Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Northward bound

The first thing I noticed as I crossed Pathankot on the way to Jammu was that my phone stopped working. The phone itself was working just fine, it was just that there was no usable network. Which was unexpected. As it turns out, pre-paid connections issued outside the state of Jammu and Kashmir don't work in Jammu and Kashmir. It just meant that I had to rely on internet cafes and public phones. A minor hiccup. But a discomforting one. The highway though offered unexpected treats. One among them was small roadside dhaba where the bus stopped for lunch. I don't remember the name, but I'll always remember the dal which I had there. It was probably the best dal that I had ever tasted. I hope to taste it again soon. As the bus made its unhurried way to Jammu, the river Tawi slowly came into view. Truth be told, I was expecting Jammu to be a bit more hilly. At about two in the afternoon, the bus finally reached the main bus stand in Jammu.

The second thing I noticed as I got into an auto rickshaw in Jammu was the more than normal presence of security. At all major traffic junctions pillboxes surrounded by sand bags and concertina barbed wire were manned by armed soldiers. And once in a while a car or bike would be stopped and thoroughly checked. I managed to locate a decent yet budget place to stay close to the old city with help from the auto driver. And on the way there, the third thing I noticed was that all autos had doors. Without exception. I asked the driver why and joked about doors preventing people from escaping surprise security checks. The driver laughed it off, instead giving a reason of protecting passengers from the dust. Given that most doors were just waist high, that seemed implausible. Also, since when have auto drivers thought of their passengers' comfort. Before I could say so to the driver, the hotel arrived. A room with no view awaited me.

The Mubarak Mandi, situated atop a small hill surrounded by the cheek-by-jowl gullies of the old city, would have been spectacular. Except I chose to visit it at the time of massive restoration. Navigating through the construction debris, there was a sense of long faded grandeur waiting to be revealed. Hidden just behind a thick layer of grime and disuse, waiting the expert hands of the ASI to bring it to the fore. All the buildings of the old palace complex that once made up Mubarak Mandi were now government offices, expect for a lone museum which was closed. It showed no sign of having ever been open. I wished to linger in the courtyard, to gaze at the buildings surrounding me, but hunger drove me to find a place to eat. As I passed through the imposing arched doorway, I made it a point to visit again. If the restoration goes as I hope, it will be a rewarding experience.

As I made my way through the narrow streets, I decided to lunch at a place called the Paras Ram dabha. I had heard a lot about the place, but very little about where it was located. All I knew was that it was near an area called Panjtirthi. I determined to hunt it down. I arrived at Panjtirthi, and started to roam the streets, looking for the place. After a good one and half hours of searching, I could find no place that called itself Paras Ram dabha. I could not even find a board or sign that said Paras Ram anything. Asking around for Paras Ram dabha, I finally managed to narrow the search down to a single stretch of road. After roaming the street a few times with no luck, I stopped at a small kiosk to pick up a cola. As a final attempt, I asked the shopkeeper about Paras Ram dabha. He pointed across the street to a nondescript blue building with a huge crowd outside and said that that was it. All I could see of the small grimy building was a couple of small doorways with people pouring out of it and a small board hung above one of them proclaiming the office of one Wazir Lakhpathrai Charitable Trust.

In hindsight, the crowd should have given me a clue. I decided to wait a bit more for the crowd to go away. As I stood there waiting, with hunger gnawing me, I thought about what I could eat. After a wait of about half an hour, enough place became available for me to get inside. What I saw could be best described as two small rooms with closely placed tables connected by a narrow, dark passage in the back. I settled on a place, and as the guy came to take the order, I decided to play it safe and order roti with the chicken curry on offer. A quick minute later, a plate piled with two rotis and a bowl of curry, several pieces of chicken in a questionable brown gravy, arrived. By then, I was too hungry to care. But, one bite, and I was taken aback. It was simply brilliant. The search, the wait, the hunger, all had been totally worth it. After a full meal, I decided to walk down the Circular road, a hilly, tree-lined road descending to the banks of the Tawi river. After a long walk and a contented wade in the river, and a long lingering tour of the old market area, I decided it was a worthwhile visit to Jammu.

With the usual tourist stop overs at the Bagh-e-Bahu and the Amar Mahal palace done with the previous day, a train to Udhampur awaited. Getting up at an early six in the morning to catch the DMU to Udhampur, the first leg of the most awaited Kashmir railway, was a bit of a disappointment. I was hoping for the shiny new train, but instead I had to settle for an old and much beaten one. Not really much of a set back. For I could ride to my heart's content the shiny new ones from Anantnag to Baramulla, which I planned to do for a whole day, back and forth. I had dreamed of this for a whole year, ever since I got to know of the railway line being built in Kashmir. A wait of just one more day did not seem that long.

