Thursday, May 17, 2012

Kashmir is safe for a Dream Holiday

Kashmir is variously described as a Paradise on Earth, a dreamland destination., a crown Jewel on the map of India. It is all these and much more. As my wife and I discovered during `a dream come true` trip to this land where many holiday ideas are realized. Where the honey-dewed orchards, flower-carpeted meadows, rippling lakes and blue skies, icy mountains beckon everyone to sample the many delights of the Valley.

After 40 years of wedding bliss, When I took the decision to help my wife Prabha realize her Childhood dream and looked for some friends to accompany us – there was a general reluctance. As people are still worried about the safety and security of tourists in Kashmir. However, the travel Agent who coordinated our trip assured us that Kashmir was quite safe and that a few groups that he had sent to Kashmir last year returned with very happy memories!

They also offered us the company of Laxmi and Narasimha Swamy a couple from Vizag, who were courageous enough to undertake the trip along with us. We could not have asked for better companions as they were fun to be with.

It was a pleasure cum pilgrimage trip. In the first lap of the journey we visited Srinagar – the city famous for its Dal lake and Mughal gardens, Sonmarg known as a gateway to Ladakh , Gulmarg – the meadow of flowers and Pahelgam – valley of Shepherds. In the second lap we visited the famous Vaishnodevi Temple in Katra about 55 kms from Jammu.

This article is not only about the scenic beauty of Kashmir valley but also about our special experiences and my impressions about the places and people of Kashmir.

Beginnings of a dream holiday

Our flight to Srinagar from Delhi via Jammu was routine except that we had for company the Chief Minister of Omar Abdulla traveling with us. From the airport we were taken straight to the Boat house – Bendemeer – on the famous Dal Lake, where we were booked to spend a night. From Gate no 9, on the Dal gate, the road running parallel to the Dal lake , we were tranfered to our Boat House in a Shikara – a small manually operated boat used for transporting the visitors from the road to the boats and for pleasure rides in the Lake. Each Boat house has a Shikara attached to it which the tourists of the particular boat house can use free of charge. Our well appointed Boat House had a reception hall, dining hall, pantry and four double bed rooms. It was a modest accommodation overlooking the lake.

After a quick wash, we returned to the Dal gate on the same Shikara to begin our trip to various places. The highlight of the visit on the first day was the visit to the picturesque Tulip Gardens which can be seen only for a month in April, every year, when the flower blossoms. We were lucky to witness the fascinating variety of Tulips in myriad colours and varieties, spread across the huge garden.

On our return we took a joy ride in the lake sitting in our Shikara. We passed through hundreds of boat houses and a section devoted to a floating market where daily necessities are sold. During this trip we came across a no of salesmen in Boats trying to sell a variety of gift articles. A word of caution: Even the reduced prices of articles in these boats are atleast 50% higher than outside.

Relaxing in the front area of the Boat house in the evening, we were captivated by the beautiful scenary provided by the setting sun behind the mountains. In the night when the lights are switched on by all the boats – Dal lake becomes Golden lake, thanks to the reflection of thousands of amber coloured lights in the water.

On the second day after checking into a hotel, we visited the Shankaracharya temple located on a small hillock., a high octoganol plinth known as Takth-i-Sulaiman.. The site dates back to 250 BC. It is believed that Adi Shankaracharya performed Tapas in a cave here, which is still preserved for public viewing. This is the only tourist spot where we saw strict security managed by local police, who also were preparing and distributing `Rice Payas(am)`as Prasad(am) to all devotees. From the hillock you get a picturesque view of Srinagar and the lakes- Dal and the less famous Nageen lake-surrounding it. The temple is a must visit destination for all the Hindus.

Though we visited Nishat Gardens, Chasma Shahi and Shalimar Gardens all forming part of the Mughal Gardens. we were disappointed as we did not see enough varieties. We were told that the gardens will be in full bloom only in May/June.

We had heard that Srinagar used to be teeming with security forces and barricades on every street. But the situation has obviously changed. Because the area around Dal lake and other places we visited were teeming with tourists from all over India. The security forces were conspicuous by their absence.

While the breakfast and dinners were taken care of by the Hotels where we stayed thanks to a package deal, we had our lunches in local restaurants or Dabhas serving a wide variety of cuisines- including Idlis and Dosas and the ubiquitous Aloo Parathas. We were happy with the food we got during our stay in Kashimir. On the evening of the second day the hotel had arranged for a musical evening by some local singers in the Lobby. Since it was too noisy, we decided to it and have an early meal and retire.

The third day we took a trip to Sonmarg where I had an unforgettable experience!

