There are places that are alluring, then comes places that are heavenly and beyond imagination. And lastly, comes settings that fuels imagination and redefines everything, Kashmir is one heaven of such clime.
In December of 2017, when I got an opportunity to extrapolate my journey beyond Jammu, I decided to take it to Kashmir and Beyond.
Travel time between Jammu and Srinagar is hardly 25mins (via air), as soon as the plane stabilizes in the sky, a clear view of snow cladded mighty Himalaya comes into sight. Right from script of some adventurous Hollywood movie, the white peaks of the Himalaya hold the gravity to make people spill out from their seat and absorb the razzle-dazzle view of giant snow covered Himalaya from small aircraft windows.
I had my share of skepticism, nervousness and concerns when I made up my mind to travel to Kashmir, and as the plane started descending at Srinagar airport, I could feel the element of uneasiness melting fast into my body. The plane touched Srinagar airport at 11:20 am on 6th December, 2017. I collected my luggage and moved towards prepaid taxi stand. After a lot of research, I had booked a hotel in Lal Chowk, the prepaid taxi stand charged me 640 INR, and the driver assured me that he would drop me at my hotel. Lal chowk is around 12 KMS from Airport and is situated in the heart of the city, in fact it is one of the biggest market of Srinagar.
The very first thing that hit my sight upon coming out from airport is the deployment of Indian army in the valley. The airport is heavily guarded and so is the route, markets, chowks, shrines. I was overwhelmed to see the army tanks, buses and bunkers across the streets throughout the city. Seemed to me like they were fully prepared and equipped for any kind of emergency. Kashmir is not like other hill stations; the terrain of the valley is more or less levelled with slight elevated patches of land or mountains. The unique thing about the place includes the houses made in the valley, to avoid snow clogging the Kashmir people make the roof of their houses in a hut shape, the second thing would be people and their dress. The Kashmiris wear a distinct overcoat to avoid the chilling cold. They talk to each other in a loud voice, not to offend anyone, it’s just their way.
(fact check: Airfare from Jammu to Srinagar is around 1300 INR and there are couple of flights from Jammu to Srinagar in the morning, after you check in at Jammu airport you are required to move to baggage identification area and identify your baggage and cabin luggage is not allowed, instead you get an upper limit on check luggage as 22kgs)
It took me around 40 mins to reach my hotel, The Standard Hotel and Restaurant, Lal Chowk.
Lal Chowk is situated in the midst of a crowded market. I specifically chose the place because I could find a lot of option for eateries, taxis and local shopping.
The caretaker of the hotel is an amazing man, I asked him about the places to explore, he not only gave me the complete itinerary but also arranged a cab for me in the best possible rate. And assured me that the valley is as stable and safe as any other city in India. (Care taker: Gulam Kadir : 09419087192).
I got ready in 30 mins and shoot off for Srinagar tour in an auto (arranged by the Mr Gulam). The auto charged me 1000 INR for taking me around Kashmir covering Shankaracharya temple, Chashme Shahi, Mughal Garden, Pari Mahal, Shalimar Bagh and Dal lake.
The tour started from Shankaracharya Temple, situated on a hill top, the temple is a scenic beauty. The road to the temple is quite and beautiful. Taking pictures and carrying mobile phones are banned in the temple premise so I handed my mobile phone to my auto driver and climbed some 200 steps on the staircase leading to the temple. When I reached the temple, I was alone, the place was still. The hills provide an amazing overlooking spot of the Kashmir valley. I sat there for few minutes, enjoyed the chilling breeze and stillness of the temple which seemed to me as overlooking the valley. It took me around 30 mins to explore the whole place, after which I moved to Chashme Shahi.
Chashme Shahi is famous for its amazing gardens and beautiful flowers, but I went in December so couldn’t find the garden much compelling, though a stroll around the pathway provided some really scenic views of exotic and beautiful trees and dry leaves.
It took me another 30 mins to wrap up my stroll and move to Pari Mahal. The Mahal is a startling piece of architecture with several floors of gardens, people enter from the 3rd floor and explore the whole maze. Again, December is not a month where people should go there, as there is not much to see but still the place provided a lot of perfect spot to click pictures.
