It is early morning in Udhampur, starting point of our Kashmir road trip. While the rest of the family sleeps, I set off for the walking plaza designed by the Army near the Chinar Complex, that I remember from a posting a few years back. It is a quick realisation that this is not the way to do things on a relaxed holiday. I slacken my pace, and eventually find my way to a bench on the side, shaded by a Chinar tree. A golden yellow leaf floats down as if in slow motion. Birds chirrup somewhere up in the foliage and the nip in the air causes me to push my hands deeper into my pockets. The smell of fresh bread wafts through the air from a bakery nearby, a haunting tune starts playing in the stereo inside my head and I let myself be hypnotised by the green hills that form a half circle far in the distance. Yes, it feels like paradise.
The Kashmir experience cannot be rushed through. It needs to be savored, just like fine wine. Lesson of the story is: don’t make a Tequila shot of Kashmir by getting on a flight to Srinagar, taking a quick Shikara ride down Dal Lake, making flying visits to Gulmarg and Pahalgam and heading home with photographs for Facebook. If you really want to see Kashmir, wait for the violence to stem and then take a driving holiday, making a point to enjoy the journey and not just the destination.
We start from Udhampur at 9 am and wind our way through the tricky twists and turns along the curves of the unending mountain chain. On our right the valley keeps getting deeper as we climb up. Waterfalls gush down for oh-my-god moments; locals sit along the roadside selling corn on the cob and fresh vegetables. Women exchange notes while knitting and little kids walk happily along precarious edges. In Khud town, that we soon reach, sweet shops do brisk business selling palangtod mithai, pickles and aam papad. The road finally takes us to our breakfast destination — the pine-shaded Border Road Organization’s Dosa Point in Patnitop. A kitchen with a tin roof dishes out food and piping hot coffee. A sleepy mountain dog twitches its note at the distraction. Many crisp masala dosas later we set off for Srinagar.
One of the most fascinating parts of the road to Srinagar is the Banihal tunnel, also called the Jawahar tunnel. It was constructed in 1956 to keep traffic going to the valley round the year. The 2.5 km tunnel connects Qazigund, one of Kashmir’s many disturbed areas, also called the gateway to Kashmir, to Banihal. Kept under strict Army surveillance, it is an endless drive inside the mountain with mirrors fixed inside the dark recesses showing us where we are going. CCTV cameras remind us that we are being watched. Finally, when the claustrophobes are starting to get a little breathless we spotlight at the end of the tunnel. There is a combined sigh of relief and we are out of the tunnel. And then, it is time to draw breath again! The beauty of Kashmir hits us full frontal like a draft of icy wind. We gasp in pleasure at the lush green valley that stretches out in front.
From here on, it is like a gentle seduction of the senses, with Mohammad Rafi’s crooning from the car stereo adding to the pleasure. Tall, lissome poplars line up along both sides of the road, massive Chinars meet over our heads engulfing us in their warm embrace and sparkling rice fields stretch out like a necklace of uncut emeralds.
Srinagar: Gushing over the exotic scenery we reach Srinagar. Sitting on the banks of the Jhelum River, a tributary of the Indus, it is a land of houseboats, gardens and bridges. A Shikara ride on the Dal Lake is a must. Shop for handicrafts from the pretty Kashmiri girls who bring their floating shop to you, buy flowers for your beloved and get the children clicked in Kashmiri outfits. Try wazwan at market and do a round of the gardens but don’t waste too much time in commercial Srinagar because the more beautiful parts of Kashmir are much ahead.
Pahalgam: About two and half hour’s drive from Srinagar, Pahalgam is a scenic riverside town. The gorgeous Lidder River runs through it. Book one of JK tourism’s pine shaded cottages for a night or more and spend the day trekking up the slopes and walking along the river. If you are more adventurous trek up to the Kola hoi glacier which marks the start of the Lidder Valley and hear the sound of it cracking under the strain of global warming. A humble shepherd’s village at one time, Pahalgam has become a popular tourist destination.
