Memoirs of Kashmir - A Few Days of Paradise

Discussion in 'Travelogues' started by Vargis Khan, Oct 23, 2018.

  1. Vargis Khan

    Vargis Khan Administrator Staff Member

    Forbidden paradise is what I was calling it before the trip actually. My thoughts of Kashmir were the same like rest of the world. The very idea of visiting Kashmir makes people nervous and it did the same with me. But then things changed when I went and spent some time there; rode through its valleys and got talking to its people. My trip to Kashmir was much more than enjoying the lush green mountains and clicking numerous photos. It was a learning to be honest; about the struggles of both a common man of Kashmir and a soldier of Indian Army. While writing this Kashmir Travelogue, I am really hoping to give you a true picture on how you can plan a trip here; things you should keep in mind; places you must explore and experiences that you must gain.

    The first time I landed in Srinagar was about a decade ago while returning from Ladakh. Was I nervous back then? Yes definitely. I stayed in the city for a night and got out the first thing next morning. Same routine followed in coming years as well. Then I finally made friends with a local from Srinagar city; a gem of a person called Faisal. He runs his own motorcycle rental firm there and that is how I got talking to him. After more than a year of remaining in touch and discussing Kashmir, my perspective of the state started to change. That is when I started to consider visiting and exploring the valleys of Kashmir. Faisal helped in two ways. First was the assurance that Kashmir is as safe as any other part of the country; and secondly a list of offbeat places that I must see.


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  2. Vargis Khan

    Vargis Khan Administrator Staff Member

    Where to Go?

    It all really started with a simple idea and that too several months in advance. A close friend of mine, Shoaib, and I were talking about how it had been a long time since we were out on a long trip together; and how we must plan a trip to some place new sometime soon. We talked about a few places and I suggested Kashmir; that neither of us had really been to. After that, there was not really much of a discussion and we both immediately agreed. Next came the question of when. Faisal suggested that we should plan for either August or September as it would be all lush green then. Neither Shoaib nor I could afford to be away from work in September; and visiting Kashmir before or around 15th August did not sound like a good idea. Hence 3rd week of August was finalized.

    How and When?

    After when came “for how long”. This one proved to be a really short discussion because 9 days is all that we could afford; including 2 weekends. Last but not the least was the question of “how to go”. First we thought about traveling by my Thar; but that meant 2 days spent in going to Srinagar from Delhi; and then 2 days in coming back home. So out of 9 days, we will spend 4 days in just going to and coming back from Kashmir; in countless hours of driving. And hence, we dumped the idea of driving and decided to book a flight instead. That way, we could just fly in and out of Srinagar and rent bikes from Faisal for traveling locally; and be able to dedicate all 9 days in exploring as much as possible.

    Who?

    Now all this was happening several months in advance. Our trip was finalized for late August and we booked our tickets in early May, about 4 months before the travel dates. Then in early June, It just so happened that I was talking to another close friend of mine, Lavish, on a different topic when the idea of asking him about coming along occurred. Shoaib, Lavish and I had been on several trips together before and I was actually surprised that I did not ask him sooner. When I mentioned of the plan to Lavish, he too agreed and after about an half an hour of getting his leaves approved, his flight ticket too was booked. The only difference was that Shoaib and I were both in Delhi whereas Lavish would have to first travel from Dehradun to Delhi and then fly to Srinagar.

    Itinerary

    After numerous discussions and taking inputs from Faisal (and after multiple changes); the following itinerary was decided. This however was just the initial plan; and I was certain that the actual travel will turn out to be completely different.

    • Arrive in Srinagar and head straight to Gulmarg - Day 1
    • Travel from Gulmarg to Doodhpathri and reach Srinagar by evening - Day 2
    • Srinagar local sightseeing - Day 3
    • Srinagar to Pahalgam - Day 4
    • Pahalgam to Aharbal and Srinagar by evening - Day 5
    • Srinagar to Gurez - Day 6
    • Gurez to Sonamarg - Day 7
    • Sonamarg to Srinagar - Day 8
    • Fly Out of Srinagar - Day 9
    I wanted to rent motorcycles for the entire duration of the trip but Faisal had prior bookings he had to keep up with. So for the first 2 days, it was decided that we will rent a cab and then take handover of motorcycles from Faisal on Day 3. The driver would pick us up straight from the airport and take us to Gulmarg.

