Travelogue: Mission Kashmir - Srinagar, Gulmarg, Pahalgam and Amanath trek


“Agar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast,

Hameen ast-o hameen ast-o hameen ast”

Every time whether or not I escape from reality, I had to escape from office to go on a trip. It's not as heroic as Ranbir packs his bag and goes out from a wedding, because unlike movies, in reality I've to come back to office and face the situation. This time too I had to create a 'sick' story.

Photo of Travelogue: Mission Kashmir - Srinagar, Gulmarg, Pahalgam and Amanath trek 1/1 by Vikram Mn

Before proceeding further here is the character list of this travelogue

Prasanna- Old timer, school friend whom you'd have seen in most of my travel/trekkalogues

Raja - My second trek with him, theatre mate.

Andal Priya - College mate but more of a travel friend.

Aarthy - Friend from office movie club, Lights On

Muthu - Aarthy's husband

One more person too was there in the list but he had to drop out due to the eventual, marriage. This was a fairly fixed list right from the first, without the usual tantrums. So, except for one cancellation of ticket, the numbers were fairly stable.

Day 1 - Double Flight


This time there is no Day 0 as I went on flight. That flight was out of compulsion. Because the same trip in train, even in sleeper class would have cost almost the same. Taking into account the food and stay expense. Add to it, one extra week leave. So opted for flights. First time I was going on flight with friends so I was excited. But the excitement was short lived.

I was supposed to meet Raja and Andal Priya in Velachery and go to Airport together. Raja was there at Vijaya Nagar bus stand on time, in fact before time. My cab got late. Andal Priya on the other hand changed plan and asked us to pick her up at her house. I was expecting it before but thought it won't happen. But it did. Add to it, it was raining. Actually the weather was awesome.

Aarthy and Muthu were already there with Decathlon heavy bags. In fact we looked like brand ambassadors of Decathlon, especially the trio of Andal Priya, Aarthy and Muthu, as they were the ones with mostly new stuffs. Raja too. We five were there. There was commotion about tagging me in a photo. I was already pissed that I couldn't tag because of office excuse. On top of it, this. Anyways I don't have my colleagues in office, but, still...

Prasanna came really late, very uncharacteristic of him. He attributed it to his upcoming marriage. Fairly acceptable reason. We got in and checked our bags. Seems there were Saravanan - Meenakshi in the airport. Yes, not Brad Pitt - Angelina Jolie but nevertheless our folks seemed to be excited.

Except for Raja and Prasanna, others had not had breakfast, little did we know that they're going to become the usual culprits of the trip. They went and had I believe. Another version is they didn't have. Anyways they were late for the flight and came in last. Settled in flight, we were seeing Hello sexy, oops sorry, Hello 6E magazine and imagining what we'd be ordering. Of course, we didn't order anything. We were in Delhi in no time. I was feeling slightly sleepy but I didn't. Back row did.

Luckily for us, change of flights was a piece of cake, so we had lunch in the airport. Most of us ordered from a Chinese Restaurant which was pathetic and Muthu got an Indian Meals I guess, which was good.

I took the Window seat to Srinagar and slept even before it took off. As soon as I got down, the flight was ready to land. Once we got down in the Srinagar airport, I did some quick inquiry for Amarnath trip and Gulmarg Gondola too. We got a Prepaid Taxi for 830 rupees from there. There was some scuffle near the bill counter, not sure what.

Srinagar was hot and humid so to sit in the car with all those woollen stuff in hand was annoying. Plus it was a Non AC car. Almost all cars were non AC ones there. As there were constructions going on, it was dusty too. After about forty five minutes we reached our stay, Hotel Alamdar Guest House. The place was tough to find and the entry to it was kind of not great but the rooms for the price was really good.

We went for a stroll that evening. What was supposed to be a tea break extended for three hours and got us so tired that we ate dinner while returning and slept immediately. But in those three hours we ate a horrible Bread Bajji, had tea from the most uninterested person, got cheated for a horrible Sweet Lime juice, ogled at the fresh fried meats, couple of us got SIM card and had a good dinner. Once back I called Sahil, the owner of the Hotel to book cab for Gulmarg.