Next came THE MUGHAL GARDEN, distributed across several levels and a long walk, the garden is breath-taking. It is situated on the bank of Dal lake and the top level of the garden provides an infinite view of the lake.
The dry brown leaves and pleasing sound of flowing water added heavenly aura to the mystic surrounding, the small water stream of the garden seems to merge and compliment the presence of the Dal lake.
I couldn’t stop but keep on climbing the levels until I reached the circumference of the garden, big houses on the periphery of the garden looks like a page form some fantasy palace. It is a must visit place be it any season any day. You can easily spend two to three hours strolling around the garden and clicking some really stunning pictures.
My next destination was Shalimar bagh, it seems like a smaller version of Mughal garden, except from some exotic trees and few tombs.
One can notice the photographers roaming across the park, ready to click your amazing pictures in Kashmiri attire.
The locals speak very high of the place and boast about its beautiful flowers and variety of trees. Again December is not a perfect time to visit this place.
My last stop was The Dal Lake ride. After little negotiation I got a shikara at 1100 INR, I must say, Dal lake is ethereal, it gives the feeling of roaming in Venice, the shikara flew passing across the market and food joints.
I drank the famous local drink of Kashmir there, the Kavaha.
The Dal lake ride is elegant, it gives you a sense of luxury and stillness, but the complete ride is not very peaceful. As soon as you would start the ride, the merchant would start coming in different boats and would try to sell you necklace, bracelets, rings etc. in the name of Kashmiri Sovereign. Make sure you give your best bargain before you decide to buy something from them.
There is a peculiar nature of Kashmiris, they tell you in your face that they want to do business from you and want you to buy something from them, and they won’t let you walk away easily. By the time I left The Shikara it was dark, dal lake started reflecting the lights from lamp post and moon, adding an heavenly touch to itself.
Around 6pm I left for my hotel room. Quickly changed and left my room to explore the Lal chowk market. The market of Lal Chowk remains crowded with local people selling garments, dry fruits and daily need stuffs. As the night starts climbing up the shops starts closing down, you can hardly find any shop open after 8 pm.
Next day I had plan to go to Gulmarg. The caretaker of my hotel again helped me getting the cab at a reasonable price, the cab charged me 2000 INR for a round trip from Srinagar to Gulmarg to Srinagar. We started at 9 am in the morning. The fresh morning breeze gave me a break from the polluted atmosphere of cities. As we moved ahead leaving the city behind, I realised the Srinagar is quite a big city, unlike other hill stations.
We stopped at a dhaba for breakfast.
The delicious Gobi paratha and ginger tea gave much relief from the chilling morning cold pf the valley. The stretch to Gulmarg is heavily dominated by apple forest on both sides of the road. The cold trees looked mesmerising, like the one that we see in wallpapers of some European countries. I reached Gulmarg around 12 pm. Few kilometres before Gulmarg taxi stand various guides could be spotted asking you to pick them, making you feel miserable if you don’t hire one. Due to less snow at Gulmarg we took the taxi to the main taxi stand. From there I took a horse, a helper and a guide to explore Gulmarg and go to Gondola pass. Important thing you should keep in mind is that the base from where cable cart go to Gondola is around 3 kms from taxi stand. You can easily take a guide and walk to Gondola, avoid taking a horse as it would cost you a bomb. They took 2000 INR for a horse and 600 INR for guide and 300 INR for jacket and shoes. I’ll recommend to take only shoes and a guide. They’ll push really hard to take a pony and a helper, please stay away from falling into their trap. The ride/walk from the taxi stand to the Gondola base is stunning with snow covering both side of the road, beautiful hotels, resorts, government quarters adding to mystic view of the place.
The Golf course is another attraction, covered in snow the golf course looked infinite. My guide, Golden is an amazing person., not only he is a good photographer but also a person who would not want to take money from you as and when get a chance. I recommend to talk to him before you go there and cut off all the brokers, you’ll save a lot of money. (Golden Guide: 09622715829)
Gulmarg is nothing sort of a fantasy land, with fresh snow and clean atmosphere.
