Sunday, 26 May 2013

Trip to Kashmir - Land of Chinar, Saffron and Pashmina

The idea of a trip to Kashmir was born in 2012. My aunt suggested a trip to Kashmir and we were completely sold. I instantly agreed and so did my mother. Soon, more people joined the group of enthusiasts and by the time we booked the trip in Early December 2012, we were 8 family members – aunts, cousins, uncle, my Mother and I. The trip was booked for May 2013 – It was a 9 days and 8 nights group tour organized by Kesari travels. The itinerary included Srinagar, Sonamarg, Gulmarg, Pahalgam, Katra and Vaishno Devi. As the day got closer, preparations began. With all airlines reducing the weight of checked-in baggage to 15 kg, we were careful to pack less to allow for some shopping in Kashmir. Finally, after a long wait of 6 months, the day arrived and Kashmir beckoned. Here is a day-by-day account of our tour, experiences, adventures and misadventures.

15th May – Day 1

We had a very early morning start from Bangalore. Being a late riser, this was the first time in more than a year when I got to see the sunrise. The taxis we had booked the previous day were waiting for us by the time we got ready and we left for BIAL at 4 AM. We checked in to the Air India flight. The first leg of the flight was from Bangalore to Delhi. We were served an in-flight breakfast of pongal, vada and fruits. My memories of Air India have always been that of very good food but the breakfast served was slightly disappointing. After 2 ½ hours of journey, we were in Terminal 3 of the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi. After 2 hours of transit time in Delhi, we boarded the next flight to Srinagar via Jammu. On the way to Jammu, we spotted beautiful snow peaked mountains from the flight and poor Geographic sense led us to believe these were the Himalayas. We later learnt that these were the Pir Panjal mountain ranges.  

View of snow covered mountains from the plane

We were served more food, this time, a vegetable & paneer roll and fruitcake. There was a half an hour stop at Jammu where some passengers disembarked, some boarded and we were on our way to Srinagar. We got more spectacular views of mountain ranges, this time of the Ladakh mountain ranges. We arrived in Srinagar at 1:45 PM in the afternoon and collected our checked-in baggage. To our dismay, one of the heavier and larger suitcases was damaged – the left wheel of the suitcase was broken. After some discussions and negotiations, Air India compensated a menial Rs. 500/- for the damage.  Meanwhile, our tour guide had already called to find out whether we had reached safely and informed us that he was waiting outside the airport. We met the tour guide, Sameer, who took us by cab from the airport to the houseboat. From the car, we got a view of the Jhelum River, which is in the form of a “Sri”, thus giving Srinagar its name. Srinagar is at an altitude of 5000 feet above sea level. We finally spotted the famous Dal Lake. We took a Shikara boat to the other side of the Lake and got a glimpse of the floating market selling vegetables, medicines, clothes and other basic necessities. We had a late lunch – it was a simple fare of phulkas and dal.  We were then taken to our houseboat – Gulistan, where we would stay for the next 2 nights. We rested a while, freshened up and headed for tea. We met the rest of the tour group for the first time at tea. The group had 27 members – 10 from Bangalore and 17 from Mumbai & Solapur in Maharashtra. We also met our tour manager, Swapnil Deshpande. Sameer and Swapnil gave us a brief of our tour itinerary. After introductions, we returned to the houseboat where there was a bunch of vendors selling Kashmiri jewelry, dry fruits, shawls and dress materials. We bought some earrings. After a quick dinner of phulkas and dal, we returned to the houseboat to rest for the evening.  

