Kashmir as we saw in April, 2016
We knew John for last 9 years, the 50+ guy who would appear at our doorstep every winter with beautiful Kashmiri shawls. The name was a bit unusual for a Kashmiri, but we didn’t ask him about it as we thought that was too personal. When we suddenly planned for a Kashmir vacation in April 2016, he was the first person we called up. After 9 years of knowing him, finally we learnt his full name — Jan Mohammad. We had heard it wrong all the way. We learnt many other things about Kashmir during our very short stay there.
We planned for the 5N/6D Kashmir trip in flat one hour on 13th March, a hot and humid Sunday. We got our train tickets booked for 31st March. John (we continued to call him John) helped us work out the entire plan in the next 18 days, including accommodation and cab. We did little other than answering his phone for next 2 weeks.
We had traveled from Kolkata to Delhi via Duranta express on 31st March night and stayed at Delhi 1st April night as we were not sure about the punctuality of Indian railways. It turned out to be a good decision, as the train got delayed by 3 hours. If we had planned our flight on the same afternoon, we might have missed it.
As destiny sets up , the other two passengers in our train coupe were also heading to Kashmir — a Kashmiri businessman from Kolkata in his late fifties traveling to Srinagar with his wife, and a CISF jawan from Bihar, posted at an NHPC plant at Kishtwar.
In the 20 hour journey (with 3 hours of delay), the CISF jawan told about his father and grandfather, both of whom had served the forces and were doing kheti now. He also talked about how his 2 year long posting at Kishtwar is getting stretched. He lamented about how Kashmir is a Jahannum (hell), not a Jannat (paradise) for a jawan. He had his wife with him at Kashmir in his last trip, but decided to keep her back at home this time as it was too troublesome for her to stay there due to restricted movements and inclement weather. The Kashmiri businessman had come to Kolkata in 1977 and went on to stay over there. He set up his business in Kolkata New Market area. He loves Kolkata more than any other city including Srinagar, as Kolkata has helped him get established in life. He talked about how the young Kashmiris are leaving the valley for higher education and job, as there are no opportunities at Kashmir for the educated lot. As per him, the tourism industry is not promising anymore — most of the people are now surviving on export business of local products. And he thinks that though the government is pouring money in Kashmir, it might not be getting directed to the right causes. Some complaints are universal, ain’t they?
Day 1 — Srinagar
When we landed at Kashmir on 2nd April at 10AM, it was gloomy. After a tough winter, Kashmir has its rain till mid-April. When our flight took off from Delhi, it was a bright day at Palam. As we were getting closer to Srinagar, the clouds started appearing on the skyline. The snowy peaks were showing up in between the cloudy stretches.
Manzoor was waiting for us at the airport — our cabbie cum guide for the next 6 days. John had helped us book his Innova for our entire trip.
As we were coming out of the airport area in our cab, Kashmir suddenly hit us on the face — there were gun-trotting men in uniform all over the place. It felt a bit odd, as if we had landed in a war zone — we have never seen such a high concentration of men in uniform, pointing gun at every passers-by, anywhere else in the country including North-east. But well, this is Kashmir.
The roads are pretty good in general at Kashmir, except where the new flyovers are coming up. The network connectivity is superb. In fact we got 3G connectivity consistently in all tourist areas and it was much better than what you get in the metro cities. The only catch is — prepaid connections don’t work in Kashmir. Hence if you are traveling, make sure that you are carrying postpaid connections, preferably from either BSNL or Airtel.
We negotiated our way through the lanes of Kashmir while Manzoor tried his best to start getting us acquainted with the various types of trees on the road — pine, chinar, walnut, safeda. We kept on mixing them up though.
Jhelum flows across the city. As we crossed Jhelum and touched the Dal lake, the hotel (Sun shine) was just around. John was waiting for us. We had got a lake facing room. We decided to just drop our luggage and venture out immediately.
John became our Srinagar city tour guide for the day. Our first stop was Tulip garden.
The Srinagar Tulip garden is the largest one in Asia, spread over 12 hectares. It generally opens its gates in mid-April and remains open for a month. Remember this if you want to visit the garden.
