Thursday, April 24, 2014

5456 KM, 2 Couples, 1 Kiddo, 14 Days in an Ertiga!


The longest road trip of my life (So far):

The day I got my first drivers license – all I wanted to do was drive, drive and drive some more, don’t know when, where, how and why this driving bug had bitten me but it had bitten hard – no doubt on that. As far as my memory goes, it all started way back in late 80s when one of my distant cousin based out of Delhi gave a surprise visit to us that too while we lived in Ujjain (MP) in his Fiat (old model) during one of his road trips (830 Kms). One of the dream destinations or rather test of someone’s driving skills / guts in India is definitely a drive to Leh – Laddakh and back (for sure). Time immemorial I have heard so many adventure stories of my own friends, cousins and even strangers on internet – who’ve been there done that. Some had done it multiple times and one of my very best friend Nishant Jha who is / was my inspiration has done it half a dozen times that too on his bullet which is known as “The Mighty One” – you can read one of his accounts here (http://themountaintamers.blogspot.in/2008/10/mountain-tamers.html) Another fantastic inspiration for me was this guy – I don’t even know his name but mighty impressive because he had done it twice that too on his Matiz with family in 2003 – you can read about it here http://www.angelfire.com/trek/kumar_hv/LadakhTrip.htm And then there is this friend of mine who had left his multinational Job and started doing what he loved – Professional Tours to Himalayas. Dheeraj Sharma or www.devilonwheels.com his website is everything that one needs to know while driving / riding to Himalayas – it’s a freaking one of the awesome guide for someone who wants to do it by road. With this kind of support and guidance – it had to be a cake walk for me and so I thought – but what happened in the end was even more interesting, eye opening experience of a life time for us, no doubt that we swore to attempt it again pretty soon.

Before this trip the longest that we had done was something like a 2500 Km that too in about a week’s time – Mumbai to Bhuj (Rann of Kutch) etc and back. And this trip needed planning because we were trying to do a Mumbai – Leh and back in one stretch and had only two weeks to complete. I had the best of the guides and all we needed was a reliable vehicle – that problem too was solved once we decided to settle for Ertiga (ample of luggage space, safety and ground clearance too). Dates too were based on the little research we did with the help of those friends and online forums – we didn’t want to do it right when the road opens for tourists every year and not at the very end too when they were about to close but somewhere in between – so we thought of doing it in the third week of June and I clubbed it with my long weekend of 4th of July (US Independence Day). Final plan was to start on 22nd June (Saturday) and be back by 7th of July (Sunday) to resume work Monday onwards. After much deliberation, advice and research later the road decided was Mumbai – Delhi – Srinagar – Leh – Manali – Delhi and back to Mumbai (Roughly 5500 Km). We had done Delhi to Manali plus Rohtang Pass in the year 2012 as part of our winter vacation that too by road and were totally smitten by what we saw during those days and that trip even made the pact stronger of doing this trip sooner. But one thing we learnt during that trip was that we had reached Rohtang too fast and almost all of us suffered from AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) – just couldn’t remain there and had to return back to our hotel in Manali and take rest – the head was spinning like crazy and the feeling was totally unexplainable but the locals told us that it happens to people from plains – nothing to worry about. Hence we decided to do it via Srinagar this time as the climb from this side isn’t that steep and by the time you reach those heights – your body gets acclimatized.

The preparation and planning (Jan - Feb 2013): After Maruti confirmed that we will be getting the delivery of our car in April – we started the rest of the planning starting with applying for a two weeks’ vacation which was approved by my boss immediately. It won’t be an exaggeration if I say it took me a couple of years to come to this stage of planning that we were indeed doing it this year around. We had been dreaming, thinking, contemplating and what not about this whole trip which will always be unapproved by our respective parents and even most of the friends were like – “it isn’t doable and no point doing it when you can take a straight flight to Leh and enjoy without much trouble”. First hurdle was – which vehicle to take, after reading so much on internet – it looked like a 4 X 4 was a must to travel in that part of the world but our Rohtang trip indeed opened my eyes when we saw so many Altos, Santros and Wagon R’s doing the round trip without any issues that too in those minus 10 degree days, most of the taxi operators from Manali used those cars as they returned good fuel economy and easy to maintain. So a brand new Ertiga wasn’t that bad a vehicle to take it to those heights and most of the vehicles in our part of the world are front wheel driven so we took a decision of taking our own car for the journey, which was in the first place bought keeping this and these kind of trips in mind. When we finally decided the dates, a lot of friends came forward to join us. The initial team which had to travel was me, my wife and kiddo. One of my best buddies – Vikram from school with his adventurous wife Sonal and son Rishi (who is a terrific company on highways) who is almost my daughter’s age. Another friend from Air Force had to join us from Ahmedabad. Another school time buddy with his wife and two kids was to join us at Ahmedabad in his Tata Safari. A bachelor from Bangalore had to travel to Mumbai and start with us with another single joining us from Delhi, both of these guys decided to take rented Bullets from Srinagar or Manali. So the total team was 9 adults, 4 kids, 2 cars and 2 bikes. Since this was a road trip and we were doing such a long journey first time – the hotel bookings were out of question as it wasn’t sure what dates we will be reaching where. Hence we took the prints of all the details required, maps, directions, hotels, where to eat, where to stay etc, I indeed checked in the availability / rates of the stay(s) and made sure that even if we reached a day prior or late to any of the locations – we will not have issues in staying especially after Jammu and Srinagar as before that it was all easy.

I somehow had a hunch that initially when I proposed to my friends and they almost instantaneously agreed to the idea and some of them were pretty excited as well as charged about it too, still I felt that a lot of them would back out at the last moment. We did all the research possible as fast as we could, made a map of where all to go, visit, stay, and eat, sightseeing etc. We even made an excel sheet and divided into parts, subparts into days we will be reaching where and that helped us in making approximate calculation of expenditure we will be incurring during the trip including fuel cost. To our surprise after talking to our contacts who had done it earlier by road and with their further hotel / stay over contacts – I was shocked that the total still came less than 25-30K a couple for the whole trip, to which we further added another 10K each thinking of any contingencies or some unforeseen expenses we might not be thinking while planning. Total distance travelled divided between the three drivers and the bikers were on their own since none of us wanted to ride a bike on that route except that my wifey offered to ride pillion with one of them if the weather permitted. I picked up some important equipment like towing equipment, if any of our cars gets stuck at some point, tyre inflator / deflator, multipoint cell phone charger, emergency light, memory cards, a laptop, a mini tent, 16 GB USB for Music, list of medicines for AMS and other scenarios, multiple tyre puncture kits for emergency just in case if there is no help – I even visited a local vendor and he was more than happy to teach me how to fix a puncture without taking the tyre off the rim, it was quite an easy trick and advised me what all equipment to buy to enable me a quick repair.

The Drive
April 2013: We got our Ertiga’s delivery and same week we did a quick run from Mumbai to Pune with full load – just to get accustomed to the vehicle for the long upcoming drive. It proved value for money no doubt and was way spacious then we presumed earlier. Although we planned to fit an overhead carrier by June before our travel as it would be nice to fit the long term luggage on roof top and keep the everyday needs stuff packed in the little boot space car had with three rows of seats in up position. First service too was done and dusted in April itself after a very close friend took it for a spin to Mahabaleshwar and a couple of weekend drives with family and friends in and around Mumbai.

May 2013 and My Predictions: As predicted two of the singles backed out first – citing their own reasons – one had got confirmed on a offshore project and couldn’t help but continue as I wasn’t in a position to neither pre pone nor postpone out travel dates and second one just became father and his family warned him to not to take that kind of risk, that too on a two wheeler so he backed out as well since he wasn’t a car guy anyways. The count still was – three couples and 4 kids, I was still ok with this set up since the other guy had a Tata Safari which he recently got serviced and I thought it will be able to bail us out of any situation we get stuck in during the course of our journey. Unfortunately he had a theft in his house right on the first week of June and had no option but to call it off as the enquiry and our formal stuff would have taken quite a while in our part of the world to settle down.

