With lots of excitement we bundled up our backpacks, cycles into the support van. We had to get a little further away from the town, speeding traffic and chaos to start cycling.
And this is the thing with Kashmiris which I mentioned in my blog last year. A confused lot. They want tourism, economy, lifestyle everything but they consider anyone outside Kashmir as outsiders. There is a hostility that varies from subtle to open here. The hotel owner which we stayed at in Srinagar had his own attitude. Archana mentioned that being in the hospitality business one needs to listen to customers. So when Swati mentioned the hotel rooms were not ‘neat’ he openly shouted what?? What do you mean by not neat??
I mean, understand this, no one speaks like that in hospitality business, and this man felt it was his prerogative to answer rudely and that was just one of the instances. From what I understood, it was a mentality of the past. Most of them hung onto the glory of Kashmir’s past pre-partition days and wanted something like that. And that part of wanting to be an independent ‘country’ had gone to dust. The non acceptance of the present reality was what was disturbing. So here it was, they wanted tourists but not settlers, they considered themselves a different country yet they wanted stability without anyone helping them while they were completely and utterly incapable of doing it on their own.
Why I am writing this is, it needs to be said outright. If no one from the rest of the country goes to Kashmir, and the government not giving them subsidies, they would be in rags and poverty and chaos and shit just like our shitty neighbour Pakistan. There I said it. And this is a fact.
And we faced the same thing with the driver who was dropping us to a point. Sonam told him politely to take us a little further as the road was very narrow, it was dangerous to get down and start cycling, there were lorries and other vehicles speeding like crazy but nope the man was curt, said this is it no more. Believe me, this will never happen in places like Uttarakhand and Himachal, it is basic humanity.
Our support van had the cycles and luggages, how could we squeeze through. But get down we did. Vikram and I climbed onto the back of the support truck while the others squeezed at the backseat with luggages until we reached our cycling point.
There was a dhaba and finally there was the sign! To Sonamarg! This is it and we were doing it.
And here lies the difference between trekking and cycling. Even if you are huffing panting while trekking, you have the quietness and the landscapes around you. Yes we had nature but also crazy traffic with lots of crazies speeding as if they would hit us! Added to that were the rolling hills!
Oh man, this was a 180 degree about turn as far as I was concerned when it came to an experience! Cycling in cities is so different from cycling in other places. It was scary, as we could see crazy vehicles narrowly crossing us. It didn’t matter if we kept to the left all the time, added to it started the rolling uphills.
It was picturesque alright as we meandered through dusty construction roads to absolute greenery surrounding us with cloudy weather. Were we glad it was not hot! And getting used to our new cycles was another thing. Switching gears on and off, time and again and skill fully evading bumps to holes to what not, oh the roads in India requires another blog post only!
What was happening inside me? Where do I start? This was a different burn altogether! My quadriceps were on fire, my ankles felt like it would snap any moment. Forget Leh, would I be able to get through this day? And then, just right then when you feel all hope is lost, the traffic clears a bit as you are out of the chaotic city and it’s civilisation. It was getting better as we were moving further.
And oh Sonamarg you are stupendously beautiful! Now I realise why Sonamarg was praised to the skies. I repeat this time and again. The Himalayas in other parts of the country is on one side, and Kashmir, oh Kashmir takes your breath away. Jannat, Paradise, heaven, whatever you call it, it cannot and I mean it, just cannot be topped by any other place in the world.
The body starts getting used to it but in a very different way. The pain exists and it only increases over time! Yet you have to keep cycling, and pain is only one of the aspects. Rashes, gashes, heat boils in places you have never known comes up and I have just started on this.
Lush greenery and traffic that’s what I remember on the route. And also waiting for downhills! The moment even a little downhill came about, the pleasure that one felt was unbelievable but I had a long way to go before I would experience what true freedom and letting go meant. And it happens in the most unexpected circumstances.
Archana and I would cross each other keeping pace and keep moving. We had a similar approach in terms of endurance. Keep a pace and keep going, no stops and truly in every way that helped us tremendously as each day became nerve wracking and difficult.
We stopped at a point for some Kawa( Kashmiri green tea) and Archana was speaking to a group that was driving towards Ladakh. Throughout this journey we noticed we were the first group of cyclists starting the season. July and August would be filled with cyclists on Manali- Leh circuit and Srinagar- Leh circuit.
Dhanya knew her limitations so she was always near the support van keeping her pace and I must say she did a pretty good job for someone who took up cycling just a month ago. It showed her mind set.
Swati on the other hand was competing and I mean ‘competing’ I don’t get what is it with runners. Most of them are like that. Goals, Pacing, PB’s – for the uninitiated it’s personal best pace and I was thoroughly sick of runners back in my city gloating about it.
Time and again she would pedal fast to overtake Archana and me and I tried my best to politely tell her this is NOT a race, we are in it together. We ride alone but also together. Safety comes first. And this was about endurance, stamina, an attitude and immense patience. You can’t rush through 40 kms in Himalayas with steep uphills, she wouldn’t allow you, just respect that. But and a big but the urge to overtake was so high, it trumped everything else, the very purpose of the trip to the point we had near misses on the road thanks to the runner. And it continued to my increased irritation.
We stopped at a point for lunch, saw a shady shelter as Sonam took out bread, jam and butter with boiled eggs. It was simple and delicious. We were half way through and the sun came up full on. This would be the only and last day in Kashmir. From tomorrow it would be the fantastic harsh terrain to Ladakh.
There was a little boy quietly sitting by himself and all Archana did was sit next to him and started talking to him. And that was it, his mother came out shouting at the kid, slapped him hard and yanked him inside with him bawling loud! We were in shock! And why you ask? He wasn’t supposed to speak to ‘outsiders’, that’s all of us. That’s the attitude and hostility of ‘most’ of the Kashmiris.
Sonam quietly said he always had problems dealing with them. Whether it was booking transport help, hotels the whole lot. The attitude was quite hostile. They wanted everything done without any effort, and everyone else were to blame except them.
We had to do the final leg towards Sonamarg and it was uphill and uphill alright. With the BRO( Border road organisation) roads and construction and dust through and through we moved on. And what an uphill it was! Do we worry about the dust and mud hitting our faces, or the heat of the sun or the killing uphills? And this was just the beginning!
I remember at one point trudging on first gear uphill. And it was slow and painful, very painful and you continue to cycle on that gear because that’s the only option. As I kept going, turning back I saw the others behind going through the same thing. And at one point I saw the support van had stopped. But it was only one route so all one had to do was forge ahead.
The sign was showing we were 6 kms away from Sonamarg when a car started waving towards me. The folks told me that I had gone too far ahead and I had to go back as there was a shorter route to Sonamarg. I turned back but I wasn’t sure until Karma, Swati and Dhanya kept shouting to come back and so I did but where was Archana? She was always ahead, what happened?
Until we diverted, then I saw her in the van. Was she ok? She signalled to me she was ok now and will talk once we reach Sonamarg.
It was blazing hot now, it was past 3 pm and the heat was hitting us and full on traffic and back to chaos. Such a picturesque region it was with absolute crowds. The contrast was blaring and on your face.
What was this mela?? It was the Amarnath Yatra crowd. Just like other pilgrimages, the Yatra was off for 2 years and now it had opened full on. One route was from Baltal, the popular one was from Sonamarg. We had to wade through mules, vehicles, people, bikes and bikers, tourists the whole lot. Karma pointed out to the hotel we were in and even with crowds one couldn’t help but gasp at the mountain range in front of us. What a sight it was.
Sonamarg it was finally. To be continued tomorrow 🚴♀️ 🚴♀️