Season 1, Episode 4
It was a chilling night. For the first time in my life, I wore two T-shirts to keep myself warm. The ceramic tiles that adorned the floor was out of place for such weather conditions. Placing your feet on those tiles for a few minutes was all that was required for the blood in your body to freeze.
I started my morning with some burnt bread and old jam! Sometimes, being a vegetarian has its lows. You don’t get proper food in places like J&K. I called the bellboy and asked him whether he can arrange a taxi for me. The plan was to head to Patnitop – a hill station located 100kms away from Jammu in the Pir Panjal ranges of the Lower Himalayas. And then, I would head towards Vaishno Devi, trek my way up and take a helicopter ride back to Katra basecamp where my driver would still be waiting for me. And then I would head back to Jammu, pick my luggage and catch the train to Amritsar at around 2 in the afternoon. The bellboy, after much deliberations, offered a taxi for 3200 bucks – something I wasn’t ready to pay. So I walked down to the bus stand evading the offers made by the many taxis that were standing right in front of the entrance. I bought a bus ticket to Patnitop from the ticket counter and went in search of the bus. In Jammu, you buy a ticket first and then get into the bus whose number the ticket collector tells you. Another first for me.
The “bus” turned out to be a mere 15 feet long maxi-van that squeezed in more seats in it than it was capable of. I found myself a window seat. The seat was very uncomfortable. But for 90 rupees, you can’t ask for anything better than that. With my knees constantly kissing the seats, I managed to keep my excitement levels up as a man entered the bus with his sheep. I was amused. It was 10.30 and I had already spent around twenty minutes in the bus, but the driver was nowhere to be seen. I managed to start some chitchat with the guy sitting across the aisle. I told him about my plans to get to Patnitop and then to Vaishno Devi. He agreed it was a good plan. On asking the total journey hours to Patnitop, he said “Shaam 4.30-5 tak jaayega..” (Will reach there by evening 4.30-5). I was taken aback! 4.30! That means a grueling 6 hours of journey in a van that they call “bus”, with my knees already hurting, a sheep in the backseat and an unknown state where the state of roads is unknown too.
I threw my ticket, stepped out of the bus and searched for a taxi outside the bus stand. After some great bargaining and another 5 minutes wasted, I was on my way to Patnitop in Kallu‘s Tata Indica for just 2300. He even agreed to a condition I had put on him “Stop the car whenever, wherever I ask for.” For the first 10 minutes Kallu was on his phone talking in Punjabi-accented Hindi. He then hung up and made an offer to me. For an additional 500 bucks, he would drive a further 20 kms to a place called Nathatop which had seen snowfall the previous night! Snow.. Snow was worth 500! I jumped at his offer.
We passed through Katra, Udhampur and started the climb towards Nathatop. The road to Nathatop/Patnitop is essentially the Jammu-Srinagar National Highway 1A. It is a narrow asphalt route and for a large part after Katra follows the Tawi river upstream. The traffic on this road is quite a lot considering its width. When we were heading uphill, a huge convoy of army trucks slowed us down. It took a whole 20 minutes to get across the whole convoy. As we approached lunch hour my unhappy stomach, which was surviving just on some burnt bread and a Café Coffee Day‘s burger (I had picked it up near Katra), started crying for food. I conveyed its message to Kallu who offered to stop at his favorite dhaba en-route.
It was a small restaurant on the highway just before Kud. Kallu insisted that I try the Rajma-Chawal combo here and I obliged. The region around Jammu is widely known for its Rajma along with the dry fruits. The Rajma-Chawal offered by the restaurant was soaked in Ghee and served in a plain stainless steel plate. I had to dip my finger into the ghee layer in order to reach the Rajma-Chawal. The drizzle outside, the low temperatures made this Rajma-Chawal one of the best tasting dishes I’ve had ever.
Post lunch, we stopped in the town of Kud – a small town whose main street is dotted with a huge number of sweet shops. Kud is famous for a sweet called Patissa – which essentially is Sohan Papdi. Since I am not a fan of Sohan Papdi, I didn’t buy anything more than a sampling quantity. However, it must be said that Patissa genuinely tastes better than any Sohan Papdi owing to the Yak‘s milk and ghee that they use in the region.
As we ascended the mighty mountains, the Lower Himalayas emerged out of hiding and painted a beautiful picture. I stopped the car in a few places to click some pictures. Being amateur and owing to the gloomy weather conditions, I couldn’t get a picture good enough to justify the camera, the lenses and tripod I was carrying. After sometime we passed through Patnitop. I was glad that there wasn’t much snow around there. As we took the diversion towards Nathatop, a number of people blocked our way with fur coats and rubber boots in their hands. Kallu told me that I will have to take these on rent and that one cannot step into snow without these. I too wasn’t excited to get frost-bites. As I wore the leather boots and tried out the coats, Kallu struck a rapport with one of the teenagers who helped me with the boots.
Apparently, the news of the snowfall had spread like a fire and there at least a hundred cars that had passed before us. Now that the place is going to be crowded, this teenager offered to take me to a much more secluded place behind the Nathatop glacier for a token amount. In addition to the tranquility, he also added the cherry on the cake by offering me free rides on the sledge. I had no option but to agree.
Although Patnitop is a more famous place, known especially for the resort that is located amidst snow, Nathatop is placed slightly higher and allows some exclusivity (read less tourists). Nathatop peaks at around 7000ft and offers amazing 360 degree view of the hills around. After snowfall, the region looks as if there’s milk spilt all over the place. I had one of the best experiences of my life and probably experienced the lowest temperature (I didn’t have means to record it) when I stepped on the snow-clad mountain peak. Two locals offered joint rides on the sledge.
I must tell this.. it is scary initially. The sledge was just few pieces of wood nailed together and wasn’t very sophisticated as I had imagined it to be.
A few clicks and we wrapped up. It was 4 in the evening and we had to head downhill towards Katra so that I can cover Vaishno Devi as planned. As we crossed Patnitop, the skies turned black and within moments there were thunderstorms. The heavy rains slowed us down. Vehicles couldn’t go beyond 20kph. There was an array of flashing parking lights in front of us. Traffic jams at sharp curves held us up further. I decided to cancel Vaishno Devi.
On our way back, we stopped at a small tea shop somewhere between Katra and Kud. The tea shop was Kallu‘s favorite. He also promised another surprise. The surprise was in the form of a pale looking sandwich with almost no filling between the slices. The sandwich basically consists of Kaladi (or Kalari, Maish Krej) which is a form of cheese unique to Udhampur region.
Kaladi cheese is usually sourced from cow’s milk or goat’s milk. However, the one that I tasted was sourced from Yak‘s milk. Kallu explained how the best quality Kaladi is sourced from the Yaks living atop the mountains, how the cheese is let to ripe for almost a week before it is brought to the foot of the hills by the villagers. The cook at the shop, placed a piece of Kaladi between two slices of bread and let the cheese melt down completely. The resulting ghee ensured that the slices are stuck to each other. This sandwich is typically served with a Red-Chilli & Garlic Chutney that only adds to orgasmic sensations in your taste-buds. Having this in rain is altogether a different deal in itself.
I reached Jammu only by 7. Satisfied with what I had seen and what my tummy had seen, I rewarded Kallu more than what we had discussed. I collected his number, bade goodbye to him, treated myself to a normal Roti-Dal dinner and spent the night watching movies.
Next stop? Amritsar.