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Published: August 18th 2005
I last left you in Rajasthan, as I was taking a night train out of Bikaner and to Amritsar. I had spent 3 weeks in the dry state of Rajasthan and so as I woke up the following morning to the tune of the moving train my eyes nearly fell out when I look at all the green fields on the state of Punjab. They have build an extensive irrigation network in this state and as such is one of the green belts of India.
After a long train ride, I arrived to Amritsar, a large city in the state of Punjab. It is famous for the beautifully decorated Golden Temple complex in the center of town. The Golden Temple is the hollyest place for the Sikh religion. The Sikh faith is an interesting one. They share many characteristics with both the Hindu and the muslims. Guru Nanak (1469-1539) founded the religion in Sultanpur, a town in what is now Pakistan. He was a wise man who studied many of the religions of his time. Following his traditions, a series of Guru's, wise men, continued on directing the state of this religion. This came to an end when
Guru Gobind Singh wrote the holly Guru Granth scriptures, which detail the right path of live for all Sikhs. Ever since, the Sikhs have followed the scriptures in all matters. It acts like their bible or koran if you will. One of the destinctions, at least for male sikhs, is their turbans, which are worned inside and folded around in a circle. Their religion forbids them to cut their hair so they use the turban to hold it all together.
Entering the Golden Temple complex with my heavy bags, I made my way across the complex and settled in at the foreigners dormitories at Guru Ram Das Saraj. An interesting note of the Sikhs is that they welcome people from all faiths and walks of life at all times offering them shelter, food, and more for free, though donations are accepted of course.
As I started touring the place, I borrowed a head scarf and placed it over my head. It's a requirement for members of both genders to cover their heads before entering the main shrine. My stomage felt hungry by now so I took a detour and walked towards the food hall. I joined hudreds of
pilgrims on grabing the cooking ware and then seating in rows. Once we sat down, a few volunteers brought out lunch: dal (lentils) and chapati. It was a very basic lunch, indeed, but as it was free you couldn't complain. To be honest, I went in more for the spirituality of the place then for the food. Sitting amongst the many pilgrims made me a part of their experience.
I entered the main temple complex, Amritsar Sarovar, and walked around the man made lake in a clockwise fashion. The lake is a holly pilgrimage site for Sikhs. Many bath and cleanse themselves at the waters. They believe that by doing so they will recieve the full blessing as if they had visited all the 68 hindu holly sites of bathing. In the center of the lake lays the Golden Temple (Harmandir) itself. The walk down the narrow bridge is time consuming as thousands of pilgrims visit it each day. Once I made my way thru the lines, I reached the entrance and I was surprisingly allowed inside the premises. The Interior is lavishly decorated with beautiful murals. Inside, you can see people praying and chanting the day away. It's
trully a spiritual place.
As it was still early on the day and I didn't want to waste time, I took a bus to Wagha, a town on the Indian side of the Indian-Pakistan border. The purpuse of my visit was to witness the ceremonious lowering of the flags, which is performed daily by soldiers of each country. As predicted, the ceremony is full of tension and scorn on both sides. The flags are meisiously lowered at the same time so as neither one of them is lower then the other one. It's quite spectacular to say the least. Unfortunately, there is a huge crowd of local tourist, who with their nationalistic pride, come to visit the site each day. As such it is so packed that it becomes unbearable. I managed to get there just in time so I had to squeez between the crowds until I found the right spot up on one of the balconies.
I returned to the Golden Temple in Amritsar just in time for the evening puja ceremony and chantings. The temple is more beautiful at night as the golden walls are illuminated and are also reflected on the crystal clear water.
Definitly makes for a nice picture!
I left the next morning towards Jammu, in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The scenery just got greener and more beautiful, which is ironic as the region has fallen into political and military instability due to the ongoing fight and debate between India, Pakistan, and the guerilla movements of the region as to who owns the Valley of Kashmir. The tension in the city of Jammu intensified with a series of Terrorist attacks back in 2002. The Pakistani guerilla targeted several Hindu temples and were successful in detonating several bombs. Remenants of that incident are still seen today.
The town doesn't offer much to the tourist to be honest. The hotels are cater to business man and as such are quite expensive. Nevertheless, I did had to spend the day here as my bus to Kashmir didn't left until tomorrow. Ideally though, I wished I had arrived on a later train/bus with a pre-purchased bus ticket for the following morning. That way I wouldn't have had to spend the day killing time in Jammu. Incidently, for those finishing the overland loop thru the mountains - from Manali to Leh to Srinigar
to Jammu - i'd advice you that you are best off reserving a train ticket in advance for the same night of arrival in Jammu (you can reserve train tickets at the Turist Office in Srinigar) so as avoiding a stay in this boring town altogether.
