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.