Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Vacationing in Kashmir

The first thing that I must confess about the Kashmir trip is that I had serious apprehensions about it, mostly because my end semester examinations were set to begin less than a week after I returned from the vacation. I grumbled for days before the trip, not even silently all the time. Every time dad mentioned the trip over the telephone, my thoughts turned to the examinations looming ahead. So it was with none of my usual holiday enthusiasm that I set off to Durgapur on the 7th of May. But thankfully, enthusiasm is contagious, and by the time we boarded the Sealdah Rajdhani Express from Durgapur station on the 8th, almost all thoughts of exams had flown out of my head.

We started the tour with torrential rain while waiting for our train. That was a Godsend and an instant mood lifter, because we had had a terribly hot and dry April with no sign of our usual Kalbaisakhi. So though this was not strictly speaking a part of our vacation, it was a welcome add-on, and definitely one of the highlights for me. The sight of the sky overcast with dark clouds, the gusty breeze bringing with it the smell of rain, and then the shower of cold water rushing down from the heavens – it was delightful. The train was on time, and we settled down comfortably for what is one of my favourite parts of any vacation. I honestly love train journeys. I love the steady rhythm of the coach, the bunk bed, the curtains of the AC two tier coaches, even the uncomfortably narrow alleyways. I love squinting through the windows to try and discern the dark landscapes outside. This is one of the things in which I differ greatly from dad, because he prefers the time saving aspect of air travel to long train journeys. This time though, we had a bit of both, so we were both happy.

Delhi has to be my second favourite city after Kolkata (I know, it is quite unfair saying this despite spending my first sixteen years in Durgapur: but Durgapur will always be home, so there!). The minute we stepped off the train onto New Delhi platform – after spending an interminably long time crossing the suburbs of the city; Rajdhani turned out to be no different from Darjeeling Mail in this respect – I had a wide-toothed grin plastered on my face, which I wiped out with much difficulty in honour of decorum. Akash Da had come to receive us at the station. We went in his car to Connaught Place, where we got some snacks for our lunch. Connaught Place is a much bigger, much cleaner and more posh version of Esplanade, and quite the dream ‘hanging out’ place for our generation. If you happen to be there, don’t forget to try out the Chicken Quiche from Wenger’s, it is absolutely divine. Many thanks Akash Da, for the snacks and for the lovely drive to the airport. I do wish we got to spend more time with you and Arundhuti Di. Next time, hopefully.

Delhi Airport is prettier to look at than Kolkata airport. But the prices of everything in every store go right through the roof. While exploring the airport we came across a piano that was playing by itself, only of course it wasn’t! There was a pendrive plugged in a secret USB socket, but the initial amazement and sense of magical music was beautiful. We almost missed the final boarding call to our plane which is quite surprising given how alert dad stays on such occasions. Ours was a GoAir flight in the usual Airbus A320. Though I had been on flights more than once already, I still got nervous at the takeoff. Thankfully this time the uncomfortable sensation of gravity drop was practically missing, and I even managed to take a quick snooze, a sign of how accustomed (and bored) I had already become with air travel.

We got the first grand view of the mountains from the plane windows. The grey sky and the mighty Pir Panjal range looming right across. It is an eerie feeling almost, flying above the great Himalayas, on top of the world in a quite literal sense. Landing in Srinagar Airport, the temperature drop was like cold fingers holding you in an embrace. We were picked up at the airport by Mushtaq Ji, who was our driver for the entire tour. A short drive from the airport, and we were at our hotel right over the Dal Lake. One of the first things that hit me on our way was the physical beauty of the Kashmiri people. This was something that I kept observing and wondering and being envious of throughout our trip. With the miracle of genetics to help them and the mix of handsome races like the Greeks and the Huns and suchlike, they have the potent features that make the heart beat faster at a single glance. There are distinctly fewer women on the roads, something that became even more obvious once we left Srinagar for the smaller tourist areas, and those who do come out do so in the company of other women and are usually covered all over except for their faces but my, what angelic faces! There were ten year old head turners, make what you will of that!

We spent the first three days in Srinagar. The first day we went for an evening Shikara ride on the Dal Lake. Evening though was only after eight, when the sun finally set. The lights from the houseboats lit up the lake such that the locals had named the area ‘Golden Lake’. This was a little after the peak hour for the Shikara owners, so we got the ride for a reasonable rate. The next day was off to Sonmarg. The two hour ride – with a short stop on the bank of the Indus on the way – was lovely. Initially there was quite a traffic jam till the outskirts of the city, but once that was crossed the traffic was mild. The views are spectacular; snow-capped mountains on one side and lush green forests on slopes of the other side. The specialty of Kashmir is that all the tourist locations we went to were essentially valley regions, so unlike in other hill stations I have visited, most of the drives were through plain lands with only the last bit being ascends up the mountains. That suited me just fine, because I got the mountain views without a hint of motion sickness from the winding mountain roads. Sonmarg is on the same route as Kargil, and seeing the signs on the roadside indicating distance to Kargil gave me goose bumps. It reminded me of all the soldiers who had travelled on these very roads during the bloody Kargil War, never to come back.

