The dharma bums on bikes adventures came to an end in Srinagar as we exit the Himalayas. What a fantastic way of ending the trip! Before arriving to India we spent most days and nights out in nature, we cooked for ourselves and we had a lot of silence. In India things changed. Its more than billion population means that there is people everywhere and camping is not so attractive and hotels are affordable, food is good and cheap enough so we gave our stove some holidays and on the road the noise is ever present. The moment we crossed Rothang La (the first mountain pass after Manali) all these things changed and we regained our life in nature, the quietness of remoteness and we also did some wholesome cooking.
The bicycles have done wonders to come this far. Who would have bet that these 200€ babies built in the artful warehouses of Liverpool would cross Europe so smoothly and climb some seriously high roads? Yoel is a great mechanic and a big time recycler and I wouldn’t have set off so confidently if it wasn’t for him. Every tourer that we’ve met have really nice bikes that don’t need much tuning or repairing (they are also 5 times the price). It was a great discovery for me the fact that such bikes exist! But it is still comforting to know that all you really need to travel far is a pair of wheels, a set of cables, nuts and bolts and a good pair of breaks.
Back to how we ended our trip in Srinagar… our stay there was short and sweet, basically sort ourselves out to start a quick return to the plains and find the quickest way to Delhi. Srinagar is still surrounded by mountains and in order to get anywhere you first need to go to Jammu and the two options are a public bus that can take forever or a shared taxi/Jeep. Being a bit tight with time (Yoel’s flight was in 4 days and at 1300km further south from Delhi) we caught a private Jeep with 3 other travellers from Israel.
The journey turned to be an epic adventure. After 2 hours on the road we were stopped by the traffic police because there had been a land slide in the mountains 80km ahead. They forecasted that the road would be cleared after 2 hours – our experience here is that any time estimate has to be multiplied at least by 2 and more accurately by 3. But we waited anyway, we played games, drank chai, had a couple of progresses of 50m along the now jammed road and tried to understand the logistics of the traffic police, corruption and the reality of a land slide. That day was the first time we saw the traffic police doing something but unfortunately it was not a very flattering experience. They were asking the drivers for their driver’s licence in order to let their vehicles continue along the road and get closer to the land slide, otherwise they had to stop and wait. Anil was our driver and he refused to subdue to the loud orders of a pretty aggressive policeman. The situation was rather confusing and we thought may be the driver did not have the paperwork up-to-date but he then managed to explain us that the police would ask for money before returning the licence and that was nonsense. Fair enough. So we waited a bit more and then it became clear that the road opening might take the entire day. We all needed to be in Jammu that night so we made agreement with Anil that he would take us “safely to Jammu” along the other road (that meant a detour and 80km more). He insisted a lot about “safely to Jammu” and seemed a bit dubious about the other road. He stopped the car a number of times to ask for directions or get some reassurance about state of the other road. He spoke little English but somehow we managed to communicate his and our worries. We needed to get to Jammu.
The detour started with a shortcut that ended in a collapsed bridge and so another 20km on top to find the main road. We made it to the mountains and as the road got steeper the car started overheating. Time for a break and find a waterfall to cool down the car. After some tenderness and mechanics we resumed the climb. Everything was going well and the road was not at its best but Anil proved to be a careful driver. A relief! We made it to the top and got to the first passport check that was like being in the film Brazil of Terry Gillian. They had one notebook to register every traveller on the road where the soldier in charge would fill in by hand a form and then complete it with every single detail of your passport and more relevant data like your father’s name and profession. We were 5 foreigners and it took half an hour to do 3. We felt that was probably enough paperwork for the day and tried to get away with 2 of us unrevealed since the soldiers had not seen us. But just as Anil was starting the car they spotted us and got serious about it. We were very, very close to the border to Pakistan and the security measures (whatever they pretend) are a serious matter. For some reason the Israelis were scared of saying their nationality in this region so we decided that they might as well be from Argentina. To my surprise they could sing songs in Spanish from a soap opera of the nineties and had a lot of data about Argentinian celebrities that I don’t even remember (for those familiar with Argentinian TV: who would have guessed that Argentina exported Chiquititas all the way to Israel? and that they watched it and loved it!).
The road was really bad and at that point it was 4pm and we only got as far as 80km from Srinagar with still 240km to go. It was going to be a long day. Only 10 minutes after the passport check point we drove pass another police post and they makes us stop, again! This time only Anil got out, talked to them, came back into the car, mumbled something, went back to them, gave them some cash and cursed with a smile as he got into the car. “So? What happened Anil?” “They fine me” he says and he is almost laughing “no uniform”… and that was it, like a great punch line for a joke! In the last three weeks we have passed dozens of these posts, they even put things on the road for cars to slow down, nobody does, they accelerate and over take even in the midst of these obstacles and the army is all day there, watching the lawless traffic like a circus show. But this one time they decided that the law is worth something and the law says the driver should wear a white T-shirt and grey trousers… now, excuse my language, but what a fucking joke! If India has the highest rates of deaths in traffic accidents might be because the law enforcers are too busy distinguishing the colour of the driver’s shirt rather than measuring their speed and do something about that curious habit of overtaking at full speed in blind curves. But we are not here to curse their manners but to reflect on them and appreciate that this is how things work.
We had a short break for Anil was exhausted and hungry. What a gentle man… is that what gentleman really means? He kept on repeating “safely to Jammu” as a holy mantra that would keep him going for the rest of the day and night. We left the bad road just as the sun was setting and made it to the good tarmac in the dark. Things balance themselves out like this. We were all exhausted by then and Anil started yawning. I thought talking was needed to keep him entertained although probably the road was pretty entertaining already. We learned that he was 45 years old and he had been a driver for 22 years, first trucks and then the Jeep that he didn’t own. He was married late, at 30, may be because both his parents had passed away. His mother had died when he was 8 and his father when he was 12. In such cases is the older brother that arranges the marriage. He has 2 children that go to school. He was a very humble man and it was a blessing to do that journey with him.
We finally arrived to Jammu at 1.30am and after he helped the Israeli friends get a fair price for yet another taxi to Dharamsala, he took us a to a hotel across the road. The last image I have of Anil is in the entrance of the hotel, he is sitting on the bed that was laid outside in the pavement (where the night staff sleeps) talking with the three other guys that are lying on their beds, telling them where we came from staring into empty space, he looks tired but smiles and still repeats “safely to Jammu” as we thank him and greet him good bye.