|By Rajanikanth Shenoy, Kudpi [ Published Date: August 27, 2011 ]|
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The reminiscence of my visit to Kashmir Valley in the late Eighties haunted me always and called me in my dreams to revisit and explore the valley better. My wife Meena who was deprived of the chance to visit Kashmir later, always used to tell me that life is peaceful there and we must plan a holiday sometime. This has been her regular mantra since the late Nineties when tourists started going there including foreigners.
Couple of friends who took a tour in the mid Nineties instigated her interest and made me restless!
It was this year when many who visited Kashmir and said it is peaceful and safe, that we thought of planning a holiday in summer.
My niece Sucheta Pai along with her family visited there earlier this year, but we never had a clue till they came back and informed us that they did it! The first article in this series has been written by her with literary abilities at the best I must confess, but I can’t do poetic justice to that and as a lay person I can narrate in my own words giving right hand information on how we went, what we experienced and the overall mood in Kashmir.
Thus we decided to take up the adventure. Adventure is a small word, when we think about the possibility of some disturbance that may happen anywhere within the valley and where we move around during our holiday. Yet, the solace that Amarnath Yatra was going at full swing and that security was maintained high at every level encouraged me to book a holiday through 360 Degree Himalaya Travel based in Mumbai.
They offered us an ideal package of 7 nights and 8 days that cost Rs. 20200/- per head for two persons sharing and with discount if four persons took it. Since we couldn’t find a second couple to join us at that time, we opted for the first option.
The package included –
1. Pickup and drop from and to Srinagar Airport by Tata Indicab.
2. Stay at Deluxe House Boat for 3 nights first and one more on the last day on our return to Srinagar after visiting other places.
3. Local sightseeing in Srinagar including Chashme Shahi, Nishat Bagh, Shalimar Bagh, and Shankaracharya Hill.
4. Day visit to Sonamarg and back.
5. Day visit to Yousmarg and back and a visit to Charar-I-Sharief Darga on the way.
6. One night stay at Gulmarg.
7. Two nights stay at Pahalgam.
8. Visit to Chandanvadi, Aru Valley and Betaab Valley.
9. Shikhara Boat Ride on Dal Lake.
10. All taxes including toll taxes.
11. Breakfast and dinner as per MAP(Modified American Plan)
Terms of payment: 60% while booking the holiday. Balance on receiving confirmation about hotel booking.
We took the holiday from July 30 to August 6, both days being Saturdays and convenient for us. 360 Degree Himalaya Travel was prompt enough to send us the itinerary and travel voucher with the contact names and numbers in Kashmir one week before we started from Mangalore.
I booked our journey tickets online. Train tickets to Mumbai by AC Three Tier cost Rs. 1032/- per head one way. Air Tickets cost us Rs. 8350/- per head, Mumbai to Srinagar and back. Thus, our travel expenses with the holiday package cost us Rs. 30614/- per head. Of course there were other expenses including mid day meals and beverages, if not entry fee, pony ride, local Taxi fare and guide fee at some places.
Oh! To be in Mumbai:
For those who have heard the song “Oh! To be in England”, Mumbai may seem a city out of place here. To us, it matters a lot because our base to start for Kashmir and return from there was Mumbai and the people who received us, hosted us and sent us off made all the difference.
We travelled by the Mumbai Express from Mangalore Junction that started late by 30 mins but maintained the timing to reach Thane station on the dot at 10.23 AM the next morning. It was raining rather heavily in Thane when we reached, but the porter was kind enough to carry our bags safely and ensured a dry place for us outside the station while we waited for our friend to pick us. Our friend Avinash Shenoy held-up in traffic jam as usual, reached and picked us up after 40 minutes and reached us to his warm and cozy flat.
We freshened up with hot shower and had invigorating cup of tea and snacks which he offered. His wife was away at Agra but he ensured that we are made comfortable. That’s what true friends are in life! Avinash Shenoy is an IT Engineer in Mumbai whom I met online and he showed us equal hospitality that our own relatives do!
