J&K and HP – Driving Through Dangerous Mountain Roads, Earthquakes and Landslides

Good morning everyone,

So we decided to leave Srinagar early and overnight in Ramdan to cut the long trip back to Punjab into shorter segments.  The plan was to only be on the road during the day, given the earthquakes.  We excepted delays due to landslides throughout the mountain range and boy, did we underestimate the number of landslides we would encounter.

First, getting out.  We were not told that afternoon (after 2 p.m.) traffic is only allowed one way on the highway.  On the day we left, traffic was allowed only from Jammu to Srinagar, with the exception of local traffic only. We were told (by a man and boy at the first check stop neither of whom was wearing any sort of uniform), that we would either have to take a room for two nights at the hotel they were in front of or return to Srinagar.  The boy then said something to Jagdeep in Hindi which I didn’t understand at all.

We turned back a little ways and the boy got into the car, showing us the route around the check stop.  So was this check stop real or was it targeting tourists or what?  I don’t know.  But I do know it was already approaching 2 p.m. and we needed to either get on the road back to the Punjab or turn around and get rooms in Srinagar.  Apparently, the decision, which delayed us well until evening, was to push through to Ramdan, past three check stops.  

I’ll tell you that the push around the first check stop involved the boy showing us a route through a nearby village.  I won’t tell you how we got through the next two and into Ramdan, except to say that it was still light out and I don’t feel all that bad about it given that a) we left the first check stop before 2 p.m.; b) other traffic was heading south as well at that time; c) it involved more corruption; and d) we were getting off the highway at Ramdan and not going all the way through to Jammu.  While the boy was in the car with us I became convinced that the first check stop was in fact an attempt to grab “bribes” from vehicles carrying tourists in any event.

There were signs of fresh landslide activity throughout the mountains from Srinagar right through to Ramdan and the following day, after a few more earthquakes, from Ramdan straight through to near Jammu and again in Himachal Pradesh and Punjab.  The entire range that we were travelling through had new boulders being pushed off the highway, new road damage, and fresh piles of shattered sandstone and shale in the rivers and valleys.  The whole way through we thanked God for the decision to leave early and drive in daylight.

Those who left during the night… well let’s just say that on our trip to Ramdan we saw a lot of accidents, at least one of which had to have involved at least one fatality.  The same was the case the following morning when we left Ramdan after another series of earthquakes in the region.  Mostly cars, some who hit barriers on the wrong side of the road, one just the other side of a blind curve but was now buried in the side of a mountain and one of which was being hauled up from a ravine, and all write offs, probably some fatalities, that tell you a lot about the dangers of driving through these mountains.

Bizarrely, like the Yukon this time last year, all of the earthquakes hit in the very early morning hours.  All were strong enough not only to shake me awake but to shake the buildings hard.  Most of them lasted 10 – 15 seconds which is already substantial but at least three of them lasted well more than a minute.  And they were obviously strong enough, without rain water to help the process, to shake the rocks loose from the tops of the mountains and send them hurtling towards the bottom.

Throughout the region you see the typical signs for “Watch for Falling Rocks” and even some that say “Avalanche Area” but many say “Watch for Shooting Stones.”  What is the difference between falling rocks and shooting stones?  I have no idea.  I expect they are the same thing.  The signs recommend that you keep 50m distance between your vehicles and the one in front of you.  Yeah, right.  If you saw traffic on these roads, you would know that is impossible.  When you leave any gap at all the vehicles behind you speed up to fill them in, honking angrily the entire way.  So how are you supposed to leave such a large gap?  The answer Jagdeep gave me?  “I don’t know.  This is normal driving for them.”  Normal even on these dangerous roads.

Also throughout J&K, which I think is genius, are roadsigns that say things like “If Married Divorce Speed.” (I think they left a comma out on that one), “Leave Early Arrive Safe”, “Speed Is The Knife That Cuts Life”… Locals especially though ignore the signs and drive like they are going to magically live forever.

At one point, I heard Jagdeep say to me (in a very kind, very amused voice) “It’s okay, don’t hold tension.”  It was right after a car sped up and cut us off to overtake a TATA truck in front of us around a blind curve.  I was expecting to hear then see a wreck on the other side of that curve, given that most of the traffic was oncoming.  I looked down to see that my left hand was white as a sheet, gripped hard to the door handle (because THAT would save my life if we were involved in a wreck or if we were pushed off the road and over a cliff, yeah that door handle would be what saved me…).  I reassured him that I was okay and that crazy drivers like that just make me very nervous.  I trusted his driving skills though and I would try to relax a little.

