Posted by: Carolyn ODonnell | October 19, 2012

India: Not that hot but insanely itchy and disconnected in Jammu

Travel in the slow lane: All backed up on the highway to the Kashmir Valley

I like overland travel. Flying is a bit like cheating – too fast, too predictable and too comfortable. No, give me some rickety engine-mashing gear-grinder with no space for luggage and no one who can speak English and I feel right at home.

Sometimes I arrive at a hotel and the managers are astounded I’ve managed to get there not only on my own, but using local transport they do their best to avoid. In my case any number of rickety buses is fine as long as there is a civilised hotel at the end of it. That’s not always the case, but I do my best. Staying in horrible places upsets me.

Comfort is always nice on the trail too, but after some of the travel I experienced in Burma, these days I am grateful for a seat.

Dumpsville

At the end of this particular trail I arrived in Jammu, which is a bit of a dump frankly. Or as one tour guide I met put it, a ‘shithole’. But you have to stop somewhere – from Jammu to Srinagar takes about 11 hours which is more than enough overland travel for one day (even if people say it takes seven hours, that would be seven Indian hours I think).

Leaving McLeod Ganj it was Boneshaker Bus One down the mountain – bus stopping heart-thuddingly close to the edge of several precipices as bits of scarred metal screamed in the effort to stop the bus and help it reverse rather than let it tumble over the edge.

Once down, it was hot and dusty plains to Pathankot, which has little to offer except a bus station and a squashed tank on a roundabout coming into town. Silly me, I thought the bus was going to the bus station but it threw us off in the street. That was five and a half hours of bus, then I had to find Boneshaker Bus Two to Jammu, which was about another three hours of being squashed behind the driver, who focused equally on using his horn and spitting out the window.

I  was sitting with my new friend Priti who could speak about seven words of English, enough to be freaked out that I was going to Jammu for the FIRST TIME and ALONE. This bothered her so much she accompanied me when we reached the bus stand – a noisy collection of vehicles by the side of a rutted intersection under a newish concrete overpass sadly misrepresentative of what I hoped would be the type of road going to Srinagar.

Priti trotted beside me to several divey hotels near Jewel Chowk after we fought our way through the traffic – one manager was very perturbed that I wanted a towel, this being a ‘high-cost item’. Please note Mr City Centre, I ended up at Hotel Sant which was a dump, but it cost less than your dump and they gave me a towel and clean sheets.

Rooms at Hotel Sant haven’t been cleaned properly since around 1973 I’d say. The establishment had loads of staff who spoke no English and were devoted to watching cricket noisily in the front foyer, which though lacking in design features was fabulous at amplifying any squealing or yelling taking place at the front desk or the stairs.

Long trek to Kashmir: But the scenery is stunning

Due to security issues in Kashmir, mainly India and Pakistan warring over who gets to control the gorgeously fertile Kashmir Valley, texts are banned on pre-paid Sim cards, and my phone didn’t work at all. During the week I was in the area all calls and texts to my Indian number were lost forever. I gave the Hotel Sant number to a few people, but the cricket was on and as far as the person who answered the phone was concerned I was not there – not at 5am, not at 7am and not at 10pm either. The room did come with a TV though, to feed my new addiction to Grey’s Anatomy.

There are so many things to check for in an Indian hotel room. My first room had a bathroom tap that didn’t work and I realised the ‘air cooler’ was just shoved into a hole in the window ‘area’ that wasn’t sealed in any way.  Unfortunately I moved to the room next door which had a better tap, but also many nasty, bitey things living in the mattress. I passed out from exhaustion, woke with a slightly irritated abdomen and by that evening my torso was covered in about 80 itchy red weals. YUK.

A less-select viewing of my weals: Look away now if red itchy lumps on a squidgy torso offend. This s just a few of the 80 or so bites I counted. Ugh

I gave a select viewing of my weals to one of the hotel guys and mimed things biting me. He came up to the room with a mosquito coil and a can of air freshener. I guess he was trying, but I needed bug spray, not Floral Mist.

Anyway, I went back to the room with the dodgy tap, turned on the noisy air cooler which did a great job of drowning out anyone screeching in the near vicinity and slept without being feasted on. Strangely enough, it wasn’t that difficult to get up about 6.30am.

On my one fabulous day in Jammu I spent a tortuous three hours queuing for a train ticket at the main railway station (asking a police officer where the station was, he pointed in the wrong direction to an apartment block. I’ve been told all Indians understand train station, but maybe not).

I stood in the queue long enough to become friends with the people nearest me, watch attempted queue jumpers (‘I’m a cancer patient!’) and Indian Railways staff who all go on breaks at the same time. Our guy said he was going for lunch, then spent 30 minutes shuffling bits of paper before disappearing forever. I thought I was going to grow old and die in that station, but eventually someone else came to sell a few tickets when I was reaching the point or screaming or fainting. I just thought I’d pop in, seeing as I’d been sent to the local telecoms head office with bits of paper and five photos to get my Sim card registered and make my phone work, only to find the office was shut. Cue Marge Simpson grunty noise. Jammu station has a booking office for foreigners, but as it has no computer, it can’t actually book anything.

At least leaving for Srinagar was easier – I walked up the street, found a nice young man who had share cars going that way and got in the front where no one was sitting on me or bothering me in any way. They have rules about this kind of thing here. Then it was hours and hours of mountainous roads carved into the sides of jagged valleys, huge trucks, and inexplicable hold-ups before a long tunnel and voila: the valley full of rice paddies and distinctive wood and brick Kashmiri architecture.

The drive was long, but the landscape is so dramatic, and the change so profound on reaching Kashmir, that it is worth it. Unless you get car sick. And I knew I was going to a rather lovely houseboat, even though that involved a boat trip in the dark.

The return trip was more complicated (naturally) with long traffic jams for no discernible reason, being pulled over by the traffic police, hungry Punjabis wanting snacks constantly and me fretting that I wouldn’t get to Jammu in time to find either a place to stay or access to the internet to ascertain where I was going the next day. At one point we sat for 40 minutes about 70km from Kashmir as traffic surged past in the opposite direction and engines around me were turned off. I started worrying that there was some kind of security problem and we would still be perched on this rocky shelf in three days’ time. Well at least I could throw myself off if it all became too much.

But this passed, as all things do, and we ground into Jammu about 9.30pm. This time the driver was concerned I had nowhere to go. He wanted to take me back to railway station to share his lodgings with me, but my eye was on the prize – a five minute walk from Jewel Chowk to the bus stand and escape from this place early the next day.

So I tried out a new dump that night. I wouldn’t stand on the carpet in my bare feet and there was no showerhead in the bathroom where the hot water wasn’t working, but they did give me clean sheets and a towel and nothing bit me while I was asleep. I piled two skinny Indian mattresses on top of each other, swaddled them in cleanish linen and climbed in. A noisy fan drowned out any screaming and I thought I might be a bit cold, but the electricity went off later on, so that all worked out then.

Next day I headed to Amritsar, home of the Golden Temple and more importantly, a normal mobile phone service.

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