Spring in Kashmir

As another eventful year draws to an end, I want to reminisce and remember the best trips I took this year before the much awaited winter vacation (I don’t want to talk about it right now and take away the glory of this post). We will wait for January 2019 to read about it 🙂

One of the life changing, best trips I took this year hands down has to be Kashmir, which was a trip I gifted myself during my birthday in March. I knew this was coming for a while and there was no auspicious time than the birthday month to do it. I love Kashmir and Kashmiris. Period. Anyone who knows me, knows for a fact that this blog exists cause of my romance with Kashmir that started back in 2012 when I went there for the first time and the trip inspired me to start blogging. So I follow a photographer, Aamir Wani who is now a dear friend, based in Kashmir and I have been following his instagram page @kashmirthroughmylens for a while now. He is a poet, photographer and supports a lot of causes in Kashmir and I have been doing as much as I can to support it too. He started organising trips for people who’d love to explore Kashmir the way he does last year. I was really looking forward to witnessing Autumn in Kashmir when he did the first trip in September 2017 followed by a winter trip in January but I couldn’t due to work commitments. I was really sad that I’m not able to be a part of these trips but he kept promising that’ll organise one again and I should be a part of it. So when he put out the post for his Spring trip, without thinking twice I signed up for it.

My parents were a bit averse on me going on a trip with a bunch of strangers but I assured them about its authenticity and told them it’s all going to be safe after making them go through the itinerary in detail. I was quite thrilled and anxious to go with 10 new strangers, for the first time in my life. Being a finicky person, I was just hoping that we all blend well. Here’s a tip for people traveling to Kashmir for the first time- always, always take a window seat cause the view of the snow-capped mountains when you are about to land is one of the best views that you’ll ever see.

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Day 1

The first day was a day to know your fellow travellers since all of us had arrived at different times so after a quick lunch, I was assigned a room with a girl, Niveditha from Hyderabad. We left our room immediately to proceed for an evening Shikara ride at Dal Lake, which was a 5-7 minute walk from our hotel. All of us got acquainted with each other during the ride.

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It was a beautiful sunset evening where we crossed the floating market, met interesting saffron, flower sellers who find the most interesting ways to sell you their products that one can give-in to their pitch due to their sheer innocence and cuteness. One thing that I missed doing is experiencing the vegetable market that opens at 6 am in the morning and shuts around 8-9 am. It is supposed to be India’s only lake vegetable market.

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After the initial introduction, we all walked to Zero bridge which is this wooden arch bridge running over Jhelum river. It was calm, beautiful and we were still getting used to each others’ company. We decided to head to our hotel and played our favourite coke studio songs. Little did we know that this was soon going to become an evening ritual for the remainder of the trip.

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Day 2

After a sumptuous breakfast we left for Gulmarg, which is one of my favourite places in Kashmir. I have been there twice and got to enjoy the Gondola (cable car) ride once during summer which is also one of the best cable car rides in the world. When we reached there, the atmosphere was quite different from what I have witnessed before. Seeing a big group, the local guides who ply the sledge started hackling us insisting that the walk we wanted to do can be done on sledges only and when we told them we wanted to walk, they refused to comply blaming Aamir and his friend accusing them of being tour guides who were taking their money away. We still started walking and a bunch of 10 sledge carriers kept following us and refused to let go until we decided to finally leave the place (we also took the sledge ride for some time so they could back off but didn’t help).

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Pretty Gulmarg

We finally decided to go to Drung which was around 20-25 mins from where we were. It’s another beautiful spot with icy trails which has not been discovered by everyone yet. I think we must’ve trekked for an hour and a half crossing precarious frozen pipelines  to climbing steep hills, slipping on the way, getting drenched in ice water while crossing tiny rivulets to finally reach the beginning of a river.

 

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We were like this one big group helping each other while crossing the river, looking out for one another. It got us all closer and the fact that there was nobody there except us, made the trek special, exclusive and beautiful.

