The sun is high up in the sky and a column of dilapidated trucks trundling past kick up an opaque cloud of dust, enveloping everything in a fine layer of golden brown grime. I discover the muddy imprint of a dust-sweat admixture when I wipe my forehead with a handkerchief. The mercury has easily crossed 40 degrees Celsius here at the Transport Nagar along the NH44 in Jammu — a vast unpaved transitory home for trucks — much to everybody’s discomfort, and the ferocious sun beating down mercilessly is making my head throb. This must be the forewarnings of a sunstroke, I think, and plod to the nearest watermelon stand.
As I feel the sweet, lightly spiced juice splash down my throat, I recall the purpose of my visit: to hitch a ride from this sweltering truck depot to salubrious Srinagar in the Kashmir Valley, a distance of just 300 km along NH44, but a world apart climatically. I had been hoping to hitch a ride immediately upon my arrival in the depot at around noon, but had spent the last couple of hours chatting with truck drivers.
They told me that trucks plying on NH44 follow a convoy system and leave for Srinagar after dark. It is a constraint of the narrow, mountainous two-lane roads that compels truck traffic to be directed towards Srinagar and Jammu respectively on alternate days, to avoid undue traffic snarls. After midnight, the convoy is flagged off from Udhampur, around 80 km from Jammu towards Srinagar.
I am resigned to spend a few hours in idle waiting when I receive an unexpected call from Farooque, one of the truck drivers whom I had given my number and requested to inform me when he’s leaving. “Haan, dus minute mein nikal rahe hain,” he says at around 3 pm and asks me to meet him near an SBI ATM in the terminal. My joy knows no bounds and at that point, even a blast of hot highway breeze is preferable to drowning in my own sweat. I just want to get moving away from this stubborn heat and head towards the misty mountaintops.
Misty mountain hop
Farooque, a lithe 35-year-old with a nervous crinkly smile and twinkling eyes dressed in