Jehangir once said - 'If there's heaven on earth anywhere, it is here, it is here, it is here! We all know which place he was pointing towards - the crown of India- Kashmir. Kashmir, the northern and mountainous part of the northern most state of India is a well known tourist place. Be it the pristine clear Dal lake or the serene mountains of Gulmarg, Kashmir is a dream destination for many if not all.
But as someone said, it's not about the destination, but the journey which makes a man more intimidated. And the journey to Kashmir is no less than an adventure itself! The curvy and winding roads may be fun to drive, but they are equally dangerous. Deep valleys on one side and mountains on the other, the roads to Kashmir has taken more lives than probably any other road in the world.
Nowhere can you find so many monkeys
Srinagar, the summer capital of J&K is approximately 300 km from Jammu, the winter capital of the state. Jammu is already well connected from Delhi via the famous NH1A highway, passing through Haryana and Punjab, sitting at around 600 odd kms away from the national capital. The problem starts as soon as you decide to travel from Jammu to Srinagar through road, which is the most utilized mode of transportation today.
Maruti Baleno on the highway
The roads used to be narrow with only two lanes without any divider in between, making it even difficult to drive in the night when the upcoming vehicle is a bus or truck with the big front lights. The curves were twisty and without much of fencing. The road itself was in bad condition with broken patches all over the road and uneven surfaces made the journey more tiresome.
The famous Hari Niwas and its Scottish architecture
This is why, the then ruling central and state governments decided to build a dedicated four lane highway between Srinagar and Jammu, which may sound easy to many, but is one of the toughest jobs in the world. And why is that so? To start with, there is no space for road widening, which meant that only a new road is the solution.
But an all-new road meant that the construction had to pass through some of the most inaccessible and inhospitable places. Mountains are to be cut, tunnels to be built, rivers are to be conquered. While the construction is on the full swing now-a-days, we decided to cover the part which is already left open for the transportation and see with our own eyes, what lies ahead in the future.
The tunnels on the route
For our journey, we chose a rather unconventional car in the form of a long gone Maruti Suzuki Baleno, the sedan, which was touted as one of the most refined products in the yesteryears. The Baleno was a no-pretentious vehicle and is has been maintained very well by the owner. The 1.6 litre 95 ps car had the original charisma maintained. The car returned a brilliant 14kmpl efficiency on average both in city and highway.
We started our journey from Jammu and were irritated with the city roads. But as soon as we hit the highway somewhere around a small cantonment called Nagrota, we were already praising the engineers for the work they have done. Neatly laid out roads, properly marked with less curves passing through tunnels and bridges and the surface so black and smooth even F1 tracks could put to shame. The day is not far when people will start putting this road on the lists like the top highways to travel in India.
SMVD University across the valley
The very first stopover you can take is the Nandini tunnel with a handful of Paneer Pakoda shops and gazillion of monkeys. As soon as we took the first bite of the super soft cottage cheese we were doomed by the clouds of sadness thinking - 'at what cost development comes?' These small shops who have been feeding the travelers for ages now will be totally bypassed due to the newly built four lane highway. But life moves on as they say and so did we.
Again hitting the road we noticed left turn going towards the famous Katra town, the starting point of religious place Maa Vaishno Devi, a 14 km steep climb on foot to the top of Trikuta Hills. The religious town is some 20 km off-route the highway. While we were enjoying the drive and view, we were suddenly taken aback by the view which made us to stop.
Trikuta Hill and Vaishno Devi pilgrimage
On our left was a huge valley dividing us from the humongous Shri Mata Vaishno Devi University, India's largest university in terms of area, situated at the foot of the deity's temple itself. Ahead of us was the huge Trikuta Hill itself, standing tall and we were able to notice the zigzag route which followers take to reach the top of the mountain.
To the irony of it, a small settlement called Manthal made us stop. After eating the lunch and asking around a bit, we came to know that the place is famous for a non-vegetarian dish made from a chicken which is usually larger in size than the farm bred birds. The food was delicious to say the least and we were mesmerized to see the enthusiasm shown by people. Ahead us was a huge railway bridge connecting Udhampur with Katra.
Toll booths to start soon
Until a decade ago, Indian railways, the largest network in the world, connected the rest of India with J&K till Jammu only. But then the railway line was extended till Udhampur, a big town on the highway NH1A. The railway line is popular in itself with innumerous tunnels and bridges. The route is further extended to Katra and the future plans are to extend it till Srinagar itself.
Moving ahead of Manthal, one reaches Udhampur, which we mentioned earlier. You can either pass through the town or opt for a bypass, which is part of the four-lane highway. The highway is only constructed a few kilometers ahead of Udhampur and the road further ahead is still a two-lane road.
The picturesque view
The further expansion will take the route forward to Patnitop, a major tourist spot both in summers and winters. In fact the famous Kashmir snowfall starts from here. Crossing Patnitop one will reach the Jawahar Tunnel, a 2.5 km long tunnel which was connecting Kashmir with the rest of India and further to Srinagar.
We look forward to the highway to get complete so that we can take a whole journey through what is going to be one of the best roads in India.
The way back