It’s 5am, the rain is incessant and a convoy of 20 Mahindras (a mix of new-gen Scorpios, XUV500s, TUV300s and a NuvoSport) snake up the steep, twisting road ahead of me. The headlights look like a string of pearls on the dark, ominous neck of the mountain. We pass a green board that tells us Jammu is still 150km away; on these roads, with the rain and darkness making progress slower, that probably means another four hours of driving. Quite a stretch to drive, given that we’d left Srinagar at 11pm and haven’t stopped since.
The leader of the convoy must’ve realised the same thing because 10-15 minutes later, the radio crackles out: “Lead to convoy, the scout vehicle has informed us there’s a tea shop ahead with enough parking space and facilities to cater to us. We’ll break there, about 5km down the road, so start cutting your speed gradually. And please mind the BSF personnel by the side of the road – you probably won’t spot them until you’re almost upon them.”
As we pull up to the small tea shop that is bustling with truckers, some army personnel and members of the convoy who had reached the spot before us, the rain lets up and dawn starts to creep up on us. In the faint, magical diffused light of the wee hours, the grandeur of Kashmir valley is revealed to us, for the first time since we left the calm shores of Nigeen Lake in the state’s capital.
We are on day one of a 16-day, pan-India journey Mahindra Adventure has dubbed the Kashmir to Kanyakumari drive. The plan is to drive down the western coast of the country, with stops in each of the states on the way. Autocar India, however, is only driving from Srinagar to Amritsar, and we’re looking forward to making the most of the three days we have at hand.
Srinagar is where it all started, with 11 groups of participants from across the country and three media teams coming together. Unfortunately, unrest in the state amid civilian protests and political strife meant we landed up in the middle of a state-wide shutdown. Getting a 20-car-strong convoy out safely under these circumstances would be quite a challenge. So, instead of leaving early in the morning, we departed late that very night and instead of driving to Jammu – the next stop on the itinerary – we planned to leave the trouble-torn state of J&K behind and drive straight through to Dharamshala.
By mid-day, we descend from the mountains to the plains, on the outskirts of Pathankot in Punjab. With the change in landscape comes a change in the people, how they speak and dress and importantly, drive. While up in the hills, most of the vehicles on the road were goods or army trucks, SUVs and buses. Here, we saw a lot of hatchbacks on their way from one urban centre to the next. And while on the narrow, twisty mountain roads, people were more careful and courteous to other traffic. Here on the level, wide four-lane highways, there is a lot more reckless abandon.
The drive up to Dharamshala was pretty uneventful although most of us driving in the convoy admit to each other at a snack-stop that we preferred the unruly hatchback drivers of Punjab over the manic bus drivers in Himachal who seemed to take the adage ‘Better late than never’ in the reverse order. As we close in on our stop for the day, a dense fog settles on the landscape, prompting everyone to switch on their fog lamps and headlamps. The final few kilometres of the long, long day are a steep climb and everyone tucks into the delayed lunch gratefully as soon as we reached.
After over 500km and 17 hours of driving on mostly mountainous roads, rest is the order of the rest of the day. Besides, we have an early start tomorrow morning, so we could make it to the Wagah border, close to Amritsar, by 4pm.
The following day we make our way down the mountains to Amritsar, the same way we came, and this lets the photographers and videographers plan their spots. The media cars keep overtaking the convoy, stopping at designated places to snap a few shots and then catching up again. The photo and videography prep helps and we make it to the border just in time for the much-vaunted change-of-guard ceremony.
It’s a patriotic setting here. People are dressed in various shades of the tri-colour and are lining up to take as many photos with the BSF jawans as possible. The ceremony itself is a flamboyant affair, with both sides trying to outdo the other.
All in all, it’s a rather nice way for us to end our leg of the sub-continental drive.