Kashmir - July 2011 (Srinagar, Gulmarg, Pahalgam)

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August 14th 2011
Published: August 14th 2011
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13th May – This is the day it all started. Somehow the day happened to be Friday the 13th and we faced one of the situations in life that we did not like. But rather than being depressed with it, we decided to look at it from a positive point of view. One of the things we did was plan a holiday. We started off with a driving holiday in New Zealand but gave that up since it was likely to be cold and we would have a problem taking 12-14 days off. We tried Greece but faced a similar situation where we could not cover what we wanted to in 6-7 days. That’s when we thought of Kashmir. It was closer to home and we could do a lot over 6-7 days. The only issue was the rains hitting Kashmir during that period. We looked up on the Internet but there was very little information available in terms of the weather. Very few people seemed to have visited Kashmir and shared their experiences. We did manage to find that rains hit Kashmir mostly after 15th July. So we planned our trip around the 1st week of July knowing that the reliability of the weather forecast was fairly low.

Over the next month and a half, we planned out travel and stay arrangements. During this period, we also found the company of Dimple’s niece and her husband joining us for the trip.

1st July – I had to endure some helter-skelter activity in office since my leaves were about to begin. The guilt trip was sinking in that I would be out of office for a whole week and the apprehension of some trouble creeping up while I am not around. We spent the evening partying and were able to complete our packing only late into the night.

2nd Jul- We took the 8:40 AM Spice Jet flight from Delhi to Srinagar. The weirdos of Spice Jet put us up on the 29th row without allowing us a choice. Anyway, since this was the beginning of the trip everything was acceptable I guess. We reached Srinagar is an hour and a half. The first impression of Srinagar was that of a sleepy town but once we hit the market area chaos ensued. The chaos continued till we reached Nigeen Lake. The first look of Nigeen lake seemed to suggest that this place could be Geneva but unfortunately us Indians have done our bit to ensure that it is dirty enough to remind you that it is not. We had a shikara (the traditional kashmiri boat) waiting for us to take us to our houseboat. Once the boatman started rowing the dim sounds of the oars hitting the water was like music to the ears. As we approached the other side of the lake, we could see a number of houseboats lined up. They all seemed to be old and run down from the outside. We disembarked in our houseboat, called Mascot One, a little while later. Once we got off the Shikara and into our houseboat, we were stunned by the spectacular interiors of the houseboat. The first impression of the houseboat really takes you by surprise. Since it was almost lunchtime, we asked for the menu to order lunch. The available menu was like any other restaurant. However the cook coaxed us to have the normal vegetarian thali with the assurance that we could have it free of cost if we did not like it. Well, I must say we paid and that too gladly. Post lunch, we took a shikara again to the other side of the lake where our taxi was waiting. By then we had befriended the Shikara guy and he narrated us a number of things about Kashmir. We also got to know his version of problems in Kashmir. Once we were on the other side, we took the taxi to the Shankaracharya temple. This temple is on top of a hill. It is a Shiva temple where Adi Shankaracharya had meditated. One has to climb about 225 steps to get to the temple. The view from the temple of the town was vivid. Unfortunately photography is prohibited here. We then went to the Chasmashahee garden. We figured out that actually there is no garden called Mughal Garden. There are a number of such gardens like Nishad, Shalimar, etc all of which were built by the Mughals and are collectively called as the Mughal Garden. We chucked the remaining gardens because there was too much of a crowd owing to the weekend. We then went to the local dargah. We took a drive around the Dal Lake while getting to the dargah. The views of the lake were quite magnificent. In another life, this place could have beaten Geneva & Zurich. In the evening, we went to Lal chowk, the local market area. We met one of the local shopkeepers here who really poured his heart out to us. The sense of insecurity, the sense of not being considered Indian, the fact that they feel so unsafe in their own homeland is disheartening. Listening to them actually makes you realize that our troubles are meaningless in front of what these guys have been going through over the past few years. The evening was spent over dinner with Yaseen, our tour organizer, who had similar stuff to tell but was much more positive. However there was enormous consistency between the version of the boatman, the shopkeeper and Yaseen of the problem. The basic issue seems to be emanating from the corruption at every level of the government machinery. Guess we have the same problems in Haryana. However given that we lead a parallel life that is driven by the fact that we have been lucky enough to have been able to earn a decent living for ourselves allows us to ignore the rot in the society. These guys all opine that the only way they see the rot to end is in a civil war. It is quite uncanny and unnerving. However in our little way we can help by making a difference to the life of these guys by sending more tourists here. With higher incomes, the people may actually be able to get over their troubles. Also this place is so blessed and pretty that it can actually be the tourism capital of the county once again. The people of this place are also very tourist friendly. I even had the boatman following up with me to ensure he was there at the lakefront when the taxi arrived. And once you get to the houseboat, specially on the deck, you can actually forget everything and just be with nature is its true glory.

