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.