– some stuff I want to write about…
Landing at the airport when u see more army and armed police personnel than civilians, you know you are in a troubled place. Welcome to Kashmir is what the hoarding read. Ever since a kid, Kashmir had fascinated me. Snow clad mountains, beautiful trees, scenic landscapes and all the awesome things that we would see in the movies. Although I got the opportunity to be in the snow when I was at Oxford, Kashmir was still in my mind. Ironically, it was in Oxford that I met my Kashmir contact – Saima Iqbal a very dear friend and an amazing person who knows how to make people feel special.
The opportunity to visit Kashmir presented itself when my close buddy Aashish decided to get married and had a reception in Delhi. I got in touch with our friend circle from Oxford days and it turned out that only Saima, myself and Nakul (an Architect and teacher from Mumbai) were set for Delhi and there on for a brief stint in visiting Kashmir.
On 14th of November, 2011 (as coincidence would have it – children’s day to fulfil my childhood dream) Nakul, me and Saima took a flight to Srinagar (Saima’s hometown). Saima had arranged everything but she did not tell me about any of the plans and everything was a surprise for me. Her friend Anjum was there to receive us and first stop was the hotel where we were staying – hotel Milad just along the banks of the river Jhelum. We dropped our bags and got back into the car. Hotel Imran was our next stop. Thuji (tandoored lamb chunks) and lavass (thin white colored rotis) served with 5 salads and chutneys. First taste of authentic Kashmiri food and it was awesome. The only drawback was some of the chewey pieces of lamb which played a spoilsport.
Rest of the day was dedicated to the Shankaracharya Hill (the radio station scene from Mission Kashmir was shot here) and the Dal lake. The time was close to 4pm when we reached the Shankaracharya. The climate was chilly and we had to get our jackets out. Security check of the car and bags at the bottom of the hill was followed by the beautiful sights of the city along with the Dal lake interspersed between the shikaras (boats native to kashmir).
We reached the actual base of the shankaracharya only to be told that there are no cameras or mobile phones allowed. We spent some time cursing them and then turned back to go down again stopping at places to get some good snaps. There was mist in the air and all the photos looked as if it lacked focus. We drove along the Dal Lake which was worth remembering and by the time we left, the mist along with the street lights left a long lasting impression on the mind.
Anjum dropped us back to the hotel, dropped Saima at her place and he headed home. Nakul and me had a simple dinner (non-veg obviously) and thought of calling it an early night, but we decided to take a small post-dinner walk. Apprehensively we asked the receptionist if it was safe to go out at that time (it was just close to 9.30-10 pm) he mentioned that we should be back by 10.30 coz then he locks the hotel main gates and goes off to sleep. Out of the hotel the temperatures must have been close to 4-6 and it was slightly windy (not the best combination to have.) Pitch dark and deserted roads greeted us. An occasional vehicle passed us by in a hurry. It was a stark contrast to what we are used to here in Mumbai. 15 mins is all that we managed and we were back to our room.
Early morning I and nakul wanted to try the local breakfast and we ventured out and found a small dhaba serving egg omelettes and parathas along with hot tea. This was followed by a stroll by the Jhelum river. At every 150-200 feet there are armed personnel keeping a watch on everything. Some of them are huddled together around a small fire to keep themselves warm. The morning was beautiful. River on one side which has quite a few houseboats, neat and empty roads adorned with the chinar trees shedding its red leaves and looking as if its on fire with the red and yellow leaves on the dry stem.
It was the day for Pahalgam. Saima had fallen ill and Anjum had some urgent work in the office. He still came and picked us up on his scooter and dropped us at Saima’s place. Triple seat on a scooter and rushing throughSrinagarin winter was interesting. Saima was loaded with sweaters and she handed me her car keys. Now about the car… it was a 2000 model maruti 800 which has not been maintained well, has no side-view mirrors and more often than not gets shut off in the first gear. The experienced Anjum was giving me some warnings about the car but all I was thinking was – I need to survive the day. And then we drove – me nakul and the very ill Saima. The initial jitters about the car passed and Saima informed me that one of her friends is meeting us at Anantnag and from there to Pahalgam would be taken care of by him. Anantnag was still close to 55-60 kms and I had saima telling me constantly that I should not go beyond 50-60 kmph. It was an interesting drive through the roads with chinar trees on sides, patches of saffron plantations, many military vehicles etc.
At anantnag we met Irshad (an architect who is doing a lot of projects in Pahalgam). Scenic views welcomed us into pahalgam. Rivers flowing through rocks and stones, snow clad mountains, hills covered with dense pine trees and beautiful roads with wide curves going up along the river.
Pahalgam is one place that has a lot to do with Bollywood. It has places like Betaab valley, Bobby hut etc. which are based on the movies that were shot here. First stop was the betaab valley which was a perfect setting for a movie and as expected was a host to many of the tourists. Mountains with snow glistening on the top, crystal clear water flowing through the rocks and small Japanese bridges built over them made it complete. It was surprising to see some kids playing cricket in such cold weather (this sport is truly loved all across the country).
