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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Of mountains, valleys, flowers, hairpin bends, snow and everything in between - Our Kashmir Trip

Kashmir had always been an elusive destination and like many others I also had this romantic view of Kashmir and wanted to visit it someday. This curiosity grew even stronger when the tourism in the area resumed few years ago after being off-limits for many years prior.
Ever since we moved back to India, both Kashmir and Leh (Ladakh region) were on my bucket list of places to visit. This year, although, I was more keen on Leh, our travel agent advised us against it since we were traveling with kids and they felt Leh was probably not appropriate for kids under 10. Well, I know many families with even younger children who visited the Leh/Ladakh region and handled it pretty well, but somehow we didn't want to take any chances and decided to visit Kashmir this time and pushed off Leh for another few years. Finally, Kashmir happened this year. Thanks to Hansa Holidays, the planning and booking was relatively easy (in hindsight, I wish we did a bit more research on what to expect). We planned a trip covering Srinagar, Pahalgam, Gulmarg and Sonamarg. 
My intent to blog the experience is mainly to help other families during their planning since even in my readings post the trip, I didn't find much in the form of what to expect that would help tourists like us.

Srinagar: 

The flight from Hyd to Srinagar (with stopover in Delhi) was pretty smooth. One can notice the changing terrain as we fly away from Delhi towards Srinagar with the different mountain ranges, some snow covered and mostly lush green. Srinagar Airport is called International Airport but, it is very small and kinda run down. Luckily our luggage arrived soon enough and found our driver and vehicle immediately and set out to check into the houseboat on Dal Lake. 
The drive to Dal Lake (houseboat on Dal Lake) was about 30 mins. First impressions of Srinagar - an old city(town) with narrow lanes, open drainage, definitely doesn't look like the summer capital of the state or a major tourist spot of the nation. It is not surprising though, since the entire state relies mostly on tourism for its economy and tourism is not as developed as is possible. Our driver told us that Srinagar gets 3-5 feet of snow at times during winter and the temperatures dip down to as low as -15 c. The houses didn't seem well insulated for such harsh winters and we also saw some slums with extremely poor living conditions with small huts covered by plastic sheets. I was very touched to see such harsh conditions that people live under. Having experienced the winters in New Jersey, we sure know the pain of bitter cold and, thankfully always experienced it from centrally heated homes or from under warm down jackets and mittens. Apparently, room heaters are a luxury and so are warm clothing. Lot of Kashmiris carry this burning coal blocks called Kangri to give them warmth for hours at a time.


Dal Lake is a large (second largest in the state) lake and the epicenter of all tourist activity in Srinagar. We were told we had to experience the houseboat for sure which is why we booked one night on the houseboat. As we approached the Dal Lake, we were welcomed by a line up of shikaras which is again on the must-do list for a Srinagar tourist. Given how my nose is quite sensitive, I was wondering if I would smell the stagnant water, fish, etc. but, to my pleasant surprise the Dal Lake was relatively clean and there was no smell. There were some patches of dirty, stagnant water but, for some reason no smell even there. The Dawn houseboat itself was one of the older ones but, was quite comfortable. 
The first shikara ride from the bank to the houseboat was quite nice. We were, in a few minutes surrounded by other vendor shikaras selling everything from icecream, kulfi, to jewelry and clothing. This was a little annoying and we had to say 'Sorry, abhi tho aaye hain, nahi chahiye" about 10 times before we were left alone to enjoy the ride.
Apart from the Dal Lake and houseboat experience, the only other spots in Srinagar are the various parks - Shalimar Bagh, Mughal Gardens, Nishant Bagh and the Shankaracharya Hill. All the parks are pretty much the same with a mughal style of symmetrical gardens, a small uphill with the view of the lake and surrounding mountains. One unique attraction all these parks have is -  photographers with kashmiri costumes... these are not nearly as annoying as some others I will describe later.
As we were driving through the streets of Srinagar, one thing that was apparent was that the population is predominantly muslim. Although, coming from Hyderabad it should not be so strange to see this many muslims, it was somehow different here.. perhaps because of their sheer dominance (about 97-98% as per the census).  But, it was still wonderful to see big hoardings and boards welcoming people going on the Amarnath Yatra right next to all the Ramzan celebratory hoardings. Is this what secularism is all about? The whole atmosphere just made me more curious to learn more about the history of this place, the history of the conflict between India and Pakistan over this region, circumstances that led to the inclusion of Article 370 in our constitution... fascinating to say the least (topic for a separate post). But, it just made me feel so proud to be an Indian and made me appreciate the true meaning of being Hindu even more so.. Hinduism is more a way of living and not a religion and probably the most inclusive one of all that openly encourages peaceful co-existence.
Kashmiri cuisine is predominantly chicken and mutton. Non-veg dishes vary in spice and texture and dry fruits are used generously in many vegetarian dishes making them a tad sweet. Our lunch at Adhoos and the homecooked dinner on the houseboar were good samplers of kashmiri cuisine. This pretty much sums up Srinagar and next day we ventured out to Pahalgam

