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Amritsar to Srinagar – HONK HONK

January 14, 2012
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Amritsar had been a great introduction to India, super curry, the serenity of the Golden palace, friendly people and an energetic street life but I was very ready to leave the hustle and bustle and head for the Himalayas for something more relaxed. The desire to get back on the bike escalated each day as I waited for a package of maps and a water filter to arrive, which it never did.

Finally I gave up on waiting and left the hectic city behind with 500kms of hopefully good road up to Srinagar in the heart of Kashmir where the Himalayas begin. I was joined by an American/French cyclist called Kevin for the first day, roads were congested and hot, lorries pumping out huge plums of smoke straight into your face whilst beeping their customised horns eager to let you know they’re going to come past within a few inches. A disappointing Dhaba (simple restaurant with huge pots of curry) for lunch and it wasn’t turning out to be a great day luckily we avoided the monsoon which battered the dingy hotel near the Pathankot Jammu turn off and I cooked a decent curry bringing the day to a more positive close.

In the morning I parted ways with Kevin as he was heading east to Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama. A huge military convoy of trucks full of armed soldiers sat at the side of the road, this would become a normal, if quite unnerving, daily sight as the area I was beginning to enter is highly contested between India and Pakistan. Bloody wars have been fought between the two countries over Kashmir since Pakistan was annexed from India in 1947 and the tenuous line of control (border) decided by the UN in 1949 has done little to prevent 2 further wars over the region. One million Indian soldiers are posted along the border, however, despite tension the situation in the region is relatively stable at the moment, .

My attention turned towards the towering green mountains in the distance, the start of the Himalayas. I turned off the main road on to a shortcut and was treated to some remote hillside riding away from the stupid horns and thundering traffic, people instantly seemed more friendly and the sounds of birds in the trees provided welcome rest bite. I rejoined the main road but not in the place I had expected, the road marked incorrectly on the map I was about 40km off schedule, but the experience had shown that it was possible to find refuge in India and I was happy for that.

Finding a camp spot was tricky, people seemed to be everywhere and almost all the land used. A temple sat at the top of the hill and knowing they sometimes they offer a place to sleep I investigated. A young Indian couple greeted me and invited me to eat and stay in their house when I gestured to put my tent next to the temple. Curry was served within a more balanced home life than I‘d seen in a long time, the wife joking with her husband and not scurrying off as soon as something was served, it was refreshing to see a more equal relationship.

The road to Srinagar cut up through vast green valleys, over the 2000m Patnitop tourist attraction and through the Pir Panjal range via a 2km pitch black tunnel. The scenery was stunning yet the experience soured by a huge amount of traffic, lorries carrying supplies to remote regions and the relentless beeping that had now caused ear damage. I interacted with few people along the road, the only way to remain sane on these roads was to block out everything including the sound using ear plugs, we’re great. Searching for a place to sleep in a valley near Ramben the only option seemed to be a police checkpoint, I asked about the flat area next to their building and they said I should sleep inside due to wild tigers and monkeys. Here I met Tosif and an Indian Army officer eager to show me that the negative relationship depicted in the media between the Muslim population and predominantly Hindu army, was incorrect. Up towards Jalawhar tunnel I met an old man who wanted to join me on my trip, we joked that he should sit on my rear rack and I’d carry him.

The final day into Srinagar was a long one, thoroughly soul destroyed and at my wits end with traffic and noise, I made a beeline for the hippy hangout in its hey day. After 8 hours of cycling I arrived in a completely dead town, Srinagar has an unofficial curfew of 8pm so theres little life left on the street after that. The only shop I saw open was selling booze and I battled my way through the throngs, face up against the metal rails I ordered by beers and whiskey, people pushing from all directions, it felt like everything was on the verge of kicking off so I got out of there asap.

Srinagar is famed for the houseboats which rest majestically on Dal lake, huge wooden constructions moored in long lines creating a quasi village on the lake. The origins of the houseboats dates back to the British colonial times, unable to build on Kashmir land they took to the lake and built houseboats to skirt the laws. In the 60’s hippys from all over the world flocked there to chill out on the boats smoking some of the best hash on the planet. The conflicts between India and Pakistan combined with terrorist attacks put the area on the tourist black list but since the period of relative peace begun 5 years ago, tourists have begun to return and pretty much do what was done in the 60’s.

Srinagar was a mixed bag, where I stayed with Gohar, a young entrepreneur and all round good guy, the area was entirely wrapped in barbed wire, soldiers sat idly in gunner turrets and even the post office heavily militarised. But away from this part, around the lake and floating between the houseboats with only the sounds of the paddle cutting the water it felt serene,. The tense atmosphere created solely by the military’s presence was swept away as you peered into the ornate houseboats and watched tourists battling with the mosquitoes whilst trying to read a book on the veranda.

When I bumped into Tim, a Swedish cyclist I’d met in hostel in China, I didn’t need much convincing to leave Srinagar the next day and return for the package which was being held in Delhi customs. I spent the last night on a houseboat on Jhelum river drinking whiskey and teaching Tim how to roll and joint, in true 1960’s style.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Steve Reading permalink
    January 14, 2012 8:07 pm

    Ah Julian I remember so well the summer of 1971 going to Srinagar with my family on holiday and staying on one of those houseboats – completely idyllic. Did you go to Shalimar gardens? – well worth it. I also remember water skiing on the lake with one of the Swedish UN representatives. She was GEORGEOUS, with wonderful attributes! A 17 years old’s dream! I wonder where she is now. Keep safe, and keep the rubber side down.
    Steve (Sahs’s dad)

    • Julian permalink*
      January 15, 2012 9:05 am

      Hey Steve,

      No i didnt visit the gardens unfortunately but i heard they were fantastic. Water skiing?! Amazing, not sure they allow that anymore. I can only imagine you mean a supreme pair of eyes..

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