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

Travelogue Diaries- Part II

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.

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Nigeen Lake

 

 

Heavy rains welcome us to the ‘Paradise on Earth’.

 

Our boat house

Our boat house

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.

Day 1

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.

Srinagar city as seen from Shankaracharya temple

Srinagar city as seen from Shankaracharya temple

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.

Tulip Gardens

Tulip Gardens

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.

 

 

 

 

Kashmiri Willow

Kashmiri Willow

Famous Kashmiri willow tree from which cricket bats are made.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day 2

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.

Sind river

Sind river in Sonmarg

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.

Thick glacier (sledging point)

Thick glacier in Sonmarg (sledging point)

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.

Day 3

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.

Pahalgam valley as seen from the top

Pahalgam valley as seen from the top

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.

Baisaran or Mini Switzerland

Baisaran or Mini Switzerland

Kahwa chai

Kahwah chai

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day 4

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.

Betaab Valley

Betaab Valley

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.

 

 

 

Day 5

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.

Snowfall view from cottage

Snowfall view from cottage

Snowman

Snowman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Bukhari system

Bukhari system

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