Day 2 - Of Gondola and Greeneries in Gulmarg


We started from our place almost on time. We were asked to take another route as there was an encounter. That was told so matter of factly. Breakfast was great en route. And route post that, to the meadow, was good too.

Photo of Srinagar by Vikram Mn

As having been read in a million blogs, there were 'n' number of annoying touts asking us to take Ponies, guides etc. No one even turns towards Gondola. As having read that it's only a few minutes' walk, we continued to walk. The golf course en route to Gondola was awesome. Got a couple of pictures and then tickets to Gondola ride. Throughout the walk we or specifically I was hardly able to enjoy the beauty of Kashmir because of the touts. They were constantly nagging, asking us to take the service of them for some or other things. Worst of them was a guide who said who'd show us Frozen Lake which requires special permission according to him. He came till the point we boarded Gondola.

Inside Gondola Phase 1 the view was decent but nothing extraordinary. We immediately took the Second Phase, which was brilliant, with mist all around. It felt like a scene from the film 'Stalker' but thanks to the usual culprits, couldn't enjoy the moment. Not sure what they were talking about. I couldn't concentrate because that point high in the air, full of mist, felt terrific.

Photo of Gulmarg by Vikram Mn

As soon as we got down, took few clicks and started walking towards the lake. Raja, Prasanna and I walked quite a distance but couldn't spot any sign of the lake still. I was wondering whether 2.5 km took this long time. The remaining three were coming behind. We got few decent shots on the way and I met one guy who was also in search of lake. I was worried because we were put on a timing in the ticket which was just an hour more. But that guy who came told that it'd not be an issue. That was consoling. He was using his phone to find the navigation. Don't know why it didn't occur to me all that while. Of course I didn't have a working phone but I could have used Raja's at least.

After some huffs and puffs we finally reached the view point to lake. Again took some pics. I wasn't so keen on going to the mouth of the lake but others were so we decided to go. But Aarthy and Andal Priya started with the descent. Rest of us walked till certain point and returned back. I think it was due to the altitude or exhaustion or dehydration or an amalgamation of everything, I was developing a slight headache. I didn't reveal it to others because I didn't want to put that thought on their mind. Only after coming back to Gondola Phase 2, Prasanna also told the same. He had a coffee, I took one sip of it. I was feeling terribly cold and was developing the headache more. On top of it, I was feeling sleepy like anything. I was scared because my last Himalayan trek became a disaster, I thought I lost the trekker in me, I slept sitting in the chair. Finally Raja and Muthu rescued the ladies and brought them to the Phase 2. We were getting terribly hungry as well.

Photo of Travelogue: Mission Kashmir - Srinagar, Gulmarg, Pahalgam and Amanath trek by Vikram Mn

Amidst this chaos I liked something which happened there. Coffee was an exorbitant fifty rupees and Maggi a whopping hundred. Water too was available only as packaged bottles. We had a water bottle with us and asked them water. He told only bottles were available but when we walked off he got our bottles, filled warm water and gave it to us. Humanity at the end of the day reigns.

We ate lunch at 4 PM in a restaurant near the entrance of Gondola track, food was reasonably good. Every one of us were starving so we liked it a lot more than necessary. Post that, except for me and Prasanna, others went in to take photos in Kashmiri dress. I wanted to visit a temple in the premise but it was visible from a distance and there was nothing interesting about it so decided to drop. Our driver came towards us and picked us up soon. Not before showing dissent on how we made him late.

We had tea while going back, Raja wanted lassi but he didn't get it. Only at that point I realized that everyone had headache. We were severely dehydrated I believe. But that didn't stop us from going to apple garden. We thought it'd be like a park but it was some private party for which we needlessly paid 60 rupees to enter and 100 rupees to buy apple.

By the time we came back to room it was quite late. We had dinner in some other restaurant which was very average. Raja's horrid luck with Lassi continued.

Photo of Travelogue: Mission Kashmir - Srinagar, Gulmarg, Pahalgam and Amanath trek by Vikram Mn

Once we came back to room I socialized with the Hotel owner Sahil's family and asked him to book us cab to Nunwan Base Camp the next day. They were really nice people. Packing my bags and settling the amount I went into deep slumber.

