The Kashmir Diary…

Well, not diary, really, since I’m too undisciplined to maintain one, more of a chronicle of our vacation. I had never been to Kashmir and neither had the kids; A on the other hand would keep retailing anecdotes about his trip there in his teens (many, many, many, many moons ago) which had clearly left behind some indelible impressions. As expected, the parents were worried about potential problems though they didn’t try to dissuade us from going.

For some weird reason that now escapes me, we had selected to spend the first day commuting, possibly because we felt that to get up early for a flight was not the best way to induce that vacation feeling. (Note to self for next vacation – getting up early and reaching destination early is preferable to spending more than half the day getting there!!!). The Indigo flight was uneventful, apart from the usual nausea experienced by Chubbocks who is not a good traveler…even the Domstal didn’t seem to have worked its trick and he wound up throwing up as we touched down at Srinagar. Always good to heave it out than keep it in, I say!

At Srinagar Airport, Puddi and I needed to use the loo, since we were in for a 2 hour plus drive to Gulmarg. Unfortunately, it appeared that the loo hadn’t been cleaned since it was built – it was filthy, with unidentifiable liquids everywhere, banged up doors, grimy washbasin and so on. Thankfully I had been farsighted enough to lug toilet paper and sanitizer with me, for once, so while we came out practically puking from the stench, we were somewhat clean though our first impression of Kashmir was really unsalubrious, to say the least. As an aside, given the number of tourists who seem to be flocking there, how much would it cost the Kashmir exchequer to hire a couple of cleaners and get the loos cleaned regularly?

Anyway, we located our driver after some confusion on the part of the local travel agency which had confused our departure and arrival timings. Following behind him through a packed parking lot which would not have looked out of place in Karol Bagh, we narrowly escaped death several times, as drivers of ginormous SUVs drove their broncos as if they had little or no control over steering or brakes – as Puddi exclaimed, “I almost got scronched!”

Eventually we piled into our bucking bronco and took off, with a brief pause while our driver attended namaaz. The drive to Gulmarg, once we got out of the city, was beautiful, with poplar trees lining the streets, reminiscent of French country roads and hundreds of WWII movies. We stayed in a cottage at Gulmarg, since the best hotel there, Highlands Park, was all booked up. Falak Cottage was cute, though perhaps not quite what I had pictured, since I had imagined the type of cottage Hindi movies show, with wooden floors and whatnot. It was a 2-storey cottage, and we opted for a room upstairs, since its windows looked out onto the greenery outside.

That evening, we went for a walk – just a couple of minutes from our cottage and we were in the thick of pine forests, with streams flowing here and there, rocky boulders strewn about by giant hands and lush greenery all around. It was incredibly scenic and we felt that one could have shot a Bollywood song pretty much anywhere. It was so relaxing just to be out in the fresh air, to wander about carefree of traffic…one could almost see one’s springs unwinding!



Gulmarg has basically one big hotel – Highlands Park, which one needs to book almost 2-3 months in advance – and lots of cottages. The bowl of Gulmarg is where beginning skiers can start off in the winter, while long walks through dense forests, pony rides to various scenic points and the cable car are other tourist attractions. Highlands Park has beautiful gardens, little cottage rooms and a couple of tiny cottages with glass on all four sides, wherein one can order chai and wonder at the beautiful view all around. We spent one morning there, wandering through the garden, having a long and lazy lunch and ruing not being able to stay there.


The next day we were off for the Apparwat expedition. This includes riding on the highest cable car in the world (btw one of the engineers involved in setting this up is my sister’s F-I-L)!! Note to other potential travelers – get your travel agency to get you tickets and queue up early. We were there by 8:30 am, and our guide had queued up from 5:00 am to get the tickets. You can book them online but the queue to get onto the cable car is enormous, snaking its way half across Gulmarg. Luckily we didn’t have too long to wait. It was a beautiful ride, since we got to see some untouched spots deep up the mountainside. The cable ride has two stretches – the first goes up to 10,000 ft while the second goes the remaining 3000-some feet. In case of bad weather on top of the mountain, the cable authorities shut off the second stretch.

It was our lucky day that the weather was fine when we reached the top of the mountain. There was a spectacular view across the snowclad peaks, which looked close enough to touch, if only you leaned out far enough.



