Stress free life seems like a fairytale. I miss my school days, specially vacations. Being a globe trotter, working at a stretch without weekend getaways (the leat I could ask for) was taking a toll. Thankfully, my 7-day leave was sanctioned last December. Trying to unleash the adventure streak in me, I stacked my travel bags with winter clothes, route map and set out — Mission Kashmir!
The primary reason being, it was an off-season and I wanted “me time”. After landing in Srinagar, I took a cab to check whether h ouseboats were available. The first glimpse of Dal Lake was enticing. Spread over 18sq km, the it housed a thousand houseboats.I hired a shikara which took me to a shelter in Nagin Lake, at sunset. I could actually hear soft ripples of water, chirpies returning to their nests, moon trying to make it’s presence felt through clouds…Simply wow! It took me 20 minutes to reach my shelter.
Thankfully, I could manage a room, as there weren’t any tourist around. Wooden steps guided me to a moderately big lounge, with vibrant paintings on wooden walls. I had read about houseboats being at par with resorts for a comfortable stay, and very rightly so. This boat house three cabins and I was the sole occupant. Sipping into coffee, as I took my place next to the window, while the boat attendant arranged for a room heater. Four degrees, I was freezing!
Waking up at 7am, thanks to my alarm— the early morning view of Dal Lake was a spectacle. Few shikaras ferrying handful of tourists, mostly foreign nationals across the lake, while few others cruised to sell goods…Mobile market, one of it’s kind. Flowers reminded me of several hindi films being shot there. .. Dil se, Kashmir ki Kali, Rockstar, Kabhi Kabhi. After feasting on parantha, it was time, to venture out on shikara.
Cool breeze, serene surroundings, I could feel romance in the air (didn’t matter even though I was alone)! Budget houseboats of different sizes thronged Dal Lake, which wasn’t polluted as critics claimed it to be. Probably because it was an off-season.A ride on the lake is a must for tourists visiting Kashmir.
Once ashore, I spotted women in pherons (traditional kashmiri dress), with small bamboo baskets heated charcoal. They placed the baskets inside shawls, to keep counter freezing.
Mughal Gardens around 12kms from Srinagar was my next halt. Accentuated with flowerbeds, lawns and fountains, it was a nature lover’s delight.
Countless confectioneries, meat shops and handloom emporiums dominated the local market. After taking a stroll I ferried back to my shelter in the houseboat. A few shikaras carrying paper mache products, flowerpots, small jewellery boxes, kashmiri junk jewellery, pashmina shawls, woolen stoles, were at my doorstep. After a lot of bargain, i picked up tokens at almost half the rates asked for. Small tip, DO NOT loosen purse strings easily. Traditional cuisine Kasmiri pulao (soaked in ghee!), dum aloo, gosht and meet balls were served for dinner.
Day Three, Pahalgam. Local people also, address the place as Valley of Shepherds. Meandering river, natural fountains, saffron gardens, I reached my destination in 2.5hrs. Palalgam is around 100km from Srinagar. I was in love with Kashmir already and the panoramic scenic beauty was breathtaking. Paradise on Earth, Kashmir lives up to it’s name.
It was Himalayan mountain range and me. As I did mention earlier about my passion to explore new places, this was one of it’s kind — Jannat! And spot on, Bollywood calling again. It took me a few seconds to identify my shelter, the same place where King Khan’s jeep was parked in Jab Tak Hain Jaan.
I set out for Baisaran, after checking in.Owing to it’s height (2348m above sea-level), the small town of Pahalgam was visible from hill top. Pine forests, roads covered with snow with temperature hovering around2 degrees during the day — it was a complete package of himalayan treat. A few kids enjoyed pony ride around the green surroundings , while a few of us treated ourselves to Maggi and coffee from make-shift food kiosks.
Next halt was Betaab Valley. Surrounded by snow-clad peaks, crystal clear streams, a perfect epitome of serenity. Soft rock, romantic western music, mostly instrumental blended perfectly with the ambiance. And to take a break, the lyrics of Jiya re (track from Jab Tak Hain Jaan) was ideal.
I walked back to my tourist lodge. I missed my parents who couldn’t were in Delhi, I ran out of words while describing nature’s bounty to them!
Day four was reserved for local sightseeing. Chandanwari, the starting point of pilgrims to Amarnath known for its snow ridge was a landmark in Kashmir. The place is accessible by car, some 15km from Pahalgam.
Hajan, close to Chandwari attracts scores of tourists because of several bollywood films being shot there.
My next halt was frozen Sheshnag Lake! A local told me, water starts melting post May.
Dense pine and deodar forests throng the entire route.
I decided to stay indoors after sunset in a bid to escape from sudden dip in temperature.I set out for Gulmarg next morning. Skiing and Gondola (ropeway) ride are adventure freak’s favorite. All I could see was snow-covered roofs, handful of tourists and ponies.A shoe stall offered special boots to walk in the snow, which is a must wear.
Waterfalls, green meadows, bright flowers mark summer in Gulmarg, which wasn’t visible then. Gulmarg, ‘meadow or valley of flowers’, has the longest cable car project in Asia. The ride is divided into two sections – Gulmarg to Kongdori and Kongdori to Apherwat. The cable car took me over pine forests with snow topping (from of 2690m above sea level to 3090 m) while reaching Kongdoor. Picturesque beauty, soul stirring landscapes, the Gondola ride was an experience of a lifetime.
Heavy snowfall boosts skiing in winter and I didn’t let go off this opportunity. Amateurs can also try their luck at the same with guides. Couples throwing snowballs at each other, no wonder they are still under the grasp on wedding vows, (but that was sweet)!
Rock climbing, ice-skating and skiing are a cakewalk for me, hence I made the most of my opportunity. Gulmarg has some of the highest ski slopes in India.
On returning to my resort, the only thing I had in mind was, I don’t want to leave the place. Mercury dipped to -1 degree. Bed heaters seemed like a boon. But I won’t complain.
Camera’s weren’t sufficient to capture the timeless treasure trove of Kashmir. My trip had come to an end. I returned rejuvenated, with a frozen memory card! And, I wouldn’t allow the ice to melt.
A trip to heaven and back — eternal journey.