After betaab valley we went on to some of the “non-touristy” places which only a local would have known. Irshad was a well-known face there and he knew almost everyone out there. We visited a temple called Mamleshwar (Lord Shiva temple) which is built with quarry stones and is a conserved structure now. Then we went to one of the most beautiful places of our entire Kashmir journey –the Pahalgam Golf Course. Irshad is working on developing the golf club and it is with that influence that we could get an entry to this amazing place. The first view that greets you is lush green freshly trimmed grass with a few patches of pine trees & an artificial lake which reflects the beautiful snow clad mountains at the back.
Our cameras didn’t stop clicking for a good deal of time. All four of us took a stroll in the golf course and we were in awe of this place. Sun was peeping through the clouds and it made the snow on the mountains glow giving it a heavenly feel. Paradiseon earth it really is. The caretakers of the place had made some fresh Kahvaah for us. Kahvaah is like herbal tea and consists of just water, Kashmiri tea leaves, kaju, badam, saffron and sugar. It was served hot along with a few biscuits. Another Kashmiri item tried, tested and loved.
Hotel barisan was where we had our lunch. More non-veg food was consumed and saima stuck to having a soup and later some rice. Mutton Rogan Josh was the next new thing that we tasted. Perfectly cooked meat in a slightly tangy curry paste with just the right amount spice served hot along with rice. After the heavy lunch everyone of us were in need of a quick nap. Irshad had other plans. Aroo was the next place to go… further up in the mountain. Another 40 minutes drive and we reached this place- Aroo. We parked the car and decided to climb a small hill. The hill was steeper than we had thought and with the cold climate and the altitude, we collapsed on our backs and were gasping for breath when we reached the top. It took us a good 5 minutes to stand up and stare at more beauty of nature. We were almost 10,000 feet above sea level and huts were visible in the distance.
Time was running short and we had to travel back a long way. A quick descent was followed by a very controlled yet quick drive back to anantnag. Sanjoy the driver took over from there on. It was just around 6 pm and the visibility had already taken a beating. Two way roads with no dividers or dividing marker lines with the blinding headlights of the on-coming vehicles (all vehicles drive in the upper beam) were a difficult combination to combat. More than an hour later, we reached the city and Saima misguided on the route. We went up a flyover that we were not supposed to take, took a U-turn that didn’t exist and went ahead on the wrong lane with a few vehicles coming straight on. Finally we got on the right track and dropped Saima home. Saima’s mom was kind enough to make some Kahvaah for us. An auto from there back to our hotel, some food and it was bedtime.
Day 3 was the very touristy Gulmarg. Saima’s health had gone worse and Anjum was as busy as ever. So they arranged a car for us and it was just Nakul and me for this journey. The journey to Gulmarg was a bit boring but once we crossed the gulmarg security check post, the drive through the mountains was very pleasant. The climate was cold as usual and steadily we reached the point beyond which there are no vehicles allowed. As soon as we reached there, hoardes of people gathered around the car and started offering us pony rides to the tourist spots, some were offering us coats, gloves, caps etc. We hired just a pair of boots and a jacket from a small tea shop. 2 km walk was all that was needed to reach the famous Gondola ride. A cable car suspended between the snow clad mountain tops and the lush green grass at the bottom. The work on this ride began in 1989 and was completed only in 1996. Since then it was been running as a money spinner for the J&K tourism (Rs. 300 per ticket). A 10 minute ride up and we reached the first mountain top. Snow everywhere. Also people everywhere. Although we were surrounded by snow, the climate was still not too cold. It was enjoyable. Slegding, skating etc. were some of the activities that one could indulge in at Gulmarg. Quite a few pics in the snow and we were back on our way down.
Another round of Kahvaah along with Bakarkhani (a layered gently crisp bread like preparation which is triangular in shape and slightly salted) kept us going.
No Kashmir trip is complete without a visit to the famous Mughal Gardens. We decided to visit the Cheshma Shahi garden which was the only one open when we reached back into the city. It was a namesake visit as we were not big fans of artificial landscapes. 15 minutes was all we devoted to this garden. A grand dinner at Saima’s place awaited us. Saima’s mother had taken all the pains to create the amazing food and it was amongst the best food I have tasted. Shaami Kebabs, a chicken gravy dish, Goshtaba (minced lamb koftas in a non spicy white gravy), rice, salads etc. Saima was more keen on serving us rather than eating the food herself. We were so stuffed that we could hardly eat the chocolates that followed the dinner.
Last day in Kashmir was a haste affair. A quick shopping around Lal chowk then to the government run Kashmir Emporium followed by an auto ride to the Airport. The flight was delayed by 30 minutes which was a boon as we had to pass through SIX levels of checking and screening including 3 levels of frisking. All in all it was a very memorable experience and given a chance I would want to visit the place again with more time in hand. Maybe next time I can go to Leh, Ladakh, Wagah border etc too…