My head had been filled with all the wrong information about Jammu and Kashmir (from a traveller’s perspective). I’d learnt about its conflict-ridden past while in school. It’s volatile and unstable present is constantly in the news. The stories of travel in Kashmir that I’d heard from my parents (they went there on their honeymoon), friends and colleagues usually began with descriptions of its extreme beauty and rich culture, but eventually almost always veered towards the subject of safety. In J&K, things can go wrong at any time and at any place, I was told.
Any resultant hesitation that I had about travelling to J&K, however, faded away significantly once I was on the road. I was now looking forward to find out about it for myself. The transition into Kashmir had been seamless. Apart from the increased military presence (which was very in your face), Kud felt just like any other place in Himachal Pradesh. It wasn’t significantly prettier (which was disappointing), but it did not feel unsafe (which was a good thing). The people I interacted with after I’d entered J&K were warmer and more hospitable than some I’d met in several other parts of the country. The policemen whom I asked for directions (and suggestions on places to stay) looked intimidating at first, sitting behind sand bags and armed with more guns than they could hold, but turned out to be incredibly patient and helpful. I remember riding past them several times after I’d first asked them for directions (the place I was staying was a little difficult to find), and they would wave to me each time. The manager and staff at the Tourist Reception Centre at the JKTDC in Kud were warm and friendly. They helped unload the bikes (which is not something that many people do), and sat with me the next morning to help me plan a route through Kashmir. These may be small things. But they went a long way in making me feel at ease.
This was very relevant to how the rest of my first day in Kashmir panned out. At the time when I had reached Kud, I had assumed that after halting there for the night, we would make our way to Srinagar – the way most people who use this route usually go. However, when I woke up the next day, well rested and capable of thinking better, I wondered why we were now in a hurry. Did we really want to go straight to Srinagar and commence the ascent into Ladakh right away? It didn’t feel right. It seemed like I would be passing up on the perfect opportunity to see some other parts of Kashmir too.
So, we began to toss around the idea of taking a different route to Srinagar. The first place that came to mind was obviously the place that had remained elusive thus far – Kishtwar (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you should read my posts about the 2 times before that we had tried and failed to make it to Kishtwar – here and here). On enquiring, I was told that the roads from Kud to Kishtwar were in decent shape. While the ride would not be even remotely as exciting or dangerous as the route from Killar to Kishtwar, it held the promise of taking us down some scenic routes. The locals that I spoke to in Kud also seemed very certain that the route was safe. We would need to be very unlucky for something to go wrong, they said. There was nothing specific that we planned to see or do in Kishtwar. But since we now finally had a safe and clear route we decided to not let it remain out of reach any longer. We wouldn’t be riding to Srinagar. It was finally time to go to Kishtwar.
Time to Ride
The ride day began quite ordinarily. The weather was clear and the bikes were well-behaved. First, we needed to make our way to a place called Doda. You’d expect a four-lettered name to be easy on the tongue, but as I soon found out, there were two schools of thought when it came to pronunciation of this particular name. As my luck would have it, the person I asked for directions to “Dhodd-aa” would be one that pronounces the name of the place as “Dodd-aa” and vice-versa. As a result, I would usually first be reprimanded (kindly, for the most part) for my incorrect pronunciation and subsequently pointed along in the direction that I needed to go. The fact that I had been warned that the branch-off from the Srinagar Highway was easy to miss meant that despite a growing sense of helplessness with regard to the pronunciation issue (I don’t like constantly being told that I’m wrong about something, particularly when there appears to be no right way to do that thing anyway) I had to frequently stop and ensure that we hadn’t passed the turn. I eventually happened to ask a chap on a Honda Dio (a 125cc Japanese-engineered automatic geared scooter) for directions. Instead of just waving his arms and asking me to “keep riding and then turn right”, he very helpfully suggested that I follow him because he was headed to a town that was en route to Doda. No more pronunciation issues. Small joys.
But if only things could be that simple. Soon after we began following him we ran into an intense traffic jam. The chap on the little scooter was able to weave through the narrowest of gaps and make his way ahead. We, on the other hand, could not fit the big backsides of our bikes through these gaps and had to twiddle our thumbs and wait until things cleared up instead. Our leader on a scooter was, by now, out of sight. But before we could give up hope and ask for directions again, we spotted him waiting for us to catch up. We rode together until the turn-off a few kilometres ahead. Assuming that we had now found the road to Doda, I thanked him for having helped us and then slowed down to look for a place to grab a quick breakfast.
Most of the shops in the village that we were passing seemed to be shut. We decided to ride on and find food further ahead. Hardly a kilometre down the road, we reached a fork. One road went a little to the left, and the other was almost a U-turn. There was no sign board to offer guidance. Whilst I was standing there figuring out what to do, a policeman came up to me and asked me if I was going to Doda. I was a bit puzzled that this could be so obvious. He went on to tell me that a man on a scooter had told him that 2 bikes with a whole lot of luggage would be coming down the road soon, and that since he had to leave in a hurry, asked this policeman to guide us in the direction of Doda whenever we reached the fork. 16-odd hours in Kashmir and the people were taking being kind and helpful to a whole different level.
We found breakfast a few kilometres further down the road. Once the issue of hunger had been suitably tackled, we were able to settle into a comfortable riding rhythm. The roads were in decent shape and we were able to gun the bikes through the twisties with confidence. The route we were on traced its way along the River Chenab. We caught some lovely views of the river every now and then. We were making good time and decided to stop at a little village on the outskirts of Doda to rehydrate.
