Travel, Uncategorized

A trip to Kashmir

Kashmir! The name itself conjures up images of snow capped mountains, verdant green valleys, clear waters of the many rivers and rivulets and snowfall, an unique attraction for us city living people in the tropical zone. At the same time there is a fear, what with so much of negative news for which the state has become infamous for. So 5 years back, when our family friend suggested making a trip to Kashmir, along with common friends, I was sceptical and refused to accompany him. But my curiosity was aroused and I made some enquiries with colleagues in office and some relatives. I was assured that the state is now quite welcoming for tourists, both Indian and foreign. So in 1 month, we decided to undertake the Kashmir tour in the month of May. The stages decided were, Pahalgam – 3 days, Srinagar – 2 days and Gulmarg – 2 days. As the travel day approached, our excitement increased and after making all the preparations, like frantic buying of warm clothes, packing of suitcases and arranging for dry snacks to last us the entire journey we were ready to leave.
Finally the D-day arrived and at the break of dawn, we were ready. So the 3 families were on their way. The assortment of suitcases and sundry bags were loaded into the pre arranged taxis. We reached the airport on time to catch the Air India flight. The first destination was New Delhi airport. We landed at the Delhi airport at around 9.45 am. Here we had to catch another flight from Delhi to Srinagar hence we de-boarded. The first session of photo clicking session followed in the Airport, everyone putting up their best smiling faces for the cameras. After having a quick breakfast at the airport, we rushed to board the flight to Srinagar. This particular leg of the journey is most eye pleasing…for most of the journey you see only the clouds below you, it’s all routine scenery which you are familiar with, in any air journey. But as you reach near the destination and the flight loses altitude to descend, suddenly you start seeing the snow capped Himalayan peaks, bathed in bright sunlight, poking out of the clouds. It’s a indescribable scene, and has to be experienced. As the flight approaches Srinagar, the valley is seen in all its splendour, the Dal lake occupies a pride of place in the visual landscape. Finally we landed and were so happy to step out in the sun. Our friend had made beautiful arrangement and as we came out of the airport, the tempo traveller with its Kashmiri driver , Abbas, was ready for us. We then proceeded towards our first destination, Pahalgam. At first we felt that we were passing through any other north Indian city. But as we left the city behind, we were passing below the canopy of Chinar trees. We were taking in the beautiful sights but one thing immediately caught our attention. There were many big and small cricket bats manufacturers as well as sellers, by the side of the road. Now we were quite late but made a plan to visit one of these factories on the way back. Abbas was instructed accordingly. Shortly most of us were hungry and told Abbas to stop at a good food joint. In about 15 minutes, Abbas had stopped at a place which had no shop board. It looked to be a very small place for us city breds and we approached inside with some apprehension. Two very young, fair and handsome boys came immediately to take our order, dressed in normal clothes and the cutlery which they placed on our table, looked old though clean. We were eating for the first time in Kashmir, and didn’t want to take any chances with the food. So we ordered normal vegetarian fare of paneer masala, one other vegetable which I don’t remember, curd, since it was available and tandoori roti. We waited and waited and after 15 minutes, when we asked, we were told very honestly that since they are a small place, and not many people come by, they don’t keep the food, prepared. Any way, whether it was due to our pushing them or the food was ready, they started serving in 5 minutes. As we tucked into the paneer masala, our eyes went wide, looking at each other with astonishment, the food being so tasty. And the fact that it was served hot, and the tandoori rotis being very crisp and tasty, added to the enticing flavour. Finally a very well fed and satisfied group got up from the table. The wash basin was at the back, and as we went there what do we see!! The river Lidder flowing gently by and on top of that the driver informs us that , the tree under which we are standing is the Walnut tree! Immediately every one looked up to see any walnuts, but alas! This is not the season. But the river Lidder, the great location and the walnut tree certainly made us realise the uniqueness of Kashmir. This river was to keep us company throughout our remaining journey to Pahalgam. As we neared Pahalgam we could see the river rafting clubs by the side of the road and people from all over India and abroad, were awaiting for their turn. All through the journey we were listening to the robust songs of Kishore Kumar, which enhanced our experience. One thing about the Kashmiri rivers, when they flow over a wide enough plain, they are quite calm and silent, but as soon as they have to travel through a narrow space, they become loud and violent.
