Thursday, January 8, 2009

Kashmir - The paradise on earth

This travelogue was originally published at on 22 October, 2007.

“Wow! Just taste this paneer parantha….they are melting on my mouth.” This was the first line came from Munna with a glow on her face this morning. It was just couple of hours that we had started from Katra; the holy town for Mata Vaishnodevi. And all these hours we were seeing only heavy vehicles of Indian Army and armed forces. Before this trip of Kashmir, we heard a lot about the security measures taken in this turbulent state; but it’s completely different hearing the story and experiencing them. Some of us were feeling secured and some were thinking of ‘anything’ could happen and finally the magic of paneer parantha which brought back the smile on our faces.

Ours is a group of four, Ranjan, his wife Mousumi, I & my wife Munna. And it would be unfair if I don’t mention Balbir, the driver of our Tata Sumo who knows every bit of this state like his palm. After a tiring trek to Vaishnodevi (5,400 ft) just a day before; we were really skeptical whether we’ll be able to travel Kashmir for another 5 days pre-scheduled hectic journey.

It’s Patnitop, the first & only stopover on the way to Srinagar. It was drizzling from early morning but weather changes every moment on this valley. Our first encounter with long stretched green valley covered with giant Pine trees happened with beautiful sunlight. Ranjan took out his camera & kept on clicking while I was after the local kids to get some candid shots. There’s a temple of snake God where photography is not allowed and ladies cannot enter the final door of the temple.

Patnitop has some hotels, from budget to luxury with decent restaurants & bar. After spending almost an hour we resumed our journey to Srinagar. It wasn’t even 10 minutes that we started from Patnitop; we were stopped by Army for checking. It was our first of its kind experience where they asked for identity card, lot of cross questions to verify and checking of some baggage. In next 2 days, we were so used to in this kind of stopovers by these cooperative army cops, that we didn’t mind spending time with them.

And finally, after almost 12 hours drive, we reached Srinagar. At first glance, it looked like a place which has been captured completely by Army. Every 15 steps, there’s an armed personnel standing, making us feel secured. We had already booked a houseboat and therefore hadn’t needed to take any headache for searching hotel. Crossing the Dal Lake for the first time in shikara (the kind of boat which is the only transport to cross the lake) is a great experience. Hamid, the owner of the shikara was constantly saying nothing to be worried as Munna & Mousumi started screaming with every move of the shikara. And Hamid took the responsibility for next 3 days to transfer us to & fro every time we wanted.

‘New Engilla’ is the name of the houseboat which was booked for us and I was hearing hundreds of ‘Wow’s by Munna & Mousumi as they were inside the houseboat while I & Ranjan were taking the stock of our baggage on the balcony! And now it was my turn to experience the beauty. The entire interior which is done by the wooden carvings and Kasmiri furnishings, really deserves applauds.

These houseboats are not of that sort which we had seen in Kerala backwaters. These are fixed on the lake whereas the southern ones move around. It has 2 bedrooms each with attached toilets, a kitchen, a specious dining room, one big living room and a balcony. It has all the facility that one can expect in any starred hotels. And Mohammed Ali, who became Ali bhai to us in first 10 minutes, is the caretaker-cum-cook, and his 10 year old son Arif showed hospitality at its best for next 3 days.

The next morning was waiting with lots of surprises for us. Dal Lake was beautiful in first rays of the sun. And the water is so clear that we could see the weeds underwater. And then started visit of the shops on shikara to us; and the first one is with beautiful fresh flowers. The guy made an appealing bouquet with those flowers for Munna which made her day! Then it was the turn of junk jeweler; and according to Mousumi & Munna, he’s selling stuff which is half the price they pay in Bombay. And all these made us an hour late for our day’s visit to Gulmarg; the most outstanding place we’ve ever seen!
Around 60 kilometers from Srinagar, Gulmarg is the valley of flowers in season. Just before this place, we stopped at Tangmarg where guides are available. They are not actually required, but they help in bargaining with those guys who rent horses for the tourists. And for us, he was Gulam bhai; not only helped us in bargaining but for each step wherever we needed a help. As this is the most expensive place in Kashmir; a guide is always advisable.

