Extreme winter drive | North Kashmir
Eleven days for just a 1000km long road trip? Less than 100km a day? Easy peasy, I thought. At evo India, the nature of road trips we embark on is such that we regularly cover distances far longer than that. And if there’s a fun-to-drive set of wheels at our disposal, our spirited road testers deliberately take the longer route. But there was nothing ‘regular’ about these eleven days. We were venturing far beyond civilian areas, there was far more snow than what you see in Manali in winter, and the terrain was a striking contrast to what our sore city eyes are used to.
Spearheaded by Nidhi Salgame and Col Satty Malik, SM, Retd, Wander Beyond Boundaries isn’t quite into your run-of-the-mill leisure trips. WBB is a master of self-reliant extreme overlanding and exploring remote areas. How remote? Remote enough for your naked eyes to catch a glimpse of armed bunkers beyond the Line of Control. Remote enough for your smartphone to not have the network for days at a stretch. Remote enough for you to visit places that remain blocked from civilisation for six months every year because of heavy snowfall. WBB will take you to these places, safely and legally.
Even though Across Shamshabari (pronounced sham-shabadi) is an expedition well within India’s boundaries, these areas around the Shamshabari ridge in the north westernmost corners of Kashmir are so close to the borders with our not-sofriendly neighbours that they remain unexplored. And to be able to explore such extreme areas, you need like-minded clientele, and that’s what WBB usually attracts with most participants being experienced off-road drivers. Ashish has rally experience and loves bragging about his Fortuner. Ashlyn owns a decked-up Lexus GX 460 in Dubai for dune bashing. Santhosh has driven in Iceland, Siberia and Kyrgyzstan, in the winters. Manish loves the idea of a locally-produced Wrangler and is on his way to book one as you’re reading this. Yours truly, an automotive journalist with close to three years under his belt is relatively inexperienced in this company. Meanwhile, our steeds were humble veterans of the 4x4 universe, two previous-gen Mahindra Thars, two Scorpios and two Gypsies — all analogue heroes with proven reliability in extreme conditions. But this wasn’t a lesson in driving, none of us needed that. This was an adventure-packed outdoor classroom of life lessons, and here’s why.
The drive to Kupwara felt disconcerting simply due to the sheer frequency with which we passed by long army convoys. Large armoured trucks seemed battle-ready and the watchful eyes of the soldiers induced a heightened sense of vigil. But WBB’s convoy discipline was reassuring and as I familiarised myself with the surroundings, I realised that my heightened senses were causing false alarms. Movement of troops is a regular business in forward areas and if there was anything to be scared of, it was the harshness of mother nature, because the area we were venturing into was avalanche prone. There were sheer drops with absolutely no railings to catch you. One bad judgement call on our part and things could turn ugly. Staying calm was key, and I found comfort in the hot cups of kahwa.
The next morning when the jawans mounted the Indian flag on our cars, it made me dewy eyed — we were in forward areas of north Kashmir, the borders were within striking distance and the tricolour fluttering to the tune of wind induced an immense sense of pride. I couldn’t help but hum the tunes from the 2004 war flick Lakshya. As we neared Teetwal Bridge, first of the three LoCs, we were escorted by local biking groups, all on Bajaj Pulsars and Royal Enfield Classic 350s, to a local concert in the nearby Karnah tehsil. Feeling like VVIPs, we enjoyed the local pahari dance and music seated in the first row. The youngsters were beaming with energy, their enthusiasm stemming from the fact that these are areas with zero tourism infrastructure — our visit was a glimmer of hope for them. We lodged with the army that night and the officers revealed the army’s plans to build skistations and sports clubs to engage the youth. These facilities are abundant in the lesser Himalayas and creating them here would give these people an outlet they need.
Setting the tone
The sound of a co-ordinated rhythm of boots marching down the road woke me up the following morning, the jawans were up and about before the break of dawn, performing their routine exercise. WBB also had its morning rituals, all to be conducted by the participants themselves — checking oil levels, tyre pressures, filling up hot water flasks and ensuring everyone is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed before we set out. Unlike other curated drives where things are spoon-fed, self-reliance was a highlight on this expedition. This was the day when the tone for the remainder of the drive was set, and by that I mean, snow, snow and then, some more snow. At over 10,000 feet above sea level, we halted atop the Nastachun Pass amidst an unbelievable amount of snow. Nastachun literally means ‘cut nose’, referring to the acute numbness the tip of the nose feels when you’re standing at the top of this pass.
