Mughal emperor Babar, who fled Afghanistan to come to India vide Kashmir, had called it “Jannat”- Paradise on Earth, in the fourteenth century.
There are thing like metals, which rust and corrode with time. Then there are things like wine, which taste better when older. Kashmir is the wine of the planet. Jammu and Kashmir is the northernmost state of India and is sparsely populated due to a variety of reasons. Drass, which is the coldest place of the country, with temperatures ranging around -10 degree Celsius in summers and -35 degree Celsius in winters is in Kashmir, so is Kargil, where the notorious Indo-Pakistan war was fought in 1999, and the Leh-Ladakh cold desert. But despite these hindrances, one will forever get intoxicated on the beauty of this majestic place.
Our trip here began on June 11, 2015, when we boarded the flight to Srinagar- roughly translating to abode of God- at 1430 hours. After landing at the Kashmir International Airport, we moved to our hotel in Rajbagh, near a hospital. On the journey to the hotel, I was struck by the amount of police protection here. Either side of road had police which was ready to strike.
However, after feasting and resting for an hour, we proceeded to the Dal Lake, hired a shikara, and took a round. A shikara is a boat that is found primarily in J&K, and consists of two long seats like beds and a small seat on the opposite side, and can take up to five people at a time. Dal Lake is the highlight of every tourist in Srinagar. Though the city boasts of two other water bodies namely Jhelum River and the Nagin Lake, Dal Lake is extravagant in terms of expanse, volume and location. Surrounded by mountains on three sides, one of which has a fort on top, which now serves as the Army headquarters, the Lake also boasts of big house boats that have a small, floating garden flanking their sides, fully furnished, having three bedrooms in which one can live, and are available on rent. It is supposed to 20-22 feet deep, but there’s not a definite answer that they told us. Of course, might be worth a mention, but nothing to worry about- they told feet and that it had submerged almost entire flyovers! us that in the floods last year, the Dal lake had risen by some These are in the prime of locations. The Dal Lake is also the livelihood of many people who sell things on boats to tourists. We had paneer tikka and bought a lot of local jewelry. In fact, it has a full water market where the locals display their products of house boats. This is called the Meena Bazaar.
I had never really understood the meaning of my friend, Anoop’s blog title, Tranquil Yet Alive, but in that one hour, I had never appreciated it enough. Sitting on that shikara, watching the lives unfurled, I was in the moment. Such serenity, beauty, and timelessness I had never experienced before. And that day, I truly understood what Anoop blog title meant.
Our visit to the Dal Lake wound up that day, and we spent the night peacefully. The next day, we began our drive to Gulmarg, which is at a height of 14000 feet above the sea level. It was a three hour drive when we reached there, and even then, we had to walk for about 3 kilometers before we reached the starting point of the Gondola trolley, which is also the highest in the world, which was at a level of 6000 feet above the sea level. It was proceeded by a 9 minute trolley ride, and the view was mesmerizing. The Gondola showed the entire expanse of the Srinagar valley and it was stunning. There wasn’t much at the first level except the boarding to the second level, the journey which was 12 minutes long. It was at the beginning of the Gondola ride of the second level that we could multiple valleys and it was so wide, you could see three-four valleys at one stretch.
The second level was something different altogether. The wind here was very chilly and the snow covered the entire expanse of the mountain. We were very near to the LOC and we could see an army bunker 200 meters away from the point. We rented boots from there and marched in the snow, which was tiring because of the low pressure, temperatures and the low oxygen levels. I was panting with the first five minutes (note to self: start walking now. You are beyond lazy). We could spot many snow covered peaks in the vicinity and there were a lot of points, but we didn’t go there as the elder travellers of our group were waiting for us at the base point.
In spite of it, we spent a good two and a half hour up there in the snow, but then the sun started setting and it got progressively colder. We sledged down, all of us, and somewhere in the middle of it, my trouser got stuck to a nail in the sledge wooden plank. I had to struggle with that.
It was a long wait at the returning Gondola because there wasn’t any queue, so there was a lot of pushing and pulling. This was also because all the traders that worked there had a separate route to the same entry at the Gondola and so they kept interfering with the tourists who wanted to go back. This led to a lot of tussles and fights, though in the end, we managed to secure three consecutive trolleys for ourselves. At the ground level, we had a hearty lunch. Pao bhaji, dal, paneer, dosa (which was ironic since we were having south Indian food in the northernmost part of our country) dum aloo, rice and naan, everything was wiped clean.
