Kashmir: Ramdan, Dead Cell Phones and Deader Cars

Good morning everyone,

I had a plan for Kashmir and it was a perfect plan.  7 days all together, with 4 full days in Srinagar.  Mosques, temples, gurdwaras, tons of Kashmiri food, Anantnag, hiking, historic forts and palaces and gardens.  Yeah, some of the regular readers of this blog will remember that Fate and I sometimes… no often… don’t see eye to eye at all.  Not at all.  However, I’ve learned to go with the flow, accept that fate has more control sometimes than I, and that is how we discovered Ramdan.

It was at a small village just before Ramdan that the car began to lose a little power.  Nothing too concerning at that moment except that the knocking also became louder and the car started to make weird vibrations when shifting higher.  Time to stop and check this out.  We made it to the smaller village, with less than useless cell phones (I suppose in a pinch I could have entertained myself playing games on the cell phone but other than that…).  The mechanic there was closing up his shop but agreed to take a look at the car.  It was getting dark by then and the power went out so Jagdeep and the mechanic worked by flashlight.  Nothing to big, says he, just a leaking fuel line.  Minor leak, minor problem, we can fix this in ten minutes… maybe 30… or an hour.

Do you have spare line to replace it with and how is that a small deal?  No worries, madam, a little plaster on that sucker will get you through to Srinagar where there are bigger auto shops who will have the parts.  This is a fine TATA vehicle after all, there will be parts.  Yeah.

We make it to the next village, Ramdan, and the car starts knocking again.  This time, loudly, violently, engine threatening to knock it’s way right on out of the hood.  It is now dark and everyone has gone home except for two mechanic’s shops.  Neither of which could help us.  Are there any hotels in town?  One look at me then “No sir, no hotels here.”  Any bigger shops?  Maybe we camp out in the car and visit the bigger shop in the morning?  Another look at me then “you don’t want to do that, sir.  It’s not safe.”

Okay.  We push on through the lower village and start making our way to Srinagar again.  About 8 kilometres out of town, at the very edge of a 150 or so cliff, the car just suddenly loses power.  Thank God for quick reflexes and the fact that power steering isn’t part of the deal on this vehicle.  We narrowly miss the edge as the car begins to roll backward and Jagdeep pulls up hard on the hand brake.  When I say narrowly miss the edge – there wasn’t any safe way to get out on my side of the car.

Thankfully we were uphill and Jagdeep managed to reverse/roll the car backward away from the cliff’s edge.  Except now we’re near the top of a blind turn, we’re completely dead, it’s really dark and it is not safe to walk anywhere.  It’s also not safe to flag down other traffic, I am told.  We did though and managed to get the car facing downhill where we could coast it into a safer spot while we figure out what to do next.

Jagdeep tries to start the engine while we’re rolling downhill.  Sputter.  Sputter.  Dead.  He tries again.  Sputter.  Sputter.  Whine.  One last wheeze and Deader than Dead.  So he pushes us all the way back to Ramdan, to the nearest roadside service station which is, contrary to our luck thus far, open!  There are several technicians inside enjoying a meal (if you want to call alcohol and paan and fried meat things a meal).  They can’t do anything to help the car but they drive us into the village to find a hotel.  The first two we stop at take one look at me and say no.  Finally though we found the Ramdan Regency Hotel.  Open, without a phone, without power, but with two rooms, a restaurant that was still open, and super-reasonable prices.  Thank you, thank you God and Jagdeep and the technicians for taking care of us.

Being stuck on the side of that mountain, so close to the cliff’s edge, that is not something I ever want to experience again.  Being stuck on the side of a cliff’s edge in Kashmir, at night, as a woman (after being told all the stories of what happens to lone women here), definitely not something I want to experience again.

Anyhow, on to Ramdan.   What a beautiful landscape greeted us in the morning!  We came down for breakfast and there were two technicians waiting to drive us back to our car.  We skipped breakfast and headed off the the mechanic who assured us that he had found the damage and that it would take a mere four to five hours (and Rs. 5000) to fix.  I opened my iPad to the Kindle app and got ready to read away the few hours that we would be waiting.

Midnight’s Children.  Very interesting, well written book by Salman Rushdie.  Ironically, part of it deals with the beauty of and longing for Kashmir.  Looking around, I could see why.  The pictures do not do this place justice at all.

After about an hour or so, Jagdeep came to retrieve me and we had bread and tea at a tiny tea stand.  The only other food they could offer was omelet.  And here he’s got two customers that don’t eat eggs.  While I was sitting in the tea stall, the owner’s young boy came to entertain me by bringing a train of neighbours and passersby over to see me.  He was adorable though so no matter.

