The Dream Ride! Being a pillion through the mighty Ladakh on Duke 390.

SHEKHAR 257

Be a Good person but Don't try to Prove.
Hahaha nice question! I don't remember if we had thought of this and asked Mr. Bashir the reason, or perhaps we had but he didn't give a significant answer. :-D
I saw both desi & videshi names of the houseboats during my 2008 trip, some of them being very amusing. Some which I remember are Geneva, Alaska,Apollo Eleven,Egypt, Manila, Montana etc. Desi names were like Kismat, Laila Majnu, Zum Zum etc. :lol::lol:
 

Vrushali Surve

Happy pillion for life!
Chapter 5: In the Land of Soldiers...

Part I
Shrinagar–Ganderbal–Gund–Sonamarg
ZojiLa

Bidding adieu to Bashir uncle and Javed, and to the little cuties seen in the picture below, we left for our new endeavour ahead. I was a little sad because of not being able to meet Chacha (and also because we got to spend really less time at the houseboat than we ideally should have). Nevertheless, in some time, the anticipation of upcoming surprises and adventures took over my sadness.

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Whose heart won't melt seeing this tiny bundle of joy? They were jumping with joy on their tiny feet the day we arrived, and this morning when we left, they were all asleep.

We were told by Kumar Sir NOT to have breakfast at the houseboat, as there was a surprising breakfast awaiting us in Sonamarg, but we couldn't resist the lovely bread-butter-jam sandwiches and tea made by Javed for the four of us. Also, Rahul and Ginesh were doing their pending mandatory Kashmiri shopping, so we had some time in hand because we were gonna travel together that day onwards.
(P.S. The backside of their Thar was almost full of shopping bags from almost every city/state they had been to on their way from Kerala!!!)


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Breakfast no. 1 of the day!

So, we had this and were ready to enjoy the Sonamarg surprise breakfast as well.

Sonamarg—meadows of gold—was our first destination that day, and believe me, the name is just apt; no other name can suit the place better! It indeed gave the hints of beauty that would be awaiting us ahead, although the roads beyond Dal Lake are narrower and slightly congested till Ganderbal compared to the ones till Srinagar. We had downloaded the detailed RoutO maps uploaded by Kumar Sir for that day's ride till Kargil, so our fuel and breakfast breaks and other stops were marked on RoutO and to be followed. It was almost an 11-hour ride (Srinagar–Kargil), so we had sufficient time in hands to enjoy the landscape and take photo breaks as well.


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Coming closer to the dream, one step at a time.

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Somewhere on the route near Ganderbal

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Closer...

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Welcome to the meadows of gold

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River Sindh in full current

Here, a few things with regard to facilities on the route should be noted. First, even though there is a petrol pump between Ganderbal and Sonamarg, it is recommended to refuel before exiting Srinagar. Additionally, there are some good restaurants at Mammer and Gagangair in the Sind Valley, and even Sonamarg has some hotels and good facilities. So, halting or getting help in need shouldn't ideally be a problem till there. The landscape is also simply beautiful beyond Manigam, which definitely calls for a ride or a drive best done during the day time. The road gradually climbs upwards toward Sonamarg, and you can see the vegetation changing to coniferous as the altitude goes on increasing, with River Sind running alongside from Manigam. However, be noted that the road is open only in summer and is closed during winter because of snowfall beyond Gund. Second, due to the high-altitude terrain, the route after Sonamarg has relatively lesser or poorer facilities, and this applies to mobile connectivity as well. Thus, it is better to be prepared for any kind of disruptions or delays and have some food and water handy. Moreover, the road from Sonamarg is a steep climb and may not be motorable sometimes even in summer (mostly early summer) because of snowmelt, water crossings, slush, and the rocky terrain. We also suggest getting your vehicle checked in Srinagar itself, as you may not find any support en route afterwards.