A surprising detour

The bottle of beer arrived, chilled to the perfect temperature. But we had to order quickly, for it was close to three in the afternoon and the kitchen was closing. And I was quite hungry. I hadn't had anything substantial the whole day, most of which was occupied by the time wasted at Arunachal Bhavan trying to get an inner-line permit. That I never used the permit now makes the time wasted there all the more missed. I ordered the first thing I spied on the menu and Vaibhav said that he was not very hungry. I first met Vaibhav when I moved to Nodia after college. We worked together at the same place for about a year, before I returned to Bangalore. That it had been close to two years since I had last spoken to him, seemed at that moment immaterial. It was like as though I had never left Noida. And eventually, it was time for Vaibhav to return to work, and me to head back to Delhi. As we waited for the bill to arrive, Vaibhav asked me where I planned to go next. Jammu, I said, but there was no plan as such. And then he proposed a plan. He and a couple of his friends were headed to McLeodgunj for the weekend. If I had no plan, I was welcome to join them. They were driving out there in a friend's car and there was place for one more. I nodded. And we planned to meet up the evening next day at the bus stand at Kashmiri gate in Delhi.

I arrived at Kashmiri gate on the last train only to see a message from Vaibhav that he and his friends would be there in ten minutes. Ten minutes later, with me comfortably tucked into the back seat of the Hyundai, we set off. An hour into the drive on the highway to Chandigarh, we stopped at a roadside dabha where I passed on the most tempting meal I had ever laid eyes on. Golden roasted makki roti and saag. With a more than generous helping of soft melting butter heaped on top. I did not want an upset stomach ruining the drive. After dinner, with Vaibhav back at the wheel, we set off. And it would have been all the more enjoyable if only I hadn't been thoroughly scared for my life during the whole drive to Chandigarh. For behind the wheel was Vaibhav; mild mannered techie by day, feared long distance driver by night.

Desperately hoping to fall asleep to spare myself from checking if the seat belt was thoroughly fastened every ten minutes, I closed my eyes tight. But that did not work. Every so often, we would pass by a fully loaded lorry blaring its horn like there would be no tomorrow. And the dust kicked up by the lorries, which flowed into the car uninterrupted did not help matters. Vaibhav keeping his window open to prevent him from falling asleep more than succeeded. And the wind chilled me to the bone. Being too scared to unbuckle my seat belt to reach for the jacket in the back, I braved the chilly wind and the copious dust. Which ended with me catching a severe cold before we reached Chandigarh. As we crossed into Himachal Pradesh, the winding roads on the way to Dharamsala were a brilliant way to welcome a new dawn. As the car climbed higher, this little detour seemed all the more exiting. Vaibhav, Gaurav, Shubam and me were set for a little camping trip to Thrund, a mountain village on the foothills of the Himalayas.

After a night of merry making, we woke up the next morning at an early five and set off with our guide on the trail to Thrund where a tent and other facilities were conveniently arranged in advance. Gaurav, having been thoroughly spooked by my coughing, had been afraid that I might not last the night. He later told me that it sounded like a death rattle. Hiking up the mountain trail, in the thin air with an unstoppable running nose was not a pleasant experience. But the views on the way were spectacular. When we stopped half way up the trail, the panoramic view of Dharamsala, complete with the shiny new cricket stadium was better than any refreshment. At the top, with full views of peaks covered with freshly fallen snow, we sipped tea and and relaxed on the bright green grass. As we gazed at the sun set slowly behind the hills, a merry little fire was started and the food was being passed around. Having had our full, and passing the late evening by the camp fire, we retired to the tents. I hoped to catch some long needed sleep despite the clogged nose that refused to let me breathe.

We set off down the mountain early the next day. I planned to stay the day at Dharamsala to do nothing but drink hot water and sleep off the cold. The others headed back to Delhi having dropped me off at the bazaar in Dharamsala. I got a room at the first hotel I found, downed a jug to steaming hot water and promptly passed out. Late that evening, having inquired around for buses to Jammu, I had a small supper at a roadside eatery. The bus would leave the next morning at nine. I made sure that I would wake up early with plenty of time to catch the bus, downed another jug of steaming hot water and surrendered to the warmth of the thick quilt on that chilly winter night.