”Gar firdaus, ruhe zamin ast, hamin asto, hamin asto, hamin ast.” If there is ever a heaven on earth, its here, its here, its here.
Anyone who has seen Kashmir Ki Kali (1964) would have dreamt of visiting Kashmir . We finally translated our dreams to reality and spent 9 days in Kashmir on a family holiday. Yes we were a little concerned about safety especially with the recent Afzal Guru incident - but it turned out to be a wonderful and memorable holiday and we all agree with what Firdaus & Jehangir say about Kashmir. here is a quick planner with tips on how you could go about planning your holiday.
Day 0, Fri - Evening we departed Bangalore at 1845 to Delhi and spent the night at a small rustic place close to the airport at Anand Niketan called “ Inn at Delhi” - its basically a B&B with the owners staying on the 1st floor and about 5 rooms in the G Floor. Its basic and functional, close to the airport, good for a one night transit stop.
Day 1 & 2 , Sat / Sun – Delhi to Srinagar is a 1 hr 25 min flight and as you land you can see the lovely valley surrounded by snow capped mountains. We reached at 12.35 and the cars were ready to take us to Gulmarg. Known as the Skiing capital of India its about 60 Km from Srinagar and you save 30 min if you drive straight from the airport rather than the City. We covered this journey in about 2 hrs . The 1st hr was regular road (You can stop at Mirch Masala for lunch , its about 45 min drive from Srinagar airport) the last 60 min was a climb up the mountain – not too many hairpin bends , easy climb to 8830 feet (Ooty is about 7000 feet). On the way you cross Tanmarg (The drivers may stop here and ask you to rent Snow Shoes & Jackets – but please refrain, there are better shops in Gulmarg). Gulmarg is a small town and is famous for its Cable Car (Gondola) rides. The cable car rises in two stretches and the final height is about 12,200 feet. Tickets for each section is to be bought separately and they cost Rs 400 for 1st stage and 600 for the 2nd stage. The cable cars are small and can accommodate 6 people – takes about 8 Min to reach level 1. The level 1 landing point has many shops / activities ( Skiing , Snow Biking etc) and can keep you busy for 60 – 90 minutes. Level 2 is the peak – windy & cold ( It is closed at times if the wind speeds are very high). Gulmarg has a lot of snow even in April ( we had over 4 feet) and temp is cold – 0 to 10 Degrees, so be armed with thick jackets, Thermals , gloves and socks. Helps if you have a nice shoe with thick rubber soles (Woodlands Type) - that way you can avoid renting the rubber shoes. Avoid walking on snow in normal shoes.
The Q for tickets for the Gondola ride can get very long – we were lucky as our Travel agent had organized for the same. Most people do a day trip to Gulmarg so it gets very crowded from 10 AM to 5 PM. We stayed for 2 nights and the kids spent a lot of time in the snow near the hotel. We stayed at a lovely place called The Vintage – nice comfortable hotel with about 40 rooms. We had selected a suite so it was very comfortable, excellent heating and the food was great (Don’t miss the Kashmiri Pulao packed with dry fruits) . The only challenge was the walk from the hotel to the Gondola ride – its a 3 km walk , you can take a sledge or walk. The sledge is a wooden cart manually pulled and did not look very comfortable. There are good hotels near the cable car (Khyber & Highland Park) – staying there can save you the walk.
There are limited places to see - and being an army camp most places are out of bounds for travelers. We had a relaxing easy 2 nights , 1 1/2 days – but I guess a night stay was probably enough to cover the place.
Day 3, 4, 5 , Mon / Tue / Wed
Post Breakfast we left Gulmarg on Mon morning and headed to Srinagar , reaching the Dar – E – Salam hotel by lunch time. Its a lovely hotel on the banks of the Nageen Lake (A part of the Dal lake) – 14 lovely rooms , a lovely garden , and Shikara rides right from the hotel, it actually looks like a colonial mansion. We consciously decided against big brand hotels and the service and comfort of small boutique hotels was excellent all through our travel.
Srinagar is famous for 3 Things 1. Lovely Mughal Gardens 2. Shikara Rides 3. Boat House . We had planned our trip in April so that we could see the famous Tulip gardens. The garden is open for a month every year around end March to end April. Its a very pleasant sight to see row after row of colorful Tulips. They say Amsterdam is Tulip city but in April you can get the same experience in Srinagar.