This year the winter was not so harsh — hence the bloom came early and the garden opened up by mid-March. Lucky us. It was an absolutely mesmerizing place. With green mountains all around adored by low flying clouds, the colors of tulips could keep us there for the entire day.
We visited this garden again on 7th before leaving for the airport as we couldn’t just get over it.
Our next destination was Pari Mahal — the palace of fairies. As John told us, they used to avoid this place in their childhood out of fear from fairies.
Locals still believe that fairies roam around this area and avoid coming to Pari Mahal in the afternoon. Its on top of a hillock, from where a vast part of Dal lake can be viewed. It is believed that Dara Shuko spent his time here studying ancient literature, astrology and astronomy and some folks believe that it used to be a Buddhist library.
It was drizzling and there were hardly a few visitors at that time. The open lawns, the arches of Pari Mahal, the cloud soaked mountains and the view of Dal lake made the place more mystic.
It was quite difficult to move out of Pari Mahal. But we had to — so we moved to Chashme Shahi, the royal fountain. The locals told us that the water flowing from the fountain has magical powers, power of curing diseases. The urban us didn’t touch the water though.
Apparently late Mrs Indira Gandhi, x-Prime Minister of India, used to get her daily quota of water couriered from Chashme Shahi to Delhi everyday. Talk about royals and their fountains.
Our daughter started making her presence felt by now. So we thought that it was high time we should go for lunch break. John took us to one of the restaurants close to Chashme Shahi (don’t recall the name) and he took it upon him to impress us with the Kashmiri Wazwan dishes.
If you are a non-vegetarian food lover, Kashmir is heaven for you. Try out Rishta (meat balls in red sauce), Gustaba (meal balls in white sauce), Tabak maaz (breast ribs in ghee), Rogan josh and Kebab for sure.
If you have a local like John with you, he would go to the kitchen of the restaurant and make sure that they serve the right dishes. After a delightful meal, we were ready to go for our next stop. Shalimar Bagh.
Shalimar Bagh is a garden of fountains made by the Mughals. John took us around the garden. During summer, the garden gets filled up with locals as they throng here for a picnic. John went nostalgic when he started showing us the places where he as a kid and his friends used to play around in the water bodies, when Kashmir didn’t have the troubles of militancy. If you are the adventurous sort of tourist traveling with your partner, you would be able to identify enough “photo spots” around the fountains.
Pretty soon we became freelance photographer at Shalimar Bagh, shooting photos for couples eager to keep their memory in jpegs. We saluted the Mughals (Jahangir for Shalimar Bagh), who had the aesthetic senses (and means) of building such magnificent gardens here in Kashmir.
We went to another Mughal garden — Nishat Bagh which is close to Shalimar Bagh. This one was built by Asif Khan, brother of Nur Jahan during the tenure of Shah Jahan. The garden has layers in various floors — you need to climb up the steps to get inside the garden. If you go to the upper steps, you can get a grand view of the Dal lake.
By now, we were a bit tired. We had started early in the morning from Delhi and by 5PM, we had visited most of the famous gardens of Srinagar. While coming down the stairs of Nishat Bagh, I casually asked John about how far Hazratbal Dargah would be from the garden. By the time we came outside the garden, John was planning to take us to Hazratbal.
As per believers, this Dargah has a hair strand of the prophet. When we reached the dargah, it was Namaz time and believers were inside. There is a separate enclosure within Hazratbal for the women to pray. We took a walk around the dargah, trying hard not to remember the gory histories of not-so-recent past during the insurgencies. The pigeons were circling around the dome when we were leaving.
When we came back to our hotel, the rain had stopped. The beautiful Dal lake was getting gorgeous with the reflections of the houseboats. Day 1 was coming to an end slowly.
Day 2 — Gulmarg
A typical day in Kashmir starts at 9AM. When we started for Gulmarg, it was already 930. The road took us past Lal Chowk Ghanta ghar and its surroundings. We learnt that this area sees regular stone pelting by the locals on the security forces on almost every Friday.
As we veered away from the Dal lake and posh areas of Srinagar, the non-touristy parts of the city started appearing to us. Though the roads are mostly good as we told earlier, we found most of the buses plying in Kashmir to be in a rickety state. The buses would remind you of a latest Bollywood flick (Bajrangi Bhaijan — more on it on Pahalgam day). But surprisingly, we heard that there is no movie theatre in Srinagar. The only one that was there earlier has been converted into a CRPF camp long ago!
