Sunday, September 28, 2008

Kashmir Travelogue

Before the trip: The minute I checked out pictures of Kashmir on flickr and other places, I fell in love with it. Is it possible to feel nostalgia for a place you have never been to? I kept checking the news and I hear that Kashmir is cut off from the rest of the world due to a heavy snowstorm that closed off all the routes.

Day 0 (Friday): News reports that the storm is done and Srinagar/Gulmarg are both under a fresh layer of snow. This got me very excited. I thought I would leave sometime the following week, but then a thought came into my head - why not tomorrow?. I decide to act on this instinct and booked my tickets for the next day.

Day 1 (Saturday) - Srinagar: I take a Hyderabad-Delhi flight at 6AM and it is on time. Good start. It was a cool 4C when I landed in Delhi. My connecting flight to Srinagar was scheduled for 10AM. About mid-way through the flight, I get my first glance of the mighty Himalayas. It was a spectacular sight. Soon the flight touches down in Srinagar. There is snow all around me and I was ecstatic. I avoided the taxi wallahs and took the local bus to the tourist office - Rs.20. I had not made any arrangements for the accommodation which gave me a lot of flexibility. I went to the Dal gate and rented a houseboat for Rs.800 per day. After a quick shower and lunch, I took a beautiful shikara ride on Dal. Not only was the view spectacular, the sound that the oar makes on contact with the water still rings in my ear to this day. At this point, I was extremely happy that I decided to act on my instinct. Post Shikara ride, I got an auto and went around town. Shalimar was completely covered in snow which was beautiful in its own way. Hazratbal, the holy mosque made of marble on the banks of Dal was a sight to behold. I had never been inside a mosque before, but that did not stop me from entering Hazratbal. I found a guard who helped me conform with the rules of the mosque. Once inside, I sat down in the main chamber and was blown away by the experience.

Nishant Garden

Shikara on Dal

After Hazratbal, I went to Jama Masjid - a huge mosque in the old city built in the year 1400AD. One cannot help but admire the architecture and design of this great place of worship. By this time, it was dark and time to go back to the houseboat. I grabbed a quick bite to eat and by 8PM, the temperature was sub-zero. I made it to the houseboat and sat down for a chat with the owner. He showed me the "kangri", a small earthen port filled with hot coals, which he was using to keep himself warm. He filled me in on the evolution of Kashmir in the last few decades. He also briefed me on the security situation which was termed "peaceful" at the time. I guess "peaceful" just means absence of violence but not its eradication. After a tiring day, I had no problem sleeping by 10PM.

Day 2 (Sunday) - Gulmarg: I woke up at 6AM to check out Srinagar at dawn. I realized 6AM was a little too late to do that :D. As soon as I stepped out of the houseboat, I could see the thin layer of ice that formed over the lake overnight. I packed my things quickly and made my way to Batmalu, a place where you can catch shared taxis to Pahalgam. I got a taxi by 8AM and I reached Pahalgam by 9:30AM for a price of Rs.40. From Pahalgam, I took a crowded bus to reach Gulmarg (Rs.20). I was proud to have saved a lot of $$ by not opting for an exclusive taxi from Srinagar. Also, this gave me a chance to travel like the locals do. It was fantastic. The first sight of Gulmarg stunned me. I had never seen that much snow in my life. The ground was under 15 feet of snow!!! [shock] I realized I had to find a good hotel with heating. I opted for Heevan resort near the Gulmarg Gondola (Rs.2000 per night). I had to tug my suitcase for about a mile on the frozen path to make it to Heevan. I was excited to find skiers on the beginner slopes and Mt. Aphrawat lay in front of me, with the peak above the clouds. I made a resolution to ski down the mountain regardless of the risk ;), it was that beautiful. After lunch, I went to the J&K tourism office to rent skis and other stuff. After an hour, I was on the beginner slopes practicing the lessons that I learnt while sking a year ago. By dusk, I made it back to the hotel and got a quick nap. By the time I woke up, I had a fever :mad: and I immediately took indication hoping that it would not alter my plans. I wrapped myself in blankets and sat out on the balcony watching the snow fall. I went to bed soon after.

First Glimpse of Gulmarg

Day 3 (Monday) - Gulmarg: Woke up early and I was damn excited to see all the snow from my balcony [happy]. I headed for the beginner slopes immediately, eager to get in a groove before attempting the mountain. I found my groove by lunch and mustered enough confidence to go up the gondola. I got the day pass for the Gondola (Rs.200 for level 1) and the ride up the mountain was memorable. I started sking down the mountain and I could not help but marvel at the panorama that surrounded me. It is said about Kashmir, "If there is heaven on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this!". At this point, I was in complete agreement. I stopped every few meters to take a photo. I had the occasional tumble down the ski path, but it was not painful enough to make me stop. I swear, I could have broken my feet and I would have still continued sking - I was that smitten by the place. The gondola closed down by 4:30 due to mechanical glitches but by that time I made 3 runs down the mountain. I went back to the hotel and chilled out with a group from Dubai. After dinner and chatting for a few hours, I went to sleep, feeling great after the wonderful day.

Gulmarg and Mt. Aphrawat

Day 4 (Tuesday) - Gulmarg: As soon as I woke up, I wanted to jump off my balcony onto the slopes and go sking. But, I had to wait till the gondola got going. The mechanical glitches that seemed to be bothering it the last few days got resolved by 10AM. I got on one of the first few cars going up and this gave me virgin slopes to ski down. I was feeling a bit adventurous and I decided to deviate from the designated ski path (dont try this if u r a beginner). I started coming down steep slopes laden with snow. There were places where I was waist deep in snow. It was fantastic. I tried to turn a steep corner and lost my balance, almost breaking my wrist. Luckily for me, I ended up just spraining it. After abt 5 runs down the mountain along various paths, it was time to head back to Srinagar. I took the shared taxi way back to Batmalu and I was in Srinagar my mid-afternoon. I checked into Hotel Welcome on the boulevard for Rs.1000 per night. In the evening, I went to a local restaurant for dinner and ended up spending a couple of hours talking to the owner. It is always great listening to retired people talk about the changes brought on in their life over the years.

View from Mt. Aphrawat

Sking Down
Day 5 (Wednesday) - Srinagar and back: I went shopping in the morning for some kashmiri artifacts for people back home. I found a good store in the lal chowk area that had a good variety of shawls, sarees and wooden works. I spent about Rs.5000 there and got good value in return. There are a lot of such shops in the Lal Chowk area. One thing to note is that these shops open late in the morning (10AM+) and close pretty early (before 7). So if you plan to get any shopping done, do it during the day. There are many shops on Dal lake but I found them to be priced higher than the ones in other areas of Srinagar. My flight took off from Srinagar at 1PM and I was back in Hyderabad by 6PM.

Conclusion: All in all, it was a fantastic trip that has left me with a lot of memories. It has infused a lot of confidence in me to travel in India. I rode this wave of confidence to make further trips into Sikkim and Nepal a few months later (Travelogues coming up). Also, this was the first time that I traveled alone. I was apprehensive in the beginning, but I highly recommend it to anyone now. When you travel alone, you end up making connections with so many of the local people that you would otherwise miss. If you cant find perfect company for a trip, dont settle for anything less. Travel alone!