The drive back home was a very long one. What had earlier been a two hour ride took us about three and a half hours to get back, and that combined with the fatigue was simply exhausting. This was because while we were still on the mountainous road, it started raining, heavily. There was hail, and rain, and the defroster of our car was dysfunctional. It was so panicky since we could hardly two meters in front of the car. It was scary. We reached the hotel at nine in the night and were overcome with tiredness. Reaching the hotel only amplified my troubles though. I guess, when I was in Gulmarg, I had been having trouble breathing which I though could be due to low oxygen levels. However, in the hotel roam, it only worsened and I felt that I was being suffocated from my insides. I took a soda, and that eased my breathlessness, and being the foodie that I am, I even drank and licked clean an entire bowl of soup for dinner.
The next morning started off as early as we could manage somewhere about ten-thirty, eleven, after having a healthy sized breakfast to leave for Sonmarg. It was some 80 kilometers. And we reached there, after multiple stops for food and nature calls, at three thirty in the afternoon. And, the only word truly express my disbelief at the beauty of that place is this picture which was the view from our hotel. Sonmarg was delightful.
Surrounded by snow clad mountains on two sides, a river bank on the third, and an endless road vanishing into the mountains on the fourth side, this place was the highlight of my trip to Kashmir, simply because of its view. It did really live up to its name, the meadow of snow- Sonamarg. Comparatively and substantially colder than Srinagar, it required at least two sweaters all the time. The one thing that stuck me at this place was the vibrancy of the colors of nature. The grass, for instance, was so lush and green and vibrant, it looked almost as if it had never been stepped on before, despite the evidences of the horse shit that it bore.
Our hotel was strategically placed on the entrance to the small town, and in the vicinity of the glacier that overtakes the entire village in winters. After resting and choosing our rooms, all albeit the some uber-elders, moved out to visit the tourist spots there. We hired a local cab from our hotel and out first stop was a small park that had a rally huge pond, with fish in it, and a river running down its other side. Unfortunately, it had started raining, so we could only enjoy it for five minutes before proceeding to the next stop, which was the last fully inhabited village on that side of the border, Gagangear village, which was spectacularly ghostly and lonely.
After that, we travelled some more and reached a glacier just on the edge of the road, where sledging activity was permitted. We took shelter in a chai-ki-dukaan, a teashop, just beside it. The best thing about that was the situation. A thing, blue plastic sheet that served as a barrier from the rain, the slanting, cold sleet, the glacier right next to it, the river flowing noisily down, and sledging, it was a moment to capture in our hearts forever. Sometime around this, the chai-vallah announced that he had… Maggi! Yes, the once thing that was banned in the entire country was available there. It was a blissful experience. Everyone there had a hot steaming bowl of Maggi, the elders had chai with it, and some extra bhukkads had boiled eggs with it. It was so peaceful. Sometime, during the meals (we hadn’t had anything since morning), the rain stopped; giving way to a beautiful, warm sun.
Some of us sledged, and we clicked some photographs, before we left, an hour behind schedule. Finally, after a lot of scolding from the elders, we sat in our taxi and moved back to the hotel, to the final point of our visit, the Thajiwas Glacier.
After we came back to our hotel entrance, we dropped off the elders and quickly packed ourselves is woolens. Then we all proceeded to the glacier, which we were told was 4 kilometers from our hotel. We travelled some two kilometers from the taxi that we hired to the last point beyond which vehicles were not possible to go. It was followed by a really steep climb that took a lot of labor since we were full from the Maggi.
It is possible to go to the glacier by either a horse or you have to walk. We chose to walk since what’s better that hiking in the mountains? The path was a long and a narrow one, with some horse shit here and there, but the roaring river right next to it, the snow peaks ahead, the cool wind, the faint light of the sky, the greenery, the zigzagged rocks, the small ponies, everything was so… It was content. There were small bridges here and there, some small makeshift shops that offered kawah, a Kashmiri drink made up from spices, drunk with a little bit of sugar, saffron and dry fruits. But it all came down to the glacier that grew majestically in size as we marched on.
Alas, by the time we reached the glacier, well, some twenty feel away from the glacier, it had started turning dark and our driver had ordered us to come back from the site even if it meant not reaching the place as if it gets dark, there was a possibility of us getting lost on the forest. We retraced our steps and an hour later, were on our way to the hotel, which ended our day at Sonmarg.