Right next to the Tulip garden is the Botanical Garden. Close to this is the Chashme Shahi and Pari Mahal ( Palace built by Jehangir for his daughters) . If you plan well you can cover all these spots in the morning and head for lunch to the newly opened Taj Vivanta that is close by on the top of a hill. Food is good but the view of Srinagar and the Tulip garden from the top of the hotel is better. So yes the lunch may be a tad expensive but reason with yourself that some of the cost is apportioned for the view. The Botanical Gardens is very well maintained ( would probably rate it at par with the one at Ooty) and during the sunset you can get some brilliant photos.
The other famous gardens are the Shalimar Gardens & the Mughal Gardens. You may get bored visiting so many gardens but do ensure that you visit the Badaam Vari (Almond Garden) – as the name suggests its a garden full of lovely almond trees. Of all the parks we visited I liked this the best , we were there at 930 AM and the park was empty. vast expanse of well maintained gardens and lovely trees and you just felt like lying down on the grass and spending the full day. With such lovely gardens in Srinagar I wonder why they call Bangalore the city of gardens ? Srinagar is a lovely city – broad roads , nice pavements , limited population , fresh air , and a lovely view with mountains all around.
Talking of Almonds – Kashmir is the best place to buy Almonds, Walnuts , Saffron & Pashmina . They are cheaper here by 50%. 1 KG of Walnut that costs Rs 1600 in INA Market Delhi is just Rs 600/- in Srinagar. And so is the Mamra Badam . Pure Saffron costs about Rs 200 / gm . So remember to keep some space in your bags to get back a lot of these for you & your friends. The pashmina stoles start from Rs 1000 ( 30% Pashmina) but the pure ones can be as high as Rs 3500. Yet they are a fraction of the price that you will pay in Bangalore – so all the Gujju’s & Sindhi’s reading this blog – here is a great business opportunity for you.
After you have walked around the parks do try out the Shikara. The Dal Lake extends all over Srinagar across nearly 45 Sq Kms. All along the lake you have Shikara – costs only Rs 300 / Hr. It can accommodate 2 Adults & 2 Kids, but try and stay 2 to a boat gives you that much more space to stretch & relax. The Shikara will winds its way through the lake talking you to floating markets , lotus ponds and many more interesting places. You will also see many houseboats. Most people do spend a day at the houseboats – we decided against it. It does look cramped and damp, its stationery and one worries about how they handle their sanitation – and the only way to reach the boat house is by the Shikara. The boat houses come in different varieties – and rates vary from Rs 1000 to Rs 6000 / night.
What else to do in Srinagar – you can visit the Hazratbal Mosque, the Temple of Shankaracharya (Hilltop Temple, that requires a 30 min walk up some 300 steps) , take a balloon ride, and visit the Dargah of Sheikh Abdullah . Also do visit the Lalit Ashok hotel. This is a royal palace of the Dogra King converted to a 5 Star Hotel. It has lovely lawns and a beautiful garden overlooking the rooms. Its a lovely hotel and we spent some time here over lunch. The weather is lovely – a pleasant 10 – 20 Degrees. Bright & Sunny.
Distances in Srinagar are small and you can cover the city easily in two days. The river Jhelum flows close by so you can always venture out for some treks. Shops are open from 7 AM to 10.30 PM – so there is enough time to shop late in the evening. There is a central market area which has a lot of lovely shops. No malls / No Pubs / No bars – so nightlife is non existent. Some people take a day off and head to Sonmarg – but if you have been to Gulmarg , it may not make sense going to Sonmarg.
Day 6, 7, 8 , Thu / Fri / Sat
After 3 lovely days at Srinagar we headed to Pahlgam on Thu morning. Pahalgam is 92 Km from Srinagar and takes about 3 1/2 hrs. Half the ride is thru dusty roads and small villages on the way you will see many farms growing Saffron . After the midpoint (Anantnag) the scenery gets beautiful . The Lidder river flows with joy and purpose and both sides of the roads are full of yellow dancing mustard fields. On the way you will cross two famous points – Avantika which was the capital of the Hindu king in 800 AD , you can see the ruins of a large Shiva & Vishnu temple on the main road. A little ahead a small detour can take you to the Markand temple – one of the rare Sun temples in India. Not a very impressive structure but its unique that the same complex has a Gurudwara and the Sun temple. It also has a natural rapid .
