A nostalgic trip to Kashmir

Photo of A nostalgic trip to Kashmir 1/14 by Abhishek Bhan
Photo of A nostalgic trip to Kashmir 2/14 by Abhishek Bhan
Photo of A nostalgic trip to Kashmir 3/14 by Abhishek Bhan
Photo of A nostalgic trip to Kashmir 4/14 by Abhishek Bhan
Photo of A nostalgic trip to Kashmir 5/14 by Abhishek Bhan
Photo of A nostalgic trip to Kashmir 6/14 by Abhishek Bhan
Photo of A nostalgic trip to Kashmir 7/14 by Abhishek Bhan
Photo of A nostalgic trip to Kashmir 8/14 by Abhishek Bhan
Photo of A nostalgic trip to Kashmir 9/14 by Abhishek Bhan
Photo of A nostalgic trip to Kashmir 10/14 by Abhishek Bhan
Photo of A nostalgic trip to Kashmir 11/14 by Abhishek Bhan
Photo of A nostalgic trip to Kashmir 12/14 by Abhishek Bhan
Photo of A nostalgic trip to Kashmir 13/14 by Abhishek Bhan
Photo of A nostalgic trip to Kashmir 14/14 by Abhishek Bhan

Sledging down a mountain slope at close to 30 kilometers per hour with blustery winds and jagged specks of ice numbing your facial senses, your nose could almost break off, you feel. Yet the adrenaline surging through your body wills you on and you buckle down for the ride. Your fingers metamorphosed into popsicles, you hang on to the sledge akin to a skydiver holding onto the parachute cord. As the slope plateaus, you can’t help but feel enamoured by the ease with which this one minute ride intoxicates you, leaving you yearning for more. When you regain some semblance of kinesthesia in your face, you’ll look towards the summit of the mountain and know that in between the snow on your jacket and the short sledge down, you’ve had an experience you won’t be forgetting in a hurry.

The Gulmarg Gondola, named after the town it’s helped make famous, is the gateway to the summit of the Kongdori Mountain. The Gondola takes goes up the mountain to a height of nearly 13,000 feet giving the tourists a chance to wipe the clouds from their faces. When you finally catch your breath at the top, albeit with some difficulty, you lose it all again instantly, looking at the stunning view of the valley below. Breathtaking in the truest sense of the word. I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else, you say to yourself.

Any trip to Kashmir is absolutely incomplete without a tasting of the ‘Wazawan’, a collection of all the delectable Kashmiri delicacies. Though, if you’re a vegetarian a meal in Kashmir can get over pretty soon. Almost all of the ‘Wazawan’ comprises of mutton preparations exclusively. Different cuts of mutton, cooked in different gravies all enthralling the gastronomic senses. In many ways, every Wazawan meal is a journey in itself taking you from the purely minced meat of Srinagar to the rough cuts of Pahalgam. For all the political and social instability that has marred Kashmir for the best part of two decades, the allurement of Kashmir has largely stayed intact. Like a princess whose father’s kingdom got invaded and captured, Kashmir had receded into a dark corner of solitude. Now, however, Kashmir is back in the mainstream regaling one and all with its timeless charm and elegance. Kashmir is here to stake its claim again, almost in a Daenarys Targaryan-esque sort of way. This ‘Heaven on Earth’ was only forgotten, not lost.

