Kashmir: Unforgettable journey through a wondrous place
Top 10 things to do in Kashmir & tips on how to do them
Long long years ago, Persian poet Amir Khusru had quipped "Gar firdous baroye zameen ast, hami asto, hami asto hami ast", meaning "If there is a paradise upon earth, it is here, it is here, it is here". It was Kashmir, Khushru was referring to.
It has been over eight centuries now since Khusru walked the land of Kashmir. Yet, his words still ring true even to this day. Kashmir, the beautiful valley in India's northern corridor retains a regal and majestic charm with infinite blessings of nature.
Traveling to Kashmir is often a cherished wish or a fantasy of many Indians and foreigners as well. Largely due to security concerns many are unable to convert their dreams into reality.
Yet, any traveler who has traversed through the scenic locales in Kashmir will tell you that the truth is pretty different. While there are indeed a stray few incidents of terror attacks by they are largely centred around southern Kashmir, close to the border of Pakistan. Also, tourists have not been deliberately harmed or attacked in any of the incidents. The people of Kashmir, given their dependence on tourism, are always eager and protective about tourists. Making Kashmir almost as accessible or safe as any other place in South Asia.
Nonetheless, there are certain unique traits about Kashmir that must be borne in mind by the travelers:
Weather - Kashmir has the most majestic air-conditioning system in the world, with snow-clad mountains of the Himalayas surrounding it from all sides. Result, the weather is either pleasant or awfully chilly in the Valley. Though towards Jammu, it can be hot and humid.
Culture - Kashmir is largely Muslim and the same reflects in the culture. So Friday (Jumma) is more like a holiday and alcohol is banned in the state (but available quite easily). The cuisine is though has more of Punjabi traces, with vegetarian fare quite readily available at all places.
Commuting - Rail line is there up till Banihal, but it is actually Jammu only. The airport is in Srinagar, Jammu and Leh, besides that all travel must be done by car. It can be daunting, as sometimes the commute time is very unpredictable due to movement of an army convoy, an avalanche or even due to the bakkarwals that move with their herd of sheep. Cabs usually charge in the range of 3000 per day.
Shopping - Kashmir is famous for rugs and shawls and believe me they are prohibitively expensive. Paper-maiche is another famous handicraft, but purchase it only from government emporium like the one in front of Shikara stand 4 in Srinagar. Dry fruits can be bought from Jain Dry fruit store in Lal Chowk, they are genuine and economical.
Tourism - Traveling to Kashmir is not cheap, because traveling within a city has to be done (forcibly) through the local commute. The taxi unions and the horse-wallahs are pretty strong, thus in various places you will have to leave your car and pay extra for a local cab or horse. Sadly nothing comes cheap, neither the horse, the Shikara or even the Gondola, so be ready to spend a few thousands on such stuff on a daily basis.
Miscellaneous - Do remember that the Internet connection in Kashmir is fairly intermittent and can get very frustrating at times. Because of poor connectivity most of the times, the credit cards/debit cards don't work at shops, especially the smaller and mid ones. Keep your ids handy, as security checks are common. Also, be respectful of the cultural milieu in Kashmir, it is better to civil and nice in behavior.
Top 10 things to do in Jammu & Kashmir
So, now that you have got the basics right, it is time to begin exploring Kashmir in earnest. While every man (or women) has their own choices, here's a sampling of some of the best (or popular) things that you can do in Kashmir.
1. Swaying with the Gondola in Gulmarg
Well, there's a Gondola in Venice and then there is the Gondola in Gulmarg, the former is a boat and the latter is a ski-lift. The Gondola in Gulmarg is second-highest in the world and is divided in two stages that takes you within minutes to a height of 14000 ft., the Peak of Kongdoori Mountain. Costing a not-so-modest 1600 bucks (700+900), the trip is amazing as it takes you from a green meadow to a snow peak in just a few minutes. This is especially popular during the winter months, when Gulmarg turns into a skiing paradise. Nonetheless, for a tropical country like India, just being able to play with snowballs or sledge around in rented snow jackets and boots is a great thing.
2. House boating in Srinagar
Many people will tell you that the houseboat experience in Dal Lake is overrated. But, don't let that deter you or put you off. For all the commercialisation and the ostentatious crassness, living it up in a houseboat is still an experience to cherish. Combine it with Shikara rides (mind not the whole bunch of sellers that will try to peddle their ware) and a latte coffee at the Gulshan bookstore on the Nehru Park island can be a rewarding experience. Choose a good houseboat, like one from the California group, these are regal boats with an interior that takes you back to the British Raj.
The best part of living in a boat house, is about waking up on it to see the dawn break. A few days for a few thousands a day is totally worth it. Also, just opposite the Dal Lake is the Boulevard Street where you will find all the restaurants and hotel like, the Winter's Tale, which is India's first theme coffee-shop based on the Game of Thrones series, it lies just next to Paradise Hotel opposite Shikara stand 4.
