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.