When Like & Dislike Co-existed

“Gar firdaus ae baruhe zamin ast, Hamin astu Hamin astu Hamin ast.” (If there is heaven on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.) No reference to Kashmir can start without this quote. Yet, we are divided on our agreement with it.

There is no doubt that the Kashmir valleys are sights to behold. At the same time, are they the best there can be? Did Amir Khusrou travel the world before he bestowed Kashmir with this honor? Or even travel all of India?

No, don’t get us wrong. We are not doubting the beauty of Kashmir. We have seen it firsthand ourselves. But to call it paradise when you have worthy competitors is a trifle unfair, is it not?

gorgeous
Gulmarg – Such a gorgeous sight!

If we limit ourselves to India, we have found the barrenness of Ladakh, the rain-drenched hills of Himachal, the forts of Rajasthan, the sunsets of the Rann of Kutch, the backwaters of Kerala & many more to be equally beautiful, if not more.

Nonetheless, Kashmir captivates in a way that leaves an imprint on your mind for your entire life. We were fortunate enough to visit the beautiful cities & surroundings of Gulmarg, Pahalgam & Srinagar.

We were here around the Independence Day. Everybody cautioned us that it was an unsafe time to visit the valley. We felt this would be the safest due to heightened security; & we were right. While paramilitary & police presence is a common sight, on 15th August, there was a curfew-like situation which made our movement easy.

poem, Kashmir, memory
Gulmarg – All poems about Kashmir returned to memory.

Our first stop, Gulmarg, proved to be a pretty little town with the gondola being its claim to fame. A walking distance away from our hotel, Nedous, was the gondola station. The gondola took us to a staggering height.

Here, enthusiastic folks can try their hands at snow sports, while the lazy ones can sit & admire the scenery. On open meadows, we saw horses galloping. It brought back to mind the vivid descriptions that Enid Blyton would paint. Ah, the joys of childhood! Rolling green hills surrounded our cottage. Tall pine trees adorned these hills. We asked ourselves- who would say this is India? Looks more like Switzerland!

We believe what irked us about Kashmir was the attitude of most people & their self-defined rules. In Gulmarg & Pahalgam, we could visit the sightseeing spots only if we hired a local taxi. We were not allowed to use our Srinagar-registered taxi. What was the insecurity here? Why create this nuisance for travelers? Why differentiate yourself from your brethren? It is all Kashmir, is it not? You are all Kashmiris, are you not?

prettiness
Too much prettiness

On 15th, we moved from Gulmarg to Pahalgam, a distance of 145 kms. The roads were deserted and the only presence we saw was of security forces. At one check post, we were stopped by a group of men.

The leader, clad in a vest & khaki trousers, & with an automatic in hand, came up to our vehicle, peered inside & asked our driver if we were all tourists. Satisfied, he let us go. The driver told us he was a J&K policeman.

We were left wondering. He looked like a goon. He neither had a uniform on nor was he displaying an identification. How was a layperson to know who he was, & with what authority was he stopping us? We are afraid to say this but he may have been a militant.

cottage, Pahalgam, River Lidder
The area surrounding our cottage in Pahalgam – River Lidder providing the perfect way to spend a few days.

Our apprehensions abated once we reached the busy but picturesque town of Pahalgam. All the curfew we had witnessed on our route evaporated here. Even with a light rain, locals & tourists thronged the main street, rushing to eat, shop or just idle away time.

Sadly, our experiences at the three restaurants we tried –Trout Beat, Paradise & Heena – were quite poor. The worst was that the servers, chefs & managers did not seem to care that we did not enjoy their food or service.

We had thought Kashmiri hospitality would be something to write home about. We know a bunch of Kashmiris who have moved out of Kashmir, & they are warm & friendly people.

wisp, leaf
Wispy leaves

We had also only heard till date that Kashmiris refer to the people from rest of India as Hindustanis. We saw it firsthand there. In a restaurant in Pahalgam, a local picked up a fight with the restaurant manager, questioning him why were Hindustanis being served & Kashmiris were kept waiting! We wanted to say – brother, whether you like it or not, you are a Hindustani too.

Our bitterness evaporated with the sights that Pahalgam had in store. We stayed at Travelers’ Inn, a cottage which could be reached only by crossing a treacherous wooden bridge over an angry Lidder river.

