Photography : Nature and beyond

#HeavenOnEarth : A memorable vacation in Kashmir…

#HeavenOnEarth : A memorable trip to Kashmir…

The first few months of 2014 has been very hectic, with non stop travelling and tight deadlines of project deliverable, not able to write much these days. But I wanted to share one of the best week of my life that we as a family got to spend in Sringar, Kashmir – the heaven on earth. It was more than a vacation – actually it wasn’t like a tourist vacation at all. It was like an extended weekend we spend lazily at home – just that it started and ended in a flight and we had snowflakes all around us all the time. 

2014 year started off with a long awaited family vacation, we’ve been planning for it for a while. The dilemma was a) to travel down to the warm beaches of Goa – the most popular tourist destination in Indian youth – for total fun and having a great time of life or b) move up to the mountain region for the kids to experience snow fall for the very first time. So finally we decided to go with our heart and left for Srinagar in Kashmir. 

As I said it was nothing like a planned tourist excursion where one plans the things to do and places to visit. There was a rough idea of where all we wanted to go but the most important think was what we were going to do in Srinagar – and there was complete agree of all family members (Abha, myself and the Kids Meera and Kabir)  that we are going to have a lazy vacation where we are going to have fun together as a family and not so much an exploration of all the things that everyone else does when they visit Srinagar.

Our 5 days there were blessed by continuous snowfall which the kids (Meera and Kabir) had never experienced in their life before and they were super excited about,  delicious warm meals and interaction with wonderful people who became a part of our happy memories forever.

  • Day 1 : 5th January : Entering the valley of the Dream: After a two hour delay at Delhi Airport due to bad weather conditions, we finally reached Sringar and welcomed by a lovely snowfall. The view from the top was so breathtaking, the whole of Kashmir was covered with the white sheet of snow. By the time reached Moutainview Villa, near Nishant Garden in Srinagar it was already late afternoon. We quickly dumped our stuff in the room and went out for a walk to the Dal, hoping to get a relaxing Shikara ride. But it was an extremely cold Sunday evening, there was snow everywhere and no other tourists were in sight – the Shikara people had already gone home. Still we enjoyed a stroll along the lake, with a steaming hot cup of coffee from a roadside shop, kids had lots of fun playing with the fresh snow. They made snowman – first time in their life, in the garden outside Mountview Villa, the place we were staying. We all were equally excited with the heavy snowfall and the lovely views all around.

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  • Day 2 : 6th January : The initial plan was to spend the day roaming around Srinagar itself, but looking at the snowfall all around we decided to take our chance and visit Gulmarg before the roads get closed (yes it happens when there is a heavy snowfall). Started off early in the morning after a lovely breakfast, and got to see the normal hustle and bustle of life in the valley. A hired cab with chains wrapped around its tyres took us to Gulmarg from Tangmarg – road road was covered entirely with snow and only the experienced local drivers can be trusted on such dangerous route. One mistake we did made was to agree on a guide who insisted that we also rent long boots from a local shop. It turned out to be a bad mistake because later on we realized that our shoes were more comfortable in the snow than those rubber boots – the ice gets stuck inside them and then it just does not melt. We had the time of our life at Gulmarg, it is more beautiful when you experience it yourself than any description of the place. We lost the track of time and it was late afternoon when we finally decided to get down from Gulmarg. Meera and Kabir, who were super excited about playing with the snow in the beginning were getting tired and with temperature dipping to level quite uncomfortable for us non-hilly folks & snow getting stuck inside the shoes was also making things a little tough. So we hopped on to first to the sledges and then on the car to reach down at Tangmarg where had a extremely late lunch (noodles and hot cup of milk for kids, coffee for Abha and Kahwa for myself). Our cab was waiting to take us back to Sringar well in time for a nice traditional dinner inside our room with the fireplace keeping the room comfortable when the outside temperature was in negative and it was snowing heavily.  

