Jannat Ki Saer…
After trekking the cold, barren mountains of Leh, it was now time for me to descend (in terms of altitude) to the greener and pleasant part of Kashmir where weather Gods do not believe in following the conventional weather pattern because after all ‘Kashmir ka mausam aur Bombay ke fashion ka koi bharosa nahi.’ When we first landed at Srinagar airport it was quite bright and sunny outside but by the time we collected our baggage and decided to venture out in search of a cab, it started to rain heavily. This was the first glimpse of Srinagar for me. Even from the airport I could make out the lush green mountains which eagerly seemed to be calling out to me.
Finally after a long wait, we got a tour guide who offered to drop us to our house boat at Nigeen lake, a little further from Dal lake. I kept gazing out of the window of the car staring at the vast stretch of greenery and feeling the cold breeze slowly soothing my senses. We hadn’t prepared any itinerary for our 5 day stay in Kashmir but with the help of our tour guide we sort of sketched a rough plan to visit some of the famous places which until now I had seen only in famous Bollywood films. Nigeen lake is comparatively peaceful, clean and privy as compared to Dal Lake which is commercialized and crowded with fleet of shikaras all around. The most striking feature about the lake is that it is edged by willow and poplar trees whose reflection looks beauteous in the dark green waters of the lake. Once we reached Nigeen Lake, we had to take a shikara ride to our boathouse which was located in an isolated spot. Once there, we had two rooms to ourselves and the entire house boat was unoccupied so it nearly felt as if we were the sole owners of the boat.
Heavy rains welcome us to the ‘Paradise on Earth’.
Our very own private boat house. These house boats are made of Cedar wood, have multiple bedrooms, a dining area and a living room with carved furniture and warm Kashmiri rugs running across the entire flooring of the boat. The ambience inside the house boat is relaxing and soothing that you will feel as if you are staying in a luxury hotel. The beds are equipped with heating rods which can be manually adjusted depending on one’s comfort. Another speciality of staying in a house boat is that you don’t have to go the market, the market comes to you. Yes. A number of locals selling Kashmiri shawls, dresses and accessories will hover around your house boat, putting their marketing skills to use, trying to coax you to buy from them.
The day we arrived in Kashmir was spent relaxing in our spacious and cosy house boat admiring the weather and the gardens that made like a perfect scenery.
Since we were staying in a convenient location in Srinagar, local sight-seeing was pretty accessible. We did not have to travel too far to the hundreds of gardens which occupy majority of the land in Srinagar, built by the famous Mughal emperors in fond memory of their loved ones. Our first destination was the Shankaracharya temple situated on the Zabarwan mountain range at a height of 1,000 ft. above plains, dedicated to Lord Shiva. There is a flight of some 120 odd steps that one needs to climb before reaching the top of the temple. What I loved the most about the temple was that it overlooks the entire city of Srinagar which seems like tiny, little bricks strung together with green stripes of land running in between.
Our next stop was the much hyped and praised Tulips Garden, which also happen to be the largest tulip garden in Asia. This huge garden is lined with multitudes of tulips in all possible colors, shades and sizes occupying the lush green landscape. It is believed that the gardens are inspired by the Tulip gardens of Switzerland where the famous Yash Chopra romance film Silsila, starring the charismatic Amitabh Bachchan and the stunning Rekha was shot. Unknowingly, one will start humming the song ‘Dekha ek khwaab toh yeh silsile huye’ spreading their hands wide open and smiling away to glory. The garden is open only from March to June post which the tulips are not compatible with the weather conditions.
This is just 10 percent of the garden (since that is what fit my frame). The entire garden is 4x the length captured here with colorful tulips lined along the array.
Famous Kashmiri willow tree from which cricket bats are made.
Alas it was time to play in snow! Quite literally. The 2 hour drive to Sonmarg was extremely smooth lined with green valleys and rivers on both the sides. On my way I could see alpine and fir trees all around which are found in abundance here. Sonmarg forms the base camp for the holy Amarnath yatra. Since the highway was not yet open for vehicles to pass due to glaciers on the road, we had to trek all the way up to the snow clad mountains. Although, there was an option of hitching a ride on the pony but we decided otherwise since the road was not formidable and we could get to admire the mighty Sindh river flowing amidst the mountains. The road ahead joins NH1 highway going to Leh and one can go right till the the top once it is accessible to tourists from May onwards.
Once we reached the top, we saw many people skiing and sledging in the vast stretch of thick glacier that enveloped us. I too tried sledging from a steep slope since the locals there make you sledge along a not-so- slopy surface which is not as much fun as doing it from the top is. Since the ice was now starting to melt, I kept slipping after every few meters which added to the much- needed entertainment for my family.
My experience of Sonmarg was just the tip of the iceberg. Even amidst the crowd I felt my being at peace with the nature. There is so much more of this place that is yet unexplored, the stunning blue lakes and dense forests that make for a perfect gateway that I would definitely come back again to go right till the end of this golden meadow.
