The Punjabi Tadka: The Jalandhar-Katra bus ride!
Its an early winter morning in Jalandhar and we set out for our journey to Katra, the base campe for the Vaishnodevi shrine. And this was gonna be one helluva journey since we had decided to take the cheap state transport to get a real feel of the place!
The Jalandhar ST depot. like any other in India, had the typical crowded and dirty look; and even at 7 in the morning, it was abuzz with activity. We got into the Punjab Transport bus to Jammu amidst curious glances from passengers, mostly localPunjabis as to why alien looking tourists are travelling in an ST bus! The condition of the bus is nothing to write about and after a typical rash ST-driver journey along the Grand Trunk Road, we reach Pathankot at around 11am.
As the driver parked his bus inside Pathankot depot, ha calmly announced that since situation in Kashmir is not good, Punjab will not risk sending its bus into J&K lest it gets damaged (as if there was something left to get damaged in this crap-on-wheels anyways!). So here we are! In alien city with nowhere to go! After much waiting, we find a JK transport ST bus which would 'risk' going to Jammu. So, again we get into another equally uncomfortable bus with same reaction from fellow passengers.
The National Highway 1 gave a smooth ride even in this quality of bus and by noon, the driver gave us a 'lunch halt' at a primitive dhaba which was nothing but a mud hut surrounded by lush green fields with a couple of cots laid out in the courtyard. The location? In the middle of nowhere! With no options around, we reluctantly agree to have what later turned out to be the best aloo paratha I have ever had! The dhaba owner was one smart ass. Seeing that there were 'ignorant' tourists (ie we) in the bus, he cooked up a fake story how Jammu was under riots that day and everything would be closed in the city. His idea ofcourse was to make us buy some more food from his dhaba! We outsmarted him and ignored his story!
Crossing the Ravi enroute.
An hour or so along of drive along barren landscape brought us into Jammu city- a far cry from what people think when they first hear "Jammu and Kashmir". Here was a bustling city, crowded and dusty like any other North Indian city and an extra long flyover snaking across the heart of the city a reminder of the progress of the city. Our journey is not over yet. The last leg involves getting transport to Katra from Jammu.
This is a monopolisitc business of local mini bus owners and they follow some kind of a time table that probably has its origin on Mars or Pluto wherein any bus gets ready to depart any time only to be later told that its someone else's turn to go! A lot of confusion and a couple of bus-driver fights later, we manage to get into a bus which would actually depart! This was probably the most comfortable bus of the three we experienced since morning, what with cushioned seats and a TV that was actually functional!
Even before we could start, the dirver showed his 'great' choice by putting up a C grade Mithun movie on the TV and the passengers happily welcomed the move! Also as I was wondering if Katra is actually 3 hour drive to enjoy the complete movie. And even as the movie was not even half over (or was it? I was not even able to comprehend the story so far), we were already at Katra. Finally the culmination of a bus journey that had disintegrated into three journeys but finally brought us to the abode of Mata Vaishnodevi. Just as I disembark, out of curiosity, I asked the driver, "What about the remaining part of the movie?". He looked at me blankly and replied, "The passengers on the return journey to Jammu will see that!"