Pahalgam


Pahalgam is about 90kms east of Srinagar. It is a popular Bollywood shooting spot and is also associated with the annual Amarnath Yatra. Chandanwari (2,895 m), 16 km from Pahalgam, is the starting point of the yatra that takes place every year in the month of Sawan (July to August). 
We drove leisurely stopping at the Awantipura ruins, Almonds and Saffron shops and the Kashmiri Willow Cricket bats factory. 

The drive was very scenic with the Lidder river flowing along the highway in front of green lush mountain ranges. This seems like the main attraction of the region that most drives are very scenic with flowing rivers/streams with surrounding green lush / or snow covered mountains. Hotel Pine n' Peak in Pahalgam was quite comfortable with beautiful views. Pahalgam is known for pony rides which lead up-to to green plateaus on hill tops offering breathtaking views (popularly called Mini-Switzerland). 

The other famous spots here are the Betaab valley (named after the movie Betaab which was shot here), Aru Valley and Chandanwari. Only way to get to these places is by hiring a local tourism vehicle. The good thing was that the rates for these vehicles are fixed and published prominently. The pony rides are not and you need to wear your haggling hats to get a fair deal. Interestingly, there is a unspoken agreement between the pony/horse owners and the rest that nobody divulges the rates or interferes at all. So, you are kinda left on your own to figure out the fair price. 
Apart from the pony/horse owners and the tourist guides, you encounter many sellers trying to sell shawls, sarees, hand made handicrafts and they sound so desperate and annoying because they either end up begging or threatening (depending on their mood and the day they had so far I think). This shows how the entire region is so desperately dependent only on tourism and there is definitely not as much demand to support the large population that relies on it. Overall, the Pahalgam visit was nice and pleasant and the valleys offered some awesome visuals as expected. There were some activities for kids too like the zorbing and hydro-zorbing. Our next stop was to Gulmarg

