Kashmir?s grandeur is enhanced by the pristine beauty of the hills, glaciers and meadows. One could find umpteen choices according to one?s fancy following the budget but the main places highlighted are always marked in travel guides and blogs.
Those highlighted in this article are –
1. Sonamarg(Meadow of Gold)
2. Yousmarg(Meadow of Jesus/Yama)
3. Gulmarg(Meadow of Flowers)
4. Pahalgam(Valley of Shepherds)
As per our tour itinerary, we decided to visit Sonamarg at a distance of 84Kms, connected by well motorable Srinagar Leh Highway NH 1D that passes parallel to Sindh River. Sonamarg is the Northern Gateway for Amarnath Yatra via Baltal before Kargil.
Though the journey time between Srinagar and Sonamarg is just above 2 Hours, we need to stop at one place to refresh ourselves for roadwork is in progress at many places on the way and we feel little tired after covering half the distance. Thus, we started our journey from Srinagar well after 9.00AM and passed by many Military surveillance squads on the way passing by many towns including Tullamulla off the NH 1D that has the famous Khir Bhavani temple that was destroyed during the militant attacks in the Nineties. We drove along the highway and our journey was enjoyable, as the scenario changed from place to place.
There is a shack by the Sindh River at Gund, with a great view where we halted for half an hour, filling ourselves with cold samosas and hot tea, while some pakoda was sizzling in the open air kitchen! The view overlooking Sindh River and the hills by the side gave us a well deserved break.
There were a few Kashmiri crafts on sale at the spot like woolen sweaters, shawls, coats and Kashmiri dresses but our taxi driver advised us not to purchase anything there.
By the time we reached Sonamarg, it was almost 12.30PM and we found many ponies that were ready to carry us to Thajawas Glacier, 7KMs from Sonamarg. Looking at the exorbitant rates those pony owners quoted(Rs.800/- per person), we opted to drive by our taxi to the point 5KMS away and just 2Kms short of Thajawas Glacier. We had difficulty doing that as well, for Taxis from Srinagar are not allowed to access the point. Local Taxis cost Rs. 250/- to 300/- per hour and may cost well around Rs. 1000/-. We were forced to pay the difference amount for the local Taxi that they charge and then moved to the point where we start our 2KM trek to the picturesque Thajawas Glacier.
It took us a good 40Mins to walk the 2KM path that is not steep, but is hectic with two bridges collapsed on the way, forcing us to cross the river, balancing on a narrow beam or take a deviation to cross it by jumping slippery rocks!
Finally we were there. Thajawas Glacier is a scene never to be missed and during winter they say, the entire valley and the mountains are covered with snow, camouflaging the glacier!
Being almost the end of summer, we hardly saw any snow at the foot hills but the glacier had a few meters of hardened snow mixed with the soil. We didn?t adventure to climb up and indulge in a sledge ride or any such sport, for we had better experience during our Himachal Tour in the late Eighties at Rohtang Pass.
There are a few tea stalls serving instant noodles and tea. We had our share there and rested for a while, enjoying the Mountain View with snow line and changing pattern of light and shade.
After spending an hour almost, we decided to go back, since it was getting cloudy already. We reached our taxi at around 3.30PM. Soon after we started our drive back to Sonamarg, thunder showers started to pour.
We reached Srinagar sometime around 5.30PM and we preferred to spend some time at the Cyber Caf? opposite Nehru Park to browse the net and to call our relatives over the phone.
Our house boat host Mustafa was away on a trekking bout with some foreigners. His father received us at the Nehru Park pick up point and took us back to the boat house. We lazed around in the evening, watching the life over Dal Lake, Sun setting over the Naubat Pahad and watching some TV program before our room boy Aezad served us sumptuous dinner with Rotis, Rista, Sabzi, Daal and rice.
A day well spent with the view of the mountains and the glaciers imprinted on our minds!
Sindh River on way to Sonamarg
Kashmiri crafts on sale
Thajawas Glacier Sonamarg
Kashmiri family at Thajawas Glacier
Horses waiting for tourists at Yousmarg
Doodhganga River Yousmarg
View from Tourist Restaurant Yousmarg
Our next destination was Yousmarg which is only 47KMS away from Srinagar but the road is so bad and rough, we took almost over two hours to cover the distance. Road work was on at many stretches under the Prime Minister?s Gram Sadak Yojana. The dusty road to Yousmarg was hectic and we wondered if it was worth a visit to this place!
