July 29, 2015

Kashmir Diaries

If there is a paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.”
These are the words inscribed in Persian on the black pavilion in the top terrace of Shalimar Bagh in Kashmir by famous Persian poet, Amir Khusrau.

I can't agree better. Kashmir it is - the most beautiful place I have seen.


When we set out on our Kashmir adventure from our home in bangalore – our first ever adventure together, we had two things on our must-do list - 

1. See SNOW

2. Enjoy KASHMIRI cuisines

Our first destination was the army camp where we stayed  with a cousin who was serving the armed forces in Srinagar. When we set foot in Srinagar at 12:30 in the afternoon, it seemed a little windy with slight drizzle. We were picked up from the airport by our guide, Farook. On the way, he gave us a glimpse of the next few days to come, and promised us a holiday which we will cherish. We began enjoying the climate, and within a matter of hours the temperature shoveled down accompanied by heavy rains. We refused to get out from under the blankets. 

We knew it was going to be cold but never knew this definition of cold we were facing!!

Both our little nephews seemed amused, they offered us their gloves and tried to keep us warm by lighting up kerosene heaters. Once the rains had stopped, we were eager to step out and explore the military camp set on the foothills of a mountain. We were impressed by the soldiers, and the responsibility they shouldered, dawned on us. The view during sunset was just perfect. The sun’s rays making its way through the misty raindrops and resting on the green foothills. The evening was just so perfect and beautiful much more than what we had hoped for. 

With the warm welcome the climate in Srinagar gave us, we were dying to explore more. Our wish of experiencing snow would come true very soon. Next day, we set forth to Gulmarg. En route, Farook, our guide cum driver asked us our lunch preferences, and whether we fancied hotels like Taj and such. We replied with a big NO!. We wanted local restaurants and authentic Kashmiri delicacies. He was happy, and we started telling him about the food we wanted to have, like Goshtaba, rogan ghosh, rishta, kahwa….. (we had done a food research before setting out on the trip). He was amazed that we knew these names of the dishes!! Two hours from Srinagar and we began the climb towards our destination. Of course when I say climb, we did not do that on foot , our vehicle chauffeured by our bubbly, ever so Kashmiri guide did it for us!

Gorging on Kashmiri Roti and Kahwa

Seekh Kebab and Mirchi Kurma
Briefly we stopped at Tanmarg for mid morning snack(it was already 12 noon then). We stopped at a small restaurant, and Farook introduced us to the folks there. They welcomed us warmly and seated us at the best location they had. We gorged on Kashmiri Rotis, buttered bread toast and kahwa. Kahwa is a aromatic traditional drink made by boiling green tea leaves ith saffron strands, cinnamon bark, cardamom pods and occasionally Kashmiri roses to add a great aroma. Generally, it is served with sugar or honey and crushed nuts, usually almonds or walnuts.(courtesy:wiki) A walk around Tanmarg followed with Farook running all around with our camera, trying to click pics in all angles possible. Then we decided to have lunch before resuming our ascent to Gulmarg. This was about an hour after our snack earlier. We were under the impression that the Kashmiris liked to have roti with their curries. Farook informed us it wasn’t so, and that they preferred rice. So for lunch we had rice, roti, seekh kebabs and mirchi kurma. That was lip-smacking and we were stuffed!!

We resumed our journey to Gulmarg. Round and round we climbed with occasional glimpses of snow. The first glimpses of snow let us down. It looked muddy and dirty. That was definitely not what we wanted to see. We were expecting a perfect view of snow surrounding us just like on television. Could snow be brown and black in colour? We went on with our hopes still high, and the sights and snow getting better, and when the road opened into town of Gulmarg, our mouths were open. Snow all around, acres and acres of white snow. We stepped out and had our first feel of snow. We held snow like something out of the world. Finally, some snow!! Woohooo!
Our opening view of the town of Gulmarg

We checked in to our hotel and set out to explore. Farook then 'guided' us to the GONDOLA - the cable car that takes us atop the snow covered peak. We opted to go till Phase I as we were warned that Phase II could be dangerous in case of an unexpected snowstorm. Ever more freaked out on hearing the story of a German lady who went missing in the snowstorm in January and the body being recovered three months later. Phase I seemed a safe bet.

