Kashmir - Truly A Paradise


It was with dismay that we watched the events unfold in Kashmir on the news channel in April 2016. The news of unrest and curfew in the valley had us wondering whether we would really be able to achieve our dream of visiting the valley. We decided that we would take a call just the day before leaving. With bated breath we watched the news channel on the day before leaving and there was no news of the Kashmir valley at all. We now decided we would go ahead with the trip that we had been planning for two months. We packed our bags with a few warm clothes and set off on our journey.

As the flight took off smoothly, the landscape underwent a gradual metamorphosis and as we flew over Pathankot the Captain announced we would be Srinagar soon. The landscape now had changed from tropical dry Deciduous forests to Coniferous and Alpine. Lofty snow capped mountains stood majestically along the horizon. Snow white cumulus clouds caressed the mountain tops as they travelled with the wind. It was time to land and eventually we disembarked with trepidation, hoping fervently our trip would be successful. Back home many people had discouraged us from taking this risk.

As we left the departure lounge we spotted Umar bhai with our name placard. He had a broad welcoming smile on his face which made us feel lighter. As he ushered us to the car outside the airport we were impressed by the beautiful and clean surroundings. The road was lined with Kashmiri Fraess't trees which formed a tunnel and the weather was pleasant. We were pleasantly surprised to see that there were absolutely no signs of unrest on the roads. Umar Bhai informed us that whatever had happened was in the border areas and the other parts were quite peaceful. We checked into our hotel and had a light dinner and retired for the night. The next day we were to leave for Sonmarg for site seeing.

Day 1: Day trip to Sonmarg.

The next morning after packing our sweaters and mufflers in a small bag and having a heavy breakfast we set off for the mountains of Sonmarg which are 81 kms from Srinagar taking 3 hrs to reach. Umar Bhai gave us some instructions before entering Sonmarg. He informed us that at a particular point, he would have to drop us and we would have to either take a local cab or a pony ride. We preferred hiring a cab. We did as we were told and haggled for the price. At last the local cab driver agreed at a price of Rs. 2500 and an extra Rs 100 each for a coat and gum boots which are necessary for walking in the snowy terrain. As he drove higher and higher through the mountains we asked him where were the Meadows Of Gold. He informed us that the Sonmarg valley itself was known as Meadows of Gold. The river Sind meanders through Sonmarg and the location offers exotic shots of waterfalls. The next stop was the Satte pe Satta Point which was a plain land covered with snow and surrounded by lofty snow capped mountains. Here we were pestered by the locals to hire a sledge to take us to higher points. I did hire one after a lot of bargaining and he took us to a point name Bajrangi Point, where the shooting of the Hindi film "Bajrangi Bhaijan" had taken place. Here we strongly felt that the people running this place should be properly organized as it seemed chaotic. He then pointed at the Thajiwas glacier which was at a small distance from our cab. Thajiwas glacier is at an altitude of 9,186 feet and is awe inspiring silvery scene set against lush green meadows. Thajiwas is supposed to be the most accessible glacier but we could not go near it, as it was snowing and were advised against it. Later we visited the Table Top point where the Sind river flows down into rivulets and Someshwar temple from where the Amarnath Yatra commences.

Left: Thajiwas Glacier Right : Sonamarg

Photo of Sonamarg by Gauri Naik

We felt compelled to stay awhile and enjoy the snow and the cool weather. But it was time to leave and go back to our original point where Umar Bhai was waiting for us. It was late evening and time for dinner when we returned to the hotel.

Day 2: Day trip to Yousmarg - Meadow name after Christ

Yousmarg is a hill station situated 47 kms from Srinagar. It takes an hour and half drive through the Alpine forests covered with pine and fir trees in the Pir Panjal range. As we arrived in Yousmarg we were mesmerized by its breath taking panoramic views. I remembered the famous poet Firduas’ words

“ Gar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast,

Hameen ast-o, Hameen ast-o, Hameen ast”

(If ever there is heaven on earth,

It is here, it is here, it is here”).