It was almost mid-day when we reached Gulmarg. Gulam bhai quickly managed to get 4 horses for us which first took us to the base station of Gondola. It’s a ropeway project which has two stations. First one cost Rs200 per person and takes to Khilanmarg; the most splendid valley of Kashmir. Ranjan was most keen among us to go to the 2nd point which is 13,500 ft above sea level called Mount Affarwat (costs Rs500 per person) as Gulam bhai mentioned there are bit of snow is still available. Though I was l little apprehensive; but finally agreed to move on. Its 15 minutes journey in Gondola from Khilanmarg to Affarwat and it was wonderful! A patch of snow, chilling wind and clouds covering us in every step made it heavenly. And even here, the vigilant Indian army is at work; hats off to them!

A good lunch at Khilanmarg lifted our spirit to go on horseback to see the valley after we came back from our Gondola ride. And just when we started the 90 minutes horse ride, the sky became clearer which made the valley most gorgeous place in the world. The view of the church, the golf club was giving us a feeling as if we went back 100 years in time machine. ‘Bobby house’ (where the famous ‘hum-tum ek kamre main’ was shot) is a tourist attraction even today. We were convinced that we made a mistake for not planning to stay a night there at Gulmarg; which we all said we must do next time we visit this fabulous place!

On the way back from Gulmarg, Munna & Mousumi couldn’t resist themselves from eating an apple straight from the tree. And Ranjan couldn’t stop himself buying a crate of apple after hearing it’s only Rs250 per crate which contains almost 18Kgs! It was almost dark by the time we reached Srinagar and I suddenly remembered an advice one of my friends had given to have a ride on Dal Lake at night. On our request, Hamid bhai took us for an hour ride over Dal in his shikara. It’s another heavenly experience as the sky is clear in this Ramzan month and we were floating on Dal; an evening to remember!

Next day we started early morning around 5.30 AM in Hamid’s shikara to visit the floating vegetable market which operates on the Dal Lake from 5.30 to 7.30 in the morning. It’s a treat to the eyes to see this market as selling & buying of all kind of vegetables are happening on their shikaras. Rest of the first half of the day we spent taking rest and after lunch we started to see some local tourist attractions like Shankaryacharya Temple, Huzratbal Mosque, Jama Masjid, Pari Mahal and Mughal gardens like, Shalimar bagh, Nishat Bagh and Chasm-a-sahi. Due to short of time we had to cut down the gardens, we only went to Shalimar bagh. This visit reminded us of many old hindi movies that had been shot here. The rest of the evening we spent on shopping, mainly the Kashmiri stuff.

It’s time to say adieu to Srinagar next morning as we started heading towards Pahalgum (96 Km). Pahalgum is the base camp for the holy Amarnath Yatra; from where the holy journey starts every year in the month of July. J&K Tourism has started white water rafting on the Lidder River at Pahalgum, but that happens in April/May with heavy flow of water. We spent some time on the bank of Lidder; to enjoy the sound of silence, the quietness and listen to the rhythm of flowing water.

Before calling it a day, we thought to take a ride on horse to Baisaran as we heard about this place before coming. This final horse ride is an event to remember as there’s no road and horses are climbing the hills by making space in between the Pine trees. After this long ride finally we reached Baisaran, a huge green valley covered with soft grass! The view of this valley is not comparable to anything on earth and therefore it’s worth taking the pain of a difficult horse ride to Baisaran!

Next day was our last day in the valley of Kashmir and we had a plan of driving back from Pahalgum to Jammu. But due to heavy traffic in Srinagar-Jammu (NH1A), we became quite tired when we stopped Patnitop for a delayed lunch. Thanks to Balbir, he gave the idea to stay back at Patnitop that night & he agreed to drop us at Jammu next morning before our train time. And we were more than happy to get one more night to spend on the valley surrounded by the Pine trees.

While coming back to Jammu next morning, all of us felt that the last few days passed much quickly than others and we boarded the train with some lovely memories of this fabulous land!

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