Landscapes that seem straight out of fairy tales, people who make you feel welcome, and experiences that leave you wanting for more—Kashmir still holds its sway over those bitten by wanderlust. By Japleen Kaur
Kashmir. The bare utterance of the word is cue enough for emotions to run high and debates to follow. But many of the prejudices that form the basis of these heated discussions are proven unfounded for those who’ve seen the Valley with their own eyes. For only when one travels here does one understand why Kashmir is still called jannat or heaven on earth.
Within a short while of our flight taking off from Chandigarh, snow-capped peaks begin to appear beneath us—first the Dhauladhars and then the Pir Panjal ranges. You get a bird’s eye view of the highest mountain of the Indian side of Jammu & Kashmir as well—the twin peaks of the Nun Kun massif. Do remember to try to ask for a seat on the right-hand side of the plane to really savour the sights. The drive from the airport to our base, Fortune Resort Heevan, Srinagar takes us by the breathtaking Dal Lake—a sight that cannot be justified by its pictures. Srinagar has major Mughal influences that is apparent in its many gardens, each more beautiful than the other. I stroll through Shalimar Bagh for a good hour, gazing at the fountains, marvelling at the variety of tulips and other flowers, the detailing on the walls, and the looming mountains behind.
The Boulevard Road runs by the Dal Lake and is the most happening place in Srinagar, which also offers some of the best sunset views. The price for the shikaras or wooden house boats that ply on the lake varies, but you can wrestle in a good bargain. We manage to strike a deal for INR3,500 for a shikara to the floating market. Large houseboats with smiling locals greet us, selling a range of traditional items. I buy a couple of the famous Kashmiri shawls, feran (a warm attire worn by women), and stoles from the floating market. The products are slightly overpriced, but you can bargain or take the help of your shikara guide to help you out with the best deals. The sky soon turns pink with the fading light falling on the faraway mountains of Gulmarg, while numerous other shikaras in different colours and sizes line up beside ours, selling tea, coffee, jewellery, cloth materials, and more. A sunset like that is worth every penny.
Later in the evening, I set out to explore the popular hangout zones of youngsters in Srinagar. There is a growing culture of cafes and coffee shops. A Game of Thrones-inspired eatery called Winterfell seems to be the most popular. The decor is inspired from the popular show and the smoothies are absolutely yummy. Books and Bricks Cafe has a good number of people chatting over a cuppa. But the best part of the night for me was to find a girl sitting alone and reading—a rare sight, considering the societal restrictions in the region. It is a relief to see that change, slow but surely, is coming.
The next morning, I wake up early to visit the downtown area of the city. The old homes and mosques here sport traditional architecture that make for picturesque photo ops. A walk here is an adventure for all photographers. The Shah-e-Hamdan mosque stands in all its glory right in the middle of the area. The men pray in the main hall, and the women are assigned a separate area at the back. The green of the building stands out against the dark grey sky. The market is already crowded with locals preparing their shops for the day’s business. Here, one can shop for Kashmiri dry fruits, silverware used during weddings, fabric, and charming artefacts to take back home.
After a fantastic tour of the old city and an impromptu photo walk, I head to Hazratbal Dargah, one of the most famous Muslim shrines in Kashmir. The white mosque houses Moi-e-Muqadas, a relic that is believed to be of a strand of Prophet Muhammad’s hair. This place thus, holds a lot of historical and religious importance for followers from near and far. Sit in the gardens right in front of the shrine to admire its gorgeousness and soak in the surrounds. As a person who’s been forever chasing sunsets, next I head to Pari Mahal for the day’s visual treat. It is an old, abandoned palace in Srinagar that is now a tourist spot. Perched on top of the Zabarwan mountain range with the valley lying sprawled below, this is a great spot for capturing a splendid time lapse.
A short yet fulfilling stay in Srinagar ends with a hearty meal of haleem, biryani, kebabs, rogan josh, and other local delights at the resort, which instantly makes me feel at home from the moment we step up, thanks to the generous staff. As I pack to leave for Pahalgam the next morning, I can’t help but spend one last hour at the tiny library of the resort to get a quick read before I retire for the day.
