Financial Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Monday, Sep 16, 2002
Variety - Domestic Travel
A peek into paradise
Uday K. Chakraborty
The idea of visiting Kashmir came to our mind when we were planning to visit some unusual tourist spot. Why not? After all today Kashmir is among the loveliest unusual spots on earth. Naturally our friends and relatives tried to dissuade us to embark on such a `risky' tour. On the other hand, the officials of the tourist department and our known contacts in Kashmir went out of their way to assure that we would not face any problem visiting the State. Eventually, the spirit of exploration overcame all doubts and we reached Jammu, the road-head to the Kashmir Valley.
The journey by road from Jammu to Srinagar is magnificently scenic. The road winds up and down the mountains and passes along gurgling river and picturesque villages. Every new turn provides a new vista. As we crossed the three-km long Jawahar tunnel, the Kashmir valley appeared in all its glory. Pir Panjal mountain range on the left, golden rice and pink saffron fields and those special Chinar trees on both the sides of the road all made it so different and it was a pleasant journey, nevertheless.
We reached Srinagar late in the afternoon. As soon as we had stopped at the famous Dal Gate area, quite a few touts surrounded us, desperately offering cheap houseboat accommodation. Houseboats were moored in long, ragged lines along the fringes of the Dal and Nagin lakes. After a long search for the most fanciful of them all, we found the one we wanted. It was a deluxe houseboat, an epitome of class and luxury, aptly named Kashmir Hilton. In normal times, such a luxury would be quite a strain on my wallet. But, these days owners are ready to give 75 per cent discount without much haggling. Now it is indeed quite affordable to enjoy a stay in these splendid palaces on water.
The lake is also the domain of the shikaras and more modest navs. In the morning, they would bring persistent but, for the most part, humorous merchants plying jewellery, shawls, handicrafts, dry fruit, saffron and glowing papier mache boxes and bric-a-brac. Currently, business is not really booming, but their very presence offers a sense of life and vitality to the proceedings.
This time our plan was to visit those fabled valleys, meadows and lakes outside Srinagar. However, to refresh our memory, we undertook a day-long whirlwind tour of Srinagar, covering the Mughal Gardens, Char Chinari, Hazratbal shrine and other places of interest. Then to get an orientation before our out-of-town excursions, we took a bird's eye view of the city and the valley from the top of Shankaracharya Hill.
Away from the broad expanse of the Central Valley, with Srinagar at its heart, lies the Lidder Valley with the hill resort of Pahalgam at its upper end. While going to Pahalgam, colourful saffron fields of Pampore come first, followed by some of the archaeological ruins of Kashmir's Hindu past, before the Mughal invasion. Kashmir had seen ambitious and competent Hindu rulers. Lalitaditya ruled in the eighth century and to him is ascribed the glorious Sun temple at Martand, now in ruins. Next only to Martand, rank the ruins of the Hindu temples of Avantipura, built by Avantivarman, another great Karkota king, who reigned in the 10th century.
It was indeed heartening to find that Pahalgam has remained Pahalgam. It is still 360-degree picture perfect. After all, nature has given it everything and from all sides. Pahalgam is surrounded by snow-capped mountains and thick pine forests. Studded by beautiful gardens, its other attraction is the gurgling Lidder River. Today, this picture-postcard town is slowly limping back to its golden days. We noticed that its famous Shiva temple (built in local style) was also open for visitors.
On weekends, things are much livelier due to the presence of local visitors, particularly groups of students from local schools and colleges. We found a couple of handloom and handicraft-sellers were out there hawking their wares. A few more shops have opened their shutters and waiting for the renewed tourist influx. However, the pony-wallahs were out in some numbers to give a little bit festive spirit to the atmosphere.
Ascending from the valley are the famous uplands of Kashmir, those stretches of flowery meadows called margs. The drive to Sonamarg is through the spectacular Sind Valley. Sonamarg has, as its backdrop, snowy mountains against a cerulean sky. The Sind River meanders along here and abounds in trout and mahseer. One can trek or take a pony ride for the trip up to `Thajiwas' glacier.
Overwhelmingly, the best known of them is Gulmarg, the `Meadow of Flowers'; a saucer-shaped hollow overhang up in the mountain. The upward climb from Tangmarg was nothing but spectacular. At the end of an ascending, winding road through a pine forest, the rolling downs of Gulmarg open out suddenly, almost miraculously before one's eyes. The unbroken green of the vast meadow is framed by evergreen deodars above which rise the eternally white peaks of snow.
A new addition to Gulmarg's various attractions is a ropeway with top-of-the-class gondola that replaces the earlier chair lift. Operational, several years after installation, it offers the sheer delight of a thrilling ride, a seemingly vertical lift-off over pine forests in the upland. From the vantage points around the upper ridges you can see the entire valley of Kashmir like a doll's village and admire the surrounding mountains. All around there were spectacular vistas of the surrounding mountains and in the distance was the white peak of 8,150-metre high Nanga Parvat. The views would make even the most unemotional spellbound. For us that was Kashmir at its best.
Kashmir's beauty is everywhere. Apart from these well-known haunts, beautiful spots are scattered all over the valley. There are at least 20 other equally interesting destinations. Beyond the normal circuit are waters of Walur, Manasbal and Gandarbal lakes. Then there are Achhabal, Kakarnag, Verinag, Yusmarg, Tangmarg and Lolab Valley. All are exquisitely beautiful places but in Kashmir they are only `nice to include' places in tourist's itinerary. Just consider Tangmarg in any other country, even in the Alpine ones, this charming mountain town would get top billing, but in Kashmir, it's just another beautiful stopover point. That is the extent and depth of Kashmir's beauty.
It is not necessary to be too adventurous to sample the rural charm of the valley. One has only to stray a few kilometres out of the city to find picturesque villages and idyllic spots of unspoilt green with running waters, to refresh and rejuvenate the most tired mind. Between the tiny hamlets, goats, lambs, ducks and chicken amble across the road; and orchards are abloom with apple, cherry, pear and peach trees; and terraced rice paddies are interspersed with vignettes of villagers thrashing rice, chopping woods, or lazily lounging at the side of the road. It gives an impression of rustic paradise in slow motion.
However, it is advisable that outsiders move in a family formation with women and children. Single or a group of males is still not a very welcome presence, to any of the sides involved in the Kashmir situation. During our idyllic holiday, we faced some minor restrictions due to partial availability of logistics and facilities. And, there was hardly any life after dusk anywhere in Kashmir. While security forces are a constant presence everywhere, there was nothing to induce a feeling of danger in our mind. On the other hand, lack of tourists made things less hectic and our stay much more exclusive and pleasurable.
I don't know when Kashmir would fully regain its rightful place in the tourism map of the world. But, for now, it offers a bargain priced paradise for the travellers with a little bit of sense of adventure in them.
How to get there: Direct flight from Delhi or a road journey from Jammu.
When to visit: Mid-April to October is the best season.
Where to stay: There are a few good hotels that are open now. But, the best place to stay are those fantastic houseboats.
Travel etiquette: Be nice and polite. Recent past has not really affected traditional Kashmiri hospitality. But, one must understand that they deserve our understanding and less boisterous behaviour.
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