Next was a visit to another online friend who held me in high esteem as ‘Maam’. Seema lives in Navi Mumbai. Reaching Navi Mumbai from Thane is herculean job, especially in the pouring rain! Avinash is a good driver and he negotiated his car well, minding pot holes and ditches in abundance, at places encountering traffic jam, never losing his temper! We reached Navi Mumbai round about 1.30PM and we were well treated there by my online niece with hot and homely spread of steaming Idlis, Chicken Korma, Sprouted Moong salad, Rice, Daalithove, Pickles, Dry prawns curry and Dry fruits ice cream. We spent a good time with her family before reaching Powai Lake where we took a cab to reach Juhu and visit another friend Anju, who is an air hostess.
Anju offered us tea and snacks after which she drove us to Juhu beach and showed us the Mini Chowpati and the fast food outlets there. Since rains discouraged us, we had to leave early and a traffic jam from Juhu beach to the main road took a good hour. On our way back, we also saw Big B’s Bungalow!
Dinner at Anju’s place has never been ordinary! She has a sweet young girl from the North to help her and that girl prepared a sumptuous spread with succulent Bhoona Ghosht and Chutney stuffed fresh Pomfrets to highlight, other than many veg delights! After the dinner we had green tea and took rest. Anju dropped us early morning at the Airport and we caught the flight at 6.40AM, reaching Srinagar at 10.35AM after a brief halt in Delhi.
Day One - Srinagar and surrounds:
As soon as we came out of Srinagar Airport, I looked around to see if anyone is holding a placard displaying my name. I was disappointed to see none! That was the first shock. Second one was when I tried to make a phone call to the agent in Kashmir and I could not find the network on my mobile. I searched for all the available networks but none seemed to get connected! Out of panic I ran from pillar to post, searching for pay phone and couldn’t find any!
Security personnel guarding a ticket window was observing me and he asked me what’s bothering me. I told him about the cab that was expected to pick us up from the airport and also asked him where pay phones are situated. He said there are no public phones outside and all are inside the airport. We are not allowed to go inside once we checked out, he added. I felt totally lost. Then the security personnel offered to help by calling the agent through his mobile phone and I gave him the number of the local agent. He called him and told him about a client waiting outside the airport and the cab driver was not to be seen around. As soon as he completed the talk, a hand raised a placard with my name on it and we were overjoyed to see that!
The cab driver took us with the luggage to the parking lot, we got into his cab and he drove us to Srinagar city. We saw many military and Para Military personnel guarding the road, buildings and fields. They were camouflaged behind the Walnut and Maple trees, positioned in rapid action bullet proof vehicles, on the balcony/terrace of buildings, through the windows and barbed wire fencing of Military barracks. They were everywhere, guarding with utmost caution and dedication, bringing within us a great sense of security.
A traffic jam at Ram Bagh before the Jhelum Bridge kept us waiting for a good 20 minutes and the traffic moved at snail’s pace. Traffic jams are usually seen in Srinagar at few bottlenecks, especially at the entrance of bridges. Even Police vehicles get stranded and the Police patiently smile and wait for the traffic jam to clear till they move their vans! Our cab drove through Raj Bagh, the new Zero Bridge and the Tourist Reception Center (TRC) that brought back the memories of the mid Eighties to me. I had stayed in a guest house at Raj Bagh and Zero Bridge as well as TRC used to be frequented by five of us friends daily during our stay for 4 days in Srinagar then.
Yasin, our cab driver negotiated the road well and reached Dal Lake. Meena was apprehensive to see some house boats parked in shallow waters overlooking buildings and bridges across the road, but I assured her that ours is a deluxe House Boat and we will get a good one to stay.
The entry to Dal Lake used to be where a Police post is situated, in the Eighties, but now they have shifted it to the centre of the lake where Nehru Park is situated.