Sonmarg was initially a nice experience. We went up by a local car to a hill slope where snow had fallen. We crossed a fast flowing mountain stream and dad negotiated with the locals for a sledge right. The journey uphill is rather inhuman for them, as they make the tourists sit on the sledge and pull them up the steep slope. But these mountain folks are strong as mules everywhere, so some of them were practically running up with their burden. I half rode, half walked up, falling on my hands and knees several times, though the driver assured me that I was doing better than most women. Whoever thought walking on snow covered slopes was such hard work! I was red in the face and panting by the time I reached, and dad seemed fitter than I, his broken leg and all! The ride down was hair raising, for my driver, a young lad, went down at quite a speed in spite of my repeated requests to slow down. Mentally I went ‘wheee’ as we rushed down, bypassing other sledges and rock outcrops.  Afterwards, there was another drive to various tourist locations including a viewing of the Zojila pass and Balatal, and another clambering up on snowy slopes. I think I have had my fill of snow; I definitely prefer lush green mountains to the barren, freezing cover of ice. The return trip was somewhat dampened by a needless altercation with the local car rental owners, who claimed a higher charge than the one settled on. Later we found out that Sonmarg is called ‘Lootmarg’ by Kashmiris because they make a habit of such dirty tactics with tourists. If you are planning a trip there, give Sonmarg a miss. You won’t lose out on much if you are travelling to Gulmarg and Pahalgam.

The next day was a local sightseeing in Srinagar. We first went for a Shikara ride in the morning. This ride was longer, and our boatman took us through the watery lanes and by lanes of their floating village, showing us their art emporiums and the homes of the locals and their small fields of crops, all on the lake itself. Afterwards, we started our drive with a visit to the Shankaracharya temple on a hilltop. This was not something I was overly keen on; I am not particularly religious and I generally tend to avoid holy places. My annoyance was aggravated because we had to leave our phones and wallets and belts and watches and anything made of leather in our car. Such superstitions turn me off, and in any case having to clutch on to your trousers all the time is rather unpleasant. Plus, there is a climb of two hundred stairs up to the temple, so not very easy on bad knees. Once up there though, the view is breathtaking. The entire Dal Lake can be seen, with large swathes covered by a colony of houseboats. It is reminiscent of a usual city on land, but not quite the same thing. Dad and I did not enter the temple; taking in the scenery from up there was enough for us. Afterwards it was the Mughal Gardens – Chashma Shahi, Shalimar Bagh and Nishat Bagh in that order. My favourite was the Shalimar Bagh with its many different levels almost of water channels, each more towards the interior than the previous one. At one resting place in between the channels, there was a Kashmiri man playing his flute. The haunting notes carrying over the water takes you back to the times when the Mughal emperor Jahangir must have strolled in the gardens in his leisure with his beloved wife Nur Jahan. Shalimar Bagh is used as a water park by the locals; we saw many young boys and even a group of girls splashing about in the fountains and running up and down the channels. One even slipped and fell hard on her backside right in the middle of the stream, to an ensuing peal of laughter from her friends. It was in the Mughal gardens that I managed to capture the exquisite pictures of flowers in full bloom. More power to my Lenovo phone camera! After a quick lunch it was the Hazratbal Mosque. It is supposed to house a hair of the Prophet Muhammad, and so is considered ‘Medina’ by Muslims. The dome is beautiful, but I was miffed at not being allowed to enter the main prayer hall of the mosque, as is the rule for women in all mosques. And so grows my disaffection for religious centres of most religions for one reason or the other. Ah well.

The next day we left for Gulmarg, where we stayed for a night. Another lovely drive of a couple hours, and we had reached Gulmarg. Now this was undoubtedly the best part of the trip for me. I fell in love with the place the moment I set eyes on it. The green vales, the lush mountains, the bloom of tiny wild flowers on the slopes (hence the name Gulmarg, ‘gul’ means flowers), it was lovely. We had a small but cozy room in Hotel Fluorescent, with a spectacular view from our window overlooking a narrow mountain stream and a coniferous forest. Gulmarg is famous for its cable car ride up to snow covered mountains – they call the cable cars ‘gondolas’. But I do not like rope-ways, I suffer from claustrophobia and vertigo at the same time, and in any case there was a queue of a thousand people at least, so dad and I gave the ride a miss. Instead we walked down the roads and up the grassy slopes. Later, we had a Kashmiri Wazwan dish for lunch, a special Kashmiri pulao, and that frankly was one of the only two times we had good meat during our trip (the other was sheek kabab at a shopping arcade in Srinagar, opposite Nishat Bag). It is a shame that a horde of Marwari and Gujarati tourists have influenced most restaurants into turning vegetarian, and the meat that is served is usually rather bland, or at least they were in the hotels that we stayed in. So if you want to make a gastronomic affair out of your trip, ask for original Kashmiri dishes only. The sky was overcast by the time we had finished lunch. We took a horse ride back to our hotel across the meadows and on rocky mountain pathways. The horses are ponies, but my, what tough creatures! They wanted to gallop, and were quite annoyed because they had to trot with us on their backs! The locals have a saying, that Mumbai’s fashion and Gulmarg’s mausam (weather) are both unpredictable and change without warning. It started raining on our way back, and dad and I both got rather wet, and a little while longer and we would have started freezing! But we reached the hotel just before the rains got too heavy, thank heavens! After an hour long shower it was bright sunshine again. We went for a walk up the road leading to a place called Khilanmarg, and then back again down to the valley for a cup of Kashmiri kehwa, black tea infused with saffron and lots of sugar, and then back to the hotel to call it a day.