June 2013: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2013_North_India_floods Almost shattered our hopes of doing the trip this year as we were warned big time by both of our families to settle for something close by and not to go for a cross country drive as we planned. And the last couple from our gang too had to call it off citing the same reasons as one of the top politician from back home had gone to Leh the same week whose Toyota Innova skidded and landed in a valley with no trace of victims, unfortunately it was all over the news in bold letters. Such was the impact of the accident that not only my friend called it off but he insisted that we too gave up on the trip and settled for may be Goa or down south somewhere. This all happened in the second week of June as we had planned to start on 22nd June (Saturday) for our trip – he broke the news to me on Wednesday with a very heavy heart as he knew that he was the last support I had to even attempt this one. Now, the question was should we or should we not? I and wifey sat thinking but somewhere deep down she knew it that I am going to give it a shot anyways – alone may be if required. My point was – since we planned everything this far – we shouldn’t give up that easily – let’s start and see how far we can go? As we were driving our own car hence we always had an option of taking a U turn and come back – we questioned no one and were answerable to no one either. We had always loved our highway trips so far and as long as were together – we never needed or missed anyone during those long trips and this was our golden opportunity to do something together, totally depending on each other. Hence we decided that we will do at least a run to Delhi and back if nothing else – I promised her a nice drive to Agra (Taj Mahal)  too if we called off the rest of the trip, I saw an opportunity to drive on the newly opened Freeway.

The Team :) 
Day 1 (22nd June 2013): I work in a US based consulting firm hence I work evening shifts starting from 6.30 PM till early morning 3.30 AM and since we had to start on Saturday morning – I took a half day leave on Friday. As fate had it – just couldn’t sleep after dinner – just kept shifting on my bed – even as the AC kept blowing kool air – I had sweat in my palms and forehead thinking about the ongoing 14 days and fun ahead. Finally, I slept but don’t know when and for how long – once I opened my eyes it was 2.15 AM – we still had couple of hours before we started – still I got up, took bath, made a cup of tea for myself, started loading luggage in the car. With the third row folded down and head rests removed – I realized Ertiga’s boot was mammoth, it swallowed our two big suitcases, three hand bags, my kiddos toy bag, a couple of small poly bags with stuff unknown to me, other car stuff that I picked up from the list very easily and the moment I closed the boot – almost nothing was visible from outside as if we didn’t even fill the boot to half capacity. I realized one more thing after sliding the second row fully backwards that the leg space was a little too much and since kiddo was the only one on the back seat – I had my doubts that she is going to sleep a lot during the journey and may roll down in the space (that would be dangerous fall). Hence, I had to fit in a Bean Bag in that space and it made a perfect bed for the princess – even if she will roll down with heavy braking – she will roll right back into her space with quick pick up, problem solved. I had the tank full done the previous evening, air pressure checked on all five wheels plus the car was sent for general check up last weekend with everything topped to the brim, we had nothing to worry about for next 5-6K km as the service advisor suggested.

Starting Odo Meter Reading. 
We started with odometer reading 962 at precise 5.24 AM from our home in Mumbai and the first target by evening was 785 Km to Udaipur (Rajasthan) via Ahmedabad and Vadodara (Gujarat). The weather was pretty good – a little drizzle showed us off to an exciting start and made me realize the value of a rear wash, wiper and defogger that day. We had done a couple of runs to Ahmedabad and Vadodara previously (Thrice) in the last 6 months and barring the Bharuch crossing – I was clear we will have no issues till Udaipur for sure – Gujarat highways are anyways excellent and almost six lane throughout.  My Facebook post on the very start was “Hell yeah!! Longest drive of our life - finally starts. Let's see how far we can go. First target now is Mumbai to Udaipur….here we come”. And by evening it became “750 km done for the day, night halt at Udaipur. Gujarat and Rajasthan highways simply Rock! Delhi it is tomorrow”. What amazing drive it was – barring one off turn that we had to take at Bharuch junction which it is famous for but as the forums advised to take the old golden bridge – we took it and were back on the highway in no time. The first break was at the outskirts of Vadodara city – reached around 11.30 AM at wifey’s favorite eatery right where the expressway ends – she loved the brownies that they serve, French fries for kiddo and my permanent diet on highways is always an Idli Vada dipped in Sambhar (light and quick to eat). We decided to have our lunch somewhere in between Ahmedabad (which was still a good 100 km) and Udaipur as it was too early for lunch. I guess the car was returning good mileage too as the needle was a little above the quarter mark and I thought I will pull it up to Ahmedabad for sure. Before I forget to mention there was no sign of rain after Vadodara – it was all dry and sunny by the time we reached Ahmedabad.

Companions - Ashish n Aarti
First Fuel Stop:  The first fuel stop was about 100 km before Udaipur, precisely at 677 KM from Mumbai and I am glad we did it and didn’t try to pull it till the city as right 25 km before Udaipur we saw one of our life’s worst traffic jams that too on the highway. A huge lorry carrying overload of plywood swerved towards the divider – hit it and toppled with plywood strewn across the highway on both sides. It was around 6.00 PM and a little sunlight was still there – we were glad that we made it right on time (thanks to the excellent highways) – I pulled over at a dhaba on the right side of the road and we had a tea break. We also noticed a good resort right where the jam started – I thought of checking for the room availability since it was no point going forward from here and call it a day. Right then wifey got a call from cousin who was following our Facebook posting and we had a reunion with one of her long lost cousin after I guess a decade or more, had a great evening with them and stayed over at their place. As expected they too were a little shocked / impressed / whatever to see that we decided and went off on this trip but a surprise awaited us the very next day which even we weren’t expecting. My brother in law (wifey’s younger brother) Ashish called us following our Facebook post that we had started alone and offered to come along if that was fine with us – we were more than glad to welcome him and his wife Aarti as that meant a great company and advised them to take “Bhopal Express” the very next day and meet us at Delhi the day after.

@ Jaipur Restaurant. 
Day 2 (23rd June 2013): After the first days drive of 750+ KM and clear weather with hopes of getting some company from Delhi – we both were fully charged although wifey was a little down with a little throat infection, headache and a little body ache etc. Again as it usually happens – I couldn’t sleep in the night and thoughts keep coming to my mind, it was indeed an achievement of sorts for me to do a long drive from Mumbai to Delhi itself and going beyond was something I never imagined earlier and it was indeed a dream come true sort of thing for me. Woke up before my alarm could go off and stuffed the car with the bags we had to take off for the night and was ready to make a move by sharp 6.00 AM. But we had a delayed start as we missed one of the cell phones at cousins place and realized by the time we had gone off like a couple of kilometers only – returned back – picked it up – bided final goodbyes with promises of seeing them again in very near future we moved towards next target “Jaipur”. Highways in this part of the journey too were equally good just like Gujarat – superb traffic sense from the truck, buses and cars – that amazed me. I was surprised while taking our last fuel stop after Ahmedabad that the Diesel price at this part was a little cheaper then Maharashtra and the pit stop before Jaipur even shocked me further – diesel was cheaper here too and as I asked the petrol pump attendant the same – he asked me – where were we heading to which I said up north to Jammu and Kashmir to which he shocked me by saying “Be ready for a shock when you reach Punjab”. Because of the excellent highways and good average speed we reached Jaipur around 1 O Clock and took a break of about an hour or so, had our lunch in a recently started restaurant – food quality here onwards was getting better by the distance travelled. I totally loved the Aloo Paranthas they served with sweet lassi – since distance from Jaipur to Delhi wasn’t that big (240 km) and I had done this earlier (a decade ago) multiple times – I ate well and stuffed myself as much as I could before making a move to our next stop Delhi which we thought to conquer by 6-7 PM at max. That’s where our calculation went wrong as the highway between Jaipur and Delhi was totally under construction with at least a million diversions later and shockingly unbelievable 9 hours later we somehow saw the outskirts of Guragon. Again I thanked God and my stars for getting that last full tank done before Jaipur which saved us quite a good time and we reached our destination without any fuel hiccups. It was almost 10.30 PM that we finally reached my friends place in Gurgaon (Sector 56).

I stayed in Delhi NCR for almost a decade after my graduation in 1996 and did my PG as well as got my first break in the same region. Hence we have a great gang of friends in Noida, Guragaon, Delhi and nearby areas. On our way back we planned to meet a few of them or may be stay with them – time permitting but while going up we just stayed with one of our close friends who recently moved from Mumbai to Gurgaon and met another of my classmates who stayed quite close to his house, had a superb evening with old friends over dinner before we called it a day finally. The next day we were to be joined by Ashish and Aarti, who had started previous night from Bhopal and their train was to arrive early morning at Hazrat Nizamuddin Station – I told him to get out from Kale Khan ISBT side so we can pick them up and hit the highway at the earliest. After two days of constant travelling my Facebook status read “Driven 1435 km in 2 days from Mumbai to Delhi. Fantastic National Highways! Where next? Let’s see where this road takes us. Today's halt at Gurgaon. Catching up with old friends. Tomorrow it’s back to road”. Since their train arrived at 9.30 in the morning we had two options – either to straight head towards Jammu (610 KM) or a night halt at Amritsar (458 KM). I always prefer driving in the day and do not usually drive in night especially when the family is with me hence we decided to reach Amritsar and will move to Jammu after morning Darshan at The Golden Temple (never been there ever). Wifey already had her course of Crocin and other stuff to overcome the travel fatigue but she was convinced them I am going to take her even on a wheel chair when it comes to travelling. But Golden Temple was one place we always wanted to visit once and overnight discussion with friends who’d been there earlier warned us of couple of things to be taken care while at the Temple premise.

