#Kashmir, where heaven meets earth
I was introduced to Kashmir through my books when I was a child. Since then, it was my dream to visit the paradise on earth. Whenever I saw anything on television related to Kashmir there was only one question in mind, ‘will I ever be able to visit the beautiful place’? But as it is said when you wish something from your heart, it happens in real.
When my husband asked if I want to go to Kashmir, I was in awe and asked, ‘really?’ We booked our tickets and suddenly some untoward incident happened and a bandh was declared in Kashmir. And it continued for two days. And again we were in a dilemma whether to go or not. On the third day, when life started getting back to normal at the valley we decided to take risk and listen to our hearts and just go no matter what comes our way.
Finally the day arrived and we were waiting at the Delhi airport waiting for our flight announcement to Srinagar. I still couldn’t believe that I was actually going and WhatsApped one of my friends who had visited Kashmir a few years back. She replied, ‘Just go and enjoy, it’s heaven!’ Our hotel driver Maqbool called, ‘I will pick you from the airport’. It was just one hour and a few minutes flight from Delhi. We could make out the difference that we are going to have an amazing experience. Suddenly the atmosphere changed and we could see clouds and white mountains, which we are not used to at all in and around Delhi. But it reminded me of the north-east, especially Meghalaya (abode of clouds). And the passengers at the window seats felt lucky that they could have the first glance of heaven.
The moment we landed, Maqbool called again ‘Have you landed, I am here for you’. It sounded like a relief amidst tight security of the airport. Soon we were on our way to the hotel and I could see women fully dressed with their heads covered and security presence every half a km or even less. We reached the hotel just opposite the famous Dal Lake and chose a room facing it. We rested for some time and Maqbool was already waiting for us at the lobby for local sight-seeing. At one place, we also had to get down from our car and walk past the security post and it was considered a regular check. Though we arrived at our dream destination, there was a strange feeling inside whether we took the right decision but the moment we arrived at the first tourist spot, all our fears vanished. There were a lot of smiling tourists with kids and life seemed to be normal again and we were smiling from ear to ear. We visited Pari Mahal, Chasme Shahi, Mughal Garden, Botanical Garden and a few more gardens. When we reached Hazratbal Dargah Sharif, it was namaz time and we were little hesitant whether to visit or not. But Maqbool encouraged us ‘jao jao… koi baat nahi’ (please go, it’s okay) and we followed suit. We felt they are very normal people like us, very simple and peace-loving. Though women were traditionally dressed with heads always covered, there was a sense of independence as we saw a lot of women driving and roaming about on the roads on their own and it felt good.
For lunch, we had Kashmiri rogan josh and it was just lip-smacking. We also did a little shopping at a wholesale shop. When we reached the hotel, our shikara wala was waiting for us. After some time, we were on the Dal Lake for a shikara ride. The first thing the boatman told us was, “Look at my face, could you recognise me. I am the same person riding the shikara behind Vinod Khanna and Simi Garewal during the shooting of the song Wada karle sajna tere bina main na rahu…in the movie Hath ki safai. At that time I was young.” We smiled and after coming back to Delhi, we checked the video on Youtube.
We felt the Dal Lake was a moving economy with lot of people earning their livelihood – by selling handicrafts, shawls, dry fruits, clicking photographs, running mini eating joints, water sports and what not. There was also a meena bazar where shops of all kinds were available. We had delicious chicken tikka with walnut chutney from a boat shop and thought the ride should never end. There were a lot of house boats parked on the lake side with amazing names like Mission Kashmir, Mobile House, Golu Palace, Sunflower, Fairy Queen, et al. But we somehow felt life would be restricted staying in a houseboat so we opted out.
We were curious to know what wood they used for the house boats and shops that they last for so long in water and prompt came the reply from our shikara man. This is deodar wood, ‘yeh pani mai kharab nahi hota’ (It’s deodar wood it remains intact in water). But we felt a little worried that the lake is so precious for the local people and for tourism to flourish but it is getting dirty and cleanliness is the need of the hour.
As dusk set in, we sat by the side of the lake on raised platforms and observed the lively city. It was the holy month of Ramzan and people were breaking fasts and having ice-creams. Sound of holy songs from the mosques echoed all around. Our day one was a pleasant one, much more than we expected.
