Chandigarh to Jammu to Kashmir by Road
Jammu-Udhampur-Kashmir Scenery is NOT impressive if you have already seen a lot of HP - especially Mandi side + Punjab lands and safedas in Kurali side. Kashmir will definitely impress those who haven't been to HP or similar Himalyan terrain.
I often see people presenting Kashmir as something out-of-this-world. To me that seems an exagerration - things are always subjective, though. I joked with a taxi driver "Kashmir woh laddoo hai jisne khaya wo bhi pachtaya, aur jisne nahi, woh bhi". The driver seemed to agree!
Avoid going by car. Take a flight to Srinagar, and then rent a self-driven car/bike. It will be the best to restrict your tour to a few places like Pahalgam, Sonmarg, etc., - each being within 90 KM of the Kashmir headquarters. Accommodation should be booked in advance - pictures provided on google listings are usually accurate and give a good idea.
The People of Kashmir
All said, Kashmir is a beloved place for Kashmiri Moslems - they have a strong social bond of Islamic brotherhood - which seems to provide them a sort of security. They do not quarrel with each other, and there is a general respect for women on the streets. Wine is NOT available in the rural side - much in line with the Islamic countries.
Kashmiri children can be seen going to English public schools in large numbers. Girls seem dominant, and chirpy. They wear hijaab and burqa full size. This can be seen as a rule till the Kashmir Ganderbal area.
Men in the rural side are often seen busy with huqqa. I sat with a group of huqqa veterans - they were extremely receptive - and asked me to have tea with them. I wasn't able to oblige them.
Kashmir valley is now 99% Sunni Muslims - practically.
I happended to interact with a hijab wearing Moslem girl, in her 30s. I asked her why so many girls wear burqa. She said it is usually a matter of personal choice for them. "Your views on migration of Kashmiri Pandits?". She said with a choked voice that people of all religions should live in harmony. We talked for about an hour or so, and my feeling is that she didn't approve of religious animosity.
Bad Stomach at Sonmarg
Sonmarg Side does have a few scenic spots. Sheep, goat and ponies can be seen roaming everywhere.
I stayed in a homestay here - the best hotels were 100% booked - tourist vehicles were mostly with GJ and MH number plates.
Woke with a bad stomach and a stiff back that won't allow me to bend. After a few minutes the backache subsided, probably because of the risen Sun, but stomach bulged like a football.
Sonmarg to Dras
Dras is the first Ladakhi town that you enter from the Kashmir side. It has quite a good hotels - and vegetarian food is easily available. Full size burqa starts to become less and less visible, and you start getting a sense of cultural dilution here.
On a closer look, Dras is a Sunni Moslem majority area - with some visibility of migrant labors working in government projects. Bare headed girls are hard to spot - but they CAN be seen on the roads.
The road to Dras passes through Zojilla Pass. This pass is considered to be a very dangerous route. The government has planned to develop a tunnel for all weather connectivity.
The road through the Zojilla pass has been maintained very well. The drive is almost safe here.
Admission to Sub-District Hospital at Dras
I stopped my vehicle towards the end of Drass market and decided to locate a chemist shop for some pain killer or ointment for my stiff back - an army person had suggested me to use an ayurvedic balm for this. Chemist shops are few in smaller towns. So I had to ask a fruit seller, who directioned that it is opposite the sub-district hospital, just a few shops downwards.
"aslam alaikum!", I greeted the chemist, who responded back with a smile. I explained him of my back, and told him of the various pain points. He was about to fetch a medicine, but stopped. He said "sir aap please hospital mein ek bar check kara lo".
I went inside the hospital, paid a fees of Rs. 15, got a card prepared, and they guided me to the doctor's room - the doctor was a hijab wearing face. She was (my guess is) 30 or 35.
She punched a device into my finger, and noted down the oxygen level, and pulse. She asked many questions on medication, prior visit to area etc., I told her of my stomach also. She said you will get three injections right now, call your partner in!