Gulmarg

I was looking forward to Gulmarg (Meadow of Flowers) with all the hype it
received after the Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani movie (apparently the Manali shown in this movie was actually shot in Gulmarg). It is a small hill station about 52kms west of Srinagar. For all the hype about it, Gulmarg is a small town with nothing much except some good views (now we got used to the views and they became the usual :) ) and the Gondola ride up the mountains (cable car). 
Our hotel (Hotel Vintage) was a nice small boutique hotel with some nice short walks nearby to awesome views.  There are two phases of the Gondola ride and the first phase offers nothing more than just a hop over to the 2nd phase Gondola.We booked the Gondola rides online (highly recommended to avoid the long lines at the station itself) and even booked our slots for 9-10 AM for Phase 1 ride and 10 - 11 AM for Phase 2 ride. The hotel was about 2 kms from the Gondola station. Cars or any other vehicles are not allowed to the Gondola station and the only options are to either walk or ride the ponies. It just shows how desperate the locals are to create artificial demand for themselves (amd their ponies) since they only depend on tourism which lasts for about 4-6 months in the year (Its a bit longer in Gulmarg given the ski slopes) We decided to walk from the hotel but, escaping the tourist guides and their ponies was the most annoying part of the walk. Our taxi driver also warned us that there was nothing for a guide to really show and prepared us to be wary of the chasing guides. They are very aggressive and cannot take 'No' for an answer. As we reached the Gondola station, the ticket counter which issues the boarding passes for online ticket holders only opened at 9:30 (remember, we took the 9-10 gondola for phase 1..) and they decided to hold back and not give the Phase 2 boarding passes until 11 (again an artificial way to create demand for guides). 
Some impatient folks who had other plans for the day had to hire the guides only to have them wait at the counter and pick up their Phase 2 boarding passes while they took the Phase 1 ride. Even though the online ticketing system issues passes starting from 9 AM for Phase 1 and 10 AM for Phase 2, Phase 1 didn't start until 10 and Phase 2 didn't start until 12. Before this time, the cable cars were used to transport the vendors and guides up the hills. Eventually, we realized the timing on the boarding pass meant nothing, there were long lines at every phase and just to make the guides useful, the people with guides got to cut the lines blatantly, leaving the rest of us frustrated and irritated. 



The Gondola rides (Phase 1 and 2) and the views they offered were great and bit scary for me. I was wondering if the people here are not able to manage a ticket counter as per the timings given, are they capable enough to follow through all the safety procedures to operate these cable cars at such heights.. Well, I had to take a leap of faith and jumped onto the Gondola and enjoyed it nevertheless. The whole Gondola experience which was supposed to take us until noon went on until 3 or so given all the delays. Gulmarg was overall a mixed experience. The tourist guides and their ponies and the sheer disregard for the tourists' time and money at the Gondola station left us with mixed feelings. We headed back to Srinagar that evening after a stop at the Kashmiri arts and crafts store to buy some Kahwah (Kashmiri Tea) and few Kashmiri garments. 

Sonamarg

Sonamarg (Meadow of Gold) is a hill station about 80 kms northeast of Srinagar nestled with in the Himalayan peaks and is also surrounded by many glaciers. It has no permanent settlements and is not accessible during the winter months. It is also the closest basecamp (Baltal) for the Amarnath yatris to reach the Amarnath temple either by helicopter or by foot. Once we reached the tourist spot of Sonamarg, we were again dropped off in a parking lot surrounded by tourist guides and their ponies and 4X4 vehicles. There is no such thing as tourist info center or anything and it is the locals who pretty much call the shots. 
There are two options here - Taking the ponies up to get to the glaciers or take the 4X4 vehicles to drive through the ZoJi la pass to reach the Zero Point. Again, there is a unspoken rule that tourist vehicles or personal vehicles are not allowed on either routes and we are left with no option but to either hire the ponies or the vehicles there. Unlike Pahalgam, rates are not fixed or posted and we are left to negotiate ourselves. (some research ahead of time would have helped). We hired the vehicle to drive through the Zoji la pass to get to the Zero point. The drive was not for the faint hearted with its hairpin bends and narrow kutcha roads. However, it offered some excellent views of the mountains and the valleys. It is the second highest road in the world and a vital link between srinagar and the ladakh region. The drive up and down the Zoji la pass was an unforgettable experience but, I wish we were more prepared for it. Given how dangerous and unpredictable the drive can get, I was surprised/shocked to see there were absolutely no signs or attempts to explain what to expect by the guides. 
In fact, being eager to get their business, the locals underplayed the whole thing so much and made it sound like a drive through a park. On the way up to the Zero point, the pass was closed for 2 hours to clean the landslides that happened before and I was losing my patience to wait (again because this was not expected). Thankfully, kids held up pretty well and kept themselves busy with some snacking and silly games.
The ride was so rough and scary that I actually didn't really enjoy the gorgeous Zero point when we eventually reached it. I am glad the kids held up well and thoroughly enjoyed the snow fights and sledging and the hot maggi noodles up at the Zero point. I couldn't stop thinking about the drive back and was also thinking about all those brave soldiers and workers who were working in such difficult and dangerous conditions to maintain those roads for us tourists to enjoy the breathtaking nature views.  On the ride back we escaped a landslide that happened just 2 cars ahead of us. After waiting for a dangling rock to drop for sometime, our driver eventually sped past the spot saying "Allah ke naam lena". All in all, a scary experience.. wish we were better prepared for it. In hindsight, if I did some research, I don't think I would have been comfortable doing this route especially with kids because it is so unpredictable. After the trip, we read/heard accounts from others who were stranded there for many many hours and heard the dangers involved if it rains. All in all, Sonamarg, was a scary end to the trip but, made us very grateful for the life we have and appreciate the comforts of our hotel/home even more.