Day 3 (24th June 2013): We started from Gurgaon not so early in the morning since we had to pick up Ashish and Aarti from Nizamuddin Station around 8AM as per the scheduled arrival. But Indian railways are usually late when you want them to be on time and that’s exactly what happened that day too. Their train which should have arrived by 8.05 AM arrived much later around 9.50 AM or something, by that time the sun was pretty much up and it was unusually hot (Dunno what I was expecting in June end in Delhi). I knew it that it’s going to take us more than an hour or may be more to hit the GT Karnal highway from ISBT Kale Khan. We were happy to have some company finally and it was a long drive with usual Delhi traffic towards Murthal (GT Karnal Highway), decided to take a first break at Sukhdev Dhaba for brunch, it was almost 12.30 PM by the time we reached, parked the car and landed on a table. Food was simply superb as expected with almost everything smelling of butter and ghee – I wanted to stuff as much as I could – but had a long drive ahead of another 400 km hence kept it under control. Highway was excellent from this point till Ludhiana (GT) after that another blunder kept waiting for us as most of the highway was under construction and we had to take another million diversions, we were not at all able to pick up good average speed on this particular stretch and bikers (specifically bullet riders) kept racing with us. It was quite an amazing sight to see so many young sardars sprinting on those rickety bullets which made amazing sound (typical bullet thump). Our jaws were falling on the floor seeing them flying past us from all sides as I tried my level best to match up to their speed they just refused to slow down. They were doing all kinds of stunts too like not holding the handlebar while bike raced on 100+ KMPH and a dude was actually fixing his sun glasses and positioning his cap as bike roared past others. Somewhere down the line 6 late highways had become 4 lanes and finally after Ludhiana or Phagwara it was a single road, indeed shocking. I always thought Golden Temple was one of the most important monuments we have in India but the approach road to Amritsar was telling a different story altogether. But the fuel stop again had put a very wide smile on my face as expected – WOW! Diesel at this part of India was at least a good 16/- cheaper than what they were selling in Mumbai.

Atari - Wagah Border Parade
We were racing against time to hit Atari (India Pakistan Border 30 KMs after Amritsar) before the sun set to check out the evening parade and were almost losing hope with every passing minute that we will not be able to watch it. Finally made it right on time and we were totally shocked to see the turnout on a weekday at the border. But it was an amazing sight and I am totally at a loss of words as how to explain what we experienced that evening. Even with thousands and thousands of Indians shouting together with our Pakistani counterparts doing the same from a visible distance. It was indeed an amazing feeling – I never thought that I will ever have this kind of patriotic feeling but was somehow prepared for this as one of my very close friend said the same to me that “You will have an amazing unexplainable feeling once you stand on Indian side and see the whole parade as well as the way they take down the Indian National Flag in the evening amid thousands of people cheering”. It was simply outstanding to see the last Indian Railway Station (Atari) up close and personal. I wish we could see the train passing into to Pakistan from our side but not all our wishes can come true.

It was almost 10.30 PM that we finally hit Amritsar and all I wanted to do was to check out Golden Temple once and crash on bed. As suggested by friends who’d been there earlier we tried to find an accommodation in Temple vicinity but I didn’t find it such a good idea especially that late in the night hence settled for a decent looking hotel nearby. There was a multilevel car park very near the temple and I was shocked to see its size – I guess it could easily accommodate a good number of cars (in thousands) at any point of time but it felt a little secluded rather haunted at that point of time. Initially we parked our car there but as soon as we finalized the hotel – I took it out and rather have it parked in front of the hotel on road. Seriously, couldn’t trust the car part with so much of luggage in the car. All my friends plus anyone you ask in Amritsar as to where to have lunch or dinner – everyone says “Brother’s Dhaba” unanimously. So we visited the much praised Dhaba and gorged on whatever was available, it was just superb, or maybe we were a little tired and hungry too that we ate at break neck speed. The best part about this part of India is that these guys are fantastic hosts, awesomely good cook and they don’t even charge you a bomb as it wasn’t at all expensive. I must mention one more thing that the roads mostly in the night in Amritsar (Near Golden Temple) are way too confusing – you will not trust me if I tell you that we passed through the same road almost 5 times before hitting the hotel as most of the roads are one way in the night and we kept missing one turn, it was hilarious. Finally, called it a night it was pretty hot and humid too, checked in the hotel which was again very decently priced and crashed.

Golden Temple
Next day early morning we made history (in our own books), after living in Delhi for a decade I unfortunately never visited Golden Temple – always passed from a very near distance while on official trips but never got an opportunity to see it in person. I guess I was destined to come here with my wifey and kiddo – god has his own ways of calling his followers. But I must tell you this – it’s simply stunning whatever time of day you see it – mind-blowing is the way it looks on a sunny day. As told by friends and family we kept our heads securely covered as that’s a rule here at all times - ones head must be covered even for kids. We were fated to experience this too (multiple warnings by friends) as wifey’s dupatta with which she covered her head slide down a bit and was almost on her neck when a young sardar approached her and told her very politely “Behan, sir dhak lein” I was touched. The queue for darshan that day wasn’t that long fortunately but walking around the temple was a blessing – the way it is built – automatically we got our turn of washing hands and feet and were a part of the crowd gathered around for darshans with Gurbani playing in the background – it was an experience of its own. Kiddo was proud too to visit the Golden Temple as she had seen it in her books and was too excited to share it with her friends as soon as she could. We got our second warning while taking Prasad as fate had it – as I raised my hands to take the Prasad with my left hand below my right as we Hindu’s do usually – they have their own way which is even better that you have to spread both of your hands side by side and they fill it with Prasad on both (you’ve got to check out the quantity and quality). We don’t eat that much ghee in a day’s meal as much as they put in one serving. We sat down a little by the stairs, ate our Prasad, as kiddo dipped her feet in the pond enjoying company of some real big gold fishes and enjoyed the beautiful Temple some more, said our prayers and thanked god for the beautiful life bestowed on us and moved out. Right next, almost adjoining to the temple was “Jaliyaan Wala Bagh” where one jackass British made history by killing hundreds of innocent Indians one fine day. Not much of it is left here now as they have converted it into a jogging track and renovated it in such a way that it has lost its originality. That was all we wanted to do in Amritsar and it was time to move to Jammu as my Facebook page read Amritsar 2050 km away from home. Finally saw Wagah Border parade. It’s an amazing feeling standing at the border overlooking the other side. Overcrowded and messy management though but worth all the effort, a must visit if you come this far. Time to move ahead to Jammu after Golden Temple visit” Temple as she had seen it in her books and was too excited to share it with her friends as soon as she could. We got our second warning while taking Prasad as fate had it – as I raised my hands to take the Prasad with my left hand below my right as we Hindu’s do usually – they have their own way which is even better that you have to spread both of your hands side by side and they fill it with Prasad on both (you’ve got to check out the quantity and quality). We don’t eat that much ghee in a day’s meal as much as they put in one serving. We sat down a little by the stairs, ate our Prasad, as kiddo dipped her feet in the pond enjoying company of some real big gold fishes and enjoyed the beautiful Temple some more, said our prayers and thanked god for the beautiful life bestowed on us and moved out. Right next, almost adjoining to the temple was 
Naina enjoying with Gold Fish at the pond. 
Jaliyaanwala Bagh Check out the crowd in the bagh right in the morning!

Day 4 (25th June 2013): After having a fundoo morning at Golden Temple we checked out from hotel and since the distance to our next target – Jammu was almost 200 odd KM from Amritsar, we were not in a hurry to push off. It was unbelievable for me to see the fantastic roads at this part of India – last time when we drove on the same roads to Vaishno Devi (a decade back) – situation was totally different – roads had drastically improved. Excellent 4 lane highway welcomed us throughout till Jammu but the scenery totally changed right after we left Amritsar – I guess around 40-50 odd KM – it kept on becoming secluded and amazingly beautiful. I remember – Aarti asked me a question right after we picked them up from Nizamuddin station “What do you like about driving so much?” to which I replied “Let’s talk about this once you complete 1000 kms with us”. As soon as we started our journey on this section – she automatically got her own answer “Got it, now I know how it feels and what exactly you like about driving”. There were hardly any vehicles on road or people, silence and beauty all over – we didn’t even speed in this section as distance was less so enjoyed the drive thoroughly.

