My Kashmir Sojourn by Seenu Anna Kurien

By admin Oct 11, 2019 - 18:05

Long weekends are convenient times to travel on vacations for professionals as it is easier to take off from work schedules and other commitments. However, for the last couple of years I have been taking my vacations on my laptop. I used to research about places to go, best times to go and what to see in those places and never ended up going. Either the timing was not right or something else always came in the way. This year also a few long weekends went by and as usual there were hurdles. However, it just so happened that Diwali happened to be on a long weekend. On the day before Diwali break, as I was taking stock of all my movies and TV series collection which I could binge watch over the long weekend (which is what I did last Diwali), it suddenly dawned on me that I didn’t want to spend another Diwali binge watching medieval dramas. So I checked on all the places that I had not travelled to in India, and all the places where I could get last minute deals on flights…and bingo!.. I narrowed down to Kashmir.

Since I was going to travel solo, I checked with someone who had travelled to Kashmir on general instructions to follow and so on. Since I had heard so much about the houseboats in Kashmir, I read some online reviews of good ones, made a few calls and did a reservation for a couple of nights. My thought was, if I didn’t like the stay I could always move to a hotel. The night before I left, I had part of my plans ready as I was not sure what all I should do and where all to go. I figured I would just go there and wing it. This would be one of those impromptu, just-pack-your-bags-and-go-will–figure-details-later sort of trips. It turned out to be one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

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I had taken an early morning flight to Srinagar and the houseboat that I had booked, sent a cab to pick me up from the airport. The views while landing were quite unlike many places that I had travelled to – with dry and misty mountains all around as the airport itself is at an altitude of approx. 5400 ft AMSL. The houseboat that I had booked was on Nigeen lake and it was around 20 km from the airport. The drive was for about an hour and enroute I took in my first sights of Kashmir. Coming from a metro city where your lungs are constantly yearning for fresh air, here in Kashmir I decided to leave the window of the car open and breathe in some cool fresh air. Some roads were narrow, some were wide, bustling with activity, shopkeepers going about their routine, street vendors, students going to college, people going to was passing by..

When I reached the houseboat, the owner received me with a warm welcome and a cup of Kashmiri Kahwa (a green tea infusion with cinnamon, saffron and honey) - a comforting and refreshing drink to have on chilly yet sunny day. I had my Kahwa on the veranda of the houseboat overlooking the serene Nigeen lake and the mountains beyond. In the quiet and calm, I could hear water lapping at the boat and a flock of ducks quacking as they passed by. In the city, I don’t even remember the last time I heard the sound of a bird (crows excluded). From then, I knew I was going to love it there. Since the houseboat owner knew I was a first time visitor to Kashmir, he helped me figure out my itinerary for the next few days. I had a quick lunch, hired a cab for the next few days and set out to see the important sights of Srinagar. That day I visited the Jamia Masjid, Sankaracharya temple, Pari Mahal, Chashme Shahi and the Shalimar Gardens. 

Sankaracharya temple is situated on Sankaracharya hill which is around 100 ft above the plane, takes approx. 250 steps to climb to the top, and offers breathtaking views of Srinagar city. Pari Mahal, Chashme Shahi and Shalimar Gardens are Muhgal gardens built in the mid 1600s by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan for his son Dara Shikoh .They are all built taking into consideration the local topography, natural water sources and with heavy influence of Mughal architecture. The gardens which are built on the Zabarwan mountain range overlooks Srinagar city and Dal Lake, and are best to see during Spring/Summer when the plants are in full bloom.

