From Srinagar to Jammu

waterside shop, Srinagar

There was a guy I kept bumping into on the Boulevard who managed a houseboat – toward the end of my stay I was trying to arrange my road trip from Srinagar to Jammu to connect with my train reservation back to Delhi.  I managed to get mixed up with this guy, and a “brother” of my friend the shikara boatman, who was promoting the car trip I needed, showed me a fancy, locked SUV in a parking lot and said this is your seat, just pay me a deposit, I’ll pick you up Sunday morning.  Meanwhile from the sidelines my guy was giving me the wink to say, don’t do it.  I couldn’t extricate myself without giving up a couple hundred rupees deposit and we all parted.  Twenty minutes later I’m walking along and there’s my man, sitting there in my path grinning, like my guardian angel.  I sat down, we agreed the other fellow would never show up, and it would be so late I’d miss my train.  So we proceeded to make our OWN arrangement, to meet at 6:30 instead of 8:30 Sunday morning, and I ended up, over tea in the kitchen behind his weatherbeaten houseboat, giving HIM a deposit – I walked back to my hotel thinking, what have I learned, really?  But Sunday morning there he was coming along the path behind me.  Out on the street he hailed a shared-taxi-style SUV that came along, he spoke to the driver, but it was to my man that I gave the balance of my fare.  Added to the usual mix of spectacular views from the cliff-edge roadway, the local short-haul passengers we picked up along the way who had had time to eat breakfast and promptly puked it up on the floor, the lengthy jams where the waves of northbound and southbound traffic meet at midday, the busy roadside eatery with grubby atmosphere and surprisingly good food, was my wondering when the driver, a big aggressive type, would say, I don’t know who your friend was, you owe me Rs. 1000 for the fare.  In the end, we got to Jammu in plenty of time, everyone unloaded, I gave the surprised and cheered driver a well-earned Rs. 100 tip, and I was on my way.  Next time in Srinagar, I know whose houseboat to stay at.

From my journal:
The road trip was spectacular from a distance, more depressing up close.  The predawn twilight was bleak and grey at this season.  The most noticeable activity was the military foot patrols lining the road every few kilometres, usually with a sniffer dog.  For some distance we followed the left bank of the Jhelum – though I didn’t notice, we were probably moving upstream.  The road was lined narrowly with strip development – unfinished houses and businesses thrown up in response to the increased traffic of recent years.  As I recall in 1985 the most noticeable traffic obstacle was flocks of goats – hard to imagine that now.

The mountains closed in as we climbed toward the tunnel at Banihal.  Eventually there were remnants of accumulated snow on the uphill side of the road, until at the tunnel we seemed to disappear into a deeply-snowcovered slope.  On the Jammu side, the snow quickly receded and the landscape seemed warmer but much more dry.  The ride was still thrilling as we snaked our way along the shoulders of deep, narrow gorges of the Chenab River – confusingly we were moving upriver for a stretch.  We stopped for lunch at a busy, grubby but respectable dhaba perched on the edge of the precipice.  Out the back door it was a hard left turn, after pausing to admire the view, to the toilet cubicle tacked on the back of the building.

Chenab River gorge

Irrespective of distance, we reached the half-way point when we negotiated our way through the flush of early morning northbound traffic – innumerable lorries and a Sunday contribution of vacationing family carloads.  Toward the end of our drive, the northbound traffic dwindled as there would be no place to reach before dark.

Our driver was experienced, knew every inch of the route, moderately daring and aggressive, and critical of other drivers’ idiocies.  I could see that he was alert to oncoming traffic further ahead, so his passes on blind curves were carefully calculated – something I could detachedly understand, but never imitate.  The conventions of Indian driving, applied to mountain roads, are unnerving.  Meeting an oncoming vehicle, you steer for his nearside fender and hope there’s enough of a gap or margin of pavement, when you round it.  If not, you brake, and let what’s in front of you sort itself out.  Trucks, especially tanker trucks, are the bullies of the road – nose to nose, everything smaller must yield or stop.  Trucks will pull over for a rest stop, nevermind that it creates a one-lane bottleneck and tedious backup in both directions.  When traffic is blocked, the lane beside you will fill up with opportunists trying to slip by the nose-to-tail traffic jam, so it takes forever for alternate parts of the line-up to get clear.

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~ by Peter Harris on 30/05/2012.

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