Hitchhiking has always remained an intriguing travel option to me. This is because of two fair reasons: one, it makes your journeys cheaper; second, it opens the possibilities to meet all the interesting people out there whom you otherwise miss by travelling in a bus, or far worse, in a private car.
I’ve hitchhiked almost everywhere I’ve traveled in the world – from Indian Himalayan roads to Bangkok’s highways. And no, I don’t find it risky. In my belief, the fact that hitchhiking is dangerous has only been overplayed by the fear-mongering society. So let’s not even go there!
The idea to hitchhike all the way from Leh to Srinagar – a 420 km long and isolated road with some of the most popular towns in between, including Kargil and Dras (second coldest inhabited place on earth) – initiated when I met David and Marion on a chilly evening in Leh. And we teamed up to see if that’s even possible.
Our shabby and hopeless scheme – as it seemed at first – started in Leh, and as expected we found ourselves standing on National Highway 1D on day 1 with our thumbs out, attempting to look as friendly as possible with an amiable smile for passing drivers. And pass they did. One after another.
Honestly speaking I never did this before; I mean hitchhiking with two other people with a collection of massive looking rucksacks on our shoulders – something so heavy that would even force a bus driver to pull a face before allowing us through. And here we were expecting all the free rides – paired and ready in a group of three.
To my experience it wasn’t anything like hitchhiking in cities, where cars move reasonably fast, and drivers, who don’t intend to stop, scarcely spare you a glance. Here, on such out-fashioned roads, things move excruciatingly slow – in fact so slow that you get a fair amount of time to make an appealing eye contact with the driver to plead for a ride, which soon turns into an implored beseech before you get rejected – and that is the hardest part to accept. Because at every rejection, you don’t have to muster all the self-respect for yourself – but also for those standing with their thumbs erect making private irked tutting noises at every potential pickup that passes.
“We travel, some of us forever, to seek other places, other lives, other souls” Anais Nin
But it wasn’t as bad either. We managed to find quite a few affable Indian Oil truck drivers who were happy to drop us off. If you ever decide to hitchhike between Srinagar and Leh (and further towards Manali) target Indian Oil trucks. Their drivers get paid comparatively decently, as we found out, and are more likely to drop you off for free.
Where a state bus takes two full days, we took three – switching to new trucks at least four times and hitchhiking a few small rides – to reach all the way to Srinagar. We broke our journey by staying at Lamayuru and Dras in between for a few days.
I particularly liked and recommend ‘Lamayuru’ a small Buddhist village between Kargil and Leh. It was, by far, one of the best places I’ve seen in J&K. We decided to spend a night at Lamayuru but ended up staying three, and I can’t wait to go back.
Dras was okay, given it’s the second coldest inhabited place on earth, it was worth a night. But getting a ride from Dras turned out to be the toughest part. “We are never going to get picked up,” I remember admitting it every time a truck had forsaken us.
It took more than three hours to find our next ride in Dras, which, once again, turned out to be an Indian Oil truck. Despite moving at a maximum speed of 15-km an hour, it screeched to a stop making a cloud of gravelly dust. David and I stood transfixed as Marion spoke to the driver – and in the fullness of time – we finally got a ride all the way to Srinagar.
Trucks have been picking up hitchhikers for decades. Our first ride ever was with Satinder, a 46-year old man from Punjab who has been driving for Indian Oil for the past 20 years on Srinagar-Leh route, which was quite a job. According to him, they’ve to complete a minimum of three rounds of delivery from Srinagar to Leh every month and get paid around INR 7,000 for each round. He tries to do as many as five rounds a month to earn more, but this means long, continuous rides. Sure, life as a driver is tough.
And then there are the ridiculous stories too; hauling strange loads, overloading, horrific accidents, disfavor by police and all those disdained looks by car drivers.
“A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles” Tim Cahill
Hitchhiking through Jammu and Kashmir – where many people don’t even want to travel at all even in their private cars because they find the area risky – turned out to be one of my favorite travel adventures so far, thanks to David, Marion and all those drivers we met on the road.
It was definitely something I would like to attempt again and succeeding in this only strengthens my desire to do more of it.