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Day 3

We left really early in the morning to go to Pahalgam. We were supposed to stay at Aru Valley for the night which again is a small trek from Pahalgam but unfortunately the cottage we wanted to stay in was not available. So we decided to stay in Pahalgam. After checking in and having lunch, our driver dropped us to the beginning of Lidder river in Pahalgam from where we started our walk to a secluded spot in Aru Valley to catch the beautiful sunset over the Lidder. With so many interesting people forming company, the hour and a half walk seemed like a breeze. When we reached uphill, it was calm, pleasant and meditative. I remember finding a spot inside a conical tent and sleeping there until the rest of the people reached. I could only hear the birds humming and the sound of the river, which gave me so much joy that it’s hard to describe in words. We stayed there for about an hour until sunset and began our descent.

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Infact during the walk, we stopped at various points just to admire the beauty of Lidder river. The sunset from Aru Valley has to be one of the best sunsets I have witnessed.

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It got dark by the time we descended and even then the view was gorgeous.

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Day 4

We returned to Srinagar around afternoon and after having a hearty wazwan at a Kashmiri restaurant in town we headed for a walk around the Old Town. The old side of Kashmir is raw, simple and very different than what the other side of Jhelum has to offer. We visited the Khanqah mosque situated on the banks of Jhelum built by Sikander Butshikan built in the memory of the Persian preacher Mir Syed Ali Hamdani who is responsible for the spread of Islam in Kashmir. The spire of the mosque was under repair from a fire that broke out a couple of weeks ago and an interesting trivia about the mosque is that the shrine has caught fire multiple times since 1480 AD but somehow has always been rebuilt and managed to hold its original charm.

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Khanqah

After this we headed to another beautiful mosque, Jamia Masjid.

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After this, Aamir took us to a secluded spot at Dal Lake to witness the sunset, all away from the crowd and again it was just us who were left alone to enjoy the magic of the colourful rays of the setting sun.

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Day 5

Today we were supposed to go to Sonmarg and Naranag but due to some tension there and roads leading to Sonmarg being shut and vehicles asked to return midway, we decided to go to Doodhpathri in Budgam district since we didn’t wish to risk our last day and it was quite a drive. Sometimes things are just meant to be and I am glad that Doodhpathri happened. It has been the highlight of my trip. I couldn’t get enough of that place. The drive was beautiful and we met so many interesting people on our way.

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Doodhpathri literally means valley of milk and the river actually resembles like one, it’s so white. It was quite a walk of around 4 kms that too in thick sheets of ice to reach the river. Every time we were tired, we used to simply sink into the ice sheets and cool ourselves. Once we reached the river, it was beyond beautiful. The famous bridge, which since then has been seen in a lot of Bollywood movies become our spot for the next two hours where we were just sitting, chuckling, breaking into snow fights and everything in between. After every few minutes one of us would just go, “Oh my god! Isn’t this too pretty. Can we just live here?”

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It started to snow and rain while we were walking back and the colour of the sky, though a little dark was gorgeous and every now and then I was slipping into the thick sheets of ice, wanting to forever get lost in the solitude that had engulfed me. I couldn’t stop admiring the beauty of Doodhpathri and feeling gratitude for this beautiful world that we live in.

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I dream of living here!

 

After returning to Srinagar, we had our farewell dinner and continued playing coke studio songs until late at night, saying goodbyes and promising to be in touch. Those 5 days were genuinely the most beautiful days I experienced with people who are now my best friends (I took a trip with few girls I met on the trip recently to Uttarakhand). I was initially skeptical about how I am going to feel in an alien group but we were like a house on fire. And to all those thinking if it is safe to plan a trip to Kashmir, a big YES to that. If you’ve been planning a trip to Kashmir for long, it is never too late to just do it. The place and the people will surprise you with their beauty, goodness and warmth.

