Kashmir Trip of April 2013 was our first after 2006 when we explored Kashmir and its experiences thorughly and the entire trip was a bit of an awakening.
Awakening – Just after the Arrival
We spoke about the “Kashmir Situation.” The driver assured us that there is no situation and everything is as normal as anywhere in India. He was right. We didn’t see any security guards, BSF, CRPF for next 10 days that we vacationed there. There was no checking as we rode across the state smoothly.
Another Awakening – Kashmir is 365 days a year destination
Another awakening was that Kashmir can be visited all round the year. There are 4 seasons as Kashmiris put it
- White Season (Snowy Winter) – December to Mid-March
- Yellow Season (Flowering Spring) – Mid-March to Mid-May
- Green Season (Green Summer) – Mid-May to August
- Red Season (When Chinar Trees Turn red) – Autumn – September to Mid-December
Just 50 kms from Srinagar is Gulmarg (9000 ft asl), a renowned ski resort during winter and a holiday resort for the rest of the year. Tangmarg (12 kms) is the base town of Gulmarg and where you can get snow boots on hire. From here the road becomes a bit circuitous and snow peaks started to come closer. There was a lot of snow at Gulmarg even in mid-April. Imposing views of the Mount Affarwat from the town centre captures the essence of Gulmarg and why guests arrive in large numbers all round the year.
Gulmarg Gondola (Cable Car)
There are two phases to Gulmarg Gondola – Phase I (12,000+ ft asl) and Phase II (14,000+ ft asl). Make sure you purchase tickets in advance (through online website) to avoid chaos. Also remember, tickets to Phase I and Phase II have to be bought separately. The cable car at Phase II is the highest cable car in the world. Phase I may seem like another version of Chowpatty and has snow till April end while Phase II lets you travel through the clouds and has snow all round the year except September. Phase I is where tourists will thrive. Phase II is what gives everyone a high. Phase II is where you can actually be at the LoC (Line of control between Indian Kashmir and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir) and the views here are simply stunning.
Gulmarg – Sonamarg Drive
You have to come back to Srinagar before cutting towards Sonamarg (8500 ft asl) (Gulmarg – Sonamarg is about 120 kms). Enroute we visited Manasbal Lake (a large lake with some Shikaras with a quiet garden front) and Kheer Bhawani Temple. However, what caught our attention the most was the yellow mustard fields with a distant snow peak backdrop. We just had to stop several times to take pictures.
Its April, its Spring!
I’ve always heard of terms like Cherry Blossom but saw it for the first time enroute to Sonamarg.
Glacier Trekking at Sonamarg
Thajiwas Glacier in Sonamarg is snow capped all round the year. April is when the roads open and it is accessible. We had to wade through a lot of snow, sledge for a bit before reaching the base of the glacier. We even had our foot stuck a few times. Sonamarg is not only less crowded than Gulmarg but also more rustic. We were told that in summer, Sonamarg turns into a haven for hikers and trekkers and we’d surely want to return for that.
Village Walk at Kullan (Sonamarg)
We stayed at Rah Villas, a nice riverside hotel 16 kms before Sonamarg. Kullan Village around Rah Villas offered a lot of opportunities for village walks. We even went inside local homes and checked out their lifestyle, walked by the river and explored walking trails.
Tulip Festival at Srinagar
On our way to Pahalgam, we stopped over at Srinagar for the Tulip Festival. April (1st April to 25th April) is the spring season and Tulip Festival is organised at Srinagar a la Tulip gardens in Holland. The colours were simply stunning. Since it was a Sunday and locals turned up in large numbers for a picnic
Srinagar to Pahalgam
It’s a busy road till Anantnag (60 kms) and then one cuts into the countryside. We passed through Saffron fields, cricket bat factories, Avantipur Ruins, Matrand Sun Temple and Mattan Sahib Gurudwara.
