We had by now already tried to make our way into Kashmir twice. If you’ve read my previous posts, you would know that both attempts were unsuccessful (if you haven’t read them, you know now). One route was blocked by snow and the other one by a particularly difficult CRPF official. So, the only option that we had left was to set aside any ideas of taking the road less travelled and simply find our way back onto the more mainstream route.
Based on the map that we had for reference, we figured that we would first need to ride from where we were (Nainikhad, in Himachal Pradesh) to Pathankot (in Punjab). From Pathankot, we would find the Srinagar-Kanyakumari Highway and hence be on the aforesaid “mainstream route” into Kashmir. Udhampur was about 200 kilometres away through this route, and seemed like a safe option for the destination for the day. Given that we had no clue about the road-conditions, the terrain or traffic (it had by now been several weeks since we had ridden in what is considered normal Indian traffic) and that we were off to a late start (as usual), we expected that we would be unlikely to cover any additional distance.
I had discovered a grating noise while shunting the bike around the evening before. It was likely that this was the chain complaining (very loudly) because it had not been adequately cared for. A thorough cleaning of the chain did not make the situation better. I didn’t have any chain lubricant handy, so the next best option was to find the nearest mechanic and lubricate the chain with engine oil. I found a mechanic just a few hundred metres after we left from the home for the night at Nainikhad, and he even happened to have a can of legit lubricant. It was the most expensive spray of anything my bike has ever received, but I was hopeful that she would run happily and more quietly now.
Some focused mile-munching followed. Distance was covered quickly, and before we knew it, we were at the border between Himachal Pradesh and Punjab. I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of emotion about leaving Himachal Pradesh behind. It had been the most exciting part of the ride so far. But, onward and forward we must go.
What I didn’t know then though, was that we had now crossed into the State where we would spend the least amount of time. Just a few kilometres into Punjab, we came across a fork in the road with a board that showed Pathankot and Udhampur as being in different directions. At first, this didn’t make sense, because as per the information we had, we needed to ride West to Pathankot, then ride North towards Jammu and then make our way East to Uddhampur. Was this board incorrect? My curiousity got the better of me and I decided to stop and find out whether there actually was an alternate route to Udhampur (could it be shorter?). As luck would have it, we had stumbled upon a shortcut. From what we were told by the locals, this route to Udhampur through Basohli and Dharamkot had been recently done-up and was in great shape too.
Given the bad luck we’d had with such detours so far, we should probably have been a little bit more hesitant about setting off down yet another unknown route. This one, however, turned out to be absolutely fantastic. The roads were in top-shape (for the most part), and the route was quite scenic. We rode through several small villages, a few forests and even got some lovely views of the River Ravi. There were several times when we thought we were lost, but it eventually got us to where it promised, in great comfort and without encountering much traffic.
My bike was being a bit of a fuss-pot though. The chain noise was back – louder and more ominous than earlier. I was now worried that a worn out chain sprocket might be the culprit. That would be really bad news because I wasn’t sure if i’d be able to find a replacement part easily and it would also likely cost me a fair bit of money and time. After the debacle with the battery at Dharamshala, I was really hoping that I wasn’t now up for another whopper of a bill. We figured that Udhampur was probably the best place to try and get this sorted out. So, we dropped the riding pace significantly, and I eventually managed to coax my bike all the way to Udhampur in one piece.
After asking around at a few places, we managed to find a “mistri” (mechanic) in Uddhampur who specialised in dealing with Royal Enfields. Given that this town is on the route that most people take when riding their towards Leh (through Srinagar), the mechanic was familiar with the problem at hand. He assured me that he would be able to fix the problem without replacing anything. This was wonderful to hear. In today’s time, a mechanic who fixes things, instead of simply replacing everything directly or indirectly related to it, is very hard to find. The bike needed to be unloaded and re-loaded, but in fifteen minutes and for a charge of only INR 30, he fixed, adjusted, cleaned and lubricated the chain on my bike. Things were quiet once again.
Even though Udhampur was our original destination for the day, thanks to the shortcut that we had taken, we had made really good time. Despite the slower pace and the time spent fixing up the bike, we were all set to ride again by 3:00 pm. Patnitop was only about 50-kilometres away, so we decided to make a go for it.
