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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How Chandratal Cleared My Muddled Head – Part III

This three-part series is my attempt to describe how the holy Moon Lake ‘Chandratal’ affected me. You can read Parts I & II here & here.

Part III

At my Chandratal camp, we were assisted by a cheerful & talkative lad called Santu. It has been more than a year since I met him, & yet I have been unable to forget him. As he served us piping hot tea, he narrated his story.

Cannot help falling in love
Cannot help falling in love

Hailing from the nearby village, Santu was neither the schooling kinds nor was he keen to follow what his forefathers did. He dropped out of school after class 8 & moved to Goa to do odd jobs. Soon, his adventurous (& undoubtedly Himachali) spirit beckoned.

Santu took up camping & hiking. Through training & practice, he mastered both. Now, in the inhospitable terrain of Spiti, he leads groups on treks, & waits at the various camps. He was the youngest in his family; I am pretty sure he had his own parental & peer pressures to deal with.

Still, the boy followed his heart & is now doing something he enjoys, and something which helps him support his family too. Most importantly, something constructive!

Woke up to this sight on Independence Day
Woke up to this on Independence Day

My lesson no. 3 from Chandratal – This was the time the stone pelting had started to gain momentum in the Kashmir valley. I could not help but compare Santu to the misguided youth of the valley.

One the one hand was a boy who charted his own path while still in school, and was today making money legally. On the other were those kids who had been brainwashed so easily to put their lives in jeopardy.

Santu made me believe that our destiny is what we want it to be – either to be seen in a negative light by an entire nation or to be remembered as an inspiration by a girl sitting miles away.

The rugged rugged Spitian terrain
The rugged Spitian terrain

Now the practical part – what to do near Chandratal?

  1. Well, the simplest option is to visit the Moon Lake. A day trip from Batal/ Losar/ Kaza is feasible.
  2. Do I recommend option 1? Not really. Camping at the Lake is far more fulfilling. If you prefer setting up your own tent, you can also hike your way to Chandratal from Batal (& pitch your tent wherever you feel tired!)
  3. The Baralacha La trek starts from Chandratal. So, if you are capable & willing to trek, go for it! Do remember – it’s not an easy one.
  4. For an absorbent soul like mine, the best way to spend time near the Lake is to soak in the sights & sounds, pay homage to the Indian Army and gape at the Chandrabhaga mountain range!

 

My trip extended beyond Chandratal to other parts of the Spiti Valley too, and each day brought in more learning, and yes, more memories. I humbly recommend to everyone – enjoy the journey too. Enjoy every moment, for you never know how your life may change!