We were towed from the cable station to the peak on sleds by teams of ludicrously skinny Kashmiri youth and one had to wonder how they did it, and why I was sitting on a sled instead of hauling considerable ass up said mountain, burning off a few calories on the way. The funniest part was that A required 3 of the guides to haul him up, and they came chanting and panting all the way. Weirdly enough, Bojjandi who is otherwise game for anything, like a little rogue elephant (as one of our friends has christened him), was spooked by the snow and wouldn’t stop wailing once we reached the top. I plied him with juice, Chubbocks and Puddi threw snowballs at each other and him which only made him wail louder, and nothing, from reasoned argument to threats worked.

Meanwhile Chubbocks, A and I decided to tandem-ski across the mountain, while Puddi rode a snow-cycle. What would we do with Bojji? One of the ski guides casually wrapped him around his neck and took off across the snow! Bojjandi held on for dear life, even as I, ever-plagued with a fear of heights, stared down the sheer, steep fall from the mountain and shivered. Not for too long, as it was my turn to be off, holding on for dear life to the guide in front of me. We crossed the mountain in minutes, much too soon and much before I could shake off fear and welcome excitement! As we neared the lip of the mountain, I took a look ahead, and then my heart really dropped. There was a steep drop from there to a bowl of snow lower down and I think my guide was proposing to swoop down all the way there. No!! I protested (Yup, you can call me Chicken Little), and so we swerved to a halt at the peak to take some photographs, with A, Chubbocks and Puddi posing as if they had skied down the slope. Me – no such luck, since Bojjandi had turned into a limpet that clung onto to every portion of my anatomy that he could. Then we skied back to the starting point, Bojjandi again clinging to the neck of his ski-guide, while I tried not to look down at the drop.


From there, we went down to the cable station by toboggans, each of us sitting on an individual one along with a guide. That was great fun, as we hit clumps of snow and flew up into the air several times.

That evening, when he got back from our walk, we found that a Sikh family from Ludhiana had come to stay at the cottage. There were two couples and 3 kids among them. As we began chatting with them, A using the opportunity to show off his knowledge of Punjabi, we discovered that the elder gentleman was the founder-organiser of a beauty-talent competition called Miss World Punjaban. Apparently, Punjabi kudis from all over the world compete for the title, and the finals are held in Ludhiana. The younger gentleman was a photography buff who had invested huge sums on his camera and insisted on taking group photos of us. We were pretty happy, since usually one of the two parents is missing from all holiday pics. The enthu photographer also made A and me pose in typical studio style, me holding a fake flower in my hand while A loomed over me trying to keep a straight face and look romantic!

They mentioned that they had just decided on a whim to pile into their car and land up in Kashmir for a holiday and were loving it so far. The only crimp in their enthusiasm was that there was no liquor to be had for love or money in Gulmarg. We explained that even Highlands Park had not had a liquor license for the past 22 years(!) and that one had to BYOB for a Kashmir sojourn. Their faces fell further at this unwelcome news. I suggested to A that we share our bottle of Bacardi with them, which was accepted with effusive gratitude. We were impressed with their capacity since the bottle came back two-thirds empty, but they had had a good evening which was nice.

The next day we headed for a picnic spot that was a well-kept secret, since few visitors were allowed there. The drive was beautiful, as always, and then we reached a gorgeous wild garden-park, lush with grass, covered with flowers of all kinds, with an ice-cold stream running through it and a couple of rickety bridges spanning the stream. The far ends of the park were bordered by pine trees, and the air was cold, crisp and damp. It was gorgeous to sit there with a grey, lowering sky and enjoy the cool breezes. The kids and I were busy clambering about the bridges when the skies opened up and it began raining. It was quite a hectic run back to the car, and we drove on to the next spot, hoping the rain would clear up.



We reached what seemed like a nondescript (for Kashmir) meadow, and saw some stone steps going up the hillside. Climbing up, we were thrilled to see a beautiful little lake, green from the colour of all the trees surrounding us, and quite mysterious looking. There was almost no one else there, and the sense of isolation was actually wonderful. However, within a few minutes, it began raining. The guide recommended that we climb up the hillside a little more and shelter under the pine trees. We all huddled under the trees, watching the rain descend in graceful arcs and soak the countryside while we stayed dry. It was fun for a bit but then we got antsy. The rain was getting more intense.