    After this, it was pretty much just the wait for the D-Day to arrive and getting the travel plan ready. We literally counted days to the day of the trip and all 3 of us were quite excited. I kept changing the itinerary multiple times trying to find the best way to explore the best that I could. Faisal of course was my primary source of information and I really thank the guy for being so patient with my wild amount of questions.

    Is Kashmir Safe for Travel?

    Before going any further in the travelogue, let me first address the elephant in the room. The million dollar question of whether or not it is safe for a tourist to visit Kashmir. A one line answer to this query is that "yes it is as long as you know how to keep your own nose out of trouble". For more information, please read How to Travel to Kashmir Safely where I have discussed this topic in detail.

    Kashmir Travelogue

    All three of us knew that this was going to be an amazing experience. The last time I was so excited about a trip was when I first visited Ladakh. And we weren't wrong. It indeed turned out to be a grand journey; one that was going to be etched in our memories for a long time.
     
  3. Vargis Khan

    Vargis Khan Administrator Staff Member

    Preparations for the Trip

    It is funny how slow the time passes when you are waiting for something or someone to arrive. We had this trip planned months in advance; and as we started to get closer, time started to seem to drag itself. First we were counting weeks and then days. There wasn’t really much preparation to be done. Courtesy Faisal, all the arrangements happened days in advance and quite seamlessly; and all that we now had to do was to pack our bags and travel from Delhi to Gulmarg.

    This made the wait seem even longer. Usually my last few days of the trip get spent in getting everything arranged but in this case, the only task on hand was to make a list of places to see. Faisal pretty much took care of all the rest. He had the driver arranged for our trip, helped with the itinerary and we were going to rent bikes from him only for half of the trip. Without him, I am sure our trip would not have been so seamless.

    The only thing that kept me worried for days before the trip was the task of getting a postpaid MTNL connection. I own an Airtel prepaid phone and by law, prepaid mobile phones do not work in the state of J&K. Shoaib had an Idea postpaid connection but I knew that it will not work at several places that were part of our itinerary. So we agreed to get a new MTNL postpaid connection for which Shoaib took the responsibility. We kept discussing this; I continued reminding and he continued postponing. Finally, it was just a day before the trip that he finally visited the MTNL office and got a new SIM.

    Change in Plans

    The way our tickets were booked, Shoaib and I were to catch and Air India flight at 7:10 AM whereas Lavish’s flight was at 6:10 AM; so he was to arrive at Srinagar a full hour ahead of us. My plan heavily depended on our early arrival at Srinagar; so that we can reach Gulmarg latest by 11 AM and have plenty of time for sightseeing. Luck however decided to have it otherwise. A day before the trip, I got a message from Air India that our flight was delayed by a full 3 and a Half hours. Now we will leave Delhi at 10:40 and arrive at Srinagar by noon. Lavish’s flight however remained to be on time. So now, poor fellow would reach Srinagar at 7:40 AM and wait for us there till noon. A full 4 and a half hours of doing nothing .

    This really almost botched up my plans. Now this meant that we would land in Srinagar at 12 and arrive at Gulmarg at around 3 PM. By the time we would check into a hotel and freshen up, it would almost be 5 PM and the entire day gone. I on the other hand had an entire list of places prepared that I wanted to see at Gulmarg on Day 1; and the change in timing really made me wonder if I would be able to cover it all. For a while there, I even changed our itineraries and thought of a few other ways to go about it. In the end however, I kind of gave up and stick to the same plan thinking that we can decide and change after our arrival at Gulmarg if required.
     
  4. Vargis Khan

    Vargis Khan Administrator Staff Member



    Day 1 - Delhi to Srinagar


    After the initial niggles and hiccups, finally the D-Day arrived and we got ready to execute the much awaited trip. I boarded an Uber from my place at about 7:30 AM to make sure that I arrive at the airport despite the usual morning traffic. We all work in night shifts so I was actually awake from the day before. I was hopeful that I would be able to get some power naps in the cab and then during the flight. The driver however turned out to be a chatty one and the fellow did not stop talking even for a minute during our entire 40 minutes of ride to airport. He went on and on about how he progressed in life from small jobs to now owning his own taxi and by the time I got to the airport, I was already wearing a headache.

    Not much happened after that. I got a call from Lavish that he had landed at Srinagar airport and was waiting for us there. I gave him the phone number of our driver asking him to coordinate the pickup. After all the formalities, finally we took off from Delhi airport at around 11 AM.

