Disclaimer: I have tried to recreate the events, locales, and conversations from my memories of them. The below-expressed views, opinions or analogies are personal and may not be in line with the widespread conceptions. Please go to Motorcycle Diaries -> India: Ocean To Mountains (or Click here) to check out the previous events.
Date: 20th August 2016; Intended Route: is to cross Srinagar somehow, alive
“When you want something, the entire universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” – Paulo Coelho
Tonight was the night where we had to hold our nerves together. The plan was to cross Srinagar with the Army convoy which would pass from Sonamarg at 2 AM. And we had plenty of time till 2. We had our dinner and started talking to each other, sharing the experiences of our trip. Though our fellow riders were assholes while riding they were really good to talk to. Meanwhile, the old man and his helper started to clean the hotel; it was almost 10:30 PM. As we saw they were done with the cleaning; we paid the bill and started walking out. But the old man said we could stay if we want until the Army convoy arrives. He was really kind to offer us a place to rest. They pushed all the tables and chairs in one corner so that they could lay a mat and sleep, we told him to switch off the lights so that they could take a nap comfortably and we won’t receive any unwanted attention from the outsiders.
As all 6 of us were conversing and getting to know more about each other under a zero watt bulb, the clock struck 12 (it was 20th August), and we heard a gentle knock on the door. As the old man and his helper had slept, we were hesitant to attend the door. We heard the knock again; everybody started looking at each other. The old man woke up and opened the door. As they were talking, we became curious. Suddenly a man came in; he was donning Khaki, uniform of the police. He had seen our bikes parked outside. He said we couldn’t stay there because we would be in trouble if the miscreants found out. He told us to go back at least 3 KMs; we negotiated with him saying that we had got a place here to stay till 2 AM and there was no guarantee that we would find a similar place within the radius of 3 KMs. He also said that the army convoy which was supposed to come at 2 would pass only by 4 AM.
Check post # 1:
When we said that the other policeman (at the check post) had told earlier that the convoy will come at 2, he started blabbering and that confused us. Though we understood that he was demanding bribe indirectly so that we could stay at that place, we were suave and played naively. The old man interfered and the police left the place.
After a while, he came back again. He said the tension had increased, and the agitators were becoming aggressive. This time he told us to go back. We took our luggage and went outside, and started negotiating with the guy. He said the convoy will come at 2 AM but we need to bribe his supervisor so that we could tag along with the convoy, which we knew was a lie. He wanted cash, the bribe for giving us the right info.
We asked him the amount; he said to give whatever we thought was right. Since he gave us the option, we took out a 500 Rupee note. He said his boss won’t even agree with 1000 bucks (now he was playing suave). We said “Then, you quote your price!” and the fucker said 2K.We tried to negotiate and bring it down to 1.5K but he didn’t concur. At the end, we didn’t have much of a choice but to agree with him.
We had to stuff 2000 bucks down his throat so that we could rest there in peace and we started waiting for the Army convoy to arrive. We saw the convoy passing in the opposite direction at 1:30 AM. In order to protect the civilian vehicles, they were placed strategically between the army trucks with armed men, in case if any protestors attack. We thought the fleet would escort the vehicles till the next check post and would come back. So we got ready and went out.
As we were waiting for the convoy, the policeman who took the bribe came with a fellow officer and told us “There is no guarantee that the army convoy will come back”, he said it’s safe at night to move and we could cross the check post, if we want. We had to trust him. He cleared the check post and we started moving.
Check post # 2:
We took the bypass road to Srinagar aiming to pass over the city and move via the outskirts. After few KMs, we saw few flashlights in the middle of the road. As we approached, we found that the road was blocked by few men. We didn’t wanna take a U-Turn and give a wrong signal. They stopped us and pointed the torchlight on our face and started staring at the luggage. The good thing was they were creating nuisance only for the inhabitants and not for the travelers. They understood that we were riders and we were not from Srinagar. Without any questions, he said 300 bucks, 50 per motorcycle to move past. Considering the situation, again we didn’t have a choice but to agree. We were prepared for such incidents.
After we went past them, we were stopped at the next check post by the police. I thought we would go broke by the end of it but he was a good man; he was not looking for any bribe. The policeman was genuinely concerned for us, he told us to move separately i.e. by keeping a safe distance and not in a gang (it didn’t make any sense to me). He also told us to stop the vehicle and answer the questions politely in case if any of the Kashmiris obstruct. We acknowledged his counsel and crossed that check post.