Our guide recommended that we try and go down the mountain through the bushes rather than take the steps again since they would be incredibly slippery. He swung Bojjandi up on his shoulder (that l’il guy really got an elevated view of the world in Gulmarg) and walked down the packed with scrubs, bushes, trees, treacherous tree roots sticking out to trip you up and slippery dry pine needles mountainside as if he were strolling about a mall in Millennium City (actually he may have been less adept at that!). I clutched Puddi’s hand, told A to help Chubbocks and we were off. It was kind of like dodg’em cars, swerving to avoid unexpected branches that came down to peer at you curiously, while keeping a third eye out for tree roots, trying not to slip on the pine needles…After a bit it got too much for me and I told Puddi that we would do this my style. We both sat on our bums and slid down the rest of the mountain, carrying a good chunk of the topsoil away on our jeans. But we made it in one piece, whereas A and Chubbocks got scratched by thwarted scrubs and twigs!

Back to our cottage and into dry clothes, at which point I discovered that in my newfound zeal to travel light (only while going; I always expect to comeback laden with merchandise!!!), I had packed a little too light. One being covered with mere Kashmir ki mitti, not to mention sopping wet, all I had to protect my modesty and sense of hygiene for the next 5 days in Srinagar was one measly pair of jeans. Thank God I am no longer 25 nor with pretensions to being a fashionista, I sighed, and hauled out my pyjamas which proceeded to be inner and outer wear (as in inside the cottage and out and about in Gulmarg) for the rest of the day. The good news was that the cook of the cottage had returned from being AWOL and was able to rustle up pakoras for us, which the adult portion of the party wolfed down with rum-n-coke while the youth of tender years stuck to virgin coke.

The next morning we set off early for Srinagar. The previous evening had come the unwelcome news that a 200 year old Sufi shrine had burnt down in Srinagar’s old city, and that violence had erupted in the city. Our travel agent called to say that while his other vehicles within the city were unable to get out, he had contacted a driver whose car was outside the city and we could proceed in that. We got a bit worried, especially since the baccha party was with us, and parents were trying to recommend our staying back in Gulmarg until the situation simmered down, but we decided to take a chance on it.

On the drive to Srinagar, we stopped to buy the mandatory things – Kashmiri saffron, almonds for M-I-L and us. I also bought Kashmiri heeng, which is justifiably famous, dried apricots, walnuts which I love, and a round disc of Kashmiri masala made up of multiple spices pounded, mixed and made into hard little cakes. All one has to do is break off a little piece of the disc and drop it into the gravy of any dish for it to get a Kashmiri flavor. Kashmiri cherries, strawberries and peaches also came our way and were bought in boxes. We reached Srinagar in about 2.5 hours, with no noticeable signs of trouble anywhere. Thanks to the wonders of fb, we had come to know that some close friends were also holidaying in Srinagar at the same time, and planned to meet them for lunch at The Lalit. At Dal Lake, we hired a shikara to take us and our considerable baggage to the houseboat.

The houseboat was a revelation. Having never been on one, I had expected to find a somewhat dingy one, cramped, replete with over-bedizened walnut furniture and carpeted with red or green felt. What it was instead, was a floating mansion, with 7 large bedrooms, each big enough for a double bed and a queen-sized bed and ample space in between for a center table, a luxurious big bathroom with tub, a dining room vast enough to accommodate two 8-seater dining tables and a drawing room that was large enough to be able to seat 20 people! There was a little balcony in front, where one could sit and watch life on the lake passing by. The houseboat was beautifully appointed, with crewel-worked curtains in Kashmiri style, beautifully carved furniture and well color-coordinated soft furnishings. It was moored off to one side, not in the most crowded part of Dal Lake, and had a small strip of land running by one side which had gorgeous roses blooming.



