What’s a vacation ?….. A relaxing break from the routine at an idyllic place or soaking oneself in the beauty and culture of the place or involving oneself in activities and maybe adventures that are off-beat.
Well, our vacation in the month of March ’18 was a potpourri of all of the above.
Planning a holiday ? Kashmir should be well up on your list and no blog on Kashmir could be complete without the popular lines,
“Gar firdaus bar-rue zamin ast, hami asto, hamin asto, hamin ast.”
“If there is a heaven on earth, it’s here, it’s here, it’s here.”
The unspoilt natural beauty of Kashmir was obvious practically at all places we visited during our 7 day soujourn to Jammu and Kashmir which is not only paradise for nature lovers but for adventurers, food lovers (Wazwan, a multi course meat-based Kashmiri meal for non-veg lovers), shoppers and all alike.
No sooner does one get a glimpse of the empowering Himalayas en route to Srinagar by air, the beauty in store for you can be supposed.
Amongst the many other places Kashmir has to offer Srinagar, Gulmarg, Pahalgam were the three valleys which are the most popular ones in addition to Sonmarg (weather/season permitting)
Srinagar– The summer capital of J&K, is situated on the banks of River Jhelum & known as Venice of the east, is one of the oldest cities in India dating as far as 3rd century BC. Srinagar city is located at an average elevation of 5400 meters above mean sea level and is spread over in the heart of the oval shaped Valley of Kashmir.
Laced by artistic wooden houseboats and beautiful Mughal Gardens along the Boulevard surrounding the Dal lake, it is spread over 18 kms and is a part of the natural wetlands with floating gardens which cover around 21 sq kms.
The most enticing mode of transport here is via shikaras – one can travel almost the whole city through these, the lake is divided by causeways into 4 basins : Gagribal, Lokut dal, Bod dal and Nageen, where Nageen is considered as an independent lake in itself.
The breezy ‘shikara’ ride on Dal lake that we took was about an hour and a half for about 1500/-Rs and we were taken around the lake by a talkative, well learnt guide Mr.Mohsin (contact- 09086497152). The waters of the lake were so still and it was getting colder by passing of the hour into a beautiful sunset. We talked a lot about the life in Dal lake and discussions about their self-sufficiency and about how they grow their greens on floating islands and how the kids at an very early age are ready for a dive in the lake even in sub-zero temperatures. He kept reiterating that the tourist places of Kashmir are safe and any skirmishes that happen are only limited close to the borders which are although in Srinagar district but are miles away from the tourist destinations. He had a complain that it is the media that hypes up any little fracas and thus face eschewal from the travel industry. He said tourism was their main means of livelihood and the locals would not do any harm to tourists. He then got a little upbeat and didn’t miss an opportunity to show us the houseboats where a few movies were shot. The floating markets of the lake were a sight whilst we were warned that the saffron sold by the shikara shops was not original. But some shikaras offered some beautiful silver jewellery which we got sold into. We had our first round of Kashmiri ‘Kehawa’ here (made of kashmiri green tea leaves, saffron (kesar) strands, cinnamon, cardamoms & cloves, sugar, finely chopped almonds) on the shikara at a floating restaurant and that was our drink for the trip.
Although Srinagar like any other city is a busy one, one gets the glimpse of Indian Army and CRPF at every short distances. Shuffling of troops across the highway is a common sight en route to either Pahalgam or Gulmarg, that’s cos you would be crossing the National highway 1A.
But this sight didn’t bother me as a tourist cause we knew that these postings are merely for safety and prevention of any untowardly incidents. It may sadden a few who would have seen Kashmir at its best in earlier years but for me it was a revisit after about 30 years.
Our early sunrise drive up the meandering road of the Shankaracharya mountain – a siva temple located on Gopadari Hill 1100 feet above the city of Srinagar, was the most blissful since one captures a panoramic view of the whole of the city and the lake from the temple. This temple dated back to 200 B.C. is built on a 20 feet tall Octagonal Plinth and can be accessed after climbing a flight of about 243 steps and an additional 10 steps right to the top is named after Adi Shankaracharya. No cars are allowed beyond a point and also not beyond 5 pm too. (carry jackets as it can get very windy and chilly at the temple top.)