Gulmarg: From Srinagar, a lovely hour-long early morning drive takes us up a pine forested mountain and to the fork that signals Tangmarg and Gulmarg on either side. We turn to Gulmarg — the meadow of flowers — and eventually run into a crowded market with hotels that have come up in all directions. Shops sell Kashmiri shawls and stoles, and unhappy ponies line up to take fat sari-clad ladies and wafer crunching city kids around. Boisterous boys shout at each other, children chuck chocolate wrappers on the road, while their harassed fathers haggle with pony owners for better prices. But we leave the crowds behind for the sanctity of the Army’s guest rooms. Set on a gentle slope, the wood lined cottages are an ethereal retreat. You can sip a glass of beer in the warm sun on a platform overlooking the green basin and watch people go by on the track that circles around it. Far in the distance, temple bells ring out and even further away you can make out the cable of the gondola car that takes people up the Kongdori mountain. We take a long walk along the circle of the bowl, rescue a pony stuck in the cables dangling along the meadow and click pictures of the beautiful wild flowers that grow along the slopes.
Kashmir and trouble go hand in hand. So late night we get news that a local boy has died and it is not safe to travel. Since we can’t spend the rest of our vacation in Gulmarg, we are advised to leave very early in the morning so that we reach Sonamarg before locals start gathering on the streets. Stone pelting, burning of vehicles, violence – any of this can happen. We leave Gulmarg at 5 am and wind our way down the mountain where big furry dogs are chasing each other in the orange glow of the rising sun. We take a detour via Manasbal. At 43 ft it is the deepest lake in the Kashmir valley. The water is so clear that you can see right through and watch the striking green water plants floating deep down. With crystal clear water, hardly any tourists and Shikara lined up along the bank, it is one of the most beautiful lakes we have seen. A boat owner with a long and typically Kashmiri nose takes us on a ride. He says, “Militancy has robbed us of our earnings,” he tells us, “if tourists don’t come, how will we feed our children?” Tipping him generously to ease our conscience, we get in the SUV and drive on to Sonamarg.
Sonamarg: To say that Sonamarg is breathtakingly beautiful cannot give you an idea just how much pleasure it will give your visual senses. But that’s all I can say for the lack of a better word. Snow clad mountains stand against a cerulean blue sky. The Sindh river flows alongside — sometimes gentle as a quivering sheet of blue green, sometimes playfully frisky and sometimes angry and raising a storm of rapids as it gushes out of holes in the large blocks of floating glacier. You have the option of wild water rafting, trout fishing and wading in the icy water, all depending on where you decide to stop your car. A large tank has fishing licenses available for INR 200 an hour. We decide to try it. They hand out fishing rods, hooks and even help us find a catch in the golden trout laden water. We have the option of getting the fish we have caught cleaned and decide to take it up. In the room at night we have it served as an interesting dinner side dish with rings of onion and chopped green chillies.
The next day, we drive up to the Thajiwas glacier, park the car and decide to walk instead of taking a pony. A comfortable climb of 30 minutes takes us where the glacier meets the green mountain — another gasp-inducing moment. A river of ice is frozen along the side of the mountain where locals are giving tourists sledge rides. Shrieks rent the air as the sledge whizzes down the glacier at breakneck speed. Arched wooden bridges span the rivulets flowing from the glacier, flocks of mountain goats graze on steep slopes and young children run after tourists trying to sell shilajeet and quartz stone. Kashmir is so beautiful that it takes your breath away.
Srinagar: Shikara ride on Dal Lake; shopping from floating shops on Dal Lake; eat wazwan at the market
Pahalgam: Stay at one of JK tourism’s pine shaded cottages; trek up to the Kolahoi glacier; walk along the Lidder River or just sit at the banks and read a novel to enjoy the beauty and serenity of the place
Gulmarg: Go shopping at the market to buy Kashmiri shawls and stoles; take time out to sit at a place and enjoy the beauty of the meadows
Sonamarg: Fishing, rafting and wading on the Sindh river
WHERE TO STAY
Srinagar: Hotel Dar-Es- Salam +91-194-2427803)
Pahalgam: Forest Hill Resorts (+91-1936-243151)
Gulmarg: Hotel Highlands Park (+91-1954-254491)
Sonamarg: Hotel Rah Vilas (+91-129-4117492)
WHERE TO EAT
Srinagar: Ahdoos (Residency Road, Raj Bagh, Srinagar)
Pahalgam: Cafe log inn forest Hill Resorts (01936 243 252)
Gulmarg: Highlands Park is a serves the best food on the hill.
Posted by Debangana Sen
Debangana’s love for travel goes beyond her usual poring over the wallpapers of Ireland. When not doing that, she’s busy planning her next trip.