Our cab reached the Shikhara point near Nehru Park and we were greeted by Mustafa, representing ‘Kashmir Treat’, a Super Deluxe House Boat. Mustafa is a thorough gentleman and he greeted us well, made us comfortable and loaded our luggage in a Shikhara Boat that an elderly man in his 60’s was rowing.
Sailing though the placid Dal Lake we moved, as we watched hundreds of Shikharas docked and many more resting by the side. We also saw many house boats with vivid names. We went across the Floating Market where they sell almost every essential items as well as handicrafts and Kashmiri delights such as Saffron, Walnut, Almond and Kashmiri Wazwan such as Rogan Josh, Kahwa Tea, Ghosthaba, Rista, Yakhni and some Punjabi items like Chicken Tikka. They also sell groceries and daily needs for the travelers as well as the House Boat owners at reasonable rates. We didn’t fail to notice florists selling bouquets and flowers, much bigger and better that we could find anywhere else! Some boats carried goodies and flowers that they tried to sell to passersby. I was awestruck to see such a system that never prevailed in the Eighties when I visited Dal Lake!
Next, we passed by Lotus garden and scores of Lilies that spread over the large expanse of the Lake, wild ducks floating and diving, Cormorants waiting patiently for their prey and Kingfishers diving off and on to keep us amused!
Naubat Pahad in a distance was glowing with the Fort within, painted dark brown while Shankaracharya Hill with the Temple and the TV Tower stood green to reflect in the placid water of Dal Lake to declare that we are on to a good time in Kashmir on our Holiday!
The ageing Shikhara Boatman didn’t miss a breath, I was engrossed in taking pics and shooting video, while Mustafa went on explaining ways of life on Dal Lake to Meena who at times raised questions about pollution and weeds growing on Dal Lake. Mustafa answered her patiently and he explained that there are places marked for growing vegetables like Cucumber, Bottle Gourd and Tomatoes that need natural fertilizer and the weeds come in handy. He also explained that Greens of Lily is used to feed cattle, horses and sheep. He also added that there are areas marked where locals can remove the grass weeds and flowers, sell them to users and make a living. Lotus flowers have a good market and also the lotus stem and fruit that are widely used in cooking.
Finally we reached ‘Kashmir Treat’, our Super Deluxe House Boat perched amidst greenery, overlooking the vast expanse of Dal Lake surrounded by mountains in a distance, Naubat Pahad on the left hand side to the west. Dal Lake is spread over 34 Sq Kms, part of it used for joy ride on Shikhara boats and water skiing while part of it has been leased out to House Boat owners who have reclaimed a small patch of land by the side of each house boat to build their dwellings and to grow vegetables.
Mustafa led us into the majestic, ethnic and well maintained house boat. As a rule, we must remove our footwear on the front deck cum balcony and enter the sitting room. Sitting room leads to a dining hall and a small pantry and then a long corridor with three big double rooms to the left and one room at the end. The helper in the boat Aezad brought our luggage from the Shikhara and placed them in the dressing closet. He also showed us the well furnished modern bath cum toilet with running hot and cold shower within a clean bath tub.
We freshened ourselves and came out to the balcony. Ghulam Qadir Ghoosani, owner of the house boat and also Mustafa’s father was already there to greet us. He asked us about our day’s program and also arranged for tea and sandwiches to keep ourselves warm. Mustafa came with the Shikhara Boat to take us to Nehru Park at 2.00P.M., where Yasin was waiting to take us around. He first drove us to the world famous Mughal Gardens.
Some info on Mughal gardens:
The Mughal Gardens in Srinagar are mainly Chashma Shahi, Shalimar Bagh and Nishat Bagh. They were built by the Mughal Emperors for relaxation in the 17th Century.
A Tulip Garden also exists nearby Shalimar Bagh but it displays full blooms in autumn till winter.