Bhai Saab and Madam with the team :) 
One of our long lost family friends who we’ve been planning / promising to meet us for decades was fortunately posted in Jammu. So far we had kept in touch via Facebook / Phone / Email etc and they were following our route and had strictly instructed us to spend a day with them before going forward – till the moment we visited them we had no clue of his title or position with BSF. I assumed he must be a very senior officer for sure but as we reached where they stayed at the camp and I informed the guard posted on the entry – who we wanted to visit – he almost gave us a “Salute in Attention” of welcome and summoned his senior who in place offered to drive us to “Sahib’s” residence. We were like WOW! Looked like we were in for some VIP treatment after all. That’s exactly what happens to the civilians when they meet someone from Defense – our eyes were almost popping out after visiting the campus and the kind of life they lived there – although in the night this same place becomes very scary with the sounds of bombs, missiles and bullets being fired at not so far distance – so we were told. I guess Pakistan border wasn’t that far from this place and India is always at war is what we were told. It was around lunch time that we reached their residence since “Sahib” was still busy with his regular office day time work; madam took us for a quick drive to the real India Pakistan border. We had no idea as how close a civilian could get to the real border between the two nations and they even allow civilians to walk across, of course to an extent and all this while you are at the gun point from both the sides. It was amazing to see a Peepal tree in between the two sides shared by both the countries – it even had a pillar showing the exact boundary inside its huge stem – I will see if I have a picture of the same which I can post in here. We were allowed to go up to the bunker where they had a huge gun permanently pointed towards the fence between both the nations which was indeed loaded and we were told to not to touch anywhere near the trigger, bullet marks were pretty much visible on the bunker wall and the painter had done his job of making circles over the holes made by bullets. Incredible sight – it sent shivers down my spine by just looking at them – it’s hard to explain the feeling in words for me. I will call it an experience of a life time and an amazing patriotic feeling one gets by just standing near the national flag at the border overlooking Pakistani gunmen pointing their guns at you. It’s unbelievable as well as shocking to see from a very powerful binocular to the other side of the fence when you realize even they are doing the same to you.

Last Gate and you can exit to Pakistan 
The evening that we spent with “Sahib” the Commanding Officer was unforgettable; he shared some of his priceless experiences from border as well as live firing and stuff. Plus some of his memorable instances while he himself was posted long back in Leh – Laddakh region. He even shared some of his friends and colleagues contacts from the area who are right now posted at those heights – offered us a local driver too from the area which I politely declined as that’s something we wanted to do it on our own. He had a huge collection of 70’s western music which we enjoyed thoroughly over a couple of drinks and snacks – the chef on duty was simply awesome and he kept bombarding us with amazing stuff one after another followed by a mind-blowing dinner. Finally we called it a night as the next day onwards the journey was definitely supposed to get more challenging as my Facebook page read “Reached Jammu - Again excellent highways. Almost four lanes throughout. Visited Jammu Pakistan border and briefly visited enemy territory too. Again can't describe the feeling. Time to start the climb and hit Srinagar Tomorrow”.

View from Indian Bunker of Fence between India and Pakistan

Technically we were inside Pakistan at this time. 
Thats the Peepal Tree with a Milestone Inside - exactly between
India and Pakistan on sharing basis :) 
Bullet marks fired by enemy :) 
Last View of Jammu Valley
Day 5 (26th June 2013): After staying a day at BSF quarters and getting pampered with full on service – we woke up to the news (another advantage) that the Jammu Srinagar highway was closed till 1 O clock in the afternoon and will only open after that for public. We stayed back for breakfast and moved around 10.00 AM as we needed to pick up some stuff from local market and thought of going around town a little bit before hitting the spot from where the traffic was stopped. We realized fruits were too damn good at this part and were dirt cheap as well – we picked up a box of cherries as my kiddo loves them and I must tell you that I haven’t eaten those kindda cherries ever in my life – ultimate sweet and fresh. Packed some fruits, cakes, snacks, juices and mineral water for the upcoming journey to Srinagar of around 300 KM – I thought we will be able to travel that much in 6 hours and will be reaching maximum by 7.00 or 8.00 PM which as per me was still a safe time to find a hotel and crash. What I did not realize nor had any idea that out of those 300 KMs – 240KMs were a totally hilly drive and one of the best (read tough) that I had ever done in the past.  Jammu onwards the 4 lane highways end and there after it’s a single road to Srinagar and it’s a terrific climb with awesome valleys on both sides (of course one at a time), I had a tough time keeping my eyes on the road as it wasn’t too wide but didn’t wanted to miss out on those lush mountains. One thing I noticed that throughout this way (most of it) the car was going on 3rd gear and just couldn’t go beyond it – so many times I tried my level best to pick up speed and put it on 4th but it just won’t budge. After a couple of kilometers I realized and gave up – this is when I realized that the height was so much that I guess diesel engine was facing issues in burning hence the pickup and power loss. None of us had ever seen those tall trees ever – I mean – it was amazing to see those heights and clouds just parked on the road as we passed through – as we stopped over to much advised “Rajma Chawal” break at a road side dhaba – it will be a crime to talk of the quality as well as quantity – I was overwhelmed by the same and the price – I guess I shouldn’t even mention it here.
The 3rd Gear Drive
Notice the construction going on
Dozens of tunnels under construction
Notice the flags on returning bikes :)
I was totally surprised as well as impressed by the local drivers as almost everybody was driving on the most left side of the road as left as they could and it felt as if no one was in a hurry to reach Srinagar any sooner. Although we were doing it for the first time and I wasn’t too troubled but not too confident either hence my speed was actually a little slower than the rest of the people ahead or behind me. At times I waved to the driver behind me to pass thru as I wasn’t able to achieve the speed they were driving but never saw anyone honk or give a dipper behind me asking for side – this is something we the people of plains rarely witness. Another fantastic thing that we started noticing right after leaving Jammu was that a lot of bikers were coming back from Srinagar and almost everyone had that typical Laddakhi flag hosted proudly either on their handle bars or the back rest – that was some motivating sight – every time one of us noticed a biker coming head on with the flag – we waved / cheered and got the same cheer back from them realizing that we were on our way from where they were coming back. I guess neither I nor they can explain the feeling you get while on road when something like that happens with you, it’s truly unexplainable and made me proud of myself being here and actually attempting it. And then we had some bikers behind us too which we noticed since their average speeds were better than us – they soared past us but not before we cheered them and made “thumbs up” sign to each other. Another important thing that my wifey noticed was the registration numbers of the bikes – some were coming from Delhi, a couple of them we noticed from Maharashtra and not to forget some were coming as far as from Karnataka and Kerala too. Isn’t that insane? But we totally love this insanity and will keep doing it as long as we could and as far as we could go. 

Rajma-Chawal break point.
Notice the lengthy trees and fog. 
I kept driving as fast as I could but realized after a couple of hours that we will not be able to make it on time to Srinagar – try as hard as I may as all I could do was keep the accelerator pressed slightly with steering going left once and then right, again left and again right that’s all I could do the whole time and the valley never ended it was unending distance. During one of those sharp turns almost touching the over head mountain – I almost went too close to an oncoming truck and had to swerve too hard to keep the car on left and BANG! It sounded as if we hit something as car started going left, to my good fortune there was a straight stretch with a dhaba and a bus stop on left with good parking space – I immediately parked to check what happened. We had a flat tyre (front left) as car over shot due to sharp curve and I hit those stone pillars (a couple of inches high) they made on the side of the road. To our good luck the dhaba was operational – quickly we emptied the boot since the spare wheel’s opening is from inside the boot and there is no way we could take the wheel down without removing stuff from boot. It took me 15 minutes to take off the front wheel – put the spare on, pack the luggage back in the boot. We decided to take a short tea break as the exercise of putting a spare wheel was a little too much on us lesser mortals. I guess we wasted almost half an hour here and another half hour in getting the puncture repaired plus wheel mounted back in the place (Luggage had to be emptied yet again).

The view kept getting better with every KM
It started getting dark soon and we were still a good distance away from Srinagar – it wasn’t such a comforting feeling as unfortunately our cell phone signals too decided to play hide n seek with us at this time of need. On top of that – there was no data connectivity throughout the state of Jammu Kashmir – not on Airtel as well as on Vodafone, unfortunately the BSNL Sim that we had wasn’t activated yet. My sister in law’s instructions started ringing a bell in my head – she told us that the last 60 KMs of our journey to Srinagar will be on the plains and we had almost crossed 200 – that made it another 50 odd KM before we hit the plains again. As per my calculation we were about to miss out on another important thing that couple of my friends told me multiple times that the moment we come out of Jawahar Tunnel – I was supposed to stop and take the picture of the valley – that was definitely not happening – first – we hadn’t reached the tunnel yet and it was already dark. On top of that it was like adding insult to injury to confess that we didn’t even had a booking anywhere in Srinagar for our stay yet.

