Have you ever gone through that feeling when a shiver of happiness has run down your spine…when you’ve had to press your palms against your mouth because you were afraid that your heart might race out in excitement..when you were gaping in disbelief at the surrounding around you because you couldn’t come to terms with the fact that a dream that you had nurtured for over 2 decades was finally coming true? All these things happened to me and all at once. Last week.
Kashmir had always been that one place which, ever since I learned to travel, had been sitting pretty on top of my bucket list. As a child, I never could imagine that I’d actually be able to set foot in that paradise. Envious of my parents and grandparents, I would always lament why I was not born a generation earlier, when cross-border strife had not completely engulfed the state’s peace and security. But miracles do occur, and so did a trip to Kashmir.
On reaching Srinagar airport at 7 am (yes, and for that we had to leave for the Delhi airport at 2.30 in the morning!), we headed straight towards Gulmarg. Situated at a distance of 52 km (1.5 hours) from Srinagar, this Meadow of Flowers is resplendent mostly in winters, covered in a blanket of snow. We went in July, and that’s why had the snow playing hide and seek with us.
The vast stretches of green, dotted by deodar and pine trees and the snow-capped Khilanmarg range at a distance completely blew our minds. The gondola (cable car) ride (Rs 600 for the first level and 1,400 for both levels) was an experience that someone with a terrifying altitude sickness like me will savour for the rest of her life.
What added splendour to the already magnificent view of the town were the hotels and shops, all built of wood. I go weak in the knees whenever I see wooden or red brick architecture, and Gulmarg was no different.
The windows of our room, curtained tastefully by white Kashmiri handwork, opened to the vast space of lush green outside. The view itself was a treat for your eyes, a medicine for your soul.
Our hotel had a fantastic selection of staff, the most hospitable and helpful that I’ve seen in a good while. Not only would they stand by us throughout the time we would be having our food (and don’t forget, it is Ramzan month), they would also make us privy to the quintessential home recipes that were popular in Kashmiri households.
On our way back from Gulmarg, we stopped by at the Fruit Orchards and loaded ourselves with boxes of cherries, apricots, plums and green apples. I got myself 3 boxes of cherries and a box each of apricots and plums (click here to find out what happened to them)
We reached the capital on a day when the city was shut down to commemorate Martyrs’ Day. But thankfully for us, the points of sight seeing were open to tourists.
So immediately after checking in our hotel, we tumbled out and jostled into the car to set off for a joyride in the city. And then the sight met us…the sight of the grandeur called Dal Lake. Huge in its expanse (with a circumference of 27 km), the majestic lake has more than 1200 houseboats nestled in its coziness and a constant rush of shikaras carrying passengers to and fro.
The entire city of Srinagar encircles the Dal Lake. As we went round and round the larger than life water body, we touched the Mughal Gardens (Chashme Shahi, Nishat Bag and Shalimar Bag). Pari Mahal, Hazratbal Mosque (and the beautiful little shop right outside that sold the most amazing pakodas ever!), Nigeen Lake and Shankaracharya Temple.
Now if you are in Kashmir, missing out on the traditional wazwan fare is a crime. So every night during dinner the traveller in me would take a backseat and the foodie/food blogger pounce out. And what a feast we used to have. Here I must mention the stupendous company of T, irreplacable food and travel buddy, (read more about her here) who made every wazwan experience memorable. So whether it was Tabak Maaz, Maithi Maaz, Rista, Gushtaba, Rogan Josh, Mirchi Kurma or Dhaniya Kurma, the gluttons in us refused to get buoyed down and sampled and relished one delicacy after the other. 🙂
We now come to the most eventful bit of the trip…our day-long excursion to Sonmarg. The Meadow of Gold, at a distance of 87 km (3 hours) from Srinagar, is located on the bank of the Nallah Sindh (the lasrgest tributary of the Jhelum).
On arrival to Sonmarg, we had to change our vehicle and in a Scorpio, operated by local drivers/agents, set off for a long and winding uphill journey that would take us to the zero point glacier, crossing the Zoji La pass, India Gate and the last village of Kashmir…Sarbal. On the steep side lay Baltal, studded with tents that had been erected to house the batches of Amarnath yatris who flew often on helicopters from the Sonmarg helipad.
We had climbed up a great deal at were roughly at an altitude of 12,000 ft when happened the inevitable…an experience without which no trip to the hills is complete. Yes, I’m talking about a blockade. Mountains were being cut down to make proper roads and that entailed that all cars coming in that direction would be stopped from 11 am-3 pm. We reached the spot at 11.45 and had to wait for a painstaking 3.15 hours before we could lunge forward. It was getting late and we even contemplated returning (only if a u-turn was possible in that narrow stretch of road) the moment the queue dispersed. But there was no scope of U-turn and so we had to go with the flow.
And thank God we did, because what befell us 20 minutes later was jannat in its truest sense. A huge slab of glacier descending from the mighty peaks of the Himalayas and melting bit by bit at our feet made for an experience completely exhilarating.
We could happily have stayed there for hours, but with so much time already lost we had to make a move quickly in order to get back to Srinagar on time. And then struck another tragedy. After switching cars at Sonmarg, we started back home, already late by a good 2-3 hours. when we were stopped after barely 10 minutes. We saw yet another huge queue of vehicles ahead of us and were fearing yet another blockade. But what we heard was far worse and to an extent mind-numbing.
A car from Punjab, with 3 passengers, had apparently fallen into the mighty Nallah Sindh and had been carried away by the ruthless currents. Rescue operations were going on as we sat there praying for some miracle. But the Nallah was merciless and left no room for any miracle. The Sumo, otherwise a strong and hefty car, was craned right in front of our eyes in shambles. We learnt that one of the three bodies had also been recovered and search was on for the rest. The sun had set by the time the cars were allowed to move again. The Nallah, following our path for another 30 minutes or so, now bore a menacing look, crashing and growling…rocks jutted out from its midst here and there. Nature, that enamours us so much, can also be so thoroughly unforgiving!
We returned Srinagar that night at 10.30…safe and secure, with memories to last a lifetime and fears that would creep back again and again.
Click here for the Pahalgam leg of the journey and our experience at the Srinagar houseboat. And also what happened to the cherries!