My decision not to book in Shalimar Express to Jammu which was scheduled to leave two hours after the arrival of Tamil Nadu Express in New Delhi turned out to be the right one. Eventually TN Express got delayed by six hours due to Northern Power Grid shut down and as my train to Jammu was in the night I still had time to refresh and rest.
On re-entering New Delhi Railway Station, a cop was seen checking passengers’ luggage through a scanner as in airports. I was anxious if my camera tripod would show up in his scanner as AK47 but to my relief I wasn’t asked to open the baggage. I looked up for my name on the train and found it was allotted a confirmed berth. All passengers were entitled for a four course dinner with appetiser, soup, meals and dessert. I then got under clean and, yes, free linen and went to sleep quickly in the cool, gently rocking and low noise ambience of the air-conditioned compartment. The train reached destination at 5.30 am and I was in Jammu and Kashmir at last – the head-like part of my nation that has been wanting to secede from the rest of the body. The bus stand was 8 kms away and so I got into a passenger taxi to reach there. Long bearded Muslims were more conspicuous as commoners, policemen and chai wallahs. It was raining and the bus stand was getting flooded. As I wanted to reach Srinagar the same day, I dumped my back-pack in the cloak room and freshened up. At the counter for issuing tickets to Srinagar the man inside was asleep and refused to stir.
I put my bag in a J&K Road Transport 25 seater bus parked nearby that was supposed to go to Srinagar. After about an hour during which hardly a couple of other passengers turned up, someone manning the next counter advised that I go out and catch a vehicle to Srinagar if I wanted to reach there earlier. As I took the luggage out I found a pair of guys in Pathani dress sitting inside who looked like the driver and conductor of the bus. They were probably wishing that their bus would get cancelled for want of passengers and they too could go to sleep. That was strange because the roadway was the major link to Srinagar and it was morning time. A taxi agent outside informed me that most buses to Srinagar leave in the evening. I paid him Rs. 500 and got a front seat in a cab to Srinagar and the journey started at once. The driver was an educated Muslim youth wearing cargo shorts, from Srinagar, and there was another youngster in the front. In terms of weather and scenario it was a roller coaster ride as it went through Udhampur that was cold and foggy and Ramban that was quite hot and sweaty. The driver said it was the hottest place in J&K. Himalayan panorama opened with strange and beautiful trees and endless stretches of pine tree covered hills.
Expecting some security checks on the way I asked the driver if I needed to keep my ID proof on me. He replied condescendingly: Main hoon na, tera ID proof. (Am I not your ID proof?) That reminded me with a little jolt that this is a land where some people consider people from rest of India as their foreigner guests. Still I had a lot of polite conversation throughout the drive with the duo. Main industrial activity seem to be tourism centered and there were not enough opportunities for educated youth. It was said that the IT sector was not being developed by Hindustan because the Kashmiris then would demand Azadi. Obviously, the youngsters were a brainwashed lot as it showed in their view of India. Pakistan is spoken of with a familiarity – affected or real it was difficult to distinguish – as we in Tamil Nadu speak of a neighboring state like Andhra or Kerala. The youth next to me asked if I ate non veg.
When I said yes he was interested to know what all I ate. I said I ate only white meat and didn’t touch red meat as doctors say it is not good for people above forty. He fell silent for a while and it occurred to me moments later that I had brilliantly, though unknowingly skirted the Cow Vs. Pig debate. But he still went on to explain that if I ate red meat of animals killed in the halaal method I wouldn’t have to bother about bad effect on body. The animals killed in the halaal way receive true rest, unlike the usual slaughter. How are you so sure my boy, I thought silently. Isn’t killing quickly supposed to be more merciful than slow death? They asked me to shoot some video as we were about to enter a 3 km long mountain tunnel. Longer tunnels are being made for the new Jammu to Srinagar Railway line, they informed, and they seemed happy about having the railway extending up to Srinagar.
The youngster in the middle dropped controversial subjects soon and while departing invited me to visit his home for a real Kashmiri chawal (rice). Earlier he had pointed out that the hotel at a halting point had deceived me by serving some other rice as Kashmiri rice. I said I would certainly visit him the next time I came around.
It was nearly six when the cab reached Srinagar’s Lal Chowk and, as everywhere here too, one was greeted by people offering accommodation and travel. I took the offer of a houseboat for Rs. 800/- per night from a student. The boat belonged to his father who introduced his son as Omar Khan and himself as another Khan. “It is like the name of Shah Rukh Khan” (the bollywood Superstar), he said as if to save me from getting Khan shocked.
Srinagar looked like Bangalore and Mysore of yesteryears and I didn’t feel too interested to explore the city. There were hardly any tourists as the month of Ramzan was on and shops shuttered down by dusk. I hired an auto and made a trip to the J&K bus stand but the counters were closed and I was advised to come at 7 am next morning by a cleaner of the bus that was supposed to leave next day for Leh. It was also a 25 seater and I asked if there were no better buses such as Volvos. A man who appeared like a supervisor laughed and remarked: How could there be Volvos where there are no roads! While returning the auto driver suggested that I should have stayed at another part of Srinagar from where a lot of private buses plied to Leh. I had roti and dal dinner at Lal Chowk area and not finding any internet browsing center open returned to the boat by 9 pm. It was quite a large one but was stable like a rock anchored by the bank of the canal. Down the canal one could go to the expanse of Dal lake where the Shikara boats took people on short rides around. That’s the kind we see in romantic film songs.
Morning dawned quietly and as I walked on with my trekking bag fastened to my back I saw some men walking briskly and a few women exercising in public parks. There was a newspaper vendor stacking the dailies at a street corner.
I asked for Times of India and he thrust in my hand an English daily called Kashmiri Times. It had the tone of any other regional newspaper in India but in English instead of local language.
There was an armed soldier at every intersection of the roads. The cleaner of the bus at the terminal said the tickets were sold out but “kindly” offered to take me along in the cabin of the bus without ticket. The idea was annoying to me and I decided to check at the counter if seats were available in some other bus at least up to Kargil, the halfway point between Srinagar and Leh itself. Surprisingly seats were available for Leh itself and I could get a window seat in the third row. Do you know the journey takes two days? Yes, I said and handed over Rs. 950 the official fare for the journey and took the ticket.
(…to be continued…)