Yousmarg at 9000ft above MSL lies in the Badgam district of Jammu and Kashmir. Legend has it that Jesus Christ after crucifixion spent his last years here. Thus the place assumed the name Yousmarg. Other school of thoughts believes that this was actually Yamah Marg, Yamah being the Lord of Death. Whatever, this meadow covered with green grass with a small lake in the centre is picturesque with coniferous trees adorning it all around, Doodh Ganga River flowing down the hill at a distance of 3KM.
Yet, Yousmarg is not a great place compared to other meadows in Kashmir, especially in summer when the lake dries up and the water in Doodh Ganga River flows in a very thin stream. Near Yusmarg lies the Neelnag Lake which is embraced by the surrounding hills. There are a couple of trekking routes starting from Yousmarg and ending at the Trata Kutti and Sang-safed peaks.
Passing by many orchards growing apple, pears and almonds, we reached Yousmarg. Since it was not the season for almond, we had to be happy seeing the Almond tree!
Like in any place of visit in Kashmir, ponies were in abundance. My wife opted to ride a pony that the ghodawala offered at a reasonable rate of Rs. 120/- to and from Doodh Ganga River. I preferred to trek down the hill.
We took almost an hour to reach the river downhill treading the rocky path that seemed endless! It took us just about an hour to reach the river. We relaxed by the river that was not a great sight but the flowing stream tickled our feet with ice cold water and the tiredness of trekking vanished very soon. Crunchy juicy fresh apples bought from floating market on Dal Lake and crispy biscuits that we carried from hometown found an easy access into our gastronomy in the cool breeze and the serene atmosphere. The shadows of giant pine trees cast a shadow in which we felt like having a cat nap before returning to Yousmarg.
The J&K Tourism run Restaurant had very little choice for lunch in their menu. We ordered Chicken Kanti and Veg Biryani. Biryani was loaded with potato chunks while Chicken Kanti was spicy and good. We washed the food down with a cup of hot tea.
Soon after lunch we started for Srinagar. On the way, we saw Charar-i-Sharief shrine and town which houses the tomb of Hazrat Sheikh Noor-u-din Noorani. Considered to be the holiest of all Islamic shrines in India, it was in news when militants made it their hiding in 1995 and the Army had to set it on fire to defeat the terrorists. The whole town with over 1500 houses was gutted in the fire and the entire town was rebuilt. Today Charar-i-Sharief looks peaceful. Military personnel guard the shrine 24x7x365. The interiors of the shrine are beautifully done with carved wooden balconies and blinds. Camera is strictly not allowed inside the shrine. Men and women have separate entry points. There are many Mullas who sit with some holy scripture and ask for donation. The official donation counter is at the entrance where the visitors can pay and get the receipt. In the yard of Charar-i-Sharief, there was a young Maple tree that was yet to turn golden.
Driving back to Srinagar, 6KMs off Charar-i-Sharief we also saw the Troposcatter Relay Station of Indian Army with the two huge dishes.
The most sought after meadow in Kashmir is Gulmarg situated at 8900Ft above MSL. Well motorable road takes just about 2 hours to reach Gulmarg from Srinagar covering a distance of 52KMs.
Our Taxi cab picked us up well before 9.00AM, after we had Aloo Parathas, pickle and Kashmiri Kahwa in the boat house for breakfast and our host arranging a Shikhara boat for us to reach the cab.
On the way, the changing ways of life in Kashmir showed the old and the new coexistent. Many houses are traditionally built but some have a modern touch. The buses and trucks generally are decorated like a bride with glittering and colourful beads and motifs. Horse drawn carts are used to carry load. Many handicraft factories existed on either side of the highway.
Reaching Tangmarg, the entry point before we took an uphill ride of almost 15Kms, Pony owners started pestering us, offering to take us through the wilderness on to Gulmarg. Traditionally many people opt for that. In the earlier days, Gulmarg was not motorable beyond Tangmarg and people had to opt for Pony ride to reach the meadow. Today, even buses reach Gulmarg.
Our cab driver reached Hotel Royal Park, we checked in and time was almost past Noon. In the scorching heat of the Sun we started walking towards the Gondola take off point that?s just 2Kms away, but the road seemed endless for us!