Chashma Shahi means The Royal Spring. Built by Emperor Shah Jahan, it is just above the Nehru Memorial Park and is set against a mountain with a spring flowing through aqueducts within a small shrine Chashma Sahibi, and this water is presumed to have medicinal values. We collected this water in a couple of bottles. It tasted cool sweet and refreshing.
The garden is beautiful with lovely Roses, Dalia, Gerbera and Gladiola. There are hundreds of other small and big flowers in multiple colors adorning the sides of walkways against the green carpet of lawn with exotic trees with the backdrop of blue mountains.
Shalimar Bagh is the most famous Mughal Garden built by Emperor Jehangir in 1616 for his wife Noor Jahan. Originally named as Farah Bakhsh or 'Delightful Garden', today it is known as 'Garden of Love'. A water canal with fountains runs on polished granite down many terraces in the middle of the garden and is fed with water from Harwan. The fourth terrace represents a pavilion built in black granite in the centre of the pool, which was used as a banquet hall. Shalimar Bagh has a placid atmosphere with the sound of flowing water, cascades lined up on both sides with trees and flowering plants up to the snow capped mountains behind. A light and sound show is available here every evening from May to October, during the tourist season. We could find many school and college students swarming the place and amusing themselves, playing in the water cheering and singing aloud to express their joy!
Outside Shalimar Gardens, there are a number of dhabas selling vegetarian snacks and rice dishes. We tried Uthapam in one of those shacks and it was not a great deal for Rs.65/-. The slightly greenish yellow Chutney tasted OK, while the Sambar tasted very sour. Mostly these shacks sell fried snacks like Daal Vada and Onion Pakoda. The oil they use in Kashmir for frying is Mustard Oil which has a metallic smell but tastes good. They say it is good for health.
Next stop was Nishat Bagh. Nishat Bagh is located at the periphery of Dal Lake. It originally had 12 terraces but three of them were merged with Dal Lake to make way for new road. Like other two gardens, Nishat Bagh has a cascade running down the hills running through the canal in the center and finally flowing down to merge with Dal Lake. This garden was built by Asaf Khan, brother of Noor Jahan. Nishat Bagh glows in autumn with the giant Chinar(Maple) trees planted by the Mughals. In summer, a carpet of colourful flowers makes it the most favourite place among the locals for picnic. The famous Shrine of Hazratbal overlooks Nishat Bagh across the Dal Lake in a distance.
We returned to Nehru Park by 5.30P.M., had no time to climb the Shankaracharya Hill. We also reserved the Shikhara Boat ride for the last day of our visit, as our transport from main land to house boat itself was Shikhara Boat! On our way back, we saw many media persons gathered outside the Gupkar Road residence of Mehbooba Mufti, leader of PDP and saw her talking from behind the closed gates while a police van guarded the gate. Later we saw the news and came to know that she was kept under house arrest and she was showing protest for a youth who died in police custody at Sopore.
Around Nehru Park area, there are many shops selling general and bakery products. There are many Handicrafts Emporiums selling Kashmiri shawls, saris, dresses and Papier Mache artifacts. There is a small Punjabi Sweet shop opposite to the Shikhara Boat take off point by the corner in a lane selling excellent hot Samosas and Pakodas along with milk sweets. People swarm there to taste the goodies. A travel agent has STD/ISD facility, Computer typing and data transfer from card to CD and also a Cyber Café within. We spent a good 30 mins there to call our friends and relatives and also browsed the net for e-mail and Mangalorean news.
Kashmiri people are very mild natured, friendly and soft spoken. Men and women are generally attired in Salwar Kameez and they walk upright, head held high with dignity and with definitive movement. They are hard working and both men and women have equality in sharing the work to run the family. Most of the men are seen smoking Hookah with scented tobacco. Some women also smoke; I am given to understand, but never observed any in public places. Their daily cup of morning tea is consumed with a large loaf of Kashmiri bread. In between meals they often eat fresh fruit or vegetable like cucumber to keep their stamina supplemented.
