Well we finally made it out of Ramdan (little did we know at that time that we would be visiting again shortly).
I didn’t think it was possible but after Patnitop, the roads become even narrower and much of this stretch has damage from usage, weather, avalanche and landslides. There are stretches where the stone side markers or metal guard rails are just missing – knocked over the edge by something. I’m hoping that something was more often landslides where no-one was hurt than car accidents. Also, on one stretch a large hole had developed in the cliff side, right lane – hard to see until you were nearly on top of it.
Until you get slightly higher, you pass hill station after hill station growing tea in the terraced fields and wheat on the valley floor. It’s really a beautiful sight until you realize that several of these terraced villages appear to have been abandoned or moved after landslides tore their way through the older tea fields.
We did not experience any landslides ourselves but at several points in the road, the work being done to move massive boulder off the road told us that the activity in this valley was fresh. This was especially so at one spot where a recent landslide narrowed the road to one lane, which though cleared of debris, was also bad chewed up by the damage.
All that to say that the 130 some odd kilometres from Ramdan to Srinagar took us almost 3 hours, with just a short stop in Anantnag. We stopped there for half an hour to have some chai and the best onion pakoras I’ve ever had. Awesome pakoras.
Kashmir has quite a cricket bat industry, I assume. They were everywhere in Anantnag. While we were there the World Cup of cricket was also going on, which didn’t really raise the sale of cricket bats to fever pitch but did distract everyone. What televisions were available, were all tuned to the New Zealand v. Scotland cricket match, and no-one was doing much in the way of work. Little did I know that a few days later we’d all be caught up in the India v. Pakistan final match.
The other prominent industry in this area seems to be saffron and dried fruit. These stalls are everywhere. As you summit through Anantnag and come down the other side of the ridge, you also see field upon field of crocus being planted. The valley fields will be spectacular when the light purple flowers begin to bloom.
There wasn’t really a whole lot else being grown here, as far as I could tell. I’m told that Kashmir gets most of its vegetables from Punjab – cauliflower, potato, tomato, spinach… which may explain why so many of the dhabas on this route serve traditional Punjabi food.
We owe a big debt of gratitude to our Ramdan hosts. After a scary night when the car died on the side of a cliff and the exhausting (due to both stress and the hour)search for assistance and shelter afterward really took a toll on Jagdeep and I, with Jagdeep taking the much bigger toll. The poor man was stressed out, exhausted, worried about my safety, and did not get much in the way of sleep that first night. We were very lucky to have found a hotel with appropriate rooms on the Wednesday, let alone again on the Thursday night.
They went out of their way to make our stay comfortable, to provide some cell phone minutes so that we could let people know our situation, to provide advice on mechanic’s shops, restaurants, and advice on how to ensure our safety while in the region.
On this I should say that Kashmir is said to be a very dangerous place. There have been kidnappings in the past, killings, conflict between Pakistan and India, India and independence fighters, It is an unsettled and volatile area in many ways not the least of which is the very long-term, large presence of the Indian army, well armed, who seem to be omnipresent here. I am told that foreigners have gone missing here – whether that is just a part of hiking through the Himalayas, natural disasters or the kidnappings, no one could tell me with any precision. I expect it is currently more about being in a place where the land is dangerous more than about being in a place where the people or even the politics are dangerous. Though when tensions flare that can easily reverse itself.
I am told that the strange reaction at some of the hotels – claiming no rooms once they realized I was a foreigner (they had rooms up until that point) was the result of not wanting to be targeted because a foreigner was staying in the hotel. Targeted for what? I did not want to know.
In any event, I would not have wanted to go through the experiences we had with a driver that I did not trust or did not know, alone, late at night, as a female in a part of the world where being a female makes one particularly vulnerable, as a foreigner in a part of the world where being a foreigner makes one vulnerable as well and where you know corruption can make very bad things happen. Thanks to Jagdeep and our hosts, I felt safe and was able to relax and just let fate play out the cards it had in store for us.
I really don’t want to scare people off of Kashmir. Kashmir is a beautiful region of India but it is dangerous and shouldn’t be travelled in lightly. If you just want to see Srinagar, the best way to do that is to fly from Delhi to Srinagar and back. Have your hotel pick you up at the airport and return you there as well. If you want to see the rest of Kashmir, you’ll need to do that by road and/or by hiking, far more dangerous but doable with a few rules (some learned the hard way):
– Plan to be on the roads only during the daylight hours.
– Do not stop for ANYONE who flags you down, unless that person is in a police or Indian army uniform. This rule applies double at night (but you won’t be on the roads at night).
– Leave plenty of time between destinations to ensure that you can drive during daylight hours. Double any estimate that Google maps might give you.
– Hire a knowledgeable driver who can speak Hindi and preferable, Arabic.
– When in hotels, ask for rooms on higher floors if they are available.
– Leave nothing of value in the car.
– The correct greetings go a long way to make people comfortable with you. They are Sat Sri Akal to Sikh people, Asalam Alaikum to Muslim people, and Namaste to Hindu people. Giving the wrong greeting can make a very few people quite angry.
– Do not wander off alone, ever.
– Do not talk to strangers who might approach you in the gardens, the forts, restaurants, etc,
– Leave the obnoxious “look at how wealthy I am” items at home – the expensive cameras, the expensive watches and don’t take out a wad of money to pay for anything.
– Tolls and tax collection areas are always clearly marked with government made signs.
– Don’t argue with or scream at the soldiers when they pull you over for a checkstop. Seriously, dude driving the big blue tourist bus… what were you thinking? They could pull you right over, weapons drawn and keep you there for a long time and God knows what else… oh wait, they did. I bet that was an AWESOME experience for your customers, you ass.
– Keep your passport and Indian Visa handy
– Keep out of the way of the army when they are doing their searches in the morning, trying to fly past them while angrily honking your horn will only get you pulled over and searched, with all your stuff dumped on the road. Talking to you, man in the white Scorpio with the PB plates. That’s right.
– You’re in a heavy eathquake and landslide zone. Go slow and careful and be prepared for delays.
– Do not go off with anyone that you don’t know even if that person claims to be a tour guide.
– If you need to ask directions, ask directions at your hotel or at a stand of rickshaws or autos, with plenty of people around.
– Do not give your passport to anyone. Ensure you have plenty of photocopies instead, of both the passport and the Visa. The only people who asked for the passport were hotels and all of them were happy to either make a photocopy or take the photocopy that was offered to them.
– There is NO fee to either enter or exit Kashmir, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. There is a registration process though beyond Udhampur so make sure you comply with that. There are also two tolls between the Punjab border and Srinagar which need to be paid.
– Every two days the evening traffic changes. For two days traffic is only allowed after 2 p.m. from Srinagar to Jammu, then for the next two days it will be Jammu to Srinagar. Make sure you know which way you are headed and which direction traffic is permitted, to avoid being turned around. There are plenty of checkstops where you can be stopped and turned back if you are travelling in the wrong direction. The rule is for everyone’s safety, given the mountain roads and slide activity.
Seriously, we saw several nasty accidents that occurred overnight on our way to Srinagar and again on our way back to Punjab. Almost all of them, the driver appeared to be going the wrong way during the night. Take this rule seriously.
In the next post, we’ll be at Srinagar! Until then,
Peace and love all,