My first stop for today was at Raghunath Temple. It has a series of rooms with over 1,000 stones and dozens of statues, including the one for Rama, the temple's main deity. This temle is supposed to be one of the largest in northern India. The compound is heavily guarded as a bomb was detonated here back in 2002. You can't bring in electronics, camera, lighters, etc etc etc. I then visited the smaller temple of Rambiresvar, which is dedicated to Siva. Walking down back thru the bazar, I was attracted to several shops selling fresh nuts and dried fruit from Kashmir. This bazar was the first time I came across shops selling Pashmina Shawls, which are made out of Pashmina wool. The Pashmina wool comes from the beard of the pashmina goat. Their long beard is harnesed and made into soft warm wool. A pure Pashmina Shawl will cost you more then
2000 Rs, but a cheap immitation can be had for as low as 100 Rs.
Ha! I look over my journal and read about the surprise feeling I had today when the electricity cut off at 6PM and a small generator was started up by the hotel to provide electricity. Oh, how naive I was at that point. The majority of towns in India lose electricity at night and some even throughout the day as the increasing demand of electricity is not enough to keep up with the supply. It's probably worse in the summer, where even Delhi faces a series of electricity cuts. Alas, any good hotel to its name will have a generator. Exceptions do arise though as is the case in remote regions such as Ladakh, where only a candle is provided at times. We all have to remember of course that it's part of the game when you travel 😊.
I left Jammu the early next morning on a bus headed to Srinigar, located right in the Valley of Kashmir. Leaving the confines of the lowland behind, the bus began it's slow ascend up the mountains. The first thing one notices is the presence
House Boats at Nageen Lake, Srinigar
India Palace is the second from the left.
of Military envoys in the region, who incidently always get the right away no matter if they're going uphill or downhill. The military presence is to be admired as well with at least one soldier stationed every kilometer of the road from Jammu up to Srinigar and further on to Kargil. Continuing on the beautiful green ladden scenic road filled with all sorts of semi-tropical trees, we crossed hundreds of cute monkeys living off the side of the road.
We began a steep ascend up a spectacular gorge and around this point the vegetation began to be populated by conniferous pine trees. I took a nap at this point and awoken a few hours later to a dense fog, or was it more like the cloud layer? The bus had stopped due to a traffic jam. Apparently, a truck had broken down and they were trying to fix it down below. We had to wait for several minutes, which made for a good brake to stretch those legs. We stopped for lunch at the Jense Muslim Hotel, where I enjoyed a delicious mutton with rice. The poor vegeterians where complaining they couldn't get much to eat at the place
😉. The beauty of the lunch stop was the location. The hotel had a balcony where you could enjoy your meal while gazing at the spectacular gorge below. By this time, the fog had lifted and the skies where crystal clear. We continued on our journey leaving the beautiful gorge behind. The gorge gave way to terraced farmland where rice and fruits where cultivated.
The bus came to a stop at the border patrol checking. Even though you're in India, you need to show your passport at various check points when entering the conflict zone of Jammu and Kashmir. The geographic border now in days is the Jawarhar Tunnel, a 2.5 kilometer man made tunnel that cuts deep into the mountain and takes you from the mountain side on one side and into the Valley of Kashmir at the other side. The sure beauty of the Valley of Kashmir is undescribable with plain words. I have a feeling that no one can give it justice, but suffice to say that what they say is true - Kashmir is a Paradise on Earth. Alas, it all comes up with a prize and the nationalistic pride of India and Pakistan have
tarnished this paradise for over half a century. I won't bore you with the details, but suffice to say that after Independence, India retained the region of Kashmir. Pakistan argued that since the population there are muslim then they should have a part of it as well and so invaded and took over a part of it. I'm not a political expert and so can't be a source for the solution to the problem, but suffice to say that based on my experience I can say that the people in the Valley of Kashmir are neither Pakistani nor Indian. The population is primarily muslim, with an inflated number of Hindus and Sikhs that are mainly part of the military in the Indian side. More importantly though, the population and region has a destinct mix of Central Asia reminecent of Persia (present day Iran), not Pakistan.
Alas, let leave the politics aside and stick to my travelogue. As I was saying, my first glimpse of the Valley of Kashmir was right when the bus left the long dark Jawarhar tunnel. The huge valley extends for over a hundred kilometers long and is about the same in width as well. I
had expected a small Valley with limited vegetation, but found out this massive valley filled with irrigated farm fields growing rice and various vegetables. Seeing the rice patties as we crossed the valley came to me as a surprise. I always enjoy seeing the green hues in the rice fields and this was no exception. As we drove thru the main highway and artery of the valley, we crossed thru a Green Tunnel made out of decidious trees that had grown tall and so their branches now made up an eco-tunnel. On the edge of the valley, one will see the coniferous pine trees taking over the flora scene as the mountain rise tall to the heavens. Once past the tree line, green alpine scenery takes over. The Valley of Kashmir lays right in the border region of the Greater Himalayas and the Karakoram Mountain ranges.
