He was besotted with a hand-maiden in the royal harem and he had words with his father over marrying her. Yet when he died, Emperor Jahangir’s last thoughts were not about Nur Jahan — ‘the light of the world’. Jahangir died with ‘Kashmir’ on his lips. Read a thousand words or view a hundred pictures, yet there is no substitute to visiting Kashmir. It has to be experienced. Kashmir fills your eyes with colour, your lungs with pine-scented air mixed with the fragrance of a hundred flowers and your soul a sense of well being. Why wait for paradise till after you pass on. It is right here to be felt and cherished. The route we’ve chalked out takes you from Leh to Srinagar, traverses the Ladakh range from Leh to Kargil and then heads across the Zanskar range via the mighty Zoji La and enters the colourful vale of Kashmir at Sonmarg.
Kashmir is very pleasant from April to end July. The summer months of June and July have long days and cooling showers. Gulmarg is ideal for skiing during January to March and you can frolic in the snow right till May-end. Snow can be seen during June and July at Khilanmarg, which is a cable-car ride from Gulmarg.
To really experience Srinagar's magic, stay in a houseboat but do book in advance. Our advice for a Kashmiri holiday is plan for a few days leeway for you will definitely want to extend your stay. It happens to most visitors to this scenic state.
Though mostly tarred now, the Manali-Leh road is still daunting with some bad stretches and steep inclines. A 4x4 would be a definite advantage but a two-box or mid-size car would also do. In fact, passenger cars are now a common sight on this road. Ensure that your car is in top condition and get a thorough service done before you leave. Carry all up-to-date car papers. Also two spare wheels, two extra tubes, even if you are running tubeless tyres. Remember, you will also have to carry spare fuel as there is no fuel pump for 375km and the high-altitude road is full of inclines. So estimate the amount of litres to be carried.
From Leh to Kargil, it's a beautiful drive; do take the time to stop and visit the Alchi and Lamayuru Gompas en route. Stone markers proudly declare that you are travelling on 'Pot-Hole Free' roads built by BRO (Border Road Organisation). The Zoji La ('la means pass') between Kargil and Sonmarg opens at 4am for traffic from Kargil. The army usually allows small car traffic to leave before the trucks and convoys of army vehicles. Be at the Meenamarg checkpost 86km from Kargil by 4am. For this you have to leave Kargil by 2am. Also, the weekly dry day - when the pass is shut for repairs - is Friday and no traffic is allowed from either side then.
Srinagar has traffic like most other Indian cities. Plenty of private buses ply for local commute and tend to stop in the middle of the road. Traffic is controlled by blue -uniformed police. The roads to Gulmarg and Pahalgam are quite wide and smooth. The highways are well marked and the locals so helpful that if you ask them for directions, you'll almost always be offered a cup of tea.
A Word of Caution...
... Kashmir and its people are trying to make a determined comeback to normalcy and they are doing quite a good job about it. Tourists are slowly returning to this paradise and there's hope in the eyes of locals that life will be normal again. The army is omnipresent in Kashmir and you'll see a lot of guns, trucks and uniforms. But they are not at all intrusive. If you are stopped and asked questions, answer them politely and you won't bothered. Never ever jump a roadblock and always stop if you are signaled to by men in uniform. Do carry proper identification showing your picture and proof of address. A PAN or voter's ID card are good options. Remember that it is due to the determined efforts of the army and the J&K police that the valley has become relatively safe for tourists.
Having said all this, you are still advised to check the political situation before you go. Bomb blasts do occur once in a while and militants are not entirely inactive. There is a certain risk involved in visiting Kashmir, but on the other hand it is an immensely beautiful land.
Issue: 165 | May 2013
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