16th May – Day 2

After breakfast at 7:30 AM, we went by a Toyota Qualis arranged by our tour guide to the Adi Shankaracharya temple. The temple is situated at the top of a hill and can be reached by climbing 265 steps. Shankaracharya is believed to have visited the Shiva temple here to spread the Advaita philosophy. We learnt an interesting piece of information that the traditional Pradakshina should not to be made around the lingam. One is supposed to go only three-fourth of the way around the lingam and return. Next to the temple is the Thapasya Sthal of Shankaracharya. From the top of the hill, we got a beautiful view of Srinagar city, Dal Lake and Jhelum River. We came back down by car and took a Shikara boat ride on the Dal Lake. It was a very nice ride, often interrupted by vendors selling Kashmiri arts and crafts. The Lake has beautiful water lilies in pink and white. We also spotted some lotus leaves. 
Dal Lake 
Water Lilies
Since Lotus flowers bloom in July-August, we could not see any Lotus flowers at this time of the year. As is popular among the tourists, I took a photo in traditional Kashmiri dress. The photo turned out to be bad – may have something to do with the model J. The Shikara boat dropped us at a floating boat where some people went for water sports while we took some photos. Another boat ride took us to the Char Chinar Island or Silver Island. This island has 4 Chinar trees at 4 corners that Aurangzeb was supposed to have got from Iran for his wife. The Chinar trees are characteristic of Kashmir and are seen in almost all villages and towns. 

Chinar Tree
We took a group photo of our entire group on this island and headed back to the houseboat by the same Shikara boat that was waiting for us. We passed by the floating market again and after lunch at the houseboat, went to the famous Moghul gardens - Shalimar bagh and Nishat bagh. Moghul Emperor Jahangir built the Shalimar garden for his wife, Nur Jahan. 

Shalimar Bagh
Nishat garden is a terraced garden, with 12 terraces, built during Shah Jahan’s reign in 1629 AD by one of his court ministers, Asif Khan, who was also his father-in-law. Since my photo on the Shikara boat was spoilt, I made another attempt at getting myself photographed in traditional Kashmiri dress. This was a slightly better photo. The gardens were good but not out of the world. We returned to the houseboat at around 7 PM for a dinner of rotis, malai kofta and aloo gobi and ended the day with more jewelry shopping.

17th May – Day 3

After a light breakfast of cornflakes and toast at 6:30 AM, we headed to Sonamarg (Meadow of Gold) by bus. We passed by the towns of Ganderbal, which is chief minister Omar Abdullah’s hometown and of Kangan. The bus ride gave us a good opportunity to see the towns in Kashmir. The houses in Kashmir are mostly wooden houses with sloping sheet roofs, built for snow. We didn’t see any modern buildings or industries on the way. Tourism is the primary source of income and agriculture is the secondary source. The Sindh/Indus River, the River on the banks of which the earliest urban civilization, the Indus valley civilization, was established, flows through this area. It was a proud moment for all of us. 

Indus River
We stopped for tea on the way where we shopped for woolen caps, mufflers and shawls. We reached Sonamarg at around 11:30 AM in the morning. Sonamarg is at an altitude of 8950 feet and gives spectacular views of the snow covered Himalayas and the Ladakh ranges. We trekked to a view-point to see the snow from closer quarters. People were also traveling by ponies to this point. 

We saw the general direction of the Kargil area and the Pakistan border from the view-point. A guide took us by jeep to the Thajiwas glacier and River at a cost of Rs. 600. With the majestic and tall mountains forming the backdrop, and the soothing sounds of the river flowing with vigor, it made for a picture-perfect place. It’s no wonder that famous movie scenes & songs for Ram Teri Ganga Maili and Satte Pe Satta were shot here. Amarnath yatra starts from this point. The jeep driver dropped us back to the restaurant where lunch was already arranged for us. We were then on our way to Gulmarg (Meadow of Flowers). The route from Sonamarg to Gulmarg is via Srinagar. Our bus developed a small snag on the way and it took around 45 minutes to set that right. We were not allowed to get down from the bus for security reasons. The sensitive area of Baramulla is around 40-50 km from here. We sat in the bus and watched the town people going about their daily chores. We were on our way again after the minor snag was rectified. We got our first glimpses of the famous Kashmiri Apple orchards on our way. We stopped at an Arts and Crafts shop where the shopkeeper, in true salesman fashion, demonstrated the art of carpet making and gave us useful information on how to identify the grade (quality) of carpet. 

We also got free Kahwah, a popular Kashmiri green tea made with Saffron strands, almonds, walnuts, cinnamon and cardamom. We reached Gulmarg to a slightly chilly night and huffed and puffed our way to the Heevan resort, a 4 star resort with very ordinary amenities. After a North Indian dinner of rotis, bhindi sabzi and paneer butter masala, we returned to our rooms for the night.

