Over the past year, Kashmir Valley has seen a record number of tourists visiting its beauteous landscape. More than 11 lakh visited last season, and more are expected to head there this year.
Our gang of nine women — relatives and friends, with the majority being young-at-heart silver citizens — toured the Valley during autumn. The season is one of the most poetic — a time when the cold is firming up ahead of winter, branches are laden with luscious red apples, and the glorious chinar is beginning to attire itself in myriad shades of auburn.
Green, clean Gulmarg
All of us had visited Kashmir at some point of time, and this trip was about reliving moments, and letting the new enrich our tote of memories. So, we stuck to the classic circuit and began from the all-time favourite Gulmarg.
Though the town is associated with the colour white, its green allure is its deodar-fringed meadow, known as ‘The Bowl’ — the lovely concave nucleus home to a scenic golf course. We surfed the Web for accommodation overlooking this vista. Despite the scanty reviews, we opted for Nedou’s, and fell for its quaint charm on arrival. Apart from the location, we were drawn by the history of the place: Established in 1888 by Michael Adam Nedou, a visiting architect from Dubrovnik (now in Croatia), Nedou is the oldest hotel in the Valley. The handsome architect had been bowled over by the site; years later, it had the same effect on us. Built on a knoll, with a blend of local and European styles, the hotel provides a panoramic view of popular sights. From the well-trimmed garden, our group — drawn from Delhi, Mumbai, and Calcutta — surveyed the splendid scene. The nippy breeze and painterly setting sun, paired with platters of grilled cheese sandwiches (made with delicious bread baked in a wood-fired mud-oven) and steaming hot kehva made for a perfect start to our holiday.
Gulmarg is the place for lovely walks and pleasant hikes. Along the way, we gushed over little discoveries: A cluster of shy lilac lupins, an old-style bakery set amidst fir trees, clouds drifting and revealing a snow-capped peak, or a photo-happy group of pheran-clad, weathered men crouched over kangris. But it was tough to keep the pushy local pony-wallas at bay.
We had reserved our final day for the popular cable car. Its first stage (Rs 300 a head) was a transfer to the Kongdori Valley station (8,530 ft); the optional second stage takes visitors to the Kongdori Mountain top (12,293 ft). We had glorious views of the rolling meadows at the foot of the Afarwat Mountains, in the Pir Panjal ranges surrounding Gulmarg. During winter, this is where skiers arrive to glide down powdery snow.
Onward to Pahalgam
Pahalgam (146 km) can be reached in three-and-a-half hours by road. We took nearly double the time, as we paused at many a pretty sight en route. At Wahipora village, a cluster of orchards made us halt — the trees loaded with apples were a feast for the eyes.
In Magam town, we scurried to pick up souvenirs from shops selling traditional engraved copperware. Brijbhera turned out to be willow country, the highway lined by numerous shops selling cricket bats. At Avantipora and Mattan, we came upon the grand ruins of temples dating back to the 8th-10th centuries, built by kings Avantivarman and Lalitaditya respectively.
The Lidder river is the pride of Pahalgam, epitomised in Hindi movies of the 1960s and 1970s as a romantic hotspot, with love blossoming between many a lead pair on its scenic banks. Our group spent a considerable amount of time on the riverbank — picnicking, hiking or listening to the travelling shawl-wallas entertaining sales spiel; with some of us having fond old memories of the place, an aunt even ended up buying a stole touted as ‘pure pashmina’, despite knowing it was fake, for old times’ sake.
A popular half-day trip away from Pahalgam is the Chandanwari (base point for the Amarnath Yatra trek) – Aru-Hagan (Betab Valley) circuit. The region’s many picturesque spots are tourist magnets, replete with kiosks selling Maggi noodle and masala chai, as also crewel embroidery works. Aru, incidentally, was where Rockstar was filmed — an excuse for every pony-walla there to boast about his brush with stardom!
On the Dal
However hackneyed the thought of staying in a houseboat on Dal Lake, it’s a must-have experience. Our tastefully furnished houseboat was a welcoming perch from which we watched life float by, and each day we set forth on a new water-trek. The mesmerising sunset cruise and the charming morning floating vegetable market, which had us buying kilos of nadroo (lotus stems), were extra special. We spent an evening browsing the ‘water market’ on stilts, while on another day we watched walnut wood-carving at workshops on the lake.
All through our holiday, we found the Valley peaceful and the security forces inconspicuous in Srinagar. Not for a moment did the term ‘fear’ cross our mind. In fact, heartfelt hospitality touched us at every step — from the cab drivers to the man on the street. We visited the architecturally-distinct Juma Masjid located downtown, drove past elegant brick-houses with latticed windows by the Jhelum river, shopped at bustling Lal Chowk, savoured melt-in-the-mouth gushtaba (meatballs) off the street at Amira Kadal market, and drank in the beauty of Mughal gardens (Nishat Bagh, and not the renowned Shalimar, being the breathtaking one).
With so much to see and do in Srinagar we could manage just a half-day trip to Sonamarg — here, truly, it’s not the destination but the journey along the icy-blue Sindh river, edged by yellow-leaf poplars, that matters. So wondrous was it, in fact, that it made a group member exclaim — “Phew! This is paradise.”