As soon as we moved outside the city limits, the landscape changed dramatically. Yellow mustard fields were dotting both sides of the road. Apparently Kashmiris don’t use Ghee much in their food. Rather they use mustard oil to a large extent. As our Kashmiri friend in Duranta express told us — typically Kashmiris hate yellow pale curries. They prefer it red and oily. And they prefer rice on both meals.
Tangmarg is the first pitstop towards Gulmarg. As we got closer to it, the snowy peaks started coming out of the clouds quietly. We kept our eyes glued to the window pane.
At Tangmarg, you need to get the snow boots and additional jackets on rent (350/- per set). We also got our guide Faiyaz (600/-) from here who was known to Manzoor beforehand. Guide is not mandatory in the summer, but it helps in winter and monsoon to find the roads towards Gondola.
During winter, the road from Tangmarg to Gulmarg remains covered with snow. During that period, local cars with chains on their wheels need to be arranged to reach Gulmarg. We didn’t need those cars as the road was cleaned up by now.
As our car was going through the winding roads, the anticipation was building up with every turn. Snows started appearing on either side of the road.
When we finally reached Gulmarg taxi stand, we suddenly found ourselves engulfed with snow all around.
We realized later that there are two roads towards the Gondola point. If you stay back at night at Gulmarg, your car would take you right at the Gondola point. Otherwise it would take you to the taxi stand, from where you can either take a sledge (when the meadow is covered with snow) or take horses to reach the Gondola point. Walking always remains the other option unless you have a little kid with you.
We decided to take the plunge and get into a sledge (800/- per sledge with myself and my daughter on one while my wife occupying the other sledge).
And what a fun it was. After a rollercoaster ride of almost half an hour (or more? we stopped checking time) through the snow and light hailstorm, we reached the Gondola point. In between we played with snow, and did some funny stuff, which we can’t share here :) Once you reach Gulmarg Gondola station, a long queue would welcome you. However don’t worry if you have a guide with you — he would help you get the tickets out of turn irrespective of the long queue.
There are two phases of Gondola ride. The first ride takes you to 9000 feet level (Kangdoor — ticket 700/- per head) while the second step takes you to 12000 feet (Khilan-marg — ticket 900/- per head).
We decided to stop at the first base only and spend next couple of hours learning the tips and tricks of skiing. It’s not at all an easy sport. We learnt it the hard way! There are enough trainers out there — but you need to again bargain a lot.
When we started our descent from Gulmarg, we were damn tired. The hour long skiing was taking its toll on us.
The weather at Gulmarg changes every second — the locals would keep saying that the weather at Gulmarg changes as fast as fashion at Mumbai. When we came down from Gondola ride, we heard the public address system announcing that the Gondola ride is stopped for a while anticipating bad weather. We just got lucky.
For the record, Gulmarg has the second highest cable car in the world, and attracts a lot of tourists from Europe during winter season while having a lot of tourists from other parts of India during summer. The guests in winter venture out in the hard snow for skiing at higher altitude.
Looking back, it seemed Gulmarg to be a bit too commercialized. The guides, sledges, helpers, their agents, skiing trainers — you had to bargain hard at every place. The entire network reminded us that we have reached a prime tourist destination. We didn’t stay overnight at Gulmarg as 1) we had a very tight schedule and 2) we thought there is nothing much to do there apart from the Gondola ride, which can be done over a day.
As we reached Srinagar back, it was 6PM. Another day at the valley came to an end. On the way, we had stopped at a cooperative shop, initially planning to do window shopping. But as usual, we ended up swiping the credit card for a tangible amount.
Day 3 — To Pahalgam
By 9AM, we checked out of our hotel at Srinagar and started for Pahalgam. We had our breakfast on the way at a veg restaurant (surprise surprise, there are many veg restaurants in Kashmir, possibly to cater to the tourists from various corners of India. Locals prefer meat in every possible meal though). The distance from Srinagar to Pahalgam is approx 100 km, which can easily be covered in 3 hours. However we made it in 4.5 hours, blame it on our awestruck moments and multiple pitstops — planned and unplanned, during the journey.