The level of snow, the quality and beauty of it kept amplifying every passing day. Enter Machhal. Nestled in the valley with mountains glowing ice blue and white, the beauty of Machhal was indescribable. If stalwarts in Bollywood were introduced to Machhal a few decades ago, not only would they have saved millions by not travelling to Switzerland and contributing to the European economy, but also would have boosted tourism here in Kashmir. Rustic and charming wooden houses were scattered across the valley and the locals wore an infectious smile as we interacted with them. Never had they witnessed a group of travellers in their village and that reflected in their heartfelt hospitality. The sarpanch served pepper-flavoured kahwa and dry fruit biscuits over a jolly conversation about life in Machhal. The feeling was priceless.
Mid-way through the expedition, the routine was set. We would begin our days on a light-hearted and chatty note after which the tough routes would test our wheelsmanship. By now, the convoy co-ordination was so good that the entire team’s bladder-relieving schedules were synchronised. Our senses were treated with enchanting views during the day, but the business of putting snow chains on in the freezing cold, would ensure that we worked for them. On all nights, I slept like a log.
Just when I felt that it can’t get any more challenging, the team decided to explore the trail to Sona Pindi Gali. Think of Mahindra Adventure’s off-roading academy in Igatpuri, amplified by subzero temperatures, chilly winds and snow at over 10,000 feet. If snowpocalypse was a thing, this is what it would look like. But no challenge seemed too tough, people who were strangers at the beginning were now working as one team, tirelessly trying various ways to get the SUVs past the knee-deep slush. Snow chains were at our rescue and we eventually made progress. But it was exhausting, my hands and feet were shivering as the snow on my body melted inside the Scorpio’s warm cabin. I zipped my jacket all the way up to keep as warm as I could. Relief came in the form of a hearty meal of homemade theplas that had been packed beforehand. Even the jawans accompanying us were roped into the gastronomical affair. After spending multiple nights at army units, the beefed-up army convoys and presence of soldiers everywhere wasn’t intimidating anymore. They made us feel like guests.
The following day’s drive up Razdan Pass was the reckoning. There were no tyre tracks to follow and the road appeared like a long white carpet snaking between the mountains. The Raid de Himalaya had been discontinued partly due to the lack of sponsorship, but also due to the routes it took getting too crowded. Well, there were no crowds here. Imagine Santosh and KP tearing through here on their Dakar-spec machines, followed by Gill in his Super XUV300. My imagination was running wild at this point, but with the Scorpio getting its tail out at a mere 20kmph on the hairpins, the terrain demanded all my concentration. The trail was getting unpredictable, but that didn’t bog us down and it was admirable when some of us volunteered to scout the road ahead on foot, despite the heavy snowfall, to ensure that the lead car laid the correct trajectory for the convoy to follow. Snow chains and convoy co-ordination powered our progress, but slippery surfaces and poor visibility posed serious danger. As we trudged forward, the challenges seemed insurmountable. Ice, steep ascents, and a heavy bombardment of snow. It was nature’s warning for us to turn back and we respected that. It was also WBB’s expertise in reading the terrain, knowing when to soldier on and when to stop. But before we returned, we relished our packed lunch, bhatures and mixed-veg sabzi amidst cheerful banter and a blanket of snow in the background.
At this point of the expedition, driving on snow became second nature to us. We mastered the art of engine braking on descents, the craft of applying corrective lock and we’d learnt how to wrap the critical snow chains around tyres. The gupshup continued while tackling some of the most treacherous terrain in India, unconsciously subduing the challenging nature of this drive. Friendships were forged, the participants, most of whom were my father’s age became my ‘bros’ and each member formed their own picture of what north Kashmir felt like – a shocking contrast to what has been fed to us for decades. The thirst for wanderlust was satiated and the humbling interactions with the locals had all our egos crushed. Crushed under the snow. And yet, towards the end of the drive, the 1000th kilometre still seemed far away. But distance was no longer being measured in kilometres, it was the depth of the journey within that mattered. A journey that transcended physical distance with perspective, clarity, courage, passion, love and most importantly, team work. For the first time in my life, (and hopefully not the last) I felt like this was a place I wanted to return to before even leaving it.
Just a couple of days after the expedition ended, I read on a Kashmiri news website that there was heavy snowfall in the areas we explored, and the passes were indefinitely closed. At that point, I remembered the colonel’s words, “Nature has been very kind to us”. We were, after all, at its mercy.