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.