Making our way out of Srinagar International Airport, we are greeted by a horde of expectant, eager faces, holding up their placards with names in bold font. My husband’s name is printed on the placard held by a young man. Bearded, brown eyes, thick jackets, and a warm smile- he is Sajjad, our guide and driver for the Kashmir sojourn.
Pleasantries are exchanged and the sedan glides through the streets of Srinagar- the weather is pleasantly cold. It’s the fag end of winter. Srinagar is unlike any city I have seen; there is an odd disquiet in the air. Like a lull before the storm. Even the sedans and Maruti 800s on the roads are all decrepit. Dusty, grimy local transport buses and dingy brownish yellow school vans swathed in dirt. Not a pretty sight. And then I sight the first of several army patrols. There are army men stationed at every nook and corner of the city and it’s intimidating. But then I see the people walking nonchalantly bypassing them and realise that they are used to this every single day of their lives. School girls in hijab are waiting to cross the road and I am fascinated with their light-coloured eyes fringed by thick eyebrows, framed in a face that’s almost pristinely beautiful. Girls and women have their head covered in hijab. Vendors and shikhara drivers are in traditional Phirans (It’s a loose upper garment roughly gathered at the sleeves which tend to be wide, made of either wool or jamawar which is a mixture of wool and cotton, with no side slits.) Otherwise it’s thick jackets and jeans.
Sajjad is animatedly pointing out the small and big milestones on the way. And their extensive produce- various berry trees (cherry, mulberry, raspberry, strawberry), melons apricots, walnuts, figs, apple trees. Then he signals at a bridge— “Sir, aapne Bajrangi Bhaijaan dekha hain? Salman Khan idhar aaya tha sir.” A few miles later, he enlightens us about another Bollywood layover- “Jab We Met dekha hai, sir. Idhar shoot hua tha.” It was evident that Sajjad, who could give Khans a run for their money with his evident good looks, was a complete movie buff. Ironic, considering there is not even a single multiplex or movie theatre in Kashmir. “TV par har film dekhthey hain saab. Hamarey yahan bahut musical shows hote rahte hain,” he tells us. Even as the one-sided conversation flowed, I soaked in all the beauty around me. It was difficult not to gape at the lush pine trees, acres of snow-capped mountains (that somehow reminded me of a double tiered Vanilla pastry cake) and the luminous lakes.
Soon the car stopped in front of the famous Dal lake, spread with colourful, large, ornate houseboats. Sajjad quickly jumped out of the car, walked over to a few chaps dressed in Phirans and seemed to be having a brief discussion. As I got out, I realised there were tiny, elongated boats lined-up near the lake walls. They called it Satara, and is cosily furnished, with embroidered, silk cushions and sofas. It’s a task to get inside the boat without tumbling into the lake. We are met at the entrance of the houseboat by a burly gentleman with a brown beard and a warm smile - he is the manager of the boat, Hameed - who led us to his boat that has a board that reads ‘Alexandra Palace’. I sneakily read names of the neighbouring boats- Mehjoor, Taj Heritage, Kangaroo Sheraton, Hetal, Highland Queen and Sahina. Uniformly quaint!
The interiors have an antiquated stately grace- chocolate brown, gold specked thick sofa sets in silk. A large mahogany dining table, encircled by decorative, cushioned wooden chairs, is placed at the far end of the well-lit drawing room. We are ushered in by a man Friday who simply refuses to smile. He offers us cups of light mustard coloured tea that had almond strands floating on it. It faintly tasted of saffron, almonds and flavoured tea leaves. Kahawa- our first cup of the refreshing Kashmiri tea, which we later started drinking in gallons by the end of the trip.
Our first stop was at Nishat Bag- a charming, terraced Mughal garden near the Dal Lake. Said to be the second largest Mughal garden in Kashmir valley, it is flanked by the Zabarwan Mountains and Pir Panjal mountain range. Endless stretches of greenery, finely trimmed shrubs, old-fashioned mini fountains, and archaic monuments in the middle- such a fine postcard backdrop! We missed out on the magnificent Tulip gardens- as they will be in full bloom only in April.
After a few rounds of selfies and strolls, we are led to a nondescript restaurant for a late lunch-Kashmiri aloo dum and buttery kulchas.
That night we shop for woollies-giant leather jackets, gloves, and monkey caps. Then of course, I am enticed by a row of pashmina shawls and antique silver jewellery.