I love those long winding roads. 
And the sensible traffic. 
Even our Car got a Companion from State :) 
Anyways, I learned the meaning of “Sense of Accomplishment” as we entered the Jawahar Tunnel and reached further close to Srinagar, although it was too dark outside as well inside but the little lamps kept showing us the way other than the tail lights of a rickety Tata Indica ahead of us and a goods carrier behind us. The 3 KM long tunnel looked way too long at this hour and it was scary to see its width, walls dripping water and they looked almost so close as I could roll down my window and touch them  – made almost 5 decades ago – it was planned way too well. It almost had enough space to park one vehicle on side after almost every 200 or 250 mtrs just in case if some vehicle broke in between the journey. Once out of the tunnel we took a long sigh of relief but still had a long way to go – as per the map we were almost at a small town called Qazigund around 9 O clock and it already felt as if it was midnight. We stopped at one of the sports shop to enquire about further course of action and another grocery store guy next door came over to help – they suggested either we stopped right there as I could see two small hotels with a couple of cars outside. But my detective wifey noticed immediately that the cars parked were all carrying local numbers and we rather enquired about the condition of the highway to Srinagar. To my amazement and shock yet again – they told us “it’s pretty much straight with no risk at all” – they told us to go ahead confidently without thinking of stopping over at any other place. We further went ahead and I saw “Anantnag 17 KM” but it was on the opposite direction from Srinagar – we reached a T point from where Anantnag was very close towards right and Srinagar was further 40+ but on the left. Right at that spot I saw an Army Vehicle and some gunmen standing behind a huge pile of gunny bags guarding with one of them pointing a gun on the road we were coming from. I parked the car on left and went ahead and asked them – quite a few of them were Punjabi’s and they all unanimously assured us of the good and safe road ahead – also told us that we may not get any place to stay at Anantnag and options of getting dinner anywhere were less too. I guess with so many people assuring us – we went ahead and took our chances – mobile signals had returned too and wifey made quick calls to our Delhi friends of our whereabouts and assured them of calling them back as soon as we safely reached and checked in a hotel in Srinagar.

This was one of the happiest as well as most scary days of my life – together. By coming this far I achieved something I was only dreaming of until now but seeing the planning gone haywire with family on board it was scary. To our rescue came an ambulance out of nowhere I guess – gladly we started following it as I assumed it would be going nowhere but to our destination but to my shock – as we started following it from a 10-15 mtr distance – suddenly the driver swerved the ambulance to left and killed the engine. We kept going ahead and never saw its headlight again – another car overtook us and same thing happened – I realized following any vehicle in this area isn’t considered safe hence they too were stopping over to let us go thinking something otherwise. Hence we had no option but to keep going ahead at whatever speed we could – although the road was good but I guess I wasn’t able to do anything above 50-60 KMPH at that point of time. We realized one more thing that night that it isn’t that scary as we think it is when we finally reached Srinagar without any issues and to our delight there was no dearth of hotels to stay and to dine as well. Hotel Shangrila was right on the main road but unfortunately they didn’t had any vacancy but the front desk recommended us to go further ahead and will get to a place with quite a few new hotels. We found one recently made hotel and it was indeed a relief for us to see a Honda CBR 250R bike with Mumbai registration parked in front of the lobby. This was one biker who over took us I guess somewhere in the evening while we were waving and cheering the oncoming bikers and we took the rooms instantaneously. As I was doing it throughout the journey – my Facebook page read “One of the most beautiful yet scary drives between Jammu and Srinagar with one flat tyre to remember. It's just simply fantastic to cheer riders on their way back from Riders paradise and dream destination cheering / motivating us to go further and complete it. Another day ends with hopes of making it to Kargil tomorrow”.

Day 6 (27th June 2013): Although we planned to keep today for Srinagar but the day started with the sad news that the highway to Kargil was closed for the day and no vehicles were allowed to pass through this morning – as after a bomb blast on the road Army was searching for some hidden mines. So we planned to stay back and enjoy the day at Srinagar.

The First View of Dal Lake in the morning
Srinagar in night looked quit secluded and scary to us as we reached quite late but in the morning it was no different than any other city or town of India with full on traffic – jams on signals and more n more people anywhere you turn your head. But the life is totally different here and unlike any other tourist destination where you will be flocked by guides and people trying to sell you anything – that wasn’t the case here. The very first thing I wanted to do in Srinagar was to check out the “Dal Lake” and if you haven’t seen it yet – I must tell you – its HUGE – haven’t seen a bigger lake in my life ever. It looked super special especially with those beautiful boat houses parked in a long never ending line on the one side. This was our first trip to this part of India and no doubt – the beauty was mesmerizing – we realized in no time why it is called “Heaven on earth” it indeed is one. As it rained the previous night – it was a little chilly day – this was the first time that we had to take out our Jackets and Shawls during the entire journey till this moment. The parking lot attendant suggested we took a Shikara ride and see some points that they take everyone across plus there was this JKTDC restaurant on the lake where they stopover for breakfast or lunch. The Shikara ride was a two hour long ride and almost covered a major part of the lake with some awesome sights that they took us too – there was this entire market on water (Shikara’s) that we saw and it was truly unbelievable experience. So far we had seen it only in some old movies and pictures of friends who had visited Srinagar earlier – it was our first experience and we loved it. As soon as we got on board our Shikara and we moved inside the lake – I noticed a huge rather a hugest mountain I could see and hoisted on top of it was our pride “the Indian National Flag”. As we moved further couple of meters – we noticed another Shikara coming towards us and we were all in smile, shock and awe to see a moving Ice Cream shop – imagine the situation – we were all in jackets and shawls trying to save ourselves from shivering yet no one said “NO” to ice cream as that was an unbelievable sight on a regular day for us and enjoyed the not so good ice cream on move followed by a fruit chat vendor. In another 10 minutes as we kept moving came another Shikara which was actually a “Imitation Jeweler” on the move – they somehow attached both the Shikara’s in such a way that they kept moving in the direction of our trip and kept showing us the stuff too. Our next stop was the mid way JKTDC restaurant where we had our brunch – food was again – no doubt amazing but a little pricey this time – I guess JKTDC is making all the money.
House Boats in a Row. 
The Shikara Ride. 
Network kept coming and going :) 
Ashish n Aarti @ Shikara
Shikara Boarding Point. 
Tea Stall on Lake
Shopping on the lake: The next stop was a fixed tea stall – again being operated from a Shikara but which was fixed on one location – had a tea break here before moving on to the real market on water as told by our Shikara rider. The visual all across the ride was simply mind blowing – beauty all over – never seen sights with huge mountains with clouds hanging on top but it was amazing to see so many people busy with their routine work – it was us only who were a little out of place but enjoying the day as it progressed. The whole market on the lake was an out n out amazing experience for us – the vegetable market, the fish market, the shopping arcade where we actually took a break but unfortunately none of us was a great bargainer and somehow the goods on sale didn’t click either with wifey but we enjoyed the little walk on the market – it was again everything was on water and felt too good to walk from one huge boat to another one in search of something good. I guess my kiddo was having a blast since she was getting anything and everything she wanted – starting from her favorite snacks, ice cream, cute birdies, beautiful flora n fauna and ducks swimming in a queue – she even snapped a duck family with Mr and Mrs. Donald Duck on move with their three ducklings. The day was passing at leisure as we were in no hurry to go anywhere but just enjoy the nature as it is, no mobile network, no emails, no office or school to go to – no targets – life simply rocked and no one wanted to go back from here anyways. Rest of the day was spent going around the local market buying souvenirs – kiddo picked up a damn cute looking Shikara.
Ice Cream Shop on the move
Imitation Jeweller on the move
Look at those hills, clouds and Notice the Indian National Flag on Top
View from JKTDC Restaurant on Dal Lake
Wifey all happy after brunch at
JKTDC Restaurant on Dal Lake
House Boats overlooking moving Fruit Chat Shop
House Boats: One most important thing that one needs to do while in Srinagar is to stay at a House Boat, unfortunately that wasn’t in our destiny this time round. We were totally mesmerized by the way almost a 100 of them were parked in a long never ending line right in front of the main road on Dal Lake. After we finished our Shikara ride – I straight forward went and enquired for the house boat stay and a guy who had a small boat took us on a quick ride to show us the options. We almost checked a dozen of them – right from the most expensive ones to the budget ones but unfortunately wifey found them to be pretty claustrophobic to say the least and then they had this typical Kashmiri touch to all of them – like heavily carpeted, dark too because almost all of them had a maximum of one to two windows only – and there was this weird thing that almost everyone did was putting on those thick incense sticks – although they smelled good but were a little too much for our taste. Even the ones who didn’t set them on yet were smelling big time of the same – which typical stench (Which was pleasant for me) was something which bothered her and we decided to skip the house boat stay for now. If you ask me about the feedback – I will say – I totally loved some of the options – they were big and the room sizes were excellent at least to be on a boat it was too good. Some of them even offered a kind of terrace overlooking unending lake; room service was available with food and everything else on board the boat as well. We almost finalized one of the options and bargained the price too – but just because of my wifey’s expressions we skipped it and called it off – tipped the guy for the whole exercise and moved on with other options.
The Donald Duck and family. 
As we settled back in the room – I spoke to the manager about the guy we saw last night with Mumbai registered CRB 250R – as I wanted to really meet and talk to him. He quickly obliged seeing our car from Mumbai too and we met over a cup of tea – spoke for almost a couple of hours and what an amazing guy he turned out to be. You can read or know more about him here at: http://www.hornokplz.tv/ He is actually a one man army when it comes to riding and is a documentary film maker – chooses his own subjects and goes cross country riding his bikes and makes documentaries for various channels and programs. He had even done a record breaking run from Kanyakumari to Khardungla via Leh – Laddakh on his bike, his blog has all the details of the ride too. On this particular trip where we met – he did Mumbai to Srinagar run on his bike in just three days (No comparisons but we took close to 5 days by Car). As I asked him if it was safe for us to travel to Leh from here and get out from Rohtang Pass and Manali side – all he responded was in a ear to ear smile pointing at my car that if he could do it a dozen times on his bike – we definitely can in a car like that. That was quite motivating, as we hadn’t even decided to come this far let alone completing the whole journey on our own and we have this guy who charged us fully as he too was starting the very next morning for the same route but planned to stay there for a couple of months completing his latest documentary on “Laddakhi Widows”.  After a sumptuous dinner at a Punjabi Restaurant very near our hotel – we retired to our rooms with eyes full of dreams for the next day and the oncoming journey ahead as my Facebook page read “After spending a day in Srinagar at leisure now we know why they say "Jammu Kashmir is heaven on earth". Its unbelievably awesome beauty at its best. Never seen something as beautiful as this and will never forget what wifey said "If this is Srinagar, imagine how Switzerland would be? Sad news was - Road to Kargil was closed for the day. Hope it opens tomorrow”.

