When the Bealtes sang 'come together', they were singing praises about themselves. If you ask me though, the chorus definitely has a lot to say about a world where hate would not prevail and there would be all round happiness and all the other ideologies that go very well with the 70's, rock and roll and certain plant life. When we at OVERDRIVE sing the same song (hell yeah! We sing too), we mean we're bringing together two Aryans that have been separated for decades. Puzzled? Needn't be. We are bringing together the iconic ML 350, the first luxury SUV to be launched in the country, and the Aryan tribes of Dha and Hanu. What's the connection you ask? Well as we see it, the chunky SUV comes from the land of the autobahn and the tribe came from the same place, only a long time before the autobahn was even built.
Dha and Hanu are situated in the beautiful state of Jammu and Kashmir on the banks of river Indus. They were founded by early Aryans who made their way to India around roughly the same time that Akbar's face used to adorn our national currency. Over the years the blue eyed fair haired Aryans have slowly evolved to look just like any other Tomojit, Digvijay or Harinder. The only traces of being Aryan lie in their genes and of course the local folklore.
The tribe still relies largely on agriculture and manual labour. Over the centuries that they have been present at Dha/Hanu they have built a name for themselves as some of the most hardworking and diligent folk in the area. The ones who are not keen on agriculture join the armed forces.
I was with Trigun Vir Singh Pathania, Arjun Vikram Singh and an ML 350 in Srinagar. The four of us had just wrapped up duty as officials for the second Mughal Rally. With that out of the way it was time to head out to Dha and Hanu. Our drive would take us from Srinagar to Kargil where we would stay the night and the following morning on to Dha and Hanu.
The morning we left Srinagar my mind was filled with images from a recent movie which had a certain red Swedish SUV travelling along mountain roads towards Ladakh. But these visions soon came to a screeching halt thanks to the huge traffic jam in front of us. Now I'm used to traffic jams in Mumbai. These are mainly contained to traffic lights and boast an average crawling speed of 13kmph. But it seems in Kashmir, a traffic jam means an average speed of zero. Yes, in fact you can even leave your car, walk up to the nearest dhaba, order aloo ke parathe and lassi, clean up your plate, order seconds, chat with the dhaba owner, take a few photographs, walk back to your car, recline your seat and take a nap, and chances are you would still be stuck in the jam.
So after an hour or so of waiting around we finally got back on the move. The ML proceeded to make mince meat of each pothole that came its way while all three of us were sitting inside in luxury singing along to Dire Straits that was playing on the car's brilliant sound system. At this point I have to say that Kashmir is one of the most beautiful places you will ever see. Every picture you take comes out brilliantly. In Kashmir even a blind person could take a breathtaking photograph.
We soon reached Baltal from where we would cross the Zoji La and head to Drass. The Zoji pass is at an elevation of approximately 11,000 feet and has a narrow single lane road which if you fall off from is a straight drop to, presumably, death. It is here that the Indian army's tank regiments defeated Pakistani raiders during the war in 1947 in the process setting the record for the highest altitude at which armour has been used in battle.
After the treacherous climb, the road to Drass is as picturesque as picturesque can get. Green meadows with streams flowing past and snow covered mountains in the background are as common as ambassadors in Kolkata. The roads are smooth tarmac and you can carry some reasonable speeds through this stretch. After this though, the last stretch to Kargil is in pretty bad shape. This is where the ML's Airmatic suspension came into play. With a press of a button you can increase the car's ground clearance by 60mm. This means you can easily glide over most moderate sized rocks without a problem except that with raised suspension, the ride becomes rather stiff and a bit less comfortable. But mind you, this is only in comparison to the ride in comfort mode.
After our night stop in Kargil it was time to proceed to Dha and Hanu. The road travels with the river Indus for most of the way. For all its magnificence the road is quite treacherous. The tarmac is quite good, but the road is a single carriage way with a lot of blind corners. So high speeds are not at all recommended unless you want to end up in the raging river. And with Indicas and Sumos trying to set best times on these roads, extreme caution is advised. Another note of caution, these particular mountain roads have a lot of rock overhangs off which water falls down. While this might be a cheap way to get your car washed, you need to be alert when driving cars with sunroofs unless you want a cabin full of fresh mountain water. Learnt from experience.
After treading cautiously through the roads we finally reached Dha. The entrance to Dha is past an army checkpost. About two kilometres from the checkpost is where you have to park your car. From here it's a short trek up to the village. When you see stones with ancient engravings on them and step farming on the mountain side you know you are in Dha. The village is a stark contrast from all other regions bordering the Indus which is mostly rocky and have sparse vegetation. Dha is surrounded by greenery all around. Flowering plants and large trees line the pathways in the village. There is always the sound of the Indus flowing in the near distance. When you enter the village it is evident that the villagers rely heavily on agriculture. Most houses here have two levels of which only one is used. The upper level is used in summers. But as winter approaches the people here move to the lower level to escape the biting cold. The women here are quite fond of flowers and use it to adorn their heads. The people are largely friendly if you're with army personnel, but otherwise they are quite sceptical about outsiders, especially with people like me who like flaunting their press cards.
After the requisite photocalls we headed onward to Hanu. The entrance to Hanu is very easy to miss. Unless you know it is coming, you will not pay attention to the small doorway that marks the entrance to this village. A short trek up to the village and you will find small fields with crops interspersed with what looks suspiciously like poppy plants. The village in itself is something that makes you feel like you've travelled back in time. The first house we saw was probably four feet tall and made of rocks.
Something like the cottages you hear of in fairy tales. I walked a little further and found out that the houses I had seen earlier were actually enclosures where the villagers keep their goats and chickens. Just like in Dha, in Hanu too you can find the same rocks with inscriptions on them. The main village has houses that are similar to most you find in such hilly terrain. Only difference is that most of these houses have colourful flags tied to their roofs. I tried to talk to some of the villagers there, but most of them spoke in some local dialect that I found very hard to decipher. In the end I had to make do with just walking around the village and taking photographs.
Soon the sound of distant thunder told me that it was time to leave. We had to get back to Kargil before the rains started. Otherwise there was a strong chance that we would get stuck in what is known here as the Himalayan Sandwich (being stuck in between two landslides). We quickly made our way back to Kargil.
After spending several days in the Himalayas I had gotten a taste of what it was like to live life without the pushing and shoving that we city dwellers are used. Everything here is peaceful; nobody (except the Indica taxis) is in a rush. There is no time is money nonsense happening. If there is no power they light a candle. If there is no water in the fields, they build a canal right through the national highway (no kidding). Life seems to be so much simpler here. Over the few days that I was here, I had driven over some of the harshest terrain in the world, gotten stuck in fog on the Zoji La, learnt a lot about birdlife in the Himalayas (thanks to Trigun) and even learnt a few lessons in driving on mountain roads. I've also decided that the next time I come to Dha and Hanu I will make sure I have a translator accompanying me, because after seeing these two places, my curiosity about the history of this village has only increased. And when I come here again, I only hope that accompanying me will be the same ML 350, albeit in its new avatar.