As you cross Srinagar city, the road takes you through a cantonment area (Badami Bagh). You may locate a tank, captured from Pakistan in some earlier wars, displayed right on the road which may boost the nationalist in you. Jhelum continues flowing along with you on your journey for a while, till you meet Lidder — the river from Pahalgam. This route goes via Jammu-Kashmir highway. Lot of road expansion work is going on in this stretch. The road is heavily guarded by security forces. We could locate armored vehicles quite frequently on our way.
And you would definitely not miss the vast yellow mustard fields. We took couple of pit-stops to take few clicks. Then Manzoor took us to a dry fruits shop on the highway.
You can get all sorts of dry fruits in these road side shops — almonds, walnuts, blackberry, figs and most importantly Kesar (Zaffran/Saffron). Apparently the Kesar sold on Dal lake in shikaras are of inferior quality. Judge yourself and take your call.
On the way, we noticed a charred multi-storied building on our right side. When asked, Manzoor casually narrated that the EDI building (he forgot the name of the building, we later Google-ed) was occupied by militants and they had a 2-day-long battle with the security forces. The fight ensued casualties on both sides (earlier media reports here). When we realized that this had happened just a month ago, a chilling sense creeped in our mind.
Manzoor however continued to talk about the strength of the building — how it survived the security forces’ bullets and had only succumbed to the mortar shells. Later we learnt that the locals had sided with the militants during the operation and were pelting stones on the security forces all throughout the two days. Kashmir is a strange place indeed.
The building put a little unease on our mind. When we talked to locals or friends from Kashmir or those who have served /are connected to Kashmir on various capacities, be it in security forces or intelligence departments, we always felt a sense of suspicion everywhere. Unfortunately most of the beautiful parts of India are troubled zones these days.
During our stay, we traveled around 350km crossing many small towns, hamlets and villages. Whenever our car crossed any such small towns, we could see security force deployments everywhere, alert with their fingers on trigger.
The sights of lone sepoys — deployed in front of a busy grocery shop, or on the corrugated roof of a vegetable store or just like anywhere else, were not very soothing ones. It constantly reminded us about the brewing tension and conflicts that constructs Kashmir. While many in the lower rung of forces dread their posting at Kashmir, the local people also didn’t seem to see the security forces in positive ways.
Stories & rumors at Kashmir
While discussing over Kahwa(Kashmiri green tea accentuated with cinnamon, cardamon and cloves; you must try this; if you are lucky and get good Kashmiri hosts, they would offer it to you themselves out of Mehman nawazi), a different version of history of Kashmir’s accession to India seemed to be popular amongst some locals. Contrary to the documented history of Instrument of Accession (where Raja Hari Singh requested Pandit Nehru to protect him and Kashmir from the invading Pakistan backed Pathans), some of the locals believe that Kashmir was sold by Raja Hari Singh to the Indian authorities at a meagre price of 70k — which included the land, people and everything of Kashmir. This is complete hearsay and have not got any proof of any such deal myself. They also believe that it was Sheikh Abdullah, who was instrumental in convincing the Raja in selling Kashmir off. Many locals still live with a dream (utopia?) of having an independent Kashmir — independent from both Pakistan and India, as it was in 1947 during partition.
Avantiswami temple ruins
When we reached Avantiswami temple (in Avantipura), it was almost 12 Noon. However the clouds were keeping the sun away. A Sardar was voluntarily guiding the handful tourists around the ruins. We skipped that intro bit and explored the ruins ourselves for some time. We met another middle-aged gentleman from Kolkata who was traveling with his wife and sister in Kashmir. They were also heading towards Pahalgam. They were on a 15 day long tour.
Kashmiris love Bengalees. I have not seen more concentration of Bengalee anywhere else other than Gariahat, Kolkata. Even the hawkers, photowallahs and shikarawallahs can speak in bengali and everyone would tell you that he was in Kolkata atleast once in the last 25 years. I have since derived a theory: Kashmiris make some of the best Salespersons in the world, and Bengalees make some of the best shoppers in the world. That may be the reason behind this strong bonding.
