From the Mughals – who called it paradise on earth, to Bollywood films and songs – that romanced it for millions of Indians for ever, and to Bill Clinton- who gave it the dubious distinction of being the ‘most dangerous place on earth’ – picturesque and bountiful Kashmir has always captured visitor’s hearts and imaginations.
The modern India state of Jammu & Kashmir is a huge state, with three focal points from the tourist point of view. These are Jammu, Kashmir Valley and Leh-Ladakh. Kashmir was once a major center of Sanskrit scholars, or pandits, from the times of Vikramaditya in 200 B.C ; then Buddhism came to the Kashmir Valley during the third century and after the rise of Ashoka, when it had the famous Chines traveller Huein Tsang visiting it, followed later by Sufi sages and Muslim invaders from Central Asia and Persia. It was eventually absorbed into the Mughal Empire,and it was Jahangir, so besotted with the valley’s beauty, who penned the famous Persian couplet: “Gar firdaus, ruhe zamin ast, o hamin asto, hamin asto, hamin ast” (“If there is a heaven on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here”). Later, in the 19th century, control over the valley passed from the Mughals to the Durrani Shahs of Afghanistan and later still to to the Sikh kingdom of Ranjit Singh, who in turn lost it to the British in 1846, in the First Anglo-Sikh War. The British sold it to Maharajah Gulab Singh Dogra of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. We are sadly all familiar with the more recent events, since Independence, and the trauma of this gentle beautiful land in the last 2 decades.
Now, after tortuous years of violence and unrest, peace seems to be settling over this beauteous land, and tourist arrivals into the state of Jammu &Kashmir, and Srinagar Valley in particular have been the highest in 2012 since two decades. So its a marvelous time now to visit this fabled land for a most memorable sojourn.
Jammu region is centered around the winter capital Jammu, in the foothills and plains on the banks of the Tavi river. From Delhi its an overnight train journey or a full day’s drive or a short hour’s flight. The much revered Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine is near Jammu and can be visited in a weekend trip from Delhi. About 3hrs hours drive from Jammu gets you to Patni Top, that gives you a sudden sneak preview into the higher reaches of the Pir Panjal Himalaya much before you are actually even half way into Kashmir. Its a scenic spot for picnics, and for snow sighting (in winter) and adventure activities like Zorbing, Paragliding, Skiing, Camping and Hikes. The Jammu-Srinagar highway is famous for its various pit stops for food- Rajma Chawal at Peeda, Patissa at Prem Sweets in Kud-Batot and the special Panner Pakodas called Kalladis.
Nearly half way from Jammu to Kashmir, you cross the Jawahar Tunnel at Banihal, leaving the Jammu region behind. As you enter the Kashmir Valley proper, the scenery changes to the more Alpine and Temperate Montane kind which seems more European than Indian! This aspect is in fact very striking when you fly into Srinagar, as you look down onto a flat valley checkered with shades of glorious green paddy fields, shimmering lakes and rivers and tall conifers glades and the huge Chinar trees (type of Maple) interspersed with wood houses with sloping roofs -as Swiss a scene as any!
And then when you land and step into the city, the scene changes again and you come face to face with a Central Asia- meets – Himalayan kingdom scenario- locals with fair skin, sharp features, apple cheeked faces, some with light eyes, wearing salwars, kurtis, pajamas and pherans with fine oriental embroidery, and the local homes and mosques that wouldn't look out of place in Turkey or maybe Iran or Tajakistan . It is a novel and arresting sight indeed, one’s first glimpse of Kashmir.
In Srinagar, the city itself has many attractions – The Mogul and Tulip Gardens, the Dal and Nagin Lake, Lal Chowk Markets, the forts and palaces like Pari Mahal, Hari Parbat fort, and religious shrines like Hazrat Bal Mosque and Shankaracharya Temple, which has stunning ariel views of the city and dates back to 250 B.C!
The Tulip Gardens only bloom in March end-Early April, so if you are a spring visitor to the valley, add them to your must see list. Rest of the year, the legacy of summer pleasure parks built by the Moguls is all around you in Srinagar – Shalimar, the biggest; Nishat, the prettiest; and Chasm e Shahi, the most easy to do with a mystical fountain, are all delightful and scenic, and made immortal in Eastman color by Hindi films of the 60s, but after a point, they are rather a long walk, and kids tend to get bored and tired. Chasm e Shahi is the one garden with the USP of being small in size, with superb views from a hillside of the Dal lake, and with the magical curative waters of its freezing cold fountain water. There is also the Botanical Garden near Dal lake, which is a beautiful place on a slope of the mountains that rise beyond the Dal lake, and is always a great spot to see the local evening scene with families out for picnics lunches and teas. This is another very typical and enjoyable trait of the local culture- garden picnics seem to be the order of the day whenever the skies are lear and the sun is shining.