Beautiful architecture on both side of road makes it look like a fairyland. On reaching cable cart base, I got an option to go for phase 1 of Gondola pass (for 750 INR) or phase 2 of Gondola pass (for 900 INR) my guide suggested to go for phase 1 (But I’ll recommend to go for phase 2).
All snow sports happen at Phase 1 so I took tickets for the same. Once in Gondola, the prominent sports included skiing, sledding, and snow biking. I tried my hands on skiing after Golden bargained from the skiing facilitator, I gave 1000INR for unlimited skiing and really enjoyed it. The trainer took me to a small skiing stretch just to explain me the rules of the blades. Then I moved to a longer stretch. Every time I had to stop the skiing blade I had to fall.
The sport is a must do activity in Gondola. Besides skiing other sports didn’t make much sense for me so after skiing I asked Golden to walk me around Gondola. The peaks surrounding the pass marks POK, Kargil and other famous places, one just can’t get enough of Gulmarg, there is so much to see and explore.
If possible, take a hotel in Gulmarg and stay there overnight to enjoy the peace and beauty. And live in the dream kingdom. Around 4 pm same day, we left Gulmarg for Srinagar.
The evening at Lal chowk is always colourful, you can easily spend few hours just sitting in the Lal chowk park and watching the chores that differentiates Kashmir from the world.
The next day i.e. 8th December 2018, I planned for Sonamarg, and the cab driver asked me to start the journey by 8 am, as Sonamarg is around 80Kms from Srinagar.
Sonamarg is THE place of Kashmir, situated on the Kashmir-Leh route on NH1, the place is nothing less than a heaven, the road to Sonamarg is crazy, big snow-capped mountains covering the sun showing their mightiness over the God of light.
The road gives a feel of crude raw mountaineering trip. The place is around 80Kms from Srinagar and the whole length of 80 Kms is covered with magnificent Apple trees, Mighty mountains, mesmerizing valleys and what not. As usual we stopped at a dhaba to have breakfast, the gobi paratha was not as good as I had on the way to Gulmarg.
The best part of the road journey to Sonamarg is the surprises that awaits you after every mountain curve. One stretch of the road would be sun lit, other would be completely dark, and next would overloaded with fresh snow. I reached Sonamarg somewhere around 12 pm. There I took a horse to go beyond the mountain peak into the Sonamarg valley. Having learned the costlier way, I negotiated the ride and settled on 1K that included a horse, a shoe and a guide (here you need to take a horse unlike in Gulmarg where you can walk on foot and explore the surroundings)
The Sonamarg horse route is more beautiful than Gulmarg and different too, seemed like Kashmir has a lot to offer apart from mainstream snow covered peaks. As my ride reached the top and started descending the valley on the other side, the place started turning on to an absolute dream. The visible surroundings included trees covered in snow, high mountain ranges, small huts, frequent chai points, infinite view of the snow and the mighty sun powering everything. All the roads originating from the valley were disappearing in to the mountains, giving a chill to think about the destination that the roads would be leading to.
I spend close to 2 hours in valley, also tried sledding in just 200 INR (owing to off season rates), obviously took a lot of photos and left the amazing place early to reach back Srinagar before it went dark. Next day I has my flight to Bengaluru at 3 pm, so the evening I spent walking around Lal chowk area and talking to the locals of Kashmir.
9th. December, 2017: I wake up early as I wanted to explore the Srinagar city. I left my hotel room at 9 am and went on a walk to around 8Kms covering Raghbagh and Dal lake.
Srinanar is indeed very beautiful, almost every road in Srinagar is accompanied by the Dal lake elevating the sense of guardianship the lake holds. I left the hotel at 12 pm, as Srinagar as a lot of security checks and luggage identification formalities I decided to leave early.
The place I wanted to cover but couldn’t is Pahalgam, maybe next time. As my plane hit the sky I could feel the satisfaction and confidence surging within me for taking such a trip ALONE!