After my first day’s visit, I came back to the houseboat to enjoy a warm home made meal of Rista (mutton meat balls in spicy curry), roti, rice, veggies and dal. Nights are cold on Nigeen lake (7 to 8 degree C), with no air conditioning inside the houseboat. However with hot water bags tucked inside blankets, I had a cosy sleep. The next day morning I had planned an early morning visit to the floating vegetable market which opens at 6.30 am. And it was an hour boat ride from my houseboat. The houseboat caretaker woke me up at 5 am and the boat was ready at 5.30 am for our ride. It was pitch-dark and eerily quiet on the lake at that time. The type of boat that I was on called a Shikara – indigenous to Srinagar, is small in size and shallow, the edges almost touching the water surface. With just the light of a few stars, the Shikara driver rowed me into the dark deep unknown. After an hour of rowing we reached the floating market where vegetable, bread, fruit and flower sellers assemble at day break. The silence of the lake was only broken by the activity of this market – with interesting things on display such as lotus roots, seeds of blue & black rose and so on. I bought some flowers and home made chocolates. We also had locally made bread and kahwa and proceeded with our ride back. This time since the sun was almost up, I could see beautiful stretches of lotus plants, water birds feeding, underwater vegetation and misty mountains beyond. I borrowed the oar from my driver because I couldn’t allow myself to not immerse deeper into the whole experience. At the distance I could see rows of houseboats at the edge of the lake gently swaying in the water, other shikara drivers quietly passing by and greeting each other while the bright orange sun came up over the mountains spreading soft yellow light all around us.

When I came back to my houseboat, breakfast and tea was ready. I quickly had that as I was hungry after the morning rowing exercise and pushed off for that day’s visit to Sonamarg. Sonmarg – meaning Meadow of Gold is a popular destination for people visiting Kashmir. It’s around 90 kms from Srinagar and has in its vicinity the great Himalayan Glaciers of the Kashmir valley. The drive to Sonmarg is through a spectacular landscape of meandering Nallah Sindh, the largest tributary of the Jehlum river in the valley of Kashmir (where the water was bone chilling cold), snow-capped mountains, grasslands, and rocky gorges. 35 km from Sonmarg is Zero point where, at this time of the year one could play in the snow. The drive to Zero point is via the Zojila pass located on the highway that connects Srinagar to Leh. It’s a 9 km stretch at an altitude of 11575 ft AMSL on the Western Himalayas and has a reputation of being one of the most dangerous roads in the world. After driving over asphalted winding mountainous road for a few kilometres, we reached the infamous Zojila pass. It really lived up to its intimidating reputation as a narrow dusty road with no barriers on one side with visuals of steep valleys on one side and serrated rocks on the other side. The drive was nerve wracking especially on occasions where another vehicle passing by would raise up dust reducing visibility to nil. At some points, I saw my vehicle’s wheels barely few inches away from the edge of the road! Only authorised drivers are allowed to drive on this road and it made sense why!..In some areas, the road was so bumpy and steep that I wondered whether my vehicle would give way leaving me stranded there. 

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When I reached Zero point, I could see other SUVs parked away from the road like a little army of ants on the side of the mountains. The whole landscape and ambience was despotic.. every human intervention there seemed so dwarfish amongst the menacing and gigantic mountains, rocks, valleys and slopes. There was ice and snow mixed with dirt and I spent some time balancing on ice and sliding off the icy slopes. This was a landscape that I had never seen before and I felt like I was on a different planet – shades of brown, of the gravelly ground, with patches of white snow; light reflecting on the ice giving away a yellowish white glow, black rocky mountains and their snowy peaks kissing the white clouds interspersed in the blue skies. On my drive back, we had to stop for about 30 minutes as fallen rocks and debris had blocked the road. My driver explained that this was a common occurrence on Zoji la and we waited patiently for the road to be cleared. When I reached back to my houseboat, I was greeted with more home made Kashmiri food of bread, meat and root vegetables. Since I liked the hospitality of the houseboat, I decided to spend the rest of the days there and not move into a hotel.