On the land around the cottage, at any given point of time, five horses could be found grazing. Right in front of the cottage was the river, peaceful & crystal clear one moment, and angry & muddy the other.

Chashmashahi, purity, water
At Chashmashahi, pure water becomes impure just minutes after emerging from the ground.

Surrounding the cottage were mountains that started off green at the base and turned white as your eyes reached the peaks. It was one of those places where you could easily spend a few days just curled up in an armchair, in the sun, listening to the river, & reading a book.

The beautiful valleys of Aru & Betaab were nearby; so if you did feel like moving a limb, you could head here to soak in more natural beauty.

Another thing that annoyed us was not getting any product at MRP. It is no more a situation where Kashmir does not get tourists. It has an inflow all year round. It is perhaps because the rules that apply to the rest of India do not apply to Kashmir.

beauty, houseboat
We’d only heard about the beauty of the houseboats. When we saw it first hand, we didn’t want to leave…

Our last stop was Srinagar. We had an impression that Srinagar being the capital, it will be crowded and polluted with nothing to see. We could not have been more wrong. If you leave the heart of the city aside, the suburbs are beautiful & quiet.

The Dal Lake occupies a major part of the city and the promenade is a breeze to drive through. We opted to stay at Nigeen Lake, touted to be prettier & quieter. We had only heard about the beauty of houseboats. When we entered our Wangnoo Houseboat, we were so enamored we wished we could extend our stay. A plush setting with wooden interiors, the houseboat was fit for royalty. The canopied-bed was an added charm. The best part was the ‘home delivery’ of almost anything we wanted.

Srinagar offered Pari Mahal, Chashmashahi, and Hazrat BAL & Nishat Bagh to us. All those history lessons, all those story books, all those references in movies came back to us as we gaped unabashedly at each of these places.

kashmir, shikara
The symbol of Kashmir – the sleek shikaras

We finally found Kashmiri food that we loved. Ahdoos served us a wazwan that erased all the bad food experiences we had endured till then.

Our sojourn to the beautiful valley was short and sweet, with a little bit of spice thrown in. Our cameras managed to pick up colors we did not even know existed. We loved the kahwa even though the dishes did not excite us much. We brought back blackberries, firans, jewelry, kahwa, ponchos, saffron, walnuts and walnut tarts. Yum!

The natural beauty and the salubrious weather make it indeed a paradise, but when man interferes with paradise, it ceases to remain so…

Shout out to The Wanderbug for organizing this trip for us!

 

Images courtesy our friend & co-traveler, Tushar Belwal

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Kem Chho Gujarat?

When Gujarat was afresh in our minds, we had planned to write a long post singing praises of the state. However, now, a considerable amount of time has passed. The detailed memories have started fading.

A few aspects stand out, & will continue to do so, till a contradictory experience occurs. Listing down 5 things we simply loved about Gujarat. Our experiences cover Ahmedabad, Dasada, the Little Rann of Kutch, Modhera, Patan, & all the towns & villages that fell along the way.

Pukka road, Gujarat village
Caught in a traffic jam but on a ‘pukka’ road in a rural setting

#1. Roads – We are a Delhi NCR couple. It is quite difficult to impress us with roads. But we are also travelers. We have seen the worst of roads. But, the roads in Gujarat were a delight to be driven on.

Not just the highways; the back of beyond villages had ‘pukka’ roads. We have always believed roads are the harbinger of growth & development.

#2. Water – The remotest of villages have running water. It is quite a feat to be able to guarantee water supply to every nook & corner, especially when you are a predominant dry state.

step well, 108 shrines, Modhera Sun Temple
A step well having 108 shrines on its stairs at the Modhera Sun Temple

The capital of the country, Delhi, is unable to provide tap water to a number of its colonies, even though it has the best resources of the country at its disposal. Yet, Gujarat has achieved this.

It saves the womenfolk the drudgery of drawing water from wells and carrying it over long distances. & honestly, doesn’t the thought excite you that you can get a stream of water every time you open your tap?