Just like any other tourist destination in Kashmir, Taxi Cabs from Srinagar are not supposed to carry passengers within the place!
First, we entered the Tourist Information Centre and got the first hand info about the place. Then we moved on and reached the Gondola point.
On the way, we saw the famous Shiva Temple amidst the vast grassland and also the Golf Course behind that. Pony owners tried to take us for a ride but we politely refused and kept walking down the well surfaced road that led us to the Gondola Point.
Gondola or cable car ride was not there when I went to Gulmarg with my friends in 1986. There was a chair lift carrying us to a height of not more than 500 feet then.
This time, we had an option to take the first flight to Kongdoor at 9900 Ft and then on to Apharwat at 13400 Ft. The first level is priced at Rs. 300/- per head while the next one is Rs. 500/- per head. We have to buy ticket to Kongdoor first and at Kongdoor to Apharwat if the weather is good, or the cable car is functional.
Gondola station has the cars moving slowly, taking a U turn as they reach the landing and the doors automatically swing open to accommodate three persons on each side. We took a quick jump into the cable car and the car moved uphill slowly for some time and took momentum later.
The scene gets more and more panoramic and breathtaking as the car goes to greater elevation. It takes well around 10mins to reach Kongdoor. Cold wind gushes in as we step out of the car. Outside scene is spectacular with greenery all over a well planned garden, a restaurant and play area to relax and recuperate.
We didn?t stay at Kongdoor. Buying tickets for the next flight to Apharwat, we waited at the Gondola station. Next flight is steeper with a climb of almost 3500 Ft. We could see a new road being built for the Military vehicles to reach their camp at Apharwat overlooking the Nanga Parbat peak where Pak Occupied Kashmir is at a very close distance. They are also building a new Gondola Cable Car double line to accommodate more tourists and to carry goods for winter sports to Apharwat.
We could spot tiny figures of people and ponies moving in a distance, carrying tourists to Khilanmarg and other interesting places around Kongdoor. The summit at Apharwat is totally covered with boulders and rocks. There is a lake atop Apharwat which freezes in winter and snow has melted over the months, revealing the barren land. A small patch of mud mixed snow attracted a few tourists to play and ride the sledge. We were not very keen about climbing the height to reach the puddle of snow.
Wind blows at strong speed and the 360 degree view of the mountains and the valley is mind blowing! Nanga Parbat looks barren with little snow caps here and there. Youngsters balance on the rocks in a distance posing like the couple in Titanic the movie. Quite a few Japanese tourists flocked the place but we didn?t see much westerners. Europeans and Americans mostly visit during the winter for skiing, we were told by the locals. After spending a little over 15 mins, we sensed clouds and probable rains at Apharwat. We slowly came down to the Gondola station to ride back to Gulmarg. The contrast of Sun and shade amidst the clouds drew the landscape like an artist?s canvas!
Exiting Gulmarg Gondola Station, we walked the 2KMs to the Bazar area and found a Punjabi Dhaba run by a Kashmiri! He made salty Mushroom Masala and hard Rotis that we ate without much fuss, as we were very hungry! We also had tea after gulping the food. Since it was Amarnath Yatra time, most of the Dhabas and Hotels display the boards as ?Pure Vegetarian?. Even the A grade hotel that we stayed in, served us vegetarian food. Liqour is not sold anywhere and since Omar Abdulla took charge as CM of Kashmir, he hasn?t issued new liquor license. Throughout Kasmir Valley, there are very few outlets that sell liquor but we couldn?t find even one!
We spent the evening mostly sitting in the garden outside our Hotel, watching the lazy meadow with a few passing military and private vehicles, some going up the dune towards the Golf Club. Horses played and grazed on the vast expanse of grassland and the nearby Shiva Temple was seen frequented by devotees till late in the evening. In the summertime, Kashmir has very early Sunrise at 5.00AM and the Sun sets at almost 8.00PM! Crescent moon looked tiny and shiny against the red glow of setting Sun over the mountains while Ramzan prayers were heard in a distance. Monkeys were active playing mischief in their own world amidst the coniferous trees!
