Friday, June 30, 2017

Day 15 - Bhuj to Pune - 10 June 2017

The original plan for the day was to go to Koteshwar and return via Bhuj to halt at Ahmedabad. Since Koteshwar had been done the previous day I thought of extending the drive to Thane, where my cousin lived. Before that, however, I was appointed to meet with Hetal and Rajiv Shah and some of his friends in Surat. The time for the meeting would depend on the progress I made in the morning. Despite the uncertainty I ‘ordered’ Hetal to get me fafda and khaman for a ‘brunch-lunch’.
When I was near the Ahmedabad-Vadodara Expressway I realized that two very good friends and erstwhile railway colleagues lived in Vadodara. RK Tandon is a batch mate. He works in Vadodara post his retirement. Sadly he was out of town, engaged with his grandchildren in Mumbai. JD Goswami, as is his wont, gave me elaborate instructions about where we could meet, while ensuring that I do not waste any time in detours and leaving the highway.  The meeting point was fixed just ahead of Hotel Legend on NH48. The break after almost 6 hours of continuous drive at a half past 10 was most welcome. After exchanging notes about the family and promising to meet in Jorhat for his daughter’s wedding we parted. We also struck a deal to drive together from Vadodara to Hyderabad some time in December.

The next break was in Surat. I reached King’s Corner restaurant just after 12.30 pm. The get together organized by Rajiv Shah was an unusually longish one; the intended half hour stretched to over an hour. Fafda, kaman, jalebis and delicious kesar mangoes adorned the restaurant table. The restaurant opens late evening, but Rajiv took special permission from the owner, who also joined the get together, to bring outside food and have a small meeting there. The highlight of the ‘brunch-lunch’ was an excellent chocolate cake baked by Hetal Shah. I am so grateful to Rajubhai and other friends who joined in.

When I left Surat after 1.45 pm I evaluated the option of driving past Thane to Pune. It was certainly on the cards and I informed my cousin about the change of plans. The crossover from the Western Expressway to Thane via the Fountain Junction cost me over 90 minutes, a distance of about 5 km! The traffic snarl was unbelievable. I am told that it has been so for more than a year now. Moving inch by inch I finally got free at the Fountain junction. Further frustrations awaited me on the Mumbai-Pune Expressway.  Poor lane discipline is a ‘virtual’ killer. Dangerous weaving in and out of small openings offered between trucks is an awful way to drive anywhere. The Lonavala ghats was negotiated at 10 kmph, thanks to overloaded, poorly maintained and aged trucks either breaking down or unable to haul, but occupying all three lanes in tandem. It was shameful use of excellent infrastructure.

The day finally ended in the Lemon Tree hotel in Pune, which was frightfully busy due to birthday and reception parties. The receptionist gave me a quiet room, which suited the 17 hour day I had experienced thus far and a drive of 987 km. The roads had been exceptionally good all through with three expressways along the route. The problem was the manner in which the infrastructure was used. However, the gain was that I was a full day ahead of schedule.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Day 14 - Abu Road to Koteshwar to Bhuj - 9 June 2017

‘Goodwill Knows No Boundaries’ is a tag line of Record Drive. I have had this since 2014, when I drove to London. I have experienced numerous instances of the tag line in my life, particularly on my travels. This morning it was no different. When the hotel vouchers were being prepared I went to the car park to put my luggage and make the preliminary checks before starting the day’s drive. The sight that greeted me there was of the security guard of the hotel cleaning my car. I had not asked for it to be cleaned; the guard said that he decided to clean it as the car had done a long journey! What can you say of such an experience? Interactions such as these make a journey worth its while and prove that, truly, goodwill knows no boundaries.

The road from Udhampur had been good, all the way upto Abu Road. A lot is said about the excellent condition of the roads in Gujarat. The border was just 10 km from the hotel. The border between Rajasthan and Gujarat was virtually seamless, in that there was no hold up there at all, unlike most others I had experienced on the way. The road condition did not disappoint and it was top class till Bachau, after which it was quite ordinary till Koteshwar.