Note– This temple is often not a part of the regular itinerary, but a must visit place for the views at least.
One could also take a walking tour around the old city of Srinagar – weather permitting. Craft tours also offered around here can give you a feel of the how the most loved Pashmina shawls are made.
Srinagar is home to the most beautiful – Chashme Shahi gardens, Nishat Bagh, Shalimar Bagh which constitute the Mughal Gardens. Pari Mahal and Indira Gandhi Memorial Tulip gardens (season permitting – March and April) not to be missed either. Late evening we visited the Huzratbal Dargah and offered prayers at this beautiful serene lakeside mosque.
From Pherans (Kashmiri woollen attire to keep men warm) to fruits to dry fruits to papier mâché to Pashminas, Kashmir’s capital had way too much to offer.
Shopping was great in Srinagar. One must just hone his/her bargaining skills before a visit to the market. We went to Polo View Road and there were plenty of stores lined by the sidewalks of the street, with plenty of walnut wood objects to lots of handmade fabric articles – we picked quite few rugs and table runners as well as Aari work pillow covers to wall hangings.
Kashmir’s embroidery work is influenced by many of cultures- The Moors, Persians , Turks influenced it all. Aari (Hook ) embroidery is the speciality of Kashmiri artisans.
Suffering Moses is a place where one can find finest papier mâché products, just below that place was small quaint little café where we spent a couple of hours post shopping.
Saklain’s coterie is a place by the Polo View Road which sells some amazing smelling essential oils from local products like walnut, lavender.
To carry back home some Kashmiri essence, powdered version of the Kashmiri kehawa( kawa) can also be bought here. Packs of 250gms, 500 gms (could make around 30-40 cups)
Also picked up walnut kernels from Amin Bin Khalik (ABK) trustworthy name for dry-fruits. Although this place was priced slightly higher than its competitors, at least we were sure of what we were buying, since we had been warned that many places would sell saffron which would not be original saffron but maize leftovers which have been dyed red .
Saffron, we also picked from Government authorised store at Lal Chowk and we also preferred to pick the original Pashmina from the Kashmir Government Arts Emporium itself. To avoid being cheated for Chandigarh/Amritsar made Pashminas.
Although more famous for non- vegetarian food, vegetarians too find plenty of options at dhabas as well quaint cafes which are also lined by the main streets – Books and Bricks one of the popular ones.
Gulmarg – ‘Meadow of Flowers’ is a heartland of Winter sports in India. It’s legendary beauty, location and proximity to Srinagar makes Gulmarg one of Asia’s prime hill/ski resorts.
Gulmarg lies in the notified area committee of the Baramula district of the State of J&K not too far from the LOC, is a cup shaped valley in the Pir Panjal Range of the Himalayas at a height of 2,650 m (8,694 ft). At a distance of 56 kms. from Srinagar via the Srinagar – Tanmarg road, we reached Tanmarg soon and were flanked by a dozen tourist guides to hire gum-boats and snow jackets, the taxi drivers do have a cut here and insisted on taking to place from where we could rent, but we didn’t want to rush through this and were told there would be options up there in Gulmarg.
The last lap from Tanmarg to Gulmarg is a pleasant 12 kms. drive through a forest of Pine and Fir trees symbolical to most romantic film shots.
On reaching Gulmarg, one has to pay a visitor fee at the entrance and our vehicles were asked to drop us at the resort and we could not use any vehicles from Srinagar. The taxi union in Gulmarg has set a rule that no vehicle other than the ones from Gulmarg could ply within hence we had to use local cabs for any Gulmarg travel. We had hired an Innova for our stay in Kashmir but for the three days in Gulmarg, we weren’t allowed to use our rented vehicle instead rent a local vehicle from the area.( hence the additional taxi expense – not envisaged.)
Gulmarg is heaven for skiers and alike. It has amazing ski slopes and ski-lift facilities placing it at a comparable position to any other ski slope in the world.