We slowly walked back to our hotel as cold wind started sending chills up our tired bodies. We had a nice spread of buffet waiting for us in the dining hall and we helped ourselves with generous serving of soup, rotis, sabji, daal, rice and other accompaniments.
It was almost 10.00PM and in my sleep I was lost in a dream world where Apharwat peak and the 360 degree panorama whispered music from a hundred hills and the mesmerizing meadow of Gulmarg with dancing ponies kept me amazed even in my dreams!
Next morning was bright and Sunny. We had Poori with potato red bhaji, bread butter jam and Rava upma for breakfast before loading our luggage and driving back to Srinagar on way to Pahalgam.
Maple Tree outside Charar-i-Sharief Shrine
Highway to Gulmarg
Toll Gate at Tangmarg
Valley on way to Gulmarg
Gulmarg Bazar view
Gondola Station Gulmarg
Gondola Station Kongdoor
Panoramic view from Gondola Car
Breathtaking view from Gondola Car
Rocky slopes of Apharwat with a patch of snow
Nanga Parbat as seen from Apharwat
Breathtaking view of Nanga Parbat from Apharwat
Military Camp Apharwat
Ponies on hire at Gulmarg
Situated on the banks of Lidderwat and Sheshnag rivers off Srinagar Jammu highway at a distance of 95 KM (2Hrs 30mins drive) from Srinagar is Pahalgam or the valley of Shepherds. Traveling through meandering roads of north Kashmir, Pahalgam opens up with a fresh cool breeze of the Lidder River. Pahalgam is the gateway for Amarnath Yatra from May to August via Chandanwadi which is motorable and of late, helicopter service has started from Pahalgam to Amarnath Caves. Sheshnag River flows down from Sheshnag Lake and joins Lidder River at Pahalgam. Pahalgam can be approached from the Jammu Srinagar NH 1A via Bijbehra or via Ananthnag.
Pahalgam has a world class 9hole golf course open for tourists, is being extended into an 18hole golf course. Tourists and locals play golf here in the cool shades of Pine trees surrounding the golf course. Trout fishing and river rafting are also popular games on Lidder River. Pahalgam used to be a popular spot for outdoor shooting of Hindi films. Bobby House that became famous after ?Chaabi Kho Jaye? song from 70?s film Bobby was picturised within, is situated on the banks of Lidderwat River while Betaab Valley is a beautiful specially developed scenic spot with a park and a walk way around it, named after the Eighties film Betaab that was shot here.
The famous Maadeva Shiva Temple, in the middle of the town is visited by Hindu devotees. There are many parks all along the Lidder and Sheshnag Rivers. Shops sell Kashmiri Arts and crafts, Pashmina shawls and ethnic sarees, Kashmiri dresses, Papier Mache gift items, brassware, art jewellery and wooden crafts. There are many dry fruit merchants who sell Saffron, Walnut, Almond, Pine Nut and other agro produce of Kashmir. Pahalgam is bustling with activities during the tourist season and till Amarnath Yatra is over in the second week of August.
As we drove to Pahalgam, near Pampore we came across the famous Avantipur ruins. It is an ancient Vishnu Temple dating back to the Ninth century built by Raja Avantivarman. There is also a Shiva Temple nearby which is also in ruins. Both the temples were destroyed in massive earthquake and Jhelum River that used to flow just in front of these temples is now in a distance across the NH 1A.
Our cab driver took the Bijbehra route and we reached Pahalgam well after 1.00PM. Before we entered the town, there was a Military check post where we are supposed to carry our hand bags and walk though the screening machine. The military personnel also do a frisking on us before allowing us to get back into our vehicle. This kind of tight security was being followed was in view of Amarnath Yatra in progress.
We reached Forest Hill Resort and checked into our room. Had some rest and then went back to town to have our lunch at Nathu?s Rasoi, a clean and cozy Punjabi Restaurant serving South Indian and Chinese food as well. A plate of Chole Batura costs around Rs. 70/-, Noodles cost Rs. 90/-, Idli and Vada Rs. 65/- per plate and Masala Dosa ranging from Rs. 95/- to Rs. 125/-. Bottled water is sold at MRP Rs. 15/-. The only drawback is the machine vended tea and coffee that are not at all standard. Snacks are tasty and worth the price. We also did some shopping at an Emporium on the main road before returning to our room late in the afternoon. I spent my time on the open terrace of the Hotel and also in the lovely garden in front of the Hotel, listening to the sound of Lidder River flowing and watching the blue mountains as helicopters buzzed once half an hour till evening, commuting Amarnath Yatris.