The city of Srinigar is located on the base of the Valley of Kashmir. It lays among the green rice fields. The city itself has several Moghul beautiful gardens, most of which overlook one of its many lakes. This lakes are joined by a vast network of canals so it is quite feaseable
to cross the city by boat. For the tourists, the two lakes one will encounter is Dal Lake and Nageen Lake. Historically, Srinigar was the summer resting spot for the Moghuls and later on for the British. The locals didn't allow the British to own land so they were forced to live in house boats on the lakes. This tradition led to the ever popular houseboat hotels that are spread out all over the lakes. The popular spot to stay in has always been Dal Lake, but I opted to stay in the quieter Nageen Lake. I ended up staying at 'Indian Palace', a luxurious long houseboat operated by Bashir, a kind Kashmiri. He offered me a luxurious bedroom with bath for 250 Rs, including breakfast and dinner. I met up with two polish guys who where on their last day in Kashmir. They where an unvaluable source of information on the city, but interestingly enough they hadn't wonder further afield.
As I was to learn today, the cheapest and best means of getting around Srinigar is via the many mini-tiny-buses that ply the roads. They take you everywhere you want to go for under 5 Rupees. I took
a ride on one of them down thru the Old Town to the Lal Choke. The main bazar in town congregates in this area as stores selling everything imaginable can be found. It is a true testament to the city's historic importance on the age old Silk Road. The cunning sale techniques of the Kashmiri's come from these golden times when the trade routes where running from Europe all the way to china, via Central Asia. As one can imagine a walk downt he bazar in Srinigar is quite colorful. I walked down an alley full of ready made clothing stores, textiles and clothes, and of course the handy tailor. These stores gave way to a street full of vegetable and fruit vendors. The veggies in Srinigar are among the best in India as they're home grown in makeshift gardens at the lakes and canals. The next street had a full selection of electronic stores. Leaving the bazar behind, I walked along the edge of one of the river/canals. I saw lots of interesting houses bordering this river and many boats plying its course. A few houseboats could be seen as well, but these were residential ones and not hotels.
As I walked down one of the sorounding neighborhoods, I stumbled across a bunch of cute kids that all came up to me posing for a picture. Making my way out of the old town, I walked up town to the Tourist Reception Center, which is a good source of local information. As it was getting late, I hoped on a bus back to Nagin lake. A local approached me on the bus and started a conversation with me. He asked me if I had followed the news today. I told him I hadn't as I had been siteseeing all day around Lal Choke. His face turned white as he told me the news. Aparently, there was a shoot in the main bazar area. A number of local military and guerilla died on the shooting. God knows what would have happened had I been there when that occured. I only know I must have left within an hour or so of the shooting. As he was aproaching his stop, he invited me for a cup of tea. I accepted the offer and followed him to his humble home. It was clean, colorful, and had a beautiful garden with vegetables and
flowers. His family was there and he introduce me to his two brothers, his wife, his sister-in-law, and his parents. After a few minutes, his wife came out with a cup of Numkin tea (nunchai), a salted milk tea that is drank in Kashmir. It's quite different from the sugar masala milk tea (chai) I have drank throughout India. I still remember choking on the first sip of it. I only had one cup that day, but after a few more cups on other occassions I began to get a taste for Kashmiri tea. Along with the tea, they gave me local Kashmiri bread and freshly home cooked fulka, which is identical to the tasty flower tortillas from back home in Mexico. It was a really nice treat to eat fulka (flower tortillas) with butter! Jummy! Alas, it was getting late in the afternoon and I had to make my way back to the houseboat. I enjoyed the sunset drinking a cinamon tea from the back of the houseboat. The colors of the sunset where a beautiful set of red hues as it set over the lake.
The next day, I had the delightful pleasure of taking an early
morning shikara (local Srinigar boat) ride to attend the vegetable market. this local market is held every day and on this particular day we headed there at 4:30 AM. The shikara driver was Buba Yani, an interesting fellow who would spend the morning smoking his pipe as the vegetable market unfold before my eyes. As it was to be expected, the morning was cold and so I was covered on one of the blankets Buba Yani provided. I couldn't see much on the way to the vegetable market as it was dark so i'll leave that for later. I had no clue what I was getting into other then the high praise and recomendation from Bashir and the two Polish guys. As daylight was aproaching, we arrived to a vast open area in the lake, one where the gardens and lotus flowers hadn't taken over. Soon, the locals began arriving in their boats. These where full of all sorts of vegetables. In effect, the vegetable market is a floating market made up of dozen of vendors selling the goods in their boats. The majority of the vendors where proud muslims wearing their traditional attire (hat, vest, etc). I could see
them trading onions, cucumbers, giant suchinis, bell pepper (capcium), tomatoes, egg plants, giant green pumpkin, and more. Interestingly enough, there were hardly any tourists present. In fact, there where three boats, of which I was the first to arrive and the last to leave. The best thing is that it's purely locals trading their veggies as there are hardly any sellers selling stuff to tourist. In fact, I can only recall two sellers: one of them sellng chocolate and cookies while the other was selling flowers. I kindly declined their offers. The way back was as colorful as the market as the early hours of the day provided for some amazing light. We took several canals from Dal lake to Nagin lake. I began to see the beauty of Srinigar, which is the intricate canals that adorn the city. The closest thing I could compare it to is the river/canals of Xochimilco in Mexico City. The canals of Srinigar are at times covered by lotus flowers. The locals have also cultivated massive vegetable gardens that have been carefuly camoflaged into the traditional scenery of the canals and the lakes. At times you have to look hard to see these gardens
as they're masked by the natural veggetation in the region. Eventually, the vegetation gave way to an opening that led into the blue waters of Nagin lake. I was tired and so I took a nap until noon.
