A skip and a hop: Pahalgam to Anantnag
2 1/2 hours / 42km via shared Jeep
One thing we discovered is that time estimations given for trips are terribly optimistic. Road conditions may also be presented through very rose-tinted lenses. The trip from Pahalgam to Anantnag was familiar and easy. We caught a shared taxi from the end of the line taxi stand and it quickly filled up. As the driver had a full complement (9 passengers) most of whom were going all the way to Anantnag, he did not stop for more passengers making the trip a speedy one. We mistakenly got off at the first drop off spot and were heralded into a deluxe shared taxi by an astute driver.
The jeep was parked next to an open sewer a couple cars down from the first in line. We had a delicious cup of tea but it soon became clear that it would be ages until the taxi filled up (a condition for departure). We retrieved our baggage, caught a tuk-tuk and went to the other shared taxi stand where we found a jeep with some passengers already inside. After a half hour we had enough people to depart. The backseat was filled with four laborers, one young man cradling his injured arm. We were told that the journey would take about 8 hours traveling along decent roads. That was definitely not the case!
Obstacles and more obstacles: Anantnag to Jammu
11 1/4 hours / 204km via shared Jeep
We left Anantnag at 9:30am. No sooner had we pulled out than the driver went to a filling station to tank up. It always puzzles me why this isn’t done before departure. Kashmir is one big hive of military activity and just 30 minutes out we were pulled over for 20 to 30 minutes to let a military convoy by. We sped along for another 30 minutes when we came to an abrupt halt behind a long line of parked vehicles on the road.
We switched off our engine and got out to discover the cause of our delay. Rumors of a landslide ahead circulated. Local vendors were having a heyday selling apples, cotton candy, snacks, and acrylic shawls.
A large tea stall across the highway was also doing a fair trade. We had one false start when whistles were blown and everyone scrambled back to their vehicles. Two and half hours after we stopped we were given the go ahead to proceed. This pattern would be repeated over and over during the trip but with delays of about 15 minutes to a half hour each time.
The roads got worse and worse and the truck and military traffic got heavier and heavier. We stopped in the late afternoon for some food at a local dhaba. We had just barely resumed our journey when the driver pulled off to the side and informed us that we had a flat tire. Fortunately (or so we mistakenly thought) there was a mechanic’s shop just up the road a bit. The driver bounded off wheeling the flat tire leaving the stranded jeep and passengers almost blocking the two lane road. We wandered around in the fading light of late afternoon trying to escape the clouds of dust coming from the traffic on the road. An hour went by and still our driver hadn’t reappeared.
We discussed amongst ourselves what could possibly be taking so long. A couple of passengers decided to find out and returned to report that the inner tube had been repaired once and blown and then twice and blown at which point the mechanic advised buying a new inner tube for 600 rupees. The driver felt he was being taken for a ride so he kept insisting on them trying again with the old inner tube. On the third try it held and the driver paid the 150 rupees (50 rupees for each try) and quickly got the jeep ready to roll. It’s a hard call knowing who was right in this situation, perhaps the driver. We continued on in the receding light over very bad, heavily trafficked, and rutted roads going through two long tunnels (of about a 10 minute duration each).
The tunnels were a bit creepy as cars sped by and attempted to pass each other on the two lane road. The air was thick with dust and fumes but that didn’t prevent people from keeping their windows down. When we emerged from the second and last tunnel we finally encountered very decent roads. We had another two hours of clear sailing on a four lane paved highway before finally reaching Jammu at 8:45pm 11 and ¼ hours after leaving Anantnag.
Welcome to Jammu (or not)!
But our troubles were hardly over. A fellow passenger had assured that good accommodation was readily available in Jammu where we were dropped off. I was left with the luggage while my friend negotiated a room. He came back saying he had managed to find a very clean and spacious room for a decent price. The minute I entered the lobby the deal was off. The manager was not prepared to handle a foreign guest which would require him to fill out and submit a special form (the C form) to the government. Once again I was left out on the curb with the luggage. When my friend returned he had managed to find a room that would accept a foreigner but only on the 5th try. The hotel wiling to accept me was under renovation. The first floor rooms had been renovated but we were shown a room on the 3rd floor past a very dusty and debris-strewn 2nd floor to a third floor room which clearly was waiting to be renovated. But it had hot running water and a bed so got cleaned up and had a good sleep before heading out of Jammu the next day.
Goodbye Jammu, hello Himachal Pradesh!
Jammu to Mandi via Panthakot
We were very happy to see the backside of Jammu. We got up early and went to the bus station easily finding a bus to Pathankot in Punjab. It was a pleasant 2 and ¼ hour ride that crossed many almost dry river beds full of herds of water buffaloes and covering 108 kilometers on very good roads. We made one stop for snacks in a little place that seemed to specialize in heavy fried foods.
Our bus continued all the way to Amritsar so we were dropped off on the highway near Pathankot. A tuktuk dropped us off at the bus station in Pathankot where we were most fortunate to find a bus just about to leave for Mandi. I forgot to mention that our trip to Pathankot took us to Punjab which made us very happy as we once again had use of our mobile data (which had been blocked in Jammu Kashmir and Ladakh leaving us dependent on wifi). The bus to Mandi took us up narrow mountain roads in the state of Himachal Pradesh. The greenery was noticeable especially after the brown aridness of Punjab.
The 224 kilometers to Mandi took a full 9 hours with stops at just about every settlement along the way.
People got off and on the bus taking short rides from one settlement to the next. We made a brief stop for food and were relieved to be served a mild and tasty thali (rice, lentils, vegetable plate). Most stops were roadside stops but there were occasional stops at bona fide bus stations.
At our last bus station the bus was flooded with passengers who had been waiting sometime for the bus. We pulled into Mandi bus station in the evening completing a pleasant 9 hour ride. We found a hotel near the bus station which was adequate for a night’s sleep and a shower.
Mandi: full of character
Our hotel near the bus station was not memorable but Mandi itself was a nice surprise. We managed to explore it on foot in the morning before continuing on to Rewalsar.
It is a hilly city with many winding roads through the neighborhoods. There are a number of Hindu temples as well as some handsome examples of old architecture. Like Jaipur, one caught many intriguing glimpses through doorways leading to little private worlds beyond.
We were there long enough to have breakfast and purchase a much needed hot kettle before we caught a bus for the one hour ride up the mountain to Rewalsar.