Dinner was served after 8.30PM as usual, typical Kashmiri time for dinner. We had hot Rotis with Paneer and Green Peas curry, cauliflower and potato dry curry, Daal, rice and yoghurt for dinner. Since they had WAN, I could access the internet through my mobile cell phone, otherwise dead due to my prepaid sim card paralysed in Kashmir Valley.
Night was cool, dreaming was on as usual about the road we covered, scenic beauties of the places and most of all, The two important rivers meeting at one place namely Pahalgam!
We had an early morning drive to Aru village 15KMs off Pahalgam and our local Maruti cab waited for us till we had our cup of hot tea.
Driving up the road, our cab driver first stopped at the Bobby house. Little further, he showed us the Golf course on the right and Lidder Amusement Park on the left. Curving through Fir and Deodar trees adorning on the slopes, Lidder River flowing all along, a 30 minute drive took us to the silent Aru Village. The locals are friendly and ponies were awaiting there in abundance as in any other tourist spot in Kashmir Valley!
We had planned to walk the one KM track up the Aru Valley and after a walk of 5Mins we reached the Tourist Lodge with a vast garden. Feeling hungry, we ordered bread butter and omlette along with pot tea and relaxed on the lawn, admiring the pristine beauty of nature that surrounded the valley.
Lavender garden is next to the Tourist Lodge and the exuberant aroma of the violet flowers still make our nostrils search for its smell! We spent a good ten minutes to enjoy the feeling there. Soon after, we trekked further up to reach a point where the Lidder River branched on the sides, a shallow stream to our left and a rapid stream running down the gorge to our right. We relaxed there and caught the best glimpses of the mountains, streams and the plane within Aru Valley, one of the best spots in Kashmir that could be even better when it snows.
Little after 10.00 in the morning we started walking towards our cab. On the way I saw a public toilet run by the Tourism Department that displayed a board that using the Toilet calls for a fee of Rs. 3/-. I used the urinal and the man in charge asked me to pay the fee. I was totally upset by his demand and explained to him that I never used the TOILET but just the urinal for which I am not obliged to pay any fee! I also explained to him that anywhere in India, urinals don?t charge any fee. I also added that I could have used the back of the building to relieve myself but I didn?t want to spoil the environment. He felt helpless and let me go!
Drive from Aru Village to Betaab Valley took almost 40 Minutes. From Aru we need to come back to Pahalgam and then cover the road to Chandanwadi to reach Betaab Village situated at a distance of 5 Kms from Pahalgam.
Betaab Valley was developed by J&K Tourism Department at least 15 years after the success of the movie ?Betaab? that was shot there in the mid Eighties. It is a lovely park with green grass and many trees giving shade to the travelers who want to spend a lazy day. A paved walking path covering almost a KM or more around the park gives one a good scope for jogging or walking. There is a spot where we can cook our own meal using firewood. Small platforms connected by wooden arc bridges and the rapid flow of Sheshnag River flowing down the valley makes Betaab Valley a must see place and the best spot around Pahalgam for lazy couples on honey moon! Entry fee to the park is just Rs. 10/- per head.
Later that afternoon, we went back to Nathu?s Rasoi to taste the South Indian snacks Idli and Vada with tangy sambhar and bland coconut chutney. Returned to our Hotel and spent the rest of the day lazing around, browsing the net and sipping tea in the garden while helicopters buzzes on and off. Night was cooler than before and we slept with the memories of Aru and Betaab Valley ringing in our minds after an all vegetarian typical Kashmiri dinner!
The next morning, we were served Aloo Parathas with yoghurt and spicy pickle along with bread butter and hot tea in the garden. Our cab driver announced that we can leave any time before 11.00AM but we preferred to leave earlier, so that we can halt at some interesting places on our way back and purchase some dry fruits as well. Thus, we started before 10.00AM and reached Hallamulla Sangam where our cab driver stopped at a Cricket Bat manufacturer?s Industry and introduced us to him. I had the privilege to watch the entire process of making cricket bats from Kashmiri Willow stump. A report on step by step process will be narrated in the last episode of this Travelogue. We didn?t buy a cricket bat there but our cab driver did. The owner of that place said, he sells his product all over India from Punjab to Kanyakumari and bats cost between 200/- to 2500/- . The catchy stickers made them look attractive!
