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Monday, Feb 23, 2004

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A glimpse of paradise

Juhi Jhunjhunwala

Landscapes that change from barren to lush green, friendly jawans, historical monuments and yak sightings — a visit to Kashmir makes for all that and more.

An enchanting view of the Leh Valley - Kamal Narang

If there is a paradise on Earth, it's right here, right here, right here..." said Mirza Ghalib for Kashmir. We realised the truth in that statement as we drove on through Manali-Leh en route from Leh to Kashmir.

The land around Ladakh is barren and entirely devoid of habitation. But it was no less than a fairytale, and soon had us lost in the solitude of its winding, traffic-free roads. We were here to see the famed yak and soon came across a signboard that mentioned a yak breeding farm near Bodh Kharbu village. But as our car was too light, we were not able to cut across the stream to where the farm was located. Our determination to see this long-haired ox from the Tibetan plateau lead us to a near-by Army camp, where we requested the colonel in charge to help us cross over to the other side of the bank. He agreed and soon the four of us were crossing the rocky stream in a huge Army truck. On our return, the commandant officers requested us to stay the night with them, which we happily obliged. Living in the Army camp and seeing the other side of the men in uniform was a totally new experience. They took us as part of their family and did everything to make us feel comfortable.

Our next stop was Kargil, 234 km from Leh and the second-largest town in Ladakh. Well known for the 1999 Indo-Pak clash, and once an important trade and transit centre in the Pan-Asian trade network, Kargil is a quiet town now. Numerous caravans carrying exotic merchandise such as silk, brocade, carpets, felts, tea, poppy, ivory, and so on pass through here to and from China.

Situated at an altitude of 2,704 metres, this wonderful valley with its amazing apricots is a nature lover's paradise and an important base for trekking trips to the Himalayas. The fact that it is situated along the hillsides of the lower Suru basin makes it an ideal spot for refreshing walks. Day-long excursions can be taken to Mulbek and the Suru Valley. The shops that dot the area sell flint and tobacco pouches, raveling hukkas and brass kettles and a local speciality, apricot jam.

When we reached Kargil around noon, the terrain had changed from dusty and barren to fertile and cultivated. But we didn't spend much time in the town and decided to move on to Drass, 60 km away. We were in a hurry to cross Kashmir. The area had almost changed into a cantonment with the Army all around. Signs like "You are being viewed by Pakistanis", "Don't move away from the main highway", and the like only increased our fears. Occasionally we would pass a smiling soldier who would wave at us.

Situated at 3,230 meters, Drass is a small township lying in the centre of the valley of the same name. It is the coldest inhabited place in the world because of the repeated snowfalls during winters and really cold summers as well. The buildings and hills here bear testimony to the Kargil War. And the locals regale you with heroic tales of bravery. From here, one can get a clear view of Tiger Hill, the main battlefield of the war. Even today the fear and terror are ever present among the people.

We left Drass at 4.30 a.m. for our next goal was to cross Zojila pass before 6 a.m. This Himalayan gateway the border of Ladakh and Kashmir is a barren valley on one side, with the landscape turning to lush greenery as one approaches Kashmir. On the other side of Zojila lies Sonamarg, the starting point of the Kashmir valley. Set against a backdrop of snowy mountains and a cerulean sky, Sonamarg is the base of a major trek. It is also the base for those taking the holy yatra to the Amarnath cave. The breathtaking slopes are excellent for skiing during the winter months.

Shikara rides are a major tourist draw at Dal Lake in Srinagar - Juhi Jhunjhunwala

From here we were to drive on through Srinagar, but there was a sudden change of plans and we had to stop at Srinagar for the night. We decided to make the most our stay here and headed out to the famed Mughal gardens. Queen Nur-Jehan's brother Asif Khan laid the Nishat Garden in 1633 A.D. It is situated on the banks of Dal Lake in the backdrop of Zabarwan hills. This garden commands magnificent view of the lake.

We decided to call it a day in the evening and went to the local market near Lal Chowk to buy some food. It was then that we realised that the streets were empty and the Army had taken over. Needless to say that we were unnerved by this sudden change in the atmosphere. That night was the worst in the entire trip.

In Srinagar, the scars of terror are evident. Tourism has been declining in Kashmir and one can get a well-furnished room in a houseboat for as low as Rs 200 per night. The famous shikaras and houseboats of the Dal lake vie with each other for attention. It is a lake economy at this jewel of Kashmir. There is a lotus market where one can purchase lotus plants. There is a floating vegetable garden, which is also a morning market. There are house-boat restaurants and bars too. However, most interesting are the Kashmiri handicraft sellers who make rounds of the lake on shikaras and try to sell their products. Their merchandise includes Kashmiri suits and firans, tea, spices and so on. During the day we visited the famous Shalimar Bagh. This garden was built by Emperor Shah Jehan for his beloved wife Nur Jehan. The fountain-lined garden is watered from the Harwan canal and grows beautiful marigolds, huge magnolias and many other varieties of flowers.

We also took a stroll to Chashmashahi or the royal spring, which was laid by Shah Jehan in 1632 A.D. The water here is said to have medicinal properties. Nehru, whenever he visited Kashmir, used to get water especially from here.

Pari Mahal is two km uphill from Chashmashahi and there was a school of astrology and philosophy based on various religions here. This was built by Dara Shikoh who was killed in war of succession to the Mughal Empire. The evening was peaceful as we gobbled some delicious Kashmiri Aludam and other delicacies on the balcony of the boat and watched the shikaras crisscrossing the lake. The night was calm.

We left Srinagar the next morning for Jammu and it was a smooth drive, with only a couple of stops for checking. Whenever we stopped to buy Kashmir bats and fruits an Army jawan would appear from out of nowhere and just stand sentinel by our car. But considering the unrest that is rife in the region, their presence is necessary, though it might seem a little unsettling especially to tourists.

Soon, we reached the Banihal tunnel, which marked the end of the terror zone. Breathing a sigh of relief, we bid adieu to this paradise, hoping that someday soon the situation of the Valley would improve so that tourism can be restored, and we would have yet another chance to visit Kashmir.

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