Generally Kashmiri locals help the travelers with right guidance. Yet, like any other place, Srinagar has a few agents who try to attract you to buy local goods like Saffron, Walnut and Almond at the place they show. Hawkers come to the boat house/Hotel in which you stay and show sub standard goods quoting high prices. Better be well informed about the genuineness of the goods before striking a deal. Better quality Saffron and Dry Fruits are available outside Srinagar City in towns like Pampore off the Jammu Highway at reasonable and fixed prices.
South Indian snacks are available at number of restaurants along the road by the Dal Lake but are expensive. A Masala Dosa may cost Rs.100/- and a plate of Idli or Vada may cost Rs.60/-.
Kashmiri Wazwan includes mainly authentic Kashmiri nonveg delicacies like Rogan Josh (Lamb cooked in spicy yoghurt gravy with Kashmiri chilies), Ghustaba(Meat balls cooked in yoghurt gravy), Rista(Meat balls in red gravy), Yakhni(Lamb in yoghurt gravy), Sheekh Kebab(Skewered minced lamb ), Tabak Maaz(Fried Lamb Chops), Palau and Kanti(Dry meat cooked with spicy sauce). Kashmiri white fish resembles trout and is normally deep fried, dipped in a batter of chickpea flour and some spices.
Dry fennel powder and dry ginger powder are the main aromatic ingredients used in Kashmiri cooking apart from Black Cardamoms, Coriander powder, Turmeric powder, Clove, Cinnamon, Bay leaf, Saffron and Asafotoeda. Yoghurt is widely used in curries.
Vegetarian Kashmiri dishes include Dum Aloo(Whole baby potatoes in spicy red gravy), Ladyar Tsaman (Cottage Cheese in yoghurt gravy seasoned with turmeric), Veth Tsaman (Cottage Cheese, cooked in oil and Kashmiri spices, seasoned with chilies), Nadeir Yakhni (Lotus Stem in yoghurt gravy), Nadier Palak (Sliced Lotus fruit cooked with spinach), Tsoek vangan (Aubergine cooked in a tangy spicy gravy), and the favorite combination steamed Basmati rice with Rajma(Red Kidney Beans) curry. Rajma Beans that they cook in Kashmir look much different in size, shape and texture than what we get in the South. Kashmiri pickle is spicy and pungent with Kasmiri chili powder, Mustard Oil, whole Coriander seeds, whole fennel seeds, mustard, and fenugreek, mixed vegetables like carrots, radish, cut raw mango, lime, green chilies, ginger and karvanda. It is usually served with Aloo Parathas and curd for breakfast.
Kashmiri namkeen chai is tea with salt and milk. Kahua is Kashmiri Green Tea flavoured with Cinnamon, Cardamom and Saffron and is consumed without milk, adding little sugar. We had a taste of the latter on our house boat.
We returned to our house boat when it was getting on to dark and relaxed on the balcony for the rest of the evening.
It was a serene scene with sun setting over the mountains like a diamond, the fort over Naubat Pahad glowing with orange sodium vapour light, cool breeze ruffling the lotus and lilies, sound of oars tearing into the silky water, boats passing by in a distance, ducks quacking and birds chirping, locals occasionally cheering to greet one another and prayers heard in a distance at the Hazratbal Mosque.
Dinner was served at 8.00P.M. We had Chicken Kanti served along with a spread of rotis, rice, daal, mixed vegetable sabji, pickles and curds. After the dinner, we watched the TV for a while in the sitting room before retiring to bed with a feeling of being in Heaven on Earth!
Dal Lake Kashmir Part 1 - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bx5zVzvasaA
Dal Lake Kashmir Part 2 - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZIKwm1RWyrg
Dal Lake Kashmir Part 3 - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X6kZPssR7Rs
Coming up next....: Gorgeous Glaciers and Mesmerizing Meadows
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