The Dal Lake and Nagin Lake for me are the personal highlights of a trip to Srinagar, with their calm, shimmering waters reflecting the snow capped Zabarwan mountains, the mighty Chinar, Pine, and Willow trees on the banks, the fluffy white clouds and the azure blue sky above, and the slow moving shikaras and the fairy tale carved wooden houseboats. The sunsets on the Dal Lake are to be seen to be believed; they are superlative in their yellow turns to gold turns to orange turns to scarlet beauty. Also fun is all the action that takes place on those serene waters- there is water skiing, there is shopping- either on the houseboat markets or in the floating shop in a shikara that comes next to your boat , there is eating, and of course costume photography 🙂 The boatmen are friendly and give you a running commentary on all that is on the lake and around it, and If you are lucky, your boatman might just be happy to sing you a Persian or Kashmiri song while he rows your boat. You can see the pretty flower selling boats and the floating vegetable market boats if you come to the lake at sunrise, or if you happen to be staying on a houseboat and get up early enough! There are also the floating farms, little fragments of mud and reed that are fixed into wooden frames and anchored to the lake bed. Lotuses are a favorite crop on these farms and make for a beautiful sight as u float past them on your shikara, startling an occasional duck or geese into a run. These little farm patches are unique also in that they are liable to get stolen in the dark of the night and find mention in local police records as ‘Stolen Land- Missing in the night’ ! On the banks of the lake, there is also fishing, if you get a govt permit first. In addition now there is the latest attraction of a Hot Air Ballon ride too, a big favorite with children.
With its wealth of flat land, ample water and glorious weather, Kashmir has a rich and varied range of natural produce, that also creates its unique and delectable cuisine. The wondrous aromatic Kashmir Wazwan feat is best savored at Boulevard Road and Residency road eateries like Shamiana, or Mughal Durbar. Baked goodies, another legacy of Central Asian ties, are to be picked up from Mir Bakeries or Ahdoos, among many others. Also don't miss the street food market at Amira Kadal, a favorite after work hang out of locals.
The local crafts mix local raw materials with skills and influences borrowed eclectically from China in the East to Central Asia and Persia in the West. The ravages of the political troubles had impacted trade and local crafts and producers adversely for a long time but thankfully things seem to be looking up again. You can shop for traditional wood carving, papier mache, carpets, woolens, embroideries and silks everywhere, even on Dal Lake houseboats, and the meadows of Pahalgam, but specially in the Lal Chowk Market area in Srinagar, and also at some fixed price showrooms on Gulmarg road. The well known names, famous for generations among Kashmir cognoscenti are of course Suffering Moses, Nik Nax, and Polo View, and for the best spices and saffron you have to visit Amin Bin Khalik.
In this water rich valley full of serene lakes and snow fed rivers, the meditatively calm flow of the Jhelum river is another mesmerizing sight as it weaves its way through the heart of the city.It is very much the lifeline of transport, commerce and daily life even in these changed times. A few of the old wooden bridge are still intact, though not safe for heavy use, and make for a charming view with the houseboat homes of the local river dwelling people moored on the sides. There is now a heritage boat ride tour that takes visitors on a guided ride through old Srinagar on the Jhelum river, showing all the landmark architecture and localities with their history.
Willow tress that lean into the Jhelum as it meanders through the Kashmir valley are famous for producing the acclaimed Kashmiri Willow bat for cricketers. You can see these being hand made in the factories on the Pahalgam highway, just outside Srinagar. Also outside Srinagar, in Pampore, are the colorful and beautiful Saffron Farms, which bloom in October, which is also the fruiting time for most of the numerous fruits orchards in the Valley. Its a brilliant month to visit, with a bloom of russet autumn colors everywhere and the earliest nip of winter chill in the air.
Beyond Srinagar, there is the choice of day trips or overnight stays at Gulmarg, Pahalgam and Sonamarg. There is also the National Park at Dachigam, just outside Srinagar, which is home to the Kashmir Stag – the Hangul, and also the much hunted Himalayan Musk Deer, coveted for its rare musk perfume.
Gulmarg– the Meadow of Flowers, is about 2 hours drive from Srinagar, on a smooth, level road through paddy fields and quaint Kashmiri villages till you reach the base village of Tanmarg, where the road winds uphill for another 20 kms till Gulmarg meadow, or the Bowl as it is also known and as it certainly looks! True to its names, its a vast softly sloping bowl of green, scattered with white, yellow, pink and purple flowers, merging with the snowy peaks that encircle it. Gulmarg is an year round destination – for the heavy snow and big slopes for skiing in winter, and for the great location, snow views and soft adventures in summer.
There are two levels of climbs in Gulmarg, after you reach the meadow proper – Level I & Level II. Level I is the Kongadori Valley meadows, at about 9000 feet, and you can get here by cable (Gondola) car in 5 Minutes, or walking (a long, hour long uphill trek!) or by pony. To go on to Level II, you have to change to another cable car, to Kongadori mountain, which is above 13000 ft, and from there you can finally climb up a few hundred feet more to the Affarwat peak, the highest point at Gulmarg, at nearly 14000 ft. Now just catch your breath, relax and take in the huge vistas of snow right up to the Indo- Pak line of Control….Mount K2 and Nanga Parbat being some of the big ones to be seen. These are sights and experiences that will live you for ever.