Just then, coming up on another blind curve where we were on the outside (cliff side), another vehicle flies past us to overtake us and keeps going in the wrong lane around the curve.  A half minute later, a big Eiger truck comes around that same corner in the lane that buddy had been in.  Jagdeep slows down even more and bam – there the fool is, stopped at the very edge of the road, white as a ghost, his wife (I assume) vomiting out the window probably from the near death experience.  Clown.  We got past him when traffic cleared a little only to have the same guy fly past us again 10 minutes later, honking angrily the whole time.  I can only hope he got to his destination safely, without killing anyone else.  I also kind of hope that his car engine seizes and dies as soon as it’s in a safe place.  That guy shouldn’t be on the road at all.

I finally pried my hand off the door handle and relaxed once we got to Patnitop.  There, there had been so many accidents and debris blocking the road that traffic was backed up from the top of the mountain all the way to the valley below.  It took us about an hour to pass through the space of 3 kilometres because of the blockage.

We finally made it to Pathnikot where we saw Ranjit Sagar Dam and then made the insane climb down to and back up from the Mukteshwar Temple, which is over 5,500 years old.  My poor legs, after climbing all over Srinagar, I was not expecting to have to make another such climb so soon – they were still throbbing from the day before.  Oh well, the temple is a very cool site, worth the climb down.  There were a herd of horses just on the other side of the river from the temple.  I rested there and watched them for a while, knowing that I would have to make that climb up those stairs again.  Honestly, I confess.  I stopped every 20 or 25 stairs and rested again and again and again.  My legs still hated me for it though.

Near the top I saw a rather small macaque and her baby, so I rolled down the window to take a picture.  Mamma tucked in behind some bushes to hide but baby sat there.  He looked at me, looked at her, looked back at me, as if to ask “Am I supposed to worry about that?”  No, little monkey.  There’s no need to be afraid of me but it’s probably best to learn to be afraid of humans in any event.  Some of us are asses – just saying.  I reassured Mamma in the softest voice I could that I was harmless and got off a few pictures before leaving them.  No sense stressing them out too much for more shots no matter how cute the near bald little baby with its ears way too big for its head was.

Leaving Ranjit Nagar Dam and the temple, we ran into another herd of Kashmir goats blocking the road.  Beautiful coats on these animals.  Just beautiful.  I can see why humans would appreciate the warmth that hair can provide.

What I will never understand is how the wool became such a commodity and so expensive in the West, without real information about where it comes from.  I know it’s soft.  I know it’s hard to come by and I understand the pure economics of supply and demand and the pricing of luxuries.  But really?  How much of that stupid amount of money actually gets to the man herding the goats and his family, do you think?  Because it fetches such a high price (grossly over what this man sees from the sale), how many people in the middle are exploiting him, his land, his family?  What are you willing to pay for the cashmere wool if you were actually paying a fair price?

These days we (i.e. western consumers) have a lot of information about the diamond trade, about coffee, about tea, oil and a lot of other commodities.  We have stricter rules now on labelling and NGOs and academic types often are able to provide a ton of information about the conditions where the commodities that we consume are generated.  We need much more of that sort of education.

I am not advocating that we no longer buy cashmere wool.  These herding families take good care of their goats and should be able to earn an income.  But they should be able to earn a reasonable, decent income – one that is fair given the work that they do and the price the commodity that they are growing sells for.

I’ve gone off on a tangent again.  Not at all sorry about that but let’s get back on topic.  Near Jammu, they try to prevent landslides along the highway with concrete.  They just slather concrete all over the hillsides to prevent loose rock, soil, sand from spilling out onto the road.  Smart I guess but it sure eats up a lot of environment doing that.  Otherwise, there are some retaining walls and trenches but no landslide or avalanche channels like you see in some other mountainous areas – like the Alps in Europe or the Rockies in Canada.  There are crews of people who seem to show up very quickly and get the rocks off the road (repairing the roads seems to take much longer) but they seem to be doing most of that work manually.  We passed a large group of men hauling boulders off the roadside and piling them onto the side who had no other tools but their own muscles and some rather long sticks.  The only heavy equipment we saw was at a former dam site where the dam was either being demolished or rebuilt.  It was hard to tell which.

We finally arrived back in cell phone range and Jagdeep got to speak to his family for a while, while I went wandering around our hotel.  I am so glad that after all we experienced, he was able to speak with his wife and kids and let them know we were all right.

When he got off the phone he told me that it had been raining, thunder, lightning, hail all day in Amritsar.  I laughed and said “and look at us, enjoying all this hot, dry weather we’ve been getting.”  Ha.  Just a few minutes later the skies darkened and we were in for an all night electrical storm.  Awesome.

So until next time from Himachal Pradesh,

Peace and love all,
Himmatpreet

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