Kashmir Trip

Kashmir – arguably the most beautiful place on earth and ironically, the least visited. So much beauty that we found it difficult to appreciate in our week long trip. Alas, for us city dwellers, we could spare only that much time. We were mesmerized by it. And it was not even the best month to go.  I wonder how much more attractive it would be during the winter months, when everything from mountains to trees to roads wear the snow blanket.
When we arrived in Srinagar late afternoon, we had just sufficient time to capture the most famous of Mughal Gardens – Shalimar Bagh in all it’s glory.
With the stunning Chinar, it was love at first sight; never has a tree looked more attractive. For us Bangaloreans, Lalbagh, Brindavan Gardens and Ooty Botanical Gardens is what has set the benchmark. Mughal Gardens is taking it to the next level altogether. The trees start shedding their leaves at this time making the garden even more colorful.
Next day, Sonamarg was on agenda – about two hour drive from Srinagar. In the mountains, it gets chilly in second half of the day leaving a short day for outdoors. To make the best of it, we decided to start early at 9 am. Many of the roads in Kashmir, as is this, are accompanied by small rivers making the ride a beautiful affair.
The main attraction in Sonamarg is Glacier, about 7 km from the main road. Few trek, most ride pony – either way takes about an hour. Negotiating for a pony is serious business. They’ll start by quoting around Rs 2,500 for the return journey which is way more than the regular Rs 1,000 rate. Season rate (Summers) is even lower at Rs 700.
At this time, snow is only on mountain top. The trek goes uphill and downhill through splendid meadows giving glimpse of magnificent snow covered mountains. Sonamarg gets heavy snow in winters and is closed post November. There are only a handful of hotels and restaurants here, no market. Sonamarg is also the point from where the Amarnath Yatra starts – about 15 km uphill. Last pony is at 3 pm.
Gulmarg is the most popular place in this region with adventure being the theme. The valley is attractive. The big thing to do here is Gondola ride, the highest cable car in the world. There are two phases – first one is a 9 min ride to the foothills, and second one is 18 min to the top, Rs 300 and Rs 500 each. Unfortunately, the second phase was temporarily closed due to some technical snag. We reached the foothills via 1st phase in an hr due to heavy rush. There’s some tough trek to reach the snow. We saw plenty come down slipping from top, though with low height it doesn’t hurt much. There’s beginner’s skiing available which we decided to skip having done the full course a few years back. The return was a bit lousy with us spending one and half hr in line.

Pahalgam is a nice, quiet town located 2 hrs from Srinagar in a beautiful valley. Instead of going to Anantnag, we took a shortcut via Srigufwara. The drive is via Saffron and Apple fields. We stopped by at one place and got us some real Saffron – at Rs 200/gm, it feels like buying gold! Then we passed by apple fields. We plucked a few from the trees and packed a box. Kashmir apples are as juicy as they get.

There are 3 places of interest here – Chandanwari, Betaab Valley and Aru Valley.
Chandanwari is the most popular, scenic spot 15 km from Pahalgam. At this time, there’s only nominal snow along the foothills. There’s a big glacier here. This is as close to Amarnath Shrine you get to via a vehicle. Yatra starts from here too, about 30 km trek. As it happens often here, it suddenly became chilly and started raining, so we left after half an hr.
Betaab Valley is on the way to Chandanwari. It got its name by Hindi movie Betaab  of which a significant part was shot here. Earlier, it was named Hajan Valley, they changed it after the movie was released!
It’s located perfectly besides a stream, surrounded by snow covered mountains amid gorgeous colorful Willow trees. Tons of people come here for bountiful sun. The water here comes from the hills and is very chilly. It’s so clear, you’re tempted to taste it a bit. Locals actually drink it directly from the stream.
Aru Valley is probably the  most beautiful spot in Kashmir; the road leading to it is equally alluring We decided not to take pony and instead explore the beauty on foot.
We spent couple of hours just idling, climbing up and down, admiring the nature. We also met a few locals who were collecting woods for the winter season when everything gets covered by many feet of snow. It is also trekker’s paradise – start climbing from here and reach Sonamarg on the other side of the mountains in 3 days flat, no kidding! The main market at Pahalgam is good with plenty of local art shops selling shawls, suits and wooden artifacts. Its open till 9 pm, but gets very chilly in evening.
We returned to Srinagar to enjoy the magical Dal lake. With a said 26 km circumference, Dal is one of the biggest lakes in India and has a monumental significance in Srinagar. The Mughal Gardens, the market, the hotels – all are around Dal. It seems Srinagar lives off it. No trip to Kashmir is complete without Houseboat stay on Dal, and rightly so. Ours was a 3 bedroom one, shared with two other families, with a drawing room, kitchen and dining room! All the houseboats are anchored, and you travel via Shikara. We enjoyed the 3 hr long Shikara ride which took as around Dal and the floating market inside Dal. You hop onto shops and back to shikara, just like that! To make things easier, there were Shikara vendors selling ice cream, shawls and even vegetables and memory cards. Could it get more hi-tech than this!
Dal is also one of the cleanest lakes, without any typical stagnant water smell.
Later in the evening, we went to Nishat Garden, another of Mughal Gardens. You get awesome views of Dal lake from here. One of things I liked about Kashmir is nice roads. Being a hilly area is not an excuse for bad roads. Full marks to J&K govt for it. I wish more destinations are well maintained.
Except Sonamarg, the rates for all sightseeing  activities were fixed, prominently displayed at all places, be it pony ride or hiring a vehicle or shikara. This prevents tourists from getting ripped off, like in so many other destinations.
Also, there were plenty of army men on the roads, almost one every 100 m or so, reminding you of the fragile nature of the place while making you feel safe.
We had an awesome time in Kashmir and plan to return a few years later, although this time it’ll be before the onset of summer season to enjoy the snow, and skiing.