I woke up and went out to the back deck. As usual, I was swarmed by locals selling their products from their shikara boats. This guys will sell you everything from Pushmina scarfs, lacquerwear (paper mache) boxes, old Buddhist and Hindu Bronze statues, and even the sweat tooth favorites such as chocolate and other candy. One such saleman, Rajid, persuaded me to accompany him to his shop on the other side of town. Insidently, it was located along the area of the city I wanted to explore today. So, I hoped into his Shikara and after an hour ride was on the other side of town. I hadn't planned another baot ride today, but as he insisted, I hoped on board. The ride was through a different part of the canals. We crossed canals fill with floating plants and flowers. We eventually parked his boat and continued walking to his home, which was a further 30 minutes away. It was a
lovely walk through another section of the old part of town. As usual, he offered me some kashmiri bread and tea, which I accpeted. His shop was full of beautiful bronze statues and jewelery. Rajid was such a good salesman that I couldn't face not buying anything so I bought a bracelet with the Yin and Chang (sp) symbols in it. It cost me 150 IRS, which barely covers the price of the Shikara ride to begin with! I left the shop and headed over to Shah Hamdan Mosque. This mosque was built in the 14th century by a Persian who came from the region of modern day Iran. It is the oldest mosque in Kashmire. The beautifully decorated wooden exterior is just a small taste of the intricate decorations inside. Non-muslim males and females cannot enter the mosque, but there are two windows from where muslim females and non-muslim can see the inside. From this vantage point you can get a pretty good idea of what's inside. Just make sure you show respect and ask before taking pictures as it's the workship area for female muslims. The two local watchmen at the door where kind enough to pose for
a pic. They also gave me some insight of the temple. At this point, a women covered who was sitting nearby all covered in her traditional muslim black vail uncovered herself. I was not only surprised on seeing her uncover herself, but also on seeign the white skin, blue eye beauty that was inside. It was a clear reminder of the Central Asian roots of the people of Kashmir.
It is a tradition for muslim women to dress modestly and cover their heads. In some groups it's even required to have their whole body covered in a black veil. Another common site in Kashmir is for young girls to wear totally white attires and a white scarf covering their head. Contrary to popular belief, not all muslim women have to be completly covered in black though. Many wear colorful clothes with fashionable head scarves. It's only a selected group of traditional workshipers that follow this norm. In fact, there doesn't seem to be a correlation with those wearing the black veil and the trully religious followers. At times is just tradition that dictates how a muslim women should dress. Other times it may be a higher force such as
the government (ie the Taliban regime that ruled Afganistan until the early part of the decade), the husband, or other entity forcing the womern to dress in a blackveil. As such, it is common to see women in both the black veil as well as those covering their heads with a scarf. Often, you see the two having a conversation or walking together. This also is true for the muslims throughout the world.
I next visited the plain Jama Masjid. Although it does lack in decoration, you can visit the inside and see the massive wooden columns, each made out of a single tree. You can walk around the outside of the mosque and take in the colorful bazar selling all sorts of goods. I continued on by bus as I headed to Nazim Bagh Garden, overlooking Dal Lake. It is a nice pleasent garden located near Hazrathbal Mosque. This mosque is beautifuly decorated in the outiside with white shinning marble. There is a strong military presence inside and I cleary remember having to go through two searches just to get into the premises. They even wouldn't allow cameras and electronic devices (cell phones, etc) inside. I left my
bag behind and entered without shoes into the mosque. I had to cover my head so I borrowed a straw muslim cap. The interior is simple and non-decorative, as is the case in many mosques. Nevertheless, the gardens on the back offer a pleasent view of the lake.