 

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The people who made this trip memorable 🙂

 

 

 

All images © Kainat27

Dreamy. Pretty. Beachy.

Yes that is how I’d like to describe my recent Seychelles vacation: Dreamy. Pretty. Beachy. It is so far the best vacation I have had till date (not that I have explored a lot of beach destinations around the world) but I am sure Seychelles tops the list. After all, it is touted to be one of the best beach destinations in the world. Although I was there just for a week, initially attending a close friend’s wedding and then later extending the trip for another 3 days, I cannot and simply cannot stop myself from revisiting the photos everyday atleast twice since my return. Especially for someone like me who is a city person and has a crazy hectic life here, Seychelles was a therapeutic break; much needed and absolutely rejuvenating, so much so that the hangover still lingers in my heart.

More than the beautiful beaches, it is also the people  who contribute a great deal in shaping the perception that you will take back home with you. Seychelles homes perhaps the most humble, kind hearted and forthcoming people I have ever come across, again something which comes to them naturally from having living in such a beautiful paradise. Not even a single person I came across who sulked or stared down upon me. Each and every person starting from the tour guide to the driver to waiters and the local people were warm, sweet and jolly. Even when the plane descended on the runway, which felt artificial, something that came up from the middle of nowhere just so that we could land amidst blue waters and mighty green mountains.

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159 tiny islands make up Seychelles

I was staying in Mahe for the first two nights followed by 2 nights in Praslin which is an hour and half by ferry. One can even fly to Praslin but I would definitely recommend the ferry because of the beautiful journey. Once in Praslin, I went to one of the most famous beaches there: Anse Lazio. I was there for over three hours from late afternoon until the sunset and it felt like one private beach. There were hardly people around and they were all engrossed in having the time of their lives. The tide was quite strong and hence I couldn’t really swim but playing with the waves is some fun, isn’t it? All I did was swim, play, stuff myself with some food and then went back again. It was magical, so to speak.

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Beginning of the beautiful sunset

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No filter sunset

 

This was followed by a sumptuous meal at a French restaurant which also had freshly made yoghurt ice creams. Don’t forget to try their local Creole cuisine. Next day was a long beautiful day since we had to leave for another tiny island, La Digue which is a 45 minute ride by the ferry. Once we reached there, we were given our individual bicycles around 10.30 am and the island can be explored in both north and south directions, having different attractions. Everybody has to return to the starting point at 4.30 pm to take the evening ferry back to Praslin. We cycled the whole day long for some 5-6 hours, taking cosy breaks by the beach, soaking the sun, getting wet in the waters. So there are vanilla plantations, turtle park where one can find a family of some 100-150 year old turtles. One beach that you absolutely cannot miss is the Anse Source d’Argent. It has perhaps the cleanest water I have ever seen at any beach. It was like a glass film on sand bed. Inspite of not having the basic scuba gear, which I seriously regret now, I could see so many pretty fishes swimming next to my feet. It was straight out of a scene from a movie, it felt surreal.

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Anse Source d’Argent

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Lazy turtles

Actually Anse Source d’Argent was the last beach that we went to since it was in the other direction and that is the only beach in the north. In the south of La Digue there are a number of beaches where one can simply park the bicycle, hop off and have a dip in the water. Most of the cafes are also on the south side. We stopped at a cafe to have a simple meal and the waiter there turned out to be an Indian. He got excited seeing us there and simply couldn’t stop talking. The vanilla plantations on the north are pretty but except for the Anse Source d’Argent and turtle park, there isn’t much to explore there.

It was a long, tiring, sweaty day but definitely I never had so much fun cycling before.

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On my last day, we moved back to Mahe since our return flight was from Mahe the following day. We stayed near the famous beach of Mahe: Beau Vallon. After all the cerulean beauty that I had experienced throughout, I thought there is nothing left to explore and it will all be the same. But my last beach definitely had the lasting effect on me. It rains at any given point of the day in Mahe. It must have rained heavily on 8 out of 10 occasions while we were there. So even on our last day it started pouring just when we were about to go to the beach and finally when it did not stop until 5 pm, we decided to take our umbrellas and go. We couldn’t have stayed inside the hotel sulking about having missed going to the beach.