Next morning, they took us on a Shikara ride to Dal lake- as the boats slowly twisted their way through various houseboats that also doubled up as shops and stalls, we were swarmed by vendors selling silver jewellery and handicrafts- unfolding neatly wrapped white papers to reveal chunky antiquated black metal and silver jewellery and miniature Shikharas made of wood.
Day two was spent at Sonamarg- also known as the “Meadow of Gold.” Nearly 2 hrs drive from Srinagar, Sajjad drove us straight to the Thajiwas Glacier (located 3km from the town with an altitude of 9,186 feet)—masked with snow, it’s enchanting to just gaze at it. We had to haggle our way through local guides to hire ponies and take us near the snow mountains. Once there, we tried sledge rides, lots of snow fights and huge helpings of Maggi with Kahawa. Though persistent, the local guides are some of the friendliest bunch you will see in Kashmir.
Enroute to Srinagar, there are quite a few good dhabas - all set in the backdrop of mountains, trees, and snow - and we stopped at one to have rotis, subzi and black tea. We camped at a fine hotel called Haven that had branches in all the places that were earmarked for our visit.
Next day we checked into Haven at Pahalgam. It’s more than an hour’s drive from Srinagar. The hotel was placed in the middle of mountains, trees, and water streams. A charming old tubular bridge connected it from the road. This Haven had wood-panelled exteriors and a great view from our room.
First thing we did after checking into Pahalgam was go for long strolls. That’s one thing we did extensively in Kashmir. Walk, breathe, and drink in the beauty around.
A few miles from our hotel, we found our way into Pehalgam town, lined with Kashmiri artefacts, restaurants, dry fruit shops and pashmina shops. And the haggling continued. There are lovely old-fashioned bakeries, stocked with local sweet and savoury breads. While there, try Girdas, large round thick rotis, which are lavishly stacked at every roadside stall, top them with dollops of butter and jam, a cup of chai and your day automatically turns better. Warm fluffy Lavassa, sweet and milky Sheermal, cakey textured roath and the deep fried and sinfully delicious Porate that needs to be mopped up with their creamy Mutton Rogan Josh and you are almost in gastronomic paradise. Kashmiris are very particular about their bread.
Next morning, we take off to the last leg of our journey- Gulmarg. One of the most spectacular sights in Kashmir, it took almost 3 hours to reach this hill station. Caked with snow, it’s a sight that cannot be explained in words- if there is heaven on earth, it has to Gulmarg. At their branch of Haven hotel (nestled on the top of a snow-capped hill), local sledge drivers have been hired to take us to through some of the touristy spots in the vicinity. Though the children instantly make themselves comfortable on the sledges, with a driver holding them from behind by the ropes fastened on him, we (me and husband) are sceptical about trying the same thing. After all the drivers look like they haven’t had a square meal for days. But to our utter shock, they effortlessly and steadily glide us through the expansive snow filled hills. And it’s plain fun!
At one point, they take a breather. Later, we gamely offer to walk while the kids are helped on the sledges. Armed with heavy jackets, gloves, and stiff head gear, though it takes a while to get a hang of walking on snow, and getting breathless now and then, I was really enjoying myself. We take several pictures in snow, a lovely church, and a Baba Reshi shrine. Once the dawn has set, the drivers lead us to a tiny make-shift food stall. Kahawa is followed by bowls of freshly made mouth-watering tomato soup. And just as energetically we are sledged back near our hotel. The next day, we are taken to the gondola rides. The first thing we are told is to rent a pair of gumboots as it will be easier to walk on the snow. Inside the gondola, it’s surreal to watch the beauty below you—massive acres of powder white snow, trees draped in snow. And apparently in summer, all this will melt to unveil flowers of all shapes and sizes. Gul-flower, Marg-garden. Get the drift?
Once on the top of the mountain, on the first stop, we manage to get down and are instantly inundated with offers to skate, sledge, and even try electric mini cars. They have put up a large make-shift restaurant with a menu that promises many variants of maggi, soups, rotis , French fries and biryanis. And Kahawa of course. On the second stop, it’s impossible to challenge the heavy cold and we take a trip back. My husband bravely decides to skate all the way down while son opts for sledge ride. The daughter and me honourably opt for the gondola. Once on land, we are taken to a row of tiny shacks for lunch.
The next morning, Sajjad is back to take us to the airport. On the way back, he takes us to a factory that manufactures cricket bats- willow trees are a common sight here. We stock up our bags with a few sovereigns, dry fruits, and plenty of kahawa tea leaves. And then pass the same route that we came, and encounters the same sights-the CRPF men, army officials and the nonchalant Kashmiris. What a beautiful contradiction is this heaven on earth.