In an expedition of this nature, where it’s a time versus distance measure, dynamic rescheduling would be the order of the day. In the instant case, uncertainty of the route via Manali and the political vicissitudes of J&K were major concerns. The news emanating from Srinagar was a cautious, wait and watch kind while that from Manali was maybe today or tomorrow. It was crunch time today and a decision had to be made, one way or the other. I had to go to Leh to cover the second corner – would it be braving the closed roads of Manali or turbulence in a state torn asunder by mindlessness. I had contacts in both Manali and Srinagar who were supplying me information about the conditions there. Sometime late last evening it looked as if Srinagar would be the better option. One has to get a permit from the local authorities to travel from Manali to Leh, as per instruction issued by the Green Tribunal. And they had not yet started issuing passes till date. I would be in Manali on Sunday night, tomorrow, if all went as per original schedule. In case the pass is not issued today I would waste a day in Manali and that would be a dampener on the program. In contrast, the contact in Srinagar, who would also be my host there, mentioned that things were all quiet and I could try out the Srinagar route, at least in one direction. However, he cautioned that things could turn turtle in a few minutes! Weighing all options and assessing the risk factors in both routes I decided to plumb for Srinagar. That being the case, I should try and go beyond Noida towards Pathankot today, I mentally noted.
The first five and half hours of the day, starting from 4.30 am, completely changed the dynamics in my favor. In about fifteen minutes of leaving the hotel in Lucknow I entered the newly commissioned Expressway linking Lucknow and Agra. The 305 km Expressway is not yet fully complete, even though it was inaugurated with much fanfare before the UP Assembly elections. It was a joy to drive on it even though I had to be extremely cautious about vehicles in the same direction, people and animals trespassing on it and unwarned diversions. Possibly because the Expressway is incomplete I didn’t have to pay any toll. If Rs.415 for the 180 km Yamuna Expressway is considered I could very well imagine how much this new Expressway will cost the user in the near future. However, if infrastructure is built and maintained as it should be, I am sure, no one will grudge the facility because it saves a lot of time and fuel. A reluctant toll payer at the Yamuna toll plaza was described by the toll clerk as "Bharat ke first class bhikari" (India's first class beggar)! The two Expressways took me from Lucknow to Noida in just over five hours, a distance of 525 km!
Ashok Kumar could not believe his eyes when I parked in his apartment complex just before 10 am. And to think that I was originally scheduled to halt the night in Noida! I was well ahead of the schedule and I knew that the road right up to Pathankot would be good, even though it would not be of the Expressway standard. Ashok, as usual, was the perfect host. The kitchen helps, so well trained by his most efficient wife, Suman, only waited for instructions. The customary glass of water was followed by a host of snacks and tea. I wondered what all will come in from the kitchen in the next hour; Suman and Ashok are well known for their hospitality and friendliness. Ashok took time to understand my itinerary and make arrangements for booking ORHs in Jalandhar, Ludhiana, Patnitop, Jammu and Srinagar so that any exigency during that day and the next few could be covered. I really cannot thank such friends enough; I only consider them brothers from another mother. The many dishes that adorned the table cannot be described completely as that would fill up this blog! I ‘demanded’ for a couple of stuffed parathas be packed for a snack on the way to the next destination. The break helped us to exchange notes about our families. What amazed me was that Ashok, this young man of 62, had competed and completed the half marathon in New Delhi last February. Truly an inspiration for all of us, as he took to running just a couple of years back, following rehabilitation after an illness. Soon it was time to go, after a 90 minute break, which totally refreshed me.
After leaving Noida, despite the clear instructions from Ashok, I trusted the navigation system and lost my way. After a couple of U-turns I realized that there was a system problem with the navigator. I recalled the directions given by Ashok and got on to the route to Delhi. The valuable lesson was, never put your life’s journey completely in any one hand! The travel through Delhi and to the Haryana border was nerve wracking with the number of trucks and cars. Once the border mayhem was got over Karnal, Kurukshetra, Sirhind and Ludhiana went by quickly. The initial plan was to halt at Jalandhar. However, by the time I was neared Jalandhar there was enough daylight and energy to go further. Rajiv Shah suggested Pathankot and I knew I could make it there before the skies darkened. He sourced hotel accommodation a bit beyond Pathankot, at the border of Punjab with J&K, a bustling place called Madhopur. This border town seemed extremely busy and the Coral River Resort, on the banks of River Ravi, turned out to be a decent and busy property. A couple of parties were on and the rooms were all occupied, I was told.
After sprucing up the car, cleaning the windshield and dumping the garbage I rested in the room with some anxieties and lot more excitement in my mind. It would be Srinagar tomorrow and Leh the day after, if all went according to plan. This day of the FCoI expedition I had covered 1039 kms in slightly over 15 hours with a 90 minute break in Noida; the most thus far in a day and most satisfying.