The security procedures at Srinagar International Airport do not deter Bhavani Krishna Iyer from having a good time in the northern Indian territory
WINTER was just showing the first signs of entry. We flew to New Delhi and took a connecting flight to Srinagar. No doubt the checks at the airport were stringent and we made allowance for that in terms of time and patience.
With all the stress at the airport security in New Delhi, we decided a snooze would do us good soon after boarding the plane.
Only when the captain announced in his brusque voice that we were descending, were we jolted awake.
Nothing prepared us for the sight that greeted us from above the clouds, the world beneath us looked like innocence spread generously over God’s creation. The snow was so close and yet beyond our touch.
The closer we came to the peaks, as the aircraft snow-dived to land at Srinagar International Airport, we became speechless, locked in our feeling of complete surrender. Nothing mattered, nothing seemed to exist except for the visual feast we tried to capture through the aircraft’s tiny windows.
Dubbed heaven on earth, Kashmir’s charm is all encompassing with its spectacular landscapes, snow clad mountains, rugged terrains and the mesmerising lakes.
DAYS OF TOURS
We stayed in houseboats at Dal Lake, an urban lake located in the heart of Srinagar.
We had a boat with beds for 12 people and two more boats with a lesser capacity for the rest.
We started our day tour about 3pm on the first day and the guide insisted we should go to a park which supposedly had much history behind it. Mughal Garden was our first stop. Despite its rich history, we were a tad disappointed that there was nothing much to see and admire, rightfully so as it was winter.
The tour guide insisted that we should see the other two gardens which are Noshal Bagh and Shalimar Bagh and I am sure they would have been worthwhile stops during autumn. In winter, it is not such a pretty sight without the lovely flowers and greenery, leaving a lot to just imagination.
I would say the highlight of the tour was Gulmarg, a hill station that functions as a perfect golf escapade during summer and transforms itself into an impeccable ski resort during winter.
It can be a day-trip from Srinagar as Gulmarg is just a 90 minute drive but if not planned meticulously, you may not have the time to enjoy the splendour of the snowcapped tops and tips in Gulmarg. The last cable car ride down from the top is 4.30pm, as by 5pm, dusk sets in.
The cable car ride to Gulmarg is slightly less than 10 minutes and as we were there at the beginning of winter, snow was scattered and when you looked up, the intermittent darker spread of the mountains interspersed with snow makes for good photography.
A smartphone with a good resolution should be able to capture the plains, mountains and the sky patterned with the patchy clouds as they meet conspicuously to give you pictorial delight.
There were just too many rumours with regard to the attire requirements at Gulmarg and we were asked to get into Phua Chu Kang boots, which are available for rent before you drive up.
We later found that our sports shoes/boots would have been just as good. Then again, depending on which time of winter, you may need high boots when the snow reaches above the ankles.
Then there is a short pony ride from the vehicle to the cable car station which we felt was pricey for a 1km ride. Many of us chose to walk as we took the mandatory selfies and wefies in between a smattering of snow on both sides of the walkway. Also, on return the bus was able to come close to the station after all. We decided the pony ride was included as a charitable gesture for the local community to make a living.
Pahalgam is a must-go when in Kashmir, so said our tour guide but we found it a little too long a drive for a day trip from Srinagar. With two short stops to view some ancient Hindu temples, we were left with just three hours to have lunch and enjoy the breathtaking views that Pahalgam had to offer.
Located 95km from Srinagar at a height of 2,194 metres, Pahalgam, known as the ‘Valley of Shepherds’, is a famous hill station where many films have been shot.
Standing at the confluence of Lidder river and the Sheshnag lake, Pahalgam is surrounded by thickly wooded pine forests, breathtaking vistas of meadows and the snow-clad Himalayan mountains.
In terms of shopping, make sure you have enough cash as credit cards may not be accepted freely in most shops in Pahalgam.
This tiny town is a good place to buy more shawls, if you hadn’t already bought them on the house boat in Sri Nagar, and for ladies, the tastefully embroidered tops are quite a bargain here.
Souvenir shops are plenty and may be the last stop to buy your keepsakes if you are not shopping in New Delhi.
Many of us decided to stroll around the hotel where we had lunch, just capturing the snow-capped mountainous range all around. You will have photographers coming around to offer their services and they will give you a print-out in a couple of minutes, very cheap.
You must have heard that Kashmir is also famous for its dried fruits, nuts and saffron. There are many shops that offer good stuff and they are very generous with their samples as well. They are also available in Malaysia and the price does not differ too much.
However, the freshness and the taste is unbeatable and for that you might want to pick-up some nuts and dried fruits. For those of us who use saffron in our daily cooking, it may not be a bad idea to get some. They are packed in tiny boxes of various sizes.
Asa reminder, during winter, the day hours are shorter and most places close by 5pm or so, as do the temple gates. If you are travelling in winter to Kashmir it might be a good idea to sit down with the tour agent to plan the itinerary in the order of importance and some research might help in prioritising. For example, we didn’t think the parks were of any sight-seeing value during winter; if only we had known.
More importantly, do not allow anyone to talk you out of this once-in-a-lifetime experience of visiting Kashmir on the account of safety and security as no amount of words or pictures can make up for the sheer joy and excitement of being there.
The overwhelming presence of military should not worry you as they are a nonintrusive feature of the town; the local tourist guide will know if there is any trouble anywhere, and we will have been shielded from such places.
Our return journey from the boathouse to the airport was another experience with several levels of security beginning with one about 500m before reaching the airport.
The luggage and the passengers will need to be screened, including body search done before reaching the airport. Treat it as a procedure and it should not put you off.
At the airport in Srinagar, we had friendly and kind personnel who made sure our check-in was smooth.
Will I recommend Kashmir to my family and friends? Of course! A word of caution, though, the stay in the boathouse is part of the excitement but during winter, they burn wood for heat and it won’t keep burning the entire night. After about 3am or so when the temperature hits the lowest and the fire and the attendants bid you goodnight, you need to be well wrapped up. Stick-on heat pads do help.
No matter what phone line you might have, they will be rendered unusable when you land in Srinagar and hence it is important to make sure the boathouse is equipped with WiFi, which can be intermittent.
I suppose when everything else fails, you have to be content connecting with those who are with you, the traditional way.
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