Look at the background
Day 7 (28th June 2013): Second day in a row right in the morning as we raced towards the road to Kargil, it was heartbreaking to know that the Indian Army had put barricades to keep it closed for civilians. We started early just to take chance and thought that we will be the first ones to cross the point and will be let go but I guess that wasn’t to happen. Still as we kept waiting for some time for the road to open in no time there were more than 200+ tourist vehicles piled up on the road – all waiting for the barricades to be lifted. In an hour or so they declared that the road will remain closed as the news of our Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh’s visit the to the region on the same day spread – we realized it was futile to keep waiting hence we headed back to Srinagar to spend the day locally but our calculation was going wrong now and looked like we will be short of a couple of days to complete the trip.

Chashmeshahi
We decided to spend the day in Srinagar before we could come to a conclusion as to how to proceed from here and headed to The Mughal Garden - “Chashmeshahi”. As history lesson said it was built around a spring by Ali Mardan, a governor of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, in the year 1632. The garden is located in the Zabarwan Range, near Rajbhawan (Governor‘s house) overlooking Dal Lake in Srinagar, Kashmir. The location and scenery was simply “WOW” – one heck of a site with superb hills all around and in the centre was this “Royal Spring” and the locals claimed that the water coming out of those stones (Naturally) was way better in quality than the mineral water bottles we were carrying. Tourists were actually going crazy to fill up their own bottles from the spring and drinking it – almost everyone confirmed that indeed it was amazing. Even I tried too and it was really difficult to tell if there was any difference in both the waters. The garden was huge in size – almost spread across at least an acre of land with superb stairs leading to the spring and beauty spread all across. Although parking was very chaotic with so many cars and vehicles looking for space but otherwise it was a superb place to spend some time, they had a lot of restaurants as well as hotels for lodging n boarding nearby with so many small eateries serving pepping hot food items throughout the day. The next place we visited from here was very near and it was famous “Jawaharlal Nehru Botanical Garden”. Another superb garden with scenery which resembled a “Windows Screensaver” image with Dal Lake in background and huge cloud covered mountains overlooking it. This place really made up for some real good photo session – I guess the whole of Srinagar was a photographers paradise anyways – I was going crazy to take snaps and regretted not having a DSLR at this stage but was shooting with a Point and Shoot Digital Camera – whatever images I could. This garden had a huge and an amazing collection of trees, some too big to be captured in a single shot and some as small – that they were a compliment to my kiddo’s size who in place obliged us by posing with them.

Time to pose :) 
After sightseeing – we settled for a little lunch – I had no count how many Pakoda’s I had at Botanical Garden as the dude was making them right in front of me and we just kept eating till our tummy gave up followed by hot Kashmiri tea as kiddo enjoyed her noodles and snacks. I kept checking about the highway status but there was no hope of hearing good news – later we came to know that they even closed the highways going towards Sonmarg and Gulmarg as well because lots of tourists who were not able to make it to Kargil and further were actually moving to those locations but with limited options – later they too were closed. Finally we decided to hit back if the road doesn’t opens the next day and spent the rest of the evening relaxing, going around the Dal Lake and market nearby.







Naina loved the Botanical Garden
And with the bigger ones :) 
So did Aarti and Ashish too :) 
@ Vaishno Devi
Day 8 (29th June 2013): Unfortunately with no hope of road opening to Kargil straight on the third day, with a heavy heart we started back to Jammu but since we were anyways going back – decided to take a detour via Katra (Vaishno Devi) as after an extra nights stay in Srinagar we didn’t have that many back up days to reach back home on time. One thing I realized on the way back that coming downhill from Srinagar was way too easy in comparison to going up (of course) and the scary piece of route (The last 60 KMs) that we travelled in the dead of the night with no clue was actually not that scary in the day – it was almost a straight stretch with a couple of small villages on the way and looked nice in the sunny afternoon as we passed. We even passed that military make shift camp that we stopped to ask for directions as well as the sports shop and his neighboring grocery store on the way – how life and places look different in a day in comparison to the night is simply amazing. We weren’t happy to come back but had no option instead we were glad and actually kind of proud that we did it till this point and I had no regrets whatsoever. While coming back we came to that point right before Jawahar Tunnel and as I said earlier the scene was mind-blowing – the very first view of the valley is seriously outstanding, they even had a point where you could stop by and look over the valley. A lot of construction is going on this route though but nothing that will jam up the traffic – they are actually making almost two dozen tunnels all across and I am sure in coming couple of years these journeys will become faster, safer as well as simpler too once they complete and open all these tunnels for public.

A Cloud came charging @ us. 
Katra (Vaishno Devi): if I remember correctly – last time when we drove to Jammu (Katra) from Delhi the drive was scary and the road was in awful state at least from Jammu to Katra but this time around with so much progress all around the road condition was excellent – it was too good to be true. Right after taking the turn from the highway – we were in Katra almost in no time – effortless driving, we straight went to the same hotel we stayed more than three times earlier, checked in the room and started the climb right after dinner. The very last time when we came to Vaishno Devi, my kiddo was 8 months and now she was almost 7 years – that time we got stuck in “Adhkunwari” for a night because of sudden heavy rainfall and drop in temperature that too in the month of March. This time barring one off incident of a cloud coming too close to the Main Bhawan followed by superb rain – nothing untoward happen and we had a quick Darshan before we headed back to Jammu after breakfast.  Although this was the first time in my life that I indeed took advantage of my situation and got VIP entry done for Darshan. And actually we were in and out of Bhavan in flat 20 minutes as we started the climb on foot @ 10.30 pm and were back in hotel @ 10.30 am, some sort of a family record we created by doing it that fast. Although the season was not in full swing yet still we saw around 5-6k people in waiting since early hours of morning near Bhavan. The whole thing has changed big time and have become pretty convenient now unlike a decade back. Still the temple management is very poor, starting from the locker room to facility to take bath – almost everything is hap hazard unless you have good connections – it is indeed very inconvenient especially if you are travelling with young kids. We had no such issues as my kiddo this time was in full mood to walk as much as she could and we too needed to do our quota of yearly exercise in one solid walk. After reaching half way up, wifey decided to take a horse as she wasn’t able to walk much and so did Aarti but I and Ashish with kiddo kept walking – it was fantastic to walk after midnight with quite a few people and nice clear weather. I was glad to notice that they even have battery operated vehicles especially for senior citizens and physically disabled people at a very nominal price to and from Bhavan. It was time to say good bye to Katra but not before we picked up a couple of kilos of Rajma as tradition had it – never came to Katra (Jammu) and not bought a few kilos of Rajma – one kg for a special friend in Gurgaon too.