The Gondola ride
On top of the mountain, we were spell bound by the view. All we could see was snow. We didn’t believe until then that India had such a view. Kids and grandparents alike enjoying the breathtaking sight .  Few trying their skating skills alone, few with a instructor on their heels to hold them on as they fall. We tried our hands at skating too. If you actually make it till the top of mountain at Gulmarg why not give it a shot – after all this is the place known for winter sports in India. So, we had two instructors. The instructor( my husband had) was coaching him hard so as to make my husband join the next winter Olympics! All I could see was my poor hubby down on his back a number of times. Skating wasn't all easy and definitely not fun when you keep falling and bumping into every person you can possibly find. Once you have a knack of it – you’ll enjoy it. If you happen to ever try out skating make sure you talk to the instructor and fix the fees. The talks are all in thousands. Or was it ten thousand?? Remember Kashmir is a tourist destination and these people could really empty your purse before you know it! For the journey down the mountain we decided to try out the sledge. Not exactly a Santa Sledge driven by reindeers!! 

You have a person maneuvering it down the slope, and you sit behind him and if you do not want to fall off make sure you hug the person tight. The journey down the mountain was worth every single penny we paid for it. The Gondola ride gave us a view from the top and the sledge ride gave a real time feel of the snow. We were lucky enough to even witness slight snowfall. We were not done yet, after reaching the base, it was snack-time! We had bakhirkhani, onion pakoras and nun-chai (a tea with butter and salt - didn’t fancy that much, though). Kashmiris are avid tea-drinkers and they fancy nun-chai and kahwa. We rushed off for the snow fight and make our own dear snowman. Farook joined in too, and it was so much fun.Night was on and it was getting cold, our fingers were numb and breathing was heavy, yet we refused to let go of this amazing time - an experience of a lifetime.After feasting on tomato/sweetcorn soup, Kashmiri chicken, aloo mutter, dal, roti, pulao, we called it a day.

The morning glory
The picture tells it all

The next morning, after a wonderful breakfast of aloo paratha, bread and omelette and coffee, we set out to Pahalgam.

The climate spared no efforts in welcoming us here too and in joined the luscious greens and flowing water by the roadside. It was a beautiful evening and the winds grew stronger by the time. By dusk we were freezing and as per the folks in the place where we stayed, the temperature was close to 3 degree!(Oh My God! and they give electric blankets only if the temperature hits a minus)

The next morning we set out to the snow covered peaks of Chandanwari. Heavy snowfall had blocked the road and we had to be satisfied reaching the peaks half way through. We rented snow boots to climb up the snow covered terrains. Panting and out of breath we reached half way through and turned back. Climbing down was not going to be easy. So we decided to go sliding down the snow.  The sun shining brightly on one side and the snow and breeze sending chills all over us on the other side. With great reluctance, we left behind the snow and moved to our next adventure. On the way we had glimpse of Betaab valley named after the Sunny Deol starrer Betaab being filmed in the valley.

enroute Pahalgam
The next adventure was horse riding We were given two horses or rather ponies - the experienced 8 year old Deewana (serious, and interested in eating, drinking and pooping)for my husband and the 4 year old Mastana( naughty and playful) for me. Along with a guide, we began our ride to various points across the valley. Horse riding seemed fun and easy until my dear mastana approached a stream. Like in movies, my horse decided to take a leap and up it went and I was left clinging at the reins for my life.