Fortunately, we were in check with all of these aforementioned things; we had kept everything—from bike and fuel to food and water—well prepared, and the weather was quite pleasant. We reached Sonamarg by 9:50 AM, found out our CHD—Hotel Sonamarg Palace—for the surprise breakfast, and updated chief (Kumar Sir) about the same. This is when he told us about what to order for breakfast—POHE—every Maharashtrian's staple/favourite breakfast, and we were like "Pohe?! In Sonamarg?!" He told us about the owners—two Maharashtrian guys from Satara–Sangli and fellow HiVaykings—who had come and settled in Sonamarg a few years back. So, we went in and met with them, told them that we were also HVK members, and ordered pohe and chahaa. Rahul and Ginesh were slightly behind us; they were not planning to wait here for breakfast. I clicked a pic as soon as our pohe came and shared our joy with our friends and chief. Finding such delicious pohe outside Maharshtra, that too in Sonamarg, in J&K, was unbelievable. Nevertheless, kudos to the two Satara–Sangli guys!


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Maharashtrian Pohe in Sonamarg, J&K; Bomb was also quite excited it seems because it was indeed a bomb suggestion!

Do visit Hotel Sonamarg Palace (Hotel Sonamarg) when you're taking this route. The location is absolutely mesmerizing, right in the middle of the mountains and near the Himalayan glaciers Kolhoi and Machoi, on the bank on Nallah Sindh (River Sindh).


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Waadiyaan meraa daaman, raastein meri baahein...

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Ready for our first La (pass) after eating the delicious pohe!

We were thus all set for our day's journey ahead, and we had all the excitement in the world about the places that we were to cover and experience that day. The first and one of the most exciting among them, especially for me, was my first ever La (pass)—Zoji La—that is required to be crossed to enter Drass Valley. Rohan hadn't taken this route in his previous Ladakh ride in 2016, so witnessing all the of beauty on this route was almost as new for him as it was for me. And our endeavour began! It should be noted that there may be certain traffic restrictions until crossing Zoji La owing to road improvement work and/or construction. The roads before and after Zoji La were quite smooth; you can immediately see the landscape's transformation into a high-altitude terrain. Again, from here onwards, no facilities and mobile connectivity should be expected until you reach Drass. In a way, this can be considered as Mother Nature's rule because the entire route is extraordinarily scenic, and you should not miss it by any other distraction; just watch and absorb the nature, click pictures, and take videos. But this is something the pillion or fellow passengers should do, of course. As is known, Zoji La is the gateway to Ladakh, an important link between Ladakh and Kashmir that connects Ladakhis to the rest of the world.

As is known, Zoji La is one of the riskiest passes in this area. If by chance, you happen to look at the sharp mountain edges from the base, you will see a thin light greyish line—that’s the "road"—nothing thicker than a single-lane fragmented dirt road that curls amidst some of the world's tallest mountains. Thus, impending death waits for the unprepared ones, which makes conquering this beast and reaching atop quite a Herculean task, and it requires relentless attention on the rider's/driver's part and a super reliable set of wheels (for all number of wheelers). Although four-wheel drives are recommended because of the uneven surface, I honestly think it does not matter even if you are driving a four-wheeler if you lose attention even for the fraction of a second. Overall, the zone experiences high winds and heavy snowfall during winters, which make it impassable for much of the season. Even in summer, the roads are narrow and thus the drops steep; there's no obstacle between you and the valley.

So, off we were to this pass, our first one on the way, with all our will power. Most of our minds were filled with josh, and undoubtedly, Rohan is indeed a relentless rider, so we weren't really nervous; our climb began. There was some ongoing work being conducted by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), so we did find some traffic jam after climbing a considerable part of the pass. Here, I must admit that seeing the height and the traffic congestion, I did get shit scared and worried about us and our luggage for a short while. I always used to wonder what adrenaline rush would be feeling like; I got to experience it at that moment. But my hero rider rode us through it swiftly (and the gel seat saved me from a bumsore on that super uneven road.) The following pictures are proof of whatever I have mentioned till now.


