I was 17 years perhaps, when I have for the first time made a trip with my friends to Digha, a sea beach at East Midnapore, West Bengal. We have come across a gang of ghumakkars, who were discussing about a trip to Leh-Ladhak by road. They were though older but we befriended since we were sharing adjacent rooms in the same hotel. They had a route map and few pictures of some of their relatives and friends who had visit the place few days back. They were describing their daring tour boastingly in the horrific terrain. I was jealous and firmly decided to conduct the tour some day by road. Alas! No body met my way in almost twenty years who would join me for the tour. I bought a Yamaha Rx 100 bike, just for the road trip to Leh – Ladhak out of my hard saved pocket money in 1993 and offered free tour to my entire friends and colleagues but no one ever actually agreed accompanying me for the trip for one reasons or other.
Finally God was kind enough and I got an opportunity to go on Amarnath Yatra in July 2012 alongwith two of my colleagues. I managed convincing them to go in my car (Swift Vxi), after little hesitation they agreed. Gradually and immaculately I managed to extend the trip to Leh and return via Manali. I confess, I didn’t disclose them regarding the usual hardships and adversity of the terrain and presented only the lighter and enjoyable side of the road journey. One of them was a good driver but on plains hence, I was prepared to undertake the uphill journey.
It was planned to visit Amarnathji first via Baltal and then go to Leh. We were expecting to get a helicopter ticket at Baltal to avoid the hardships of the steep uphill trek. Loaded with woolens, inners, trekking shoes, shades, umbrella, rain coat, a rucksack, torch, some chocolates, dry fruits, sunscreen lotion and other necessary items of regular use and a fitness certificate from registered medical practitioner (mandatory for Amarnath yatra) we headed enthusiastically for the holy yatra for a glimpse of the magical view of the natural Shiv Ling, originates with natural phenomena at Amarnath cave. However, simultaneously I was overwhelmed with the mere though of finally heading for the dream destination LADHAK.
After a quick check of my car in Maruti authorized service centre, we started our journey from Janakpuri, New Delhi with tank full and wheels with proper air done, at or around 5 PM on 13.07.2012. Two of us were on the front seat and one at the rear. We decided to maintain a steady and permissible speed with a minimum run of 300 kms before a break for dinner. The fuel tank with a capacity of 45 liters petrol was supposed to dry only after 650 kms run. I was steering upto Ludhiana via the GT Karnal Road i.e. NH-2, which is almost very well maintained and reached there at 10.30 PM with a total run of 330 kms effortlessly. We were pretty happy to maintain the speed as per our plan. After having dinner and resting on the charpai (cots) available at one of the motels in Ludhiana – Jallandhar road, we started for the onward journey at 11.30 PM, the driver changed and I shifted to the rear seat for a nap.
As per our plans we were supposed to reach Patni Top in J&K via Udhampur early next morning by driving another 350 kms. The road upto Udhampur is almost on plains so I decided the second driver to keep the pace upto Udhampur atleast, after which I was supposed to drive in the hills. The road from Ludhiana onwards was almost solitary with rarely any traffic except few tourist buses plying from Delhi to Jammu & Katra. The fuel indicator was showing low after crossing Jallandhar and fuel pumps were not readily available open on the highways, so we decided to fill the tank at Samba, J&K from where you take a right turn towards Udhampur, avoiding the hustles of Jammu. After refueling and sipping a cup of tea at a small tea stall adjacent to the service station at Samba, we were back in the car. My colleague after driving for another half an hour seemed fatigued and drowsy. Immediately therefore, I took the command of the wheel. By that time we were only 100 kms short of Patni Top and it was 4.30 am. Driving at dawn, I believe is very prone to accidents (especially after over night journeys) therefore, I cautiously steered the car at a normal speed of not more than 60 kms per hour. After an hour’s driving the sky gradually, beautifully lighten up and the hilly road started. I was excited to have a glance of the beautiful view of the hills, valleys and greenery after a long journey in the darkness. We were in J&K now and I could breathe the fragrance of freshness in the air of heaven on earth comprised with an unknown fear in mind of confronting any untoward incident being in J&K. The CRPF jawans loaded with sophisticated weapons, dressed in bullet proof jackets with a vigil eye on every passer, patrolling every 200 meters on both sides of the serene road was however, the guaranteed relief. (Salute to our defense personnel). At 7.30 AM we were at Patni Top covering a total journey of around 700 kms., completed comfortably in approximately 13 hours, non-stop.