The Lalit was a bare ten minutes away. It is a beautiful property, a former palace with extensive grounds and backing on to a wooded mountain. It took us almost ten minutes to walk down from the gate to the outdoor restaurant set in a garden full of Chenar trees, called Chenar Bagh. It turned out to be a long, leisurely lunch over several hours, the adults chatting and gawping at Shashi Tharoor who was there with Sunanda Pushkar and some other glitterati types for a holiday. The kids ran through the sprinklers, sat on the ancient cannons displayed there, got soaked in water from the pond and generally had a good time. It brought back reminders of similar leisurely afternoons in France, such a wonderful feeling of the goodness of life seeping through us. That evening at the houseboat, we had a fruit party, consisting of us greedily devouring as many of the strawberries, peaches and cherries as we could, watching the traffic flow past.


We set off to Pehelgam the next morning. For some reason Puddi also decided the time was good to indulge in a little motion sickness and so the route out of Srinagar was punctuated by frequent stops for retching by Puddi and Chubbocks. It’s fair to say they have left a portion of themselves in Kashmir. We saw the fields where saffron is planted, and passed a string of shops all selling Kashmiri willow cricket bats. A and Chubbocks promptly stopped to buy two bats, which have yet to be used, BTW. We also found an apple orchard and by good luck, as we stood outside peering in, a man who worked there turned up and showed us around inside the orchard as well.

We reached Pehelgam around 1 pm, the road being clogged with pilgrims for the Amarnath Yatra which had begun the previous day. Our friends had recommended a place called Heevon Hotel for lunch, on the grounds that it was next to the pretty little Lidder river. Unfortunately they were so packed out by the pilgrims that they turned us away, though we did linger to enjoy the view. We headed back into town and lunch started looking like a desperate business, since all the decent-looking restaurants were full and turning people away. We finally found a small, clean-looking place called The Trout, where I winced at the smell of fish but decided to brave it. The food was quite good and surprisingly sophisticated, especially the trout preparations.

Next we found a guide with ponies to take us up the mountainside. I had never ridden a horse before and A was telling us these tall tales of how we’d have bruises on our thighs for weeks. Puddi was too scared to get on a pony by herself, so she and I decided to pair up. In a singularly foresighted move, I had asked to rent raincoats as well for our ponytrip. We had barely reached the mountain which we were going to climb up when the gentle rain of the day turned into a downpour. The ubiquitous pine trees were availed of again, and as we sat, fat hailstones began hurling themselves at us. Not an auspicious start, eh? We were thankful for our rather capacious borrowed raincoats covering us to the knees, which at the start of the journey we had likened to Mongolian yurts, but which now at least protected some parts of our body from being sodden. I was extra thankful, being down to my remaining pair of jeans, since I didn’t think wearing pajamas on the streets of Srinagar was going to cut it.

Soon, however, the hail stopped and we started up the steep mountainside. As we proceeded, Puddi’s and my pony began slipping and sliding. I mentioned my fear of heights before, right? Anyway, so all the other ponies trek up the hill as if walking on a level road, while ours behaves like it’s trying to transmogrify into a roller-coaster, stumbling, slipping…Already nervous about the height of the pony and the steep slope of the hill, this was definitely more than I had bargained for. I began arguing with the guide about letting me walk up the hill next to the pony, not to mention forgo one of the 4 tourist spots he had promised to show us. He was a little bemused and made a surreptitious Obelix-type finger winding gesture pointing at his skull. He was used to trippers bargaining for being shown more places, not less, in the same money.

A little further up the goat track, we met a line of ponies coming down. One of them didn’t have a guide leading him, and on it was perched a rather uncomfortable and tense-looking lady. Given that we occupied two thirds of the said goat track, she wondered out loud how her pony would manage the descent. Our guide went up to her, said it would be no problem, and I expected to see a neat piece of maneuvering by which hidden wide trails leading down would be revealed. But no, all he did was cluck to her pony, and then that pony squeezed past us, barely able to keep two feet on the track, all the while looking down onto a steep slope. Given my familiarity with the laws of gravity (I have a long history of klutziness), I figured it would be yet another downward slide on the butt unless I intervened firmly. “There is no way I’m coming down the mountain, pink pajamas or not, on this path. You have to find a level, wide piece of mountain or make a new road; I’m happy to wait”, I said. The guides made little head gestures to each other as in, “On no, not another city-coot!!!” but I stood my ground, rather, my pony stood the slippery, sloshety goat track, stubbornly. They said they would look into it.