I am so glad that we decided to go to the beach. The entire lane opening to the beach looked like the set of La La Land and it was gorgeous. Beau Vallon is like an infinite wave pool with baby waves where one can just float and swim without having to worry about huge waves washing you ashore. The icing on the cake was the formation of a beautiful rainbow which spread across the green mountains, spreading throughout the arc of the evening sky casting its magic on the sand bed. That was a moment that I chose to consciously capture in the laboratory of my mind, which can be evoked at times like this where I still have the ability to pour it vividly in full detail.

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Beau Vallon Beach

While Seychelles is definitely an expensive destination but it is totally worth going there once in your life. There were certain things that I learnt during the course of my trip that I feel will come handy to you guys:

  • Since Seychelles rupees is not a commonly available currency, please carry euros whenever you go. Although dollars are accepted too but the conversion rate on euros is much better than dollars or any other currency.
  • Unlike other countries, very limited hotels in Seychelles provide free wifi. In most of the two star hotels and apartments/ guest houses, you are expected to purchase wifi which is very expensive (ranging from 10 euros to 25 euros for 24 hours)
  • Carrying some dry food and snacks came really handy in Seychelles since the most commonly available food option is meat which is quite expensive and one can simply eat snacks whenever and wherever.
  • You will have to buy water at a supermarket there since tap water cannot be consumed.
    • Don’t forget to carry basic swim gear like goggles, breathing tube so that you can get into the water to experience the beautiful corals and fishes.

Seychelles is definitely a dream retirement haven where one day I will have a French architectural house overlooking the beach, barbecuing fresh catch from the sea while enjoying my favourite movie or book.

 

 

All images © Kainat27

 

 

 

 

Paragliders Paradise

It’s been a while since I wrote about my getaways although I have taken a couple of them in the last few months. Recently, a friend of mine went to Himachal on a backpacking trip without any agenda and ended up in this village Bir Billing, which is famous for paragliding for almost ten days doing random things with the villagers there and had amazing stories to share. And that was when I thought, this could be the perfect place to escape from all the work pressure that drives me insane here in Mumbai. To tell you the truth, this has been one of my budget friendly trips in a long time.

Bir is a two hour drive from Dharamshala. Since I couldn’t get cheap flight ticket to Dhramshala due to India New Zealand ODI, I decided to go via Delhi as I am also not a big fan of spending hours in buses. It makes me sick. So I got a cheap return airfare to Delhi and from there I took a train to Pathankot. There are trains from Chandigarh as well but I preferred Delhi. From Pathankot, Bir was a 4 hour drive (around 145 kms) and since my train reached Pathankot in the wee hours of morning, I reached Bir at 7 am. While boarding a taxi, its important to negotiate with the driver so as to reach the best price possible and if you have people sharing with you, boom! Staying in hostels has become an integral part of my travel so even this time I stayed at Zostel Bir. It’s a recently opened property and definitely one of the best.

Zostel at Bir is run by two engineers who quit their jobs to pursue their passion and love for creating an eco friendly vacation getaway. They plan to extend the idea to encourage corporates to plan meetings integrated with vacation for families in an interesting way.

The food at Zostel is delicious especially their parathas, omlettes and daal. They have a cool lounge like setup on the terrace where one could enjoy the sunset with piping coffee or tea admiring clear sky changing hues over the green mountains.

There isn’t much to do post sunset in mountains. That is the time when you engage in interesting conversations with the locals, hear stories of other fellow travellers, enjoy some drinks with strangers before retiring in the comfortable dorm beds at the hostel. The hostel is reasonably priced, boasts good cleanliness and hygiene.