The drive to Pahalgam from Srinagar is lovely, with the landscape turning greener and the temperature edging lower. Green meadows with horses grazing, tiny bridges across flowing streams, kids playing around, flowers lining the fields, and snowy mountains everywhere you turn—Pahalgam did look like heaven to me at that moment. Amidst all the natural beauty, sits the Welcomhotel Pine-n-Peak. This resort is comparatively bigger with cottages and duplex rooms for families. After checking in, I promptly sit down with the General Manager to chalk out a rough itinerary for the day. Sabzar Sofi, one of the staff members is our guide for this leg of our Kashmir trip, who by the end of it becomes a friend.
The first item on the agenda is a visit to the famous Betaab Valley, named after the Bollywood film, Betaab that was extensively shot here. The house in the film still stands for everyone to take a look at. Then there are the green pastures with tall pine trees around for people to take lazy strolls or try horse-riding. As we keep driving further up, we spot majestic griffons by the side of the road. My next halt is at Chandarwani—the base camp and starting point of the Amarnath Yatra, as well as many other treks in the Valley, including the alpine lake treks of Tulian and Sheshnag. Here you can try sledging or simply walk amidst surreal sceneries. Lidder Valley is another meadow higher up on the same trail that adventure enthusiasts can embark on.
Next stop is the tiny Himalayan Cheese factory, or better say a shack, run by a foreign national who trains locals the art of making cheese, jams, pickles, and etcetera. Samples of nettle cheese, plum jam, garlic-flavoured cheese and curry leaf cheese make their way inside my bag post this visit. One needs prior permission to experience the process.
A visit to Pahalgam isn’t complete without a round at the splendid golf course there, with forest on one side and the mountains on the other. A golf cart ride here costs you INR800. The place is also a favourite spot among wedding photographers for pre-wedding photoshoots. Next up is the Mamleshwar Temple that has a hot water spring and a Shiva linga adorned with gold. This rock temple is a much revered pit-stop for all the pilgrims of the Amarnath Yatra. After a packed day outdoors, I finally sit down to a traditional Kashmiri wazwan experience at the resort. A multi-course meal, it comes with several gravies, including haak and Kashmiri dum aloo, a treat for vegetarians in a meat-dominated cuisine. Served with rice, the dishes in a wazwan are prepared by the method of slow cooking and are thus easy to digest, even when you devour a lot.
The last day of the trip is reserved for a place that truly deserves all the attention it’s been getting lately—Aru Valley. Colourful slanted-roof houses clustered together in one part of the valley, while the rest is open, free for untamed animals to roam around, and for a river to flow through. There is a trail that takes you on a short hike to higher meadows, where you’ve to pinch yourself to believe that it is all real. In a list of places that leave you speechless, Aru sure deserves top spot. The kind people at the resort prepare a picnic lunch to have here, and all my childhood Enid Blyton dreams come alive. Though, be mindful of the crows that may try to fly away with a piece of your muffin!
It takes a while for the surreal magnificence and the warm hospitality of Kashmir and its people to sink in, but once you go there, no other place will seem quite as memorable.
Direct flights ply to Srinagar from New Delhi, Jammu, and Chandigarh. Connecting flights operate from various other cities. For driving enthusiasts, a road trip is highly recommended from Jammu (266 km) with fantastic roads and splendid views.
December through February is the best time to visit Kashmir for snowfall. The spring months, March to May, are also pleasant.
Couples and families.
For your Srinagar leg of the journey, choose from a range of rooms and suites at Fortune Resort Heevan, Srinagar. Starts from INR10,200.
In Pahalgam, WelcomHotel Pine-n-Peak offers premium rooms and suites overlooking the picturesque valley. Starts from INR15,300.
The best way to explore Srinagar and its surrounds are with a shikara ride. One can even stay the night on these wooden boats and watch the evening sky cast a spell.