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The rough and tough Zoji La

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It is indeed disorienting to look over the edge to such a beautiful valley; this one gave me the adrenaline rush with us being on that broken road.

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This was my first up-close view of a melted glacier, so didn't matter that it was dirty

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And we were all finally atop Zoji La!!!

Then the relieving downhill began.

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This scene was also absolutely adorable:-D

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The rider is behind the lens. :p

After reaching the other end of Zoji La, some formalities and registrations were to be done at the army check-post before entering Drass, Kargil. So there we were!

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The mindblowing landscape needs no separate caption, right?

Regardless of the quality of the road, the experience of climbing an 11k+ ft high pass was memorable. Also, as we began climbing down, moving ahead toward Drass, a huge army helicopter, probably patrolling the area, suddenly swished past us, startling me in awe. As we rode ahead, there were two more, roaring in the sky, hovering above the Sindh River. Watching the Indian army's camps, convoys, and soldiers, in addition to the mesmerizing beauty of the mighty Himalayas, snow-clad peaks, melted glaciers, all of it was like a dream. And we were soon approaching the world's second coldest inhabited place—Drass Valley—where winter temperatures go as low as -60° C!

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Green Drass, Clean Drass!

Part II
DrassWar MemorialKargil

A little beyond Drass is the Kargil War Memorial, built by the Indian Army to commemorate India's victory against Pak in the 1999 Kargil War. In the foothills of the Tololing Hill, the memorial is located about 5 km away from the city's centre across the Tiger Hill on the SrinagarLeh National Highway 1D (NH1). The memorial has a huge epitaph, the main attraction of the memorial, a huge Sandstone wall in the open, which has the names of all the soldiers and officers who laid their lives in the war. Of course, no Indian (actually anyone) should cross pass it without visiting; so couldn't we! The memorial has preserved all the capturesweapons, tankers, and aircraft used in; letters written during; and memories (in form of photographs and documentation)—from the Kargil War. Besides, we can also see some of the peaks that the Indian army captured back from Pak; a 15-kg giant national flag hoisted in the open; and the enemy's flag hung upside down, in the exhibit room, as the sign of victory. The jitters that all of this gives cannot be penned down; we can only salute and respect all of the brave soldiers who did their best and sacrificed themselves to protect our country from the enemy amidst those mighty Himalayan peaks. Our soldiers are indeed as mighty and protective of the country as the Himalayas are.

Here are a few pictorial snippets from the memorial:


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The memorial, being run by the army, has a small canteen, good washrooms, and a souvenir shop too. We gathered ourselves back from the nerve-wracking memories of the war and had some snacks at the canteen to gear our ourselves up for the final destination of that day—Kargil!

Kargil city is about 53–54 km away from the memorial, and it must have taken us an hour or less to reach. To enter Kargil when coming from Srinagar/Sonamarg/Drass, the market area and taxi stand in the town needs to be passed. The road and landscape is splendid, with River Suru flowing in parallel to the road.


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En route Kargil

Our booking was done through HVK at Hotel D'Zojila, which is NOT TO BE CONFUSED WITH Hotel Zojila Residency. The bridge over Suru, on the left hand side of the road, is to be ignored, and we continue straight toward Leh on the Sankoo/Padum road. We crossed the market area crowded with students from local schools and ladies shopping grocery; the taxi stand; and the bridge and finally reached Hotel D'Zojila. It lies exactly opposite of the Maruti Service Centre, roughly 1.5 km from the taxi stand and 0.5 km from the bridge to Leh. We checked in at around 4:00/4:30 PM, so we had the rest of the evening to roam around in the neighborhood.

