At the top, indeed of our memories, among the vacations we have had in the recent past. While there are no two opinions about it, it was odd that the question was repeatedly asked at every point of our visit to the heaven on this side of the earth – the Kashmir valley – “do you find Kashmir as is being reported in the media?”. They are right. In fact, the media hype on Kashmir was so much that we were hesitant of taking this trip, and were contemplating cancelling it even two days before our departure. Besides the blaring headlines of media, there was not much encouragement from the other circles too – friends, travel agency contacts, etc. Everyone seemed to have formed a cautious attitude towards Kashmir based on what we hear on and see in the media reports. Having already applied for our hard-earned leave and promised the kids a good vacation, we had even drawn a couple of parallel programs in case this Kashmir visit didn’t materialize at the last moment.
Fortunately, it did, as we decided, on a gut feel, to take the plunge – no, the opposite of it, whatever the word is, for Srinagar is a clear 1,500 m above sea level. We went through Cox & Kings. They had made very good arrangements at all the places of our visit. As assured by them prior to our departure, Shoaib, the driver they had allotted to our family of seven was a very resourceful person, capable of tackling any situation, should one arise. Rameez, the ever-smiling, smart, young tour manager, saw to it that all our queries were answered, and all our concerns addressed.
The itinerary was well planned out - giving us enough of activity and rest, with enough time for seeing around or shopping on our own. The food was also very good. Even though we are strict vegetarians and Kashmir is known for its non-veg delicacies, we did not go without good food on any day. The boat house was decent and the hotels were of good quality. And, to cap it all (please look for such puns I tend to use), the people were extremely nice and courteous, willing to go the extra mile to satisfy their guests. It is this warmth that radiates through the chill of the valley that makes Kashmir a heaven.
As we travelled through the towns and villages, peaks and valleys, mounds and meadows, we did notice the presence of our armed forces in good numbers at some spots, looking intensely into every passing vehicle, but they did not pose any inconvenience to us whatsoever. That they are doing this to keep us safe dawned on me at the very last moment of leaving Srinagar – the security personnel at the airport, directed me to a separate line for those having a digital camera, and asked me to switch on the camera and show him a photo or two. I wondered why he was asking this. He answered, “who knows, a camera can be made into a bomb that explodes when switched on, and we don’t want that to happen causing damage to life and property inside the crowded places of the airport”. I shuddered at that thought of such a thing happening. What great risks these people are taking to save others’ lives! No doubt, it is because of such preventive security measures that Kashmir is kept free of trouble for the innumerable visitors thronging the place.
The whole week of our trip went without any incident, though there were references to Kashmir on the news, both print and electronic media every day. That is what seems to irk these warm-hearted hosts to the point, see my opening paragraph, that almost at every place, the only question being addressed to the tourists is “do you find Kashmir the way it is reported in the media?” Their concern seems to be genuine, as negative publicity affects their business and tourist revenue, which, they say, is considerably less this season. I feel it is my duty to reaffirm my faith in our armed forces and the hospitality of the people of Kashmir, which together make Kashmir absolutely a safe place for tourists. For those who have planned a visit to Kashmir and are hesitating in view of the news headlines, my advice would be - please proceed with the visit, you will be safe there!
Now, let’s shovel the snow and dig into the ground. To the details, that is.
Day one was fluid. I mean, to be spent mostly on the air and water.
My family comprising my wife, daughter and grand-daughter besides me, joined my sister-in-law’s family in Mumbai comprising her husband and daughter besides herself, took the 6-night 7-day Kashmir Delight package that included air-tickets from Mumbai. My sister-in-law in Mumbai had taken the responsibility of interacting with Cox & Kings and fixing the trip. Mumbai is relatively cooler compared to Chennai, touching 34-35 C as compared to Chennai’s 40 or more. So, it was a welcome change for us even to visit Mumbai. From there, the flight to Srinagar via Jammu took nearly four hours. We landed in Srinagar around 3 pm, and could feel the chill permeate the air even in the scorching sun – yes, the sun was scorching there too, and you could feel the heat surging if you stand in the open for a few minutes. The tour manager Rameez, a very pleasant, smart-looking youngster, welcomed us and handed us over to Shoaib, who was to take care of our travel through the mountains and valleys in his Innova.
Shoaib is a very cheerful person, a chatterbox talking in loud voice, and kidding kids. My grand-daughter is very egotistic and sensitive, and easily gets offended at anyone trying to instruct or control her, so she started complaining she did not like him. A good start, isn’t it? We were hopeful this would get over soon.