A creeping worry as I was motoring towards Koteshwar was the attestation of the log sheet there. I knew that the place had no hotels and that the only recourse would be the police station. I connected with an old friend who is presently the Commissioner of Police, Vadodara, Manoj Sasidharan IPS. He was all grace and promised that the needful would be done, which was in a few minutes. I had the number of the SHO and was told that he would await my call. As I was near the Narayan Sarovar, which is one of the five holy lakes according to Hindu theology, I called up the SHO and told him that I would meet him in the station. I knew the location of the police station from my earlier visits to Koteshwar on the Coast to Coast and East West expeditions in Jan/Feb 2013.

The SHO wanted me to have snacks, lunch, tea, etc. I politely turned down the hospitality and got to the business end of the visit. The log sheet was attested. I had completed the third corner a day in advance of the schedule. After the formalities were completed the SHO piloted me to the land’s end in Koteshwar. Even though I had been there by foot in the earlier visits, this was the first time I was there with the car. It was an awesome experience. The Koteshwar Mahadev Shiva temple overlooks the Kori creek and its earliest mention is reportedly in the writings of the ancient Chinese traveler, Hiuen Tsiang.  Well beyond is the Sir Creek which is the boundary with Pakistan.

Three corners done, one more to go. I was over the moon; the third was done within 96 hours of the second. I even mulled the prospect of extending the day’s run to Ahmedabad; felt I could do it, but decided against it in the interest of some extra rest. I had a reservation in Click Hotels, just beside the Bhuj railway station. I reached there without much ado after 725 kms in 11 hours; only another 3000 plus kms to go to complete the expedition. The hotel was quite comfortable and was adequate to recharge the body batteries before getting on the road for the final corner. It was incredibly hot and windy in Bhuj. I had to do a lot of repacking for the final days of the expedition. It was quite a task doing that in that windy condition, but I managed. The restaurant gave me excellent veg pakoras and tea. After completing the documentation and before turning in for the night I had a bowl of sweet corn soup.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Day 13 - Jalandhar to Abu Road - 8 June 2017

Last evening I had asked a hotel valet to get the car washed using hotel resources. For Rs. 300 the Champion received a well-deserved cleaning. I made haste after the checkout formalities were completed. I hoped that I would be compensated for the frustrations of the previous day. I had made arrangements for stay in Ajmer in the ORH. From Jalandhar it was 780 km to Ajmer. If all went well I would be able to extend the drive, I thought. I was right. By 1 pm, after 8 hours of steady drive I was near Jaipur after having done 640 km. The Delhi bypass via Rewari also went off smoothly.

Short of Jaipur I stopped for a power nap. Whenever I feel overpowered by sleep I pull over for a 15-20 minute nap. The sleep is normally so deep that I invariably wake up to the sound of my own loud snore! It is strange what a 20 minute nap can do to re-energize you. I sped on to Ajmer and decided to go even further. I needed assistance from Rajiv Shah to decide where to halt based on availability of decent accommodation. Based on his inputs I focused on getting to Abu Road, about 350 km from Ajmer. I had no worry about the distance because the roads were exceptionally good. When the drive ended in the Chandrawati Palace Hotel in Abu Road at about 8 pm I had done 1134 kms in about 15hours. It had been contrasting drives on two days from the Himalayas to the Aravallis. The drive from Jalandhar to Abu Road cost me Rs. 1398 in toll fee, which was worth every rupee because of the good roads. However, toll plazas must be eliminated either through compulsory TAG and online toll booking to get rid of huge waste of fuel and time. Hopefully check posts will go with the introduction of GST. Together, these two irritants cause enormous wastes.

A new experience awaited me in Rajasthan. I was stopped at two locations for going over the speed limit. At the first I pleaded with the young constable that I was on a ‘mission’ and that I was driving safely, even though marginally over the speed limit. He acquiesced and I drove on. I was not so lucky at the second place. I had to pay a fine of Rs. 400 and wait for some time to complete the documentation. There are no indications of the permitted speed – when I told this to the constable he told me, Idhar, udhar rakha hai, meaning it’s kept here and there!