The next morning we were off to Pahalgam, and truth be told I was rather sad to leave Gulmarg. This time it was a long drive, five hours almost. Pahalgam is on the banks of the olive coloured Lidder river, a little way from Anantnag, the birthplace of many insurgencies. On our way we passed through apple orchards on both sides of the road, and the trees stood bare because this is not the season for apples. Our hotel was right at the start of the market road of Pahalgam, with a large car park and horse stand just across the road. After settling into the hotel we went for a walk, crossing the bridge and dodging horse owners all the way. Honestly, it gets to be a little annoying after a point when you have to refuse a horse ride offer every two steps. Dad jokingly said that they were more surprised than anything to see us walk around though we were not foreigners. And indeed all the time we went for walks in Pahalgam as well as in Gulmarg, I did not notice any Indian tourist who walked. This is very sad because people miss out on the real flavours of the place by constantly moving around in cars. You need to walk around to really learn about a place, especially in the mountains. We spent two nights in Pahalgam, so the next day was kept for local sightseeing. We hired a local car for this, and we went to three locations – Aru valley, Betaab valley and Chandanwari. Aru valley is all greenery in really freezing temperatures. Betaab valley has been turned into a park where the locals visit in great numbers, and Chandanwari is the beginning of the holy trek to Amarnath. Of these my favourite was the great expanse of the Betaab Valley. The rains chased us through the journey, and by the time we were done in the evening, I was quite tired. Here I have to make a special mention of our rather dashing driver for the day, Manzoor Bhai. He and I struck up quite a friendship and chatted throughout the journey. He even showed me how to write my name in Arabic, and my, is it beautiful! It is a pity I forgot to take a picture with him. Back to the hotel and a quick nap later dad and I went out for a walk up the horse route. Looking back, I realise how much we walked on our trip, a commendable feat especially with dad’s leg! All of it was lovely of course, but I just wish it didn’t cause dad so much pain.

The next morning we left Pahalgam and drove back to Srinagar for the last day of the vacation. It was quite a long ride, especially since Mushtaq Ji was going really slow that day. By this time I was tired and ready to go home. So the last evening in Srinagar was a quiet one with just some shopping and a last walk down the boulevard before turning in for the night. We had to be up by three thirty next morning and reach the airport by five. Srinagar airport overdoes it with the frisking and security checks. I have lost count of how many times we were stopped for checks, but I was relieved when we finally boarded the plane because that meant we were no longer being treated as would be terrorists! It was an uneventful flight that I spent sleeping, and very soon we were back in Delhi. The moment we got off the flight, the heat hit us like a solid wall. Some people were still wearing their jackets (!) and mentally I was screaming at them to take those off already. Thankfully we got an Ola cab without a hassle, which dropped us at a hotel in Paharganj where we had booked a room till the evening. Akash da dropped by once again during his lunch break, and by four we were in the station, waiting for our train. Another train ride and we were back home. A lovely trip without many untoward incidents, and we were refreshed and ready to get back to our routines.

Kashmir is beautiful, breathtaking even. But there is something I must mention, even though the locals will hate me for it. Now that I have been there, I feel that the ‘paradise on earth’ hype is a little overrated. I have been to many other Himalayan locales that are equally breathtaking. It is unfair that Kashmir should hog all the limelight when it comes to the grandeur and the beauty of the Himalayas. We had gone at the beginning of the peak tourist season, so we literally saw the tourist traffic surge in front of our eyes. There were distinctly more people on the day we left than when we had arrived there. The people of Kashmir seemed to be nice, kindly folks, who made an effort to make tourists feel welcome. It is sad to think of how the political clashes between two countries have ruined the lives of these people. Someday, I hope to go back there again, and next time I am going straight to Gulmarg and staying put for a couple of days at least. I am so glad I went on this trip, examinations notwithstanding.