3rd July – Well, I woke up listening to the sounds of birds chirping. We got ready and left for Sonamarg. One of the lessons that we learnt was not to travel towards Sonamarg from 1st July to 15th Aug. The pilgrimage to Amarnath is on during this period and the number of people taking that route is not funny at all. We left around 9 Am and managed 15kms in 2 hours before we finally hit a dead end. There was a massive traffic jam and we learnt that it was unlikely to clear off in a hurry. So we had to dropped our Sonamarg plan and traveled towards Mashbal Lake. Mashbal lake has a feel of Lake Windermere in Lake District, UK. The only thing was that it was dirtier. But it was fairly picturesque. After spending a couple of hours, we traveled back to Srinagar in time for lunch. On out way back we saw people still stuck up in traffic towards Sonamarg. We headed to Ahdoos in Srinagar for Lunch. I had Rista & Tabak Maz for lunch amid the glares of my vegetarian co-travellers. Post lunch we headed back towards our houseboat. We spent the afternoon lazing around the garden of the owners of the house boats, the Tuman Family. While I headed back to the houseboat for a while, my wife headed towards the souvenir shop of Shauqat Tuman. She returned after doing some serious damage to travel budget. But guess will have to book those expenses under her birthday budget. I too did go in there and spotted a silk carpet. It was simply outstanding. I didn’t buy it since the size I wanted would have costed 78K. But I would remember that piece and will probably be one of the reasons to come back here. We spent the rest of the evening on the deck of the houseboat looking at the lake and the Kashmir skyline. While I have not been to Geneva or Zurich yet, I guess this place would not be too far from it. Post dinner, we retired a little early since we wanted to have a very early start to the day.

4th July – Woke up at 12 AM and wished my lady a very happy birthday. Also gave her the bag which I had bought for here and had managed to get it till here without letting her know. We woke up again at 4 AM and went with the boatman on a 1.5 hr ride to the floating vegetable and flower market. We had our cups of tea on the Shikara. It was quite a luxurious experience. It was quite astonishing indeed with hundreds of people transacting their business on their boats. Apparently this market has been in existence for the last 400 yrs. We did buy some chocolates and flowers. They say that the type of chocolate we bought is found only in Kashmir or Germany. We came back listening to the stories of our boatman. We nicknamed him Wiki since he seemed to have unverified information about everything that happens in here. We got back to our houseboat and had a heavy breakfast and just lazed around on the boat. We went with Shauqat, our host, to see his other houseboats. His oldest houseboat, New Mascot, was built in 1930. We were told that this boat is now up for repairs. Unfortunately they have not been able to begin work on them due to the redtapism of the beurecracy. It would take them 3 years to rebuild this boat as and when they are allowed to rebuild it. Guess this is the state of the whole country. Anyway, we had lunch on the deck of the houseboat post which we bid adieu to Shauqat and his family. They also surprised my wife with a birthday gift. We then handed over the reins to Mama, our driver and guide, to take us to Gulmarg. It is about 2 hours from Srinagar. We slept like a log on our way. When I woke up, I saw the landscape having changed altogether. Meadows and rice fields were suddenly replaced by hilly roads and tall chinar trees. We stopped by at a couple of view points and clicked away to glory. The landscape is amazing. It has to be seen to be believed. The trees, the mountains, some snow capped ones, streams..aah you name it, this place has it. And then we entered Gulmarg. The first sight of the place took our breath away. We stopped by at the “Jai Jai Shiv Shankar” temple. Unfortunately there were too many horsemen bugging you here. But nonetheless, it was quite a pretty sight. We finally checked in Hotel Highland Park. This hotel is supposed to be the best in Gulmarg. However we did not find the hotel half as good as the one we were staying in Srinagar. The dinner was also nothing to write home about. The temperature was fairly ambient when we had reached. However it did drop sharply in the night and was fairly cold. I was using a jacket to warm myself but then the bright idea of asking for an Old Monk stuck me. We had thought we would retire early to bed. But then, you know what happens when you ask for a couple of old monks to warm you up.