I took a day trip out of town the next day as I took a tourist bus to Bulmarg. On board the bus, I was seated next to the only other foreigner, Fabiene, a girl from Switzerland. We ended up chatting up and spending the day together. Incidently, she was staying just two houseboats from me. On a city with hundreds of houseboats it's interesting that the two foreigners on the bus today where staying so close to each other... wierd considence! Anyway, the bus journey was a good way to see the valley again. I quickly began to see the road rules. In a military striken area as Kashmir, the military envoys always have the go ahead regardless of the terrain in which you're driving (up hill, down hill, muddy road, etc). The city scenery quickly gave way to the green rice paddies. The flat valley continued for an hour
or so until we passed the town of Tangmarg, located at the edge of the valley. We stoped for tea brake and military cheack point here. The change in scenery was clear at this point as the pine tree forest took over the cultivated fields of the valley. The bus kept on going up the mountain to Gulmarg. The elevation gain was precent as the day got cooler. Kashmir is often refered to as the Switzerland of India, among many other phrases of course. Gulmarg is true to that saying as the bus made its way past the pine trees and into the rolling grass fields sorounding the village. At the foot of the hill lays a gondola that you can ride up the mountain. We hoped on board and soon where up at Kandori. Although the peak was covered by clouds, we managed to do a 1 km hike up to the waterfall. Most Indians simply take a horse ride, but that was no option for us trekkers. From the waterfal, you can normally see the impressive glacier, but today we were lucky to see a few second glimps of it. As to be expected, there were some locals
that have set up an impromptu tea shop. They welcomed us and pointed the way to the sofa, a solid flat rock that made for a good seat while we had some coffee and tasty stuffed potato parathas (Indian snack made out of a thick chapati, bread-like pita, stuff with potatoe inside and fried). As it was early in the day, we decided to skip the gondola return ride and walk down to Gulmarg. The walk is pleasent as you walk down throught he Pine Forest. You could actually skip the gondola all together and simply hike up and down the mountain. Half way down, we met up a Muslim man who offered us a cup of tea. He was of Pakistani decent and was a proud member of the Indian Communist Party. His home was quite simple made out of mud and sticks. The floor was also a simple cover of mud with a cloth. In one corner was the kitchen, a fire place over made up of mud as well. His daughter made the tea for us as another went out and fetch some biscuits. He told us the tourist season is short lived and so by Oct/Nov
he packs up and moves to the valley below. He makes his living from renting out his ponies/horses to the tourists, typically Indian, who visit the area. As we reached the bottom, we met a few locals who wanted to take pics with us. They were quite entretaining as we conversed about random topics. The bus ride back was equally enjoyable. It dropped us at the Turist Reception Center, where I inquired about the trek Amarnath Cave. Taking the local bus back to the houseboat made me realise the difference in architecture from the Indian lowlands. The buildings have pointy roofs. They are typically made out of wood and bricks. Unlike the ugly bldgs in India, this ones are beautifuly decorated and clean. Back at the houseboat, I met up with Fabiene for a evening tea.
So, I have mixed reports on the Amarnath Cave. Some ppl where telling me you needed a guide, a permit and a health exam (far too costly to make it worthwhile). I was looking forward to the trek, but with so much conflicting information I was begining to doubt myself. I wanted to get to the bottom of it so I headed back
the next morning to the Turist Reception Center. I walked past the touts in the entrance, who are all full of shit, and made my way to the information counter. In a polite manner, I asked about the trek to Amarnath Cave. I just went down to the point and ask for no bullshit, just facts. The man today was quite informitive as he handed over an information brochure with a map and told me there was no permit required. In fact, I was lucky enough to be in the region during Katra (pilgrimage trek) season, which runs from July to Aug. As such the trail will be full of pilgrims from all over India. Actually there are over 5,000 pilgrims visitin the cave daily on those two months (thats way over 250,000 Indian tourists visiting Kashmir in 2004). The government, with the help of volunteers, sets up camps along the way providing free water and food for the pilgrims, including foreigners such as myself. He did suggested me to take a tent, a sleeping bag, and warm clothes. What a brake! I bought my bus ticket next door and so was set to go tomorrow.
I spend the
rest of the day exploring the various Moghul gardens that are scatter throughout Srinigar's lakes. My first stop was at the Shalimar Bagh. I was mesmerised by the gardens, but what captivated my view was the uninterupted view of the mountains enjoyed from within the compound. The gardens themselves are made up of a series of terraces. This are cut by the flowing stream and occassional pond. You can cross the man-made stream via several stepping stones, but be careful as you can easily lose your balance! The next stop was at Chasma Shahi Bagh, another moghul garden that is well known for the natural spring that flows through it. Many locals and tourists come to take a sip from this spring.