The Chandrawati Palace Hotel is a basic, no frills accommodation. The neat, large room and friendly staff was more than what I could expect to get for Rs. 1308! The location of the hotel was the greatest plus point. It was on the highway, without any detour and just 10 km short of the Gujarat border. The hotel, apparently, was full and the manager told me that business is good. Being so strategically located close to Gujarat border must evidently be good for business.

At the end of the day, being over 350 km ahead of the original schedule many plans started germinating in the mind. The immediate plan was to travel to the third corner in Koteshwar, Gujarat tomorrow, instead of the day after. That would help me to reschedule the left over program quite significantly. However, with every day bringing its own unique experiences, each day had to be taken on its merits. In the meanwhile, MapMyIndia has been doing a very competent job tracking and recording the expedition.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Day 12 - Srinagar to Jalandhar - 7 June 2017

Anyone and everyone who had heard the exploit of yesterday marveled at the ‘heart’ to even attempt, much less succeed, in what is arguably not a normal option in a day’s drive. I was looking forward to the drive today that would take me to ‘safer’ zones. Before that happened, however, I had to face such frustrating situations that, at times, I almost broke down and wept in the car. Let me narrate the events of the day, for you to get a hang of what actually took place through the day.
I had settled the guest house charges and arranged luggage the previous night so that I could get away without any further preliminaries. When I left the guest house the reception was not manned and I thanked my lucky stars that all was done the previous night. Very soon after I had left the guest house I had to detour in a couple of places due to road repair and a truck breakdown. I wondered then if the obstructions were part of a larger plot for the day! I could not have been more on target. I had left the city of Srinagar and soon passed a few traffic posts where freight trucks and cars were regulated after Anantnag. I moved on regardless as I was not stopped. The Lower Munda toll post is about 80 km from Srinagar and as I was nearing it I found a large number of passenger vehicles regulated. I asked a couple of them why they were waiting. I was alarmed when told that many of them had been waiting since the previous night. A posse of the District Traffic Police was seen removing vehicles forcefully to make way for vehicles from the opposite direction. Fortunately, met the District Traffic Inspector (DTI) and explained the purpose of my journey. He told me that there had been a major landslide at Ramban, where a contractor working to four-lane the road had nearly brought down half a rocky hill, disrupting traffic in both directions! He said that restoration is in progress and traffic would be permitted to move by 8 am. I used the time to explain my expeditions to a few who had gathered near the officer, seeking his indulgence. I could understand the sentiments of the people who were regulated; some even had trains and planes to catch. The job of the policemen were unenviable, though. They were seen to be arbitrarily detaining tourists; I explained to some of them that a convoy of CRPF trucks were on the way as part of road opening. The DTI also informed us that an alternate day convoy system has been in force since the past two years. This meant that, on this day, passenger vehicles would be permitted only between 11am and 3 pm from Lower Mundah to Ramban. However, since traffic had been stuck for so long, in the interests of tourism, he would made an exception. While all this was going on I was ‘waylaid’ by a few vendors from who I bought a cricket bat for Rs. 500, cherries and strawberries for a few hundred.
As promised by the District Traffic Inspector the traffic was opened up; the mad rush saw further hold up. Fortunately, I ‘broke loose’ and headed a pack. However, right up to the landslide point in Ramban traffic moved slowly. The ‘devastation’ at the landslide point explained why the traffic had been regulated. Ramban is virtually on the lap of the Pir Panjal range and the rocks that had slid down were massive. The ‘crawl’ continued all the way up to the Manser bypass, where it became almost impossible to move. Immediately as I turned on to the bypass road I knew for certain that I had made the wrong call. The entire population of trucks and cars seemed headed to Pathankot via the bypass. After frustratingly waiting in the interminably long queue I saw a slight opportunity to take a U-turn and head back to take the Udhampur-Jammu road. That saved the rest of the day for me.