Day 3 - Nunwan Base Camp


We started off on time. It was drizzling so there was a slight scare. Because as per prediction it was to rain on Tuesday till Thursday, our exact trek days. Raja started of his shopping spree with the buying of saffron, little did we know it was just the trailer.

Photo of Travelogue: Mission Kashmir - Srinagar, Gulmarg, Pahalgam and Amanath trek by Vikram Mn

The driver that day was a different one. First he somehow jam packed our bags inside the SUV and we started off with the trip. There was some traffic jam for ten minutes but he was already wincing about why didn't start early. We asked him to stop for breakfast at some place as soon as we started and he said he'll do once outside the city.

First we saw saffron fields, the location was awesome. We thought of stopping somewhere there where we could eat but he didn't. He saw a shepherd and told that they are the richest people around here, they'd be having at least two to three lakhs in his pocket. Then he showed us how people take out sands from boat and sell to make money. He was telling some story or the other but wasn't very talkative too.

He sped past that area and overtook a Maruthi 800 thus spilling water from the road on them. Though not intentional, he couldn't slow his car down. Post that he had to take a left to go to Pahalgam but he wasn't allowed in that route so had to take a route through a village. He told that it was the military's saying which goes on there. That's why they want a separate place. Suddenly that Maruthi 800 overtook us, three people from that car came and gave him a tight slap. The whole equation changed. Just few minutes before we were thinking how rash our driver rode but now we were thinking what a poor guy he is. They asked him for license and papers. He either didn't want to give or didn't have. I guess, the latter. We apologized on behalf of him and we continued to ride in utter silence for next few hours.

Photo of Travelogue: Mission Kashmir - Srinagar, Gulmarg, Pahalgam and Amanath trek by Vikram Mn

Not taking the usual left was a blessing in disguise because even though few minutes we could see the village lifestyle there. There was heavy traffic jam post that. Rain too intensified but finally we got to the breakfast place at 11 AM, like three hours after we asked for it. Couldn't complain about the food though. Gulab Jamun especially was terrific.

Within minutes from there we reached the Nunwan Base Camp and military people were happy to see us there. They don't often meet young people and further the season was almost over so there were hardly anyone there. After quickly checking our reporting documents we were allowed to enter.

We got a tent for 300 rupees. I thought it was free but 300 was okay. Only after settling there we started to get a feel of trek. Tents have something about it. Everyone were giving broad smiles. After having lunch all men started to sleep. Women wanted to go out. I wasn't really in a mood but my shoe had got torn so I had too. Finally only Muthu stayed back and rest all of us went.

Photo of Nunwan Camping Site, Pahalgam by Vikram Mn

I loved the walk that evening. We had Tea and Pani Poori. I got my shoes stitched. He was a true craftsman. Raja bought his second SIM which again was said to work 'everywhere'. We made a slow walk to a temple, which was simple and beautiful but closed. On our return Andal wanted to try Trampoline jumping. I didn't because I wanted it to happen at a proper place while going for the first time. Also I didn't want to get tired before the trek. Aarthy at that point went back to the tent. We went after Andal finished her Trampoline jumping. Ate dinner, inquired about next day's travel to the Chandanwari and slept.

Day 4 - Enthusiastic start and a tiring finish


We got up at 5 AM, had tea and went to the exit gate. We had to wait for few minutes for vehicle. The sadhus got into some free vehicle but we had to shell out 1000 rupees to go to Chandanwari. It's a good 16 km ride with great views of Betaab valley. So in a way it's a sightseeing trip of Pahalgam too so it was good.

Photo of Pahalgam by Vikram Mn

As soon as we entered the entry gate, we were force fed with roti, rice, sweet, toffees, maaza, biscuit and what not. We were given nuts to eat on the way too. As we were the only ones in the route we were treated special. For the next ten minutes the familiar sight of touts started pestering us to take ponies.

As we climbed upon the first set of steps a doctor present there saw Andal and Aarthy panting and immediately took the pulse rate. As it was low he asked them to sit down for few minutes. That gave me a scare because we had not even started. But after few minutes we were allowed to carry. Another checking happened and they said it'd be the last.