Off we took to the Dal lake, to one of the houseboats there (they don’t call it boat house). Reviews and warnings from friends who had visited the place before had prepared us to expect not-so-clean water and boats themselves, but we found that it was not quite so. In fact, the boat that was allotted to us was very clean and well maintained. However, the piers for boarding the boats were very old wood, almost threatening to give away at some places. In fact, the caretaker of our boat was continuously warning my flubbery grand-daughter not to jump on the boat, as the planks are weak and would not stand up to her jumping. The boat is akin to a luxury railway coach – running a good length, the drawing and bed rooms one behind the other, with a narrow corridor on one side to connect the rooms. The toiletry and towels were clean. The attender was very courteous. Though all of them speak only Hindi to the visitors and Kashmiri among themselves, they understand English well and respond well to our queries, even proactively sometimes.
All house boats are stationary – their waterlines connected to municipal water supply system from the shore, so the running water you get in the dining room, bathroom and toilet is clean and potable. The lake water is clear too – not crystal clear, I should say, but at least 3 to 4 feet visibility is there to see the roots of the weeds that have managed to grow and survive in that cold climate. Proof that the water is clean enough to support life can be seen from the number of birds, even big ones like kites, flying over the water and dropping suddenly to catch fish.
The lake supports other lives too – so many people earn their livelihood doing business on and from their boats, the smaller boats called shikara. Vegetable vendors, fruit vendors, costume-photographers, handicraft salesmen, all moving around on their shikaras, touching each houseboat and making good business from the floating (pun intended) tourist population. Quite a few of the houseboats have been turned into shops too, lined neatly in a passage way through which the shikaras navigate. All boat men coax tourists to visit all the floating shops with the oft-repeated opening line – “seeing is free”. Obviously, they get a good commission from the shop owners, which is nothing strange, and, in fact, more of a rule in tourist spots.
After a relaxed ride on the lake, we are taken back to our houseboats, for an even more relaxed evening and morning, for there is nothing else to do there. The adventurous may take another shikara ride to the shore and then to the city for the night life, but such people normally prefer to stay near where their entertainment is. With some shopping (at exorbitant price even after negotiation, as we learnt afterwards, despite having been clearly forewarned not to buy anything on the lake) and a delicious and sumptuous meal, we were ready to lay down for a quiet and peaceful sleep. Getting up early, I could see the birds very busy catching fish on the still water, and the mountains on both sides hiding and rising over the horizon and giving a very colorful sky in the middle. The vendors also begin their day early – selling flowers, fruits, tea, etc. even so early in the morning.
Day two was very much on the surface, both on terra-firma and infirma. Let me elaborate.
We left, not much with a heavy heart as we knew we would be coming back towards the end of the trip for at least a second ride on the lake if not a stay on the houseboat, for our next point of stay – Sonmarg, or Sonamarg as they call it now. About 80 km from Srinagar, Sonamarg is situated on a picturesque route to Leh, with Sind flowing alongside most of the way. The view is so pleasant all along that they have named it the Golden Path or Sona Marg. As driver Shoaib mentioned, where would you see such a scenic route in any part of the world? We were thankful to God that we were given this opportunity at least at this point of time in our life.
Guru, my co-brother, likes chai (tea) very much and grabs every opportunity that comes along the way to halt for a cup. As this was supposed to be a relaxed itinerary, we took our own sweet time to enjoy the weather and nature, and what would have normally taken two hours took one more for us to reach Sonamarg. I must compliment Cox & Kings for the hotels they provided us during this trip. Hotel Snowland was very neat and comfortable, situated right in the middle of a valley with a beautiful view of snow-clad peaks in the front and the river flowing across in the back, with lush mountain in the backdrop.
The Cox & King itinerary was to have taken us to the Thajiwas glacier nearby, but Shoaib persuaded us to opt for Zero Point, a little longer and higher on the slopes of the mountainous path leading to Leh, via Kargil. He assured us we would never forget the trip for life. We believed him and gave in. And it proved to be true. What a ride it was! I have never seen so much snow in my life. The high way, along the slippery slopes of the mountain, was full of snow heaped on both sides at some places that the road was actually a tunnel in the snow. Heavy trucks hauling supplies to Leh were struggling their way up, and we had to overtake them in the narrow space available, the wheels of our vehicles almost touching the edge of the road. The women were so scared that they wanted to abort and return, and it took Shoaib and me a long time to convince them to proceed.
The sight of camping sites for pilgrims of Amarnath Yatra gave us some kind of consolation that even if not actually performing the yatra, we were at least travelling along that sacred route.
Once we reached Zero Point, however, all the struggle was forgotten in a moment as the view of a huge glacier and a vast expanse of snow opened in front of us. Both the scenic beauty and the weather froze us for a few moments. Warming up, we geared up for a walk and play in the snow, putting on the heavy gumboots and jerkins to enjoy our time there. Of course, with a break for a cup of tea for Guru and us (and a cup of noodles for the kids). My daughter took a ride both on the motorized as well as hand-hauled sledge for some fun. There was at least four to five feet of snow on the ground, and it was a nice experience to hold fresh, pristine ice on the hand which refused to melt even when in touch with our body temperature.