Pahalgam has the best scenic beauty of the 3 places. Lofty snow capped mountains , Lidder river and some amazing spots – its been the scene of many a film shoot. One of the valleys is named Betaab Valley and even the recent Shah Rukh Khan movie ” Jab Tak He Jaan” was shot in Pahalgam. We stayed at the lovely Pahalgam Hotel – a 90 year old hotel that has been the venue of many a film shoot including Khamoosh. The rooms are very spacious (we again had a lovely Suite) and the service / Food is excellent. The Hotel is located on the main street close to the Taxi Stand.
Around Pehelgam there are three main areas to visit
1. Betaab Valley & Chandan Wadi – this is the route taken by the pilgrims who trek to Amarnath ( Pahelgam is the base camp for Amarnath Yatra , you can get a helicopter ride from here also). Betaab Valley is 12 Km and Chandan Wadi is 16 Km from Pehelgam – a lot of snow in Chandan Wadi so Kids can have round 2 after Gulmarg. The scenery is enchanting as you see the snow melting and flowing into the river gushing by. Budget 2 – 3 hrs for this visit. Cab rates are cheap and an Innova costs Rs 1300/-
2. Aru Valley – 11 Km from Pehelgam takes about 45 min. Nothing much to see here . the drive is scenic . One you reach the destination you can take horse rides to see some scenic spots. Innova rents for Rs 800/- for this trip.
3. Horse Ride trek to Baisaran , Dabian & Kashmir valley. This is a must do. The horse climbs up & down steep slopes riddled with boulders and its scary as it walks on the edge of deep ravines. To cover all the 3 places will take about 3 hrs. This area is called Mini Switzerland and is a must visit. Yes the Horse ride can leave you sore the next day – but its worth it. Priced at Rs 700/- but you will give a very generous tip at the end of the trip.
The Pahalgam hotel overlooks the Lidder river and sitting in the garden drinking Chai & pakora is itself a moment to cherish. The hotel provides Buffet Breakfast , Lunch & Dinner – but I would strongly recommend the Restaurant right in front of the hotel for Lunch – Called Dana Pani , its a nice restaurant run by a Sardar and serves excellent N Indian & S India dishes. After many days we were thrilled to eat Idly, Dosa & Curd Rice here. Overall food all across Kashmir was superb – most places were pure veg , the challenge if any was that the food was too rich and towards the end we started requesting for simple dry non gravy Sabji.
Imp to note that in both Gulmarg & Pahalgam you can use only local cars – the cars you get from Srinagar need to be parked in the hotel.
On Sat we left Pahalgam after lunch and headed back to Srinagar, reaching the Dar E Salam hotel by 4.30 PM.
Day 9, Sun
After an early breakfast , we headed back to the Airport and reached Bangalore Via delhi by evening. Security at the Srinagar airport is very strict so plan to reach 2 hrs in advance. Security is visible all across – gun toting CRPF is seen every 1 km in the roads , most of the large buildings the forts , cricket stadium etc have been taken over by the army / CRPF / BSF – local residents are clearly upset with ASFSPA.
That concluded a wonderful trip to Kashmir , and we all will savour the sweet memories of this lovely land and its soft spoken beautiful people for many years. Its indeed a beautiful state and as I read the book on my return flight ” Tragic Hero of Kashmir – Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah” by Ajit Bhattacharjea I could not but help feel sad at the broken promises made to them. What added to the fun in the trip was the company of Jayshree & Family – its always good to have like minded company when on an extended holiday.
The trip cost us a fraction of what we would have spent if we had travelled to Switzerland ( 9 Nights 10 days for about $ 2700 – Excluding airfare). This included suite rooms for 4 ( always helps to have a suite when you are a family of 4 with lots of luggage), an Innova at your disposal all through the day , breakfast and even dinner in some places. Entry fees for most attractions were a pittance – 5 to 10 Rs / person.
We owe our thanks to Ketki Kapoor from Hopp Worldwide for helping us with all the bookings. We had planned our trip nearly 6 months back – so we got excellent rates. The itinerary was smooth and not rushed – its always good to have some extra time to budget for kids falling sick or a rainy ( snowy) day so any of you planning a similar trip do feel free to reach out to Ketki – contact details are below.
Ketaki Kapur Pantle (email@example.com)
Hopp Worldwide Excursions Ltd
F44 Bhagat Singh Market
New Delhi 110001
Ph- 91 11 43780000