Well, maybe, you take it for granted, for you have never known otherwise. Let us assure you – the alternate is not pretty…

Rani ki Vav, Queen's Stepwell, Patan, UNESCO World Heritage Site
The Rani ki Vav (Queen’s Stepwell) at Patan – a UNESCO World Heritage Site

#3. Electricity – Rural menfolk in white dhoti – kurta, women in colorful chaniya – cholis, children playing in the mud, cattle, goats, sheep & dogs freely roaming around, elders sitting under the banyan tree discussing sociopolitical affairs… this pretty much paints a picture of a typical Indian village.

What stands out is the fan whirring inside the hut, the bulbs twinkling at night, the small fridge to keep matters cool. This is not something you can see in every Indian village but it was something we saw commonly in Gujarat.

You can see the poles running through the length & breadth in every village but seldom have the wires carried current. In Gujarat, they did…

jharokha, window, Sarkhej Roza, Ahmedabad
A Jharokha (Window) at the Sarkhej Roza, Ahmedabad

#4. No beggars outside temples – So, to be honest, we visited only one temple in Gujarat – the Bahucharmata Temple in Bahucharaji. The Sun Temple at Modhera does not count as it is a tourist attraction rather than a pilgrimage spot.

We have not been to a single temple in India where we have not been flanked by beggars asking us to give something to them. They either hound us till the time we enter the temple or our vehicle, or they sit forlornly, their bodies covered with dust, grime, sores & wounds.

It is not a pretty sight. We feel bad for the ones who are genuinely destitute, but we dislike being hounded. This is usually by those who are active and fit, & can easily pick up some sort of work. But, of course, beggary is an easy way out.

Bahucharmata Mandir
Business as usual outside the Bahucharmata Mandir

At the Bahucharmata temple, we did not see a single beggar. No old man, no young girl carrying a baby, nil, nada, niyat. It made us think – what is different here compared to the rest of India? Is it because Gujaratis as a community do not believe in asking?

Or is it because there is no need for anybody to beg? Or is it simply because the administration does a good job of keeping them away? Sadly, we could not ask anyone these questions but would love to unravel this mystery.

Whatever it was, it put us at ease. We did not have to look away out of disgust or guilt or helplessness.

Rani ki Vav, Patan
Well-manicured lawns at the Rani ki Vav, Patan

The other aspect that stood out was the absence of hawkers trying to coerce you into buying offerings. Again, we have not been to any place of worship where the hawkers outside have not tried to sell me all sorts of offerings to make the gods or saints happy.

This is as true for a Hanuman Mandir in Delhi as for the Ajmersharif Dargah. In Bahucharaji, the hawkers peacefully went about their business, selling their wares to only those who approached them.

There was no shouting either by them, trying to seek attention of pilgrims. This is how a place of worship should be – peaceful and with the liberty for you to interact with the Almighty as you want.

Sabarmati Riverfront, Ahmadabad
The Sabarmati Riverfront at Ahmadabad – a role model for all river fronts in India

#5. Tourist Spots – Spotlessly clean. Well – maintained. Adequate signboards and historical references. No hanky – panky. No touts. There were only ASI – approved guides at the Modhera Sun Temple, who asked you only once if you wanted their service.

If you said no, they would quietly move away to the next set of travelers. We were so pleased with their professionalism, we ended up engaging one. And do not regret it one bit.

To balance our post out, there were a couple of things we disliked about Gujarat.

Mahatma Gandhi, Gandhi Ashram, Ahmadabad
Remembering the Mahatma at his ashram

#1. Disregard for traffic rules – We were constantly at the edge of our seat whenever we were on the road in Ahmedabad. There was a complete disregard of traffic signals, lane driving, overtaking rules etc. It was a miracle vehicles did not bump into each other.

We are quite paranoid on the road. The situation in Ahmedabad was pure horror for us. The plus side – it made us remember God more than we usually do.

#2. Food – What is the deal with making even the curries sweet? How do you differentiate between entrée & dessert? Perhaps, it is an acquired taste but it was quite unpalatable to us. After one Gujarati meal, we slipped back to north Indian cuisines.

Sabarmati Riverfront
Evening stroll at the Sabarmati Riverfront

Sigh! Long post but we felt we needed to write this as a tribute to the good time we had in Gujarat. We intend to visit again soon, hoping to cover all the other tourist spots that Amitabh bachchan has requested us to! 😀