Kashmir – Heaven on Earth
As our plane descended towards Srinagar we were welcomed by beautiful mustard yellow fields and snow capped mountains. The feeling of purity and calmness sets in and the base is made for what will be an amazing journey.
This was my fourth trip to Srinagar. We were staying on the Dal Lake. The drive from Srinagar airport to Dal Lake takes less than one hour. As you approach the boulevard road, you are amazed by the unique and eventful life on the Dal Lake and the famous houseboats of Srinagar.
Our houseboat was in the ‘open lake’… the shikara was waiting for us as we arrived at Ghat No 17 of the Dal Lake. A short shikara ride on the lake brought us to our houseboat. We stepped onto the deck and then onto the porch of the houseboat, where following Kashimir traditions we removed our shoes before we entered the living hall of our houseboat. The houseboat had three ensuite bedrooms, living areas and dinning room and a small pantry. Most houseboats have three rooms, a few have four and even fewer have two. If you are visiting in a group , you can book your stay at a ‘group’ of houseboats, which normally is a collaboration between a few neighboring houseboats.
It is recommend to prebook your dinner at the houseboat. Your houseboat incharge will often consult you before finalising your dinner menu. You can request your food to be spicy to mild; from Kashmiri to Continental …though I highly recommend sticking to Kashmiri food while in Kashmir. Some of my favourite dishes are Gustaba (pounded meat balls in a yogurt gravy), Rishta (pounded meat balls in a onion and tomato gravy), Rogan josh (mutton on the bones cooked in a tomato and onion gravy), Nihari (lotus stem cooked in a yogurt gravy), Palak saag( Mutton cooked with spinach). All of these are best eaten with boiled rice. You can also try the traditional Kashmiri bread. It is softer and fluffier version of the naan bread, similar to the afghani bread. On the houseboat you will be able to get rice and chapati (traditional indian bread made on a iron pan) as most houseboats will not have a tandoor( clay oven) in which the Kashmiri naan bread is made. To finish a meal you must try the famous Firni ( rice cooked in sweetened saffron milk flavoured with cardamons).It is best eaten cold and often served in a earthen bowl.
The Sikaara ride is a fun experience. As you travel on the waters of Dal Lake, you are welcomed by local vendors. You can enjoy a fresh fruit salad, hot Kehva, or even freshly barbecued Kebabs. As you travel through the back lanes of the Dal lake, you cross the floating market where you can buy carpets, cloths and wood carved items .You will also go past homes of locals. There are also shops on boat where you can purchase a range of souvenirs to take back.
Srinagar is home to the famous beautiful Mugal Gardens, Jama Majid , Dargha Hazratbal and Shankachariya temple. There are three gardens, Nishat Bagh, Shalimar Bagh and Chasma Shahi. The best ones is Shalimar Bagh followed closely by Nishat Bagh .The Shankachariya temple is on top of a hill. One you drive up to the top, you need to walk up 100 steps to reach the temple. The steps are small and very easy to walk up on. You don’t feel any strain on your knees or legs while walking up. The Hazratbal Dargha is a fascinating experience. Pigeons are seen in large numbers outside the Dargha . There are local eateries around the Dargha serving some lovely Kebabs and super large naan bread. You can also find vendors selling flowers and other offerings for the Dargha. The Jama Majid in Srinagar, is a unique piece of architecture. It is a good mix of arabic, Persian and Kashmiri architecture.
Gulmarg, Sonmarg and Pahalgam are the three prominent tourist destinations in Kashmir after Srinagar. You can go for a day trip or overnight excursion to these places from Srinagar.
Gulmarg is a one and a half to two hour drive from Srinagar, while Sonmarg and Pahalgam are both two and half hours drive from Srinagar. You would have to take a local car and guide for sightseeing in these places as vehicles from Srinagar are not allowed for sightseeing. Your vehicle from Srinagar will only be able to drop you till your destination and bring you back to Srinagar. If you are not equipped for the snow, then there are a number of vendors who are lined up to rent out boots and jackets enroute. Your driver will take you to a rental shop he recommends. There is really no difference as all the shops rent out the same things.
Activities available at Gulmarg and Sonmarg include, snow biking, snow sledging and skiing. In Pahalgam, you can walk up or take a pony to Bisaran which is a plateau surrounded by beautiful Pine and Deodar trees. On the way to Pahalgam and Sonmarg, stop by a stream for a hot cup of Kehva. In Gulmarg you can also take a Gondola (cable car) ride. It is a beautiful 10 minute journey. There are two points where the Gondola stops, I have always been until the first point and second point is mostly for skiers.
Do buy yourself some walnut wood souvenirs, hand embroidered scarves, paper mache gift items and some original Kashimiri dry fruits and spices to take back with you. The best place to shop is Srinagar is Polo View. It is a street a small sheet with handicraft, souvenir and dry fruit shops.
Kashmir is a all year destination. It is not possible to visit Sonmarg once it starts snowing as the roads close. Gulmarg has become India’s Ski capital with skiers coming from around the world in January and February. Pehlagam is best visited between May- September so you can enjoy the beautiful meadows. Once it snows, Pehlagam goes quite as a destination.
January and February is good for skiing while April is the best time to see the beautiful tulip garden in Srinagar . May to August are good to see the beautiful lush green meadows. In September autumn sets in Kahsmir, Dried chinar leaves can be seen everywhere. October and November – the winter has starts but it is still not very cold. It starts snowing in the mountains in October. By December-, Snow has arrived in Srinagar and it is all white.
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