I left Srinigar the following day to start the Yatra to Amarnath Cave (remember, yatra is the hindu word for pilgrimage). Amarnath cave is one of lord Shivas abodes, a hindu god. There are several legends that narrate the story on how this particular cave became such an important pilgrimage center for hindus. One of the legends state that Shiva recounted the sected of creation to Parvati inside this cave. A pair of doves living on the
cave overheard this and learned this secret. Thus they are imortal as they are reborn again and again. So to this date pilgrims visiting this cave can still see the pair flying above the skies. Incidently, I did spotted one of the doves as I waited a few hundred meters from the entrance to the cave). There are no roads leading directly to Amarnath Cave so the yatra involves an arduous trek ranging from 15-30 kilometers depending on which of the two routes you take. The traditional Yatra follows through Shiva's steps. Originally, it started in Srinigar with all the floks of pilgrims walking to Pahalgam and then from there to the start of the trek at Chandanwari. Roads now make it possible to go by bus or jeep all the way to Chandanwari. Thus, saving you quite a bit of effort and time 😊. There are two overnight stops before you reach Ambernath cave from Chananwari (about 30 kms). Thus, you won't see the cave until your third day. The second route is shorter (about 15 kms) and faster, but also steeper. It starts from Sonamarg, on the other side of the mountains. From Sonamarg you take a bus/jeep
on to Baltal, which is nothing more then a camp set up outside a small village. You can theoretically make it all the way up to the cave in one day, requiring an overnight stop on the top of course. Hence, you can be in and out of the cave in two days from this side. I decided to follow the traditional route starting in Pahalgam as I went uphill. I then returned via Baltal. Thus, I crossed through the high peaks and mountains that cut through a section of Valley of Kashmir. It was a wonderful experience. This is a good point to mention that there are alternatives to walking/hiking to Amarnath cave. First you could hire a porter to take your luggage so as not to carry anything. If that's not enough, you could rent a horse and ride with it to the top. For a bit more, you could hire a set of porters to take you up on a dhooli (string/wooden chair). In this manner, older pilgrims, or those who are just too lazy, can manage to do this holly yatra up to Amarnath cave. As to be expected of me, I opted to walk on
my own and also to carry all my gear. However, most of the hindu pilgrims opted for a porter. A further large number of pilgrims opted to ride a horse or use the dhooli service as well. Overall, it made traffic up to Amarnath Cave hectic as their where four lanes of traffic: two lanes going up and down for horses and two lanes going up and down for trekers. The order of priority and who has the right of way on those cases where the trail is norrow goes as follows horses always go first (you really don't want to get ran over do you), then porters, and finally the pilgrims. As I said earlier, there were camps set up along the trek to provide free meals and water for the pilgrims. There are also enterprising Kashmiri who have set up impromptu shops along the way selling cold bottled water, cold drinks (fussy drinks), bisquits (cookies), fresh fruit, and candies. Each trail offers several overnight camps that are located along the trek. This camps offer a bed in a shared ten man tent for as little as 100 IRS a night (could be more or less depending on the
demand, aka, number of pilgrims spending the night). As I will discuss later, security is tight as the military have set up checkpoints throughout the trek.
Anyway, let me take you back to Srinigar, where I started the Yatra. As soon as I got to the bus station, which again is located next to the Tourist Reception Center, I began listening to the chants that were prevelant throughout the trek: "Bam-Bam-Bole (used to cheer you up on the trek)" ... "Jai Bole (said as a token of good luck on your trek)" ... and ... "Om-Ni-Ma-Shivai (Prayer chant meaning 'Shiva oh Lord')." The bus took me through the rice paddies and up the other end of the valley to the touristic town of Pahalgam. Many treks start from this resort town. The sourounding Pine forest make for a lovely stay. I didn't want to delay the start of the yatra any further so I immediatly took another bus to the town of Chandanwari, a further 16 km uphill. The minibus was packed so I opted to ride on the roof. Believe me, the roof is the best spot for this hair-raising ride as you go uphill through a pristine
Faithful at Golden Temnple Complex, Amritsar
Faithful bath and cleanse themselves at the waters of the holly lake insaide the Golden Temple Complex, Amritsar
pine forest. The views are fantastic! Chandanwari is the start of the trek. I arrived after lunch, but after a look on this unattractive town I decided to start walking today. Given the popularity of the Amarnath Yatra and its location in Kashmir, the army plays an important role in providing the necessary security throughout the trek. There are dozen of check points throughout the trek, making it a totally safe endevour. I crossed the town and was stopped by a military guard who insisted it was too late to start. I was puzzled as I kept seeing people walking past me so I simply kept on going, following the wave of fellow pilgrims who were also starting the trek around this time. The first part of the trek was through a steep uphill that lasted a bit over an hour. The scenery began chaning right around now from a pine tree forest to a more alpine grassland. At the top of the hill was Pissu Top (3,377 meters above sea level), a camp setup to provide food and water for the pilgrims. I enjoyed a delicious lunch as I chatted with fellow pilgrims and volunteers. The friendly host I
met was so kind he even talked to his superiors to make sure I could continue on safely to the next camp.
