Half a century after the adventures of the 1931 Citroën-Haardt Trans-Asiatic Expedition, Motor Rallying proper was introduced to Kashmir in the 1980’s when JK Tourism and Maruti-Suzuki jointly sponsored a local team for the 1st Great Desert Himalaya Raid.
I attended the trials conducted by Rajeev Khanna on the track leading to the top of the Kral Sangri hillock. Rajeev Khanna (grandson of the founder of the Oberoi Group and one of the most famous rallyists in India) had been selected as Team Leader for the event. The track was rarely used and had been declared out-of-bounds for traffic that day. Rajeev and I were on timekeeping duty at the top of the hill when my brother Javid Bakshi started his trial run from the base of the hill. From our vantage point we could see a truck stray on to the road from some side trail on course for a head-on collision with his car.
Rajeev jumped into the driver’s seat of my car and for some reason I clambered into the passenger seat. ‘Seat belt please‘ is the last thing I remember hearing. The rest was a visual blur. A wheel-spinning turn, smothering dust-clouds, the smell of burning rubber, and the screaming agony of an engine being tortured beyond its endurance are etched into my memory. Somehow we managed to stop the truck off the racing line. My brother qualified for the JK Tourism team but my fleeting drive as a passenger had convinced me that while I could drive fast cars competently enough, motor rallying required a much higher level of skill and courage.
The JK Tourism team performed very creditably that year, claiming 3rd National and 5th position overall driving a stock Maruti Suzuki Gypsy against highly-fancied opposition in the Great Desert Himalaya Raid. The rally had been flagged off on August 28, 1988 in New Delhi and concluded at Cheshma Shahi after covering 5,000 gruelling kilometers over 10 legs passing through Jaipur, Bikaner, Jaislamer, Jodhpur, Dehradun, Shimla, Manali, Sarchu,and Leh.
Next year the team again secured 3rd National and 5th position overall in the 1989 International Great Desert Himalayan Raid which incidentally featured another team from J&K (Aslam and Ashraf Goni who secured 4th position).
1988 was the first time that rally cars with their racing livery and free-flow exhausts had torn up Kashmir’s roads and they caused quite a stir. The irrepressible Zahid Khan, the navigator of the JK Tourism Team, used to drive around town in his Gypsy with a huge sticker that read RALLY DRIVERS DO IT SIDEWAYS. Irfan Ahmed, who drove the JK Tourism Gypsy, is the fastest driver I know personally. I was the only one crazy enough to ride pillion with him during our glory days – riding the monster Yamaha RD 350 at speeds I do not believe can have been matched on regular public roads anywhere in India.
I don’t remember how Rajeev Khanna fared with his famous Opel Manta.
Incidentally the first time I saw Rajeev (or didn’t actually) was when a red streak whooshed by at warp speed at a red-light crossing one late night in Delhi. The unforgettable whine of that finely-tuned Kawasaki Ninja engine got me addicted to MotoGP. A few years back my kids dragged me halfway around Delhi just to see Valentino Rossi‘s bike. Sometimes we fantasize about a F1/MotoGP track in Kashmir. ‘The Doctor‘ thrashing a ‘46‘ monster round Gulmarg would really be an experience to remember.
Javid also owned the first true-blue dirt bike in Kashmir – a Yamaha 175. That bike blazed a glorious trail from inacessible peaks in the Pir Panjal to the desert wildernesses of Ladakh. In winter we would do the Chinese Downhill – illegal night runs in pitch darkness down the frozen Poma lift tracks of the Highland and 185 slopes in Gulmarg – on skis (nah too easy), on ‘borrowed’ sleds (one biggish bump and you are history), and finally kamikaze runs on that never-say die Yamaha.
Imagine achieving these adventures after years of dull Jawas and Yezdis when the height of motorcycling excitement was fixing the YEZDI decal upside down so that it read IPZAH (Yup, that dull).
The 10th International Himalayan Car Rally was the last rally held in Kashmir in 1989 before the outbreak of violence in the early 1990s. In recent years motor rallying returned to the valley with the Raid-de-Himalaya Rally and the Mughal Rally.
In 2018 Abrar bin Ayub riding a Hero Impulse won the Alpine category of Xtreme Moto at the Raid de Himalaya marking the first time that a Kashmiri has won an Xtreme category at a major rally.
The local scene is nowadays quite established with regular tarmac, mud and snow events being held by off-road adventure and motor-sport outfits like Kashmir Off-Road. I only hope they prioritise ecological sensitivity while planning their events.