In the lap of nature. Part I Paradise on Earth, Kashmir23, July, 2015, by Seema Bhatnagar
The grandeur of Himalayas is something to bow down to with Mount Everest, earths highest (8,848 meters) mountain in its lap and being a source of 5 rivers, it has its own magnanimity and magnificence. Being a youngest mountain range in the world it is still growing and expanding gradually to attain full youth. For India, it is like a soldier standing on the northern boundaries, dividing India from China, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bhutan and Nepal.
With its own diversity of flora and fauna it creates entirely a new world in itself, people in this region have food and lifestyle which are very similar to neighbouring countries.
We planned a trip to explore northern part of Himalayas, J&K region. The J&K (Jammu and Kashmir) region includes Jammu, Srinagar, Leh and Ladakh as main cities. Out of main cities, we chose to explore, Srinagar and nearby towns like Gulmarg, Sonamarg, and Pahalgam all the way to Pangong Tso via Kargil and Leh.
Itinerary of trip to Himalayas.
Our itinerary was Srinagar, Gulmarg, Kargil, Leh, Pangong Tso, Nubra Valley and then return journey via Leh, Kargil, Pahalgam and finally to Srinagar.
We were a group of 8 people, 6 adults (in their late thirties and early forties) and 2 kids (of age between 7-9 years). We all joined at Chandigarh (a city in Punjab, North India, 3 hours drive from New Delhi) to board our flights together. Our group was a good blend of members from different Indian regions, Delhi, Punjab, Haryana, Maharashtra, Uttranchal, and all were Hindi speaking.
As displayed in the map, Srinagar was our starting point, we took flight till Srinagar and then started road journey to explore rough terrain of Himalayas. We hired Tata Aria, a tough SUV, perfect for rough terrain.
We started our trip from Srinagar, which is a capital of J&K region and famously known for its Dal Lake, Shalimar and Nishat Bagh (garden). Its height is 1,850 metres (6,070 ft) above sea level.
Started our trip by first visiting Nishat Garden which is located on the bank of Dal Lake or just across the road from Dal Lake. It is from Mughal era, built by Asif Khan in the year 1633, for full history, read here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nishat_Bagh
Nishat garden near Dal Lake.
Due to peak summer season in the country for visiting hilly areas, Srinagar was full of tourists and at one glance it was looking like any plain city full of honking and traffic jams. But I really felt happy about the jams and honking because after almost a decade of lull in valley due to terrorism, life has come back and people are visible on roads. There are still minor incidents of disturbances but overall it seems peaceful. It is still under strict surveillance by Indian army but the fear is not seen on roads.
Me in Nishat garden.
The next destination we visited was Gulmarg, popularly known for skiing and Gondola (cable car) ride.
Gulmarg is a beautiful town, with picturesque snow peaks and lush green fields. We all wanted to experience the snow and chill at the highest point so we opted for Gondala ride.
We booked online for Gondola ride. On reaching there we found a long serpentine queue, no wonder, because it was a peak tourist season. After spending almost an hour of waiting in the rain and cold we could enter the boarding point. It was such a chaos there that we burst into arguments with guides who brought their clients in front of others by charging extra. It came to light when one person who was standing in front of us was replaced with family of four. We protested and called police person to control it but it was like a nexus between police and guides. It is sad but the truth is, it is another kind of corruption which a common man has to fight with everyday.
Gondola at Gulmarg.
Walking on the snow and experiencing the chills, was something a unique and soothing experience for us, given the fact that we all went from a scorching 46 degree celsius temperature.
While coming back to Srinagar from Gulmarg, one of us had a friend who was native of Kashmir, so that friend arranged our trip to his house on the Srinagar-Gulmarg road. He took us to his apple orchard which was full of apple and walnut trees. Their house was constructed in a hut shape, I especially went inside to have a look at the design of the whole house, it was two storey, all constructed of wood, which is really a luxury nowadays. We were served tea with local bakery products in a typical Kashmir style of sitting on floor. It was something new for me to know from them that bakery products are a speciality from Srinagar. The cake and biscuits were really very tasty and fresh.
Tea session at our friends place near Gulmarg. Have a look at crockery and carpets.
Apple orchard at our friends place near Gulmarg.
In Srinagar, Dal Lake is the main tourist attraction. We took Shikara (small boat with seats, like Gondola of Venice) to take ride in Dal lake.
Dal Lake at Srinagar.
The sight of lake gives a feeling as if it is losing its sheen because of growth of weeds in it and recent floods due to which the water is all muddy. Once upon the time in 60s it used to be the popular spot for shooting of Bollywood movies.
Dal Lake at sunset. A perfect shot in nature's studio.
We took one night stay in house boat at Dal Lake, which included dinner and breakfast (modified American plan.). Going by the interiors and food served I feel tariff is quite reasonable, it was between 4-5 K INR per night.
Check out carvings on walnut wood panels of houseboat.
Shikaras are the mode of transit journey from banks to the actual location of houseboats. Houseboat owners send their shikaras to receive guests with their luggage.