Next day, I rented a bicycle and rode uphill to a monastery. It was physically exhausting as the route was narrow and full of curves. There were times when the incline was so steep that I couldn’t peddle after a point and used to start sliding down, so I had to get down and walk. Once I reached the monastery, the feeling of achievement was thrilling and the place was grand so to speak. It is one of the biggest training institutes for monks in Asia and quite heartening to see them pray and share a glimpse of their routine with strangers.

Next on the agenda was paragliding. I have never ever done any aerial adventurous sport before and there were butterflies in my tummy before I went for my jump. There’s a pilot who accompanies you on the jump. I can’t really explain the feeling in words but the initial couple of minutes that I was in air, I was just smiling throughout and talking to the vast universe which embraced me in its warmth. It was cold up there and my pilot was worried since I wasn’t shouting or exclaiming, which could be a common form of expression for others. But little did he know that I was happy and it was a great feeling within. Towards the last lap of my landing, I was actually starting to feel sick because if you are going to do paragliding with the expectation of thrill then it might just disappoint you. It’s more meditative than adrenaline.

After Bir, I descended down to Mcleodganj. Although in hindsight, I wish I could’ve stayed at Bir a little longer as you start gelling in the vibe of the place only after two-three days and by the time I had started enjoying the calmness around me, it was time to leave. Mcleodganj was a sudden plan as I was joining a few friends there but I know I will be back to Bir soon. The only cafe I went to in Bir was Silver Lining cafe and fortunately I was their first customer. The guy there makes amazing cafe mocha. Make sure you guys try it out when you’re there.

Mcleodganj was commercial and surrounded by tourists. It’s good for shopping and cafes. Thanks to international travellers there has been an increase in the number of cafes at such places in the last 2-3 years. I stayed at this hotel called Zambala and it was a decent hotel. The room was clean, nice and comfortable. And since it was in the centre of the city, we could just walk to the nearby places. Some of the favourite cafes that I went to are:

1. Shambhala restaurant: they are good with their breakfast and coffee but I didn’t quite enjoy the food there especially their momos. They were huge and didn’t taste as good as the ones you get on the street. Personally, one should go for the street side momos rather than the restaurant ones. Shambhala did have good thukpa though.

2. Illiterati Cafe: I went here twice and I must admit that it is one of the best cafes I’ve ever been to. It’s a huge cafe integrated with a bookstore and a mini terrace kind of setting. Fortunately I was there during full moon day and I could witness the moonrise from behind the mountains illuminating our tiny table with its full might. Everything on their menu is droolworthy, be it coffee, sandwiches or burger.

3. Moonpeak Espresso: another favourite cafe of mine for breakfast. It’s a tiny cafe located in a busy shopping lane. A must try for coffee and chicken sandwiches.

4. Shiva cafe: one of the most popular cafes of India, to be honest I was a bit tad underwhelmed by it. Firstly, it’s located on top of a mountain so the trek is literally exhausting and then the food (not that I tried anything fancy) is nothing to rave about either. It’s just the location that attracts people and the not-so-great view from the top. The only good thing was the fresh mountain water from the tap which you’ll need after the tiring steep trek!

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5. McLlo: perhaps the most famous Indian restaurant in the entire Mcleoganj only cause it has host the cricket team from India and elsewhere. The entire place is full of photos of all the popular cricketers with the owner and the food was just like any other Indian restaurant but the apple cider beer is something that could be given a try there. Good place to drink and chill with friends.

There is also a small village Nadi near Mcledoganj city where we took a cab while going and because we wanted to enjoy the sunset, we trekked all the way down from the valley. It was a beautiful little trek and I’d advise you to try it too. You’ll find the descending walk down the narrow green valley exciting and peaceful.

This was perhaps one of my most commercial hill experience, barring Bir ofcourse. In my next blog, I’ll write about my experience of Leh Ladakh where I went in July this year.

All Images © Kainat27