We watched in numerous Bollywood movies, we heard the beautiful Shayari written in its honor, we wore the warmth that the art of this place brought along and then we lived through it being torn apart as a politically troubled state. Kashmir, an enigma for me all through my teenage years. A place I always wanted to visit, and finally did a couple of weeks back after the plan to travel being spoiled twice earlier.
We had flown to Srinagar from Delhi. As the flight took its descent, we couldn’t stop ourselves from peering out of the windows to absorb the beautiful greenery that loomed large amidst the clouds. The flight from Delhi to Srinagar is about an hour and 10 minutes. The airport was spic and span. As we drove from the airport to our hotel, it looked as normal and lively as any other city of India despite it being the Independence day weekend and we being warned by many that it was not the best time to travel there.
We crossed the houseboats on the Dal Lake as we proceeded to our hotel which was in the quieter area of Nigeen Lake. I was glad we did not book the houseboats as it just looked so crowded for enjoying the serenity of the place.
We spent our time in Srinagar wandering through the Mughal Gardens- Pari Mahal, Nishat Bagh, Shalimar Bagh, and ChashmeShahi. The gardens, true to their reputation, are really well maintained. Despite so many visitors coming in every day to enjoy a picnic there, there is no flood of plastic bags or any garbage in the gardens. However, there isn’t anything uniquely spectacular that one may not have seen in any other part of India so I wouldn’t recommend planning too much time to spend there. Chashme Shahi however, with the natural spring water is a must visit. The ice-cold spring water was a delight on a bright sunny day.
The evening was kept free to do a Shikara ride. The shikaras came up to our hotel which was really convenient. They charge about INR 500 per ride. The way the Shikaras are designed, you cannot help being relaxed. Rowing around in the quiet waters of the lake in the evening is an awesome and very calming experience. One can take a Shikara ride till late in the night.
A few things to keep in mind in Srinagar –As we were informed by the hotel and multiple taxi drivers, taxis are primarily on full day or half day rate only for sightseeing. You can’t book a taxi just to be with you and go wherever you want. They will take you only to the specific tourist spots. If you just want them to take you to one place, they will charge you pretty much for half a day sightseeing. If you want to move around locally, you will get transport from point to point. Coming from Delhi, this was a surprise for us as we were typically used to hiring a taxi on mileage basis and taking it wherever we wanted.
While in Srinagar we also planned a day to visit to Gulmarg for a ride on the famous Gondola. The Gondola experience was an epitome of Kashmiri hospitality towards tourists. Since we had elderly people with us, we were allowed to take the car directly till the Gondola boarding point after taking permission from the security office. They asked us to take one of their authorized guides which turned out to be a boon. The guides there typically charge INR 600. This guy made us really comfortable by doing all the running around work. While we had our tickets booked online, one still needs to collect the boarding pass from the ticket window which takes about an hour itself. The guide did this for us in 15- 20 minutes. The Gondola does not stop at the boarding point, it just slows down speed and one has to hop onto it. My mom was pretty prepared that she would not be able to make the ride but the guide actually requested for the Gondola to be stopped for a minute so that she could board it. The Gondola ride is just for a few minutes but one gets a beautiful view of the pristine hills, and the greenery of the valley , mules grazing lazily and flat roofed huts.
The first phase of the Gondola takes one to Kungdoor which is at about 9000 feet height. A lot of people just go till here as the air starts thinning further as the height increases. If you plan to visit both phases, don’t spend time here while going. A lot is said about it being really difficult to make it to phase 2 but we did not face any hurdles. Both my parents who are nearing 70 were able to go to the second phase which is called Affarwat. The guide helped us trek further up the difficult path to get our hands into the snow. Thankfully we had him as he took us through a short cut and lesser difficult terrain. August is summer in Kashmir and pretty much the end of the snow season. If you go during April- June, you will get to see plenty of snow in Gulmarg. It is quite chilly in Gulmarg even during the peak summer and hence one needs to be adequately clad. The Gondola is the main attraction of Gulmarg so there is no need otherwise to spend the night there. One can do a day trip which is what we did and still had plenty of time to spend a nice evening by the lake back in Srinagar.
The best part of the itinerary was the trip to Pahalgam. It takes about 3 hours to reach Pahalgam so one should plan to spend a night there at least. The route to Pahalgam is also an experience with greenery all around, apple orchards and walnut trees on the way. Stop for a while on your way to cherish these experiences too. Pahalgam has a lot of cottage like guest houses which provide B&B accommodation. These are very good in quality. I booked one based on recommendations on tripadvisor and was very happy with the place and the hospitality we got for the price. The beauty of Pahalgam cannot be stated in words. The mountains towering over the excited Lidder river flowing through the town is as scenic as it can be. There are various valley points to visit to absorb these wonders of nature, Aru Valley, Chandan Wadi and Betab Valley (originally Hunganwadi but renamed after the movie shot there). I am one of those travelers who like to reach a certain point and enjoy there, but Pahalgam made me fall in love with the journey. Don’t waste your time riding mules after you reach these various points to see some silly spots shown by guides. Just enjoy the journey to each of these places with the enthralling beauty around. Pahalgam is cold all through the year and that is why most accommodations do not have fans. We were lucky that it rained despite the scorching summers which gave us a great experience of the Pahalgam weather.
Now a few things about Kashmir for all travelers who have wanted to go there but haven’t been due to all the news they watch:
Since tourism is their primary business, they will go all out to keep you safe. It is one state where you will be bothered less if you are a tourist vs being a local.
- It looks like any other normal place; there is no flood of army all around, so you can really enjoy yourself. There are people always on the roads, women using public transport by themselves, driving cars etc.
- Don’t mind the tone of the locals when they speak Hindi. Their accent sounds a bit rude but that’s not what they mean.
- Try out the Kashmiri food. Specially dishes made with their typical lal masala are yum, carry some of this special spice back with you.
- Prefer to stay in good/reputed accommodations and make transport arrangements beforehand. Transport is expensive there.
- Do a bit of research yourself. Don’t just depend on your taxi guy for any information on where to go, what to see. They will only take you to places where they get a commission and will have complete disdain for other places.
- The people there were low on their ability to take feedback, good or bad. I guess there is past baggage that they carry and they also want tourism to increase so for some reason they only want compliments and anything that looks like feedback is not welcome.
If you like going to the hills in India, and I have been to many of the popular hill stations so can talk about it with some credibility, there is nothing like Kashmir! So go out there and enjoy this beautiful part of our country that we are and will always be proud of…