The Meadows Of Yousmarg

Photo of Kashmir - Truly A Paradise by Gauri Naik

I have never felt more overwhelmed by the beauty of nature. The vast emerald meadows and the beautiful cottages dotting them, the mountains covered with green layer of forests and the sparkling waters of the Doodhganga river, the serene blue lake Nilnag and the oval shaped Sang-e-Safed meadow, all left us mesmerized and speechless. We took a pony ride to the DoodhGanga which was one of the most enjoyable experiences. The river here comes crashing down the mountains and frothing like a foam and hence has derived its name. It is an ideal place for lovers of long walks in picturesque locales. Here cottages by JKTDC are also available and it is worth staying for a night. The majestic peaks of Tattakuti and Sang-e-Safed are visible from here.

Left : The DoodhGanga Right: One of the streams of Doodhganga

Photo of Kashmir - Truly A Paradise by Gauri Naik

Visitors can also indulge in activities like trekking, skiing and pony riding. Pony rides can cost you anything between Rs 1000 to Rs 1700 per person and there is a board mentioning the various trekking points with their corresponding costs which made it easier for us to make choices without having to bargain. A must see destination. It was similar to our experience in the Swiss Alps many years ago. The locals here are very poor and earn only from tourists. We were overwhelmed by their warmth and courtesy and lack of greed.

Day 3: Srinagar to Pahalgam. (Two nights at Pahalgam)

On the third day we had an early breakfast, we checked out of our hotel and left for Pahalgam which is at a distance of 92 kms from Srinagar, approx. 3 hrs drive. On the way we visited the Martand temple and Gurudwara. Later we visited the bat factory.The cricket and baseball bats made from local willow trees are also exported. The next stop was Avantipur ruins, the ancient part of Kashmir. Lying in ruins are temples dedicated to Lord Shiva and Avantiswami. The backdrop of the ruins is scenic, with mountains and fraess't trees.We sauntered around listening to the guide who was enthusiastically relating the history of these ruins. Later we drove through Pampore which is famous for its saffron and has acres of saffron fields which one must visit in the saffron season i.e. September. The best time to visit Kashmir is the month of September when the saffron fields are blooming with flowers and the apple orchards are aden with the best juicy apples, the landscape has an autumn look with varied colors of the rainbow. Marriages are also held in this month and exotic dish Wazwan spreads its aroma in the valley.

As we passed through Anantnag, locally known as Islamabad, we saw apple orchards with apple trees blooming with flowers.

An Apple tree in full bloom

Photo of Yusmarg, Forest Block by Gauri Naik

We arrived in Pahalgam at midday and after lunch set off for a pony ride to Baisaran. A board displayed the rates and we decided we would visit Pahalgam Valley, Kashmir Valley, Kanimarg and Baisaran.

Further up there is Tulian Lake which we chose not to visit it as it would be long and arduous ride. The pony ride was very exhausting but the picturesque views of Pahalgam more than made up for it. Baisaran was way above our expectations. A vast stretch of emerald meadows surrounded by lofty snow capped peaks awaited us. The sun played hide and seek through the snow capped mountains creating a magical effect. No wonder it is known as the "Mini Switzerland" of India.

Waisaran at Pahalgam

Photo of Kashmir - Truly A Paradise by Gauri Naik

We sat for a long time on the mounds of grass, soaking in the sheer beauty of the surroundings, not willing to leave. Later we rode to Kanimarg, a lonely beautiful spot. From here we started our journey downhill.

A mustard field at dusk

Photo of Kashmir - Truly A Paradise by Gauri Naik

Day 4: Pahalgam local site-seeing and visit to Daksum and Sinthan Top.

We set off at 10am for Daksum which is at a distance of 40kms from Pahalgam, a 2 hours scenic drive. Daksum is a trekker's paradise with lush green coniferous trees, gurgling streams and enchanting brooks. I noticed that the pine trees here wore a dark green color which was unique. The air was cool, crisp, pure and invigorating. The car took an uphill turn to the picturesque Daksum situated at a height of 8000 ft amidst magnificent grandeur.The gurgling Bringhi river meanders through its mountains and gushes right through its centre.

