India - Part 1

Punjab - Kashmir - Ladakh 

GPS tracks and waypoints

11/6 Not much has changed at the Pakistani border, except they now have PCs. The Indian side has been completely rebuilt with a large processing hall with aircon. Only two other backpackers walk through during the whole time I'm there. Most staff just sit around bored or read papers. Another page in my carnet is messed up, as the inexperienced officer starts filling in an export voucher. I ride into Amritsar straight to the Guest House, for which Lars has given me a waypoint. As I pull in I realise I have been here before, on my last trip, except it was dark then and we weren't allowed to stay here, or anywhere in town. It's all relaxed now, hardly a uniform to be seen today. There are lots more cars and advertising billboards, but trucks and buses are just as decrepit as back then. Lots of women are about and some drive cars or ride bikes. I don't have a thermometer, but it's not much less hot than yesterday, but now it is getting humid, too.

12/6 After another very disturbed night with lack of sleep I rise early to a cool, humid morning. I'm soon on my way towards Kashmir, but first I get lost again in town, despite the signs. The roads are surprisingly good and initially there isn't too much traffic, so I make good progress. Until Pathankot I pass three wrecked trucks, two on their sides and one with a smashed cab. Once out of Punjab and into Himachal Pradesh navigation becomes interesting again, as all signs are in Hindi only. I decide to take a back road past Jammu and travel some tiny, but good roads through Dalhousie and Chamba. Somewhere I pick up route 35 which should get me into the state of Jammu & Kashmir. After two short and disturbed nights I find staying awake difficult. The problem is, there are no places to stay anywhere. The brown hills turn into green-clad mountains and in the afternoon it starts to look and smell like the Alps with pines everywhere. I first smell trouble when a biker stops, asks where I'm going and says that further up police may not let me through. There are road works and stretches of new seal, but traffic thins out to nothing, then the seal ends and a few km further the end: the cops tell me that due to "terrorist activity" the area beyond is restricted and the road has been abandoned, closed by slips, etc. I have to go back all the way and after about 20 km I find a PWD Rest House, where I can stay the night.

On the way back I ride on the other side of a hydro lake and turn off onto a small mountain road. Supposedly it comes down again somewhere, but it turns out to be a dead end. There are lots of lantanas, one of my favourite plants, as they are pretty, flower for a long time and attract lots of interesting insects. Down in the valley it gets hot and humid again, there is a little rain. I better get going, otherwise I will miss Gilles again. Near a large dam there is a big sign "Udhampur 120 km", but a smaller one says "restricted area" and the barrier stays closed, the soldiers send me on a detour. Down in the river gorge below the dam I get stopped again: they tell me that now I'm in the middle of the restricted area. This is confusing, as there is no other road. They stop a pickup, talk to the driver and I have to follow it to the next turnoff. Why do I attract trouble with uniforms all the time? Now I'm on the right road, nice and green, it winds its way past the resevoir and through low hills. There are many villages, but there is nowhere to stay or pitch the tent. I end up in a grotty guesthouse, the power is off and the water stops as soon as I need it. Later the owner turns up, introduces himself as a vet. He's a motormouth and describes in great details some sites in the region I must visit. When I want to ask questions "you just listen".

I take at least a quick look at the first of the sites recommended by my host. It's a pretty little lake so full of fish, I can see them jumping out of the water all the time. Getting to it is a bit of a mission, as most of the lake front is taken up by resorts, etc. At a temple I can see why there is so much fish: people feed them and they come to the steps literally on top of each other. Site number two supposedly requires a 14 km hike uphill with pilgrim crowds. I'm not going there.

After Udhampur the driving is hell. Steep mountain road, endless convoys of trucks and buses, many of them military, honking and overtaking on blind bends. Soldiers and military vehicles line the road right into and within Srinagar. I get the impression the Indian Army is moving most of its force into Kashmir. Somewhere down in the Kashmir valley I get behind a small VIP escort. We arrive at a major traffic jam and they just continue on the wrong side of the road. When they meet the first oncoming vehicle everything comes to a stop. They may think they are more important than ordinary mortals, but the queue of oncoming traffic isn't about to evaporate to make room for them. They forbid me to pass them, but I just get past the whole lot of several km of log jam on the dirt and grass verge. Seems the jam was caused by an army and a police convoy meeting in a village. Since there is nowhere for them to go I wonder how many days it takes to sort out this mess. Srinagar is a city under siege, it seems. Armed uniformed people everywhere, armoured vehicles and they have taken over a large number of big hotels and public buildings. Other than that the city is quiet, apart from the madcap traffic, which has gotten a lot worse since my last visit. I find Lars' waypoint to a hotel and then discover that Gilles has arrived a few hours earlier in another hotel.

15/6 I surprise Gilles again in his hotel. We seem to get on well and decide to travel together for a while. He tells some harrowing tales of his stay in Lahore, where the temperature was the highest in 78 years at 51C. He negotiated hellish traffic in Lahore for an hour before arriving in a nice 4-star guest house in a University, but the power went off, so he had a much worse time than I had at the border.





16/6 We wander around the backstreets of Srinagar, looking at the houseboats and how the locals live.


17/6 A little excursion to Gulmarg. Last trip this was under snow and there weren't many people there, but it is a sunny Sunday and the place is packed. I quickly escape, but turn towards Baramulla, where I cruise leasurely along a small road through the hills and small villages. There are women working in a field singing loudly, making for a nice atmosphere.

18/6 Posting a letter takes some time in India, so we leave after lunch. Anyway, we are not in a hurry, we only want to go to Kargil, 200 km. It turns out to be a perfect day, initially at least, with clear sky, good roads, great scenery and a pleasant temperature. The road climbs gently and steadily until Sonamarg. After that it's dirt, rough and single lane with an endless line of trucks, which sometimes block the road. It's now getting cold and overcast. The scenery also changes slowly, the rice paddies give way to pastures and pine forests. There are lots of nomads about with horses and many other animals. We cross the Zoji-La pass at about 3545 m. We meet three Indians on Enfields and another group passes by later, but they only wave without stopping. There is plenty of space to pitch a tent down on the other side of the pass, but due to the cold and the dodgy looking weather we decide to try to get a room. 

We can't make it to Kargil in daylight, so we stop in Dras, but all 3 hotels claim to be full. So do the people at the tourist bungalows, but we can pitch the tents. Before we are able to do that an old fellow arrives and after a short conversation with Gilles we have a room. There is nobody staying here, seems the staff couldn't be bothered. Settled into our room we hear the thumping of "real" bike engines in the dark. A group on Indians pulls in on 9 bikes, all Enfield Bullets. One of them is on crutches: he dropped his bike and broke some bones in his foot. That doesn't stop him from riding pillion!


We don't have far to go, so we leave late and take our time on the good road, stop often to take photos and smell the many flowers. The weather is just perfect. Near Kargil we are only about 5 km from the Line of Control separating India and Pakistan. Needless to say there is military everywhere. In Kargil we change Gilles' tyres.





20/6 Rest and work day. For our trip to Zanskar we buy a couple of plastic canisters (jerry cans don't exist here), although they leak. Fixing them to our bikes, especially mine, is a bit of a challenge. Since I'm running out of chain lube and you can't by any in India I buy some oil in a spray can.