Whilst we understand that the only means of living for the locals is tourism (state needs development in terms of offering job opportunities other than tourism), the pestering tourist guides can get too annoying and they are in plenty hovering around you all the while till finally you hire one. I am sure you enjoy and know a new place better if you see it the way a local shows it to you. So we too hired an authorised guide in Gulmarg and he did his bit and he did it well. Tip – Hire an authorised tourist guide if you need one, they are well informed.
Our stay at ‘The Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa’ was one memorable one, the location of which can be rated good, and services par excellence.
Since we were there in March all outdoor activities would practically seize by sunset since the temperatures touched a 0 degree Celsius every evening or even ran into minus towards late nights , thereby we truly enjoyed our stay at a place which is probably the only one which is centrally heated. The heated swimming pool was the highlight which we made use of practically every evening that we stayed there. Not to miss the lovely Kashmiri sit-out in their lobby area with soothing Kashmiri music playing in the background. Priced a little too much for what they are providing, if one has a budget to spend it is a must stay place.
There are enough accommodation options ranging from budget to mid-range to luxury hotels which also serve delicious food as well are very hospitable.
Our days were booked for Skiing through this gentleman called Ayaz, who had very good helpers for us who were very naïve at skiing, a couple from our group who had been to skiing programmes earlier were taken to Gondola level two for skiing, the ski slopes which are used by professional skiers and the experience was stunning.
We decided not to get ourselves bound to the hotel every evening hence we ventured out for dinner to Hotel Highlands Park one evening (hotel where ‘Bobby’ film was shot), amazing food. Another evening we went to Nedou’s Hotel – the oldest in Gulmarg.
Since we went there mid-March , most of the snow had melted but the chill in the air was still there awaiting us and last but not the least it was a dream come true when it snowed.
Tip: If one has to travel any place post evening you would need a car which you must book from the hotel concierge which could be a loot, but since the Gulmarg tourism (may be the Taxi Union) has set rules that no car other than the locals can run their taxis in this place, you are left with little choice but to shuff out that extra buck to step out of your hotel premise.
Gulmarg must to do’s are the cable car ride – world’s second highest operating since 2008. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gulmarg_Gondola
The ‘Gulmarg Gondola’ a French technology is one of the highest in the world reaching 3,979 metres. and largest ropeways in Asia having a total aerial distance of 5 kms. (approx.)
It’s a two-stage cable car ferries about 600 people per hour to and from Gulmarg to Mt. Apharwat peak 4,200 m (13,780 ft)). The first ride ferries visitors to the 8,530 ft height to Kongdoori. The first stage is a more commercial place.
Dirty, muddy snow slush ( since it was mid- March) where most of the tourists were getting awed by the 500 Rs/- sledge ride as well as snow bike rides polluting the sereneness of the mountains. But I guess people who were here just to beat the city heat had this on their bucket list too; to add to the mess were small dhabas serving Maggie and hot tea, kehawas and it was more of a market place at level 1 of the Gondola ride. To its stark contrast was the second and last stop of the Gondola.
The second stage takes visitors to a height of 3,950 m (12,959 ft) on the Apharwat Peak (4,200 m (13,780 ft)). A chair lift system connects Kongdoori with Mary’s shoulder for taking skiers to higher altitude. My recommendation would be to definitely give half a day for the whole trip to Gulmarg- Apharwat- Gulmarg the mountain top – two levels . We spent almost an hour sitting atop the peak from where our guide showed us the border across the Shark fin.( it is a range in the Pir Panjal which resembles a fin and hence the name)
Most people go up only the first level and come back disappointed.
If I were to go back to this place again I would now do it in summers and do a wonderful frozen lake trek which is done from level 2 of the gondola and is about 1.5 hours trek to a serene lake is too close to the LOC. (off-beat trek-not included in any standardised itinerary.)
A walk around Gulmarg is an evening spent by itself , a good three hour walk around the oval valley past sunset can be an adventure, we walked right from the Gondola ticket booth across the market and snow fields well past sunset with our torch lights from right upto Hotel Highlands park to a yum wholesome meal.