As the car started climbing further, the scenes became even more ethereal and took our breath away. The snow filled gorges, thick forests, rivulets of melted snow, the chirping of the birds, sights and sounds which are a rarity in our cities, were etched on our minds.

It was one of the most memorable experiences.

As we drove uphill it started snowing adding to our joy. The flip side was that Sinthan Top was closed because the road leading to it had heavy snowfall. Thus we had to turn back and start our downhill journey. The weather here is always unpredictable and one has to depend on one's luck while planning for this journey.

Enjoying the snowflakes in Daksum in a pheran

Photo of Daksum, Forest Block by Gauri Naik

Umar Bhai informed us that he would be taking us to the Kokernag gardens from here. We crossed the Achabal gardens on our way to Kokernag. We did not visit Achabal as Umar Bhai informed us Kokernag would be better.

Kokernag and Verinag are built during the Mughal rein. "Koker" which means "chicken" or "fowl" in the local language and "nag" means "spring". The five springs that gush out of the thick forest, of the surrounding mountains, resemble the claws of a "fowl". The peace and tranquility experienced in these gardens is incomparable. The well manicured lawns, multi-colored flowers and the sound of the gushing water makes you feel one with nature .

The Kokernag Gardens

Photo of Kashmir - Truly A Paradise by Gauri Naik

Verinag is the source of the river Jhelum and the spring never dries up or overflows.

We returned to the hotel feeling refreshed and looking forward to our next destination - Gulmarg. We checked out of the hotel after breakfast and headed towards Chandanwari. Umar Bhai drove us to the taxi stand whence we had to hire a local cab. It was a sunny morning and the cab driver was very informative.

Verinag Gardens

Photo of Kashmir - Truly A Paradise by Gauri Naik

Day 5: Local site seeing at Pahalgam and then Gulmarg.

Chandanwari was a bit of a disappointment as it looked repetitive after visiting Sonmarg. We did not go further up into the snow. Instead we proceeded to our next stop which was Betaab valley and Aru Valley. The scenery here looked amazing and it is named after the Hindi movie "Betaab" which was shot here. We took pictures atop a hill and again skipped this spot which is a valley with a better view from the top. The driver advised us to visit the golf course in Pahalgam which is at a height of more than 7250 feet. The entry at the golf course was free and this turned out to be one of the best sites I had seen. The Himalayan nature in its bounty. The panoramic view of the Himalayas from the golf course was so awesome that we did not feel like leaving this place. As we went deeper into the woods it became even more enchanting. The pictures below speak for themselves. We reached Gulmarg in the early evening and decided to take a short walk. Pony rides are not necessary in Gulmarg if you love walking. Gulmarg is at an altitude of 8,694 ft and nestled between majestic peaks of the Himalayas. The town is bustling with tourists and people can be seen enjoying pony rides. We preferred walking to the tourist spots like snow point, fishing lake and children's park. We returned to the hotel late in the evening looking forward to our gondola ride the next day.

The view of the Himalayan peaks on the periphery of the Pahalgam golf course is so enthralling that it is difficult to leave the place. We sat staring at the scenes for a long time, not willing to leave the place. But then time was a constant constraint and we had to move on.

Pahlgam Golf Course

Photo of Kashmir - Truly A Paradise by Gauri Naik

The other side of the Golf Course ay Pahalgam

Photo of Kashmir - Truly A Paradise by Gauri Naik

Day 6: Gondola ride to Kungdoor and Khilanmarg(Affarwat peak)

The gondola ride tickets can be booked at the Srinagar airport on arrival or online. You can also book them in Gulmarg but usually there is long line. There are guides who help you book tickets faster and remain with you for the entire ride. We preferred having a guide but later realised it was not necessary. There are two phases, the first takes you at a height of 12,293 ft to Kungdoor and the second takes you 13,780 ft to Affarwat. We realized we had made a mistake by booking tickets for the first phase as it was full of slushy snow and very crowded. The snow was slippery and we could hardly walk around. We left within ten minutes and took the gondola ride for the second phase. The tickets can be booked here itself. The second phase is like a dream come true destination.

