Wednesday, April 18, 2018

A piece of Heaven - Pahalgam, Kashmir - Part 3 (Concluded)

After the hectic adventurous time in Gulmarg, Pahalgam was to be a laidback sightseeing trip. At this point, I would like to inform all tourists visiting these places by public transport that you will have to take local taxis or horses for sightseeing (done to promote local livelihood). So after checking in The Regency Hotel in Pahalgam which is situated in a very scenic locale with a river running by, we set

pahalgam river lidder kashmir india mountains scenic

out for a general walk around the market place. This was the time to shop for shawls, stoles, dry fruits and dresses for the ladies to be kept or gifted.

pahalgam shopping stoles kashmir india

Two guys from our group decided to take a horse ride to ‘Mini Switzerland’. These horses and taxis 

pahalgam horse riding sight seeing kashmir india

are available in the parking lot, which is the point where the taxis/vans/buses that you have reached the destination in, have to be parked, and you­­ take local transport.

After a couple of hours of gallivanting around town we returned to the hotel and rested as we had scheduled the sightseeing tour for the next day.

Our 1st point to visit was the Aru valley. This place is a page out of a fairy tale! The tiny bridges over

aru valley bridge river bed kashmir india mountains

the now dry river against a backdrop of magnificent snow-capped mountains and the feeling of being hugged by nature is amazing.

Our next stop was the Betaab valley. This valley got its name after the famous Hindi movie ‘Betaab’ was filmed here. Betaab Valley lies between the two Himalayan Ranges – Pir Panjal and Zanskar. 

betaab valley river lidder kashmir india

There is an entrance fee of Rs.100/- to enter the vast landscaped gardens inside. We skipped that and instead spent time taking pictures along the Lidder river which was flowing past and had some 

dhaba betaab valley omelet roti bread kashmir india

yummy omelettes and rotis and Maggi noodles in the shack by the river. Washed it down with the famous Kashmiri Kahwa (Kahwah is a traditional green tea preparation consumed in Afghanistan, northern Pakistan, some regions of Central Asia and, in northern India especially in Kashmir Valley.)

After this we moved on to Chandanwadi which is the starting point for the Amarnath yatra. There 

chandanwari valley panaroma mountains amarnath yatra kashmir india

was still some snow lying around and it offered a lot of photo-ops which we gratefully accepted and called it a day.

We were done with Pahalgam and had to carry on to Sonmarg the next day. The highlight of this

feast meat lunch festive goshtaba tabak maas ristaa kabab rotis pampore noorani kashmir india

journey to Sonmarg was the sumptuously delicious meat feast – Wazwan, in Pampore, organised specially for us by ScoutMyTrip.  Wazwan is a multi-course meal in Kashmiri cuisine, the preparation of which is considered an art and a point of pride in Kashmiri culture and identity. Almost all the dishes are meat-based using lamb or chicken with a few vegetarian dishes. It is popular throughout Kashmir. As we approached Pampore, the weather Gods decided we had enough of good weather and it started raining leading to a drastic drop in temperature.

mustard fields pahalgam kashmir india colourful
Plenty of mustard fields enroute.
By the time we reached Sonmarg, the gloomy weather dampened our enthusiasm and we had barely checked into the Glacier Heights Hotel and there was a power failure.  Not a very good sign as the Hotel Generator could not support room heaters in all the rooms along with the electrical blankets. 

sonmarg snow hotel mountains kashmir india
Hotel Glacier Heights, Sonmarg.

But the Kashmiri hosts did not let us down. In the restaurant they gave us a corner where they brought in a huge heater supported by a LPG cylinder and we sat around it nursing our drinks and snacking on yummy chicken tikkas and veg. pakodas, pretending the heater was a bonfire. In the ensuing discussion it was decided that we get back to Srinagar the next day as the weather prediction for the next day too was not favourable and we were not inclined to spend our time in the cold rooms. Our organisers ScoutMyTrip were told about our decision and they gallantly offered to accommodate us in Srinagar in lieu of Sonmarg the next day despite this being a case of force majeure.

