Sunday, April 10, 2016

20 August 2015 – Chandigarh to Jammu – Day 8

The last day of driving to reach the starting block had arrived. It was a wet day. However, I started, as scheduled, at 6 am. I would not have minded a couple of cups of hot tea before starting the drive. But the ORH boys could be found nowhere. The 650 km to Jammu consisted of decent roads, but the drive was pockmarked by rain in many places.

Just as I was nearing the town of Mukerian I started noticing an unusually large gathering of Sikhs who were headed to some definite location. Initially I thought that they were going for some religious function or a wedding. Then I noticed that vehicles were getting parked haphazardly on both sides of the road and people were emerging from them with menacing looking lathis and banners. But the air was cheerful. People were slapping wrists, thumping chests, exchanging huge smiles and shouting greetings in the manner in which only the Sikhs can. They are so effusive and loud that circumstances, situations and external environments do not matter! I had slowed down considerably to accommodate parking of vehicles that were in front and avoiding people converging on to the highway. At one point there was no other vehicle in front and I was slowly inching forward as a sea of humanity filled the road. Just as I passed a particular point blue tarpaulins were spread on the highway and people started squatting on them, both men and women. I realised then that I had just escaped a road block. I later found out that the situation had become so grave that the highway remained blocked for over seven hours! I had made it across by the proverbial skin of my teeth. Had I been blocked by the agitation my plans would have been blown apart, not only for that day but for even the next, as I wanted to have proper rest before starting the arduous Trans Himalayan Expedition that had never been attempted solo.

Just as I was still counting my blessings of having escaped the Mukerian road block I spied a humongous traffic hold up just short of Kathua. The situation was so severe that many truck drivers told me that that they had been there for over two hours! The holdup seemed to have been caused by some accident ahead. I took the service lane and moved ahead some distance till I could no further. I parked the car and walked about talking to some more truck drivers to find if there is a way out of the morass. In a short while thereafter a driver came up to me and asked me to go back a couple of km and take a detour via a village road. He said that the small road would possibly accommodate my car! A Guardian Angel in disguise? I did as I was asked and took the village road that had become busy because of the highway block. Nevertheless, I made some progress and followed a few other vehicles to get back on to the Jammu highway after a detour of nearly 10 km. Nerve racking was the experience of driving on the canal bund road, but the clot had been breached. Just as I got on back to the highway I let out a huge sigh of relief and thanked the Almighty for the Guardian Angel, without who I would have been stuck in the traffic block for many hours.

Just as the breath had come back straight on I was stopped by a motley crowd of youngsters, who I mistook initially for extortionists. They started stopping all traffic on both sides of the highway. Another agitation, another delay, all affecting the highway to Jammu. I wondered why all these agitations had to happen on the same day! After sitting in the car for a while I got down to try and reason with the agitators to let me go through. I finally managed to get through to the ‘leaders’ of the agitation. They told me that they were protesting against the RTO who was never available for taking road tests of people coming from remote village spending valuable time and money. Visual media was well represented naturally and that further strengthened the decibel levels and some amount of rough handling of road users were also witnessed. I identified myself as a former government servant and offered to mediate with the RTO. They welcomed the suggestion but informed that the RTO was not available in his office for discussion! I spend some more time with them hearing out the ‘atrocities’ of the RTO and explained to them the mission I was on. I took a few of them to the car and explained the route of the expedition to convince them of my need to be permitted through without any further delay. Eventually after about 30 minutes of being at the agitation spot I was permitted to move through the cordon of agitating youngsters. Another lucky escape.

I wondered what else awaited me before reaching Jammu. At the J&K border I was stopped by the police wanting to know why I am travelling alone! They explained that the route I was on was not safe even for a group, let alone for a solo driver. I did not know whether they were testing my resolve to go on or trying to scare me away! After I had convinced them about the purpose of my travel to the state I sped away as fast as I could to reach the Jammu ORH by about 2 pm. The journey had been eventful, to state the obvious, considering the day’s events. The ORH room in Jammu was large but damp. Most frustrating was that I could not connect to the internet due to poor connectivity. The rest house attendants were not very helpful either.

I took out most of the luggage to rearrange them for the expedition that would begin the next day. Warm clothes, food and water and medical kits were placed strategically. Once the repacking and rearrangement was done I went to the office of the Station Manager to get the requisite certification to signify the start of the expedition. He obliged my request over a cup of hot tea. Through a light drizzle I came back to the room and spend time on pending documentation. I also spent a few hours pouring over information of the route that I had with me. So this was to be it. The starting block was here. The car was cleaned and spruced up for the tough expedition ahead. I was ready to attempt what had never been done before, a solo Trans Himalayan Expedition. I was on schedule and did not feel tired either, having done 3627 km across 9 states in 8 days.

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