High above the clouds in Affarwat

Photo of Kashmir - Truly A Paradise by Gauri Naik

You are standing literally above the clouds and its a heady feeling and gives you a high which nothing else could give.

Skiing on the snow peaks of Affarwat

Photo of Kashmir - Truly A Paradise by Gauri Naik

The pure white snow on the table top mountain and the surrounding peaks is a sight etched on our minds. People were seen throwing snow balls at each other and enjoying walking around in the snow. Some were skiing and some were enjoying their sledge rides. It was amusing to see some of them actually eating balls of snow like ice cream. The sledgewallahs here do not allow tourists to go near the LOC unless you hire their sledge which annoyed us.

A view of Gulamrg from our window

Photo of Kashmir - Truly A Paradise by Gauri Naik

The views from the gondola are mind-blowing and we wished the gondola would stop intermittently so that we could soak in the beauty of the place. We returned to Srinagar and checked into a houseboat in Dal Lake. It was a completely novel experience. We had to hire a shikara which took us to our houseboat. Shabbir the manager of the houseboat greeted us with warmth and made us feel at home immediately. The food served here is as per your orders unlike in hotels and the atmosphere is homely. Another shikara came to fetch us after sometime and took us for site seeing at the Dal Lake. We were charged Rs. 1400 for the shikara ride which took us to the The shepherds settled here live in pretty looking mud huts and migrate to warmer places in winter. It seems they can grow their vegetables on the roofs of their huts which is made of grass. On finishing the gondola ride we were exhausted after walking in the snow and retired to bed early. Had to return to Srinagar the next day.

Mud Huts - A view from the Gondola

Photo of Kashmir - Truly A Paradise by Gauri Naik

Day 7: Gulmarg to Srinagar

The next morning we were offered "namak chai" (salted tea) and "lavas", a Kashmiri bread by Shabbir. He told us it was a morning routine for most of the Kashmiri people.

A shikara loaded with flowers

Photo of Kashmir - Truly A Paradise by Gauri Naik

We were amazed at the expanse of the lake. The lake is crowded with houseboats on one side and the floating market is nothing different from a regular market. Many vendors approach you in a shikara coaxing you to have a look at their wares. We were warned not to buy saffron from these people as it is usually fake. There are barely three chinars left at the Char Chinar but the place was like an island in the middle of the lake and had a beauty of its own. We returned to the houseboat after three hours of shikara ride.

Interiors of a Houseboat

Photo of Kashmir - Truly A Paradise by Gauri Naik

Day 8: Local sightseeing at Srinagar

We left early with Umar Bhai taking us to the Shankaracharya hill which was visible from our houseboat. It has 290 steps to climb to get to the Shiva temple at the top. The temple precincts are very peaceful and offer a 360 degree view of the valley. Then we visited the Pari Mahal, which is also atop a hill.

The Himalayas at Shalimar Gardens

Photo of Shankaracharya temple, Srinagar, Srinagar by Gauri Naik

The Shalimar, Nishaat and Chasme Shahi each have distinctive features. Rows of flowers adorn the pathways and in the month of May to September the variety of rose flowers, which one gets to see here, are unique. The Zabarwan range forms a scenic backdrop to these gardens.

Day 9: Visit to Manasbal Lake, Wular Lake and Hazratbal Shrine and Kheer Bhavani.

