Sunday, April 10, 2016

TRANS HIMALAYAN EXPEDITION BEGINS - 21 August 2015 – Jammu to Srinagar - Day 1

It would be under 300 km to Srinagar and hence, the start could be delayed, I thought. But the previous evening I was advised by a Facebook friend that it would be better to start early because these stretches are all prone to what he called ‘flash flares’. Moreover, he had covered the route from Jammu to Manali, under very trying circumstances, by motorcycle in June 2015. His group had even got caught in landslides on the Leh-Manali sector.

Therefore, going by the suggestion given by Aby the Champion (KL 29C 2131) and I left the Jammu ORH before daylight. The only problem was that the headlight of the car was too faint for the dark night. I had powered up the Google Maps GPS and started navigating through the railway premises. Within five minutes I was stranded where a huge pipeline
work was in progress and obviously I could not pass that. I was left wondering what to do when I caught sight of a Sardarji giving instructions to a workman at the site. I inched up to him and sought his guidance to get to the Srinagar highway. He promptly wound up his instruction session and asked me to follow his vehicle, which I gratefully did. After nearly 15 minutes of fast driving the Sardarji swerved his car to one side and got out of it. He came to mine and asked me to take the road to the right and gave detailed instructions of the road I should take at the next fork in about 5 km. I could not have thanked him enough. But he kept on dismissing my expressions of gratitude and asked me to follow his instructions to be on the safe road to Srinagar. The solo Trans Himalayan Expedition had truly gotten underway from Jammu with guidance from the first Guardian Angel.

The first 60 km on NH1A was a beautiful four lane highway. Thereafter, the roads were not un-motorable but were indifferent all the way up to Srinagar. It could be better to be designated as NH1A. There were no road blocks and the weather was clear all the way up to Srinagar. The 291 km was covered in slightly less than 7 hours of leisurely driving. As I was nearing Srinagar I got in touch with the contact I had been provided in the CRPF Camp. From the highway I was piloted by a CRPF vehicle with armed gunmen.
Sudhir Pratap Singh, IPS and my erstwhile railway colleague, had made arrangements in Srinagar, Kargil and Leh. I was scheduled to stay the night in the CRPF Camp in Srinagar, which had a small mountain as its backdrop. I was shown into a large suite room in the Mess,
where my luggage was taken in and I became comfortable immediately. The Mess orderlies also took order for lunch, which they produced in double quick time. I had not been that hungry but the hot meal made me salivate. The tasty vegetarian meal vanished without a trace, the left over being a few chillies and onion rounds! I had to work the newly acquired calories away. With this intent I strolled out to where the car was parked and started giving it a wash. Soon an orderlie appeared and said that the CRPF workshop has a mechanised vehicle wash arrangement. He promised to get that organised. With that vanished my resolve to work away the calories! In a few hours the washed car, looking bright and spruced up, arrived at the car park. No sooner had I stopped admiring the workover than the skies opened up and buckets of rain started pouring. It lasted for a while and ruined the car wash. But from the vantage perch of the Camp I admired the heavy downpour. I was glad that the heavens showed their mercy by opening the sluice gates only after the day’s journey had been done.

Later in the evening a couple of senior officers in the Camp, one of them being Jagdish Bissi, came over for a short chat. The insights they gave about the society in J&K were indeed very interesting. While for the most part the people could be talked to and reasoned the influence of the Muezzin was an inalienable part of their daily lives. It was not uncommon,
they said, for the people to be convinced by the law enforcers about their standpoint only for the passions to be ‘reignited’ by the ‘preaching’ during prayer time. It is a difficult situation for any law enforcing agency to work under such circumstances. Often times it becomes quite frustrating too. I also understood that most cities in the state had bands of ‘professional stone pelters’. The job of such bands of youngsters was to foment physical trouble by throwing stones that would be strategically collected along sides of the road. As they were young the stones could be thrown over long distances and they often escaped the arms of the law. They were even given refuge in houses of strangers when chased by the police or the para military forces.

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