The return trip to the hotel was uneventful, and we mocked at the women as we crossed those exact points where they were scared and wanted to cancel the trip and go back. Back to firm ground at the hotel, we enjoyed good food and a good night’s sleep, to take on the road to Pahalgam the next day.
Day three was a long day on the road, doing some 160 km from Sonamarg to Pahalgam via Srinagar.
We left after breakfast and through the same scenic route to Srinagar, digesting the excellent panoramic view and the tasty food we had had in the morning. Reaching Srinagar a little early, we had to take lunch also early before proceeding to Pahalgam, a valley of shepherds. On the way, as usual, we stopped for tea. We were told the area was famous for its apple orchards on one side and saffron fields on the other. Unfortunately, we realized we were there at the wrong time. The apples we saw on the tree were just formed, near peanut size. Saffron bloom was half a year ahead or back, depending on which way you looked. Further ahead, Shoaib halted at a shop which specialized in products of Kashmir – saffron, walnuts, et al. We did buy a limited quantity of these items – the price was almost the same as we find as far away as in Chennai, but they said the quality was totally different. For example, the shopkeeper took a small piece of walnut and crushed it on a newspaper, which smeared a good amount of oil on the paper. This, he said, indicated the freshness and quality of walnuts sold there, and challenged that we could not get this quality at this price anywhere else. I need to check on that yet with some walnut we get here.
This was also a lucky day for me, as I got my first glimpse of hoopoe, a bird that I have ever been wishing to capture on my camera. This was at the Avantipura ruins. The ruins, though sporting good history, did not look that impressive to me. The only point of satisfaction was capturing the hoopoe.
As we neared Pahalgam, we could see that the town lived up to its name – herds of sheep blocking the path, vehicles had to slow down to give way to them. We were put up at Hotel Abshar, a Citrus Group hotel. Once again, both service and quality were very good. Though we are South Indian and strict vegetarians, food was never a problem with the hotels provided by Cox & Kings. People were very courteous all throughout and went out of the way to serve any specific needs. We were to stay two nights at this hotel.
Day Four turned out a little difficult for me. We were scheduled to go to the Chandanwari glacier point. I am not sure what made me sick. The heavy boots and too packed a jacket made it so stuffy inside that I started sweating, but the moment I tried to take off the jacket, the chillness struck harshly, that I could not balance the difference in temperature. Further, walking uphill on the ice with the heavy outfit made me gasp for breath too. While the family was enjoying the climb and outing in the snow, I decided to quit at some point after taking a few snaps and returned to the jeep, only to lie down on the back seat. The entire portion of the rest of the day I was only sleeping and sleeping, that even after lunch, I let the family lock me in my room and proceed for their outing to see the Betaab valley and pony rides, which I missed. Or did not miss much, based on my condition that day.
What I did miss was to feature in the group photo which was taken at this place, where we realized that there were two groups numbering about 40 people in all that were visiting Kashmir through Cox & Kings with the same itinerary. As we were a compact family that could be accommodated in an Innova and went our own way either before or after the rest of the groups, we did not have much opportunity to get to know the other people. The advantage, on the other side, was that we had complete privacy and control of the programme, feeling secure with Shoaib being available all the time. With ample rest that day, I was up and about fresh the next morning. The concern of the people of Kashmir was evident in that Shoaib was constantly checking on my health and had even planned to take me to his home near Pahalgam if I were to get worse. Fortunately, that did not happen.
Back to Srinagar on the fifth day, leaving Pahalgam after breakfast and arriving for lunch in Srinagar, we were accommodated at the Grand Mahal, a nice hotel in the Nishat area. En route, we visited the Shiva temple dedicated to Shri Shankaracharya and situated atop a small hillock from where you could get a very good view of the Dal Lake. Unfortunately, cameras and mobile phones are not allowed here, and so I have to live on my memory of the scene I saw from up there. After lunch at the hotel, we were left to spend the day free visiting the Mughal gardens in Srinagar, where I saw huge trees of the size we do not get to see in Tamil Nadu. Toward dusk, we set out on the lake once again, from the side of the only remaining Mughal gate in the lake. I got some good shots of reflection in the placid water. The ride reminded us of a similar boat ride we took at Nal Sarovar near Ahmedabad, where I caught my first glimpse of the mighty flamingo.
