(Emily) Getting out of Amritsar was a sweaty affair, particularly as we’d left at the timely hour of midday – the incessant horn usage was already driving us mad and riding in the stop-start traffic is murder on your clutch hand. We were heading north towards Srinagar, a town in Indian Kashmir popular for the slumbering houseboats on Dal Lake and made famous when the Beatles stayed there in their whole Guru/Sgt Peppers phase. The bigger picture was a large horse-shoe from west to east that would take us into the Himalayas through the Ladakh Valley to Leh, which boasted magnificent scenery and the highest passable (though unpaved) road in the world, then down to Manali. Donato and Stefano had already begun this same route but from the Manali end and we were looking forward to crossing paths with them again at some point. However, for the moment we knew we wouldn’t make it to Srinagar in one day so had earmarked Jammu – about half way from Amritsar – as a potential stop for the night. Reading up about the region of ‘Jammu and the Kashmir Valley’ in Lonely Planet beforehand, I was made a little apprehensive by phrases such as ‘scarred by violence’, ‘foolish to visit without checking the political situation’ and ‘ongoing security risks’. James was quick to remind me that I’d just ridden the KKH and through Pakistan which was probably one of the most volatile regions in the world but hey, that’s not to say I now had a taste for danger!
I can’t really say much about the scenery as we rode toward Jammu (in general very flat land made up of fields of crops) as we had to concentrate so hard on the road; not a minute went by when you didn’t have to make an overtake around a rickshaw, donkey cart, cow or bicycle or when you yourself weren’t overtaken by a crazed car or coach driver, tooting away on their horn and ploughing through as if they owned the road. The worst thing to contend with was vehicles overtaking in the oncoming direction – with complete disregard for anything smaller than them, the public buses would hurtle towards you with no intention of pulling in or slower down. ‘Might is right’ here so, as a smaller vehicle, it’s your obligation to get the hell out of the way even if it means pulling onto the dirt. James’ angry gesturing for them to get back in their lane was fruitless and many drivers just laughed as they went past. So infuriating! Although the pace of many of the vehicles on the road was fast (too fast), our progress was incredibly poor not least because the road always took a route straight through the centre of towns rather than offering a diversion – and there were lots of towns. The last stretch before Jammu was ostensibly dual carriage way but all too often the lanes became two-way traffic as the opposite direction was closed off for repairs (usually without a written warning – the bus fast approaching in the oncoming direction was the clue!!) and, of course, despite being a highway there were still the ubiquitous cows wandering all over the place. We made it into Jammu’s busy streets at about 6pm and it was immediately obvious that we wouldn’t easily be able to find a place to stay amid the unyielding rush-hour congestion. After the first hotel we pulled into quoted 3,700 rupees (pretty much ten times our budget!), we decided to get through town and find somewhere on the exit road – it wasn’t like we wanted to explore Jammu in the morning; it was merely a night-stop.
Coming out of the north end of town, we were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves riding through lush greenery. Near the last police checkpoint (commonplace in this region) on the edge of town were the gated entrances to two rather plush looking resorts… two plush for us so again we carried on. We were confident we would find somewhere soon as there had been a hotel or guesthouse every couple of miles or so on the route so far. The road started to climb – the beginning of our ascent into the mountains that sat between us and the Kashmir Valley – and we were excited to spot monkeys sitting boldly by the side of the road in large numbers (they did put us off the possibility of camping, mind you!) Dusk fell making it even harder to spot potential accommodation; it was clear from the winding, climbing nature of the road that we were in the hills but surreal not to be able to see any of our surroundings. I was nervous about riding in the dark in India (a definite no-no) but at least we were able to anticipate the trucks coming round corners by their headlights (shame the cows don’t have lights – three times James nearly rode right into one; he’s so often looking in his mirrors to check I’m ok!) It was 50km and an hour and a half later when we finally spotted a hotel, by which time we were hungry and exhausted but at least not too sweaty in the cooler mountain air. It looked ok from the outside but was unfortunately a complete hole, still, we couldn’t afford to be picky with nothing else in the offing. James was looking forward to a beer/curry combo, something which had eluded him so far in India and Pakistan, and was excited to see that the ‘restaurant’ had a ‘bar’ but, somewhat inevitably considering the dive we were at, the food was sub-standard and the beer far too strong. There was nothing else to do but retire to our skanky room where we discovered towels so grotty they should be immediately incinerated and cobwebs and grime lurking in every corner. We got our silk liners out (the sheets were dirty) and tried to get some sleep amid the squalor.