Pahalgam!! Finally we made our entry into Pahalgam and entered our hotel premises. What an exquisite and beautiful hotel located on the banks of the river Lidder. It was the Pahalgam hotel. On one side of the hotel is the main mall road with its market and on the other side…is heaven!! Huge snow capped mountains and the Lidder river flowing by . In the lawns of the hotel, even the humblest of shrubs, flowering beautiful dainty flowers. Our hotel room itself was a cosy wooden cabin, which had a big chimney inside to give warmth in the chilly weather. Before we entered the room, 2 hotel boys went inside to fire up the chimney. Once the room was pleasantly warm, we entered. Once all had freshened up, we all got together in the common area outside our rooms and excitedly talked about the journey till now. And then we went for dinner. What superbly tasty dinner. It was a mix of Punjabi and Kashmiri! And not very spicy at all. It was the best non-veg dinner we had in a long long time. So the dinner was really ‘sone pe suhaga”
The next day we got up and took our own time to get ready. We had a sumptuous breakfast, which like the dinner of the night before, was tasty too. The hotel receptionist advised us to go for horse riding and so there we were outside the hotel, haggling with the horse jockeys to decide the rates. Once it was decided, 11 horses for us 11 individuals were arranged and we set off on our horse riding experience. No one had earlier rode horses for much time, and we embarked upon the slowest horse journey till date. If any one from outside had seen me riding the horse, he would have mistaken me for a Maratha horseman, but on the inside, I was very apprehensive. The other experience of horse riding we had had, was in our friendly neighbourhood Matheran. But the horse owners were very patient with us, I think most of the tourists they had experienced, must have been similar expert horse riders like us. We had a very long ride, not in terms of the distance covered, but in the amount of time spent on top of the horses. All along, all of us, except the children, were very much intent on maintaining our balance. A slight trot of the horses was enough to make us very jittery. And the ride on the slopes was another nightmare, especially if you are going downhill!! The front legs of the horse are at a lower level whereas the hind legs are at higher elevation, you are not sure whether you should be bending forward or stretching back to maintain balance and on top of that, you can only see the steep incline before you. And god save the people like me who suffer from Vertigo. Anyhow I managed the incline without falling off the horse. Suddenly my friend decided that he was going to emulate the Chambal dacoits, in showing off his riding skills and his horse shot out beyond us. We were marvelling at his horse riding and I was telling others about his cycle riding and bike riding skills in his college days, and as we turned the corner there he was sitting by the side under a tree, nursing his injuries, his horse nearby, happily chomping away on the grass. Concerned we immediately got down from our own horses to check on him and very relieved that it was just a few bruises but obviously he was in pain. The rest of us, except the children, thought it better to walk along side him to take him to a medical shop, but obviously we thought it better to save ourselves from meeting the same fate as our friend. So ended our first horse riding experience in the valley of Kashmir, culminating with a visit to the medical. Of course, later on we had a good laugh over it, the friend who fell, enjoying it the most, such is his great sportsmanship.
The rest of the day was spent in rest and resuscitation. Evening was for shopping time for the ladies in Khadi bhandar. Various trinkets and other sundry things found their way into the shopping bags.
Next day we went to Betaab valley, so named since the movie, Betaab, was shot there. It was a most captivating place and is a must visit for all. The children had lots of fun, what with sundry Icecream and snacks shops in the vicinity. We also visited Chandanwari nearby, which is a starting point for the Amarnath Yatra. Here we did not take up the offer of striding on the horses once again to roam around the place. Just spent a few minutes in the nearby shops selling variety of Kashmiri shawls and these got added to our shopping carts. The evening was spent roaming near the hotel and going near the cool river bank, the clear waters of the river beckoning us to drink it.
The next destination was back to Srinagar city and we were put up on a luxurious boat house which was owned by very gracious hosts. The journey back to Srinagar included a halt at one of the many bat manufacturing units and we were shown the entire process of bat manufacturing, right from shearing of the willow wood, to giving it a proper shape, to fitting of the handle and finally the finishing, oiling and labelling. A bat got added to the shopping cart of one of our friends.
Dal lake – it just goes on and on to eternity. The house boat was exquisitely crafted from the best wood and the interiors were high class and top notch. The entire house boat was ours. Upon entering, you were welcomed into a huge hall with a dining table on one side and plush antique style sofas on the other. A TV was placed in a corner and on top there were expensive chandeliers. Beautiful Kashmiri paintings adorned the walls and one end opened to a sitting area which was under an open sky. It was a beautiful setting with the entire lake spread out in front of us. Another wall of the house boat had a window, which was used as an entrance by sundry hawkers who row by in their small boats . This was a new thing for all of us and we were looking out for such hawkers. In the morning, the flower sellers came by with beautiful Kashmiri lotuses, roses, daisies, daffodils, marygolds and tulips. Such vibrant colours and freshness of the mornings forced us to buy them every morning we were there. Then came the hawkers of vegetables. These too were fresh but since our better halves were not in the mood to enter the kitchen, we skipped them. Instead these vegetables were bought by our hosts to serve us. The evening time, the hawkers of Kashmiri paper mache items. These are made from paper pulp which is first dried and then different articles are prepared. After the shapes of tortoises, birds, elephants, various sizes of boxes are made they are then beautifully hand painted with shiny varnish vibrant colours. These are too beautiful to look at and quite sturdy as well. As you guessed it right, many of such products made an entry into our shopping bags.