5th July – Got ready around 9 and headed for the breakfast. The breakfast was downright bad. They even managed to screw up the aloo paratha. We managed to take our fill with toasts, eggs and bananas. During the morning, we actually had a good view of the hotel. While I did not like the hotel per se, the view from the hotel was great. Post breakfast, we had mama to take us to the Gondola Ride. The gondola ride is said to be the highest in the world. It is split into two phases. The first phase takes you to about 10000 ft and the second phase takes you to the top at about 13000 ft. Mama had arranged for our tickets to be picked up and we ushered into the boarding chamber of the gondola as soon as we arrived. The views from the gondola were spectacular to say the least. We reached the top of the mountain and took boots and waterproof jackets on hire since it was getting cloudy. After hiking up a while, the little icicles that were absolutely uniform in size started hitting us. It was an amazing sight. Notwithstanding the pouring icicles from the sky, the guys wanting us to take the sledge ride were bugging us out of our wits. But none of us were in the mood to avail their services. It is something like a hand pulled rickshaw of Kolkata. The sledge requires couple of men to push you up the hill from where you can slide down. It is kind of inhuman. So we decided to give it a skip. Instead we hiked up our way climbing over boulders. We had reached somewhere around the middle of the hill when we met up skiers who offered us a ski ride. They started quoting Rs. 1200 per person. We managed to negotiate it down to Rs. 500 per person. The ski ride was quite amazing. They took us parallel to the ground across the hill to the other side where there was complete solitude with the four of us and the skiers. The landscape was just out of a postcard. We spent 15-20 mins there. While conversing with the ski riders, we came to know that they are champion skiers themselves. One of them called Mushtaq held the record for skiing down 5.5 Km down to Gulmarg in 6 mins flat. The conversation drifted towards the hard times that they had faced. Maybe if they had the opportunity, they could have represented India for the Winter Olympics!! They have had the misfortune of being born in a strife torn region and time. There was a time when they could not go out beyond 7-8 in the evening and were always living under the threat from the army as well as the militants. This frustration of not being able to live a normal life, have normal education, a regular income drives 18 yr olds to insanity. They were ruing the fact that had things been normal between India and Pakistan, we could have trekked to the other side of the hill and reached Pakistan within 4-5 hrs and could have had the best Cricket Team in the world. We were told that the area across the hill is prohibited and is manned by 1200 Indian forces. That makes you actually ponder about the plight of those soldiers as well guarding our borders in such extreme conditions. Anyway, we skied back to the place where we had started. On the way, I fell on the snow a couple of times. Well, it was cold to say the least!! We descended down the boulders and returned out jackets and boot to the guy from whom we had rented it for Rs. 150 each. We then took the Goldola back to the first base where we walked over to the little shacks for lunch since lunch at Highland Park was not an exciting thought. We got back to the hotel at around 4, the whole trip having taken us about 5 hrs. Although we were staying the night at Highland Park, we could have actually got back to Srinagar the same evening. There is not much to do in Gulmarg after that. We spent the evening playing scrabble sprawled out in the grass. Dinner was at the Highland Park itself and we were ruing staying back in Gulmarg even more then since the dinner was absolutely lousy. I will post the conversations with the waiters as a postscript. I plan to actually go on to Tripadvisor and screw the daylights out of the hotel. I don’t know how bad the other hotels are in Gulmarg but Highland Park is definitely not worth the money that they charge.