Getting back on the road the next morning, we were pleased to find that we were surrounded by the same sort of lush vegetation that we’d had lower down on the KKH, except this time with tarmac so all the better. However, the driving was a whole lots worse and the muttered expletives were soon flying as we were constantly nearly wiped out by trucks coming two abreast around sharp corners – when they want to overtake, they overtake no matter what. Coming through one of the inhabited areas (not a town or a village but a few shack-type shops lining the road), James was actually nudged in the panniers by one car – they’re just so desperate to get ahead of you, even if it’s quite clear that a massive truck in front is blocking further progress. The BRO (Border Roads Organisation) who are responsible for maintaining the roads in this region seem to have decided that placing warning signs every km is the way to tackle the problem (there are some absolute classics: ‘After whiskey, driving risky’, ‘Don’t gossip, let him drive’ and my personal favourite, ‘Don’t be silly in the hilly’) but what they really need are traffic police enforcing the road laws. Anyway, the result of all the craziness was that the riding was far from enjoyable despite the fantastic scenery and wildlife (in addition to the monkeys, we had magnificent kites and vultures flying parallel with us at times) and we were both thinking that if the driving continued to be like this all over India, we wouldn’t be sticking around for long.
We entered Kashmir (‘high security zone, your co-operation is solicited’) and the road wound higher and higher to culminate in a pass through a tunnel before descending down into the Kashmir Valley. Again, beautiful scenery, but the combination of traffic and sheer drops meant we were still too wary to look around much. There had been a noticeable military presence as we’d ridden through the Jammu area but now… oh my god. I have honestly never seen so many army troops. Every bus and truck that went by was full of soldiers, all kitted up and ready for action, and there were checkpoints and bases every couple of miles. I think we must have passed several hundred army trucks as we rode to Srinagar, most of which were heading the other way – that gave us some small comfort but I did think that that something major must be kicking off somewhere to require this many soldiers. We had hoped that the road down into the valley would be quieter as we were now in a more remote area of the country but the mayhem continued. At least with the road now straighter, we were not caught up and overtaken by trucks and buses but the 4x4s started to really piss us off, especially when coming at you in your lane in the opposite direction and flashing their lights as if you’re the one in the wrong! (Police vehicles were among the worst culprits!) So many times we were forced to leave the tarmac and ride on the dirt. For the first time on the whole trip, we were feeling really angry with other drivers – normally you just go with the flow but this was so reckless and irresponsible it made our blood boil.
The final stretch into Srinagar was actually very lovely (traffic aside) – autumn was setting in and the golden leaves and harvest activity made us think of home (James: nice to experience autumn safe in the knowledge that winter won’t be following shortly after!) Rather incongruous to these scenes of nature were the soldiers that almost constantly lined the road – every fifty metres was another vehicle with a manned heavy machine gun on top or a group of soldiers standing in the trees or a platoon on patrol walking along the road. It was a great relief when we reached the outskirts of Srinagar though this in itself soon turned into a bit of a nightmare as, rather than the sleepy lake town we had been expecting, it turned out to be busy, noisy and hard to navigate (didn’t help that as usual we didn’t actually have a specific place to aim for). I had a serious case of ‘clutch claw’ and my left hand had all but given up on me. Not only that, but the huge number of armed soldiers, many in full riot gear, who lined the streets were making me feel increasingly uneasy. What the hell had we gotten ourselves in the middle of? We eventually found a quieter road leading down to the lake which had lots of guesthouses on and, third time lucky (one place turned us away even though the tout had said it was empty – apparently the owner didn’t want to be held responsible if anything happened to a tourist… rather ominous, methinks!), we booked into the Goodwill Guesthouse. The place was run by a lovely Muslim family and was also a nursery so the house was surrounded by plants and flowers. It was very basic but clean and welcoming and they were certainly pleased to be getting some business – we were pretty much the only tourists in town. We settled in for the evening (we were advised not to go out after dark), enjoying a tray of simple, home-cooked food in our room whilst the uplifting chanting of the Sufi Muslims worshipping resonated from the surrounding mosques.