According to Maqbool’s instructions, we got ready by 7 am the next day and we were off to Sonmarg, our first point outside Srinagar. As we moved upwards we could see the beautiful landscape on the sides of the river Sind, green hills and then we could see the white mountains in the background. Seeing the beautiful river, I could not resist myself and got down for a few clicks. I so wanted to touch the white and bluish water and soak my foot on it but it was not a slow moving river but Maqbool promised that I would get the opportunity to do that the next day. We reached Sonmarg and could see a few tourists enjoying horse riding on the green valley. But the moment we heard about Zero Point, snow and reaching halfway to Kargil, we just couldn’t say no. After a little bargaining with the local taxiwala, we were off to experience snow. As we advanced higher we crossed the high Zojila Pass and the road getting treacherous. At some points, only one vehicle could pass. It was dangerous and later after reaching Delhi, we got to know that it is one of the dangerous roads in the world and felt a sense of pride that we overcame it.
Our guide showed us the Amarnath yatra base camp at Baltal and huts erected for pilgrims (as the yatra would start in a month). We also saw the point till where Pakistan had made intrusions before they were shooed away by our Army during the Kargil war in the late 90s. Some Pakistani bunkers were still lying vacant, the ones not yet destroyed by snow. The respect for our Indian Army was always there but for the first time witnessed what a tough job they are doing. Salute to the Indian Army!
Some stretches were so dangerous that our driver double-checked before moving ahead as landslides are very common there. Huge snow patches were melting and it was a very dangerous point. We were told almost everyday accidents happen in this area and it was scary indeed, our heart was almost in our mouth. Snow clearing operations were still going on with huge machines. But nothing could stop the mad traveling instinct in us.
Finally we reached the Zero Point and our eyes just couldn’t believe the amount of snow we saw all around. Everything was crystal white and it was difficult for us to see without our glares as the sun was strong and it was reflecting against the white mountains. We geared up with our hired fur jackets and boots looking like aliens as if we landed in a different planet straight from boiling Delhi. We could see the tip of the white clad mountain so near below the dark blue sky. Sledge pullers started to lure us and finally we agreed. But when we saw they had to pull us up, we got down. We felt bad as we saw humans pulling humans for their livelihood. Life is very difficult in the mountains. We walked up and had the sledge experience while coming down the slope and it was fun. We were instructed again and again to be careful with our valuables as if anything falls in the snow it’s impossible to track them. We had Maggie and Kashmiri kahwa (tea) and it was amazing. We just couldn’t stop taking clicks as it was a once-in-a-life time experience. My husband smiled, saying it will be tough to select pictures to post on social media as everything was so beautiful there. One could close the eyes and just click click click and not a single shot would be missed!
Though we didn’t want to come back, we remembered the rough path back and had to return before sunset. After reaching Sonmarg, our guide showed us a few local points but after the experience at Zero Point, nothing seemed impressive.
We reached the hotel, rested and went out for our evening stroll by the side of the Dal. As mobile internet was banned, there was nothing to check on mobile and for a change we liked it—a technology-free life after a long, long time.
On day three, we headed towards Pahalgam and on the way Maqbool showed us saffron fields and walnut trees. We also stopped at a shop and bought saffron, walnut, black berries, cranberries. The shop owners have their own plantations of saffron, walnut, apples, fennel seeds and showed us some trees at the backyard. The simplicity of the people was very contagious and felt like our own people. They told us how the soil of Kashmir is so rich that everything grows very easily and so they consider Kashmir as the heart of India. The next stopover was a restaurant with an apple orchard in the background. We had our breakfast sitting under apple trees. The apples were still tender and a few were lying on the ground and my son excitedly started playing with them. But plucking apple from trees was strictly prohibited. Maqbool showing off his contacts told us ‘just call me if you need apples’. We also saw rows and rows of factories with huge stacks of little wooden planks that would become cricket bats, which an aspiring Sachin or Kohli would play.