    The first thing I was surprised with was the number of Malaysian tourists in the flight. The entire plane was full of them. Even the fellow sitting next to me was a Malay.

    Some views from the flight

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  5. Vargis Khan

    Vargis Khan Administrator Staff Member

    Finally in Srinagar

    It was a short flight and we landed at Srinagar as planned. Second thing to surprise me that day was the time spent at Srinagar airport. I was thinking that it would take us at least half an hour to 45 minutes to come out like it does in Delhi. Srinagar airport however turned out to be surprisingly much smaller than I expected. From the time we stepped out of the plane to the time we came out of the airport, it took us no more than 10 to 15 minutes.

    At Srinagar Airport.

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    I checked my phone. Airtel Prepaid was gone and MTNL was not yet active. So in short, I was without phone and had to rely on Shoaib’s phone completely. One phone call to Lavish who had been there waiting for us for past 4 hours; another to our driver who too had arrived and was waiting with Lavish; and in next half an hour, we were cruising on our way towards Gulmarg.
     
  6. Vargis Khan

    Vargis Khan Administrator Staff Member


    Srinagar to Tangmarg


    Third entry in the list of surprises for the day came in the form of driving skills of the good people of Srinagar. I am from Delhi and I hate the roads there and the fact that how people drive like idiots. But once I spent some time on the roads of Srinagar city, people of Delhi started to look well behaved. That is how crazy it is in Srinagar. Everyone was driving like a maniac and I was shocked at how they were managing to not hit anyone going at such a speed; driving in such a manner. Pedestrians were completely ignorant of the oncoming vehicles. They were walking as if they were all deaf and blind, unable to see any vehicle or listen to the horns. So word of advice, if you are driving to Kashmir then please be very careful and slow down. It doesn't actually apply just in Srinagar city but everywhere in Kashmir.

    We traveled through the crowded town of Magam and then the first stop came at Tangmarg where we stopped for much needed refreshments.

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  7. Vargis Khan

    Vargis Khan Administrator Staff Member


    Hotel Pine View - Gulmarg

    The following happened a day before the trip. I was looking for a budget hotel in Gulmarg and while Googling for it, the name of Hotel Pine View came up. This hotel was offering the lowest price of all and by the pictures posted, it looked like a decent enough stay. I called the number listed and the guy who answered the phone told me that the hotel was not exactly within Gulmarg; but about 10 kilometers downhill from main town. At that time I did not understand where he meant but when we stopped at Tangmarg, I immediately noticed Hotel Pine view there. So if you too came across this name then do not check in here. This hotel comes up in Google as a budget hotel in Gulmarg; but actually is located at Tangmarg which is on the way from Srinagar; about 14 kilometers before Gulmarg.

    Also Read: How to Plan a Trip to Gulmarg?

    Hotel Affarwat in Gulmarg

    The owner of this hotel however was a very friendly and helpful guy. They have a branch in Gulmarg as well by the name of Pine View Resort; fare of which is slightly higher at around Rs. 2500. This however is the off season price and I am sure it will go up even further during tourist season. I asked the guy if he could book my stay here at Pine View Resort; but they were completely booked for the day we were reaching Gulmarg. I then asked him if there was any other good hotel he would recommend and he suggested Hotel Affarwat. I checked google, saw a few pics and it looked decent enough. I gave my nod and he confirmed my booking in Hotel Affarwat.

    I have provided more details and some pictures of this hotel at Hotel Affarwat - A good place to stay in Gulmarg. Overall our experience was satisfactory. It was a good hotel that I will recommend staying at. Budget hotels anyways are a rare breed in Gulmarg so don't go searching for those.

    Tangmarg to Gulmarg

    Until Tangmarg, the entire journey from Srinagar looks much like driving in plains. It don’t even feel like you are actually at a hill station. It is after Tangmarg that the road turns into a steep ascent and climbs up rapidly for last 14 kilometers to Gulmarg. The vistas change drastically and you get your first taste of why Gulmarg is such a famous tourist spot. Back at Srinagar and even at Tangmarg, temperature was a bit hot but the air turned colder as we got closer to Gulmarg. Before we could finally make it there however, there was one more stop that I wanted to make; at the shrine of Baba Reshi.
     
