Friday, December 31, 2010

DAY 90 – Jammu to Srinagar

Having hit the sack only an hour after midnight I targeted a 7 am start. The excitement was too much to sleep over. I was ready to leave by 6, but hit the Highway by a half past. The city roads are very good, but the problem was inadequate road directions to get to the NH44. Once I got to it the NH was a beauty right up to Srinagar, with minor exceptions at landslide locations. The 300 km stretch can be done in about 6 hours of driving time. The excellent views of the valleys, the mountains and the many attractions along the route call for as many stops as you can afford. Winter may not be the time for a visit to Srinagar as the mountains are bare as are the trees, which are ready for the next phase of winter, namely, snow. The mercury has dipped below freezing point beyond Banihal and the strong breeze adds to the biting chill.
I stopped for breakfast of boiled eggs and tea at a small wayside eatery after the Banihal market. After adding to the flow of the stream behind the eatery I made small talk with the owner of the shop when the tea was being made. He was in the traditional winter dress of Fairan, nestling a Kangri on his lap to keep himself warm. The charcoal for the Kangri comes from either the Kikker or the Walnut trees. The charcoal from these trees is ‘sturdy’ and keeps the embers for the whole day. He told me that it would start snowing in the next few days, after which all the shops and businesses in the area would be shut. The snow accumulates to about 10 feet during the peak. The snow in the months of January and February is absolutely crucial for sustenance of farming and cultivation during the rest of the year, as it melts slowly with the onset of summer and provides the requirement over a longer period of time. The snow that falls in March melts fast and is not ‘useful’.
The zigzag road beyond the Baglighar Dam zooms through the Jawahar Tunnel. The west tube, which one goes through to Srinagar, is 2541 meters. A drive through the ill-lit tunnel is eerie and at once enjoyable. There are many possible avalanche locations before and after the tunnel. When heavy snow falls the tunnel remains closed and traffic comes to a complete standstill. The Titanic Viewpoint provides the first view of the Kashmir Valley. The haze that hung around precluded good views. However, standing there I felt proud to call out: “From Kashmir to Kanyakumari India is one”.
When I had come to J&K in 2007, primarily to tour Ladakh, the Sumo I had travelled in had stopped at Quasigund for tea. I ‘discovered’ the Dry Fruits and Kashmir Willow village then. Today a large number of vehicles were parked in front of the row of shops. I sauntered around and entered a shop with a large display of dry fruits and no customers, but with an eager shopkeeper. The local walnut, dry grape, rajma and masala, apricots, dates, badam and saffron found their respective places in my shopping cart. My attention then turned to cricket bats. Those made of Kashmir Willow are much in demand all over the world.  To prove how good they are the ‘expert’ in the shop hammered two bats against each other and there was not a dent or mark on either. He then placed a bat perpendicular on another and stood on it to demonstrate the sturdiness of the handle and the splice of the bats. He brought out another bat with superb balance. He claimed that the bat has a flexible handle and made me stand on it. The onslaught by 110 kgs was effortlessly handled by the flexible handle. I did not want any other proof of it being worth the money spent.
I was keen to see the saffron fields of Pampore, which is about 15 kms short of Srinagar, and is the saffron capital of the country. The quality of saffron from Pampore is supposed to be world class. The plucking season is October and therefore, one can only see the bare fields on either side of the road with the onset of winter. The Chinar trees lining the road to Srinagar are devoid of even a single leaf and these ‘gaunt and severe gentlemen’ await snow to bejewel their branches.
I have completed 90 days on the road and logged 16,000+ kms on date. With J&K I have visited 23 States and their capitals. Left over are 5 States and their capitals and 6 HQs of Zonal Railways, to be done in the next 30 days. The Srinagar weather will keep indoors the less stout of heart. It is cold and freezing. The grey haze adds to the dour environment. I stayed indoors after a late heavy lunch. My neighbors, at the place where I am put up on the road leading to the Raj Bhavan, are Dr Farooq Abdulla and Omar Abdulla. I told the Sudesh Kumar, the cook, to ‘delight’ me with some of the local cuisine favorites.
While awaiting the meal ‘Celebrations’ went down a parched throat. Sudesh barged into the cozy sitting room with the news that the Season’s first snowfall can be enjoyed from the ground floor verandah. It was absolutely delightful. While digitizing the event I nostalgically recalled the magical ‘White Xmas’ I enjoyed in 1995 with my aunt. Lily (my Godmother), my cousin, Josey and their relatives in Newcastle, England. The tie I was presented by my aunt is still a treasured and cherished possession. While enjoying the snowfall I was also concerned about my getaway from Srinagar. I decided to ‘Celebrate’ more and think out the solutions to issues on a clearer mind tomorrow morning. The ‘Hak Saag’ and Dal with roti wound up the proceedings for the day.

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