(Disclosure upfront – just like the journey, this is a very long blog post!)
5th July – After an unbelievable nine months traveling overland from Ethiopia to South Africa, we flew overnight from Cape Town to Delhi via Dubai.
6th July – Our flights went well and we caught the metro in to town. At the station, we were told that last minute tourist train tickets are no longer sold at the station so we ran around Delhi (first to the Tourist Office where they tried to sell us a package and then to a travel agency) trying to buy a train ticket in 40 degree heat. It was so so hot we were sweating absolutely everywhere! It reminded us of our sweaty Simien Mountains trek in Ethiopia and our week in Djibouti!
Eventually we headed back to the station where we had started two hours earlier and found the International Tourist Bureau office to buy our ticket for Jammu. We bought 3rd class sleeper Foreign Tourist Quota seats for that night for 450 rupees (£5).
We had a delicious curry for lunch then spent a relaxing afternoon in the shade of the Lodhi gardens hiding from the heat and eating ice lollies.
Our train was due to leave at 21.20 and at 23.40 we set off. It was a comfortable sleeper train with lots of chai and delicious snacks sold on-board. Arriving in Jammu at 12.30 (July 7th), we caught a local bus to the bus station to ask about getting to Srinagar. As the journey was 9 hours (i.e 11 or more) we decided to not drive in the dark and to rather spend the day in Jammu (we also decided against the night bus). After lunch and a visit to the Raghunath temple, one of the largest temple complexes in northern India, we headed to the Baghdad-e-Bahu Park for a resbite from the sweltering heat (it was still very high 30’s!)
8th July – We were up at 4.30 am and at the bus station for 5. We quickly found a shared jeep and left at 5.15. It was already getting light so we were off to a good start!
Ishfaq, our driver, told us the highway was closed because of the pilgrimage but that we could take the Mughal road. We thought nothing of it.
It was a pretty drive through many villages past army barrack after army barrack. We stopped for breakfast and arrived at Thanamandi in good time only to discover there was a road block. The road is closed! We were told it will open at 7 pm and Ishfaq assured us he had plenty of experience driving over the pass at night. He said we should arrive by midnight.
We headed to the Muslim shrine of Shahdara Sharief and slept in the heat of the day in the shade, met people who had come on pilgrimage and drunk the local speciality of salt chai. We made our way back to the road only to discover that while now open for local Kashmiris, it was still closed for tourists. The army couldn’t confirm when it will be open, possibly in the morning, but assured us the highway will be open. What should we do?
We thought we might simply be left in the town although Ishfaq assured us he wouldn’t do that We could wait it out but there was no guarantee it would reopen in the morning. Or we could drive back?
After lots of discussion, most of which we couldn’t understand, it was decided we would return. So we drove back towards Jammu, almost back to where we had started 16 hours ago! And kept driving!
Who was in the car?
Ishfaq – Our driver. He had driven this route thousands of times and knew the roads and the sharp corners inside out. I’m not sure that’s an excuse to overtake on them though!
Mushtaq – Originally from Kashmir but now living in Pune. He had been in transit for 5 days.
Javed – Had come on the bus/train/jeep from Chandigarh and had been on the road for three days. He was really in to cricket.
Aziz – Less into cricket but traveling with Javed (they are friends from school and both live in Sopore, the same city as Ishfaq, 50 km past Srinigar).
9th July – We arrived at Katra, 25 km from Jammu, at 1 am. It’s another holy town with people walking up a zig zag trail to a temple on top of a hill. Because it’s so hot in the day people walk at night so the town was busy. Unfortunately we hit another roadblock and the highway was also closed!
We were told it will reopen at 4 am so we passed the time with a late dinner and a few cups of chai while Ishfaq had a nap. We headed back a little before 4 and joined the queue of cars and trucks.
Unfortunately 4 came and went and the road remained closed. Ishraf wasn’t waiting any longer so we headed off on another detour and attempted to join the highway at another point.
Emotions were running high as we approached the roadblock but thankfully the boom was up and the army nowhere in sight. Mushtaq had the whole car laughing when he said they must be asleep and we were off to Srinigar.
On the road with us were hundreds and hundreds of buses and jeeps carrying pilgrims heading to Arnanath – an annual Hindu pilgrimage to a holy cave. There were also hundreds of trucks on the road along with lots of military vehicles and of course motorbikes. The horn seems to have replaced the indicator in Kashmir and everyone drives incredibly impatiently and aggressively.
We crawled our way along the mountain pass, which in places has been partly washed away by mudslides, and through the longest tunnel in Asia. We wound our way through a number of villages before heading through the Jawahar tunnel into Kashmir and onto the home straight.
Aside from a few naps in the car we now hadn’t slept for a long while. I can’t remember the last time we pulled an all-nighter with no beer! Everyone was still on amazing form, though, and also very forgiving because if it wasn’t for us they would have reached their destination hours ago. Luckily Javed loves cricket which gave hours of conversation and everyone seemed to have enjoyed their journey. Everyone we met along the way (police aside) was so friendly, curious and welcoming.
Ishfaq invited us to spend the night with his family. We arrived to Sopore at 3 pm having driven past Kashmir’s strip of cricket bat makers (the debate still rages whether Kashmiri or English willow is better). We enjoyed a delicious cup of chai and a relaxing afternoon in Ishfaq’s garden meeting all of his family – so many cousins, uncles, brothers, sisters and a grandmother with a face that told a thousand stories.
Everyone was incredibly hospitable and welcoming and we enjoyed a lovely dinner together.
10th July – What should have been the best night sleep ever was rudely interrupted by upset stomachs. When it rains it pours! We had another cup of chai and met more friends then headed out on a trip to see Wular lake and the family hotel.
Ishfaq kindly dropped in Srinigar and we caught a shakara to our beautiful houseboat where we fell into bed.
What a journey! We thought the bus from Malawi to Johannesburg was long. We could have taken a one hour flight from Delhi direct to Srinigar and arrived on Friday afternoon … but where’s the fun in that?!
Regardless of what anyone may say to the contrary, the International Tourist Bureau in the Delhi station is open! This is the place to buy last minute train tickets. Check out ‘Man in Seat 61‘ for directions on how to find the office.
If you make your way towards the bus station in Jammu there’ll be lots of jeeps. A seat cost us INR 1,000/person and who you get is pot luck really.