Our hotel manager as well as Kumar Sir told us that there was a taxi service from the hotel to see the "India–Pakistan Line of Control" (LOC), and we immediately became so excited to get to see the LOC that the excitement and curiosity took over our rationality. The guys booked the cab, and we all freshened up and immediately left. We were wondering how would it be; will we be asked for our ID cards to let in? I even went ahead and said, "Arey wo Fog waale ad jaisaa hogaa shaayad." (1 army soldier on either side of the border divided by an electric wire.) The thought that the armies will not allow "tourists" anywhere even in far vicinity of the border. Nevertheless, we had time; we were anyway there on a trip, for seeing around; and the three guys wouldn't of course refuse someone else driving them around the city for a change. So, we were enjoying some uphill off-road running alongside Suru. On reaching the top, we were looking for the LOC, and soon our cab driver came with a pair of binoculars and said while handing it over, "Ye lijiye. Kaun dekhna chaahegaa pehle?" I guess I was the one to take it, but we were all wondering what are we supposed do with it. He then said, "Lijiye. Wo uss taraf upar aapko kuch bunkers dikhenge. Aur isko [binoculars ko] aise adjust karke dekhenge aur thoda wo bunkers k aage toh appko dono countries k flags dikhenge. Dhyaan se dekhiye."

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Trying to locate and identify the so-called LOC!

After a lot of effort, I finally could see some white bunkers, but I tried hard to locate the flags. Later, Rohan, Ginesh, and Rahul, all three tried, and we were discussing kyaa dikh rahaa hai, nahi dikh rahaa and laughing. There were other some such tourists as well; we were all having mixed feelings inside us. We would not not recommend going up there because the landscape is worth viewing; however, do not expect much about the LOC point so that you are saved of a few of the mixed feelings that we felt—disappointed, stupefied, and sad about what the locals have to do to meet their ends; rather, ride/drive up till here and go ahead to the Hunderman museum (This Forgotten Village Near Kargil Has an Unusual Museum of Memories)—an unusual museum in an unusual ghost village. Our driver told us about the village and the museum, and I must say, its history is definitely interesting. The link that I've provided above narrates a nicely detailed story about the ghost village situated amidst the rugged valley on the border. I wish we could have gone ahead, but sadly, we couldn't go because of the timing (it was closed by the time we had reached to view the LOC). Therefore, we strongly recommend enjoying the landscape on the go and heading straight toward Hunderman rather than wasting time in attempting hard to spot the bunkers and flags. (I'm sure the pics below will certainly lure you all toward Hundarman!)

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Nevertheless, we were happy to be able to see breathe into Mother Nature's lap and see such beautiful landscape, and we would even have loved to eat Maggie there, but the only stall at the LOC point was also closed before we reached there. So, we left and came back to our hotel. The next day was going to be comparatively tougher; hence, we decided to order dinner in our rooms and sleep early.

[Day 5 Kargil–Leh; Chapter 6 is on its way!!!]
 

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Aashish Walia

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Chapter 4: Kashmir di gali.

Patnitop–Srinagar
Fortunately and finally, we could leave for Srinagar this morning and continue our dream ride.

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Beautiful sunrise while exiting Patnitop.

We came out through Batote, crossing Ramsoo, Ramban, and Banihal. Just at Ramban's exit, we came across a small teashop, which looked apt for a quick yet wholesome breakfast. We were hungry by the time we crossed these towns because we hadn't spent any time eating early in the morning. Luckily, the shop had just opened, and fresh tea was being made. The shop owner/keeper and a police constable sipping tea at the shop, both became curious looking at us and happy that we were getting down to have some tea and snacks at there. We took chai, and uncle offered us fresh maalpuaas with the chai! This was our sone pe suhaagaa moment. We chitchatted with them for a while, answering their curious questions, and listening to their encouragement and their views about the usual tense situations in Kashmir. Unfortunately, we missed clicking a pic of the shop or with the uncles, but it was definitely just after crossing Ramban, and both the chai and the maalpuaas were delicious and made our day.

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Somewhere in Ramban district

Further, as we reached the only divide between us and the K valley—the Jawahar tunnel—our joy was inexpressible. Here, one more wait, though smaller, held us for a while at the entry of the tunnel, and we were like, "God, no more hanging!" An accident had taken place right outside the tunnel's entry; nevertheless, the officials were quick in clearing the area, mainly because there was a lot of Amarnath Yatra traffic now, so we just to spend little time in anticipation. This tunnel is only 2-km long, which made our anticipation last for a smaller duration.