I WAS SCARED, and told her that I was alone.
She called her nurse in, and asked her to take BP readings before vaccination, and after. Two junior doctors took me to the ward and started looking for veins. They tapped my dorsal palm hard and ultimately located a vein and pierced a needle. I asked "will this happen thrice?". "No, one prick is sufficient for our vaccines". And "payment?" - I asked. They said "all this is free". After vaccination, they checked my BP - it read 175+. They repeated the same with the classic mercury instrument - and became concerned.
They went to the doctor and came back - alongwith the doctor.
I told her that I wanted to go - my car is parked alone. The doctor said, "please sir idhar udhar nahi jayie, i will send my assistant to fetch your car, you can give him the keys and other details, he will bring it here". I said, "I want to leave - I know I am OK". She said sir we can't allow you to go in this situation - you need an immediate admission to the hospital - we will lower your BP, then you can leave.
An admission card was prepared. This time 20 Rs. were charged. It was 3:30 PM - what was happening?
I was a patient on the bed! Oxygen cylinder came in and my nose was inside an inhaler. Another injection came in. After half an hour - a new pretty nurse (or intern?) came in and checked my BP - it clocked 110. The doctor prepared the discharge slip and I was bending to all the staff - in gratitude - Raj Kapoor style.
But what was it? Parveen (my wife) and my daughter were to leave for bombay the next day. Should I talk home? Should I talk to my whatsapp friends? But what will anybody do? I decided to digest the whole issue.
The tour was in peril.
Stay at Dras and its Caring People
I got a room in a hotel there - luckily - vegetarian food was available. The hotel owner (a rich apple grower) assured that he will ensure a low-masala food for my needs. He called the manager and explained to take care. The owner said "hospital mein apni hi bachiyan hain - they are ready 24x7 for any medical help if need arises!" I think this is a confidence that's seen in a small, closed Indian rural society. That made me feel secure. I took a little rest, and felt better.
But what was it? I decided to walk to my chemist friend, for medicine. It was now around 7 PM. He was away for his Namaaz.
In the meantime I decided to stroll around the market - for sake of my stomach at least.
Dras is a beautiful place, and its people are helpful to outsiders. They are freely accessible for talk and gossip. You can drag a chair and engage with a local - but do not expect to get simple replies to idiotic questions. There IS a boundary line of topics that you can discuss.
There are so many mosques (in Srinagar also, of course) that one or the other mosque will have its loudspeaker doing adhaan - evening, 3 AM, afternoon, every possible hour on the clock.
Soon, my chemist friend reached. He suggested that one reading of BP should be taken NOW! He took a few minutes to counsel me into restful peace, checked the BP - now it was 168 or so. At this I became worried. Just 3 hours to reach back to the same level? The chemist noticed that I was having mild fever too.
He persisted "sir please aap hospital mein jaa aao ek bar". I told him - "i will go, they will again apply oxygen, then they will again inject something, it will again clock 110 - and the cycle will be the same." I told him to give me medicine for stomach, BP that the doctor had written. A bottle looking like an antacid was handed over to me along with a 5 mg medicine for BP. I asked the chemist to add a mild stomach loosening medicine - because the problem lies with the stomach.
The chemist asked me to visit him for the BP measurement next morning.
I took the dose as prescribed by the doctor - "do chammach before meal, this that."
I was able to sleep - and my stomach was clear the next morning - though upper right side of my back was extremely stiff and painful.
I checked out of the hotel, thanked the staff, and went straight to the chemist - who was already waiting. He measured the BP and this time it was 162 or similar - seemed to have stabilized. I asked him for payment - he said "sir kya baat karte ho - we do not charge for this" - it was ZERO bill once again!
People are people - they get concerned for you. I'll never forget the responsible doctor on her government duty, her sincere assistants, and of course my best friend - the chemist.
Dras to Kargil and the Transitioning Demography
Except for an aching back, everything was falling in line - I had no breathing problems, my stomach was feeling better, and BP was on a downward path. I decided not to take any further doses - the last one having been 12 hours earlier.
