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The Long Road to Srinagar

Buying bus tickets to Srinagar wasn't possible from the small McLeod Ganj bus stand, but we were able to get a direct bus to Jammu (Jammu and Kashmir province's winter capital) from where we could apparently "easily" get to Srinagar. At the McLeod Ganj bus stand we were introduced to an old Ladkhi monk who spoke neither Hindi nor English but seemed extremely happy to have travel companions to Jammu (I found out our day of departure why he was so happy when his Tibetan monk friend, challenging my preconceived notions about Buddhist monks, warned us to "be careful in Kashmir, 99% of Indians are thieves"). We agreed to meet the Ladakhi monk the next morning to travel together, we promised his fellow monk that we would take good care of him, although we weren't given any instructions on how to do so.

We met the Ladakhi monk early the next morning in the town centre and found a taxi that would take us to the bus stand. We discovered that the monk was carrying two large hockeybag-sized sacks, which as far as we could tell were containing bricks. Yann and I carried them, loaded them onto the roof of the taxi and then paid for our three places in the taxi. As the three of us waited for the bus to Jammu, the monk pulled out his bus and plane tickets from under his robes and handed them to me for safe keeping. He was more and more becoming our responsibility.

The bus ride from McLeod Ganj to Jammu lasted about 7 hours. The Ladakhi monk and I shared a bench and Yann shared one with a talkative local teenager. The monk held my hand for most of the ride, despite the opressive heat and shared his stale Tibetan bread with Yann and I. Meanwhile, Yann had to buy him water and food, because he didn't seem to be doing it himself.

We arrived in Jammu fairly early in the afternoon and felt confident that we would be able to hop on a night bus to Srinagar. Unfortunately there was someone preventing us from doing that: an old, lost, scared-looking monk. We lugged his bags of bricks to the waiting area of the bus station and waited, and waited, and waited. We had understood that he had a friend coming to meet him at the station and that he was catching a plane to Ladakh in two days time, but no one seemed to have showed up for him. He and Yann set off to search for his friend in the sprawling bus station while I sat on the floor guarding all of our luggage. I quickly became surrounded by a large crowd who had encircled me and seemed to find me interesting. A considerate shopkeeper would disperse my fan club by yelling and swatting his broom in the air, but almost immediately after his attempts to free me, the crowd would reconvene.

After two hours at the bus station, it became quite clear that no one was coming to pick up the Ladakhi monk. Yann and I concluded that we would have to find a hotel room and stay two days in Jammu until the monk's flight home. As we tried desperately to extract any piece of information from him, the monk sprang, headed to a rickshaw driver and managed to communicate to him, in his broken Hindi, that he needed to find another Ladakhi. The well-informed driver managed to come up with Ladakh House, a small community centre/boarding house for Ladakhis in Jammu. There might still be hope! The monk and I hopped into the rickshaw, leaving Yann with the bags. When we arrived at Ladakh House I spotted the crimson robes of another monk through the gates and felt unbelievable relief. I left the monk, took a public bus back to the bus station (for one tenth the price of the rickshaw) and found Yann. We loaded the bricks onto a new rickshaw and raced back to Ladakh House to drop them off. The two monks were waiting for us at the gates, hugs were exchanged and invitations to their home monasteries extended, no money was exchanged however, despite Yann and I having spent nearly half our daily budget trying to get our monk to safe place. Damn him for being so cute and old! Back at the bus station, now late in the afternoon, we decided to leave Jammu despite our exhaustion. When we approached the ticket counter we were told by various people that there were no more buses to Srinagar, that night, or maybe even the next day. Of course, no one talking to us actually worked for the bus company, but they all seemed to be able to tell us more than the employees themselves. Suspicious. Typical.

