We all have places in our heads that just trigger something whenever they are mentioned – I don’t mean those that conjure images of tropical beaches, palm trees and cocktails but rather places which just sound intriguing and mysterious. For me, its Timbuktu, Casablanca (yes I know its because of the movie!), Marrakesh, Shanghai…
…. and Kashmir
While planning for a trip to India in 2013, I read that the previous November, the British had lifted an advisory against travelling to parts of Kashmir. That was all I needed – (ignoring the fact that the US, Australia and New Zealand still had advisories in place) I lopped a week off the Indian itinerary and booked return flights from Delhi to Srinagar.
Until 1989, the Kashmir valley was a popular destination for both domestic and foreign tourists. There followed two decades of conflict (in simplistic terms, a guerrilla war was waged by separatists and those who wanted to join Pakistan). Now visitors were coming back and I was definitely joining them!
I just wanted to see Dal Lake and the Himalayas. I booked 2 nights on a houseboat, 2 nights in Pahalgam and 3 nights back in a hotel in Srinagar – nothing off the beaten track. In Delhi, someone knew a travel agent who knew a transport company who knew a hotel owner – you know how it goes…. so by the time we got to Srinagar we’d all our transfers and day trips sorted.
Despite the heightened security en route from the airport and around the city, I liked Srinagar. Chaotic and busy, this summer capital – with its narrow streets, markets, mosques and shrines – is defined by the beautiful Dal Lake. There are plenty of restaurants to choose from and if the town bustle is too much for you, its lovely to stroll along Boulevard Road by the lakeside or visit one of the perfectly manicured public gardens.
Flanked by the city and surrounding mountains, the lake is everything you could wish for. Picture perfect, it is fittingly called ‘paradise on earth’. Colourful shikaras – described as the gondolas of Kashmir – transport people and goods. You can visit the backwaters and see the floating gardens – sections of matted vegetation – where water loving vegetables like melons, tomatoes and cucumbers thrive. You can arrange to have a shikara bring you to the floating market at dawn, where most salesmen (yes, this is very much a man’s market) trade among themselves but some are there for the tourists with their cargoes of flowers, pashminas, cigarettes and anything you can think of.
If Srinagar is defined by the lake, then the lake itself is defined by about 1200 moored houseboats. The British never ruled Kashmir and the local Maharaja would not allow them own property so they took to the water. Some houseboats date back to the early 1900’s and today they vary in condition from incredibly ornate to falling apart. They are not accessible directly from the lakeshore so free transfers by shikara are included when you spend the night on one and meals are also provided. As you relax on the balcony and watch the evening draw in, traders will float up with their goods – saffron, flowers, drinks ….
We had been collected from the airport and over the next 2 days met with our driver for a few short trips – visiting mosques and some of the gardens – and of course his cousin’s carpet shop. Now we were leaving Srinagar and heading 95km to the Pahalgam Valley. Having been up since 5.00am to visit the floating market, we were on the road early enough and with just one stop – a cousin’s saffron shop this time – and a few minor road blocks, we easily reached our destination by lunchtime.
Located high in the Himalayas, Pahalgam (meaning Village of Shepherds) is famous for its scenic beauty. We spent the afternoon wandering around town and along by the Lidder River. We resisted the offers for pony trekking which is big business in town. We were on a half board plan at Heevan’s Hotel so didn’t eat out.
The following morning, we were visiting the Aru Valley, Betaab Valley and Chandanwari – the starting point of the annual Amarnath Yatra. Every July and August, 1000’s of pilgrims make their way to the holy shrine of Amarnath – one of the holiest shrines in Hinduism – about a 28km trek from Chandanwari. Hindus believe that Lord Shiva revealed the secret of salvation to his wife Parvati in this cave.
Only local drivers have access to the roads beyond Pahalgam so our driver from Srinagar brought us to the local taxi rank and we were handed over. There was heightened security along the route but we were waved through the first few checkpoints. Then our driver was told to turn back – he was not to bring us to Chandanwari. The arguing went forwards and backwards between himself and various army personnel – increasing in rank every few minutes. But to no avail – we were sent back – for our own safety apparently. The bits we saw – the grasslands of the Aru valley and the winding river – were beautiful and we were still able to enjoy local walks on our unexpected afternoon back at the hotel!
Back to Srinagar
We were not due to leave Pahalgam until the following afternoon but curfews had been announced for Srinagar so our driver sent a message that he would collect us at 7.00 am. Sharing the road with a lot of military traffic, we knew our driver was worried when he didn’t stop at any ‘cousin’s’ shop on the journey! We still had 3 nights left – on land this time – at Wilson’s Hotel in Srinagar. We had 2 full day trips planned – one to the hill station of Sonamarg and the other to the ski resort of Gulmarg. There were no particular tensions in Srinagar when we got back and we enjoyed the afternoon along by the lake and in the market.
Inaccessible for most of the year, Sonamarg (Meadow of Gold) is located about 90 kms and a 2 hour drive from Srinagar. With a backdrop of the Himalayas, the views are spectacular.
We wanted to visit Zero Point – a glacier which was another 35kms on from Sonamarg. Once again, only locals have access to the roads and they drive a hard aggressive bargain. Luckily we had our driver with us who negotiated on our behalf.
The return trip from Sonamarg to the glacier took 3.5 hours and that was with just a short break at the glacier before heading back. We had picked a bad day to put it mildly – road conditions are awful anyway but teeming rain made it a terrifying journey at times. With parts of the road washing away, there was room for only one way traffic and as we were on the on the outer edge of the road along the cliff face, I just closed my eyes whenever a vehicle approached us! The high altitude means its cold even in summer anyway and the rainfall really accentuated the living conditions of families in tents along the roadside. Add to that an increased army presence and then throw in a car with no heating, a window that wouldn’t fully close and some engine trouble and you’ve a recipe for a fun day out! An adventure – yes! Worth it – yes! The region is stunning. The drive back was easier (apart from the fact that we were praying the car would actually make it and we were shivering in damp clothes after getting wet at the glacier!). We looked so miserable when we got back to Sonamarg that our driver decided he wouldn’t after all bring us to his ‘cousin’s jewellery shop!
(Heading into the Himalayas)
(A bit close to the edge for my liking!)
(A good place for car trouble!)
(A lot of military – even up here!)
(Glacier – sub zero temperatures but probably warmer outside than in the car!)
(Back in the valley – come on – smile for the camera)
The following day we were heading to the resort town of Gulmarg and taking the cable car to enjoy the views, flora and fauna. Our trip was cancelled due to increased unrest and curfews. We spent the day in town.
We had an afternoon flight back to Delhi but were collected early morning as yet another curfew was announced. There were military blocks at every corner and we were only allowed pass through when our passports and flight details were checked – every time! Eventually reaching the airport, we said goodbye to our poor driver who didn’t know how he was going to get home without us in the car!
Before I go….
It is said that Kashmir is the most densely militarized place on earth. Since our trip, there have been intermittent cycles of violence and parts of the region have been declared off limits to tourists on a number of occasions. Tourism is a major industry here and those involved in the trade are blaming the media for highlighting negative stories about Kashmir.
I consider it a privilege to have seen this beautiful place. I truly hope that some day people will be able to visit without reservation.