On the way to Manasbal Lake we visited the temple of Kheer Bhavani. The precincts of this temple have the most beautiful Chinar trees ever seen. The temple has a legend which says that when the water in the small tank of the temple becomes red or black, it is an indication of a bad omen. We admired the cleanliness and the upkeep of the lawns of the temple. Manasbal Lake is at a distance of 20 kms from Srinagar. The shikara ride in this lake was one of the most memorable experiences. The lake is serene and the clear blue waters of the lake are a treat to the senses. There is a garden near the lake and as we alighted, we were invited to taste the fish kebabs in a small village near this garden. The dish was lip smacking and offered with "bakarkhani", a roti typical of the Kashmiri cuisine. The roti was soft and delectable. It was fun watching how these rotis were made in the tandoor with deft fingers by the locals.anasbal

Manasbal Lake

Photo of Kashmir - Truly A Paradise by Gauri Naik

The wular Lake, which is approx. 60 kms from Srinagar, has a small park which offers scenic locales. To some, this lake is somewhat of a disappointment but we found it beautiful as it is devoid of any artificial features. The peace and tranquility of this place is rarely found elsewhere. It is like a balm on your nerves and a total stress buster.

The serene Wular Lake

Photo of Kashmir - Truly A Paradise by Gauri Naik

The last point of our entire journey was the Hazratbal Mosque. Lying on the western bank of the Dal Lake and facing the Nishaat Baug the mosque is a majestic structure made of pure white marble. The silvery white mosque houses a relic, the Prophet's hair, and is a revered shrine. The grand corridors of the mosque display one of the most intricate architecture. We travelled through the old city and left for the houseboat with a heavy heart. The next day we were to leave Kashmir for home. Important tips for travellers to Kashmir.

The beautiful Hazratbal Mosque

Photo of Kashmir - Truly A Paradise by Gauri Naik

Tips for planning the trip

  1. The best season, according to the local people, is the month of September. If you want to see tulips then the best time is between March 15 to April 15. This year the tulip garden closed on April 15 and we missed it by a few days. The best time to see roses in the Mughal gardens or flowers is the mid to end of May.
  2. The cold season remains till mid-May and the warm months are June and July.
  3. Those who suffer from asthma or heart disease are advised against visiting Affarwat as the oxygen level depletes.
  4. If you are visiting in the cold months it is advisable to carry thermals and woolen clothing. No need of carrying coats or boots for visit to Affarwat or Sonmarg as you get them on rent. Usually it costs Rs300 per person per day in Affarwat and Rs. 100 per person in Sonmarg.
  5. It is compulsory to hire local cabs at Sonmarg and Pahalgam. At Sonmarg the price has to be negotiated whereas in Pahalgam it is fixed.
  6. There is a certain boundary near the gondola station where only cabs of tourists staying overnight are allowed and your booking is checked, else you have to walk it up if you are put up in a hotel outside this boundary. Please check the location of your hotel in Gulmarg before booking.
  7. The booking of the gondola ride is best done online or through a guide. Even if they say the second phase is closed, usually it is to compel you to buy the tickets of the first phase which you may not want to do. So double check before booking.
  8. The pony ride prices can be negotiated but you cannot have a pony ride without a helper in Yousmarg as the terrain is too rough and muddy. Helpers in other places may not be required if you are used to pony rides. The helpers have to be paid extra.
  9. If you hire a sledge they may insist on hiring a helper in Sonmarg. Again here the helper has to be paid extra.
  10. Carry extra cash for all these rides as it could amount to a lot of expenses.
  11. Buy kesar (saffron) only from government outlets or from Zamindar Saffron Company in Pampore who own saffron fields. They also supply good walnuts. We bought from Zamindar and it has given us good results. They also courier it to you through DTDC.
  12. The test for saffron is, the milk in which you mix saffron, should turn yellow and not red. Also the strands should be tapering and not straight.
  13. A word on the people of Kashmir. They are the most warm and trustworthy people we have come across. Rest assured that you will never be robbed. Our bags were taken care of by the shikara wallahs as we went shopping and they guarded them with care. We attribute the success of our trip to the care and warmth of the Kashmiri people.
  14. No need of pony rides in Gulmarg if you love walking.
  15. Rates of silk clothing and artefacts are cheaper in Srinagar than elsewhere.

This post was originally published on My Travel Sojourns.

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