Lidder Valley and Riverside Pahalgam
Pahalgam (7500 ft asl) is renowned for Trout fishing, rafting, walking, trekking and a riverside experience. River streams flowed past all of Pahalgam and gave the place a character. We were also confronted by the touristy character of Pahalgam. Horse keepers (Ghodawallas) and Pashmina shawl sellers kept bothering us a bit. We decided to play the tourist and take a horse ride to one of the designated points, Baisaran. It is a beautiful valley at 4-5 kms uphill ride. It was a sunny day and entire horse ride offered stunning panorama of the Himalayan views. Baisaran offered activities such as Zorbing and an area for tourists to spend some time marvelling at the views.
Walking and trekking in Pahalgam
We decided to walk downhill from Baisaran, which is a 5 km walk downhill. There are many walking trails, half day and full day trekking routes around Pahalgam and would recommend walking over horses for anyone who loves to walk / hike / soft trek.
Unseasonal snow in Pahalgam
April is not the season it snows in Pahalgam but it did. It was quite an experience to look outside the hotel room window and watch trees getting a white cover.
More valleys, more views, more Snow
Aru Valley and Betaab Valley (where Bollywood movie Betaab was shot) are two view points just few kms from Pahalgam that offer stunning views. You require a local vehicle to visit them. Aru is also base point for many a trekking routes in the area.
Chandanwari at 14 kms from Pahalgam is where road ends and is the start point for the Amarnath Yatra pilgrimage trek in June-August period. Chandanwari in April is covered with snow and guests make a visit for another round of fun with snow.
Back to Srinagar
Nagin-Lake-SrinagarComing back to Srinagar (5000 ft asl) made us realise we were after all city people. We were back to world of cars, traffic, traffic signal etc. We chose to park ourselves at a serene corner of Dal Lake in a houseboat with a large garden.
Houseboat and Old style Kashmiri Hospitality
The trip thus far has had everything except that we hadn’t really had a taste of Kashmiri cuisine. Butt’s Clermont houseboat offered just that. The lake was still and offered some stunning reflection photography opportunities. It was quiet with no other houseboat around. So it offered us some more time in tranquillity before we eventually return to urban chaos.
We were served some Wazwan cuisine dishes (predominantly non vegetarian dishes – mutton and lamb). In my 100,000+ kms of road trips, I haven’t tasted such tender and well made mutton or lamb. Mr. Butt, the owner, spent some time with us sharing history and heritage (Butt’s Clermont Houseboats have been in operation since 1940) and made us feel completely at home. I guess now we realised what Kashmiri hospitality really meant. Genuinely warm, very caring, completely selfless and highly sophisticated. No wonder western travellers love it – in the guest book, we peeked at an Australian lady who had stayed at Butts Clermont Houseboat at 21 different occasions!
Houseboats generally are renowned to offer a very unique style of hospitality known only to Kashmir and we got a complete insight into that thanks to Mr. Butt, his sons and Ramzan kaka (served the houseboat for an incredibly 47 years).
Morning Shikara Ride
The morning Shikara ride took us to visit Floating Garden (Mobile Vegetable garden created on the lake, which could be moved around!), watched some birds and had a lakeside view of the renowned Hazratbal Mosque. We also took some stunning photos of the lake and the lifestyle around (fishermen’s village, local laundrette etc.)
Rest of the Trip
It didn’t matter where we went from here on. Some touristy Mughal Garden, a walk at the touristy Boulevard on Dal Lake, some genuine Pashmina shopping as the trip came to an end.
The trip quashed many myths and gave us a destination that we could visit anytime of the year. Militancy in Kashmir is history. It’s safer than Delhi, Mumbai or any other metros in India. People in Kashmir are extremely hospitable and cleanliness / hygiene etc are given importance in Kashmir. Locals are well educated, cultured and very helpful. There are only a few curvy roads. Roads are good and therefore destinations can be easily travelled to. Himalayan panorama offered by Kashmir is second to none anywhere in India. Kashmir is an all year destination with every season offering different colour, panorama and experience.
The Only blip – If you call that one It’s hard to find liquor in Kashmir. There are only two liquor shops in Srinagar. Culturally drinking liquor is a taboo in Kashmir.
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Lovely pictures on Kashmir….