======Review of the Highland Park Restaurant===========

During Dinner we are held out two slips of paper. We wonder what they are. We see one of them is a Veg Menu and the other one is a Non Veg Menu. Oh, they are for your information only since the Menu is fixed.
The veg menu consisted of Spinach soup, 2 veg dishes, dal, roti & rice. Well the Spinach soup was supposed to have only spinach and was not supposed to be contaminated with salt. The non veg menu had a chicken tandoor and some mutton curry which was downright bad.
The breakfast menu had aloo parathas which were deep fried and were filled with a tasteless aloo masala. We were convinced that salt must be an expensive proposition here. The dinner of the second day had chicken curry and mutton rogan josh. When a Kashmiri restaurant screws up on Mutton Roganjosh, they can pretty much screw up anything.
The day we were leaving, we actually thought we must pass on the feedback to the waiters. Some of the conversations went on like this..
Q – What is there for breakfast today?
A – What was there for breakfast yesterday.
(And we are presented curd in the same dish that was presented the previous day with remnants of curd on the side of the dish which certainly didn’t look fresh)
Q – Why is there no salt in the aloo paratha
A – Since nobody asks for salt. (Maybe we were the only fools on the planet living on salt)
We finally gave up on the waiters and decided to walk out before we lost our minds


6th July – Post the horrible breakfast and the painful experience of paying for shoddy service, we finally left at around 10 AM. We were definitely late and got caught up in maddening traffic on our way to Pahalgam. In between there was some chaos in my office that took a couple of hours to resolve over the mails and phone. The traffic proved the decision to stay back in Gulmarg worse than it already was. After we had crossed Srinagar and the traffic, we stopped by at Noor Mohd’s shop and bought Saffron, Walnut, Kashmiri Raisins, etc and a cup of Kahwa and proceeded towards Pahalgam. Our trusted driver, Mama, took us through some villages to help us beat the traffic coming from Jammu towards Pahalgam for the Amarnath Yatra. Oh, by the way we got to know on our way that Mama’s real name was Ghulam Ahmad and he is being called Mama in the whole region for the last 30 yrs. Mama seemed to be a very known person in the area and he was frequently being waved to as we entered Pahalgam. We checked into Pahalgam Hotel. As soon as we entered the hotel, we knew that it would be a welcome change from Highland Park. It had taken in 5.5 hrs from Gulmarg to Pahalgam and we were hungry as hell. We were ushered into the restaurant immediately while the buffet was still on - way beyond its usual time. The food was awesome and we hogged as if we had come from Somalia. After lunch we went into our rooms. The rooms were large and spacious with a great view of the Lidder flowing by. We spoke to the receptionist and found that the places to go to from here were Aru Valley, Betaab Valley, Dabian, Baisaran & Kashmir Valley. The last 3 have to be reached by ponies and they charge about Rs. 500 per person for the trip. It takes about 4 hours to go and come back. Since it was almost 4 PM, we decided to first go to Aru Valley. We hired a local cab for Rs. 750 to go there. There is a rule in the city where taxis other than local ones are not allowed to ply to these sightseeing locations. Aru Valley is a nice little patch of green meadow surrounded by the hills. To get to the meadow you have to either hike up the hill or take a pony from the sleepy village below. We decided to hike up. The place was quite picturesque but was littered with horseshit with no one to clean it. Anyway, after doing some photo sessions we got down and came back to the hotel. The evening was spent over a game of scrabble post which we had dinner. The Pahalgam Hotel staffs were quite hospitable and the food was excellent. We called it a day post another game of scrabble.