We got to see and understand why the Kashmir region is so different from rest of India and the tough conditions in which people live there are quite unique to that region, which makes having special provisions in the constitution understandable just like how special provisions have been made for hilly regions or tribal regions of Andaman & Nicobar Islands, Arunachal Pradesh, etc., However, it is just hard for me to believe that the people in this region would fight so much to belong to one country over the other since they are geographically and socially pretty disconnected in more ways than one. If it is the religion that makes them feel more connected to Pakistan vs. India, it is still hard to believe having witnessed how their interests are co-existing and thriving very well in the region. More on this as a separate post.
 I can summarize our Kashmir trip as an experience of a lifetime, we got to see and experience the beauty of nature in a way that no camera can capture, it also let us put things in perspective and appreciate just how marvelous and magnificent God's creation is and why we should not mess with it. 
Lastly, we started appreciating just how unique Kashmir is in its location, locales, people, living conditions and how it is in grave need to be revived and developed. Here are a few things I wish the J&K Govt and Tourism Departments pay attention to:

  • Cleanliness: Keep the areas clean. The area is already gifted with immense beauty and some fantastic views, just don't mess it up. The rivers look so fresh and clean and the water tastes so refreshing and sweet. Preserve this and make sure cleanliness is taken seriously. Invest in keeping the Dal Lake clean and hygienic before it becomes another Ganges in Banaras. (I think this point can be applied to pretty much all tourist spots in India)
  • Safety: Invest in safety measures for both locals and tourists especially in hilly areas. I know many brave men and women are risking lives everyday to maintain dangerous routes like the Zoji la pass and other such mountainous terrains but, please take the extra step to invest in some basic safety measures to make the workers, locals and tourists feel safer.
  • Tourist Friendliness: There is nothing more annoying for tourists than being chased by local tourist guides who use all kinds of tactics from gentle asking to pleading to instigating. It is obvious that tourism is this region's major source of income and the supply of tourist guides and ponies is way more than the demand it sees. I think the Govt needs to recognize this and invest in building better facilities and encourage projects that make the area more tourist friendly and provide employment opportunities so the locals don't get so desperate. Invest in uplifting the local arts and crafts industries in a way they showcase them with pride and not seek sympathy.
  • Diversify: Uplift the entire region (not just the tourist spots) by encouraging more innovative projects and industries suitable for the region which in-turn generate more employment opportunities.  Beyond this, encourage people to move around for a better livelihood, gain more exposure and seek a much more dignified living.
To end, Kashmir truly offers breathtaking moments and also many moments that take your breath away for many reasons ! No wonder, they say Jammu & Kashmir is where heaven meets earth.


5 comments:

Paro said...

Lovely post with great pictures! Really scary about the Sonamarg. But I would like to see some pictures of zero point after all that dangerous driving:).

Anita said...

Cool :).

Vinodh Soundarajan said...

Great description Vasantha. In summary, it appears that this place is worth atleast one visit despite its challenges..

vasantha said...

Definitely yes Vinodh. Be prepared to deal with pretty insistent guides and vendors and avoid the zoji la pass and instead take the pony rides at Sonamarg to the Glaciers...that's it you will have a wonderful experience

Dedh, The Imperfect Number said...

Nice travelogue... paints a vivid picture for the ones who have not been there and surely refreshes fond memories for the ones who have been to Kashmir...