Next stop was Lethpora, famous for dry fruits and pure saffron. The owner Noor Mohammed Bhat was a friendly senior citizen with transparency in his trade. He showed us the best goods and we purchased authentic pure saffron at Rs. 200/- per gram and also limited quantities of top quality Kashmiri Apricots, Walnut and Almond kernels. Kashmiri Rajma was also on display, that looked much different than what we get here down South, but we chose not to buy any.
Driving further, we saw Saffron fields all along NH 1A, totally dry and not yet ready for cultivation. Our cab driver told us that cultivation will begin soon and before the start of winter, harvesting will be on. Walnut trees all along the way, Apple orchards at places and green paddy fields ranging from miles to miles caught our eyes. Thus, we reached Srinagar and spent some time at Nehru Park Shikhara point at our favourite Cyber Caf? before Mustafa came with his private Shikhara and led us to his boat house. On the way, he also purchased some Kashmiri Green Tea with essential spices packed along with, for us to take home.
Evening was well spent with relaxation on the front deck of the boat house while relishing namkeen and Kashmiri Kahua Tea served by our ever faithful room boy Aezad. Later that evening our boat house owner?s brother from Italy with his Italian wife and kids was leaving after a day?s stay. We had a hearty chat with them before bidding them farewell.
Dinner was special, as our House boat owner had promised before we left for Gulmarg. Rogan Josh and Yakhni were served along with rotis, Lotus stem sabji, daal and rice. As usual, melodious chanting of Ramzan prayer was heard from distant Hazrathbal Shrine, while Shikhara boats moved stealthily, Naubat Pahad flooded with the orange glow of Sodium vapour lamps stood like gold against the silvery moon lit night before we caught the last glimpse of Dal Lake in the night and recorded the lovely scene in our minds!
Back to Mangalore: Next morning was our departure. Aezad announced that breakfast is ready at 9.00AM. He had specially made fluffy spicy Egg omlettes and served them with bread and butter. Golden brown crispy Gobi Parathas with fresh yoghurt, butter and spicy pickle also were smiling at us! Generous volume of Kashmiri Tea was filled in the pot with clean shiny China crockery on the dining table made us feel as if we were Mughals!
After vacating our room in Houseboat at 11.00AM, we were taken on a joyride on the Shikhara boat, Mustafa guiding us. On the way, he showed us the floating gardens where vegetables are grown and also some historic spots like Char Chinar and Kabutar Khana. We also spotted the water skiing boat on the way. We reached Nehru Park just before noon and our cab was waiting for us. The organizer of our tour in Kashmir, Mr. Naseer Tunda was there to greet us. After exchange of compliments and thanking Mustafa for the lovely time we had in Kashmir Treat House Boat, we started and reached Srinagar Airport, passing through two security points just before reaching the airport, one more at the gate with screening of luggage and then again one set up by our airline company before checking in! There was yet another security check following the regular Airport security check and also baggage identification! After all those security checks, we waited for our flight that took off on time at 2.00PM and carried us to Mumbai after a halt at Delhi Airport. As we landed at the Indira Gandhi International Airport Delhi, my mobile phone came alive with the welcome message from Airtel Delhi!
I?d like to mention one important aspect here. Nowhere in Jammu and Kashmir hand baggage is allowed on flights except Ladies? Handbags and Camera bags. I carried a small bag with my camera and Kashmiri Tea packet in it. The security personnel asked me what use I have for Kashmiri tea. I said I just love Kahua. He was impressed with my answer and didn?t confiscate that!
We reached Mumbai at 6.05PM and were received by our friend Avinash Shenoy.
Stayed at his place for the night in Thane and returned the next afternoon by Matsyagandha Express, reaching Mangalore on August 8th at 10.15AM.
The memory of this great experience of Kashmir valley is truly enchanting and Kashmir is indeed heaven on earth, as quoted by the Mughal Emperor Jehangir!
Aru and Betaab Valley:
Coming up next: Enchanting Kashmir ? Arts, Crafts, Fruits and House Boats
Author: Rajanikanth Shenoy- Kudpi