Overall, this was a good decision, but implementing it definitely wasn’t comfortable or easy. Soon after we left Udhampur, we ran into the most intense of traffic jams that I’ve ever seen. Parts of the highway were under construction which meant that there were several bottlenecks. The fact that this is a route used by several thousands of trucks of all shapes and sizes (it’s the primary route in and out of Kashmir) made matters infinitely worse. And then there were the military vehicles. I knew that J&K is a highly militarised zone, but I could never have imagined what I saw. I was convinced that every single military vehicle in India was in the area between Udhampur and Patnitop that day. It was absolute madness. The air was polluted by diesel fumes and the traffic jams stretched for miles. The fact that military vehicles don’t stay in their lane only added to the drama. Whenever they encounter a traffic jam, they simply get onto the opposite lane and drive against traffic until they block that side of the road too. Since they move in convoys, the first one will be followed by another hundred similar vehicles that all will come park behind and create a complete gridlock. I’ve never ever been more grateful to have been on a motorcycle. While people in cars sat watching, or in the case of the more sensible ones, began to set up their homes for the night beside their cars, I was able to manoeuvre the motorcycle through the narrowest of gaps and eventually find a way through the chaos.
It was physically exhausting. It had taken us over 3 hours to cover 30-odd kilometres and nightfall was setting in pretty quickly. Rather than ride the remaining distance to Patnitop, we decided to find a home in the little town of Kud, a few kilometres before. We figured that it would be safer (no riding in the dark), and we were more likely to find a budget place to stay. We were right on both counts. This is also where I found my first TRC (Tourist Reception Centre) and consequently JKTDC (Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Development Corporation) accommodation – the twins that make staying in most places in J&K affordable and effortless.
For the most part, the system is fairly simple and is as follows – (a) as soon as you enter a town, seek out and find the local TRC; go to the TRC; (b) ask them about the accommodation options that they have (they usually have options across price ranges); (c) find out about the facilities available (nearly all the rooms I stayed in didn’t have hot water, Facepalm) (d) ask them about availability (duh!); (e) ask them whether they can offer you a room in a better premises at the price of a lower one (this usually doesn’t happen as rates are fixed in most places. But I was able to get a better deal at a premises that was run by a private operator on tender); (f) ask for a discount (same as (e)); and (g) find your room and find your peace. The budget rooms are usually very simple and surprisingly clean.
While I was unloading my bike, I had the good fortune to meet one of the most interesting characters ever. I won’t name the gentleman in question because he is a reasonably popular figure, and because the encounter, while humorous was harmless (so no bad blood). This chap rode in on his motorcycle, a Royal Enfield, in fact. He parked his bike next to mine, got off and introduced himself to me as “Biker”. All he said was “Hi Bro, I am Biker” (I guess some people are really into this “biking” thing huh?). I try not to judge motorcyclists too quickly (we can be a pretty odd bunch), but this introduction had set an all-new standard. Deciding that I could chuckle about it later, I got back to my work. I was once again interrupted by the gentleman. This time he wanted to know whether I had watched his “viral video” on YouTube. I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about so I told him that I hadn’t and that I had absolutely no way of knowing what he was talking about. It’s pertinent to mention here that while I was struggling with my bags and the bike, this chap was able to stand around making small-talk because he had brought along with him a stooge whose job was to unload his bike and carry the luggage to his room. So while that was running on auto-pilot (or auto-stooge?), my new friend had all the time in the world to chat with me. Anyway, so he was very disappointed with me for not knowing his “viral video”. He told me not to worry or feel bad though because this happens with all “new bikers”. He began to walk away, but then came back to ask me whether I was “on a ride”. I was standing next to my motorcycle and I had already told him that I was a long way from any place that I called home. I wasn’t sure what he really wanted to know. Instead of responding to him, I mumbled a few words and tried to ask him the same question (I figured that’s what he wanted me to do anyway). His response came before I could even complete my question. “I’m not here to ride, I’m here to shoot next viral video!”. That made sense. Never mess with a man who only shoots viral videos (videos that are viral when they are shot? before they are shot? I have no clue).
More than enough entertainment for one day. I was not going to count this as day one in Jammu and Kashmir. I had high hopes for the state and would wait until tomorrow to start figuring out what I think about it.
Route: Nainikhad – Dunera – Basohli – Dharamkot – Udhampur – Kud
- The roads till the Himachal Pradesh-Punjab border were not in great shape. Once you enter Punjab, things get a lot better.
- The shorter route to Udhampur through Dunera and Dharamkot saves a lot of time and significantly reduces the distance that you need to cover.
- After Udhampur, hope and pray that you don’t run into traffic. I was told that there are stretches where traffic flow is regulated and allowed in only a single direction at certain times. I’m not sure whether this was only because of the ongoing road-work. It’s best to check before you journey on this route.
Motorcycle Maintenance Learnings:
Chains loosen and chains get dirty and chains dry up. Prevention is better than cure. Adjusting, cleaning and lubricating after every 500 kilometres (less if you are riding in slushy, muddy, dusty or otherwise dirty terrain) is an absolute must.