On day six, the penultimate day of our vacation, we experienced the ultimate exhilaration of the world’s highest cable car (called Gondola) rides in Gulmarg. However, it was after a long and tiresome day trip with some delays on the way. Despite starting right after breakfast from Srinagar, well ahead of the usual time, Shoaib took us to a shopping place en-route, where considerable time was lost waiting for the other group to join for the trip to Gulmarg, though the ladies enjoyed shopping. Rameez was organizing the tickets for Gondola, with tickets up to Level 1 provided by Cox & Kings as part of the itinerary. We had earlier seen reports that there was no ice at all at that level, so we had asked him to get tickets for Level 2 also. For a beautiful place like Gulmarg, the ponywalas and other touts are playing spoilsport, imposing themselves on arriving tourists to the point of harassment. We were warned of this by Shoaib well before reaching Gulmarg, and he even gave us clear directions of what to do and what not. Again, going by reports on the web, we opted to walk our way to the Gondola ticket counter. Though it was only half a kilometer, the path looked extending its way further and further as we started walking, but we were able to make it comfortably because of the good weather. The walk was akin to that one does at the Taj Mahal, where the view of the main attraction is kept away from one’s sight until you get near to the doorstep.
It was quite crowded at the counter, as well as at the boarding points. The ride to Level 1 was smooth. However, from there to Level 2, there was a mad crowd, people jostling and pushing their way through the queues without discipline or any heed for the people already waiting. Neither Cox & King guide, nor the authorities did anything to control the crowd. It took almost an hour and a half for us to get to our cable car. The ride further up to the top of the world as we could see from that spot was thrilling indeed. However, on landing, we found that conditions were not that good. There was a very huge crowd assembled at the gate for the return, and the weather was turning worse. As nature started shooting small pellets from above (it was a drizzle of ice, not water drops), the waiting crowd started to push its way to the entry point, making it difficult for ladies and children to withstand the mounting pressure of squeeze from behind. As if to cap this, the operators, who could not control the crowd, opted to shut the doorway, creating more panic among the people waiting outside. This condition lasted for almost half an hour, with the result that we were not able to enjoy the scenery at the topmost portion of our visit to Kashmir., but were left worrying whether we would able to make it back safe to ground level. To sum it, the summit of Gulmarg also happened to be the bottom point of our vacation, because of the inefficiency of the authorities in handling the situation. Soon, sense started to prevail and the authorities started to admit people in little groups, while also announcing loudly that there was no need to worry or panic as cable cars would continue to be available till the last person gets down safely.
After this tiresome experience, we left Gulmarg and on the way had lunch at a Vaishno restaurant. While there is no complaint about food anywhere on the trip, I must say this was also the place we saw a good spread of vegetables, though it was a little spicy.
More shopping on the way and back to Srinagar, we had a good rest as usual, as the trip had almost come to an end, with nothing on the itinerary for the next day, the last day of the trip. Though our flight was only at 3.30 pm, we had been advised to plan to reach the airport at least 3 hours ahead. Therefore, we decided to get up as late as possible the next day, and did that, with no objection from any side.
The last day was to pack up our things and memories of the wonderful trip.
We had breakfast just before the counter closed, and vacated, ensuring we left nothing behind except the warmth and hospitality of the Kashmiri people. We promised to ourselves we would make a visit once more at the other season, toward September-October some time. As we set out, our ladies suddenly insisted on one more round of last-ditch shopping of whatever they had missed in the last few days, and we halted at the Shalimar garden, where a decent shopping area was also there. That gave me enough time to visit the garden for some more photographs, and lady luck struck once more, giving me a very good snap of another hoopoe.
Off track, do you know that crows are one of the most intelligent birds? They watch the activities of others and take advantage wherever possible. I mention this here because, as I was focusing on the hoopoe through the view finder, I found the bird, which was pecking the ground, suddenly vacating its place. On looking up why, I found a crow occupying the place where the hoopoe had done its hard work pricking holes in the soil, happily eating up all the worms the hoopoe had struggle to bring out!
With enough time on hand, we reached the airport comfortably, crossing security screening of luggage at one point about half a kilometer before the airport. As we took of all our belongings from the car, my grand-daughter, who had taken an aversion towards Shoaib on the first day itself, had by this time turned a good friend and willingly wished good-bye, calling him Uncle at the airport! Even he was so much that he gave a hearty hug to her. Such is the warmth and kindness of the people of Kashmir, which, along with its scenic beauty, makes the place a heaven on earth and for us, made trip a very memorable one.
As the plane took off from Srinagar and my grand daughter settled into reading, I had a glimpse of the mighty Himalayas for one last time through the window before dozing off into dream...
More photos can be viewed at www.flickr.com/photos/raghu_ambattur/albums.
More photos can be viewed at www.flickr.com/photos/raghu_ambattur/albums.