  8. Vargis Khan

    Vargis Khan Administrator Staff Member



    Baba Reshi, Gulmarg


    I have posted detailed information about this shrine at a different post, The Life and Legend of Baba Reshi. But for a brief overview, Baba Reshi is one of the most famous and visited Dargah or mazar in all of Kashmir. Not many people know about it though; and even I found out about the place while I was googling for a list of places to visit around Gulmarg. This shrine falls kind on the way; and a road bifurcates about 5 kilometers before Gulmarg as you start to drive up from Tangmarg. It is a very peaceful and serene place sitting amid the dense forest all around. If you are planning to visit Gulmarg, I will highly recommend a short trip to Baba Reshi. It won’t take you more than an hour to visit here and then get back on the road to Gulmarg which was exactly what we did.

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  9. Vargis Khan

    Vargis Khan Administrator Staff Member



    Baba Reshi to Gulmarg


    After another short break at a view point en route and we drove straight to Gulmarg; arriving there a little after 3 PM. I had already booked my stay at Hotel Affarwat so we reached straight there. Now at this point, our travel plan took a major turn. As per the initial itinerary that I planned, we were to stay at Gulmarg for the night and be on our way to Doodhpathri the next day after visiting some local attractions. The biggest attraction of Gulmarg however is the Gondola ride which I was not too keen on doing for two reasons. First was that almost every review that I read about it on the net mentioned that it involves hours of waiting in long queues as it is always over crowded. And second was that because it is overcrowded, it means spending an entire day in Gulmarg itself.

    Generally too, a Gondola ride did not sound too tempting to me so we had no intentions of getting on it. A couple of other tourist attractions like Apharwat Peak and Alpather Lake too remained out because of the time factor. Trekking to both these places again requires an entire day as per my initial research. So our plan was to arrive at Gulmarg, see whatever we can cover in a few hours and then head towards Doodhpathri. All this however changed the moment we reached Hotel Affarwat.

    Also Read: How to Plan a Gulmarg Gondola Ride


    The Guide in Gulmarg


    While I was checking into the hotel and signing up in their register, a guide sitting at the reception approached me. We did not need a guide so I said no. I was in fact a bit surprised to find a guide here because I thought that was a breed specific to Agra and Taj Mahal. Nonetheless, he did not back down and kept trying to talk me into it, offering his services. I still said no to him but a few things that he said invoked my interest, specifically about a certain “frozen lake”. He offered to be our guide for the Gondola ride and then take us for a trek to the frozen lake. I started to inquire more about this frozen lake and found out three new things.

    • Frozen lake is in fact Alpather Lake; though I had my own doubts on whether or not it will actually be frozen in August.
    • The last point of Phase 2 of Gondola ride is in fact Apharwat Peak. The Gondola ride is actually all about ferrying tourists from Gulmarg to the top of Apharwat peak.
    • The trek to Alpather Lake from Phase 2 of Gondola can easily be done in about 2 hours.

    Change in the Plan


    So it meant that if we stayed for a day in Gulmarg and took a Gondola ride, we can cover Apharwat peak and Alpather Lake as well. It was actually the phrase “trekking to a frozen lake” that got all three of us interested. We discussed among ourselves and decided that since we were at Gulmarg anyway, why rush and not cover all of it. So the plan was then changed and we decided to extend our day at Gulmarg by another day. Gondola ride too was added to the itinerary. I had a day of stay planned in Srinagar city as per initial itinerary which I gave up in favor of staying at Gulmarg.

    Also Read: When is the Best time to visit Gulmarg?

    Now the first thing to do was to let Faisal know about the change since he was to hand us over the bikes the next day. I called him and informed about the new itinerary. Second thing was to decide what to do with the driver because if we were staying at Gulmarg, then he was going to just sit there the entire day doing nothing. Faisal suggested that we let him go. Our driver, Gulzar, was from Kupwara district so that way, he could just go home today and then come back to Gulmarg the day after to pick us up again. This would save him an idle day of doing nothing and us the cost of it. This sounded reasonable and I told Gulzar that he could go today; and then come pick us up a day after as early as he could. He said he would be here by 10 AM and went on his way.
     
  10. Vargis Khan

    Vargis Khan Administrator Staff Member


    Sightseeing in Gulmarg

    We checked into a hotel, freshened up and then it was time for some local sightseeing. First we stopped for some tea, mutton kababs; and then took a full circle around Gulmarg town and Polo ground.

    View from our Hotel

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    Selfie Time. Sun was shining directly in our faces, forcing my one eye shut.


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