So we headed back to Srinagar and spent a pleasant evening in Pride Inn Hotel, glowing in the aftermath of the beauty that is Kashmir and Kashmiris.

The day after we flew back to Mumbai – back to base with plenty of memories to last a lifetime.

In conclusion a few observations:

All over Kashmir, in all the hotels, the buffet breakfast was Upma, Poha, Parathas and Eggs (boiled or Omelette).
The locals are fed up of politicians across the board. They are trapped in between the devil and the deep sea. If they inform the Indian Army of the hideouts of militants they will be killed by the militants and if they don't inform, they face the wrath of the Army.
The tourists are welcomed with a lot of love. The locals are warm hearted, extremely hospitable and will go to any lengths to make the guest comfortable giving credence to the phrase ‘Athithi Deva Bhavo’ - Guest is God.
For the vegetarians, there are plenty of Vaishno dhabas/restaurants all over the place, serving excellent vegetarian food. So no worries.
Despite having read in the print media and seen on the Television, we did not witness a single incident of violence during our stay and travels there.
The only way to bring about total peace in Kashmir is to overrun it by tourists. So guys pack your bags and get a move on! Kashmir is waiting!

Monday, April 16, 2018

A piece of heaven - Gulmarg, Kashmir - Part 2

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We had been receiving messages and calls from well wishers back home telling us about the worsening tensions in Kashmir and telling us to return home. We just smiled and got onto the bus to go to Gulmarg, an uneventful journey that took us through some beautiful landscapes and enthralled us with its beauty.

Our driver cum guide Shabbir was a great guy, full of humour and wanting to ensure our comfort at all times.

Enroute we stopped at Tangmarg, about 12kms before Gulmarg, to rent snow boots and a waterproof warm coat so that we could participate in all the snowy activities in Gulmarg. 
Gulmarg lies in a cup shaped valley in the Pir Panjal Range of the Himalayas, at an altitude of 2,650 m (8,694 ft) and is the centre for skiing, sledging and snowmobiling. It was in Tangmarg that we 

connected with Umar – our guardian angel. He was so amazing that he created an invisible tunnel and took us through all the activities possible in Gulmarg. We did not break a sweat through any of it. It

snowmobile champion umar gulmarg kashmir india

 was only later that I learnt that he was the Snowmobile champion of the country for 3 consecutive years and he acts as a tourism guide in his spare time. An amazing chap! If you are planning to visit Gulmarg and need help, mail me for his contact details. You will not regret it.

While we were completing our check in process at Mama Palace hotel in Gulmarg, Umar got busy in getting our tickets for the Gondola ride and let me tell you it is essential that you have someone in the know to get it done, as we realised once we reach the Gondola boarding point where chaos reigned with ‘waiting for tickets to be bought’ passengers queued up blocking the way for ticket holding passengers! Thankfully we soon were in the gondola, riding up the snowy slopes of the Himalayas. 

gondola ride pir panjal range himalayas gulmarg kashmir india

Built by the French company Pomagalski, the Gulmarg Gondola is one of the highest in the world reaching 3,979 metres. The two-stage ropeway ferries people between Gulmarg and a shoulder of nearby Apharwat Peak (4,200 metres/13,800 ft). The first stage transfers from Gulmarg at 2,600 

snow slopes apharwat peak gulmarg kashmir india himalayas

metres (8,500 ft) to Kongdoori at 3,080 metres (10,100 ft). The second stage takes passengers to a height of 3,950 metres (12,960 ft) on the Apharwat Peak 4,200 metres (13,800 ft).

tandem skiing apharwat himalayas pir panjal mountain range gulmarg kashmir india

 Once on the Apharwat peak, we went tandem skiing and sledging. It was fun despite the altitude drying out our mouths. Trudging in the snow too was a new experience for us apart from skiing. 

sun snow mountain apharwat pir panjal himalayas gulmarg kashmir india

Once done we rode down to the 1st stage ‘Kongdoori’ where we had a delicious lunch in ‘Kongposh’ restaurant and headed for the ride on snowmobiles. Yet another 1st time for all of us. We rode pillion

snowmobile gulmarg snow kashmir india

and the riders were good enough to let some of us to try riding it ourselves albeit with the instructor riding pillion and encouraging us all the way!

