Kashmir Diaries: A visit to the quintessential ‘jewel in India’s crown’

Supposedly, the world can be divided into two kinds of people — those who have been to Kashmir and those who haven’t, and I am proud to say that I have had the chance to cross over to the other side…

Day 1: Srinagar

I land and take a cab into the city. A boat ride through the serene Nageen Lake has been arranged to bring me to the beautiful houseboats where I am booked to stay. ‘Floating bazaars’ move alongside the boat, selling the most exquisite flower buds. Watching the sun set over the lake is an unparalleled experience — the backdrop of snow-capped mountains amid the silhouettes of the shikaras, with clouds reflected in the lake’s calm waters and lotus leaves with drops of water on them that look like tiny diamonds…I inhale the pure, unpolluted air. At a distance, gleaming lights emanate from the Hazratbal shrine.

Floating bazaars. All photos courtesy the writer

Floating bazaars. All photos courtesy the writer

The traditional houseboats in Srinagar

The traditional houseboats in Srinagar

One of the precious treasures of heritage, the houseboats are the finest way to experience Kashmir. Made of old seasoned pinewood from the British times, their maintenance is becoming increasingly difficult in recent times. It is somewhat of a dying industry today as the Kashmiri youth wants to take up different professions. The rooms are luxurious—with heating systems, geysers, electric blankets, et al., and the Wi-Fi connectivity surprises me with its speed!

A soothing cup of kehwa tea served in the traditional samovar (a charcoal-based vessel for boiling tea) greets me in the sit-out reception lounge. A traditional wazwan feast awaits me in the evening — seekh kebab, rista, gustaba, nadru yakhni (made of lotus stem), rajma, saffron rice, haak saag and paneerdo pyaza. There’s also an assortment of delectable breads: sheermal, girda and lavasa. It’s overwhelming but irresistible all the same!

Day 2: Sonamarg

The next day, I’m on one of the most scenic drives along the Sindh River that joins the Jhelum and leads directly to Pakistan. The untouched beauty around me is marvellous: orchards with trees of apple, cherry, poplar, walnut, chinar, strawberry, willow (famous for making India’s finest cricket bats) and mulberry (whose leaves are fed to worms for their silk). Migratory birds from Siberia come here every year and settle down in the rice paddy fields for several months.

The snow at Sonamarg

The snow at Sonamarg

The looming presence of armed police personnel everywhere feels a bit irksome. My driver, Rashidji, senses my discomfort and mentions that there is no danger for tourists in Kashmir, as they fund the local economy. According to him, the media only highlights stray terrorist incidents in the valley, giving it the impression of being unsafe. Reminiscing about the ‘dark days’ of the nineties when the state was like a fortress and people didn’t come out of their homes for days, he says, “We lost a lot during that time. Our children didn’t go to school for four years. There were mornings when I would leave my house telling my wife that inshallah, I may or may not see her in the evening.” He adds that the government has done a lot in the past few years, and that things are much under control now.

A hue of blinding white surrounds me in Sonamarg — clearly the winter snow is still fresh, yet the sun adds a sparkling yellow tinge. The place makes for a pleasant picnic spot.

Later in the evening, there are some new dishes for me to feast on: mutton dhania korma, mirchi korma, alu bukhara, roast chicken, tabak maaz (fried lamb ribs) and dum aloo.

Day 3: Srinagar

The next morning, I set out to explore the city. We drive onto a road around the open Dal Lake. I notice fountains on some parts of the lake as we visit the famous Mughal gardens one by one — Nishat Bagh and Shalimar Bagh — housing a collection of some of the most exotic pansies, calendulas, asters, daffodils and butter poppies. The 17th century gardens are extremely well maintained and Pari Mahal even provides an aerial view of the whole city. But undoubtedly, the one that will remain etched in my memory forever is the Indira Gandhi Memorial Tulip Garden. With rows and rows of colourful tulips in full bloom, it’s like a giant bedspread of flowers in which you want to drown yourself!

Indira Gandhi Memorial Tulip Garden, Srinagar

Indira Gandhi Memorial Tulip Garden, Srinagar

After that visual fiesta, we drive further towards Pahalgam. The town flows along the Lidder River and is famous for trout fishing. On the way, Rashidji enthusiastically points out all the sites where popular Bollywood films have been shot.

The temperature noticeably dips here, but luckily the hotel has a traditional bukhāri heater. After checking in, I walk around the market area. There are shops selling Pashmina shawls, carpets, papier-mâché crafts and other indigenous accessories. The locals seem snug with little kangris surreptitiously concealed under their phirans.

Day 4: Pahalgam

The next morning, I go sightseeing to Betab valley which has open gardens. Next up is Aru valley, a wildlife sanctuary. Tourists take pony rides and buy clothes having the famous local embroidery (kashida). I also pick up some almonds, dried apricots, figs, cumin, black jeera and kernel seeds to carry back home.

Day 5: Gulmarg

Early the next morning, I leave for Gulmarg. One of the prettiest summer resorts in the valley, it has the highest golf course in the world. What’s surprising though is that Gulmarg has no residents. It’s certainly a lot colder here as I peep out of the window at what looks like a stunning white sheet spread all over the mountains! The hotel has large open windows that provide a great view of the landscape, and the décor reeks of old-world charm. I check into my little cottage and decide not to waste any of the bright sunshine. A short jaunt downhill brings me to the city marketplace.

Gulmarg

I indulge in some skiing at a makeshift patch of snow, where people are riding on sledgehammers and snow scooters with the help of instructors.

Day 6: Khilanmarg

The next morning, I’m all set for the gondola (cable car) ride up to Khilanmarg. A long queue of tourists waits at the ticket window. Within a few minutes, we reach our destination and I imagine what heaven would look like—completely covered in snow—with a sea of humanity all around. There is a smattering of experienced skiers who are going all the way up to Koongdoori and coming down with precocious speed.

On reaching the top at Khilanmarg after the gondola ride

On reaching the top at Khilanmarg after the gondola ride

Little dhabas serve food here and small shops sell regional ware. After about an hour, I make the descent into town, pack my things at the hotel and drive up to Srinagar once again.

***

Back in the capital, I do my last bit of shopping before leaving this wonderland. At Lal Chowk, I pick up a miniature shikara as a souvenir. We then go to Jee Enn, one of the city’s premier bakeries, from where I buy a box of delicious honey walnut tarts and mixed fruit macaroons. We also go to a wholesale market in Jamia Nagar, from where I pick up a samovar and kangri. Before leaving, I also pay my respects at the 620-year old Jama masjid nearby.

I finally head to the airport with a heavy heart. There is tight security everywhere with several rounds of check but it feels more reassuring than intimidating. There are many gorgeous memories that I am taking back with me, and I feel blessed to have been here.


Published Date: Apr 09, 2017 11:17 am | Updated Date: Apr 09, 2017 11:18 am


Also See