the trip on really bad sections that I didnt even know about properly. I worried about this so much and ended up calling up few transport operators to get a quote for trucking the car from Jammu to Srinagar. It took a while for them to understand why something on four wheels that hadnt broken down couldn’t be driven on the road. I had to tell them that my ground clearance was in millimeters and my problems were rather special and self created. They sympathized and quoted large sums of money that made me take a steely resolve to drive it over everything and get into the valley.
Early morning at 5.30am, I grabbed a packed breakfast, started the car and headed for Srinagar. Flew past Nagrota, Udhampur and reached Ramban. I would be lying if I said I wasnt anxious. The roads were in absolute shambles and there were large transport trailers and even army trucks that had broken down on the axle twisters. To top it all, a landslide too had decided to join the party. Stopped, stared, measured, gulped water, apologised and made the arduous climb. Somehow, after a heroic effort, I crossed Banihal and was staring at the valley. I cant articulate the relief I felt at that time. There were some who clicked pictures of my struggles while I was negotiating the moonscape earlier who waved to me later. Anyway, to cut a long story short, I crossed Qazikund tunnel and parked up by the side, grabbed my packed breakfast and stared as the dirty car that had taken me this far. That is when I was convinced the fellow would go the distance come what may. Gave the dirty car a pat and zoomed into the beautiful morning never feeling the need for music!
The plan was to head to Daksum and enjoy some quiet time doing the Sinthan pass. By now the heat of the plains was a distant memory and I was freezing from head to toe. The woollens had to come out and copious amount of hot tea had to be washed down for survival.
Sinthan Top drive.
Hike inside the forests at Daksum.
Two days later, drove to Srinagar via Anantnag and the number of security personnel on the road took me by surprise. There were so many of them lining the streets. Anantnag was chaotic with very unruly traffic. This was a common observation that I had all acorss J&K. The driving is extremely aggressive and one has to be very careful motoring here. On top of this, the roads are narrow with plenty of blind turns. So caution is advised. Checked into my place of stay at srinagar and the heavens opened up. It rained like monsoon times but i was prepared. Took a poncho and an umbrella and walked around the Dal lake in the rain. It was an exhilarating experience to see the Shikaras and the Dal once again, bringing back old memories. Tried out Stream and Lhasa for food and found them both very good. Thought of retiring early as I had to pick my wife from the airport the next day. Before I forget mentioning this, the whole of srinagar is undergoing a revamp for the G20 summit and that meant lots and lots of road and pavement laying and beautification. Travel times were inflated and the roads were congested on account of this. The general public was understandably irritated at this but in the long run it will surely be beneficial.
The lovely cottage.
Parking at Khajana Cottage.
Srinagar airport is a place that can teach one patience. Queues are long and the frisking is tedious. One has no option but to endure the process. The only wise thng I did was to empty the car at the place of stay so that I did not have anything more than an engine under the bonnet and a spare wheel in the trunk. This saved me a ton of time, else I would have had to open and close each box before making my way into the parking. Flight was on time and now the lonely drives were over after many days. We took it easy in the coming coming days. Visited Ahdoos for food, shopped in the markets, walked a lot, visited Badam wari, Dhoodpatri and few other places and by then Srinagar started feeling like home. I was loving the Kashmiri cuisine. The Trami was terrific even though the noon chai took some time getting used to.
Dhoodpatri was a place that blew our mind with its ravishing beauty. Simply stunning views welcomes the tourist and there was no dearth of opportunities for photographs. In addiiton, Badam wari was beautiful for long walks. Saw MH, KA, BR, DL, UP, MP, LA, CH, HR, HP, RJ, GJ, WB registration plates in taxi and private form in addition to the JK ones at Srinagar.
We got up really early at 4.30 one of the days and hopped onto a Shikara to visit the floating vegetable market on Dal Lake. This is where fruits, vegetables and flowers are bought and sold on Shikaras. It is a sight to behold the vendors fix prices rowing their shikaras. Two decades ago, hundreds and hundreds of shikaras would be part of the market but now it is a much smaller number as other ways of trading have become easier. Yet another highlight is Mushtaq bhai’s Kashmiri Kehwa that he prepares and sells from a Shikara at the floating vegetable market. He is a celebrity and has developed this unique style of doing business.
Floating vegetable market on Dal lake.
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