A Week in Paradise-II

Gulmarg

Kashmir May 2009 202On a bright morning full of promise of a glorious day ahead, we bid our hosts Bilal Hakroo and his father adieu and headed towards Gulmarg, a hill resort approx. 52 kms from Srinagar. We drove in the valley for about 40 kms to Tangmarg and than found ourselves winding our way through a beautiful pine and fir forest. As we drove up, magnificent vistas of snow covered mountains loomed before us and the drive soon took on a dream like quality.

In Gulmarg, we found our hotel amidst rolling meadows and dense woods of fir and pine. The weather in Gulmarg we discovered is very fickle. By the time we settled in, it had turned chilly with clouds hanging low and a drizzle making us stay indoors. Later in the evening we went horse riding on the meadows. Chatting with the locals, we discovered that in the winters, these meadows turn into fabulous ski slopes for, which Gulmarg is famous the world over.Kashmir May 2009 173

The next day we set off on a walk in the woods and later rode up to Khilanmarg. From Khilanmarg, on a clear day one can see snow covered peaks in a huge 360 degrees ring. The distant hills look almost etheral, floating on air. Gulmarg’s greatest attraction these days is a Gondola ride, a ropeway linking Gulmarg to the Kongdoori Hill in two stages. The first stage transfers from the Gulmarg resort at 2,600 m (8,530 ft) to Kongdoori Station. The second stage of the ropeway, which has 36 cabins and 18 towers, takes skiers to a height of 3,747 m (12,293 ft) on Kongdoori Mountain, a shoulder of nearby Afarwat Peak 4,200 m (13,780 ft)). We rode on our horses till the Kongdoori Station through lovely woods and than boarded the Gondola  for the stage 2.

The Gondola ride is an amazing experience. As the Gondola moved out from the station the snow covered mountain fell away beneath us. We slid by quietly on the rope, an elaborate system of metal ropes and pulleys kept propelling us higher and higher. The Gondola eventually disgorged us at the Kongdoori peak. Stepping out of the station we were mesmerised by the expanse of soft snow, stretching over mountain ranges as far back as the eye could see. We walked on the soft snow, sinking into it to our knees and keeling over and than pulling ourselves out to stumble on for a little more. A local Kashmiri youth informed us that right behind the snow covered hill in front of us is the Line of Control, the de-facto Indian border with Pakistan. The Indian Army patrols these mountains round the clock and the Gondola is also used to ferry supplies to them.   Kashmir May 2009 182

On our way back, we rode the Gondola right down to Gulmarg. It was indeed one of the most memorable day in our sojourn, a day one is unlikely to forget in a long long time.

Sonamarg

The drive to Sonamarg is more enchanting than the ‘golden meadows’.  The river Sindhu (not to be confused with Indus) rumbles along the road all the way. The road too surprisingly does not wind its way up, it gently slopes up along the fast flowing river. We drove to Sonamarg on a bright sunny day through the Kashmiri countryside, along the river. Sonamarg is breathtakingly beautiful, with huge snow covered mountains, slopes densely covered with fir, pine and birch trees and the river Sindh flowing by. Nearby is the Thajwas glacier, accessible on foot or on ponies. As soon as we drove to the village square we were virtually assaulted by a crowd of pony owners inviting us to go to the glacier. As we were making up our minds, we spied an inflatable raft. Enquiries revealed that we could go river rafting in the Sindh. We immediately signed up and drove a few kilometres further up and on the banks of the Sindh.

Kashmir May 2009 211River rafting on the Sindh in grade 2 and 3 rapids amidst huge mountains on either side is a uniquely exhilarating experience. Off we went on a 3 kms stretch, with expert guides directing the raft. The river flowed fast and furious and the water was ice cold. We shouted and screamed as we plunged into vicious rapids and came out drenched to the skin. Being on the river and flowing with it creates an illusion, where with a start one realises that the mountains too seem to be moving with the river!  Kashmir May 2009 249

We dried ourselves on the bank of the river in the hot sun that beat down on us. Driving back we took a detour and went towards Sumbal and than crossed Jhelum, driving along it to reach Srinagar by the nightfall.

Kashmir May 2009 297

Pahalgam

Kashmir is perhaps one of those places, where getting lost on the roads is a pleasant diversion. We set off from Srinagar on our way to Pahalgam and turned left towards  Bijbihara. Soon we found ourselves in a village, where we asked for directions and headed on a narrow road, which soon turned into a dirt track.  We went past tiny somnolent villages set in the valley amongst beautiful hills. Eventually we came across an old lady, working in the fields alongside, who told us to go back  and take a right turn  Soon we crossed the Lidder and found the highway to Pahalgam, with the river flowing besides us.Kashmir May 2009 291

Pahalgam is located on the junction of the Aru and Sheshnag rivers, which form the Lidder. There is something completely enchanting about Pahalgam, which is so hard to define. If ever, one was to conjure up a perfectly beautiful landscape, than it has to be in Pahalgam. The snow covered peaks, the river, the forests, everything in Pahalgam is magical. In Pahalgam we just sat around the river and enjoyed the natural beauty, so generously spread around us. We went for walks and roamed the markets, buying gifts and souvenirs for family and friends.