There are multiple willow factories in Kashmir, which manufacture cricket bats. Woods are cut in shapes of cricket bat and kept outside for weathering along the Jammu-Srinagar highway. These cricket bats go to all corners of India from Kashmir. We could realize that later, when we were doing security-check-in at Srinagar airport — young kids were carrying dozens of cricket bats along with them and checking them in. The association of cricket with Kashmir goes beyond the willow factories.
There is only one international cricket stadium in Kashmir, which is in Srinagar. But that stadium has been converted into a CRPF camp these days. Wiki says that only two cricket matches have been played in Srinagar stadium, both in early 80s(vs West Indies and vs Australia), both of which saw a lot of anti-India protests and unfortunately India lost both the matches. Since then, no match has been hosted here in this stadium. While we were in Srinagar, another cricket related controversy erupted in Kashmir, though we only came to know about it from NDTV tickers.
We met Jesus at Kashmir
While cruising past Anantnag, somewhere our car was stopped by a gentleman in civil dress. Manzoor spoke with him briefly in Kashmiri and then switched off the engine. Before he was getting out of the car, I asked him about what was the issue. He told that these are policewallahs doing paper check. While he went out, from my front seat I could see this shepherd, the Good Shepherd, from a distance. Assuming our driver would take some time, I jumped out of the car and went to the other side of the road from where I could make an eye contact with the shepherd. As I raised my hand, he also acknowledged and raised his hand, holding his stick. I clicked couple of photos while he was busy keeping the flock together.
Later when we came back to home, many of my friends said this photo reminded them of “The Good Shepherd”. When Manzoor was back, he told that it was about a bribe of 100 bucks which was the reason for stopping the car. As someone quipped— corruption helps at times :)
Apple (flower) garden
We took a turn to go through the Apple valley, where we stopped at a restaurant to have our lunch. The restaurant was right within an apple garden, with lines of Apple trees. The trees were full of beautiful pink flowers at this time of the year.
As we wanted to take a photo of our kid within the Apple garden, we asked an old man sitting on the other side of the road, if we could get inside his garden. He obliged smilingly, requesting not to pluck any flowers. We were more than happy.
While we went past the gardens on either side of the road, we could only imagine on how it would look like when all these trees would be full with Apple in the month of May-June.
We crossed beautiful roads, rivers (Lidder, which meets with Jhelum somewhere on the Jammu-Srinagar highway), with snowy mountains on the horizon. The journey was getting more enticing with every corner of the roads. We wished to travel forever on this journey.
As we crossed the Pahalgam checkpost, suddenly a hailstorm started. It came all of a sudden and was a different experience. The road started changing its color with the snow. The windshield corners were getting bright. It was snowing here after a week.
We had our booking at Paradise hotel. It is located just where the market area begins on Pahalgam main road. The roofs and roads were getting white with the fresh snowfall. And so were the windshields and bonnets of the cars parked on the road. We jumped into the hotel’s warmth.
We have reached Pahalgam.
Day 4 — At Pahalgam
We woke up to a beautiful sunny day. The snow laced peaks were just outside our window or so did they appear. Manzoor suggested that we should first go for the Aru, Chandanwari, Betab sight seeing and then later depending on time, we may plan Baiseran.
Aru, Chandanwari, Betab
There are plenty of cabs available in Pahalgam.
Apparently the rates are fixed by Govt, though we didn’t try to validate. You can ask your hotel manager to get a cab. We had told Manzoor to get one — he charged us 1750/- for visiting these 3 spots.
Our first destination was Aru valley. The roads are absolutely stunning. If you are a photography enthusiast, you would be tempted to stop the car at every bend of the road.
Aru is a green valley, with a stream flowing in between, just like you could have imagined in your childhood drawing classes. You may take a pony to take a stroll around the valley. They would take you to a river point and some other places. The locals will tell you about the numerous Bollywood movies which have covered this valley, including Bajrangi Bhaijan.
Our next destination was Chandanwari. Amarnath yatra starts from here. To reach this place, the road takes you through a quaint village. There was a large avalanche out there. We were flocked by local lads posing as guide as soon as we landed there. They were trying to sell their service as a guide or sledge. We ignored them and went ahead to the avalanche. We rented the snow-boots though and did a little expedition.