The next two hours walk was awesome. The first climb was quite tough but we were able to pass through. At Pissu Top we got a good one hour rest, quite a waste of time too but couldn't help because every soldier out there was eager to talk. We had a great lunch, took some photos and proceeded to the next point.

Photo of Pissu Top, Amarnath Trek, Forest Block by Vikram Mn

Our next high point was Sheshnag Lake which we had all to ourselves. It was awesome and huge. By far the best lake I had seen. I liked it even better than Pangong. The colors were surreal. And we had that lake in sight for quite some time. From there we could see Sheshnag being written on a mountain. What we thought was nearby took forever to reach. I reached first and took rest, got into a bon fire. Soon Andal Priya and Raja joined. Finally Raja, Aarthy and Muthu came. Aarthy was dead tired but she completed day 1 successfully.

The military man there was interested in Andal Priya and tried to flirt with her. But boy he has to take some serious lessons for it. We got a tent for 1200 rupees which we thought was cheap but not really sure because we got it for a cheaper rate in the next two days. There was a huge glacier behind the army camp. We couldn't go near it but took some decent photos near the camp site with that background.

Photo of Sheshnag by Vikram Mn

As the night fell it got colder and colder. While going for dinner it was so damn cold that we were freezing. I was worried how the next two days were going to be, if the temperature continues like it. There was some commotion at night because of a solo woman traveller not getting proper tent. She was asked to stay at our tent first then they shifted her to another tent and all sorts of drama was happening. She was pissed.

Anyways after a tiring but successful day we went for deep slumber yet again.

Day 5 - Mid Trek Madness


Our initial plan for the day was to reach till Panjtarni. So we got up and started our trek by 8 AM after having breakfast in our base camp. It was so damn cold and windy. As it was cold, even the previous night I thought that's how it was going to be for the next couple of days. So without thinking much I started walking. We were covered from head to toe but still we were feeling cold. That was the case for the first one hour. We reached Warnbal without much of a problem. Had cupcakes and tea there. Even though cakes were hard it felt great to eat.

Photo of Travelogue: Mission Kashmir - Srinagar, Gulmarg, Pahalgam and Amanath trek by Vikram Mn

The next stretch to MG Top was supposed to be very tough and we can see the steep climb right in front of the eyes. But as per plan it was the toughest stretch of the day so we went ahead with determination. We did walk well and reached the place in stipulated time. The much famed buffet lunch was present there and we ate to our fullest not thinking about any repercussions.

From there to Panjtarni it wasn't much tough. It was mostly descent. Just before Panjtarni camp the meadow or lake was beautiful. Great photo location. We met a Tamil doctor there at the camp who advised us to proceed further to the cave so that we can see Aarathy by 6 PM. It was 3 PM so he asked us to hurry. Because post 3 PM people were not allowed to leave Panjtarni.

Photo of Panjtarni Camping Site, Forest Block by Vikram Mn

Panjtarni again was beautiful. There was a huge glacier behind the camp and the lake too was awesome. Again it was getting cold and windy. Also it started to drizzle slightly. Further we were hungry too. So I ate the apple which we got during Day 2. After walking for a few minutes we could see another really steep climb to Sangam. That I felt was the toughest. I think it has to do more with tiredness than the ascent. But somehow we stumbled upon it and reached the top in next 1.5 hours. Another Tamil doctor was there who told that we had almost reached the cave.

Here comes the disaster. It was almost 5 PM and we thought we could reach the cave on time but initially we saw a sign board that cave is 2 km from there, then it changed to 1.5 km, again 1.5 km again 1 km and by the time we came close it was already 6.30 so we couldn't go for aarathy. We were dead tired. Everyone were, especially Prasanna and Muthu. It was very much evident on their face.

Photo of Sangam by Vikram Mn

There was an elderly person who talked us into getting into his tent. We payed 300 for the tent. It was comfortable and wasn't very cold. Prasanna and Muthu went to sleep immediately, owing to the tiredness. Rest of us were relaxing. Raja, I and Andal went for dinner which wasn't good. There was a Tamil Sadhu who was talking to Andal knowing that she's a Tamilian. He said that he was in her area for such long time and currently in Kasi. I wanted to tell him that I had planned to go there next month and will meet him. But I didn't. I was in fact envying his courage. How he could settle in Kasi without any commitments. But I didn't talk much. I wasn't in a mood.