The long wait in queues on the way to Ramban had made me ravenously hungry. I could devour, and not just eat, anything that would be placed before me. I was in that state. The rajma-chawal of the Khajuria Vaishno Dhaba I had tasted in Peerah way back in 2010 kept me constantly salivating as I approached the way side dhabas. As was to be expected, the dhabas in Peerah were busy. However, the service was quick and people ate and vacated their places quickly. I ordered the quintessential rajma-chawal and desi ghee served with pomegranate chutney. The delicious fare for Rs. 90 was every bit as delicious as I remembered it to be. I mentioned that to the owner of the dhaba and he was mighty pleased. The food soon digested in the shakes and bumps on the road to the Manser bypass.
The longer route via Udhampur and Jammu by the NH44 was smooth and fast. This helped to recoup some lost time, but not enough to extend the day’s drive, though. I had to end the day at Jalandhar by a quarter to 7 pm. I was lodged comfortably in the Sarovar Portico hotel, thanks to Rajiv Shah once again. Under 500 km in the day in more than 14 hours behind the wheel was tough. The comfortable hotel helped to get over the frustrations of the day. A light snack washed down by cold coffee with ice cream was all I had for dinner; resisted the temptation of the themed Punjabi Dhaba festival at the hotel restaurant.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Day 11 - Kargil to Leh to Srinagar - 6 June 2017

It was just a few minutes after 2 am that I was shaken out of my deep sleep by prayers in a nearby mosque. The loudspeakers sounded as if there were focused into my room. Any further sleep was out of the question. Before going to sleep last night I had kept the alarm for 3.30 am, but this sounded like one from the One above. I decided to get ready and leave for Leh.  When I came down to the reception just after 2.30 am the receptionist could not believe his eyes. And I could not too, as a car was parked just behind mine in the hotel portico. That had to be removed if I had to leave. Fortunately, by the time I settled the bills the security guard returned with the owner of the car. I apologized to him for waking him up at that hour. Before leaving the hotel I told the receptionist that I would be back for some more rest from Leh later in the day and that he should retain D-3 for me. He agreed, as had the young man who had allotted the room to me the previous night.
By 2.45 am I was on the road to Leh. I had only the lights of the car to guide me and it was pitch dark. Moreover, the road for 30 odd km till Mulbekh was quite bad and I had to be extremely cautious. Thereafter, it was very good till Leh. The second corner was ‘captured’ by 7.30 am; 220 km took me nearly five hours, but that is to be expected in the hills. The toughest of the four corners was thus over. 
Yesterday, on the way from Srinagar, which is at 5200 ft, I had passed Zoji La at 11865 ft and stayed in Kargil which was at 8800 ft. On the way to Leh this morning I passed the Fotu La top at 13479 ft, which is the highest point on the Srinagar-Leh road; Leh is itself at 11500 ft. Since the drive to Zoji La had been slow, though excruciatingly so at times, it helped my body to gradually acclimatize to the altitude. But this morning the ‘climb’ from 8800 ft to 13000 plus was faster and I suspected that I was a bit affected. I shrugged it off as a ‘psychological illusion’ and continued onwards to Leh. The descent of about 2000 ft from Fotu La to Leh in quick time certainly calmed the ‘tremors’.
Instead of going to the local police station for log sheet attestation I went to the premier hotel in Leh, Golden Dragon. I had stayed at this hotel in 2012, thanks to my late friend, George. I had been ceremonially flagged off from there on 11 June 2012 by the hotel’s owner, Mustafa, my friends George and Tashi, Avinav of Muthoot Finance and Mishra and his CRPF constables to start my North-South solo drive from Leh to Kanyakumari. Therefore, I thought it appropriate to drop in and renew an old friendship with Mustafa. Unfortunately, I was told that he was away in Delhi on a business trip. I dropped a couple of books at the reception for him and got the log sheets attested. Thereafter, I proceeded to the restaurant of the hotel for a hot breakfast. Mustafa is an exceptionally gifted painter. He neither sells them nor does he gift them. Many of his paintings adorn the lovely hotel reception and rooms. The subject is mostly local landscape and life. 
I was off in an hour from Leh after a few photographs at the ‘foot’ of the Leh Palace from the erstwhile Polo Ground, which had been converted into a massive parking facility. The dust and grime in Leh was certainly a turn-off; the result of some haphazard town planning works like drainage and road widening. After topping up fuel in one of the fuel stations in Leh I made haste to Kargil. I afforded myself the luxury of brief halts to admire the confluence of the Indus and the Zanskar rivers, the Fotu La top, Lamayaru monastery and the Magnetic Hill. Later, closer to Kargil, I met Nazeer and Rinshad. They had planned to leave at 6 am for Leh, but that had stretched to after 9! The winding roads added to the lack of sleep; the sleep forgone, in the excitement of getting to the second corner, was catching up and by the time I reached PC Palace at 1.15 pm I was extremely sleepy. The receptionist handed over the key to the room without a demur, even though the official check out time was well past over. I took a nap in the comfortable room for an hour and before 3 pm I readied for the ambitious drive to Srinagar.
The SIMs had been non-functional since Sonamarg yesterday. I had to ask the DIG if he would be able to accommodate me in case I drove through to Srinagar this day. Alternative plans had to be discussed with Rajiv Shah too. Therefore, from the hotel reception in Leh I got through to both of them. The DIG told me that VIPs are due to visit the camp this day and that accommodation would be scarce. However, he told me to check with him after I got to Sonamarg.