Day 9 (30th June 2013): After spending another fantastic evening with friends and family in Jammu – It was time to hit back Delhi and catch up with some old friends to brag about our longest trip. On the way to Delhi from Jammu we decided to catch up with a long lost friend who we've been connected online for decades and it was a fantastic meeting totally rocking. There was this one time almost a decade back that I got an offer from a company called Quark Express based in Panchkula – I had almost decided to make a move and join them – that’s when I promised my friend Ava that I am going to take her to “Kapil’s” for lunch. Unfortunately that offer I never signed and my promise never materialized so I thought of compensating for the same this time around. I just made a quick call to Avaji and we decided to catch up in a restaurant on the way, it was an amazing meeting over lunch and coffee that we had. We talked so much about our old gang we used to have on www.mouthshut.com and that’s where we met – all the review writers – I seriously got a lot of great friends through that forum and we always remained in touch. This was the first time I met her and not for one moment that we felt we were meeting for the first time – even wifey was totally comfortable with her as she had heard so much from me about her.  Chandigarh is again one of those beautiful cities that by just passing through it makes your day, vague memories of my previous visits to the city kept coming back. And before even we realized – we were back in harrowing traffic and attitude of Delhi people where every tom, dick and harry wanted to teach me driving. Please pardon my language but fuckers don't even get by seeing my registration number that I've driven from Mumbai - A rickshaw puller even told me that I needed to learn driving. I was actually thinking to of putting a sticker on my rear windshield saying "Forgive me for Driving in Delhi" for as many days we had to spend here but a friend rather suggested to put “You do not know who I am?” he said this will be more effective. Anyways, we were catching up with some solid old friends and this was a too less a price to pay for those priceless moments.

Day 10 (1st July 2013): The land of the Jaat's (Gurgaon) felt like home to me since I worked here for a couple of years before making a move to Hyderabad. Fortunately the friend that we were visiting on our way back stayed at Sector 56, we actually got an opportunity to check out the society where we lived right after our marriage and had some real great memories too. Met with another Pilot friend (Sarfaraz Ansari) of mine was a classmate in Bhopal KV, he became a dad just couple of days back while we were driving in valley – met his just born cute daughter Sara and delivered One KG Rajma as desired by his wife Shalini. This was such a funny moment – neither she nor we were serious when just like that she said on our way up that “Get me a kg of Rajma when you come back” and we indeed got it. We stayed in Gurgaon for quite a while after marriage in year 2005 and as I remember correctly it felt secluded then in the nights especially as there was hardly any public transport then. Even now – I was a little taken aback when my friends daughter who was my daughters classmate in Mumbai asked me for a short drive around the area in our car – even 9.30 PM it felt like a little scary as I could hardly see any soul on the road and with a couple of street lights not working it didn’t feel safe at all. So much for the development and societies cropping up in the area – I couldn’t believe that the situation wasn’t that rosy as it looks on paper. To my shock another incidence shocked me to the core that too at a premium location in Gurgaon as we went to pick up meet another friend who worked with HSBC – he directed me to his office and as I parked my car right outside the HSBC Campus – we saw a drunk guy walking towards our direction from the opposite side of the road. Since it was night but the weather wasn’t that good – I kept the engine as well as AC running in the car – hence the doors were locked. Suddenly I saw this guy trying to open the passenger door – where my wife was sitting – we were shell shocked – initially I thought he is holding the car door and trying to clean his shoe with footpath or something but in a flash I realized he actually wanted to open the door. As the car’s engine was running, I released the handbrake immediately and put it on first gear trying to roll it on the road to see if he lets go of the car – to my shock and amazement he almost skidded but wasn’t letting the handle go – I speed up a little and he finally fell on the road – immediately after 10 odd mtrs I took a U turn and this time parked on the other side of the road in front of the HSBC entry gate manned by two security guards to see if he comes back to my car. But the dude was clueless of what he did and what happened with him – somehow he got up, and started walking - banging on the pillars and whatever came on his way to wherever he was going. And we took a big sigh of relief. Imagine what would have happened if door wasn’t unlocked? And this all happened around 10.00 – 10.15 PM.

The BenchMates :) 
Time feels like flying when you meet an old friend after ages, especially when that guy happens to be Raghavendra Chinchore, this was the guy who I used to share my class bench with for almost two years during our 10+2 commerce class. And now we were meeting after so many years that neither his son nor my daughter believed (looking at his size now) that we actually shared a bench in school. There was not a day that we didn't meet for years. Now we don't meet for years yet whenever we do - we laugh and talk like crazy with the memories. Nothing has changed but just our looks differ a bit now. It’s damn good to see our families gelling so well - especially when kids hang out together. We so much wish we could freeze the time but all we did was eat, talk, eat, talk and then eat some more and talk some more, laughed like crazy on our silly old jokes, named so many friends and what not – it was so much fun but we had to move ahead with promises to meet again and with plans of some vacation together.  

Adi and Naina :) 
Day 11 (2nd July): Next day morning we had to meet one of my colleagues from my earlier job in Delhi – I had a rocking time working in Connaught Place – I still remember those days not so long ago when we used to have so much fun at 11th floor of Tolstoy House. In life I have learned one thing that you make so many friends and meet so many people but there are so few of them who touch your heart big time and remain there. Again, it doesn’t matter if we speak or don’t meet each other often but whenever that happens – time just flies – since we had a couple of days spare during this time – we almost met all of our friends and it was just fantastic. As we met my ex colleague Sangeeta Arora in her newly built Gurgaon residence – it was fun to see her mother’s shocking expressions when she actually realized that we had come that far driving on our own. This happens with me at times when people look at my size and the kind of trips we take – she saw the car in her parking and wouldn’t believe why we did these crazy trips out of nowhere when we could have done the same by Air, Bus or Train but I find it hard to explain to everyone that the kind of freedom your own vehicle gives you whenever you visit a city is simply outstanding. Spent almost half a day with her and as Punjabis are famous for over stuffing their guests – I tell you Punjabis are worlds best hosts I guess second to no one but Gujarati’s (I’m Sure). In our books no trip to Delhi is complete unless you visit Noida as that’s where I did my PG from and kick started my career. How could I miss out on my car freak friend Rajiv Chhabra who actually owns a Car Spares business and my best friend Amit Mishra who stays at a stone’s throw away from this guys shop? Rajiv actually had a shop very next to my office from where I started my first job and we became friends in 1996 just like that as I used to come down for a smoke and found him smiling always at his business counter. He too is a road freak like me but his responsibilities keep him tied down to his office and home as of now, otherwise he could go on a cross country drive at a drop of a hat – I can never forget one trip that we took in 1998 from Noida to Agra (Taj Mahal) that too in his Maruti 800 with 7 guys on board – just imagine what kind of a wild fun we had during that trip.

Noida: Amit Mishra and Kiran Mishra with their darling super intelligent son Arnav are a very important part of our life – I guess not a day goes by that we do not talk – one way or the other. He too works with a US based consulting firm – hence our office timings are almost same and we are always online to pass each other’s time in between some serious business. If you remember I mentioned earlier that I had stuffed our bean bag behind first row of seats so my kiddo won’t slide down and fall while braking? We forgot that at his place J - now we’ve got to pick up our bean bag in our next trip to Delhi and I am sure they must be taking good care of our much loved bean bag. I believe just because the Kargil road was closed and we couldn’t wait any longer for it to open and had to start back our journey – we had so much spare time to spend with our friends – it actually became a blessing of sorts – as we had never ever met so many friends during any of our visits anytime in the past. Met another darling friend Gurpreet Kaur at Amit’s place but for a very short while over a cup of tea n snacks but this meeting was much awaited as well. As I said earlier – the world has become so small (all thanks to social media) that one doesn’t realize unless you meet people in real that we haven’t met a lot of people who have become a very important part of our daily life. She was so much fun to talk and to be with that I just can’t sum up in a para, looking forward to meet her soon during one of her Mumbai trips soon.

