One of the first things that starts pulling up a happy veil of delight over the whole holiday as the plane approaches Srinagar airport, are the glimpses of white capped peaks ringing the valley. The long journey has suddenly become worthwhile dispelling all doubts. Right from Ooty in the deep south at a height of 2240m to Srinagar at a height 1585 m; 3372 km. The heights are important because despite being lower, Srinagar is colder and gets iced over while the most exotic things that hit Ooty are hailstones and Aiswharya Rai.
The second thing to strike one is the information that prepaid cellphones do not work in Kashmir. This information is delivered by Nazar, deputed by Thomas Cook to deliver our hotel vouchers to us finally, after a week of hassle. Luckily, one person in our party has a postpaid connection. But , the absence of cellphones only made the holiday better ; we focused more on where we were. Nazar introduces Dilawar to us, who will be our driver for the week.
We are driven to Sunshine Hotel, a small eatery for masal dosas, our last meal of anything remotely south Indian for a while. But we are already in the euphoria of glimpses of house boats on Dal lake, relatively uncrowded streets and the newness of it all. There are few bikes and autos. Cars are mostly small. The hills ringing Srinagar, are green and mostly unblemished by man. There are no huge complexes, or billboards. Small boats row us and the luggage across to the houseboat, Queen of Africa. She is richly decorated in carved wood and laid out in red carpets throughout. There is a sitting, rooms, dining room and 4 bedrooms with attached bathrooms. The bedrooms are cosy and the bathrooms better then we expect. Surprisingly there is a good supply of hot water.
In the evening, we go out for the traditional shikara ride . Shikaras are the long boats which crowd Dal lake. Each boat can seat 4-6 people. There is a canopy on top, curtains at the side and a large reclining seat on which one can loll feeling rather royal as the boatman oars you placidly. However, this gets rather uncomfortable after a while. We are rowed through a shopping area. Other boats approach selling everything from junk jewellery to flowers to shawls, carved wood, tea. There is a gentle tour of part of the lake and gentle pressure to buy from the vendors. Later we discover that Dal lake is huge, (3.5km) and this is the most crowded part. There are other areas where there are fewer houseboats and less nuisance from vendors.
The next day is a trip to Sonmarg,(meadow of gold) about 2 hours from Srinagar. A fast rushing river accompanies us for a great part of the way. At places, river rafting is advertised but it looks rather dangerous to our unaccustomed eyes. This is the Nallah Sind river , fed by melting snows which joins the Jhelum. There are checks and military posts. Further on, we see our first glimpses of snow on both sides of the highway and we are thrilled. We stop to handle it. It is rather crystallish and powdery, not soft. As we reach Sonmarg, the snow now covers the slopes on both sides of the road. We are astounded. There are people coming down the slopes on sleds. There are some trudging up. Everyone is wearing thick coats and boots. There is water on the road from the melting snow. There is slush. The roof of the restaurant and bathrooms are covered with ice and snow several feet thick which a group of men are shoveling away. The whole area feels surreal to us, like we have stepped into a movie set. Something we have seen so often but never expected to be a part of.
Our driver arranges for a guide to go up the slopes. We have to hire coats and boots. The guide and a large group of men accompany us. It is rather intimidating. We are not very sure what is happening or what is going to happen. We haggle a bit over the hire. And then much more over the cost of the sled ride. One man pulls each person upward while another pushes from the back. We are mainly paying for their labour. It is hard to walk unaccompanied in the snow, upwards. But the idea of snow, and the sledge ride is so exhilarating that we don’t mind. All of us are pulled upward and we feel a bit guilty. At the top, we get off to take some snaps.
Around us are white slopes and towering peaks. The guides talk of intrepid trekkers who go up there, including Rahul Gandhi. We are reminded of Madhoo, hugging herself and singing ‘puthu vellai malai…’ in the movie Roja. Manirathnam and A RRehman captured the spirit so well of what we feel when we see snow for the first time. There are shops selling tea and snacks. Some people are learning to ski. Of course a professional photographer turns up and we succumb to his badgering too. Our ‘sled coolies’ ask us if we are happy? This is a question we hear again and again in Kashmir. They know tourism is very important to them.
Then we fly down the slope. Sitting behind the man on a sled. It is a wonderful experience.
My father has been patiently waiting at the bottom. It was his idea to come to Kashmir. We were doubtful about how he would cope but he did survive the trip fairly happily. Of course India is very unfriendly to the elderly and the disabled. There are never any ramps, just steps everywhere. And no one is ever apologetic about it. There is little else to do in Sonmarg except walk around unsteadily in the snow. Or hire a taxi which will take you around for 20 minutes. This is the road to Leh so one cannot go further without permission.
