If the hell in the title has intrigued you, let me explain. Kashmir has two distinct seasons when it can be visited. Summer and winter. Both stand in sharp contrast to each other. The landscape, the weather, the experience, are dramatically different in each season except perhaps the legendary hospitality of the Kashmiris which would exude the same warmth.
In the winter, Kashmir is an icy wonderland. Think of snow-capped mountains. Think about a gorgeous carpet of pristine white snow, think of the magic of a snowfall. Think of fun snowfights and all the stunning snowy landscapes that we see in western movies and books but never get to experience.
I experienced all of this. But what you don't realise when you sit in a tropical weather and dream about the stunning snowy landscapes is the biting, bone-chilling cold that accompanies it. The cold floor slapping my feet hard as I walked barefoot in the Shankar Acharya temple in Srinagar, the chilled water shocking my teeth as I rinsed my mouth in Sonmarg and the miserable cold otherswise actually made me dream of Mumbai in Kashmir! If you have a low cold tolerance level like me, visits to cold places are best kept to a few days.
So let me begin with the story . It was December 2012. Like we do every year it was time for our annual vacation, which happens around the time of our anniversary. So this was our 3rd honeymoon. Our leaves sanctioned, wifey commanded me to quickly plan a trip. I had no time to lose. God's own country was our honeymoon destination. And the golden triangle the destination for the second anniversary. So for the third one I could think of nothing better than the paradise on earth. I booked to and fro tickets to Srinagar and a hotel stay for the first day of arrival. That's how I like to book my tours. I know when iam going. I know when i am coming. What I do when i am there I decide when i am actually there.
My first glimpse of the majesty of Kashmir began 30000 ft up in the air. The mighty snow capped mountains are a sight to behold. They are so awe inspiring, I was instantly reminded of Mount Kailash, the abode of Shiva. It was as if all the mythology my mom taught me as a me had actually come true.
Setting foot on the Kashmir airport, I was surprised by the level of security. There are armymen everywhere, even on the tarmac. Having no place to stay, I met Mr Hilal Ahmad, a guy with a distinct Arabic accent at the government kiosk at the airport. He offered us a good deal on a hotel and a private vehicle for sightseeing.
We checked in to hotel centre point, had a hot cup of kawah and decided to explore Sonmarg the next day.
Tariq, our driver arrived with a Chevrolet Tavera. Covered from head to toe in thermals, jackets, gloves and caps we got into the vehicle and asked him to turn on the heater full blast. We stopped on the way for breakfast at a dhaba. The joy of having hot paranthas and tea amidst a cool pristine environment was unparalleled.
Sledging - At Sonmarg we came across our first fully snow covered mountain. We enjoyed sledging, a few filmy photo poses and after lunch left back for Srinagar. On the way our driver decided to take us to his home. A little way off the main road lay his house. We were given a Kangri and blankets to keep warm. Having met his family and relaxed for a while we went back to Srinagar.
Gulmarg- The next day we decided to explore Kashmir's most well-known, most popular and prettiest place. Gulmarg is easily the place that most resembles Switzerland. Beautiful resorts, wooden houses, alpine trees, skiing, cable cars. Gulmarg has picture postcard beauty. We enjoyed the cable car ride and I tried my hand at skiing.
Srinagar: The next day we decided to take it easy and explore Srinagar itself. The first stop was the most famous spot in Srinagar - Dal Lake. I would easily rate it amongst the top experiences in Kashmir. We rented a Shikhara which would take us on a tour along the lake. The lake is vast and has many experiences in store. The most fascinating thing are the other shikharas that sell their wares and come close to your boat to do so. It's a floating market that sells souvenirs, saffron and other wares.
Next, we explored the Shankaracharya Temple. This is situated on top of a hill and you can see a panoramic view of the city from here. The stone cold floor in the winter was a torture for the feet. Then we explored the Mughal gardens and the Hazratbal mosque.
Pahalgam: This was the last place we explored in Kashmir. It has a special place in memory because this is where we experienced our first snow fall. It was as dreamy and magical as we had imagined in the fairy tales in our childhood. The star attraction of Pahalgam is a horse ride to the top of the mountain. At the top, we enjoyed hot tea and watched couples snowfight. We had planned an overnight stay in Pahalgam, but it was so bitterly cold(-10 degree C) and the hotel heating so poor that in the night we requested our driver to drive back to Srinagar and he obliged.
The next day while we were leaving for Mumbai, it was snowing in Srinagar and I noticed chunks of ice falling from the airport roof. As I got into the plane, a smile lit my face knowing that soon I would be in the warm comfort of Mumbai, away from the torturous cold of heaven.