I was given the green light as it was still early enough
. I made it to Nagnkoti, another lunch/tea stop in no time. As the trail was more flatter at this point I managed to cover more ground in less time. The day was starting to wind down and I could see the sunset hiting in any moment so I kept on going in hopes of reaching Sheshnag Lake and the first overnight camp. The trail was a bit muddy here as it began to drissle a bit. I was relieved to see the beautiful blue glacial waters of Sheshnag lake (3,352 meters above sea level) appear in the distance. Further uphill lays the overnight camp. It was dark at this point and I needed to act fast in order to secure a safe shelter for the night. I had met hindus from all over India today (incidently, I was the only foreigner on the trail today). There were pilgrims from Delhi, West Bengal, Madras, Bombay, Gujarat, Rajasthan, and pretty much any imaginable state and major
city in India. A group of young hindus from all over India invited me to spend the night with them. I remember walking into the camp that night. It felt as though we were entering a concentration camp. The camp was all fenced up with several layers of military style barb wire on the perimiter of the camp. There were guards station at every few hundred meters and there were guard towers on each corner. The small entrance was devided into two lines, one for females and the other for males. Each line was thoroghly searched as the guards inspected you and your luggage. I didn't mind this at all as it was for our own protection. With such a thorough search throughout the major camps of the Yatra (trek) there was no room for terrorist attacks or threats. In this malevolent world we live in it can be a reality, even in this hollyiest of yatras (pilgrimages). Anyway, I was carrying my tent, but I found it more convenient to stay in a share tent for 100 Indian Rupees. Each tent is capable of sleeping 10 or more people. Blankets were even provided. Since I was with a group
of Indians carrying no sleeping bag, I decided to just use a blanket for tonight. I wasn't hungry at all as I had eaten pretty late so I just went strait to sleep as the others did, even though it was just 8PM. We all huddled together for warmth in the freezing cold of the night.
The following day was the toughest as I hiked through the highest pass of the trek. I had a late start today so I wasn't on the trail until 10 AM. The alpine scenery continued as I walked uphill through a poor define set of merging trails leading up to Mahagunas (Ganesh) Pass. There is a bit of relieve half way up as you arrive to a flat area known as Warbal. As it was raining I took refuge in one of the abandoned stone buildings in the impromptu tea stop. As it stoped raining, I continued on with little difficulty to the top of Mahagunas (Ganesh) Pass at 4,600 meters above sea level. Interestingly, I didn't suffer from any altitude sickness. It came as a surprise cause I hadn't taken any measures to acclimitize. When you travel on a place higher then
3,500 meters above sea level it is always adviceable to take it easy at that altitude for a few days before ascending any further. Today, I had no problems whatsoever. It could have been luck, or perhaps I was fit enough to handle it. I could see several of the pilgrims having a tough time on the trail. I took a brake and stoped for lunch at the camp set up ontop of the pass. The views where fantastic as to be expected, even with the clouds obstructing some of the views. I continued on the trek as the trail gradually descended to Rabibal. The scenery was beautiful as the trail entered a massive valley with a flat area with a flowing river below and tons of snowy peaks on the sides. The next camp, Panjtarni, wasn't far ahead. It was heavily guarded in a similar fashion to the one from last night. Speaking off, I met up with some of my hindu friends. They were going to spend the night here, but as it was still early I decided to push further on to the high camp closer to Amarnath cave. After a few glasses of tea I continued
on my journey. The final ascend of the day wasn't too hard as it was lower then the high pass I did on the morning. You leave the flat valley and enter a narrow gorge that leads all the way up to a glacier further uphill from the cave. Along the way there is a "Y" intersection a few kilometers uphill as the two trails, the one from Pahalgam and the one from Baltal, merge as I undertook the last approach (couple of kms) to the cave. I couldn't see the cave clearly as it was cloudy, but I knew I was in the destination when I saw a massive camp made up of hundreds of tents. It was cold and around this time it had began to rain a bit so I called it an early night. I was a bit less then 2 km from the cave. The river flows from a Glacier up the mountain and I could see pilgrims bathing and cleaning themselves in this holly water. It was freezing and so I just pulled out my sleeping bag and jumped into the warm tent. As yesturday, I shared the tent with several strangers. The local
Kashmiri managing the tent was kind and assured me I could leave my bags behind as I visit the cave. He even reminded me to take my money and camera with me (which I was going to do of course).