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A delightful cup of Kahwa...

A delightful cup of Kahwa…

  • Day 3 : 7th January : We roamed around Srinagar, started the day off with a visit to Hazartbal Shrine – a place of deep religious importance for Muslims as it is believed that a hair of Prophet Mohammad is  kept inside it. Even non-Muslims (like us) can go inside – keeping sanctity of the place in mind and careful about the others who visit it to pray peacefully – we were extra careful – Meera and Kabir paid their respect to the place nicely but could not keep themselves disciplined for long so we ran out of the place before becoming a nuisance for the Believers.  Had a very thoughtful conversation with a young boy in the garden area near the lake when Meera and Kabir were trying to catch the fished with their bare hands. We then proceeded to the famous Shalimar Garden, another landmark created by the Mughal Dynasty. Had lunch on the way towards the ancient Shankaracharya Temple. The Shankaracharya hills offer the best view of the whole Srinagar valley, but sadly cameras are not allowed there due to security reasons. The place is protected by strong security cover, the valley which was home to Hindu Rishis needs tight security cover to project one of the few remaining Hindu temples. Its a sad commentary on how we humans make our own life miserable by dividing our self on basis of meaningless things. We came down the hills and went deep inside The Dal for a Shikara ride. While the Shankaracharya hills gives a bird’s eye view of the whole Sringar valley, the Shikara ride in The Dal gives yet another magnificent view of Himalayan mountains all around. It was so calm and peaceful, one could just spend days and days on the rowing the Shikara aimless inside the lake. The kids were so tired that they slept off in Shikara itself.

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  • Day 3 : 8th January : We had planned to visit Pahalgam but could only reach till the Lidder river front where we realized that the snowfall has hindered the road travel and lots of people are stuck at Pahalgam and are unable to come down. We chucked the plan to go to Pahalgam, had a good South Indian lunch near the Lidder River and then proceeded to visit a nearby Hindu Sun Temple – which serves as the base camp for Amarnath Yatra. There was a tiny little gurudwara within the temple premises commemorating a visit of Guru Nanak to this place. Huge number of fishes in the Amrit Kund (natural water tank) in the temple premises were breathtakingly beautiful and Kids were thrilled to see them. We reached back Srinagar to spend the evening in Nishat Garden, and got lost in the beauty of the garden and didnt even realize that it was closing time for the garden. We allowed security guards to escort us outside the premises only after they took our family snaps in the fading lights and heavy show fall. A tiny wonderful shop in the market opposite the Nishat Garden offers great north Indian snacks and we loved it.

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  • Day 4 : 9th January : Though initially we had planned to visit Sonemarg but we found the Hindu temple of Kheer Bhavani on the way so nice and peaceful that we just kept roaming around its premises for a long time. Meera got interested in feeding biscuits to the cute stray puppies who were in there in large numbers and Kabir was fascinated by the frozen water coming of a water tap which has turned into a sharp weapon. We raided a wonderful bakery just in front of Kashmir University for a heavy snacking session instead of proper lunch followed by some Kashmir style kebabs for Abha, Meera and Kabir. The next stop of Chash-Me-Shahi, another beautiful spot in Srinagar not to be missed at all. We walked around the sculpted gardens for a long time before hunger pangs hit us again. So off we went to the snacks shop opposite Nishat garden that we had explored the previous day and had wonderful Pakoras and pipping hot sweet and  delicious Kahwa.

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  • Day 5 : 10th January : Finally the day had arrived when we had to say bid adieu to the heaven on earth and start our journey back home. Even though the flight was in the late afternoon, we kept the day free, had a relaxing morning, lazy breakfast in the room. The kids had their one last go at making yet another snowman (this time in a singing pose) in the garden area of the place we were staying (Mountain View Villa hear the Nishat garden). There is an extra layer of security checks at the Srinagar airport so we kept that extra amount of time in our hand. We were inside the airport comfortably for the flight, but the snowfall kept getting heavier and heavier and it had a huge impact on the flight. After a delay of 4 hours, our flight finally got off around 5pm in the evening, it was the last flight to take off from the Srinagar airport that day – due to the bad weather a lot of flights were cancelled. The drive from airport to our home on the other side of Delhi was longer than the flight between Srinagar and Delhi… A memorable vacation came to an end but we were already planning for a second visit to Srinagar – next time in summers!!!