In an hour from leaving the hotel in Kargil I passed Dras; temperatures in winter drop to minus 45C here. And then the ordeal began. Humongous hold ups took place in the narrow reaches between Dras and Baltal, which included the Zoji La. The drive to Sonamarg was causing concern; I had to pass the checkpoint before 5pm. Sometimes traffic hardly moved. Good Samaritans and sensible drivers saved added blushes. Poor maintenance of such strategic road linkages is a matter of concern. And it also began to rain. Fortunately, MapMyIndia guided me without any glitch from Sonamarg, even though the lonely ride in some places was spooky. In the meanwhile, the SIMs kicked to life and I had news from the DIG that he would be able to accommodate me overnight in the guest house, where I reached well past 9 pm. Over 650 km of one of the most challenging roads in India had been done in the day and was deeply satisfying. More satisfying was the fact that the schedule was back on track. No loss, No gain! And, there was just one more day of anxiety to go in J&K – the balance two corners could be done under far less stressful conditions, I knew.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Day 10 - Srinagar to Kargil - 5 June 2017

It had rained lightly overnight. Personally for me the day started on a dull note, not knowing what ailed the Champion. I had posted the matter on Facebook. A couple of readers suggested that the problem could be malfunctioning sensors. If that were the case, I would not lose much time in Srinagar at the service station. If it was anything more serious I would lose the whole day or more. Such thoughts kept banging the limits of sensibility for some time. For a change of scenery I looked outside the opened window and caught glorious views of snow clad mountains – that lifted the spirits somewhat. I went for a short walk with light cool breeze calming me down further. The rain-kissed roses were sights to behold. I also met the DIG who was on his way back from the parade. He told me that four terrorists had been gunned down near Sumbal. He said that reactions to that would happen only after 10 am. I hoped to God that it would not be anything serious. 
The Mahindra roadside assistance pickup trailer arrived as promised and their service was truly exemplary. The two gentleman with the trailer expertly fastened the car on the trailer and I accompanied them to the Himalayan Motors service station, which was about 10 km from where I was staying. When we reached there, work had not yet started and deployment of staff was in progress. I met Rayeez Ahmed Shah, Technical Manager, who assured me that the work of my car would be taken up on priority. He also detailed an experienced technician to attend to the car. I was permitted to stay with the car on the work floor. I was shown how worn out the brake pads were. I was alarmed. This meant that it was overlooked at the previous service in Cochin. I asked Rayeez to replace them and do whatever else was required to be done for the 50,000 km service. 
It took nearly 3 hours to complete all the works and then the Champion received a thorough wash and she came out gleaming as ever. I was so relieved that the matter had been attended to. I reached the Officers’ Mess at 1 pm and decided to start out for Sonamarg in an hour. In between I had a light lunch and took required log sheet attestations and leave of my host. I was given instructions to avoid the route to Sonamarg via Sumbal and take the Ganderbal alternative, which is what I did. 
I contacted Rajiv Shah for accommodation in Sonamarg. He said that he would arrange it; but warned me that I may be out of range in Sonamarg. As I was getting closer to Sonamarg I informed Rajiv that I would try to push through to Kargil. He said that it was doable and promised to help out with the accommodation. With that assurance, when I reached Sonamarg at 4.30 pm, I asked a policeman if I would be permitted to go through to Kargil at that hour. He waved me on and said that I would reach Kargil in three hours. However, it took me three hours to get to Dras from Sonamarg (60 km), via Gumri, which is a favorite with tourists for sledging and drive through walls of snow. That was an amazing experience. Gumri was full to bursting with tourists. Even though the road was bad up to Dras the views were majestic. Zoji La Pass at 11649 feet is the highest point on that route.   