18th May – Day 4

We were looking forward to the Gondola ride – Asia’s highest and world’s second highest operating Gondola ride. It’s a 2-phase cable car ride – the first phase transfers to the Kongdoori station at around 10000 feet and the second phase transfers to the Kongdoori Mountain at 13000 feet. 

We had a 7:30 AM start to the day with breakfast of omelets and poha. We headed to the rental place for coats and shoes at around 8:30 AM. Our guides had warned us that the weather in Kashmir is unpredictable. Although the weather was quite pleasant, we were worried that it may get very cold on the mountain. We rented a coat and bought gloves and walked to the Gondola station. These were of no use to us at all as the day was bright and sunny – the only use was that we used the coats as mats to sit on. Our guide had earlier informed us that the cable cars occasionally close down for maintenance or only operate till Phase 1. On reaching the station, we were informed that only the first phase of the Gondola ride was operational that day. We went in groups of 5 by Gondolas to the Kongdoori station. Most of our group stayed back at the station and satisfied themselves with viewing the snow from distance. A few of us trekked (a 40 min trek) to the snow area while some took ponies. We played in the snow, which was more dirty brown than white, took some photos and headed back for tea. We returned by Gondolas and started walking back to our resort. Resort was a km away but we lost our way. We could hear the stream that was very close to our resort and knew we were not too far.  We followed the sounds of the stream and with some reluctant help from the locals, we crossed the stream and finally found our way back. We were ravenous after all the trekking and walking and went straight for lunch. The afternoon was free for us to spend however we liked. We hired a cab for Rs. 1200 to do some sightseeing – A darga at Babaresi and Drung valley & River. 

Drung River
The route to Drung valley is very rocky and uneven and the drive was slow. We spent some time near the River. On the way back to Gulmarg, we got a beautiful view of the valley. We returned to the resort at 5:30 PM for tea and aloo bondas. The guide had arranged some fun group games. I won one of the games J and got a book as a prize. It started getting cold outside. So, we all went inside to the warmth of the reception area of the resort for sometime. We ended the day with dinner of noodles, fried rice, rotis and baingan masala.

19th May – Day 5

After a breakfast of omelets and upma, we checked out of the hotel in Gulmarg and were on our way to the next destination – Pahalgam. We passed Tangmarg at the base and took the route via Srinagar and Anantnag on the Jammu highway. The town of Avantipur, famous for the ruins of the Vishnu temple, is on the way. 

Vishnu (Avantiswami) Temple
King Avantivarman constructed the temple in the 9th century AD. An earthquake is supposed to have buried the temple in the 14th Century. Another theory says that a Muslim invader destroyed the temple. The ruins were excavated in the 18th Century by Sahni. The Vishnu idol found during excavation is now installed in the Vishnu temple in Lal Chowk. We saw saffron fields near the town of Pampore and stopped at one of them to buy saffron and dry fruits. 
Saffron fields
Saffron flowers usually grow in October-November and the flowers are purple in color with orange stigmas. The dried stigma is used as the Saffron spice. About 150 flowers are needed to make 1 gram of Saffron. We then visited a bat factory. Cricket bats are made of willow tree wood and Kashmir and Meerut are the only 2 places in India where bats are manufactured. Bat making is a part manual and part automated process. After seasoning the wood for 6-9 months, the bats are shaped and handles fixed. 

People at work in the bat factory
We passed by Lidder River and valley and the town center of Pahalgam and reached our resort, Pine and Peak, in time for lunch.  Our room had bay windows with a beautiful view of the lawns and River in the distance. Pahalgam is at an altitude of 7000 feet above sea level. 

We went to the town center in the evening for shopping and bought suede Kashmiri bags. We also bought a full wool shawl in the shop at the resort. With lighter pockets, we went to a dinner of rotis, veg manchurian and pasta sauce rice and returned to our rooms.