Next turn Aarthy and Muthu went for dinner. By the time they came I slept.

Day 6 - Done and Dusted


By far the worst day of the trek because the owner of the tent irritated us as soon as we got up. Owner was the son of the old man. We got up at 5 AM to go to aarathy. While we were busy packing for the day he told us to deposit phone and camera as it was not allowed there. We did the same. He also wanted us to buy Prasad which we denied. As he kept insisting we thought we'd buy one or two but he wanted us to buy for 100 each otherwise asked us to get out of the tent. He was hurrying us. Finally ended with gaali saying that all Telugu people are like this. He couldn't understand the difference between Tamil and Telugu. But that's not the thing.

Photo of Travelogue: Mission Kashmir - Srinagar, Gulmarg, Pahalgam and Amanath trek by Vikram Mn

We packed our bags and also had to carry Aarthy and Andal's bag as they went before us. We deposited at the gate for 10 rupees each for mobile, camera and bags. Within minutes we went to the cave. Saw the aarathy. It was good to be there when aarathy was happening. There wasn't much crowd. We stayed there till the then, had Prasad and came back.

Once we were down to take bags he told to get something from the shop so that we don't need to pay for the bags. When we were negotiating for the same. One of the guys who was present there near our tent had come there and told that shop owner something so he too was irritated. He shooed us off asking to pay only for the bag. But Raja bought Prasad for 200 rupees and we got our bags back. We had breakfast at the opposite counter and started walking back.

We were astonished how quickly we could walk back the path which took forever the previous day. There was a great spot opposite Sangam where we took some rest. Prasanna, Andal and I. The view was awesome. Raja reached in some time and told the Prasad which we bought at the bag stand for 50 rupees he had bought eight of them for 100 rupees. It was evident that we were being cheated so it didn't piss me as much it should have.

From that place it was down down down. View was nothing great. Path was full of stones so one has to be really careful. So it was a boring four hours of descent. It was sunny and dusty too just like the title. So we couldn't rest much. But the lunch place was worth all the pain. I loved it even better than the MG Top one. Semiya and curry was awesome. Icing on the cake was the Coconut Burfi which was out of the world. I ate three of them. Good that we reached a good half an hour before the rest of the group so we had time to eat much more.

Within minutes we reached Domail. It was a huge army camp. There was an awesome army shop but I didn't buy anything there. From there, it was just an irritating road walk to the base camp, which again took forever to come.

Andal had walked their first. Rest of us wasted some time at army camp. Prasanna and I reached next. Remaining three reached the last. Usual Culprits wanted to go to Sonamarg so that they can have a good night's sleep and more importantly, take bath. That was a valid point but as I had not planned I wasn't in a mood for it. Plus all the hotels were costly. But more importantly there were restrictions to go from the camp. So after trying for some time we stayed in the camp for 500 per tent.

I was immensely satisfied to have completed the trek but there was no joy, thanks to the events on that day morning plus touts plus police.

Photo of Baltal by Vikram Mn

I just roamed around with that satisfaction for some time. Raja did some shopping, we had tea and then in sometime dinner. Dinner was great. Goli was even more awesome. "Socho math Goli maro" was what he was saying for long. We slept peacefully with plan to leave to Sonamarg the next day.

Day 7 - Best Day of the trip


There was some announcement for people to go to Jammu at about 4 AM. We got up at 6 AM. Had tea and inquired about going to Srinagar via Sonamarg but got to know that it was allowed only before 4 AM.

Photo of Travelogue: Mission Kashmir - Srinagar, Gulmarg, Pahalgam and Amanath trek by Vikram Mn

After an effort for two hours we settled for the day. With nothing to do, everything we did felt awesome. Guys were shopping ladies dress and ladies were left to remain in tent. It was funny but as we didn't have anything to do, everything felt good. We lunched. Roamed inside the camp. Raja shopped more, even more and even more. Finally he shopped for a bag to keep the things that he shopped. Isn't it amazing?

