Let me start by stating the truth. I was not thrilled when Manohar and his mother-in-law decided to trek to the holy shrine of Amarnath. To those who are familiar, Amarnath needs no introduction. Devout pilgrims trek in adverse climatic conditions for days to reach the holy cave. The shrine is situated several thousand feet above the mean sea level, in the Himalayas. Anyways, the pilgrimage was planned, and it was decided that yours truly would rendezvous with the pilgrim party- Amma, Manohar and his buddy Sri, in Sonamarg once they return from the yatra and then proceed on a tourist circuit of the Kashmir valley.
Despite all the worry about their impending climb, I was delighted about my vacation plans too. Who wouldn’t be? – The ethereal beauty of Kashmir is something that was read about in school textbooks. I applied for my annual leave well in advance, and on the day of departure, I took a late-night flight from Bhopal and spent rest of the night dozing in the Delhi airport, waiting for my morning connecting flight to Srinagar. I was to reach Srinagar early during the day to avoid the many travel restrictions that were imposed in the second half of the day. On the Srinagar flight, I kept peeking out of the airplane window, hoping to catch a glimpse of the mountains. Alas, it was one such day, where you could see nothing but an infinite carpet of woolly clouds; Instagram-worthy, nevertheless.
Manohar had arranged for a taxi to take me from Srinagar airport to Sonamarg where I was to wait for the trekkers. The route was picturesque, but I was mostly asleep in the backseat of the car during the drive. In the few moments of intermittent wakefulness, I remember admiring the sheer beauty of the majestic mountains and wished that I could keep my eyes open for longer. My driver woke me up once we reached Sonamarg. It was a pleasant sunny day and the river Sindh gushed and glimmered by the road, against the backdrop of the mighty Pirpanjal ranges studded with alpine foliage. I walked about a little bit, took in the view, and clicked some pictures. By this time, there was information that Manohar and party were running late, and I decided to make the best use of the rest of the day.
I was told that if I were to visit any local tourist attractions, I will have to either take a pony or hire a taxi from the local stand, even if I already had a taxi hired from Srinagar. My driver from Srinagar, Mr Shaukat from Honeygold tours and travels, helped me find a local vehicle from the taxi stand. Although there was an option of horseback riding, I had never tried it before and being a scaredy cat, off I went on my solo day trip in a Tata Sumo which had seen better days, driven by a young man called Sameer. He drove me to Zoji La, a high mountain pass, connecting Kashmir valley with Leh. As we climbed up the narrow, winding roads, the pine trees started disappearing from the scenery and signs of a very harsh winter started showing. There were sheets of rock-solid ice and glaciers by the sides of the road. I asked Sameer about the winters in Sonamarg. “It snows very heavily here”- he said, “The snow accumulates to 10-14 feet, all businesses shut down and we go away to stay at lower altitudes”. In the winter, the Leh highway gets blocked and needs to be cleared by snow-cutting machines. Sameer points me to the Zoji La tunnel construction site, which once completed will allow all-season travel between Kashmir and Leh. We stop at the Zero-point glacier, where I do a bit of snow biking and walking about on the powdery ice. Then we start back, stopping at random spots where I enjoy many postcard views, which I had never even imagined to be present in this country. Despite having to wait for a landslide to be cleared, we reached Sonamarg early in the afternoon and I checked into the hotel. The Yatris reached sometime later in the day: tired and weary, yet happy about their most recent accomplishment, and reeking of horse dung.
Next day was chilly and rainy. Refreshed after a good night’s sleep, we drove back to Srinagar. This time, I was wide awake to appreciate the scenery. We stopped enroute for some tea and Maggi. We also bought some assorted local fruits- two kilograms of apricots, peaches, and cherries. We reached Srinagar in the afternoon and went to a local restaurant recommended by Shaukat and enjoyed some succulent Tabak Maaz and other delicacies. Sri then said bye to us and went on his way, while we went to the hotel and slipped into a food coma.
The next day, me, Manohar, and Mom visited Doodhpatri. Apparently, this was a “newer” destination which was earlier frequented by the localites for picnics. Once in Doodhpatri, we hired trench coats and rubber boots as it was drizzling and chilly. Again, for local sightseeing, we needed to hire either ponies or all-terrain vehicles, and upon Manohar’s insistence and encouragement, I agreed to the pony transport system. The scenery was simply superb with green meadows dotted with flowers, pine and deodar trees and rivulets. We also saw a few shepherd’s huts, which were quite uniquely constructed. Our guide pointed us to spots that appeared in various Bollywood movies. At the end of the pony ride, we reached a fast-flowing river. We sat by the river sipping delicious Kehwa and gobbling up boiled eggs sold from small carts before returning to the starting point. I do not know, if it was my terrible equestrian skills or if my pony was a genuinely naughty one; she would veer off without much warning, onto uneven mounds and once into a small stream, causing me to scream half in Malayalam, half in Hindi and then some more in Malayalam, much to the amusement of Manohar and Amma. That afternoon, back in Srinagar, based on Manohar’s research, we scouted for a trout restaurant and enjoyed some delicious trout preparations for lunch.
Early next day, we set off to Gulmarg. The weather was still cloudy, and it was drizzling. After collecting the rented coat and boots in Tangmarg, we drove up to Gulmarg. I must say that the drive was a sight to behold. True to its name, Gulmarg’s hillsides were full of flowers. I have never seen as many flowers anywhere, anytime. Every inch of the meadows was covered with innumerable flowers of various hues and shades. Back in my home state, a change in season is just a change in the temperature and volume of rainfall. But here, in the valleys and mountains of Kashmir, nature wears a different look every season. So, in my opinion, there’s no one season that’s appropriate to visit Kashmir- every season is unique here. We took the Gondola ride, which was a disappointment, as the weather became extremely foggy, and we could not see anything except each other. We then took a look at the local attractions. By the time we finished visiting the other spots, Gulmarg started getting extremely crowded and for once I was happy to have followed Manohar’s early visit regime: Early tourist misses the crowd! Back in Tangmarg, we went to the nearby village of Drang, a beautiful laidback place complete with streams set against the mountain backdrop. There, the local community was having a celebration and had prepared Kashmiri Wazwan, and insisted that we taste some, before sending us on our way.
On the last day of vacation, we did a quick round of Srinagar. We visited the Shankaracharya temple, from where there’s a bird’s eye view of the town; went on a Shikara ride in the Dal Lake, chock-a-block with floating markets and salesmen; and quickly scanned the Mughal gardens. Chashma Shahi was interesting, the water from the natural spring was cool and refreshing. Amma bought some tubers and other garden supplies from the local nursery hoping to grow the splendorous Kashmiri flowers in our tropical Kerala home garden. The result from this experiment is still awaited! The next day we flew back from Srinagar, our checked-in luggage heavy with dry fruits, Kashmiri handicrafts, and some Mushk Budij- a fragrant short grain rice which seemed to be a cousin of the famed Jeerakashala/Kaima rice of Kerala. Our driver Mr Shaukat quite the efficient guide;he also helped us in finding the best shops in the town for making the purchases. On the return flight, my wish to view the snow-covered Himalayas from the airplane window was granted.
We are now back in Bhopal, and it is raining cats and dogs. As I munch on walnuts and enjoy my steaming cup of Kehwa, I hear Manohar regale his friends with his trekking adventures for the nth time. Maybe it’s time to plan our next escapade.
PHOTO CREDIT : DR AISWARYALAKSHMI & MANOHAR KRISHNAN
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