Kashmir's offbeat destinations: An updated itinerary

Jammu and Kashmir. Photo: IANS

The adventure and adrenaline on the road not taken can any day beat the charisma of popular vacation hub spots. While Kashmir's Gulmarg, Sonmang, and Pahalgam serve as the main tourist attraction, J&K's lesser-known fantasy destinations are filling spots in every tourist's bucket list.

Hikers have long enjoyed these picturesque hidden treasures of the UT, but now these God-gifted landscapes are being explored to their full potential. The Tourism Department of the J&K UT is aggressively promoting these locations, so tourists can witness a more "authentic" and raw Kashmir.

They are also promoting rural tourism through special activities in rural circuits across J&K including Hokersar-Parihaspora-Gohan in Gulmarg, Waderbala, Nowgam Mawar - Lolab in Kupwara, Chari-Sharief-Doodhpathri-Yousmarg in Budgam, and Saderkoot Payeen-Watlab in Bandipora. At least 75 new tourist destinations are underway with modern facilities and recreational activities in the UT.

These hidden treasures are finally seeing the light of the day and bewitching travellers who have an itch for more.

Situated in a bowl-shaped valley in Himalaya's Pir Panjal range, Doodhpathri is an alpine valley covered with undiscovered snow peaks, deep and silent deodar forests, and hidden meadows enveloped with wildly growing forget-me-nots and daisies. A first of its kind 'All-Terrain Vehicle' (ATV) rally was held in Budgam's Doodhpathri last month. A ski show to demonstrate the scope of Doodhpathri's adventure sports' potential was also put up by the authorities. This destination is being developed as a Winter Tourism destination for snow sports like Skiing, Snow-Boarding, and Snow-Cycling.

J&K Skiing & Mountaineering Association (JKSMA), which has played a pivotal role in training and fostering UT's talent since 1975, along with adventure sports experts, are in association with the Tourism Department to develop Doodhpathri's sports prospects.

Hardly 40 km south of the Srinagar city centre, is Yusmarg, a series of wooden meadows in the Pir Panjal range in a wide saucer valley. It is a picturesque recreational site, higher in altitude than Srinagar making it a popular picnic spot. Its artificial reservoir reflecting the firs and pines against the azure sky is perfect for romancing with nature. The visitors usually combine their trip to Char-e-Sharief with a leisurely lazy afternoon at Yusmarg. Trekkers enjoy day trips from here to Doodganga (milk-white water stream) and Nil Nag (blue spring in a thick forest).

Forty-nine km from Srinagar, Bijbehara is an ancient town raised on the banks of Jhelum and known for the intricacy of its trellis-work and production of blankets. It once used to be called Vijaya Para, the City of Victory. Several temples and ziarats dot this city. Lal Ded's (most revered Kashmiri mystic poetess) grave and pond lies in this town. Both Hindus and Muslims pay their respect to her by pouring the first milk of their cows into the pond, and as if in acknowledgement of the offering, the pond's water retains the shape of the pitcher from which the milk was poured.

Bijbehara is also known as the town of Chinars; trees were specially imported from Iran during the Mughal rule to mark this town as a gateway to the Kashmir Valley.

Sonamarg in Kashmir. Photo: Shutterstock Images

Seventy-five km from Srinagar, Kokernag is a botanical garden blooming with roses practically everywhere around a freshwater stream. Koker means cock (male hen) and Nag means stream. The five springs of Kokernag are shaped like the five claws of a cock. A luxuriantly wooded mountain that dramatically rises from the spring is the soul of Kokernag. The stream's water has magical therapeutic properties. Treaded long paths enveloped with wildly growing rhododendrons and trees make it an ideal place to feel alive with nature with the support of one's own thoughts. In the 1980s Kashmir's best roses, aromatic and medicinal plants were grown here.

Eighty kilometre from Srinagar, Verinag is a stunning thickly wooded mountain. Its spring is perennial, never known to have dried up, and a major source of river Jhelum. It bewitches the visitors with its pleasant summer weather, a respite from the city heat. Its deep blue-green water is home to sacred fish. There is an octagonal stone basin at the spring and an arcade surrounding it, erected by Mughal emperor Jahangir in 1620 A.D. A lush garden sits next to the spring. Persian carvings on the wall read: 'This fountain has come from the springs of Paradise'.

'Gurez' or the 'the forsaken land' is a beautiful W-shaped Valley in north Kashmir that is 86 km from Bandipore (123 km from Srinagar) on the Bandipore-Gilgit road. It is a part of the Silk route which went across Kashmir to Gilgit and further to Kashgar. Stone carvings in Brahmi, Hebrew, Tibetan, Kharoshthi, have been found in the valleys in north Gurez. They contain historical information on Kashmir's past. Haramukh, Nanga Parbat, and Shamsabari peaks surround this isolated land which is cut off for five months of winter. The Kishen Ganga passes through Gurez, and downstream along the river are the ruins of the medieval Sharda University. The mighty mountains, blue rivers, rustic hamlets, all make Gurez a dreamland. The locals of Gurez, the Dards, are kind-hearted welcoming people. This enchanting offbeat land can hypnotize one to a state of trance. It's a treat for history and geography lovers.

Aru Valley in Kashmir. Photo: Shutterstock Images

Peace and tranquillity are the USP of all these destinations in Kashmir. The government is working to bring these regions into the limelight especially because 2021 saw a peak in tourism in Kashmir after a decade. Gone are the times when tourism was synonymous with big city wonderland. People are seeking the simplicity of small-town life. The fewer shiny distractions, the chirping of birds, the ivy-green blur, and the connection to nature, are the main attractions of these lesser-known lands hiding there in plain sight. And now that we have discovered these fairytale lands of J&K, our fantasy is complete.

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