Pahalgam – Pahalgam means “A Village of Shepherds” is situated on the banks of the Lidder river. Pahalgam at an altitude of 7,000 feet is a picturesque township. The Amarnath Yatra is undertaken by more than 30,000 pilgrims every year and it is best approached from Pahalgam over a pass at 14,000 feet.
Three main places of interest in Pahalgam are : Chandanwari, Betaab Valley, (so called because the Hindi film ‘Betaab’ was shot there) and Aru valley. You can again only hire local taxies maybe from the hotel concierge since rented vehicles from Srinagar or Jammu are not allowed in the region for sightseeing (similar in Gulmarg). Pahalgam was not going to be too many activities and sightseeing for us, we were here to chill and enjoy the weather. We stayed at ‘Pine n Peak’ hotel, again there are many options( budget, mid-range, luxury) available along the banks of the river. But mid – March was kind of an off-season, we really enjoyed the peace of the valley here with not many co-tourists. Although spring was just breaking, the otherwise picturesque Lidder Valley had barren trees which were just turning green. We got only barren apple orchards to see, which otherwise in summers are full bloom and the best are to be seen en route to Pahalgam.
Pahalgam is encompassed by lush pine backwoods, stunning vistas of knolls and the snow-clad Himalayan mountains in the backdrop are a reaffirmation of the title ‘Paradise on earth’. Deodar and Pine trees standing tall imparting the dark green hew on the meadows create stunning views casting magic spells and leave you soaked up in nature.
En route we also passed by Pampore – place where most saffron fields lay and on both sides of the highway one can find plenty of local shops selling saffron @ 250 Rs per gram. But since we were made aware of fake saffron we preferred buying saffron from Srinagar-Government Art Emporium @ 350 Rs. per gram
Pony rides are a way to commute through scenic meadows, 5 kms from Pahalgam lies Baisaran or ‘Mini Switzerland’ so called because of its resemblance to the green pastures in Switzerland, one must take a pony ride for about Rs. 1000 per person, but in March we were offered a whopping 50% discount.
Aru valley is a pristine place and a base camp for trekkers to Kolhoi glacier and Tarsar river. Lakes, mountain peaks, valleys and pine forests set up a picturesque Aru Valley for tourists and all alike. March was not the time for many activities the place otherwise has to offer, albeit when the Lidder river is at its best and flowing – rafting, fishing, trekking and many other activities create a hustle bustle in the otherwise silent town in the month of February and March.
On our way to the base point of the Amarnath Yatra – Chandanwadi, we drove past Hagan Valley also nick-named ‘Betaab’ valley, since the movie was shot here. Again, no good words can explain the exotic beauty the place and the valley offers.
One wonders and re-iterates if there is a heaven on earth, it’s here, it’s here, it’s here.
The road to Ladakh opens from Pahalgam, and that trip could be one in itself : Leh-Ladakh ( will surely talk about my experiences here soon.)
Nathu Rasoi, Dana Pani, Punjabi Rasoi are budget options for food other than the hotels serving the yummiest food. Pahalgam and Gulmarg shops sell similar stuff that is available in Srinagar but at a much higher rate than there. But that’s the way the locals earn. So if you can afford it and you like it – I’d say buy it.
Promote Indian Tourism, Promote Indian Artisans, Promote Indian Art.
Pahalgam was our last destination, the misty surroundings, empowering pines, conifer forests and lush green meadows – this valley left captivating moments for us. That’s when we left for Srinagar. Pahalgam – Srinagar was approx. 100 kms and travel time of around 2.5 hours with food stops and our flight back home to Mumbai.
I am pondering….
Is it worthwhile spending thousands on Schengen visas, airfares, exorbitant hotel accomodations, European cuisines and long days of planning ???
This place really set me thinking, we have it all here in our country – no visas, no permits, no long distance flights, no foreign currency transactions. You decide – you need a vacation, pack your bags to this land of great heritage and culture – snow-capped peaks, valley of sparkling rivers, bustling waterways, magnificent Chinar trees and you are in a place that is no less than Paradise on Earth.