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Ain't no tunnel long enough to keep us from getting to you babe!

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If you're happy and you know it, shout hooray!!!

As we crossed Jawahar tunnel, we immediately knew why Pak drools so much over the infinitely beautiful Kashmir. (I mean, we do know, but this exaggeration is simply because we got to see it with our own eyes for the first time!:p ) The first view of the K valley itself was spellbinding!

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First view of the eternally beautiful K Valley!

Our next goal after entering the K valley was to pass the Amarnath yaatraa traffic and then search our houseboat. We had the RoutO Map for our New Jersey—HVK's Central Hotel Desk (CHD) in Srinagar—prebooked by HV Kumar Sir. And this national highway welcome signboard gave us immense relief.

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New Jersey Houseboat was located at the extreme end of Dal Lake, on the outskirts of the city (tourist are advised not to enter the main city area for obvious reasons). To be precise, it is on the serene, pristine Nagin/Nigeen Lake in Hazratbal, which is one of the four basins of the Dal and an independent lake in itself, far away from the typical, touristy crowd. We had to take a detour of Dal Lake to reach at the Boulevard Road, navigating our way through desperate houseboat owners in the scorching heat of the noon. Thus, we could experience both the city traffic as well as the lake's/basins' pristinity. We finally found New Jersey, and as soon as we were aboard, all the exertion vanished! Everything was so quiet and pleasant that you'll have to live it to understand it.

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Entry for the New Jersey

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The rare(rear) view; Nigeen Lake☺

We waited in the hall for some time to meet with the owner of the houseboat Mr Bashir and were welcomed with a nice hot cup of chaai and biscuits till then. Some people give you an instant warm, homely vibe, and we got that as soon as Bashir chacha arrived and met us. We had a small chat with him about our journey and about HVK; then, he asked us to proceed, showed us our room, and told us to freshen up till the lunch was being prepared. I was awestruckfeeling that I was continuously dreamingwhile checking out our room, the bathroom, and rest of the houseboat! The decor, upholstery, crockery collection, everything was majestic.

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Bashir uncle and Javed (our hosts)

I'm sure the following photos will teleport you'll to New Jersey Houseboat in Hazratbal!

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Then, our lunch was served; it was indeed a memorable lunch date! :-D A simple, homely, and delicious lunch was enough to add chaar chaand to our stay.

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Need no caption!

After lunch, we were up for some Kashmiri shopping. Where did we have to go? Nowhere! There are merchants of various goods on or near a houseboat itself. Similarly, a fabric seller was called upon on our boat. He had everything from stoles to Kashmiri embroidered bedsheets; however, because of the space crunch, I could buy limited stuff. Rohan suggested that we could courier the shopping to Mumbai, but I didn't want to stress because there was a lot to come during the coming days. So, I bought a couple of dress materials and a soft, lightweight silk saree as Kashmiri souvenirs for my lovely ladies. Believe me, it was a tough choice to make; what to buy, what not to buy; such beautiful handwork and colours! Those of you who travel on two wheels like us can think about the courier option and not hold yourselves from shopping; those who travel on four wheels would have no worry about space. :p

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How I wish I could bring it all!

Shopping on Dal lake or any of its basins is not limited to the seller coming to your houseboat. You can also go out and shop in the floating market. As most of you may or would know, Dal Lake and its basins have shikaaraas—Kashmiri (or Persian; I'm not sure of the word's etymology) for the deodar wood-made boats—that are a cultural symbol of Kashmir. These shikaaraas are used for a variety of purposes such as transportation, trade of various goods from daily utility products to luxurious items including jewellery, pashminas, and saffron. India's only and one of its kind of floating market is run on these shikaaraas. Also, almost every houseboat has its own shikaaraa. So, as we had ample time in our hands that noon after shopping, and because we didn't want to go out on the road, we decided to floatto take a shikaaraa ride in our own, New Jersey's shikaaraa. We left between 3 and 4 o'clock, and the next 1–2 hours were spent in bliss, with our shikaaraa navigator Chacha.