The next morning, after having our breakfast, we packed our stuff and started to leave at around noon for Pahalgam, which was some 180 kilometers, and would take some four-five hours. The first two and a half hours of the journey were beautiful, there was another river flowing past us on our route which was *actually* aqua in color. I was unable to take a photograph of it, but it was splendid. The only time we are in the habit of seeing blue water is in drawings, but this water of the river Chenab was actually green and blue and brown and white, all mixed together to give such a beautiful, clear color. It was amazing.
The next three hours however, were a nightmare. For me. Since I had to pee. I could see nothing else, I could feel nothing else, I could eat nothing. My mind constantly thought of the emergency. See, I had been well in control of myself for the first quarter to two hours, and I was relieved since I saw a milestone that said, Pahalgam: 6 km. I was so happy and couldn’t wait for it. But, barely ten minutes away from our hotel, we encountered a traffic jam that almost took about an hour to clear, by the time, I was almost bursting. It was horrendous. My aunt said that I had a luck tongue, or in Hindi- jeeb par saraswati hona.
What had happened was that my grandfather, who has a terrible habit of forgetting a lot of things kept asking us details about our whereabouts- where were we, where we had to go, how much time it would take. I kept telling him that we’d take two hours whenever he asked, just because we were actually two hours away. So, when we got stuck in the jam, I was jittery, and panicky, and my aunt scolded me saying-“It’s your entire fault. You were so consistent about two hours, now it will take us two hours.” As to defend myself, I said, “See, the jam will clear in five minutes, and then I’ll be able to take a long, long pee.”
The surprising thing was that the jam did actually clear in five minutes and we reached the hotel in another five. The journey however, was extremely long and tiresome, and added the fact that I had to me, I couldn’t pay much attention to the scenery.
I found Pahalgam to be a very ancient town in terms of practices and culture. For instance, the market of Pahalgam was a bundle of small shops on either side of the only road of the town. Every shop would open up at about nine in the morning and close at nine thirty and the entire town would be dark by eleven at night.
The view from our hotel however, was phenomenon. It had a beautiful garden that overlooked the river bank and faced a CRPF camp. There were chairs and tables, and you could drink tea up there. In fact, our elders even had massages right there from the masseuse the hotel had. The rooms were on the ground floor, each with a big glass window that overlooked the garden. That was the first night we had Kashmiri Wazwaan for dinner. Wazwaan is essentially a dish made with 35 independent dishes. The food we had was amazing. Beautiful. Delicious. Finger licking good!
The next morning, we left for Aru Valley and two other tourists spots. The road to Aru was scary. It was narrow, tiney, broken, unedged, and the rocks jutted out from the most absurd places. Aru, which is some 5 kilometers away from Pahalgam was beautiful; it too had a river on its side. There, we were crowded by the guides, and one of them made a tempting offer. Paragliding. But we couldn’t do it. First of, a relative of mine was worried and thought that we might run out of time to see other things. Secondly, my mom was way too worried about safety since my dad, me and my sister were all ready. But, order is an order. My sister gave my mom a cold shoulder for the rest two hours.
The hiking at Aru was fun though because the weather was beautiful. Also, the same aforementioned relative of mine, took a very absurd route to cross the mountain, instead of the normal one. He insisted on crossing the mountain midway by crossing a small waterfall, instead of from the top. We all agreed, but the moment, we got on the other mountain, we realized what a big blunder it was. First of all, it was so filled with horse shit, that it was difficult to sit on the ground. Second was the steepness of that mountain, seriously amongst the steepest ones I’ve ever been on. I literally felt that did I raise my body even an inch from its slant position, I would topple down with the waterfall. And third was the non existent support to climb. There was not even clean grass we could hold on to. Fortunately, the sports of our family, my dad, my sister, a cousin, they took responsibility of hauling everyone up the hill, but supporting them.
We clicked a lot of photographs here, a lot! We all ran together, almost played chain-chain, conquered the world, made friends, distributed sweets, and I made a video recording of all of us running down the hill, screaming “yaya!” It was a unique moment.