Pahalgam was our last port of call in Kashmir during this sojourn. After having spent these days in the valley, I can only say that I can not agree more with emperor Jehangir. Even 500 years on, if there is a paradise on earth, it is here in Kashmir.

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A Week in Paradise-I

Kashmir May 2009 077The Mughal emperor Jehangir loved Kashmir and traveled often from his capital of Agra in the North Indian planes all the way to the valley beautiful. So much was he in the thrall of the valley  that he called it the ‘paradise on Earth’.

Now having driven from Delhi to Srinagar in the Kashmir valley, I can only wonder at the difficulties he must have faced 500 years ago and yet he couldn’t resist the allure of the valley. Today, Srinagar is connected to Delhi (and Agra) by a modern 6 carriage highway all the way upto Jammu (the work is still on between Jullandhar-Pathankot and Jammu). From Jammu to Srinagar, the road is a 2 lane carriageway, well maintained by the Border Roads Organisation and is the lifeline of the valley.

We drove from Delhi to Jammu, a distance of approx 630 kms in about 11 hours, stopping twice at roadside dhabas for refreshments. The next day after breakfast we set off for Srinagar a distance of approx. 300 kms. Soon we were in the hills, passing by quaint towns, ascending to Patnitop at 2024 m and than coming down to Ramban, where we crossed the Chenab, flowing swiftly to our left. We than climbed to Banihal and crossed the Jawahar Tunnel to enter the Kashmir Valley. The Jawahar Tunnel is an engineering marvel. Opened in 1956 and named after Jawahar Lal Nehru, the tunnel connects the valley to the rest of the country and allows India round the year access to the valley.

Once across the tunnel we swiftly descended into the Kashmir Valley and drove to Srinagar approx 80 kms away. The first views of the snow capped mountains ringing the valley, the magical greenery and free flowing springs everywhere made me switch off the car air conditioning, lower the windows and breathe lungfuls of the clean air of the valley. The drive on the road leading to Srinagar is an exhilarating affair, the accumulated fatigue of the earlier days drops off, the road is lined with clusters of beautiful, erect tall trees, locally called safeda (they have white bark) and the green paddy fields on either side of the road are filled with water fed by small streams flowing from the mountains. We reached Srinagar by the twilight hour and settled down in our hotel on the Boulevard, on the Dal.

SrinagarKashmir May 2009 272

Srinagar, lies on the banks of the river Jhelum a tributary of the mighty Indus. Srinagar is an ancient city with a recorded history of more than 2500 years. In the 3rd century BC, the city was a a part of the Maurya empire and Asoka the great is credited to have introduced Buddhism in the valley. Subsequently it was ruled by the Gupta Kings, the Kushans and the Huns. The valley came under Muslim rule in the 14th century and Akbar the great assimilated it in the Mughal empire. in 1814, Maharaja Ranjit Singh conquered the valley after the fall of the Mughals and the valley came under the influence of  Sikh rulers. In 1846, a treaty was signed at Lahore with the British, providing them control over the valley, a dogra king by the name of  Gulab Singh was installed as the ruler of the valley. Gulab Singh and his progeny ruled Kashmir till the Indian independence, when the princely state was absorbed in the Indian union.

Srinagar today is a bustling city. Lal Chowk, its main market has shops full of exquisite Kashmiri handicrafts and dry fruits. Big malls are yet to arrive and the entire market has a quaint, old fashioned charm about it. The old city boasts of grand mosques, traditional eatries and a rich and vibrant culture of  Sufiana Music. The shrine of Hazrat Bal on the shores of the Dal Lake attracts devotees from across the valley and beyond. We too visited the shrine and paid silent obeisance.

The DalKashmir May 2009 082

The Dal is a mesmerising sight. The stately victorian era houseboats, the beautiful shikaras, the hawkers selling Kashmiri handicrafts, saffron, trinkets and baubles all add to its magic. The boulevard around the lake is lined with huge safeda trees casting a deep shadow on its placid waters and the reflection of the hills surrounding the lake gives it an aura of immense depth and tranquility. In the evening as we went on a Shikara ride, the setting sun bathed the lake in its golden glow, and all the world seemed to be at peace with itself.

We soon moved into a Houseboat called Shah Parie and spent a few days with Bilal Hakroo and his family the owners of the Houseboat. The houseboat has a balcony in the front, a living room, a dining room and four rooms along a narrow corridoor. It has exquisite teak wood carvings, embroidered curtains, linen and soft wall to wall carpets. My father spent a lot of time chatting with Bilal’s father on the balcony, watching the shikaras go by and enjoying the sounds and the sights of the beautiful lake. Bilal hesitantly talked about the turmoil of the last two decades and how it has ruined the valley, he blamed fellow Kashmiris and their Pakistani masters for fomenting trouble and driving away tourists. Bilal also talked about the humiliation of living under the shadow of the gun. The Indian Army seemed to be omnipresent in the valley and even on the Boulevard, every 500 metres or so one would see an alert soldier, armed to the teeth keeping a sharp eye on things.    Kashmir May 2009 262

While on the houseboat we discovered that the Dal also sustained a unique way of life. The kids go to school on the shikara, the faithfuls go for prayers to the mosques located on the lake, there is a busy market floating on the lake selling everything from vegetables, to groceries, toiletries, Kashmiri handicrafts, saffron, and flowers. We also saw a hotel now being used by the Central Reserve Police Force, restaurants offering Kashmiri and North Indian cuisine,  nice houses with vegetable gardens at the back- all floating on the lake.

