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.
Kashmir is not meant to be 'sightseen', its meant to be allowed to wrap itself around you. Drift rather than rush, feel rather than see and let this land envelope you in its charm
Kashmir - paradise in India
The winding 15km road up to Gulmarg from Tangmarg, which is lined with colourful flower beds and tall cedar trees, will give you an idea of things to come. Where there is a break in the foliage, you’ll glimpse snow-capped mountains with their summits lost among the heavens.
Gulmarg itself is heavenly with its rolling grasslands, vibrant wildflowers and bubbling streams. Though it sees a lot of tourist traffic over the weekends, the crowds are concentrated near the Gondola (cable car) terminal and the food stalls near there. To really enjoy Gulmarg’s beauty, take a walk along the outer or inner ring roads that go through forests of pine. Hike up to Khilanmarg or ride a pony there. Taking the Gondola is the most recent way to get there, but we prefer the old pony trail. The Alapathar (frozen lake) is where you should head to get your fill of snow and ice. You could also enjoy a round of golf at the Gulmarg golf club.
The Lidder river is the life of Pahalgam. It flows through the little town and all activity happens around it. Pahalgam was a sleepy little shepherds town (Pahal = shepherd, Gam = town), but its natural beauty and scenic views have drawn in tourists.
Pahalgam has no clutch of tourist spots to see — it is a place where you can just loiter around enchanted by the views and have your spirit dance to the song of the river. You can even take your own tent and pitch it on a grassy knoll by the Lidder and camp overnight. It is absolutely safe. A pleasant excursion from Pahalgam is to Chandanwari, 16km away.
Another fabulous place a stones throw from Pahalgam is Aru just 11km away. The drive to this place is fantastic and goes along the Lidder and finally climbs away from it to cross it a various places with little wooden bridges. The grassy meadows encountered on the way are where the nomads sometimes set up camp. Aru, itself is a meadow surrounded by hills. Horsemen are at hand to take tourists for rides. This place is best visited during the early hours of the day.
If you view Srinagar from a vantage point high above the city like Pari Mahal, you’ll see that the Dal Lake makes up most of the city. This natural lake is the heart of Srinagar and life exists not only around it but on it as well. Also visit the Mughal Gardens and Cheshmashahi.
A stay on a houseboat is a must during a visit to Srinagar. Your room will most probably be wood-panelled with splendid carvings and exquisite wooden furniture. You can undertake the normal Shikhara rides on the lake during the evening and shop at the floating emporiums on the lake itself. You could also ski on the waters of the lake pulled along by a motorboat.
Every morning at 5 there is a vegetable market on the lake and it is fun to go on your little boat and watch the haggling as vendors manoeuvre their boats towards prospective customers. The most colourful are the flower vendors.
Eating out in Kashmir
Kashmir is a gourmet’s paradise and the famous Kashmiri Wazwan cuisine easily casts its spell on you. Tastebud-tickling dishes like the rista, gushtaba, yakhni and tabakmaaz, prepared with meat and Kashmiri spices, will have you asking for more. Most houseboat owners provide these dishes during your stay. You can also head down to Ahdoos restaurant near Lal Chowk in Srinagar to sample the finest Kashmiri food. Also do try the Kashmiri Kahwah, a light aromatic tea made out of saffron, cinnamon and cardamom. Evening rides on the Dal Lake sees vendors selling spicy kababs, hot corn on cob and aerated water drinks and other snacks pull up by shikaras with tourists.
Resorts, lodges, houseboats and palaces - the choice is yours!
Hotel Highland Park
Tel: 01954-2254407, 254430
This is a good option in Gulmarg with cottages set amid pretty flowerbeds and views of snow-capped mountains. The rooms are well done up, bathrooms big and there is a stove in each room for the winter chill.
The rates range from Rs 1600 to Rs 2500. Discounts are offered.
Just a few hundred yards from the Golf Club, this hotel also has splendid views.
Rates here range from Rs 800 to Rs 2000.
There are plenty of other options near the main market and the bus stand, but these are mainly budget places and are very noisy during the day when Gulmarg sees a lot of day trippers.
Senator Pine and Peak
Tel: 01936-2243304, 243210
Delhi booking office: Tel: 011-26324842/3, 26839432
Friendly staff, airy rooms with huge glass windows and a splendid pool table is what the finest hotel in Pahalgam is all about. They have bonfires on the green lawns by the river.
Rates: Usually vary from Rs 2800 to Rs 6000, but expect discounts of 50 percent or more.
The same management runs Hotel Heevan by the banks of the Lidder river. This is more popular with the locals.
This boat owned by Ghulam Mohammed is a superb option. The huge floating luxury hotel has four rooms with two master bedrooms. All the walls and ceiling have exquisite
carvings. There is a splendid seating area and a balcony from where you can observe life on the Dal Lake. A huge dining room too and each room has a bathroom equipped with a bathtub. The cook conjures up mouth-watering and sumptuous meals. Riyaz, the helper and shikhara-man, is an expert oarsman and knows every nook and corner of the Dal Lake.
The Grand Palace
This is Srinagar's 5-star hotel, part of the InterContinental Group, and was former Kashmir king Hari Singh's palace before it was converted to a hotel. Rates: Rs 5400 to Rs 18,000.