The road to Kargil from Dras, the second coldest inhabited place on the planet, was excellent. I could do the 65 km stretch in less than an hour. As I drove into Kargil town at 8.15 pm power supply had gone off, light rain was falling and my SIM cards had gone on the blink. I had to get in touch with Rajiv to know where he had made my booking. I parked the car in a busy part of the town and looked for someone to seek assistance from. I found one and requested him to dial me Rajiv’s number. The call just would not go through. After a few more futile attempts I asked him if he could recommend a decent hotel to stay that night. He pointed to PC Palace, just a couple of hundred metres ahead, and said that I would find it comfortable. Again the ‘invisible hand’ was at work.
The young man at the hotel showed me two types of rooms with ‘for you only’ prices. I chose one that was Rs. 2000 a night. Before taking the luggage up to my room I gave the young man a copy of the book on the London drive and informed him that I would leave for Leh early in the morning and get back to Kargil before checking out. He agreed to the arrangement. As I was completing documentation for the day I heard a few knocks on the door. I opened it to meet Nazeer Alibaba and Rinshad Richu, two young Mallus on a biking trip, the latter all the way from Trichur, on their Rx100. They told me that they had wanted to know from the receptionist who had come in the KL registration car and were shown my book. They had followed the London drive and wanted to meet me. 
We spent some time exchanging experiences and plans over dinner. We hoped to meet the next day somewhere on the Leh route and broke up for the day. A fascinating day it turned out to be after all the gloom and doom of the previous day. And, most importantly, the delay in Srinagar cost me just 230 km of the schedule, which, hopefully, could be covered over the rest of the expedition. Another decision had to be taken. The route of the return from Leh. I had disturbing news of trouble for tourists from local taxi operators in Manali; some vehicles had been vandalized, I came to know.  In view of this I decided to return via Srinagar, even though it is much tougher than the route via Manali.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Day 9 - Madhopur to Srinagar - 4 June 2017

By the time I loaded up the car a sleepy-eyed counter clerk completed the checkout formalities. I knew it would be a crucial day. The distance to Srinagar was only 320 km and hence, if all went well, I could try and get through to Sonamarg, I said in my mind over and over again. What was to happen in the next few hours I had no indication of; so, appropriately “Man proposes, but God disposes”.

The start from Madhopur was quite uneventful. I had no problem crossing the two border posts in Madhopur (Punjab) and Lakhanpur (J&K). A short while later there was a Jammu bypass to Udhampur from Samba, which I took, thanks to the Google Maps prompt. It certainly was shorter distance but I was not so sure, at that time, if that was a better route. There was hardly any traffic at that time of the day and I reached the Chenani-Nashri tunnel close to 7 am. The 11 km long tunnel that was recently dedicated to the Nation by the PM is reportedly Asia’s longest and truly a marvel. Over Rs. 3700 crores was spent over 7 years to build the all-weather alternative road to Srinagar. Besides shortening the distance and saving time, the new tunnel proved the capability of the country to build bigger and strategically more crucial infrastructure in the future. The toll for the tunnel, built at such huge cost, seemed a piffling at Rs. 60. The tunnel, however, bypasses popular stations like Patnitop, Batote and Kud.

