Riding out of Ladakh into Kashmir, my initial plan was just to pass through Draas in time to make it through the Military check post at Meeramarg. I was however, a bit at sea about the deadline to pass Meeramarg. At Manali, I was told I will be allowed through till 8.30, at Leh, 6.30 and finally at Kargil, I was scared sleepless when told that it closes down at 5.00!
Naturally, I was out of my relatively warm hotel bed in Kargil, at the uncivilized hour of 2.00 in the morning and the temperature was of course anything but warm. I get the fully laden Bullet off its main stand, three odd kicks and nothing happens, I put the choke on and kick again and the bike sputters, starts, misses, sputters and then bursts into its reassuring song.
Kargil's economy is largely dependent on the brave souls who hike from here into Zanskar and God only knows wherever else, and of course the Great Indian Army. And as with most frontier towns, it’s not a place for early morning somnambulism because of the intense cold though I thankful to that very cold for not having to contend with man's best friend (great shaggy creatures with fangs a shade more hard-bitten than mine) chasing me as I rode around in circles before finding the road to Draas.
I had heard a lot about this road. It twists and turns with the LOC and there are signboards all along the road, dryly announcing, "Beware, you are under enemy observation". Moreover, since our well-meaning neighbor watches down from behind strategically placed guns, there are no lights anywhere.
The cold was growing every minute and I was not using my gloves, considering that the blasted things were impeding clutching and braking. And I was in thin canvas boots, with just a simple set of woolen socks underneath, the Gum Boots I had picked up at Manali bungeed down, as I wasn’t expecting any water-crossings.
5 minutes out of Kargil, I was frozen to the bone and cursing away to glory, my neck numb and my legs hugging the bike for whatever warmth its petrol-fired heart could gift me.
Usually, I would have just hunkered down and belted away, getting to my destination faster, but that was impossible here, with the narrow road twisting and turning, the stars for most part blocked out by the dark brooding ridges all around and my headlight’s glimmer just a bit more than that of a guttering candle.
There was no traffic on the road that I could tail and when I would slow down to pass through the military camps, all I could usually see was a milestone indicating that I am on the right road, or when a bit more luckier, some friendly sentry’s hand going up in the instinctive greeting only a biker gets.
Then, it happens; I take a curve too fast, the road straightens on to a bridge, I hit a speed breaker I can’t see, the bike’s angle and the heavily laden carrier don’t help and its really touch and go as I head towards the railings and the dark waters below.
I have never been good at reconstructing such scrapes on the road, but it was either my momentum or my riding instinct that saved me. I had cut across the bridge diagonally, finally braking inches from the end of the road.
Before I can get off the bike, a torch shines into my face. It’s a brave Jawan of the Great Indian Army, firm and solicitous at the same time, wanting to know who I am, why I am out at this time of the morning and where I am headed. I answer in a tone that is both firm and polite (and slightly aggrieved) as he checks my papers, jots down my details and then waves me on, with a smile that only the sane can bestow on the cerebrally challenged.
For now I am just intent on hanging on and counting the milestones till I get to Draas. There is no way I could have sped on this stretch; the road was just a bit more than a patch of gravel with water flowing over it.
The last 15 odd kms to Draas are still frozen in my being, my hands were bereft of feeling, forcing me to put them one by one on the cylinder head, wait till the engine burnt through the numbness, then ride a bit and then repeat it all over again. Time to time, I would swivel my head to get whatever bearings I could, see the ridges on my right illuminated by big yellow splotches of moving light and wonder grimly if it was the Pakistanis getting ready to shell. And somewhere here, my bike hit reserve.
Finally, the road sloped down and became a street with water flowing through it and I was in Draas before I realized it. I made a beeline for the only street-side eatery that was open; managed to mouth the word “Chhai” and practically thrust my hands into the welcome blue and golden flames of a Kerosene stove.
It was just 4.45 AM, I had met my deadline with Draas, though Meeramarg was still relatively far and I was now out of petrol. I also got to know that there is no petrol bunk in Draas and I may have to go back to Kargil to get it.
But I wasn’t greatly worried, I was just riding through, and the mountain had been kind to me all along, as it is to those who "believe". For now, it was time to let the warmth seep into me, time to savor yet another glass of Tea, besides the road, in yet another one-street outpost…………