Then a lady in a black face veil carrying a tiny infant and begging came along.  The only beggar I encountered on the whole trip.  I offered to buy her breakfast instead of giving her money.  Lo and behold, she took me up on it.  She ate and I gave her another few rupees as well.  No one was yelling at her, shooing her away, and she had no smell of paan about her.  I saw the tea stall owner give her more food than I paid for (or she asked for) too.  Nice man.  I actually saw her several hours later in the lower village, still begging but having walked at least 7 kilometres from where I first saw her to where I saw her last.  7 kilometres toting a baby, begging along the way.

We got back to the car two hours into the day and were met with “only another 4 or 5 hours to go.”  Huh?  It was 4 or 5 hours, 2 hours ago.  Okay, okay, we’ll just be patient.  There’s still plenty of the day and Srinagar is just over 130 kilometres away.  I get back to my book.  Just at the point where Rushdie is having his character explain the Midnight Children’s Conference… a knock on the window.  “The car will take another day to fix.  You can hire a car to |Srinagar and I’ll meet you there tomorrow.”

I thought about it.  I wasn’t looking forward to going to Srinagar without Jagdeep, who I trusted or with a stranger, who may or may not be sketchy.  Well, the stranger settled it for me.  We called the local car company and he wanted Rs. 6000 to travel 130 km to Srinagar and drop me off.  Rs. 6000.  Let’s put this in perspective.  I pay taxi companies Rs. 1500 for an entire day of driving around.  He wanted 4x that amount … because he thought we were stuck.  I laughed (which insulted him) and told him his price was way too high and that it would be much less expensive for me to just spend another night in Ramdan and go on to Srinagar later.  He shouted “let’s go” at which point, a group of other men got between he and I.  I got my bags from the car and headed back into the lower village with Jagdeep for another night at the Ramdan Regency.

In the meantime, another vehicle was on it’s way from Ludhiana to pick us up and take us to Srinagar.  A 12 hour drive mind you.

We got back to our rooms at the hotel and I discovered on the second day that the small door in my room was not an “adjoining room” door but led out onto a shared balcony.  Nice.  And safe as well since the balcony was shared with Jagdeep’s room so I wouldn’t have any surprise visitors if I left the door open.  I sat there in the sun and enjoyed the rest of my book, occasionally reflecting on how often fate took the wheel over my life and how often it actually let me do the driving.  Sigh.  At this point we were down to only one day in Srinagar.  One day, two nights and that is IF the replacement vehicle arrived on time and IF, by that time, Jagdeep wasn’t ready to just call it quits and go straight back to Amritsar.

The food at the hotel was reasonable.  It was sort of basic and probably reheated but the service was good and, given the amount of stress Jagdeep was experiencing, it was a decent distraction from his car, which now lay dead and missing vital parts outside of the mechanic’s shack outside of the village.

He also hadn’t talked to his family, who were beginning to worry about him.  No cell phones.  We covered that in the last post a little but we both had pre-paid cell phones.  Only Kashmiri pre-paid phones work in Kashmir.  Other pre-paid phones work anywhere in India but not Kashmir.  So family, friends, rearranging hotels was all a challenge which was finally assisted by some of the awesome hosts at the hotel.

I was awake very early the next morning to find that the car from Ludhiana had arrived and that the crew was identified and put up in the room I got for them (they were saving our behinds after all).  I came to breakfast and there they were, all hooked up with a tow bar and ready to eat and get on their way.  Nice group of men to come all this way just to save our butts.  Awesome.

I also made another, more disturbing discovery that morning as I watched soldiers with a bomb sniffing dog and a metal detector go through every last thing in the street.  They search for explosives every single morning apparently.  They try to do it before businesses and mosques and schools open for the day but like I said, I was up early.

I also discovered that Jagdeep knows my meal preferences inside and out so when the restaurant served me paranthas he said “No, no friend.  Toast and tea for her.  Butter toast.”  Bwahahaha.  I really like that for some reason.  Makes me trust him that much more.

We took a little time after our adventurous couple of days and before heading up the highway to Srinagar, to enjoy the sun rising up over the tea terraces and to say goodbye to our lovely hosts.  We also talked about how it’s unfortunate that not many people stop here because it really is a nice town filled with gracious, kind people.  It’s a very good place to stop and take a break on the long drive to Srinagar and, other than the ever present, highly armed soldiers, it’s really rather welcoming.

So… off to Srinagar next then.  Until then,

Peace and love all,
Himmatpreet

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