My next visit was to the beautiful and serene Gulmarg. I was told the previous night that there would be a curfew during the day, hence I was told to leave Srinagar early before curfew was enforced and to return after the curfew was lifted. I did see some stone pelting on the way, but my driver knew the routes to avoid in the city. This visit to Kashmir was my first experience as a solo woman traveller and the interesting part that I observed was that I came across several solo women travellers too. I also happened to find out that the number of solo women travellers over the age of 35 has been constantly on the rise in India – financial independence, better access to information, ease of travel and women’s liberation in general have given impetus to this phenomenon. Gulmarg is a popular ski location but since I visited during autumn the ski operations had not yet started. Gulmarg also has the reputation of once hosting the highest Gondola ride in the world, which is now replaced by China, Gulmarg being the 2nd highest now. The Gondola ride is in 2 stages are Gulmarg.

The first stage of the Gondola is at 8,500 ft and the second stage takes skiers and travellers to a height of 13000ft on the shoulder of Apharwat mountain. The gondola ride offers spectacular views of snow-capped mountains and sparse vegetation - mostly coniferous trees. There was a stop at the first stage and I got off to enjoy a cup of Kahwa before proceeding with the 2nd. Once I got off the Gondola, I hiked about 2 hours to the top of Mount Apharwat from where you can see in the distance, borders of neighbouring countries. The gravelly otherworldly appearance of mountains here added to my experience of hiking. Even at noon the sun was mild and just standing at the peak of Apharwat enjoying the chilly winds is an amazing experience for hikers.  After my hike back, I stopped at stage 1 for lunch. There are not many full fledged restaurants up there, just a few small scale snack shops but I still was able to enjoy an absolutely delicious mutton curry and rice. I slept off during my drive back to the houseboat that day. Good exercise, cool breeze and a full stomach made me enjoy a good sleep that night also.

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The next day I set off for Pahalgam, which is a popular tourist destination. The drive to Pahalgam is beautiful with sights of soaring mountains, glaciers, silvery streams, rocky edges, and cedar trees. Every view was postcard perfect! At Pahalgam, the lush green meadows and pristine waters were soothing to the mind, body and soul. This place is also known as mini Switzerland mainly because of the rolling meadows with mountains in the backdrop. I took a pony ride along with a guide from the base to explore the mountains and valleys. This is the best way to explore Pahalgam as it takes you as close to nature as you can. I stopped at various points to take in the breath-taking views. Ponies are quite steady footed and I was quite worried at a few steep climbs and narrow pathways whether my pony would be able to balance itself. However, it did navigate and take me through safely. Pahalgam is also known for herds of sheep which you can stop by and pet if their shepherds allow. I was also able to spend some time with the shepherds and their sheep discussing their day to day life. In that cold weather, being amongst the woolly sheep was more cozy and comfortable than any blanket! Pahalgam was the only place where I saw a lot of greenery even though it was autumn season. It’s not the season that tourists usually visit, hence many of the places that I stopped by were not overcrowded. However, I did get haggled by local pony owners and other vendors forcing to buy stuff.

Since that was my last day in Kashmir, I decided to go shopping on the way back to pick up a few collectibles. Kashmir is famous for gemstones, carpets, Pashmina shawls, Kashmiri silk sarees, saffron, dry fruits, Pathan suits, leather and ofcourse apples! You may need to bargain a bit to get good deals. A few pointers to remember if you plan to travel to Kashmir is to pick offseason so as to avoid crowd, and to visit during December – March if you want to experience snow and all the related adventure sports. Every day you will spend about Rs 3000 for cabs to get anywhere from Srinagar. And once you reach a particular destination, you will need to hire local cabs again which would range from Rs 2000 – Rs 4000. This is where you as a visitor would end up spending a lot of money as there are no other options. My suggestion would be to have someone local accompany you so that you don’t get overcharged by the taxi drivers, vendors, pony owners etc. My trip to Kashmir was short and sweet as it was a last minute plan. So, I squeezed in visits to many places in a few days. I would suggest that you spend atleast a week in Kashmir, so you can truly enjoy the place. And probably just spend one relaxing day just on the house boat enjoying the scenery. Since my trip was impromptu, with many of my plans being made on the go, I truly enjoyed the experience as it was like unravelling a mystery package. The next day I left Kashmir already making plans to go back again the following year!

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