7th July – I woke up at 7 Am due to the sounds of the helicopters ferrying the amaranth yatris. Since all my fellow travelers were still dozing, I went down for a walk by the stream below. I spent some time being with myself listening to the sounds of the stream. I got back to the hotel at about 9 AM and woke up the others. Unfortunately, it started to rain by the time we got ready to leave so we were stuck up in the hotel. With nothing else to do, the game of scrabble came to our rescue again. Dimple was quite done in with the horseshit and refused to take a pony ride. So we dropped the locations that were to be visited by the pony. All of these locations are green meadows that could have been muddy due to the rain. From the Kashmir Valley, one can actually see the whole Kashmir Valley. However with the overcast sky I am not sure how much would have been visible. With these thoughts to console myself, we headed off for Betaab Valley post lunch. Well, the name of the valley is quite ingenuous. It takes its name from the movie Betaab in which Sunny Paaji starred. It is a large meadow next to the Lidder stream. While the place is quite nice and picturesque to spend some time, there is not much to do here except walking around. So after spending a little time we got back to the hotel and back to the scrabble. While there was a buffet laid out for dinner, I chose to have the Trout & Chips from the Trout Beat restaurant. It is a must try for all fish eaters. So we had a fairly uneventful day. I guess this is how the holidays should end rather it being too hectic throughout.

8th July – We left Pahalgam post breakfast and headed back to Srinagar. On our way, we had lunch at Krishna Dhaba in Srinagar and then checked into Vivanta by Taj. It is quite an awesome property with great views of the Dal Lake. We spent the afternoon and evening in the lawns overlooking the lake. We opted for the buffet dinner at the Taj which had a great sread. Overall Vivanta is a nice property. But I guess I am not the kind of a person who would be able to spend more than a day here.

9th July – We left our hotel post breakfast and headed back to the airport to catch our flight back home. We had been warned that we needed to have at least 2 hrs in our hand by the time we get to the airport which could allow enough time for the security. I must add here that the security process is very lengthy and one needs to have enough time on hand to endure the process. We bid adieu to our trusted Mama who had been such a great help in showing us around Kashmir with the hope that we come back to see more of Kashmir soon.

This single visit was just not enough to be able to do justice to Kashmir. We will have to go there again. In this visit, we saw the Green colour of Kashmir. I want to go back there when the colour is white. That would happen sometime in the month of January. Gulmarg is known as a skiing destination. So I am sure it would be fun. Also, I heard some good properties are coming up in the month of August. So one would not have to be limited with the choice of Highland Park. Also, one should not ever travel to Kashmir between 29th June to 13th August – give or take a few days – due to the Amarnath yatra. The ideal short trip to Kashmir would be something like this.
Day1: Reach Srinagar. Do local sightseeing. Of course stay at the Mascot Houseboat.
Day2: Day trip to Sonamarg. Come back for the night to Srinagar. Try to leave as early as one can
Day3: Day trip to Gulmarg. Go straight for the Gondola ride and get back to Srinagar for the night. There is not much to do in Gulmarg and the main hotel there, Highland Park, pretty much sucks.
Day 4/5 & 6: Leave Srinagar for Pahalgam. Stay there for 2-3 days. Stay at Hotel Pahalgam. Visit Aru Valley and Betaab Valley by Taxi. Take a pony ride to Kashmir Valley. Also can do a day trip to Chandanwadi.
Day 7: Take a flight back home
There are a number of other trek routes in and around Srinagar. I will post about them when I get there the next time.
One last word about the arrangements – Yaseen’s arrangements was out of the world as is his houseboat. I do not know about the other houseboat since I did not visit them personally but Yaseen’s houseboat was truly amazing. You can reach Yaseen on (0)9419005714 or ytuman@mascottravels.com
So till the time we get to plan our travel bags again, bbyye..

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