We were very excited to see the breathtaking view of Patni Top. We parked our car at Patni Top chowk and simultaneously searched hotels/resorts in and around. A J&K police official helped us by informing about a reasonably rated and ideally located resort which was located at the edge of the valley approachable by alighting few steep kuchha steps. We were lucky to find a room at a negotiable rate of Rs. 1,650/- per night for three. The weather all of a sudden was chilly and dry cold breeze blowing with aroma of freshness, taking away our entire exhaustion instantly. After shifting into the hotel we decided to sleep for a few hours after refreshing and having a light breakfast before exploring the nature’s gifted beauty of the place. The name of the hotel was “Hotel Greenland’. The other places to stay in Patni Top are Patni Top Resort, a JKTDC run Tourist Lodge and a few budget hotels too. (Better to book in advance)
At 2 PM, after a sound sleep we woke refreshed, full of enthusiasm. A sumptuous meal cooked in a homely fashion, ideally spicy and the dining table in the open lawn made out of crudely crafted tree logs rejuvenated and filled us with instant energy required in acclimatizing in the altitude and trekking the up hills throughout the onward destinations. After finishing our lunch, we decided to loiter around in the local; since there is not much to visit we just walked through the road, climbed some hills and had Bhutta (Corn) roasted in lighted twigs by the natives. I can’t forget the taste of the corns it was so delicious, sweet and juicy with fragrance of smoke that we had two each. Suddenly it started drizzling and the weather changed from affordable chilly to bitter cold. The strong cold breeze added in forcing us rush into our hotel. Early to bed early to rise, but before going to bed we reconciled the plan to onward journey and unanimously decided to start as early as possible next morning to reach Baltal via Sonamarg before dusk, as there was a risk of getting stuck at any point for giving way to the military convoys or due to any unprecedented incidents / reasons in J & K.
Next morning at 6 AM we were ready to move, the morning was pleasantly cool and the valley was lush green due to rain on previous night, washing away the minimal dust on the leaves and flowers. The fragrance of pine and rhododendrons refreshed our mood, after cleaning the car through a local boy; we headed with utmost titillation toward our next destination. I was back on the steering, now the road was completely hilly with multiple curves, potholes, pebbled, muddy and narrow at some points however, it’s a national highway and mostly well maintained, broader and plain specially after crossing the Jawahar Tunnel, the gateway to Kashmir.
The distance from Patni Top to Baltal is around 325 KMS, hence we were confident to reach there in 7-8 hours. We planned to have breakfast at Anantnag after driving 135 KMS and supposed to reach there by 10 AM. The journey was full of excitement and we were overwhelmed to drive traversing rivers, dense pine forest, valleys, high rising and rolling down roads at times. The mesmerizing serenity was hindered only by some military trucks, gypsy, loaded TATA trucks and Jathas of pilgrims heading towards the Holy Amarnath Cave. My colleagues were busy clicking photographs and making videos all the way. I was however, just longing the glimpse of the most picturesque, barren, highest desert on earth. After a few more kilometers, we suddenly caught sight of a tunnel with number of military personnel checking all vehicles. Hey it was the Jawahar Tunnel, believe me, one CRPF jawan came closer to me and saluted. I was astonished, don’t misunderstand, I was in fact wearing a military cap and that was the confusion which he realised soon. After checking our vehicle with a very friendly and courteous but military attitude, we were allowed to enter into the tunnel. Cunningly we captured a few shots of the tunnel, from distance of course. It was dark inside the tunnel with growling noise of the other vehicles running inside but the thrill was sky high as we were now nearing towards the actual Kashmir Valley. The length of the tunnel is about 3 KMS. It is a piece of engineering marvel built by two German architects and christened after the first Prime Minister of India, operational since 1956 between 8 AM to 12 midnight. The tunnel is now maintained by the BRO and has been renovated several times, also known as Banihal Tunnel.
Just after coming out of the tunnel we were in Anantnag district, a completely different landscape awaited to greet us in the heavenly adobe that accrue the thrill with lush greenery of the valley, even the air seems filled with exotic fragrance and one impromptu feel younger in heart and jubilant and ecstatically romantic. A view point with a board of TITANIC VIEW POINT is ideally located on the left side of the highway and no visitors I guess can pass without a short break at this point. The Kashmiri handicrafts are available at sale by mobile vendors, no idea of its authenticity however, nothing wrong in bargaining. A few snaps to banta hai boss and so we did. After a short break, a few clicks and filling our lungs with the refreshing oxygen, we were back on wheels with a better pace both because of the extra energy gained at the previous halt and also the road now was broader and straighter.
Suddenly after driving a few minutes from the Jawahar Tunnel, we were stunned by the sight of agitating wild mob on the highway equipped with Lathis, Swords and knives, shouting aloud and stone pelting on something which was not visible. A few trucks and local cars were on halt and waiting helplessly. I kept my car away from the site of turbulence and positioned it in a way that it can easily be turned around in case of emergency to flee. Honestly, all our smiles vanished and vulnerable thoughts engulfed our mind. I pretended to be calm and showing some dare went off the car to ask about the incident to a couple in a local JK number Alto. They smiled and replied, everything will come under control after the CRPF arrive the venue. We found the J&K Police standing mute with no actions against the agitating mob.