Noida to Ghaziabad: Once in Delhi do as the Delhites do. Alok Ranjan is one heck of a friend – a terrific businessman but has always been a part of my permanent advisory team when it comes to seeking serious advice on taking a home loan – which car to buy etc. He and his darling wife Namrata were a superb host – I loved the Johny Walker he served with fantastic snacks and the best part was to take a peek at his newly married life in a brand new apartment in Ghaziabad. Some people I tell you know exactly how to live life and keep their homes spick and span – they are one of the best in those departments and we need to learn a lot from them. A perfect proverb to describe my friend Alok will be – “Live Life King Size”. And then we had to meet my dear friend Akhil Sharma – who worked with me in Mumbai for over a year and a half – more than him I guess we wanted to meet his wife and cute son “Setu” – oh my god! I just can’t put it in words how cute he is and what amazing time pass guy he turned out to be, super intelligent at under one year age and a total entertainment. We the people of India can definitely teach the world “How to kill people by serving them awesome food and by making them eat all that” - Period. This refers to all of the friends we visited during this trip and who made me help gain a couple of kilos which I guess is big need of the hour for me.

Day 12 (3rd July 2013): This was a rest day which was to be spent at the company of Mr. Amit Mishra in Noida. Now Amit is such a fabulous singer that if he would have ever participated in “India’s Got Talent” or “Indian Idol”, we would have proudly declared almost a million times by now that we know that guy. Or I would rather not be blogging about my road trips but I guess would have been busy managing his business. But alas! He is such a laid back and easy going guy that he actually never takes any of his talents seriously. May it be singing or debating a topic from any side – I guess he is one of those guys who can successfully debate on a topic like “Social Media – A Boon or A Curse” from both the sides and trust me – the judge will be confused to decide which one deserved the award in the end. I still have a couple of his and my favorite songs recorded on my machine in his terrific voice. But as they say – nobody is perfect – our Mishraji too has a flaw – he doesn’t drink ;) – you see if someone drinks – they become a better company nevertheless he had always been a terrific friend and always will be, so is his wife a furious cook and host – I’ve got to add. A lot of our common friends refer to her with that name – she talks like a bullet train going on full speed, cooks as if god has given her half a dozen hands but cares for everyone in such a way that’s simply incomparable with anyone. But as every good thing comes to an end sooner – our time had come to an end too as we had to hit back the highway and reach home by Saturday evening to relax for a day before going back to our regular lives on Monday morning. It was time to bid good bye to Delhi and a set of superb friends.

Day 13 (4th July 2013): As we had learned from our experience while coming from Jaipur to Delhi that the highway was really in bad condition with so many diversions – we took a precaution by starting from Delhi a day prior and thought of rather taking a day’s break in Jaipur than trying to do a straight Delhi to Udaipur trip like the way we did while coming. Although the distance was only 240 odd kms hence we started easy after breakfast – on the way back for some reasons I felt diversions were less in comparison to the other side of the same road still the average speed wasn’t that much still we reached Jaipur around 4.30 PM and as my wifey’s cousin bought a new flat at the outskirts of the city we decided to take a look at the property. I had visited Jaipur earlier on couple of my official trips from Delhi hence I wasn’t very keen on going around the town sightseeing but all I wanted to do was to eat some real good “Pyaaz Ki Kachori’s” and the stuff that’s Jaipur is famous for. I guess an Indian Airlines Pilot (Lady of course) lost her job for those Kachori’s have made them more famous now, which was all over the news not so long ago. Fortunately her cousin too is a big time foodie and she took us to the right place where we almost got everything under one roof – it was a superb open air restaurant with ample of space for kids to play around while we gorged on some of the fantastic dishes. We started with Hot Kachoris, followed by Pakoda’s and then I picked up like 3 plates of Jalebi’s to which everyone gave me looks as if I was doing a crime and – the plates were emptied by the same people in no time at all. So much for the calories – you see. Spending a night with relatives and cousins is like a perfect time to do the data transfer that we all keep adding up in memory bank for years. Once a year if you just meet one of them – is good enough to keep you posted about the ongoing news and updates for the whole clan I guess – that’s how it works in India for sure. Time permitting I would have loved to catch a movie at “Raj Mandir” the iconic movie theater of the city, but I guess I wasn’t destined to do that this time. But before we bid good bye to Jaipur – wifey did another wonderful thing that I love her for – she picked up two packs of Kachori’s with 10 in each pack.

@ Udaipur Resort
Day 14 (5th July 2013): On the way back we decided to skip Udaipur and thought of staying over at Ahmedabad instead which was 650+ KMs from Jaipur and we would have covered half the distance or more to Mumbai by then. We stopped over at the same exact place for lunch where we got stuck in Jam right before Udaipur and decided to try the same resort we called a week back for our stay over in case the jam lasted too long. It was a huge resort inside out but with bad service and very average food – thank god we didn’t stay there for a night. The only good thing about the resort was that they had a huge collection of ducks – which my kiddo liked and played with them for a while before we hit back the road to our last stop – Ahmedabad. Now, we’ve been to Ahmedabad multiple times as one of my best buddies from school time stays and are settled in the city. On our couple of road trips to Gujarat too we stayed with them and had a ball of a time. The city has so much to do for someone who is visiting for the first time – but since we’d been there and done that multiple times – we decided to spend the time with friends and family – indoors. Kids caught up with the movie on a TV channel while we enjoyed the discussion about the trip.

The Closing OdoMeter Reading :) 
Day 15 (6th July 2013): Home Sweet Home! It’s always an amazing feeling to come back home – no two things about it. And especially after a long long trip – it’s always a pleasure to hit back home. Since this was the last leg of our trip – we were in no hurry to hit back home – started from Ahmedabad in a relaxing manner around 8.00 AM – had our brunch at Sugar n Spice – one of our favorite outlet right before Kamrej. The weather after leaving Ahmedabad was again wet all the way to Mumbai – faced a lot of rains and it was a pleasant feeling. The usual traffic on the six lanes – didn’t get stuck anywhere fortunately – even at Bharuch junction it was pretty moving traffic and reached Mumbai exactly at 5.22 PM. This was a sheer coincidence that we started this trip on the Sunday morning two weeks back at 5.24 AM and ended it on a Sunday evening at 5.22 PM – Exact 5456 KMs driven.

Summary (My last Facebook update at the closing of the trip): “Driven Total 5456 km in 15 days. Travelled across 7 states and stayed in a dozen cities, saw and experienced so much from 6 lane expressways to fantastic single road and dangerous drive between Jammu and Srinagar. Tried all the tricks in the trade to get across Kargil and Leh - guess it wasn't destined this time around, Had a hell of a great time with wifey and kiddo - they have finally experienced how to live by the car , sleepover and move by early morning. Guess we will be planning another long drive but to the south this time around, may be "Kanyakumari" so we can claim that we've driven the "length of India"? This was one of the longest drives of our life with just a minor scratch and one flat tyre to remember other than heavenly memories and fantastic time spent with some kool old friends”.

Distance covered and daily drives:
Day 1: Mumbai to Udaipur (789 KM).
Day 2: Udaipur to Gurgaon (650 KM).
Day 3: Gurgaon to Amritsar (458 KM).
Day 4: Amritsar to Jammu (206 KM).
Day 5: Jammu to Srinagar (295 KM).
Day 6: Local Srinagar.
Day 7: Local Srinagar.
Day 8: Srinagar to Katra to Jammu (265 + 47 KM).
Day 9: Jammu to Gurgaon (616 KM).
Day 10: Gurgaon.
Day 11: Gurgaon.
Day 12: Noida and Ghaziabad.
Day 13: Noida to Jaipur (281 KM).
Day 14: Jaipur to Ahmedabad (669 KM).
Day 15: Ahmedabad to Mumbai  (509 KM).

Total Distance Travelled: 5456 KM which includes close to 650+ Km of local drives in all of those cities – that’s one of the advantages of going anywhere in your own car.

Best and worst Mileage: The best mileage that we got was during the drive between Mumbai to Jaipur (Around 19.26 KMPL) and the worst that we got was during the drive between Jammu and Srinagar (Around 15.29 KMPL) – checked the mileage by Full Tank to Full Tank method. Total fuel burnt during the entire trip was worth INR 16041/- (Only) that’s slightly lesser than the cost of three return air tickets to Delhi from Mumbai.

Points to ponder: A road trip is a fantastic way to spend some real good quality time with your own family – I just can’t put it in any better way than those 21 pages you have seen up above – what all we talked, joked, laughed, argued, fought, dissected, sanged and not is something we will talk or laugh lifelong now. Amazing food right from Gujarat to Rajasthan to the best in Punjab and Jammu & Kashmir. 16 GB of music in a pen drive was a blessing – as soon as kiddo and wifey will doze over – I will hit back on Guns N Roses and other hardcore rock stuff – totally amazing driving with those guys singing in your ears. A DSLR is what we missed during this trip. This was The best trip we ever had and hope to do it again in May 2015 (As planned again) and finish it off this time by hitting Leh – If we do – you will read about it in two years from now.

PS: Right after we came back - I got myself (my third) Tattoo on my left forearm saying "Amour De Conduire", I guess I earned it after this drive :) 

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