And also we built our own snowman.
We went next to Betab valley, made famous by the Bollywood movie Betab.
This is one of the more famous parks. You can spend an entire day here, leisurely moving around the stream and gazing at the mountains and greens. However we spent hardly half an hour and decided to head towards the hotel as we had plans to go to Baiseran. We liked Aru more than Betab — but its a personal choice as most of the people who have visited Pahalgam talks about Betab valley as the best possible spot.
After a quick lunch, we came out of the hotel. It was a bright day still. We checked with Manzoor whether it was okay to go to Baiseran, also known as mini Switzerland. He was a bit hesitant, but we insisted that we would like to go there. He whispered to us to bargain a lot when talking to the pony-wallahs. So did we. The pony guy quoted 1200/- per person to start with. We countered it with 600/-. Finally we settled at 800/- :-)
And then realized why Manzoor was hesitant about our Baiseran plan. We had no idea about how scary the road was from Pahalgam to Baiseran. Due to rain (and possibly the tendencies of the ponywallahs to take short-cuts), the road was quite an experience for us. We experienced what is meant by living on the edge! :)
After almost 45 minutes of ride, we reached Baiseran. The view was absolutely out of the world. A vast green valley, surrounded by pine forest and snow capped mountains. This is what the philosophers and poets could dream about as the heaven. Heaven can’t be better than this.
We just wished we could spend more time there. But the clouds were coming down fast. We wanted to rush back as the scary road that we need to trudge again was still on our mind.
A fantastic day was coming to an end at Pahalgam amidst the blue shades of the mountains.
Day 5 — Srinagar
We kept on hearing about Salman Khan & Bajrangi Bhaijaan during our entire stay at Pahalgam. A significant portion of the movie was shot in and around Pahalgam, including Aru, Chandanwari, Baiseran. The dargah song was shot in Ashmuqam dargah, which we saw on our way back from Pahalgam to Srinagar. This is quite famous and BB was the first movie which was allowed to shoot inside the dargah, where Adnan Sami is seen singing a song.
BB has been a boon for Kashmir and Pahalgam tourism. The valley got something to talk about Bollywood after a long break. It also signalled a welcome sign to the tourists.
On our way back, we took a different route to visit the Martand temple (locally known as Mattan mandir). This is a heavily guarded Hindu temple. It has a nice water body full of fishes and pigeons flying around. Pigeons seem to always prefer areas where peace is missing. This was one of the Kashmiri Pandit strongholds years ago. Some deserted houses can still be seen around reminding the gory history of Kashmiri Pandit exodus.
When we reached Srinagar, it was a lovely sunny day.
John told us that it rained heavily in the morning. We had our plans to stay at a Houseboat overnight. So we grabbed our lunch, moved our luggage to the houseboat and went out for a shikara ride. The shikarawallah had a bad day so far, due to the heavy morning rain. He was happy to get a customer for a full ride. We floated around the lake, went to the market (apparently the shikarawallahs get some commission from these shops), roamed around the floating garden and checked few nooks and corners of the Dal lake before coming back to the Houseboat.
We had a fabulous caretaker in the houseboat. The decor was fantastic. Interestingly it also had a small collection of books and found couple of Japanese books there. The houseboats are pretty costly to make — it costs around 2Cr to 3Cr to make a decent houseboat. Also the houseboat caretaker claimed that the authorities are not allowing any repairing work to the existing houseboats or introduce any new houseboat — they think that the authorities are trying to get rid of the houseboats from the lake and they are getting worried about their livelihood.
Day 6 — time to say bye
We had gone to the Tulip garden on Day 6 again, before we started off for the airport. Srinagar is a funny airport. Our hand luggage was checked 5 times (if not more) before we could reach our seat in the aircraft. Even before entering the airport complex, one round of bag checking is done by the security forces. The sense of suspicion looms large everywhere in the airport. We had a flight in the afternoon. We kept the window shutter open till we could see the snowy peaks of Kashmir. As we left the valley and the views of the peaks went behind us, we pulled down our windows and tried to give some rest to our eyes.
Or did we start dreaming about our next visit to the valley?