Kashmir May 2009 090The Mughal Gardens

The world famous Mughal gardens in Srinagar are a sight to behold. Shalimar, Nishat and Chashm-e-Shahi are all located on the shores of the Dal, along the boulevard. Shalimar Bagh, was built by the Mughal emperor Jehangir in 1616 for his beloved wife Noor Jehan. The garden is symmetrically laid out along a stream, which flows into the Dal. The stream has beautiful fountains and each terrace is punctuated by a ‘baradari’. We visited the Shalimar on a glorious morning, with the sun playing hide and seek with candy floss clouds in an azure sky. The garden was a riot of colour with flowers in full bloom. (I counted at least 9 different colours and shades of roses, each flower the size of my fist or more). The massive chinars gradually recede into the hills at the back giving the impression that the entire garden is laid out in the lap of a gigantic mountain.

Nishat, though a little smaller than the Shalimar is just as breathtaking as the Shalimar. It is a lot closer to the Dal and has the entire lake spread out in front. The garden has 12 terraces with a stream running through the middle creating small waterfalls on different levels. Nishat was built by Asif Khan, Noor Jehan’s brother more than 400 years ago. The garden with a mountain in the backdrop, the massive expanse of the Dal in the front and huge Chinars presents an awesome sight.

Chashm-e-Shahi is the smallest of the Mughal Gardens and was built by Emperor Shah Jehan. It is set up the hill facing the Dal and has a natural aqua duct (chashma) flowing through the garden. Many people believe in the medicinal powers of the spring, though I must admit we refrained from having a sip.

Kashmir May 2009 156Pari Mahal

As we drove up from the Chashm-e-Shahi the road became narrower and we went past hair-pin bends with dense foliage on either side. We pulled up at the door of the Pari Mahal late on a fine evening. Pari Mahal is a terraced arched garden built by Emperor Shah Jahan’s eldest son Dara Shikoh. The Pari Mahal overlooks the Dal and offers a monumental view of the city of Srinagar. The facade of the retaining wall of the Pari Mahal has 21 arches, in the descending order and on the sides are specious rooms. Sitting on the thick walls of the Pari Mahal, we watched the sun gradually slip behind the iconic Hari Parbat across the city and we witnessed the Dal change colours from blue to ochre, to golden and finally to inky black.


All Pics by the author

Back to Kashmir

Kashmir May 2009 004Almost 20 years to the day we were in Kashmir once again.

Kashmir has been our family’s favourite holiday destination by a long shot. The last time I was there with my family comprising of my parents and sister was in June 1989. I had just graduated from high school and was awaiting the results of my Engineering entrance examinations.

I did not know it then, it was a sort of coming of age trip for me. Soon I would head away from home to join the engineering college, the valley will burst into flames and my uncle who lived in the valley (he was a Professor at the Kashmir University), would pack his bags and leave to settle down in Delhi.  My sister would start at the medical school in Aligarh, my father would retire from work and eventually move from Indore to settle down in Lucknow. Life would change forever.

However, we knew nothing of this then.   Continue reading

Off to Ladakh

We are finally off to Ladakh.

I have been wanting to travel to this fabulous land for many years. Somehow or the other circumstances so conspired that we just couldn’t go. This time too this visit seems to be more of a happy accident then anything else. In late July my wife and I were planning to spend at least 10 days in the Kashmir valley. However, for the last fortnight or so the valley has been in turmoil with daily reports of strikes, protest marches and police firing. We subsequently decided to go to Ladakh. The other options that we considered were Andaman Islands, Goa, The Maldives, Malaysia and Egypt.

Leh would easily be the highest place that either of us have ever visited. Ladakh is famous for its breathtaking sights, buddhist monastries, pristine lakes that change colour, barren mountains and a flourishing centre of the fast disappearing Tibetan-Buddhist culture.

We will be flying into Leh in a couple of hours. We are excited about seeing the mighty Indus. It has been the cradle of civilization for more than 5000 years. A river from which even our great country derives its name. We will also be driving on the world’s highest motorable road and will be visiting Khardongla, which at over 18000 ft is the world’s highest motorable place.

Some of the remote areas that we will be visiting during this 7 day trip include the exotic Nubra Valley, Pangong Lake, which is the world’s highest salt water lake (suggesting that millions of years ago when there were no Himalayas, this arid land was perhaps an ocean), the Zanskar River and the ancient and the unchanging Lamayuru monastry.

I look forward to sharing our experiences on this blog.