When there’s peace in Kashmir nothing beats getting there in your own vehicle. The journey from the plains of north India to the hills past Jammu and finally into the Valley is dotted with breathtaking vistas, charming little towns and countless potential pit-stops.
Leg 1 (Delhi–Jammu, 613 km): The longest stretch, doable in one day by dint of one of the finest roads in the country – the National Highway 1(A). The single carriageway extends almost till Pathankot allowing for a quick zip through the plains. There are numerous small towns along the way and one has to watch out for jaywalkers and cattle, but on the whole this is a high-speed route. From Ambala, make your way to Ludhiana. Those who’d rather stop for the night in the hills can turn off on the lesser used but delightfully picturesque Dhar Road at Samba. The road crosses a series of forested low hills, past the pretty Mansar Lake to link directly with Udhampur, circumventing Jammu town and on to Patnitop.
Leg 2 (Jammu–Srinagar, 293km): The well-paved Jammu–Srinagar road has many scenic points but sees lots of traffic. It’s also prone to landslides and blockades during strikes; it’s imperative to assess the real-time situation before leaving. Leaving Jammu, the road climbs through a bizarre landscape of wooded hilly chunks before entering the cantonment town of Udhampur.
Between Udhampur and Srinagar, the road winds up a vertical kilometer into mature coniferous woodlands where, between Kud and Patnitop, lies a sprinkling of hotels. The main road zigzags back down almost as far as the Baglihar Dam. Make sure you stop at one of the roadside dhabas for rajma-chawal before winding back your way up to the 2531m Jawahar Tunnel. The Titanic Viewpoint, 2km beyond the tunnel, provides sweeping views across the vast mountain-rimmed Kashmir Valley, with its beautiful poplar-edged rice terraces.
Another viewpoint at Km213 surveys Verinag, one of three villages to sport Mughal Gardens. Most people make a tea stop in Qazigund, full of shops selling saffron and cricket bats. At times of unrest, a common trouble spot is Khanabal/ Anantnag where the Lidder Valley branches off towards Pahalgam. Close to Anantnag lie the famous ruins of the Martand Sun Temple. At the roadside in Awantipora, 30km before Srinagar, is the ruin of the 9th-century Avantisvara Vishnu Temple (dawn–dusk). The stone blocks are massive with numerous column bases but most carvings have been defaced. Straggling between Km279 and Km281, dusty Pampore is India’s saffron capital. The violet crocuses bloom colourfully in October around Km275. Once in the Valley, there are no hill roads to deal with all the way till Srinagar.
The Imperial Road (326km)
The NH1A didn’t exist in the Mughal era and travellers to Kashmir had to wind a circuitous path via Lahore. This is an interesting route to take if you want to have a look at lesser visited parts of Kashmir. From Jammu take the turn off to Akhnoor. After crossing Naushera you join up with the old Mughal road at a small hamlet called Chingus. History buffs should stop and visit Chingus Sarai, a medieval resthouse where Nur Jehan had emperor Jehangir’s remains buried after he died here en route to Delhi. From Chingus head to Rajouri and on to Bafliaz on the banks of the Poonch River before climbing up the well maintained road up to Pir ki Gali (3505m) from where you get unfettered views of the Pir Panjal range. From there you descend into Kashmir Valley past the pretty village of Shopian, and then on to Srinagar via Pulwama and Kanipora. Expect security checks and make sure you have ID and vehicle documents handy. Avoid this road if there’s trouble in the Valley.
This article is an excerpt from our soon-to-be-out Best Escapes Jammu & Kashmir.