The shopkeeper at the local village store was a mightily curious chap. He had several questions about where we were from, where we were going and what we intended to achieve out of all of this. He seemed affable and keen to help. When I told him that we were going to Kishtwar, he suggested that we should go to Bhaderwah first and only then go to Kishtwar. He had been to both places and believed that Bhaderwah was a lot more scenic than Kishtwar. By now a small crowd had gathered at the shop, all of whom agreed with the shopkeeper. Bhaderwah had been on our list of places to go if we had used either of the previously attempted routes to Kishtwar from Himachal Pradesh. About 2 kilometres later, at Pul Doda, instead of crossing the bridge and riding towards Kishtwar, we continued straight and set-off on the 32-kilometre ride to Bhaderwah.
The road was in great shape for the first 5 kilometres. Thereafter, it went from bad to worse very quickly. We hadn’t expected the detour to take us more than an hour. But, 2 hours later we were stopping for fuel at a petrol pump about 7 kilometres away from Bhaderwah. We clearly hadn’t made the most sensible decision, but having come this far, we decided to see it through and go see Bhaderwah anyway.
I’d expected Bhaderwah to be a lot higher (in terms of altitude) than it turned out to be. There were snow-capped mountains visible in the distance, but the town itself felt like it was in the plains. We found the local Tourist Reception Centre (TRC) to see if we could find place to bunk. It turned out that this particular property had been given to a private operator on tender, and the rates quoted reflected the profit-focus of the enterprise. After some haggling, we were eventually offered a bed in the most dodgy looking dormitory at INR 450 a head. When I’m on the road, I’m not averse to the idea of staying in a dodgy place, but I am principally opposed to paying through my nose to stay at such a place. We beat a hasty retreat. Rather than try to find a place to stay in a town that didn’t seem particularly fascinating, we decided to turn around and get our ride back on track. Kishtwar was now 80-odd kilometres away (30 back down the route we just came and 50 thereafter). Having burnt our fingers with this adventure, it seemed sensible to quietly get back to the original plan (which was not the ‘original’ original plan (which was to ride to Srinagar), but was original enough to be considered an original plan).
So, back to Pul Doda we went. This time it took us longer as the road was blocked at several places. We eventually reached Pul Doda at about 3:00 in the afternoon. This time, we crossed the bridge.
Back on Track
The roads weren’t great on this side of the river either, but the views got a lot better. The road runs along the River Chenab. Irrespective of whether you gain or lose altitude, the river somehow never seems to be more than 500 metres away, even thought it might be several kilometres below. Traffic was sparse. As I alternated between enjoying the ride and the view, the same handful of vehicles kept me company.
We were fighting against the clock (thanks to the hours wasted going to Bhaderwah and back), which meant that we didn’t stop to photograph the landscape as often as I would have liked. Sadly there were no tea stalls on this highway. The craving for my magic elixir hit an all-time high. With much grit and determination, we eventually made our way into Kishtwar at around 6:30 in the evening. We got lost twice before we eventually found the TRC. We also got stopped by policemen 3 times before we achieved the said feat. Thankfully, they were all only curious to know where we came from and did not hassle us for documents or anything else.
This TRC too had been given out on private tender. We were initially told that a double room would set us back by INR 800 per night. But that was only until the manager sauntered in. He was a carefree chap, who decided instantly that we were going to be friends. He told us to not worry about the rent and that we could pay whatever we were comfortable with. So, we agreed on INR 400 a night as rent (for 2 people), and as a part of the deal, he would get to ride each of our bikes from the parking lot to the front of the building where the rooms were. Everyone involved was happy. All the time spent playing monopoly and striking innovative deals was coming to good use.
The room at the TRC in Kishtwar was massive. We could have parked our motorcycles inside the room (along with the bed, cupboards, tables and sofas) and still had space to spare. It also had a balcony with a view of several snow-capped peaks. As soon as we walked in, we knew that we had found a place where we were going to stay an extra night. While I was looking at the room, my new friend had ridden my bike all the way up to the portico of the building and was regaling a small audience of his staff with his stories of his motorcycling exploits. Once they were done with their little show-and-tell, I was allowed to access and unload my bike.
Living on a budget teaches you several things. One of the most important lessons that I learnt, thanks to my circumstances, was that there is no better way to fight off the fatigue of a long day of riding in the mountains than by taking a shower in ice-cold water. Even though hot water seemed to be on offer (vaguely), it never found its way to my room. The task of showering in cold water in cold weather is nothing short of awful. But it really gives you a second lease of life. In this case, it gave me the jolt of energy needed to take the bike out to go find some dinner. We discovered our first “Vaishno Dhaba” (which is what affordable ‘pure’ vegetarian restaurants are called in Kashmir), where we totally lost the plot (by my standards). That night, we feasted on Paneer, Dal and butter-laden Parathas. We had finally arrived in Kishtwar, we deserved to be indulgent.
Route: Kud – Patnitop – Doda – Bhaderwah – Doda – Kishtwar
- The route from Kud to Doda was in decent shape and was a lot of fun to ride.
- Don’t expect to be able to maintain the same pace after Doda. The roads aren’t as good and get more winding. The views also get better, so you may be tempted to stop more often. This should be factored in while planning your ride day.
- The villages along the way (after Doda) feel very different from the ones before it. They are very quiet and brooding. I guess they’ve not been touched by tourism (which is a good thing). It was my first day in Kashmir and I didn’t feel comfortable enough to stop in most of these villages. I may have felt differently about this if I had ridden this route after having already spent a few days in the region.
- Food isn’t available in too many places along the way. So make sure you eat on time or whenever you find food. I made the mistake of deciding to wait till we went a bit further and ended up skipping lunch.