However, for the elderly, those pregnant or with medical conditions of the heart, or issues related to high altitude, its best to stop at Level 1 and enjoy the stupendous views, have a picnic and go back down. Khilanmarg is another pretty meadow to one side of Gulmarg, another option of a somewhat less crowded place if you like.
In case you do plan to make it to Level II, then just continue up to Level II in one go, without lingering for a break or a picnic at Level I. Weather conditions are unpredictable in the afternoon at these heights, and sometimes the Level II Gondola trip gets cancelled in bad weather that typically sets in after noon time. So best to finish the upward trip in the first half of the day and picnic lower down later on.
Also, with all it has to recommend it to visitors and its proximity to Srinagar, Gulmarg is definitely a crowded place and you need to ensure you don't make some typical mistakes that can turn a visit there into a tough ordeal. Do make sure, if coming in from Srinagar, to reach very early, much before the booking counters & boarding lines open at the cable car office. Definitely pre-book your cable car (Gondola) tickets online, for both Level I and II. Take your place in the queues early, with two members of your group simultaneously standing in the booking line (to get the boarding pass on your tickets!) and the actual boarding line. If travelling with small children, maybe staying put at a resort in Gulmarg the previous night is a worthwhile thought. Also at Gulmarg, be careful to not engage or even converse with any pony wala if you are sure you only want to walk or take the cable car – they are notoriously persistent and clingy and just wont leave you alone unless u are very firm. Carry some woollens if coming in summer, just for the top most level, where the snow is. Wear closed shoes with a good grip, wear sunglasses and suntan, and maybe even light gloves for easy snowball making. Boots, coats and even snow goggles are to be found on rent, but you don't really need to rent if you go prepared.
Moving on to Pahalgam – This Village of the Shepherds is voted the most scenic spot in all of Kashmir by most visitors and locals alike. It is a truly popular place of outstanding natural beauty, and a favorite summer destination in Kashmir. The Lidder river flows here like a dancing , frolicking maiden, jumping over white round rocks and the valley is surrounded by green emerald fields which are bounded by highest snow peaks till the bluest of blue horizons. The riverside is an endless park custom made by nature for picnics, horse rides, and itinerant salesman from nearby villages ! The river is also used for rafting and there are many adventure outfits here for rafting, hiking, camping and fishing for the famous Himalayan trout. And of course every local guide, tea stall owner and hotelier can regale you for hours with tales of film stars and their antics 🙂
In the summer months of June to August the arduous trek of the faithful to the cave shrine at Amaranth takes place. The route is from Srinagar, Sonamarg (The Meadow of Gold), Baltal, and covers some of the most stunning high altitude scenery and climbs, across icy glaciers, and along the valleys of the Sindh, Lidder and Amravati rivers. It is a tough journey with bare essential arrangements for most part, but to those who come in faith, its the path to Nirvaana, as legend has it that there is no re-birth for those who make this pilgrimage and they are freed from the bonds of human existence!
Beyond the Kashmir Valley, bordering Tibet and China lies the Zanskar ranges and Leh Ladakh region. One can fly direct into Leh from Delhi, but when done as part of a Kashmir road itinerary, the journey takes you through myriad changes of geology, culture and sights. From the mellow, mild, green and turquoise Kashmir valley studded with bright flowers, you now move onto the more rocky, arid, higher terrain and rarified air of the Himalayan Indo-Tibetan desert. The people you encounter are frontier mountain folks, with a huge Buddhist influence on the religion and culture. Its best to take it easy on this part of the journey, rest a lot, drink plenty of fluids and pause to take in the gob smacking sights all around you. Incidentally, Drass, which is in the Kargil region, almost half way to Leh, is one of the coldest inhabited places on earth in winters . All in all, it is a is a breathtaking region by any standards, and you are going to be rendered speechless at almost every turn!
Thus you cross the Kargil- Drass region- made memorable in the Hrithik – Preity star-er Bollywood movie Lakshye- and pass into Leh -Ladakh, where you can immerse yourself in the Buddhist culture, visiting ancient monasteries with an amazing international history, incredibly beautiful and intricate art work, priceless relics, esoteric knowledge and traditions and an active on going ritual life. The more intrepid and adventurous can make trips to the stunning high latitude lakes- Pangong Tso and Tso Moriri, with blues like no other. To add a dash of even more off beat action and adventure, you can even try a Camel Safari or a Polo match with the locals in Drass region, or a ride into the Changthang desert to encounter and experience the life of the Changthang nomads.
This is a region of high adventure and best done when you are at least moderately fit and have fairly good aerobic fitness and lung capacity. It is best to check with your doctor about the children and your fitness before making the plans so as to be better prepared, though incidents of serious mountain sickness are rare and most cases can be easily managed with a bit of alertness and timely medical care and descent to lower altitudes.
A trip to this paradisiacal land is indeed a journey of a lifetime,and one you will relive and retell many times over. Bon Voyage!
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