In contrast to the fertile valley of south Kashmir, Jammu is a primarily mountainous state. My cycle ride took me past spectacular scenery. High mountain passes and rivers that carved deeply into the rocks; it was a wonderful experience. Traffic was fine too and not too busy. I considered a room in Banihal but it cost more than I expected and it was a little early to stop. I ploughed on and found the perfect spot to camp high on a ridge with views to die for. This is what cycle touring is all about!
As I packed to leave an Indian army patrol of three soldiers arrived and I showed them some of my kit. Their detail was to keep watch from the ridge. I was actually surprised when I found it that there wasn’t already some kind of post there as, a rule, all the best spots are usually already taken by the military.
My journey South along Highway 1A continued through the mountains of Jammu. I descended down close to the Chenab river but then climbed again at Patnitop. It was a big climb and had been warned earlier to expect a 25 km rise. It became too late and I was very tired. Finally I camped in a forest and left the rest of the climb to the next day.
Jammu is wonderful and has an alpine quality and perfect climate. It was a truly inspiring cycle ride. I felt that my decision to ride South rather than East to Leh had been a good one.
Following breakfast of coffee and boiled eggs I continued my climb. I appeared to be as high as any of the surrounding mountains. I stopped for mid morning tea at a roadside cafe that also provided a stop and grazing for herdsmen and their horses. The saddles on the lead horses are often covered in very old fabrics with beautiful designs.
Fuelled with tea I set about tackling the hill. Gradually I scaled the gradient until, and at last, I reached the top (2,024 metres) at Patni and a police checkpoint. Once again and as with reaching the kathmandu valley rim (1,500 metres) from Naubise, I felt a real sense of achievement. I chatted with a friendly policeman who insisted on taking my photo with my camera.
From here there was only one way. I knew it was going to be a long way down.
I cycled South out of Srinagar along the Kashmir valley and past Indian military bases. The scenery was not too inspiring along the 1A highway. It is fairly commercial and dotted with modern concrete Indian houses. I stopped to look at the ruins of a temple devoted to Shiva and built by King Avantisvarman just over a thousand years ago
The highway is being widened and rebuilt and it felt like a repetition of my experience in post conflict northern Sri Lanka. No doubt both areas will have great roads within the next few years. Meanwhile the main routes are under construction and the combination of that and heavy traffic does not make for great cycling.
Kashmir willow has a reputation for producing some of the worlds finest cricket bats. Large numbers of shops and small factories lined the road. At first I thought I was looking at wooden pallets piled high. Then I realised that it was wood being seasoned and matured prior to being made into cricket bats. I saw bats being hand made in workshops and the road itself ran through forests of willow trees.
I left the main highway and into the bustling city of Anantag. I made a little circle of the centre and cycled through the main market. I found a good road that ran South shadowing the river Jhelum and past many small Kashmiri villages and farms. It now looked and felt like the green and lovely Kashmir that I had hoped for.
I planned to camp in a good looking spot by a river (above) with an amazing view of a mountain range. But I quickly became a focus of attention for local people.
Many Kashmiri men, some on their way home from work, stopped to stand, chat and look. As some left more would arrive. Finally, and after all had left, another group of (pleasant enough) younger guys stopped by. I answered their questions and they decided that it would be a good spot to sit, socialise and smoke for the evening. Friendly enough and good people but I quickly made my apologies and moved on. It was a little frustrating for me as I was tired and simply wanted to make a hot drink and meal, tuck up into my tent with a peaceful view of the river and mountains…and sleep. The light was fading fast but I moved quickly. The road climbed a little and wound around steep hills. I found a suitable spot on the River Jhelum to pitch my tent.
The following morning became quite wet. I stopped during a downpour and enjoyed some of the best round flat Kashmiri bread I had eaten.
My ride then took me to the most southern end of the valley and I began climbing. Once again the weather stalled my journey and I stopped at a shelter with a long view of the valley as it took a beating from the rain.
I arrived at the last place on the road to view the valley and enjoyed Kashmiri kahwar (tea) with some of the guys that were selling fur hats to the passing Indian tourists. It looked like more rain but I was reassured that I would be fine as the Jawahar tunnel was a short way away.
Before I could enter the 2.5 km tunnel I had to have an interview and show my documents. I was told that I did not need lights in my bike as the tunnel is ‘well lit’. I popped a rear light on at the entrance and cycled into the narrow tunnel. It was dark. There was lighting at points but not that great. I was cycling through water and my wheels skidded on mud. I wobbled and thought I would soon fall off. I used my camping headlamp to find my way. It was so narrow that I had to stop at passing places to let traffic past. It was both scary and thrilling. It was an adventure and a feeling of joy and achievement to emerge at the other end. I cannot imagine many (sane) people cycling through this tunnel. It carried me into the state of Jammu.