The hues of green and yellow meadows open vast to welcome you, the shimmering water spreads far to receive you, the sun glimmers on the pure ice of the heavenly mountains that so gloriously felicitates you − this is Kashmir − a region so desired by two countries.
Its day one and all of us are fuelled with frenzy wishing to do everything and go everywhere from what we looked up on the net and heard from our friends. We are escorted to our guest house, a neat and adequately furnished place with immaculate lawns and blooming flowers striking an impression at the first sight itself. The guest house seemed like our personal holiday home with hardly any soul wandering, something we absolutely appreciated and yearned for after hearing the unprecedented hordes of tourists visiting Kashmir every year. We meet one of the many kind officials of the BSF who is well versed with the state and its speciality and meticulously lays out a 7-day optimised plan that potentially covers all of that Kashmir is known for. With a finalised itinerary we head out to our first place-of-interest in Srinagar − the Chashme Shahi Mughal garden.
We enter the bustling promenade of the garden filled with children, honeymooners, the old and the not-so-old. The Mughal architecture is one of the most famous and widespread in eastern world. Their obsession with immaculate geometry and rigorous symmetry is what sets them a class apart. Their vision of open spaces and immensity was very much demonstrated in their garden and tombs in Kashmir and across India. The Chashme Shahi Garden consists of a tap mounted on a wall which brings the water of the glaciers and is rumoured to cure stomach ailments. The Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, used to have his water from this very spring delivered to Delhi. The garden seemed to have the greatest footfall of all time each aspiring to drink from the tap of the royalty. Avoiding being jostled around, I, for one, did not want to disturb the bacteria in my stomach so I let them be and wandered to explore the beautiful terrain that the place had to offer. Being one of the small gardens it did not lack the beauty of its surrounding location.
Considering the places of the previous day as trailers, we looked forward to the movie − Gulmarg − A place that has repeatedly found itself in the newspaper for its wonderful winter scenes and a popular skiing destination. Its Gondola rides, highest in the world, takes visitors to the peak of the mountain (at a height of 4500ft) making it the highest cable car ride in the world and one of the most visited destinations. The journey of almost 56km from Srinagar seemed to have been covered quickly. We reached the plains of Gulmarg which displayed glimpses of what we were about to see. As we went further, we shuddered to see a serpentine line of people which seemed to end at infinity. Determined nevertheless we continued on our path, bumped and elbowed as we sat in the 6-seater gondola and drooled over the spectacular scenes of meadows and ice. We made it alive to our summit! The little stale snow that was left over from the last winter still excited us and we climbed higher and higher until we weren’t allowed further due to security reasons. The weather was perfect with the cool refreshing breeze but also in the distance one could hear the clouds threaten and warn to bring a torrential rain. Our luck was good because as soon as we sat in the gondola it had begun to pour, dodging the rain we returned to the base dry and satisfied and now our only wish was to return back and feast after the long tiresome yet, memorable journey.
We were advised to explore Srinagar before we embark on another long journey of Pahalgam. All of us looked forward to go boating in the famous ‘shikara’ of the popular Dal lake which is iconic and representative of Kashmir and one which appears in every movie shot in Kashmir. Its water seems to touch the ends of the city spanning over 23 km with a solid ecosystem thriving in itself. We hired two shikaras – khubsoorat and naazara – the beautiful and the beautiful sight. We were delighted to step into a very comfortable and colourful boat drifting into the placid lake and with the commentary of our cheerful rowers amidst the water lotus and boat houses. We were then taken to the water market. Swearing to refrain from retail therapy we ended up buying almost 10 things all thanks to good humoured and determined shopkeepers. Everything of Kashmir glitters and appears as gold and we spent most of our time in shopping. We decided that we must come another day and go to a quiet place away from the crowd where we could just enjoy the splendid silence.
We began from the roads of Srinagar into the fields of saffron at Pampur, to Pahalgam − the valley of shepherds. The journey had transformed from plain field to steep mountains with a gorge. The Jhelum river, with the recent rain, seemed quite furious but its tone of grey white and blue seduced us into reaching for it. On reaching the place synonymous with films such as Betaab, Rockstar, and Jab Tak Hai Jaan, we hired five ponies and two pony riders and went on to what they call “the little Swiss valley”. The ride to the valley was not as comfortable as you would imagine, with the rain making the slim path muddy and the ponies struggling to climb, dodge, and balance themselves. One could notice the horror, and the shrieks of apprehension on the faces of people with their life stuck in the fate of the pony. It was a complete drama with the ponies slipping and dropping people off their back, small children crying and the women repeatedly asking the pony riders if everything will be alright. All those present there on that day would surely never forget their trip to Pahalgam. The exasperating experience was worth the splendour of the Swiss valley, I for one was ready to make 10 more treacherous journeys to see a place this beautiful. The lush green meadow spread far and wide with conifers filling every empty space and the snow clad mountains standing straight producing a charming contrast. It had begun to rain and everyone ran for shelter under the trees including the ponies.
Sadly, it was time to leave and we prayed and hoped that the path downhill would be pleasant. It was in fact pleasant and wide, allowing us to relax our tensed nerves and finally enjoy the sights. Our pony riders, namely Aatif and Mohammed Rafi kept on singing, humouring and coming up with clever one liners, they gave in all they could to make the trip an unforgettable experience.
It was the end of yet another beautiful and eventful day. With just one day left in Kashmir we had to use it wisely and so we did! We were back onto the Dal keeping our promise of returning and hopped onto Khoobsurat and asked the boat guy to take us to the side with few people − if there was any. Our rower made sure that none of the other boat walaas disturb us with their knick-knacks and took us far away to a serene corner of Dal.
I dipped my feet into the lukewarm water, put on some jazz music on and weaved the beautiful scenes into the music so that whenever I hear these tunes I can comfortably slip into nostalgia and enjoy the experience over and over again.
The old Srinagar, just like any other forgotten place, had its grand domes and wide spaces with the old sketchy and sepia tinge adding to its charm. This was another sneak-fest initiative taken by our Mr. Feroze. One could hardly see any tourists and the ones present seemed as if they have lost their way and landed accidentally to this not-so-visited downtown. We were literally smuggled into the fort of Hari Parbat, closed for tourists, currently under renovation with CRPF men dispatched for surveillance. This fort was built by Akbar in 1590 for the purpose of guarding the city from attacks and invasion but it was completed in 1808 by Shuja Shah Durrani. Located at the top of the mountain opposite Dal lake it was the highest point in Srinagar with 360 degree view of the city. The climb was long and steep but the view immaculate. The best part was the windows that seemed like photo frames hung on the wall with the painting of the sky, mountains, the birds and houses. A natural masterpiece.
Alas, the sun went down and so did our hearts as it was time to leave and say good bye to the week-long bliss. The people, the waters and weather would remain as fond memories.