20th May – Day 6

We had a late start to the day at 9 AM. We took a Chevrolet Tavera for sight seeing. The plan was to visit Chandanwari and Aru valley. The driver told us that he would take us to the Betaab valley at an extra cost of Rs. 300 and we all agreed. We first went to Chandanwari, which is at an altitude of 9500 feet. On the way, we saw the Seshnag River. The Seshnag and Lidder Rivers meet at Pahalgam. We hired boots at Rs. 30 in Chandanwari and climbed up to see the snow. We saw some breathtaking views of the snow peaked mountains and the Amarnath yatra route. Next stop was the Betaab valley. 
Betaab Valley
Before descending, we got a beautiful view of the lush green valley. The driver stopped at the entrance to the valley and after paying an entrance fee of Rs. 20 per person, we jostled our way among the crowd of mainly school children on vacation. This is the spot where the famous house from the movie Betaab was built. It is a now replaced by a newer house. Our last stop was the Aru valley, which has lush green meadows and mountains on all sides. 
Aru Valley
We walked to the Lavender Park and got a closer view of the Aru River. We headed back to the resort. After all the shopping over the last few days, we were running short of cash. We requested the driver to stop at an ATM on the way. In spite of repeated reminders, he took us straight back to the resort. We had to pay him an extra Rs. 100 for him to take us to an ATM and drop us back at the resort. We had lunch and relaxed in the afternoon. In the evening, the entire group of 27 played Housie. Two of my aunts won all the prizes – Jaldi 5, Top row, top 2 rows and full house.

21st May – Day 7

We had an early start to the day at 7:30 AM and most of the day was spent traveling from Pahalgam to Katra, which was our next stop. We had tea on the way and an early lunch at Banihal at around 12 noon. The rivers Tavi and Chenab flow here. We also passed by the 2.5 km long Jawahar (Banihal) tunnel that separates Kashmir valley from nearby Jammu. Photography and videography are prohibited inside the tunnel. The tunnel is well lit and also has emergency telephones. We entered the Jammu region, which predominantly comprises of plains and mountains. The mountains are not as thickly forested as those in Kashmir valley. We stopped for tea in the afternoon and finally reached Katra at 7:30 PM. After dinner in our hotel, KC Residency, we left for Vaishno Devi temple at 9:30 PM. At the entrance, most of the group took Phalki/Dholi to the temple. My cousin and I decided to walk to the Bhavan. It was a very tiring 14 km trek, up the Trikuta Mountain. We took the route via Himakut to the Bhavan and after 4 long hours, we reached Gate 3 at 2:30 AM in the morning. We left our bags with Sameer and went for Darshan. On the way to the cave with chants of “Jaya Mata Di” from the devotees, it took 20 min for the darshan of the holy Pindian and then we were back to Gate 3 to collect our bags and head back down to Katra. We were exhausted due to lack of sleep and over-exercise. We hired ponies at the Bhavan. It cost us Rs. 750 and bruised bottoms to reach the foothills. Mid way through the descent, we saw the sunrise and got a good view of the Bann Ganga river that flows here. We took autos from the foothills to the hotel and finally reached the hotel at 9 AM.

22nd May – Day 8

After a quick shower and a breakfast of idlis and upma, we went straight to bed and got up only in the afternoon for lunch followed by some more sleep. We went shopping in the evening and bought a couple of shawls and cloth bags. We came back to the hotel, had dinner and headed to our rooms to let sleep help our bodies to recover from the aches and pains.  

23rd May – Day 9

This was the last day of our trip. After breakfast, we left by car to Jammu airport. This was 45 km from Katra. We reached the airport at 10:30 AM and were let inside the departure terminal at 11 AM after multiple security checks. We had to check in all our bags and were allowed to carry only a small purse as a cabin bag. We took a SpiceJet flight from Jammu to Delhi. We left Jammu at 1:15 PM and reached Delhi at 2:30 PM at Terminal 1D. At terminal 1D, after security check, we had lunch in the airport. The prices were exorbitant and the food was very mediocre. Our flight to Bangalore was at 8:40 PM. We did some window-shopping and sat down to wait for our flight. The flight left on time and we reached Bangalore at 11:15 PM. We collected our bags. Bags of 2 from the group hadn’t reached. We talked to the SpiceJet ground staff who logged a lost baggage report and we hired cabs to reach “home sweet home” at 2 AM.