The panoramic view from the plane window is like a picture postcard: snow capped mountains, sun-kissed valleys, miniature houses and picturesque landscape! You land only to find that your pre-paid sim-card doesn’t work here – driving all the scenic beauty out of your mind. Welcome to Kashmir! Heaven on Earth, Paradise, etc, etc but coming from the city and being addicted to the cell phone – what comes to mind is: “Welcome to Kashmir, the most controversial state in the world!”
Srinagar, the capital of J & K, is probably the most urban of the Kashmiri cities. It boasts of the magnificent Dal Lake, the sacred Adi Shankaracharya temple and numerous gardens. Famous for its boat houses the Dal Lake covers a large part of the city. A ride in the shikara lets you explore the lake, while the vendors – in their own shikaras or boats, add to the charm of the lake. With the colossal mountains as a backdrop and colorful house boats – a picture, in traditional Kashmiri clothes, is a must. The house boats, skirting the lake, serve as hotels as well as shops. Beautiful carpets, warms shawls and intricately woven salwaar kurtas are available in plenty but bargaining with the owners is a must or you are sure to be taken for a ride. Stretch your legs, after the boat ride, with a stroll in any one of the numerous gardens Srinagar has to offer. The Chesmashahi and Nishat Gardens are very popular destinations. Similar in layout: the Chesmashahi has lofty green mountains surrounding it, and the Nishat gardens offer a beautiful view of the Dal Lake, while strolling under the thick canopy of tall coniferous trees. Soak in some spirituality in the quaint Adi Shankaracharya temple, situated atop a hill. The climb up the temple steps can be quite exhausting but equally rewarding. You’re left speechless, as the view at the top unfolds gradually, with each step and makes the steep climb worthwhile.
87 km from Srinagar lies Sonamarg. Its name means ‘a golden meadow’ and it is so named because this is how it looks – in sunlight. Arriving there you have horse owners badgering you to get onto a horse – to go up to the snowy top. Snow is a good 3 to 4 kms from where your vehicle stops and while most people prefer riding horseback, hiking can turn out to be quite an adventure. The hike to the mountain is beautiful and invigorating: with meadows, gurgling rivulets and snowy mountains all around. The sight of the pristine fresh white snow drives all else out of your mind. The feeling of walking through snow, while trying not to sink in, is quite hilarious. Sleigh rides are available – if walking up becomes difficult, but the descent is a far more arduous task than scaling up the icy mountain. Slipping and sliding, most of the way down, one provides a lot of entertainment to the public viewing from below, but being so full of euphoria – at the first sight and touch of snow which leaves you so exhilarated- all else escapes your notice.
Gulmarg, lying 52 km from Srinagar, is another popular tourist destination. Snow again forms a big part of the attraction, but Gulmarg also boasts of Asia’s highest gondola or cable car – at 13500 ft, in Afarwat. Gulmarg stands for ‘a meadow of flowers’ and is famous for winter sports, with skiing being the most popular. The Gondola ride, along with snow and winter sports, make Gulmarg a favourite tourist spot.
Kashmir has its very own Switzerland, which lies in the backyard of a rustic little town, known as Pahalgam. Pahalgam is a little town with negligible urbanization and relying on tourists for their source of income. It is also the starting point of the Amarnath trek. India’s ‘Switzerland’ is about 45 minutes to an hour’s trek – from the main street, with breathtaking icy mountains surrounding you. At the end, you enter a vast meadow- surrounded by mountains. Snow – about 1 or 2 feet high, covers most of the meadow, which is mostly flat and therefore a good place for novices skiing – to get their bearings!
All in all Kashmir lives up to its name in every way. Albeit CRPF soldiers round every corner, subdued looks on people’s faces, decrepit buildings gave away to the turmoil the state is in. Curfews and protests are the order of the day. Every few days shops are shut down and the city is in abeyance. Medical facility is hard to find and though the people are friendly, their reliability is dubious. Despite the hardships and being cut off, literally, from the world – Kashmir is a feast for one’s eyes and satisfies appetites of every age. It is one trip you should not miss!
Image Source: [http://www.flickr.com/photos/kshathriya/851429608/sizes/z/]