Kashmir in itself is a romantic’s haven that it is very difficult to call any one spot more romantic than the other. All the places have a scenic divinity of their own and you can never choose a favorite among these. My next stop was a place that boasts of having ‘Mini Switzerland’ as one of its numerous attractions. It is one of the favorite locations of Bollywood directors. And hence I was curious to explore what Pahalgam looked like. The transport rules are quite whacked out in Kashmir. Whichever tourist spot you go to, you have to hire the local transport there to see the places around and you cannot take your respective taxi (even if it is from J&K). Since the way leading up to Mini Switzerland is quite rocky and the terrain is treacherous, we were advised to hitch a pony ride who would take us to the top. And believe me it was the wisest thing to do. The road ahead starts getting steeper and muckier promising you an absolute bumpy ride.
My pony though was quite smart. He apparently disliked muck and therefore made sure to walk along the edges of the valley (which always made my heart skip a beat) but eventually I became comfortable with him. The pony owner who was guiding the pony gave me Kashmiri lessons throughout our ride which made the journey interesting and I was also able to navigate my pony by giving him instructions in Kashmiri.
Mini Switzerland or Baisaran as it is called in Kashmir was a vast expanse of green landscape which was covered with snow in places. One could do zorbing there and for people like me who love to admire the beauty around them could make do with a cup of Kashmiri Kahwah which is a sweet tasting energizing herbal beverage that is prepared by boiling green tea leaves along with saffron strands and cardamom pods giving it a rich aroma of both the ingredients.
We extended our stay in Pahalgam by another day since we had time on us to lay back and enjoy the pleasant rainy weather out there. Both the days I was in Pahalgam, the weather was at its best, breezy and cool while we were out and rainy when indoors. This time we were to visit the picturesque Betaab valley which owes its name to the famous Bollywood film Betaab starring Sunny Deol and Amrita Singh that was shot there. Betaab Valley is some 15 kms drive from Pahalgam surrounded by thick dense forests all around and Lidder river gushing through the snow capped mountains which is an ideal spot for river rafting in summers.
I am sure at other times one must be able to admire the green forests inside the valley but while I was there it was raining and the entire valley was covered in snow. It seemed like a perfect stretch of walk (just like they show in movies) where I was walking on the narrow walkway with snow all around me, trying to balance myself from the slippery melting snow.
Since there were pine trees around us my mother and I picked up tiny branches of pine trees in the pursuit to try our redundant artistic skills on it once home. But again these are the small little things that would remind me of this beautiful place when I am sulking about my monotonous city life.
It was time to visit the last and the final place on our Kashmir itinerary and I can say that it was the best place I have visited so far in my life. The trip to Gulmarg is special for a number of reasons. Firstly, the pleasure of experiencing snowfall for the first time in my life was indescribable. I had become a 6 year old kid who gets fascinated when they discover a new toy and the excitement that follows thereafter. Also, the cottage that we were staying in was an isolated private cottage away from the market and commercial establishments on top of a hill. When we reached Gulmarg the weather was pleasant and I could see the green coniferous trees standing out amidst the off-piste deep powder snow but once it started snowing I could see the green getting covered evenly with snowflakes on all ends.
Gulmarg is one of the best skiing destinations in the world and has a National Institute of Skiing and Mountaineering where training is imparted to individuals in this sport for 15- 20 days at a cost of INR 15,000. Many foreigners and ice sport enthusiasts visit Gulmarg to enjoy the skiing season which is otherwise full of greenery and flowers in off season. Not only this, Gulmarg boasts of having Asia’s longest and world’s second longest cable car which is also known as the Gondola. The Gondola is divided in two stages, where the first stage takes you to a height of 8000 odd feet giving you a glimpse of the stunning Kongdori valley. I was not able to enjoy the Gondola ride since it was snowing heavily and I could see nothing of the valley except thick fog and snow all around.
Our cottage was equipped with all the latest gadgets to ensure adequate warming but what impressed me was the use of traditional Bukhari system present predominantly in many cottages and hotels in Gulmarg. The Bukhari is lit by burning logs of wood along with kerosene and once heated it warms the room preventing one from the chilling cold weather outside. The system has an outlet for the release of smoke on top outside the roof.
I experienced severe withdrawal symptoms when I was back to the city (infact I still am). I have been to several mountains before but what I experienced here was unparalleled and I can feel the peaks calling out to me again and again. Moreover, the locals of Kashmir is a friendly lot. They will talk to you, share the difficult situations that they have to live in day in and day out amidst the political chaos that surrounds them and still serve you with smile and a big heart. It is extremely saddening to know that a certain section of people feel alienated in their own country due to the foreign treatment meted to them under the pretext of maintaining a farce of democracy. The hype and sensitivity that prevents a lot of tourists from planning a trip to the paradise is unwarranted and should never ever hinder your dream to experience the heart and soul of Kashmir and Kashmiris. Please put this place in your list of must-visit-places today!!
Please Note: All images ©Kainat27