Mini Switzerland
That moment I realised this was not going to be a cakewalk. We went along streams, waterfalls, pine trees to reach the top of the valley. The view left us speechless. Lot of tall snow covered peaks reaching the clouds with pine trees dotting the slopes.. After a hearty view, we started our descent. The experienced Deewana knew its way around. The immature Mastana followed its Deewana and sometimes ended up at places where it could not cross. Years of climbing up and down the mountain had trained Deewana to navigate impending threats like loose ground and slippery areas. Despite this -Deewana did manage to topple down once, throwing my husband on to the soft snow. Luckily he escaped unscathed, thanks to the snow.  The descent took its toll on us when we reached a really steep area. I was convinced that my horse would slip and both of us would go rolling down the mountain. We saw many of the tourists get down and walk down the slope. Our guide refused to let us do that. He insisted that we remain on the horse and the horse gently made its way down. With heart in my 
mouth, I held on. My husband was quite anxious as I stopped speaking and for his dear life he could not get off the horse and check on me. It was not until we reached level ground that I could breathe properly again.. 
PS:If you visit Pahalgam - don't forget to try your hands at horse riding. Always inquire and find a good guide, else there is a good chance to get cheated and take you to the easier terrains and you stand to lose out on the amazing views. And don’t forget to bargain bargain….and bargain..
I don’t think I’ll want to go on that horse-riding again and I definitely do not regret doing it once. It was amazing, yet scary. 
The journey was not over yet, we made our way to Aru Kashmir. The roads were a little treacherous. This area is known for river rafting and unfortunately we had arrived at the wrong season and there wasn't enough water to go rafting. We started on our long way back to Srinagar, stopping on the way for some minor shopping. We saw some fantastic carpets and art work from papier mache. We halted at Lal Chowk for lunch. That is when our guide suggested Wazwan.


 It is a multicourse Kashmiri “thaali”, consisting of the mutton dishes methi maaz, seek kabab, rista, tabak maaz, gushtaba and rogan josh, with rice. All the dishes we wanted to taste, all in one go! We had a lifetime worth of mutton, and decided not to have any more mutton for the next few months.

We reached Srinagar later and retired for the night in a beautiful palatial houseboat in Dal Lake. If you plan to go to Srinagar, I suggest that you stay in a houseboat than a hotel for the week for two reasons - 
The floating house

1. houseboats seemed cheaper than hotels 
2. The hosts are very hospitable and they give you amazing home made food.

The houseboat we stayed in had a wonderful host and it was well maintained. We were in for a shock when we were told that it was built more than 30 years  ago and has been in the family ever since. Once in, you’ll feel you’re in a palace, rather than a houseboat. Built from Walnut wood, and lots of intricate wood carvings. Now, when I say houseboat, do not be under the impression that the boat takes you around just like in the Kerala backwaters. The house boat is docked on the lake side. Well lets us just say it is fixed and not expected to move! We had a wonderful home made dinner, and retired for the night, as we were tired. The bed was so cozy with layers of blanket to take in the cold.
Spectacular view of the interiors of the houseboat

The morning bliss was to sit on the deck, sipping hot coffee and watch beautiful Dal lake come to life, with the misty mountain peaks setting the background. . Colourful shikaras going by, folks transporting goods, tourists to the shore. It was their livelihood. We had a wonderful breakfast of poha and “jam”. It was only later we realized the strawberry and apple jam was for the bread toast which our host brought in later. But poha and jam was weirdly yummy, and we still have that combination at home.

The serene Dal Lake
Shikhara ride followed. We went through intricate waterways, watching the floating restaurants and shops, taking in the bright sunny weather, and the serene lake. We had many vendors in their shikaras alongside us, trying their best to sell us jewelry and trinkets. 

There is more to Srinagar like the hot air balloon ride by the Dal Lake, colorful tulip gardens, Shalimar Bagh, Parimahal, Chashmeshahi, Shankaracharya temple to name a few. Take time to gorge on all these sights and make it to Srinagar at the right season. Tourism is usually high during the months starting from April to July owing to the perfect weather.I personally feel the right season to hit out there is April/May when the harsh winter is over and before the onset of the rains. And remember being a tourist destination nothing comes cheap. So be ready to shelve out some money and it is going to be worth it.
Tulip Gardens

We then spent the rest of our day with my cousin and nephews and had a wonderful family time. On the final day, Farook dropped us back to the airport, buying us ice cream on our way, as his token of gratitude. He was like a brother, taking good care of us throughout our stay. As we entered the airport, we looked back and could still see our bubbly Farook standing there and waving us good-bye. He stood by his promise.

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