As we drive through the country side we see poorer houses. Houses are small, unpainted and unplastered. The glass windows have no grills. In some houses, the windows upstairs do not even have glass panes. The yards too are bare. Women and men are dressed simply and roughly in long overcoats. Nearer the towns, there is a lot of new building activity going on. Opening of tourism recently is bringing in prosperity.
We are in Srinagar by the evening. We have just missed the Tulip show which happens only for a month . We visit one of the smaller Mughal gardens with fountains and neat rows of flowers. Everywhere in Srinagar, colourful Kashmiri dresses are for hire, and most people succumb, pose and get their snaps taken. The photographers are practiced and deftly arrange clothes, accessories and pose and get a nice looking effect.
Dilawar, the driver, is talkative and friendly. His wife goes in to labour the night we arrive. He drives us anyway, juggling his schedule madly to be with her. The 2 gynecologists in the party give him lots of advice. He brings us a photograph of his good looking son and better looking wife.
Next day we move to Pahalgam. Pahalgam is a beautiful hill station about 4 hours from Srinagar. It is a small town created by the tourism industry, on the banks of the Lidder river, in a beautiful valley. The place is ideal for walks and treks. Our hotel, Mumtaz, is just above the river and a 15 minute walk from the town. The next day we hire a taxi (one has to use local transport) and visit three beautiful spots. There are large crowds and traffic jams at these places. But the places are so beautiful that one can overlook the crowds. In the evening we walk to the town to see do a little shopping. We have a kashmiri meal at a restaurant in the town. The kashmiri cuisine is based on meat and kababs. Since people ask me about it, half the group were vegetarians and managed fine.
Then we are off to Gulmarg,(meadow
of flowers, height 2690 m) This is a rather long journey and we are tired when we get there. Gulmarg is a winter sports resort, said to be world class. The main feature is a cable car ride up the slopes . Here one can ski, do some sledging ( there are motorised ones), walk around as much as one can in the snow and generally enjoy the pristine white slopes.
Unfortunately, it has started raining. Dilawar makes us collect coats and boots on the way up to Gulmarg. This is another tourism made town with a strictly male population of 664! But an old town, very famous for winter sports, said to be popular with Jahangir and the British. There is a very strong union of pony or horse keepers here. Once you arrive at your hotel, you can only go out by foot or by pony. It has started raining and the temperature is freezing. The next morning it is still raining rather heavily. Outside the slopes are full of snow. We are reluctant to go to the cable car. The taxis refuse to take us there. The horse people will damage the cars they say. The tickets have already been booked by Thomas cook. We call the cable car office. No changing of times they say.
So four of us start out with umbrellas borrowed from the hotel. There is a big queue at the cable car shed. Guides press us to hire them. What are they going to show us at the top of the peak? There is a huge queue and because of the pre- booked tickets we are able to get into the gondola fairly quickly. The ride up the mountain over pine trees and white slopes is magical. At the top we get down and stagger out into the snow and rain. The view of the white covered folds, fold after fold is wonderful. People are sledging, trying out skis or just walking around. Up there are more shops. But it is still raining. Five year old Dhruv starts crying with the cold in a few minutes and his mom takes him into the shelter. We stay for a little while and go home, exhilarated because we tried instead of giving up. The hotel is warm but it is time to pack our bags and leave.
In a couple of hours we are at Srinagar. This time we do encounter long traffic jams. Srinagar looks like any other small town in the rain, long rows of cars meshed and unable to move, garbage is flushed out and litters the roads. Hotel Pine springs is new , has lifts and comfortable rooms, tv, central heating and plain food. We are happy in its cosy warmth before we leave.
On the roads, we see few women. They are fair and pretty. There are mostly men outside, tall and thin. We never see a fat Kashmiri.
In the bakeries we buy puff pastry rounds which the Kashmiris have with tea in the mornings. The kashmiri tea, hot water laced with saffron and herbs, is light and delicious. Not so the kebabs which are pure meat and heavy to digest for us.
One town, Anantapur, is lined both sides with shops selling cricket bats, made from willow. The willow trees are droopingly pretty and line river beds. The trees everywhere, especially in Pahalgam are so pretty, in various shades of green and russet. With the snow capped mountains behind, the views are always astounding. Add a rushing rocky mountain stream, and what else could this be but paradise?
On a holiday, one can’t do everything. There are some things you don’t see, some things you don’t eat, some things you don’t get to do . And it is still good.