The explanation we finally accepted was that the road was open to traffic in only one direction, we had missed the last day's bus to Srinagar so we had to wait a full day before the road would be open in our direction again. If you spent even 5 minutes at the Jammu bus station you would understand why this was extremely depressing. If you spent even 5 minutes in India you would understand why we didn't believe what we were being told about road closures. As we stood, trying to figure out our next move we noticed two young Kashmiri men that had been on the same bus with us from McLeod Ganj. We took the opportunity to ask them about the road closures. According to them, although there were no buses leaving for Srinagar, private vehicles were still able to make the journey. The two of them would be leaving late in the evening and were looking for other passengers to fill a jeep.

Over dinner Yann and I debated whether or not it was a good idea to set out in the middle of the night with perfect strangers, on a treacherous highway through Kashmir, possibly defying army orders. We came to the puzzling conclusion that it was a very wise idea. After some negotiating with our jeep driver, we set out in a full jeep, towards Srinagar, now several hours after the sun had set. Before leaving the city we had one last stop at the local wine shop. Luckily, Yann and I had withheld payment for the ride until arrival in Srinagar, so we were able to instruct our driver that we wouldn't continue if he was planning on drinking. After some highly unconvincing arguments from him and the younger passengers we were able to get a promise of sobriety. In the back of our heads was the fact that a bus had flipped off the same highway earlier in the week killing most of its passengers. We agreed that at least one of us should be awake at all times, to watch the road and to make sure the driver didn't decide to tap into his stash that he had conveniently placed under his seat.

Only a few minutes out of Jammu, our driver pulled off the main highway, down an unlit gravel road through the countryside, even passing over dried up riverbeds. Nervous Emilie concluded that we were driven out to the middle of nowhere to be robbed and abandoned. Calm Emilie concluded that we were avoiding an army checkpoint preventing travel from Jammu to Srinagar. I was reassured after a few minutes when we looked back to see a whole stream of lights coming down the same road, a convoy of jeeps and trucks travelling the same well-known, checkpoint-avoiding route. I was nonetheless relieved to be back on the highway an hour later, a whole 13km from Jammu.

The rest of the ride was equally painful, with Yann and I working to stay awake. I proved to be rather useless, with Yann getting about one hour of sleep in the fifteen hour journey. Our driver was obviously drowsy, often swerving, but he was also obviously more macho than drowsy, so there was no question of taking a break, despite our offers. At about 3a.m., the driver and friends had decided to pull out the beers. Yann climbed onto the roof of the jeep and began unstrapping our bags. This led to a heated argument between me, the driver and the two young men who had recruited us for the ride. We prevented the driver from getting anything save for a few swigs and we were able to continue with the ride, but we probably offended their sense of manliness. The rest of the night was filled with large oncoming trucks, hairpin turns and lots of unnecessary passing and speeding. By 5a.m. we had reached the mouth of a long tunnel controlled by the army. The tunnel opened only at 8a.m., making us question our drivers motives for our speedy arrival there, he probably planned on getting into the beer, but Yann stayed up with the boys until the tunnel opened, while I got to sleep in the jeep. We were in downtown Srinagar by noon, we exited the jeep into a sea of hungry Kashmiri rickshaw drivers, what a relief.

6 comments:

mom said...

Tell me that neither of the two monks you are standing with is the "old Monk"

Y&E said...

Hee heee, the "old Ladakhi monk" is on the right, he is actually alot older than he looks. Shaving the heads keeps them looking young!

The guy on the left is the monk we met at Ladakh house and he was younger and a little bit more mobile, and had slightly better communication skills.

2par4 said...

I'm shaving my head!

par.

mom said...

What in God's name is 2par4 holding? It looks like a fish only bigger.

2par4 said...

That would be lake trout. A ten pound record-breaker (for our lake). Oh geez....listen to me, bragging again. Sorry.

I shaved my head. I look like an old Ladakhi monk. :(

Jean said...

I guess I'm alittle late for the "old monk" jokes. He does seem five years younger than I but it must be that vegetarian diet.
Love your story about the Jeep and checkpoints.I hate to say this Em, but you're actually learning to handle your anxiety though with the "good angel" "bad angel" technique. Works for me. And Yann staying there to fight the demons while you sleep seems like the rock that your technique rests on.
Félicitations Yann.

Papa