As soon as our flight begins its descent into Srinagar, I see a glimpse of heaven as snow-capped mountains, flowing rivulets, and Chinar trees appear and take shape below.
This is a family holiday and in the next eight days, I will see many more sights that will make me realize what the poet Hazrat Amir Khusro is said to have penned about Kashmir—“Agar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast, Hameen ast-o hameen ast-o hameen ast” translating as, “If there is a paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this.”
The rush at the airport and the conveyor belt makes me wonder whether the whole country has made a beeline for Kashmir. With tourism opening up in the last couple of years, it seems to be a popular destination for travelers. But the road blocks and the re-routes that our driver is forced to make gives us an idea of what the average Kashmiri has to live with every day—a state of uncertainty. Yet, when I look around, I see peaceful faces, perhaps even resigned faces. One driver, seeing our bewildered look, leans and yells out, “This is Kashmir!” The only frustration that is visible is the constant tooting of horns, making one wish for a set of ear plugs.
At Bloomingdale Cottage, our home-stay, we are greeted with the rich Kashmiri tea called kahwa and cookies and the warm welcome of one of the best hoteliers that I have ever had the good fortune to meet. Firdaus Saheb is the quintessential gentleman host who takes us sightseeing in his car on our first evening in Srinagar (and shopping on our last one), when we have our first sighting of the Dal Lake and the famous houseboats.
Bloomingdale turns out to be our home away from home, thanks to Firdaus Saheb’s familial warmth and the care of his two Man Fridays, both of whom see to all our comforts and needs.
A visit to Srinagar is incomplete without a visit to the Mughal Gardens. As the name suggests these tastefully landscaped spaces were set up during the era of the Mughals and reveal their love for natural beauty. Chashme Shahi, Nishat Bagh, Shalimar and the Botanical Gardens play host to a variety of flowers, fountains and waterfalls, which are a feast for the eyes. Kashmir ki Kali and many other Hindi films of the ’60s and ’70s made use of the valley’s scenic sights for the romantic duets of the leading pairs.
At Chasme Shahi we scoop fresh water from mountain springs and enjoy the feel of the ice cold water going down our throats.
A visit to the Shankaracharya Hill reveals a bird’s eye view of Srinagar from the ramparts of the temple.
There are crowds milling everywhere except perhaps at the Hazratbal Mosque, where there is a strict dress code for men. Women can only have a view from the outside.
Abdul Majeed, our well-informed driver who ferries us around, becomes our friend, philosopher and guide for the rest of our stay in Kashmir. Our first stop is Gulmarg, where a steep trek by foot to the ticketing counter is followed by a long wait for a cable car—a gondola that operates in two phases. It has to be mentioned here that though Kashmir thrives on tourism, there is complete mismanagement in several places. In Gulmarg, we see touts running the whole show and allowing people who have paid speed money, to jump the queue. The ride on the gondola affords scenic views and we decide to get off at the second phase, which is higher than the first. I’m excited to be walking on snow, for the first time, a task easier achieved with a pair of rubber boots (compulsory and available on hire) as also a ride on a sled.
Pahalgam is the next stop on our itinerary. En-route, we get off at the Avantipura Ruins, where the Pandavas are said to have stopped by. It is a beautiful place for photographs and we click away to our heart’s content. We stop by some apple orchards, where a few green apples are making their appearance. Our driver also shows us almond, walnut, chinar and pine trees.
The Himalaya Discover Resort at Pahalgam turns out to be a great shock, as what we booked on the Internet is different from what we actually find. We are fortunate enough to find an alternative and use the rest of the day to take rides through the Aru and Betaab valleys and Chandanwadi, from where the Amarnath yatris start their pilgrimage. These journeys are compulsorily done with the use of a local car and driver and we stare spellbound at the sights of the lakes and springs and snowy mountain tops, as he drives us up and down the valleys. One can only say that in Kashmir the journeys can be as pleasurable as the destinations and we request the driver to stop so that we can sit on the rocks and dip our feet in ice-cold streams we encounter along the way.
Pahalgam turns out to be memorable in more ways than one because here is where I take a toss along with a mountain horse whilst heading up to Baisaran Valley, also known as mini Switzerland because of the hill and dale view. Luckily my wounds are superficial but what is disturbing is the lack of first aid for such possibilities. Nevertheless, I sit back on the horse again and enjoy the rest of the journey, opting for first aid at a civil hospital in Pahalgam town. The doctors tell me that I am fortunate, as they have seen much worse.
There is a saying that wherever you throw a stone in Kashmir, you will find a beautiful sight to behold. We realize this again en-route to Hotel Paradise Resort in Daksum. The hotel is luxury personified and my room has a small sitting area overlooking the mountains, where I spend some happy moments just gazing out at nature’s bounties.
After breakfast the next morning, we climb approximately 14,500 feet to the snowy Sinthan Top. As always, the views along the way are enthralling. At the top, the stream waters slide down and drench the road so the driver has to be proficient. On account of a sprained foot, I climb only a portion of the mountain and spend the rest of the time just enjoying and photographing the wondrous sights around me.
At our next halt in Kokarnag, we stay at a quaint cottage run by Jammu and Kashmir Tourism. The service here is passable but the staff is friendly and the greatest attraction is its location, which is inside a park. After the tourist crowd leaves, it is like having the park to oneself whilst walking past the waterfalls and stopping to smell the multi-hued roses, which are huge in size and blooming in gay profusion.
One cannot visit Kashmir without picking up dried fruits, the famed Kashmiri chillies and saffron. We do this in a place called Paunpur and are surprised to find the driver pointing out bullet pockmarked buildings along the way; battlegrounds between security forces and militants. In many of the tourist spots, it seems a little eerie to see uniformed police keeping guard—a reminder of the insecurities that beset this valley.
Farah’s Homestay on the way up to Sonamarg is the saving grace for this part of our journey. It is a charming little place run by a Kashmiri and French couple, who have named it after their perky four and a half year-old daughter, Farah, who barges into our room, demanding chocolates.
This part of our journey is marred by bad weather and the climb up to Sonamarg is dark and dreary. The sky is overcast and the mountains are out of sight.
Now, that I am back and writing this piece, I wonder if those were portents for what was to follow. Everywhere we went, people spoke of the lack of security and the breakdown of systems. One young lad said, “Please offer dua that peace is restored in the valley.” Having seen the beauty of the Heaven on earth that is Kashmir, what else can I do but pray for peace there.
Melanie Kumar is a Bangalore-based writer and literary fiction reviewer who has been freelancing for more than 15 years now. She holds degrees in English and mass communications.