Sonmarg – it is said that a visit to Kashmir is not complete unless you visit Sonmarg. Sonmarg is a valley situated on the banks of the Nallah Sindh, a tributary of the Jhelum river. Situated at a distance of @85 kms. from Srinagar, we covered the distance in our tempo traveller to be welcomed in Sonmarg by who else – the horses. This time we had no choice but to mount the horses once again and we did it with a prayer on the lips. But the ride here was better since the path was through a meadow and when we reached the glacier , we forgot everything else and dived immediately into the various activities on offer. But first you had to be well prepared, so the first thing to do, was to take gumboots on rent, so that your normal shoes don’t tear or don’t get wet and you can walk on the hard snow of the glacier. If you want to enjoy on the snow you should be ready to give full freedom to the inner child within you. So there we were trying to ski, sitting on a sledge and being pulled on the snow by someone, sliding down the gentle slopes and so many other activities. After enjoying ourselves for almost 3 hours, a totally satiated group left for the hotel again.
The next day was for visiting the Mughal gardens , Nishat baug, Shalimar baug, Chasmeshahi, Hazrat bal and Shankaracharya temple. The gardens are very well maintained with blooming flowers and beautifully landscaped with flowing waters in all. The Mughals had very aesthetic tastes and you can only imagine the grandeur of that bygone era. A must visit! The Hazratbal shrine is very peaceful and you have to experience the serene atmosphere. The next destination was the Shankaracharya temple. Built on the top of a 1000 feet tall hill, the entire plains of the Kashmir valley are visible on a clear day. It is a very ancient temple and was also known as the takht-i-Suleiman. It was a spiritual experience at the top of the hill.
Gulmarg – Gulmarg is the main attraction in Kashmir, surrounded as it is on all sides by snow clad peaks. We reached Gulmarg from Srinagar in the afternoon and in the evening left our hotel to explore it. We stayed in the Hotel Highlands Park which was a very majestic hotel. In the evening we strolled over the green meadows and even saw the Shivmandir where the famous Rajesh Khanna -Mumtaz song “Jai jai Shivahankar…” was picturised. The rest of the day was spent roaming around the main market area of Gulmarg and for the first time, nothing got added to the shopping cart.
The next day was the highlight of the Kashmir visit. We had decided to travel by the 2 stage gondola to the top of the mountain. It is the highest and longest cable car project in Asia and we were very excited since we were doing something like this for the very first time. The first stage takes you to a height of @2600 mtrs to the Kongdoori station and the 2nd stage takes you to the top of the Kongdoori mountain @3700 mtrs. We made our way through the maze of various horses and reached an area where a sea of humanity had converged. We came to know that you had to form, what else, but a queue! So we stood in a queue on the heaven on earth and after what seemed like eternity, someone informed the the weather conditions on the top of the mountain were not conducive for gondola travel. But you don’t go to Kashmir every month, so we decided to stay back in the queue to see whether there will any improvement in the weather. And our patience bore fruit within half an hour and we were lucky to get the gondola tickets within another 15 minutes. With smiles on everyone’s faces and with great excitement we proceeded towards the gondola starting point. The children especially, were most animated and the adults, childlike. Finally the 10 of us got into 2 gondolas and we were on the way. It takes just 10 minutes to reach the top of the first stage but what a journey it is. The land below the gondola is sharply rising and the landscape changes from the normal hilly terrain lined with trees, rocks and a few villages, and then for some distance there is no tree to be seen and the land is barren, and suddenly you start seeing scattered snow below you. At a distance, you can see the entire Kashmir valley which hides behind a haze as you go higher and higher. We reached the Kongdoori station and were very impatient to get into the second level of gondola but so were many others. Here too, an announcement was made that the climate is not so good on the top of the mountain. So we posted 2 tired team mates near the gondola station whereas the rest of the gang headed into the distance where one could make out a few run down shops offering tea and sundry hot snacks. A few of us had hot Kashmiri tea, known as Kahwa. Cloves, cinnamon and ginger mixed with Kashmiri green tea and flavoured with cardamom, which gives a unique taste and helps maintain the fluid levels – its a sure fire hit! The children were playing in the snow nearby, when suddenly shouts went out that the gondola has restarted. So off we rushed back to the station and mounted into 2 gondolas. This journey was slightly more lengthy and took about 15 minutes. Within 5 minutes of entering the gondola, a white sheets of snow spread out beneath us and reached on the top, all the time marvelling at the pure whiteness.
Finally we were on the top and we rushed outside. Immediately you feel a little light headed due to the combination of great height, scarcity of oxygen and the unlimited expanse of the white snow spread out before you. On coming out of the gondola, first thing we did, was to rest for some time. After we had gathered our breath, we ventured further from the station, to see mountains and further mountains of white snow. At a very far distance, we could see some tents and were told that these were army tents. This made us realise that we were very near the borders and we marvelled and admired the great resilience and courage of our army. We had barely spent playing in the snow for about half an hour and already we were being rushed back to the gondola to start our journey back to Gulmarg!
Thus was spent a very rewarding and satisfying journey of @10 days in the heaven on earth, rejuvenating all of us to face the daily grind of the city life once again.
Yatin

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