I awoke to clear blue skies the next day as I made an early visit to Amarnat cave. The final stretch was grueling as there were a mass of thousands of pilgrims already making a long line to the cave. I was expecting this as I had heard that over 5,000 pilgrims visit the cave per day during the yatra season. In this particular morning, I had to wait about 1 hour to get into the cave. You begin the wait outside the military camp, where enterpreneours have put up shop selling all sorts of religious stuff used as offerings for those going in. You can also find a few souvenirs. As I approached the cave, I had to remove my shoes and socks, even though the ground was wet and freezing cold. Around this point, as I was looking up, I saw one of the doves flying above at the roof of the cave. Call it magic, or
coincidence. I passed a series of workship bells and made my way into the cave. Inside, there are several volunteers that literally push the mob of pilgrims who visit the cave. You take days to reach the cave, but in the end you only get a minute at most to see the frozen Ice linga, a religious statue/mound of sort used to workship Shiva. The sadhu inside the cave puts a red mark on your forehead, a measure of good luck. He then gives you some dry fruit and sweets that you can eat and also use as offerings to the gods. As you exit the cave, there is a natural spring, whose water is holly. You can see another line of pilgrims waiting for a chance to fill their bottles with holly water. Before you leave the cave you cross several minor shrines to other hindu gods. I made my way back to camp in no time and picked up my stuff. As I was leaving the camp area, I noticed a massive human traffic jam all along the segment between the cave and the trail to Baltal. There were literally thousands of people and horses plying the route
to and from the cave. It took me a couple hours just to walk the 3 kilometers to the intersection. I was begining to lose my patience so I followed the crowd climbing up the steep wall above the trail. A guard quickly waved us to go down and so we had no choice but to wait. The horses had priority so it was painful to see them going through quicker. I eventually reached the intersection and took the steep descent to Sangam, where I enjoyed a good brunch. I then climbed up a bit, the only major climb of the day, as I made it higher up the side of a deep narrow Gorge. I had a quick lunch at the next two camps, on each taking up a delicious snack or two. The trail was pretty muddy at this point, which was made even worse by the traffic of horses. The scenery made up for it as it was fantastic! I came across a group of 3 foreigners who where heading up the cave. As me, they were carrying too much luggage! I decended thru the gorge. The scenery had changed once more from the alpine grassland to
the thick pine tree forest below. As kept on going downhill, the gorge had widen a bit into a Valley. Once I reached flatter ground, it began raining a bit so I took refuge in a tea shed set up along the route. The rain stopped so I continued on. I had my last free meal of the trek on a camp setup about 1 km from Batal. It started raining heavily as I walked the last km to Baltal. There were tons of buses waiting to take the passengers to Srinigar. I had planned on stopping in Sonamarg, but as it was pissing rain I decided to just go back to the houseboat to relax.
Having slept until late to recover from the trek, I decided to head back to town to visit the so called Dal Gate everyone had been talking about. It turns out I had crossed it a dozen times without even realising it 😊! It is a few minutes away from the Turist Reception Center. I walked around the backside of a gold course and manage to catch a glimpse of a quiter side of one of the canals that feed into Dal Lake.
Life is slower then the fast traffic a few hundred meters away in Dal Gate. It was a lovely walk. I then took a bus to Lal Chowk, my favorit part of the old town. I noticed that they have increased the security, military personel, after the shooting. It seems to me that the terrorist always target an area with weak security. Once that happens, the military shift gears to that area while the terrorist plan their attack to the next area with poor security. It's a never ending cycle of sorts. Anyway, I walked down several interesting alleys that I hadn't seen before. It led me away from the bazar. I then came back to the bazar for lunch at a local Kashmiri restaurant. I had Rista, a local dish made up of two large mutton meatballs. I then did some souvenir shopping at Lal Chowk, nothing fancy of course (just a few paper mache, lacquerware items). As it was my last day, I returned to Dal Gate and took a Shikara ride back to Nageen Lake. It was a good time of the day as it was just before sunset so the light was really good for pictures.
We crossed the houseboats of Dal lake and made our way through several interconecting canals all the way to Nagin lake. It was nice to see the gardens, lotus flowers, and weeds that make up the habitat of the lakes and canals. The first bit of travel took us through part of the city so you could see the brick/wood houses on each side of the canals. This gave way to vegetable gardens and islands full of forest. We reached my houseboat an hour and a half later. It was a perfect end for a fantastic time in Srinigar.
I took a bus ride to Leh the following day. Leh is located in Ladakh, a region that is located within the borders of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. However, Ladakh doesn't share any roots what-so-ever with the muslim dominated Kashmir. As such, I will reserve my update on the trip into Ladakh for next time. In that update I will talk about the journey that can be done in as little as 2 days, and as slowly as your heart desires (mine told me to take my time so I did so in 10 days). Therefore, I will
reserve the last few glimpses of the Valley of Kashmir as well as the ride up to Kargil, one of the last muslim dominated towns, for my next update. Hope to write that up in the next two weeks.
Before I go, let me fill you up with a brief summary of what i've done since Kashmir. So much has happen since then and i've fallen quite behind my updates, sorry. Just to give you an idea, I was in Ladakh back in early August! It's now getting close to November! I spent the month of August touring Ladakh, and a bit of Himalay Pradesh & Uttaranchal. On early to mid september I visited several sites of North-Central India, including Delhi and Varanasi. I then hopped across the border to Nepal on the 22nd of September. I've been here since then treking, rafting, and doing a jungle safari. I'm now (October 25) in Kathmandu exploring the valley. I'm headed back to India tomorrow as I make my way back to
Mumbai to catch my flight out to Myanmar on Nov 6. There is no internet in Myanmar (Burma) so I hope to send an update in the next
Lady covered in black vail at Shah Hamdan Mosque, Srinigar
A few minutes later I this lady uncovered her vail allowing me to see what's inside.
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