The next stop was the Amarnath Base Came, where when we reached was raining. We had coffee, and cotton candy and bought some stuff. Just as we were about to leave, my aunt said that she wanted to go to the glacier, and climb it. After some discussion, she was pardoned 10 minutes, and I jumped at the chance, and dragged my father along with me. Together, us five people, my aunt, uncle, my cousin, my father, and me, we all bought boots and started climbing the glacier. The snow was very dirty and thus easy to climb, and soon we were amongst the highest people on the glacier. We were clicking photographs when something happened. One of the guides/locals starting shouting something, pointing upwards. We instinctively turned to see what it was when a rock of a size bigger than a pumpkin, about a foot wide, was tumbling down, gathering momentum and was very heavy. Naturally, a rock that big, with such a force, if came on anyone would kill them. And then we realized that we were just in it’s way. It was such a blank situation, where none of the tourists knew what to do. The hurry might make them slip, and the bad luck was that there was a fast flowing river just below the glacier. It was die either way. It was then the locals took over, obviously having more experience of such emergencies. Our sledge guy grabbed my aunt’s hand, and literally pushed her sideways but stabilizing her, and she dragged my cousin along with her. He grabbed he by my hand too, and got in front of me, while my dad dragged me from behind, and we were just about five feet away from where the rock passed when it did. Just before stopping, it crashed into a sledge and broke it in two half. Just imagine! The injury it could have inflicted had we not been warned earlier. There was another stone about ten seconds later, but it wa smaller, about the size of a football. Judging by the panic, aunt and uncle took a sledge while I, still worried about my trouser, walked down with my dad. These photographs are before the stone incident.
When we returned back to the car, for the next spot, we were about an hour late, of what was supposed to be ten minutes. The elder aunt, who had to stay back since there was no space in the other car was furious. My father and my younger aunt had to listen to her scolding the entire route to the next spot, which was the Betab Valley, where the B’wood movie Betaab had been shot. It was not on the mountain, but rather low, in the valley and next to it was another river, and a lake. It was a beautiful place. By the time we reached there, it was raining so we all were gathered in a shed kind of a thing, and waiting for the rain to subside.
We spotted a bridge over the river and the kids made way towards it, and the elders followed. WE clicked a lot of pictures here too.
It was alot of fun and the rain finally stopped when we made our way back to the hotel, tired and happy. It was a day well spent.
The next morning we had to leave for Srinagar, our last day in Kashmir before we left. But my dad had heard someone telling him that Mini Switzerland, in Pahalgam was a must visit. He decided to check that out the same morning before we left. Now that was almost impossible since taking people, gathering them and then travelling together took time. He gathered my sister, me, my mom and a younger cousin to go to the place.
On talking to the guides he found that it would take a long time to go there which we could not afford. He instead hired five horses to show us around. The horses we got were very nice. I was very afraid to get on one because the last horse I sat on had been very bad. So, it still lurked somewhere. But my horse, Rajjo, was very sweet and gentle. It was just a forty minute ride, but it was so peaceful. The only thing was that dad’s horse kept shitting the entire time. And I was the one behind him. And whenever Rajjo moved too close to Mastana, my leg brushed his tail. It was so disgusting!
That was the day I finally realized the importance of style. See, that morning, while the payment and billing was happening, we were in the lobby when we saw three couples who had stayed there and were leaving. All three had Royal Enfields. They packed the stuff, putting it in the holder, wrapping it with a waterproof plastic. Then they proceeded on themselves. Helmets, lights on helmets, head gear, arm caps, knee caps, leather gloves and jackets, goggles, bandannas, waterproof shoe covers, and the list goes on. They were going to Ladakh. I was literally hypnotized by them. I couldn’t stop staring. They must have thought of me as a creep.
We left for Srinagar at about ten thirty without a smile and reached there at 2:30 pm. It was a surprise. We spent the last night in a HOUSE BOAT! It was so beautiful and so huge and fully furnished. It had a porch, a terrace that overlooked the Dal Lake, a drawing room, a dining, a kitchen, a balcony, and it led to a thin passage on which one side were four rooms, each having its own bathroom. It was perfect!
That evening, we went a market to buy something, and ended up getting to a high class shop and spent tonnes of money on stoles, scarfs and shawls. We returned at 9:30 pm/ Yes, we had to cross the lake on a shikara at 9:30 in the night, had a simple dinner and relived the times we had a lot of fun. We then had a late night photo session where everyone was in it, as a memory to preserve forever.
The next morning, at five, the elder aunt left, and at eight the younger one. Since our flight was at three in the afternoon, we spent the day looking at some gardens, Chashmeshahi, Mughal Garden, Shalimar and Nishat, but it did not equal the fun we had on officially the last evening of the trip in Kashmir. It was a different evening than the rest. Perhaps the last at a place where everything is so peaceful and calm and there is art at what you do, not like the rush of big cities, jobs, marriage, family, career. Maybe it were the heavy hearts and the longingness of the past, or the anticipation of the future, or just the simple truth of the joy of living life in the moment. We talked, we laughed, we played, we enjoyed, we explored, we travelled, we lived.
P.S. I hope the post reached you Grandpawww! It’s very vivid.