Experiences of a lifetime

In Kashmir, they say, the weather is like Bombay fashion - it keeps changing every day. Fortunately, the day we visited Sonmarg it was bright and sunny. The snow clad mountain was beckoning the visitors to enjoy, not only the breathtakingly beautiful scenary but also participate in the fun activity of riding on a sledge board & skating on the ice wearing the special gum boots available on hire. Since it was the first time she was seeing snow and ice, Prabha was excited. .As the surface was slippery, we were advised to hire a ‘sledge’ with two boys as helpers. After you sit on the sledge one boy pulls the sledge with a rope and another pushes the sledge while going up the mountain. I found it extremely difficult to sit on the sledge with stretched legs and my protruding tummy and so opted to walk up the mountain, holding on to one of the helper. Beyond a point the men in the group of four decided to stay back. Prabha, however, with her child like enthusiasm, decided to take the risk of continuing with the adventure of going up the Icy mountain, accompanied by Laxmi who was constantly encouraging her to take up the challenge. While the gentlemen were standing and praying, the ladies managed to reach the top of the mountain from where they were shown the path leading to Amarnath. Prabha felt as if she had conquered the Mount Everest.

While the climb up is strenuous and takes almost 60 minutes , one can slide down fast to the starting point in 5 minutes, supported by one of the helpers sitting on the sledge. Watching Prabha and Laxmi having fun sliding down, I also gathered courage to sit behind the helper on the sledge, holding on to him for dear life and sliding back to the starting point. It was a thrilling experience.

While I escaped any accident walking up or sliding down the slippery snow clad mountain, when I stepped out of the sledge and put forward my right leg to stand up, it went down the loose ice right upto the thigh. Visual images of people going down quick sands passed through my mind . I really got frightened and screamed. Two boys had to pull me out to safety. Though there were other trekking possibilities, shaken by my experience, we decided to pack up and return to the safety of our hotel room.

At Gulmarg, which is about 90 minutes drive from Srinagar and famous for film shootings, I had my first experience of riding a horse. For a heavy man like me, made heavier by the hired big overcoat and gum boots and looking like an Eskimo, getting on top of the horse was itself an ordeal, The helper guided me to insert one foot in the foot rest on the left of the horse and asked me to hold on to him and throw my right leg to the other side so that I can sit on the saddle of the tall horse. After two failed attempts I finally managed to get on top of the horse, much to the amusement of the onlookers and collateral damage to some parts of my body- as I discovered later.

The ride itself was not comfortable. After sometime, thanks to the up and down jerks during the ride, I found my feet and back hurting, thighs becoming numb and at one point, I became panicky because my chest started paining. I asked the helper to stop and took deep breaths while praying the almighty for a safe journey. I even offered to sacrifice whatever hair I have on my bald pate to Lord Balaji at Tirupathi. Lord obviously responded to my appeal because soon I felt some relief and we carried on. Unfortunately, by the time we got on to the `Gondola`- the cable car which takes the tourists to the upland meadows of Kongdori `at 9000ft and beyond to the top of Apharwat range at a height of 14000ft for viewing the Himalayan peaks in Summer and for downhill skiing in winter - the weather turned murky and it started snowing. Watching the snow falling was again a first time experience for Prabha and she was delighted! Standing in the middle of vast expanse of white ice gave me goos pimples.

Like in Sonmarg, at the top of the icy mountains in Gulmarg – skating and skiing were in full swing. Since we had already experienced it at Sonmarg, we were content throwing ice balls at each other like kids! Prabha was also busy making `Ice Lingams`.

After a night halt at a hotel in Gulmarg, we proceeded to Pehelgam, which is situated at the confluence of the Sheshnag and Lidder river streams. Pahelgam, again has beautiful icy mountains, picturesque Valleys – Aru Valley and Betaab Valley ( so named because the shooting of the Hindi film Betaab featuring Sanjay Dutt and Amrita singh was held here).

Pehelgam is the place where lakhs of pilgrims assemble in June every year to start on the Amarnathji Yatra from Chandanwari- the last village in Pehelgam, trekking for three days to see the the Shivling made of ice in the Amarnath caves - which waxes and wanes with the moon.

The single road Mall in Pehelgam has well appointed shops selling a variety of gift items, peculiar to Kashmir. We picked up our quota of saffron, walnut and other dry fruits famous in the area. We also tasted Kauva, a special Kashmiri drink, offered instead of tea, made with hot water, cardamum, honey, some nuts and a dash of saffron.

As it was the flowering season, during our trips on the road, we saw miles and miles of apple trees with white flowers and no apples. Another popular activity is the cultivation of mustard plants. Vast areas covered with green and yellow mustard fields look like beautiful carpets spread on the earth. especially when viewed from the aircraft as the flight is on a descent to land at the Srinagar airport. We also got to see some saffron fields.