A little further up, we stopped to take in the view, and for the first time in the past 45 minutes or so, I forgot about my fear of heights and enjoyed myself. We kept traversing upwards, crossing little streams, wide stretches of meadows tucked away on either side of the now not-so-narrow track, bordered by thirty-forty feet tall pine trees, freshets of rain-drenched air coming our way. It was glorious to be out in the forest, out of reach of traffic and honking cars and wandering about in the wilds of nature. It inspired me to start singing songs like ‘Suhana Safar…” which may have had something to do with the peculiar behavior of my pony. Nonetheless, we stopped to take touristy photos and kept moving on up.

Chubbocks looked like a young Mongol invader, with the furlined cap of his raincoat, and swayed from side to side on his pony, for all the world like a bag of flour being transported. But what surprised us was Bojjandi – he sat straight as a knight, beaming a wide, confident grin to the world around him, clutching on to the pommel. At one point, while the rest of us were vending our weary and careful way up on the path, Bojjandi and his guide just walked straight up the mountainside through the trees. We were worried about him and asking the guide to hold on to him or his pony, but the little guy refused and rode as if born to it. Later he told us proudly that he had “drived all the horsies”.

The last point of the mountain tour was a place called ‘Mini-Switzerland’. It is an enormous meadow – large enough for 5-6 football fields, right at the top of the mountain, surrounded by higher peaks, including the one with the Amarnath cave. While A and Puddi went in search of the facilities, the boys and I amused ourselves by running around the meadow with Shah Rukh/ Dev Anand type gestures. It looked like a popular picnic spot – everywhere we looked, families had spread out blankets and parked. At one end of it was a man running a Zorbing activity. Chubbocks and A immediately wanted to sign up for it, and went barreling down the slope while we followed in a more leisurely manner.

Our descent was a bit scary for me at times, though I resolutely refused to look down at the steep slopes. Puddi was kind enough to be my lookout, and every time we came to a steep bit, she’d call out, “Close your eyes, Mamma”. At some point I got over the fear and started enjoying the ride, but of course, by then we had almost come to the end of it. The guides grumbled about having had to bring us down the gentler path but we were most grateful for it and tipped them generously.

The return trip to Srinagar was beautiful, with the Lidder river accompanying us a good portion of the way. Of course, Chubbocks started feeling nauseated, and both he and Puddi spent some time emptying out the contents of their stomachs. Back at the houseboat, when we sat down for dinner, a couple of bites into it, Bojjandi puked. Hat trick!!!

I had asked that we keep the sight-seeing schedule light in Srinagar. Having been to Europe several times, I’m a little ‘tourist-spot’ted out and now prefer spending my time discovering new places in a leisurely manner, not to mention getting some time off to kick back and relax rather than run about in a frenzy ticking items off a list. So our third day in Srinagar we opted to have a chilled out morning puttering around on the houseboat. We headed for the Hazrat Bal mosque, which is very quiet and peaceful and vaguely reminiscent of the Taj Mahal in shape, though thankfully bereft of touts. The kids and A bought packets of corn to feed the flocks of pigeons fluttering about outside, and the place turned into a shoo-in for the Piazza San Marco.



We also swung by Nigeen Lake and enjoyed some quiet time skipping stones across the water. We then headed back to The Lalit for another long, lazy lunch. A spot of shopping later, we were back at the houseboat for a lazy evening looking out at the lake, watching the sunset, drink in hand.



The next morning we shifted from the houseboat to the boutique hotel we had chosen to spend a couple of days in. The Dar es Salam is a house built as a family home in 1942. It was converted by the owner’s son into a 14 room hotel in the ‘70’s. At some point in the ‘90s it was shut down, but had been through a refurbishment a few years back. It is set in a spacious garden, which is bordered by Nigeen lake on two sides, and looks like a stately home.
 