My Kashmiri sojourn began as most do, in Srinagar. Located in the bosom of the valley itself, Srinagar has always been the poster boy of Kashmir Tourism.No matter where you go in Srinagar, the Dal Lake seems almost ubiquitous, peering out of every corner. The Dal is replete with house boats, almost giving it the look of a floating city complete with vendors and hawkers meandering their way through the small alcoves the colossal houseboats afford them. Once you step inside the houseboats you lose any inkling of the fact that you’re not in a proper house built on solid ground. Imperial Kashmiri kadai carpets, intricately carved walnut wood furniture, elegant hand-woven drapes embellish the interiors. The owner of the house-boat serves as the care-taker, the cook and your personal attendant for any needs you might have during your stay. Coming from the venal friendships that the cities offer, genuine hospitality warms the heart like never before.Kashmir is as famous for its food as it is for its sights and sounds. The world over, Kashmiri dishes like Dum Aloo and Rogan Josh are repeatedly imitated but the real flavor lies in the spices available exclusively in the valley and, of course, the Kashmiri hands that curate the food immaculately. A traditional Dum Aloo dish takes over a day of Mise en place before the dish can actually be cooked. This involves puncturing the boiled potato with hundreds of holes, using a thin needle, so the spices percolate to the innermost parts of the potato when it is being cooked. Such attention to detail is the hallmark of Kashmiri cooking and can only be seen in the valley itself. Apart from the charm of the houseboats, Srinagar offers many other sights to please the senses. Shalimar Bagh and Nishat Bagh, regal in their plush beauty, lend credence to the oft-mentioned “Heaven on Earth” used to describe the Kashmir Valley. The Shankracharya mandir and the Hazratbal shrine offer the dose of spirituality that every traveler must ingest. Legend has it that drinking the waters of the Chasm-E-Shahi waterfall had the potential to help digest stones that one might have eaten. Since we aren’t in the habit of eating stones as an appetizer every now and then, we’ll never know how water-tight this legend really is. And even if it doesn’t turn out to be true, which it most likely isn’t, it still feels like an interesting bit of legendary trivia that a visitor to Kashmir should know. Nagin Lake, an extension of the Dal itself, is another picturesque location of Srinagar that definitely deserves a visit. It’s a secluded spot, a little away from the city and hence flocks of tourists don’t gravitate there. Nagin Lake will charm you with its pleasant serenity as you sit back and relax, riveted by the vista surrounding you. This is one of those times in life when all else feels inconsequential and it’s just you and the landscape, merged into one, warping through seemingly frozen time, together.

From Srinagar, we travelled on to Gulmarg which depite being located only 60 kilometers from Srinagar takes a fairly long time to reach because of the serpentine hilly roads that you must traverse to get there. Once there, you’re mind immediately goes back to the Rajesh Khanna songs of the late ‘70s and the ‘80s that made the lush green plains of Gulmarg almost globally recognizable. Almost every Hindi movie during those times had a song sequence that had to be shot in Gulmarg. No other place would do. Those lush green slopes are enveloped by snow-clad mountains on three sides giving, almost as if the valley is wearing a snowy tiara, awarded to it for being the prettiest place in the world. The Gondola Ride to the top of the mountain is an absolute must-have. Gulmarg is also home to the highest golf course in the world and even if you’re fairly golf-averse you could swing a club or two, putt a hole or two and you’d have achieved something in the golfing world that even Woods and McIlroy would be envious of. The Highland Park hotel is the most famous hotel there and even if staying there will make too large a dent in your travel budget, you should at least visit the place once to appreciate the typical Kashmiri style architecture, swathed with with its wooden porticoes, chestnut floors and plush carpets and drapes. Running your hand across the wooden panels seems like the only thing you’d want to be doing at that precise moment.

Pahalgam is another destination in Kashmir that almost certainly makes it to every travelers list. Like a quintessential hill station, much of the life in Pahalgam gravitates towards the Mall Road. Beautiful Pashmina Shawls are the main attraction at the shops with women incessantly haggling over the price. The price quoted is astronomical, by any stretch of the imagination, for the product offered so the shopkeeper have few qualms about reducing it, albeit slowly. This cat and mouse game is compelling enough to stand by and watch but we move on to the other sights Pahalgam has to offer. As the plains of Gulmarg were a de facto star cast member in the ‘80s, such was the case with Pahalgam in the early ‘90s. Many scenes of ‘Betaab’ were actually shot around Pahalgam, in the eponymous region that has now come to be called the Betaab Valley. One look at the valley and you’d know why it was chosen to be the backdrop on the silver screen. Lush plains, interspersed with small lakes and the all too familiar tiara of snow-clad mountains makes this a sight to behold. The iconic “Hum tum ek kamre mein band ho” from the movie 'Bobby' was shot in a cottage nearby and that has come to be called the “Bobby Hut” ever since. To say that the film industry has contributed to the culture of Kashmir would be quite an understatement. The Lidder River ('Yellow' in Kashmiri) offers ample opportunities for rafters to test themselves against breakneck rapids. Sometimes, unfortunately, nature wins and rafting is subsequently suspended, as it had happened when I was there.

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