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A view of New Jersey from the shikaaraa

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All four of us in the frame!

He told us stories about "the good old days" back when Kashmir was calm and nonviolent, untouched by politicians. He showed us locations where old Hindi movies such as Kashmir ki Kali and Jab Jab Phool Khilein were shot. He sang us songs from these movies and from some others in a beautiful voice—I must admit—and even made us two gifts on the spot: a water lily necklace for me and a lotus bouquet for the two of us! Further, I also got to buy some more Kashmiri souvenirs, such as wooden shikaaraa keychains, beautiful handpainted fridge magnets, and elegant silver anklets, from some vendors in other shikaaraas.

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The lotus bouquet

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It had bloomed by the next morning!

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I was so happy to wear the handmade water lily necklace :-D

At a point, unable to resist listening to a Kashmiri folk song in his deep voice, I insisted him to sing a few Kashmiri songs for me, and he did! He sang a couple of lovely songs; one of them was a love song and one for a daughter that is sung on her wedding day.

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While Chacha was explaining the meaning of one of the Kashmiri songs that he sung...

Chacha even told us how heand many Kashmiris like himwant Kashmir to be a happy place again; he said although it still looks beautiful, the region has lost the charm of its people because of all the unending violence and terror. They want it to be a happy family that eats its meals together, laughing with and waiting for each other. Coincidentally, at around the same time, we got to hear the best Azaan that we must have ever heard in our lives from a distant mosque somewhere. Just imagine the serenity of the lake and the echoing Azaan—a scene that we can dream of. Unfortunately, although I do have a video and an audio clip, I cannot share them here because of the technical limitations. I can, nonetheless, leave you all with a picture that will surely take you there!

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IMAGINE the inexpressible combination and experience!

Well, I can go on and on about our shikaaraa ride, but I better stop here and move to our day ahead. After coming back from to our houseboat, Rohan wanted to get the Duchess bathed and checked, so we asked Bashir uncle about a reliable place and left for a small bike stroll. Although Hazratbal is on the outskirts, it does have good basic facilities and ATMs available. We found a garage nearby, which was about to close, as it was evening. Nevertheless, the owner got ready to give her a wash but said that we would have to go slightly ahead to check for the tyres, suspensions, etc., which we were okay with.


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These guys are quite helpful and charge nominal fees.

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Coz she deserves to be pampered!

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Duchess before and after reaching Kashmir!

Before I forget, I must mention the authentic Kashmiri kahwa that Javed made for me and Rohan after came back in the evening. Being a chai lover, I couldn't afford to miss that out and hence had told Javed that I wanted to try some kahwa. He even explained me the process of making some pleasant Kashmiri kahwa at home. It's the best stress buster, I must tell you!


Well, moving ahead, did you'll see a Mahindra Thar in Duchess' before picture? That belongs to the duo who accompanied us from Kashmir through Ladakh: The Thar Guys Rahul Nair and Ginesh Kunjomon, who'd been riding from Kerala and were fellow HiVayKings like us. Kumar Sir had told us about them, and we were awaiting them since that morning, and they'd finally arrived in the evening. Due to our different schedules of that day, we could only meet and introduce each other at night at the dinner table. It was quite a relief to have someone accompany, although distantly, after all that we'd gone through in Patnitop. More than us, our families were more relieved to know that we'd have company and a backup vehicle now.

We discussed our respective trips and experiences thus far, over dinner, and then it was time for us all to pack our bags for the next day.

Next morning, Javed made us nice simple bread butter sandwiches and tea, and all four of us were off for our further endeavour at 7:30 AM on July 10, 2018.

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Bidding adieu!
Amazing tour of the shikara. It is definitely going on my bucket list.
 
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