Simple folks

Kashmiris we saw during our trip were generally serious but friendly people. We did not come across any boisterous Kashmiri! Most of them are very fair and good looking. Men are well built and handsome. Kashmiris - especially men with a generous girth in the centre are rare to find. May be they were hidden behind the long overcoat called `Pheran` which every one wears during cold weather, with hands tucked inside the coats. Women are beautiful with chiseled features. Though they are poor they are all proud of their land. Almost every one eagerly asks you` Do you like Kashmir?`

A beauracrat in the Kashmir Government , who was seated next to us on the flight to Srinagar, was proud to talk about Kashmir`s beauty. With great enthusiasm he was pointing out the beautiful snow clad Peer Panja mountains glistening in the Sun, like silver mountains, passing below us.

Kashmir is cold throughout the year, though the intensity varies between Summers and Winters. While rich can afford to have heaters at home and in their cars, the common people carry a small portable heater basket called `Kangdi` with coal fire, hung around their necks . Or they sit on it to keep themselves warm.

Struggling Economy

Travelling by road to Pahelgam through the villages of Kashmir, we did not find signs of any progress anywhere. The villages are plain and simple with hardly any activity, as the men folks are away working at tourist spots earning their livelihood. However I was impressed with the sight of hoards of boys and girls in uniforms going to schools. I understand that the current government is laying a lot of emphasis on providing free education for children.

Some development is happening in the infrastructure sectors like roads and telecom. The only highway connecting Srinagar to Jammu (300kms) is being converted into a four lane road. You can see almost everyone carrying a mobile- another word of caution: only post paid facility is allowed in Kashmir. Your mobiles with prepaid facilty will not work here.

Though we saw massive new housing activities near the new Srinagar Airport on the out skirts of the city, we did not come across a single multi-storied building. It was interesting to note that there were no concrete structures in Kashmir. Most of the houses and buildings we saw were built with bricks and having slopy tin roofings with wooden frames., obviously to allow the snow or ice to slide down the roofs. It was also evident that a lot more needs to be done in terms of power and public transport. There is no rail connectivity within Kashmir. Public transport is restricted to buses, taxis and autos..

A manager of a local company whom I met said, ‘the last four years the situation has certainly improved a lot. It is a pity that the media is only giving negative publicity based on sporadic incidents happening in specific locations. Please tell your friends that Kashmir is safe today -especially all the tourist spots like Srinagar, Sonmarg, Gulmarg and Pehelgam. if more and more people visit this state from across the country and abroad, the economy of the state will automatically improve’.

But the catch is that tourism can give employment only for six months in a year because of the extreme weather in winter months. And the supply of manpower to tourism industry far exceeds the demand, resulting in severe competition for available jobs in the industry. Most of the people we spoke to in our trip repeatedly said that they have to earn enough money in six months to take care of their family during the rest of the months when they have no jobs to do. If the government creates conducive atmosphere for industries to invest in the State, providing employment throughout the year, Kashmiris can really look forward to a better future., which should also help in resolving the contentious Kashmir issue, once and for all.

You can also do your bit to help the cause by planning your dream holiday to this much neglected Paradise on Earth, because Kashmir is now safe for travel. My wife and I have done our bit and in return have been rewarded with beautiful memories, which we will cherish for the rest of our lives.

Useful Tips

1. Kashmir is safe. You can now confidently plan a trip to this Paradise on Earth with your family. Do it when you are still young so that you can participate in all the adventurous activities.

2. Try to finalise your plan a few months ahead and take advantage of economy rates of Air carriers and other tourist facilities

3. If you are planning to use the railways, please note that train services are available only upto Jammu. Beyond that you have to travel by road or air to reach Srinagar

4. Take enough warm clothings including monkey caps, gloves and woollen socks which will be required when you go picnicking at the top of icy mountains. Temperature range from 2oC to -5oC even during day time in March and April. I understand that June to August are comparatively warmer months.

5. Though you can book online for most of the facilities I would advise you to use the services of a travel agency in your town, who is familiar with the facilities available in J&K to serve different pockets and also has local contacts in Kashmir to address any special problems you may face.

6. Take enough supply of medicines you regularly use. You may not get specific medicines if you run out of stock.

7. Please note prepaid mobiles don’t work in Kashmir. Carry a mobile with post paid facility.

8. If you are the type who likes his two `chotas` or `badas` in the evening to keep yourself warm and spirited, please carry your own stock. There are no liquor shops or Bars in Kashmir.

9. If you are fussy about your food or tired of eating outside every day, I would advise you to carry some Podis & Vatha Kuzhambu paste and packets of banana chips. You can always whip up your favourite meal because cooked white rice and curds are available in every restaurant in Hotels.

10. Hindi is the most commonly used language in Kashmir. You can however get away with English because even the attenders in restaurants and vendors can understand some English.

11. Beware of touts and agents at the picnic spots on the icy mountains who help hire the special gears required to walk on the cold mountains. They can persuade you to part with more cash than necessary.

1 comment:

  1. Kashmir Tourism - Kashmir is a heaven on earth my unique experience in Houseboat staying, Shikara riding, Mughal Gardens, floating vegetable Gardens and host of adventure activities, this enchanting valley is always lavishly beautiful and a favored destination for tourists from all walks of life.