Calling off the tour was NOT on my options.
Even though Dras was an ideal place for my food, its air was too cold for my stiffening back. I had to keep resting every five minutes for relief. Spending another day in a cold environment was not a good idea, so I decided to continue to Kargil - about 64 km - and much warmer!
On the outskirts of Dras is Kargil War Memorial, that I visited. I clicked pics of the Tiger Hill and a few more peaks around. Seems I wasn't very active.
Journey from Dras to Kargil is a little-bit scenic. Backache became better as the Sun warmed up.
I sensed a change in demography as I drew closer to Kargil. School children were not wearing long burqa anymore, though hijab was still visible all through. Very soon I realized that the area was a Shia Muslim area. Facial features of men were like those of Tibetans - almond eye type. This means that the area was not a Budhist area - it was a Shia Muslim area. Later queries indicated that there are between 10-20% Budhists here - and one Sikh family too resides here - most probably - a defence officer.
After a small search I found a place to stay, checked in, took some rest, enjoyed the warm air - and decided to locate a chemist shop for BP measurements. The chemist here, too, was a cheerful guy who used his mercury device to measure my BP - this time it clocked 140! This was the first benchmark of my BP in a resting state, and with no medicine taken - not bad! The chemist wasn't ready to accept any payment - so I asked him to accept my Rs. 50 for donation to a mosque. He said "its better you donate with your own hands" - guided me to a mosque directly opposite, and I pushed in my currency with folded hands.
As night fell, cold winds started blowing, and the temperature began to fall. I couldn't sleep the whole night because of the stiffened back. It continued to pain. Morning was worse still. Something wasn't right with my back. There was a piercing pain in the muscle.
Thinking that it was due to cold weather, I decided to ignore it and decided to drive to Leh. I preferred to bear the pain instead of abandoning the tour - the last leg of my Srinagar-Kargil-Leh tour had begun!
Kargil to Leh - and a bad Night
Journey from Kargil to Leh is the MOST scenic of all - and would be my favorite for years. My only regret is that I wasn't able to make the most out of it because of accumulated fatigue and an overwhelming back pain. Although I was in full control, the drive was passing like in a sleepish manner. All I remember is a long, safe, well marked road meandering through a dry desert of huge mountains. These roads are maintained by BRO (Border Roads Organization). They are the safest and well designed, well maintained roads I have seen.
The tract is lashed by dry and cold winds. There's no dust. The terrain is simply GREAT!
I had a light lunch at Khalsi - and soon afterwards parked my car on a roadside to have a short afternoon nap. That was the best 1 hour nap I've ever had! Warm Sun and my tiredness made it possible, perhaps.
I will re-visit this area once again sometime in the future. The best strategy would be to take a flight to Leh and then hire a self-driven car to drive to Kargil, and back the next day. If a self-driven car is not available, ask the taxi driver to drive slow giving you enough time for enjoying each centimeter of the journey.
Leh is Budhist majority area with 80-90% Budhists and the remaining are Moslems and others. What a spectral change in demography from Punjab to Jammu to Kashmir to Kargil to Leh!
Soon I reached Leh, got a room, checked in, and spent the most painful night. Backache was at its worst - a real feeling of pain. I didn't take any pain killers because it was still a minor muscle sprain or stiffness.
Leh to Manali
Journey from Leh to Manali passes through many scenic snow covered passes. I wasn't able to take many pictures.
Back home and a Shocking Discovery
After two days I was back at home at around 11 PM. Wife and kids had reached a few hours earlier, and were waiting for me.
The first thing I asked my daughter was to take a picture of my back and show it to me immediately - what was it? As I raised my T-Shirt the family members screamed due to a hive of so many, so many rashes, blisters. It took us a few seconds to decode that it was a herpes virus that developed all through, and was now in its last stages of closure.
This Blog Post/Article "Kashmir to Kargil to Leh and Chandigarh Road Tour" by Parveen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.