Mohit Poddar, 26, is not just a traveller, he’s an adventure seeker. As a student at IIT Delhi, he travelled a lot to places around Delhi. But what he liked most of all was exploring lesser-known places, or travelling on unconventional modes of transport. After working with a marketing company for over a year, Poddar quit his job and, along with two other classmates from IIT, set up Shoes on Loose, a travel company.
Always on the lookout for something adventurous, Poddar decided it would be a good idea to cycle up to Kashmir. “We wouldn’t be able to access a lot of areas in a car,” he says. So, armed with geared bicycles, Poddar and his friend Arunesh, who helped design his website, set off for the mountains.
“We believe that one can only really understand a place through its people. Throughout the journey, we had strangers befriending us and helping us out,” says Poddar. At Achabal, a town in Anantnag district, they befriended a tailor on his way back from the mosque in front of J&K Bungalow. “The J&K Bungalow, where we planned to stay, was closed, and we would have been stranded if Hamid bhai hadn’t opened up his home to us,” says Poddar.
The following morning, after a bath in the river – one of many quirks of Kashmir life that they got used to — Poddar and Arunesh left for Chakil Pora, another town in Anantnag. “If you look for Chakil Pora on Google Maps, you’ll find that there are no roads connecting it to any place. We had to make our way though villages, braving rugged slopes on our cycles. But our efforts were rewarded. The air was so clear that we could actually see shooting stars. I saw ten that night alone.”
At Chakil Pora, the duo stayed with a local Gujjar family. The highlight, says Poddar, was the Kashmiri staple: noon chai, tea served with salt instead of sugar. “The first sip came as a shock, but I soon learnt to enjoy it. Some Kashmiris don’t know that tea can be sweet too. Those who do, call it ‘Lipton tea’,” says Poddar. He adds that the family ate only non-vegetarian food. “They believed vegetables were for the poor.”
While their bikes did help them access dirt tracks that no car can drive through, there were stretches where even riding was impossible, says Poddar. They had to trek, carrying their bikes in hand for 6kms at a stretch. “We even had to slide down 10 feet on a straight cliff. And just as the road became motorable again, the chain on my bicycle snapped. I managed to fix it with pliers, but could no longer ride at the same speed. Finally, we reached Chandigarh from where we headed back to Delhi,” says Poddar.