We made arrangements to go to Srinagar the next day. Sonamarg was not even in the plan. By now everyone were pissed and somehow wanted to get out Baltal. So a Tamil military man arranged us cab for next day. We paid an advance and informed the rest of the group.

Day 8 - Srinagar Sightseeing and Daaru Badnam


We woke up 3 AM. Raja was most eager to get out. We reached the car much before 4 AM. It was drizzling so we had to keep the luggage behind. We kept all our bags in the last row. Raja and Muthu sat in front. Prasanna, I, Aarthy and Andal sat behind, in the same order. I was controlling my sleep for half an hour so that I can sleep in cab as soon as I get in. That I did. Even his rash driving couldn't stop me from not sleeping.

Photo of Travelogue: Mission Kashmir - Srinagar, Gulmarg, Pahalgam and Amanath trek by Vikram Mn

We reached our Houseboat Young Pinafore by 6 AM. The owner was the nice man but the kid looked spoilt. We were told that due to 'technical problems' the bathroom was not available. Only common bath was available. So we moved to the other room with dedicated bathroom. Room was decent but WC was bad. Bathroom too didn't have hot water option so the much needed warm bath wasn't meant to happen properly. We got only one bucket of warm water.

Then I called Sahil, owner of our stay at Day 1 at Alamdar Guest House. He arranged us cab for local sightseeing in Srinagar. Other cabs were costly. We got our regular funny fat boy driver who came on the day to visit Gulmarg. We ate at Krishna Dhaba. Food was totally awesome. Lasssi too. Our driver picked us up from there.

Photo of Travelogue: Mission Kashmir - Srinagar, Gulmarg, Pahalgam and Amanath trek by Vikram Mn

We covered Shankaracharya Mandir and 'n' number of gardens in hot sun. Everything was overcrowded and totally un enthusisastic but just for the sake of completion we went. The driver talked us out of couple of gardens and mosque too. Our request to go to Ahdoos for lunch was straight away rejected and another request to make him stop at the ATM never happened until dusk. Finally he dropped us at Lal Chowk for shopping. He asked us for a tip. I gave 50 rupees. That was the only juncture he smiled. The only plus point of the day was 'Daaru Badnam' and buttermilk opposite to the mosque. I thought of going for Shikara ride but others were planning to shop. Muthu much.

Once we got down at Lal Chowk we were searching for shops to buy some or the other stuff. Had tea and en route had great Mango Milkshake with ice cream then went for shopping. The stuffs there were cheap and looked good too but again I was in no mood to buy. But it was far better than sightseeing in the morning. We ended up finally by eating roadside Mutton Kebab which was out of the world.

We then took auto and went to Winterfell Café which was there in my list and luckily was present just opposite to our House Boat. Food wasn't anything great and ambiance too was so-so but others loved it. We came back late at night and had a mandatory peg and slept.

Day 9 - Bye Bye Kashmir


I knew we wouldn't get up early in the morning and I too wasn't interested. So got up late. Asked for the driver from Sahil for airport drop while visiting Ahdoos enroute. We wanted him to stop in Jan Bakers for some time which he refused but we made him stop by insisting.

Photo of Jan Bakers, Maulana Azad Road, Durgjan, Srinagar by Vikram Mn

Then went to Ahdoos. Food was decent. But the waiter pissed me saying who gives such less tip? Where am I from? A typical question everywhere when you don't give the required money to make them happy. And I thought tipping is an option.

Also we wanted to buy apples but he strictly said no. In Srinagar airport it was pain to get down from car to do security check of bags and again get on car. Who does that?

Finally we were dropped at airport, again a tip of 50 rupees is the only thing that could make him smile. There was some confusion regarding check in. It was mentioned that hand luggage were not allowed in Srinagar but it was indeed allowed so removed my camera and checked in the remaining luggage.

Thanks to the Mutton Puff and heavy cake from Jan Bakers, we didn't have to buy anything in flight. Also flight didn't feel as uncomfortable as before. Finally reached Chennai, struggled for cab and came home.