Finally after a few hours, we reached Pahalgam and after some bargaining we were on our horses with guides along. The names of the horses were very interesting like Raja Hindustani, Badal, Dil Khush, Mastani, Lalu. Some parts of the roads were smooth, some rocky, some stiff and after a few instructions, we felt we were veteran horse riders as we had no option but to trust our horses. We saw Kashmir valley, mini Switzerland, waterfall point and saw locals waiting with sheep, rabbit, to click pictures with tourists to get bakshish (tip). Shawl sellers were after us at every point, and everywhere we felt how tough it was for villagers to earn their livelihood. Everywhere at the end, the guides would ask us “Khush?” (Happy) And we would smile. While returning we had our lunch sitting at a restaurant beside the river Lidder and the view was just breath-taking. We realised the highway restaurants were quite cheap unlike near Delhi.
On day four, my son was very excited as he heard that he will be able to have a ropeway ride to the mountains at Gulmarg, his first experience. Gulmarg is a place where tourists can experience everything if they have short time in hand. Horse riding, sledge ride, snow bike ride, skiing experience, et all. Two phases are available through ropeway. And from Phase II, one can have a skiing experience in the snow and have a glance of the LOC border. We opted for phase I as there was much more variety there. Our guide told us there was much less snow in Gulmarg compared to Zero Point near Kargil. And after the amount of snow experience we had at Zero Point, we thought to give it a miss as there was both snow and waterfall at phase I. We felt a little restless and short of breath as we reached high altitude all of a sudden on the ropeway but were okay once outside. After the horse-riding experience at Pahalgam, we were quite at ease on horseback. Here we enjoyed the high-speed snow bike ride the most with a guide of course. Though we were tempted to ride on our own, it was risky in the snow stiff slopes so we played safe. We also saw Kashmir valley, seven-point spring and Khilanmarg at phase I. While returning, Maqbool took us to a restaurant where we tasted Kashmiri wazwan chicken and it was luscious. The India-Pakistan cricket match was going on and most of the people there came to enjoy the match rather than having food as it was Ramzan month. In the evening when we returned, we felt we were all sun burnt as we were under the sun for three to four hours but the experience was worth it.
Later, we took an auto and went to wholesale market. We were so impressed by the sincerity of the auto driver, very unlike what we experience in Delhi. When we asked about the fare, he said Rs 20 and both ways it’s Rs 40 and if we give him Rs 50, he would wait for us while we shop. My husband asked if it’s per person. He said no he was saying the total fare and he doesn’t want to charge the kid. Then suddenly he stopped and started drinking water and said it’s iftar time. Realising that he was on fast, we asked him to have something but he said it’s okay and that he would have something while he waits for us at the market. The market was empty and we were little hesitant. Suddenly we saw people serving sherbet to everyone as it was iftar time and they offered us also. We felt so good in an unknown place in a lonely street. In fact, I felt safer than Delhi and thought it was worth mentioning in my article, especially our soft-spoken auto driver. We went to the shop he showed us and did shopping without any hassle and the rates were quite reasonable. Our auto-driver was waiting for us and got to know that they have a business in Delhi also and in the tourist season, he drives auto in Srinagar. He left us outside our hotel and bid adieu though I felt like chatting with him more and know more about his people and his place.
That evening we sat by the side of the Dal lake a little longer as it was our last evening in Srinagar and wanted time to stop there. We also spent time in our hotel garden and walked on the cool green grass. Finally the last day came and we thought of relaxing at the hotel just watching the Dal lake through our huge glass window as we were tired of travelling constantly for four days. Maqbool told us not to have lunch at the hotel and that he would take us to an amazing restaurant and he kept his promise like the last four days on the last day also. After reaching the airport, we realised the security check was very tight and the airport was looking like a fort. We and our luggage were checked several times and finally we were also asked to recheck our check-in luggage but the process was smooth and fast. While we were in Kashmir, something or the other was going on in the borders, especially in south Kashmir but we didn’t feel anything and our trip went smoothly. What we understood is if one wants to go to Kashmir, one just needs to go without checking the news, the state has the most amazing people. And if we get a chance, we will visit the state again and this time in winter to witness snowfall.
We reached Delhi in the night amid loo, pollution and traffic jams and were gearing ourselves for work the next day. But then we consoled ourselves that this is our regular life and we can go for our next holiday only when we work hard for the next few months. But Kashmir and Kashmiris had made a permanent place in our hearts and we would love if we get an opportunity to visit the paradise on earth again.