3. Zeropointing in Sonamarg
Around 80 kms away from Srinagar, Sonmarg is a gateway to another snowy place on NH1. A good 30 kms from Sonmarg lies a place called Zeropoint, this place opens just for 6 months in a year, the rest of the time the highway that leads to Ladakh is snowed in. This is yet another snowland, where you can indulge in skiing, sledging and snow motoring, all in the summer months of May!
But be aware, the trip to Zeropoint can be costly, as the Tata Sumos charge a bomb, anything from 6 to 10K for a single-day trip. But then, at the end of it, the experience is worth it.
4. Magnificent ruins of Martand Sun Temple
In the district of Anantnag, lies the amazing ruins of India's first sun temple. Built by Lalitaditya Muktapida in the 8th Century CE, the temple is in ruins currently. Yet, even so the majestic pillars and the setting reveal a past that would have been no less than glorious. Sadly, the approach road to the temple is a tricky one, where even Google Maps goes for a toss. As there are no security or government officials there, it makes for an uneasy setting, especially since Anantnag is known to flare up now and then.
Nonetheless, a visit to these ruins is no less of an experience than visiting those temples in Hampi. The Martand temple is a symbol of Kashmir's glorious past, so what if it is in ruins now.
5. Incredible charm of Aru in Pahalgam
Just a few kms on the incline from Pahalgam lies an amazing valley surrounded by snow-clad peaks on all sides. Aru Valley is the name of the place and is breathtakingly beautiful. At one of the dome-shaped observatories here, one can sit for hours and admire the work of nature.
Meanwhile, Aru is also the starting point for popular treks in Pahalgam, like the one to Kolhahoi glacier that is known to be the source for Lidder river that flows through Pahalgam and currently under threat due to climate change.
6. Walking in nature at Patnitop
Patnitop is a little table-land hill station on the Shivalik hills near Jammu. Lying on the way to Srinagar, Patnitop is renowned for its meandering roads that are lined with tall Deodhar and Pine trees.
Walking through the roads can be a heartening experience, especially as the sun sets in. The weather in Patnitop can change in an instant, going from a sunny clime to rainy chime in a matter of minutes.
The Pine Trees of Patnitop
7. Crossing India's longest tunnel at Chenani-Nashri
Just 2 km from Patnitop lies an amazing feat of engineering. A 9.2 Km tunnel that cuts right through the hill, connecting the towns of Chenani and Nashri. This is the longest road tunnel in India and cuts the distance between Jammu and Srinagar by as much as 50 kms. This tunnel saves close to 2-3 hours of travel time, saving millions of litres of fuel every year. The two-lane bi-directional tunnel is a high security zone, and is a wonder to travel on.
8. The crystal waters of Jhelum at Verinag
At the threshold between Jammu and Srinagar lies the town of Verinag. While, it might seem a rather inconsequential one, but it has within it the seed of the Jhelum river. There is a spring at Verinag which is considered to be the source of Jhelum. There is also a historical connection to Verinag that links it to the Mughal empire. It was in the 16th Century CE that Mughal Emperor Jahangir visited Verinag and was so impressed by the water quality that he built an octagonal tank and a park around it. Today, the tank with various inscriptions in Persian is a reminder of that connection.
The spring at Verinag
9. Religious climb at Katra
Vaishnodevi is one of the most popular shrine for Hindus. Located on the Trikuta mountain in Jammu. Katra is starting point for the Vaishnodevi climb that is around 14 kms to the top. While there are many means available to reach the temple at the top, like horse, electric car, helicopter, devotees still prefer to trek it up on foot. The Vaishnodevi temple is also the only temple in the world to be open 24 hours, and thanks to the temple management has much of the things streamlined.
10. Return to civilization in Jammu
While the Kashmir valley with its spread out locales and green cover gives you an ethereal experience, Jammu is a return to civilisation. The winter capital of the state, Jammu is a bustling centre of commerce and culture. With scores of shopping locales, malls, and theatres (missing in Kashmir), a visit to Jammu can be sort of a decompression unit after a deep dive into the ocean. There are quite a few interesting museums in the city and of course the famous Raghunath Temple right at the very heart of the city.
The clean roads of Jammu
Given the topography of Kashmir, it is best advised to undertake a tour that follows a line. Here is a suggested itinerary for a tour that includes a trip to Jammu.
1. Land in Srinagar - Move to Gulmarg
2. Gulmarg - Max 2 nights
3. Srinagar - 3 nights, including a single day return to Sonmarg
4. Pahalgam - 2 Nights
5. Patnitop - 1 Night
6. Jammu - 2 Nights including a single day trek to Vaishnodevi temple
7. Train or plane out of Jammu
In the end, a journey through Kashmir is an experience of lifetime. Don't let anything spoil the same for you. The conflict in the state is much complex (in case you are interested click this link for an indepth analysis).
Follow your heart, and let your steps take you through the paradise that Khusru had so beautifully described.