The ecstasy of experiencing the new tunnel was short-lived. The work for four-laning the road up to Srinagar was going on in different reaches. And the traffic snarls up to Banihal had to be experienced to be believed. With the Manali route closed there was added pressure on servicing Ladakh through Srinagar. Besides, on the day of my travel there was unprecedented troop movement. I had heard that a CRPF convoy had been attacked in Quasigund and that two soldiers had been injured. But, while passing through Quazigund everything seemed normal. After four hours and 80 km I reached the Lower Mundah toll post in Anantnag district. The worst seemed to be over. Vendors with cricket bats, strawberries and cherries swarmed me as I got out of the car to buy the toll ticket. I succumbed to one who looked in need of some financial assistance; for that matter, most of them did.

From the toll post in Lower Mundah Srinagar was just 80 km away and I weighed options once again. Even if it took me two hours to reach Srinagar I would have enough time to reach Sonamarg that night. It was tempting to take the call then and there. However, something held me back. I was supposed to stay in the CRPF guest house in Budgam. I shared my co-ordinates with the DIG who was in charge of the centre. He said that lunch would be available if I chose to have it.

Just short of Srinagar town I stopped at a fuel station to top up so that the fuel would last me till Leh. After fueling when I started up the car a warning signal started flashing on the infotainment display indicating that the front brake pads are worn out and that the hand brakes are being engaged. Panic nearly overtook me. The car had been serviced before the expedition and only 7000 km had been done since then. How could this happen, I wondered. However, while driving further, except for the flashing warning, the car was running smooth. Nevertheless, I knew that I had to get the matter cleared up before proceeding any further. If any contingency arose beyond Srinagar I would not be able to get any help and ahead of me was the Zoji La Pass, which I certainly did not want to attempt with defective brake pads. At that moment the destination for the day was decided; it had to be Srinagar.

I reached the Recruit Training Centre in Budgam and the sentry had instructions to let me pass. I was lodged in the Gazetted Officers’ Mess. I took out all the luggage from the car since the Champion would have to be attended to in a service station. The first challenge was to find out if there was Mahindra service station anywhere close by. Fortunately, one of the attenders in the Mess assured me that there was one not very far away. Next, I called up Mahindra on-road assistance and was pleasantly surprised at the alacrity and the politeness with which they handled the matter. Within a short while my complaint was registered and a tow truck arranged. Being a Sunday, I was told that the car would be attended to only the next day. I did not have any other option but to factor in that delay. Then came the call from the towing company who wanted directions to reach the location where the car was. After ascertaining that he asked if he could come the next day morning as the service station would be closed that day. It sounded perfectly sensible as there was no point in leaving the car at the service station without it being attended to. We agreed to a time of 9 am the next day. This was confirmed to the on-road assistance team too.

If one went purely by the distance it may seem a relatively 'light' day with 316 km in 9 hours. But heavy truck traffic, troop movement, horrid roads and the brake pad glitch made the 9 hours stressful. I was, however, grateful that the warning flashed in Srinagar and not somewhere after that. I took it as a positive sign that the ‘invisible hand’ was upon me, guiding and protecting me. When I met the DIG later in the evening I shared the ‘bad news’ with him and requested that I be permitted to extend my stay by a day. He got the extension done immediately. Conversation with that excellent human and administrator gave me insights into the day today life in the Valley and the influences that shaped them. Mindlessness was stoking fires in a paradise. 

17 May 2018 - Day 6 - Ho Chi Minh City to Chennai

What does it take for me to fall in love with a country? Is it the natural beauty of the country? Is it the beauty of its buildings? I...