Next day was reserved for some more adventure but this time offroading around Gulmarg on the 

atv gulmarg hillside kashmir india

ATVs (All Terrain Vehicles). This too was fun and here again they let those of us who wished to ride, try it out too.

It was a fun 2 days of adventure in Gulmarg and now it was time to move on to Pahalgam.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

A piece of heaven - Kashmir – Part 1

A Farsi Couplet by Amir Khusro

Agar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast,
Hameen ast-o hameen ast-o hameen ast.

Translated, it means

If there is a paradise on earth,
it is this, it is this, it is this

We, a group of 14 friends, having spent just over a week in Kashmir, have no doubt that Kashmir is, indeed, a piece of heaven on earth, where we experienced the warmth of brotherhood and unparalleled hospitality. We did not witness a single incident of violence all the time that we spent there despite what is portrayed in the media. The trip was wonderfully organised for us by ScoutMyTrip who arranged for all our transportation and accommodation at a very reasonable cost.
On arrival in Srinagar airport, we were met by the local tour guide and transported to our beautiful houseboats in the Dal Lake. After the 30+ C temperature of Mumbai, the 18C was a welcome relief. Dal is a lake in Srinagar (Dal Lake is a misnomer as Dal in Kashmiri means lake). The lake covers an area of 18 square kilometres with an average depth of 4.7 feet and a maximum of 20 feet.

dal lake srinagar kashmir india mountains valley

After dumping our luggage in our rooms in the houseboat, we freshened up and were taken out on a

canals dal lake shopping night srinagar kashmir india

shikara ride of the Dal lake along the shops selling local handicrafts. The fun part was that while

shikara boat sales dal lake kashmir india

sailing in the shikaras, we had sales pitches from shikaras alongside selling jewellery, coats and caps apart from snacks and soft drinks!

On our return to our houseboats, as we were getting ready for a sumptuous dinner, there came a shikara 

kababwala kebab maker dal lake shikara houseboat srinagar kashmir india

with a mobile barbecue who dished up some yummy kababs. This indeed was an unique experience for us!

Next day we set out for a tour of the beautiful gardens in Srinagar. The first one was the Chashme 

chashme shahi garden mughal srinagar india

Shahi gardens built around a spring, in 1632 A.D. by Ali Mardan Khan, Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s Governor. It was the Emperor’s gift for his elder son Prince Dara Shikoh.

Our next stop was the Jawaharlal Nehru Botanical Gardens that was set up in 1969 in memory of our 1st Prime Minister who was fond of roses. This garden has a collection of about 150,00 ornamental 

jawaharlal nehru botanical gardens srinagar kashmir india

plants apart from a huge collection of oak varieties. It also has a rare collection of Kashmiri tropical plants.

And then came the show stopper – the Indira Gandhi Memorial Tulip gardens! It is the largest tulip 

tulips garden srinagar kashmir india

garden in Asia spread over an area of about 30 hectares.  The garden was opened in 2007 with the aim to boost floriculture and tourism in Kashmir Valley. It is a feast for the eyes! BSNL offers free wifi there to enable visitors to spread the beauty online! After revelling in the beauty, we had some 

kahwa tea samovar tulip garden srinagar india

some Kashmiri bread with Kahwa (Kashmiri tea) brewed in Samovars.

Next stop was Nishat Bagh, a terraced Mughal garden, built in 1633 by Asif Khan the elder brother 

nishat bagh garden srinagar kashmir india

of Noor Jahan. It is spread over 46 acres and overlooks the Dal Lake.

dal lake srinagar kashmir india nishat

We missed out on the Shalimar Bagh, considered one of the biggest Mughal gardens. The Bagh was built by Mughal Emperor Jahangir for his wife Noor Jahan, in 1619.

The untimely rains prevented us from any further forays into the beautiful Baghs and drove us back to our houseboats.

This marked the end of our brief affair with Srinagar as next morning we were off to Gulmarg.

For more pictures visit my Instagram account.