An interesting incident happened when we just reached to board our shikaras. After coordinating with houseboat owner for almost half an hour we could locate our shikara. We had a heated exchange with the person who was rowing shikaras, when he commented over the pieces of luggage that he had to carry on his shikara to houseboat. He was uncomfortable with the fact that why we are carrying so many luggages when we have to spend only one night in houseboat. On this statement we just exploded and decided to cancel his booking, on seeing this he mellowed down and took the entire luggage back silently. It was really rude of him commenting like this, but we tamed him in a minute when he saw that he is losing business of owner and he might have to pay penalty for it. I was wondering, how ugly he could get if there is no fear of losing anything.
Houseboat had pleasing interiors with beautiful carvings on wooden walls and panels. The wood was of walnut, which is commonly available as a part of local flora. It was fitted with fans and beddings of good quality.
The difference between houseboat stay at Allepey and Srinagar is - in Allepey, Kerala, the houseboat moves in a river while here in Srinagar it is anchored at one place. The view was wide open and natural in Allepey while here it was much more limited.
In the evening we took a shikara ride in Dal Lake. There was a full-fledged market, with shops of jewellery, carpets, woollens, wooden show pieces made from walnut wood. It reminded me of my visit to Venice, which also has a similar look and feel.
Floating shops in Dal Lake.
Another thing which I liked about houseboat stay was, salesmen were coming to boat for selling their stuff. Looking at the number of females in our group, a man came to sell jewellery. I bought some three pairs of earrings. He came with his suitcase full of small pieces of jewellery and we sat on floor to have a look. No, jewellery as such is not something a speciality from Kashmir, I just bought it as a souvenir.
Jeweller in houseboat at Dal Lake.
In the morning, a florist came to sell flowers, which I did not buy as these are perishable and moreover we had to catch flight in the afternoon.
Florist in houseboat at Dal Lake.
One thing which I strongly disliked about Srinagar was the attitude of shopkeepers; they are rude and unwelcoming to customers. They dont go out of the way to show their stuff and express their irritation and discomfort on the demand of showing more and worst is, if you dont buy then they start spewing their irritation in their own Kashmiri language in front of customers. For this reason, on many occasions I dropped my idea of buying some good stuff. Moreover, there is a lot of bargaining in the market, one has to be experienced enough to judge the quality of stuff before quoting the price.
In the backdrop of Dal Lake.
On shopping from Srinagar, we all bought dry fruits which are speciality from Kashmir, and obviously Saffron, which is something a unique speciality from Kashmir. It is very difficult to get authentic Saffron because first of all it is difficult to identify and secondly on the name of Saffron many shops sell spurious quality.
Our last destination was, Pahalgam, where we spent one night. Do you know, Kashmir is popularly known as a paradise on earth, actually I found Pahalgam as a closest match to the definition of paradise on earth. There is a river, Lider, which is crossing across the whole of Phalgam and rock dancing across the mountains and rocks, with the backdrop of green mountains and long Cedrus deodara trees.
Lider river, rock dancing.
For stay we rented out huts of J&K Tourism. These huts were quite old and crying for renovation for interiors and furniture. These huts reminded me of chalet of Switzerland, which can also be rented out for stay. For every hut, there was a cook attached who could bring the stuff and can cook for you. We ordered to prepare traditional Kashmiri dishes, like Hak and Yakhni for dinner.
Kashmir is a real delight for non-vegetarians because majority of Kashmiri dishes are non-vegetarians and they consume very less of vegetables. Since we all were vegetarians so we asked our cook to prepare non-vegetarian dishes in vegetarian style, and really, they came out very well.
J&K Tourism huts at Pahalgam.
To enjoy the natural abundance, we stopped our car on the way and walked down to the Lider river. Since we all wanted to experience the water closely, so sat on rocks in the flowing water and made sure not to go deeper. With an idea to soak myself with energy of water, I sat for a short session of meditation in the midst of torrent. Oh . it was a lovely experience, for a moment it was only a sound of water and nothing else as if all other sounds stopped existing.
Meditation near Lider river at Pahalgam.
Based on our experience, we realised that it is better to stay at Pahalgam than in Srinagar, as Pahalgam is cooler and has more natural beauty to see as compared to Srinagar. One or two days stay at Srinagar is more than enough.
One very important thing must be kept in mind while visiting J&K is - cellphone with prepaid connection will not work, it must have a postpaid one. Since I have a prepaid, so I was completely disconnected from the world for the whole trip. This is probably from the security point of view because J&K still under army surveillance.
The overall trip to Kashmir has been very refreshing and memorable. Few of the landscapes there revived my memories of Switzerland. The sight of snowy peaks, lush green fields and huts on the height, was like reliving the old memories. I suggested my group members not to plan any trip to Switzerland as Kashmir has much more to offer because here, you can soak yourself in your own culture and homely feeling, and moreover cost-wise also it is much more economical.
There is a very famous Persian couplet on beauty of Kashmir by a sufi mystic, poet, composer and musician Amir Khusro belonging to medieval period:
Agar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast,
Hameen ast-o hameen ast-o hameen ast.
Its english translation is: If there is a paradise on earth, it is this,
It is this, it is this.
How true it is said, one must visit to really feel it.
In the lap of nature. Part II Mesmerizing Leh-Ladakh.
My trip down South of India - Kerala
A journey to magnificence - Khajuraho
Royal indulgence - Udaipur