Beautifully and tastefully appointed with typically Kashmiri artifacts and antiques for the most part, it also boasts of a nice selection of chinoiserie. The gardens are truly gorgeous, with a massive Chenar in the middle of the lawn, lush flowers rioting everywhere, from orange lilies along the lakeside to gorgeous roses in peachy shades by the building, hydrangeas massed upon the banks along the boundary wall, willows dangling down into the water…

 

As we discovered during our stay, the food was fabulous and the service not only impeccable but warm and attentive. One evening when the kids were extra sleepy, we hurried through dinner and went to our room to put them to bed. Five minutes later, there was a knock at our door. The waiters had observed that we skipped dessert and brought it to our room!

That day there was a curfew imposed on the whole city because it happened to be a Friday and in the wake of the shrine burning down, the cops wanted to avoid any congregations as a preventive measure. So we spent the day enjoying the hotel and the gardens, playing 4 corners and statue, chasing each other and finding Wally through Hollywood.



The next morning, as we all happened to wake early, we sat out in the garden, wrapped in shawls and sweaters, watching a gentle mist on the lake and enjoying hot tea. A shikara loomed up to the steps at the side of the garden – he was a flower seller. When I explained that I wanted to buy plants and seeds, he showed me a catalog full of the flowers I had lusted after. I also explained my peculiar desire to try and grow willow and poplar trees in pots (I’ve had some success with jamun, cherry, lychee, laburnum, frangipani and gulmohar trees in pots), and the boatman promised to be back the next day with my wishlist.

The last day began with yet another leisurely morning lingering over tea in the garden, followed by breakfast. The boatman turned up as promised with packets full of seeds, bulbs and cuttings, carefully annotated so I would know what is which. The rest of the day however went a little downhill. A jam-packed sight-seeing itinerary had been planned, including visits to the various famous gardens. Unfortunately the temperature had risen to 31 degrees, and we had by then got used to Gulmarg’s 12 and 5 degrees, so we were feeling very overheated. At our first stop, Shalimar Bagh, we were bitterly disappointed with the gardens and felt that the one at our hotel was better. The water body running through the middle, which was the prize innovation, was almost dry, none of the fountains were working and flowers were quite sparse. The kids had skipping from one stone to another across the water channel but all in all we were underwhelmed and overheated.

We decided to be lazy and skip Nishat Bagh. We headed for Pari Mahal, somewhat off the beaten track. It’s a palace built by Dara Shikoh, the intellectual, introspective brother of Aurangazeb and set on a winding track above Srinagar. The location and the height of the palace offers a panoramic view across Srinagar, in particular Dal Lake. We lingered there for some time, but the heat became too intense and we decided to cut short the rest of our sightseeing. At Chashm-e-shahi we only stopped long enough to fill up a bottle with the refreshingly cold spring water and went off to a highly recommended dhaba.

The dhaba was packed out by Amarnath Yatra travelers, and lines of customers snaked out the door. The kids and I had our hearts set on chhole bhaturey, despite the heat. After an interminable wait of half an hour, which involved our hanging around tables likely to finish their meals imminently, like famished vultures, we finally got a table barely big enough to squeeze us in. The diners before us had been generous with their meal, following the old saying ‘Thoda khao, thoda pheko’, and the floor around and beneath the table was bestrewn with morsels of food and unidentifiable liquids. I refused to ‘step foot’ in the slush pile and sat with my feet two inches off the ground at all times, which may have helped develop my thigh muscles but did little to add to my enjoyment of the meal.

Of course, that enjoyment may have been limited regardless of the cleanliness of the floor. Far from chholey bhature and such gourmet delights, the menu was a Punjabi import, with kadhi pakori, parathas, paneer and rajmah on offer. I guess the guy knew his clientele, because while we were there we heard a family discussing what to order. “Kya mangaaey?” “Rajma, te p’neer. Hor kya?” was the foregone conclusion. Clearly the food offered gustatorial delight beyond our imagination or appetite because we saw one table of four devouring a stack of rotis full one foot in height – the waiter had clapped a plate on top and bottom to keep from dropping them as he squeezed through the vulturous crowds waiting for their tables. Another table of four ate about 16 rotis, three bowls of paneer, some rajma chawal and were onto bowls of kheer by the time we left. We hurried through the five parathas we had ordered and fled!

Being back at Dar es Salam for a leisurely evening far from the madding crowd seemed the best way to bring a marvelous holiday to a reluctant end, and we left Kashmir the next day vowing, like Arnie, to be back!

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