Check post # 3:
There was a chain of vehicles for a KM or so at the next check post. We took advantage of the motorcycle and went zigzag to reach the inception of the queue. It was not the police; it was the CRPF who were guarding the check post and they were not allowing anyone to pass through. We started talking to the CRPF guys to allow us to pass since we were the only ones on 2-wheeler. After few minutes their commanding officer came by, I understood, he was from the Southern part of India from his accent. I peeked at his badge and I presumed that he was from Kerala (a Malayali). And I said, “Namaskaram saare (Hello sir)”. And the thing about being a Malayali is we don’t see each other eye to eye when we are in Kerala, but we appreciate the camaraderie outside of it. I knew I had struck the right chord by initiating the conversation in his mother tongue.
I started to convince him so that we could move on. He said the road was blocked for our own safety and he also said that this place is not suitable for traveling anymore. It had become hell. People were throwing stones and firing bullets at police, CRPF, and Army. It had become a civil war zone. He recommended not to visit this place again until all the issues are resolved and even though if we wanted to visit, he recommended us to take the other route where we don’t have to cross Srinagar again. In the end, he confided to my perseverance. He opened the gates for us and warned us to return if we encounter any group of inhabitants on our way. We agreed to be on the same page and started moving again.
Check post # 4:
Somehow we were halfway through and we were stopped at the next check post saying the curfew is on and we couldn’t proceed. Since I had convinced the CRPF guys I was confident enough to convince them too. But the policemen over there were a bit harsh and arrogant. We tried to talk our way out but they were not listening, they didn’t want to hear a word. The officer told us to shut up and step back. Meanwhile, he went back to the check post and was engaged on his walkie-talkie. We swallowed our words and stood in front of him with a pout on our face. We had lost our hopes. All of a sudden, the officer walked up to us and said that we could pass. I had no idea what changed his mind. I would say it was our lucky day. We all just said thank you and went past the rest of the folks.
Check post # 5:
It was 4 AM and we were not far from the next and hopefully the last check post. I don’t know what was wrong with the police in Srinagar, they always contradicted themselves. The same happened here. When we enquired, the police said we could cross the check post only after 6 AM. Since it was already 4 and we didn’t have the energy or the will to negotiate anymore. We parked our bikes and stood there in silence. One of the policemen came along and started breaking the ice with us. He wanted to make us comfortable. He explained the situation of the police and the people living in Srinagar. He said the things will improve in Srinagar and told us to come back for it. He was a nice man to talk to.
This time, all the people waiting in the queue lost their patience. The rest of the folks started persuading the police and since it was already 5:30 AM the police decided to clear the traffic jam and allowed everyone towards the Jawahar tunnel, the concluding terminal of Srinagar. The 2.85 KM long tunnel is the only thing which connects Srinagar and Jammu by road. As we were on our way towards the tunnel, we saw many vehicles which were thrashed on the roadside. There was no one in the vicinity. It was a really bad scene, I hate to say this but it felt like Iraq (which I have seen only in movies).
By hook or crook, we reached the tunnel by 6 AM. There was a huge queue to cross the tunnel and reach Jammu. As per the rule declared in the emergency situation, the tunnel will be functional only from 8 PM to 8 AM. After the overnight ride, we had to wait for 2 more hours to reach on the other side. While we were having a cup of coffee, the CRPF guys asked us why we came to this place! And everyone laughed. We said, we are coming from Ladakh and just wanted to cross Srinagar, they said that we are lucky that it’s over for us. They sarcastically said “It’s India on the other side of the tunnel” as if they were considering Srinagar as Pakistan itself. The soldiers were frustrated with that place and were desperate to move out.
Finally, the gates of the tunnel opened by 8 AM and we had a million dollar smile on our face, we were lucky that we had escaped and not survived the war. It was Jammu on the other side of the tunnel. We started riding through the ghat sections, it was okay at first, but after a while, sleep started haunting me. My eyelids had become so heavy that I had a tough time to keep them open. Since we had skipped the whole night’s sleep it had become intolerable. I told my partner to stop at the first lodge we encounter. Riding through the curfew was still fine but those 2 hours; I would never forget those horrible 2 hour’s ride. It was the only time I almost dozed off while riding. There were a couple of instances where I was about to go head on with the trucks that too on the hairpin bends. I was lucky enough to survive it.
Once we had come past the ghat, we parted ways with our fellow riders from Delhi. And meanwhile, we got to know that a general strike was declared in Jammu. But we were lucky enough to find a motel. We checked in at 10:30 AM and had our breakfast. The next thing I remember was my partner trying to wake me up saying its 10 PM. We went out had our dinner and slept again. We had one hell of a sleep; it was much needed after a very long day.
P.S. I know it’s almost twice the size of rest of my posts. Thanks a lot for being patient and sticking with me till the end. I hope it was worth a read