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And as for those who believe in having a properly planned vacation and ticking off all the places of interest, there is lots on offer in and around Srinagar.  

  • Dal Lake : The Dal Lake is Srinagar’s most distinctive landmark. It is divided by causeways into four parts, the Nagin lake being one of them. Dal is unique for the communities that have made it their home, from fisherman to Houseboat owners. There are fields of Lotus blossoms in parts of the Lake, Vegetable patches, shops and even villagers. The best way of exploring the lake and the sites on its shores by Shikara boat.
  • Mughal Gardens : Another distinctive feature of Srinagar is Mughal Gardens with their terraced lawns, cascading fountains and bright flowerbeds, overlooking the panorama of the Dal Lake.
  • Lal Chowk : For shopping (Pashmina shawls and Paper-machie products)
  • Hazratbal Shrine: One of the holiest Muslim Shrines in India, Hazratbal or Assar-e-Sharief is preserving a relic that many believe to be the hair of Prophet Mohammad. It is located on the left flank of Dal Lake and commands deep respect among believers.
  • Shankaracharya Mandir : A Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Shiva on a hilltop. It can be reached by a car or taxi. No cameras or cellphones are allowed within the temple. Locals from Dal Gate say there are 250 steps to reach the temple but it is yet to be confirmed.
  • Pari Mahal : On a nearby spur of the mountain is the ancient monument Pari Mahal, planned out by Dara Shikon as a sufi school, surrounded by Outside Srinagar, Pampore (18 km), located on the National Highway, is famous for the saffron that grows here.
  • Hari Parbat : The hill of Hari Parbat is considered sacred to the Hindus, Muslim and Sikhs alike. For the Hindus it is sacred due to the presence of the Temple of Sharika Mata, a form of goddess Durga or Shakti. On its southern side is the historic shrine of Makhdoom Sahib, a sufi saint of Kashmir revered by people of all faiths.  Further down the Hill is the historic Gurudwara Chhatti Padshahi near the Kathi Darwaza of the Fort. It is associated with the visit of the sixth Sikh Guru to Kashmir. There is also Mughal Fort on this Hill called Hari Parbat.
  • Dachigam National Park : Located 22 km from Srinagar, covers an area of 141 sq km. The name literally stands for ‘ten villages’, which could be in memory of the ten villages that were relocated in order to create the park. Dachigam was initially established to ensure the supply of clean drinking water to Srinagar city. A protected area since 1910, it was declared as a national park in 1981. The park is best known as the home of the hangul, or Kashmir stag. Dachigam is open throughout the year.
  • Wular Lake : Considered the largest fresh water lake in Asia. It is located around 33km form Srinagar city. This Lake is a natural wetland fed by river Jhelum and acts as a natural flood control mechanism too. Surrounded by lofty snow capped mountains and coniferous trees it provides the perfect setting for a boat ride, stroll or trek which ever you prefer. Fish lover and Bird watchers are in for a delight. This area, along with the surrounding wetlands acts as a winter breeding and resting ground for migratory birds. Wular is house to a large no of resident birds and accounts for 60% of the state’s fish production.

 SONAMARG – The Meadow of Gold (84 km from Srinagar)

  • The drive to Sonamarg is through the Sindh Valley which presents yet another spectacular facet of countryside in Kashmir. Situated at an altitude of 2730 m, Sonamarg (‘The meadow of gold’) has, as its backdrop, snowy mountains against a cerulean sky. The Sindh River that meanders through the valley abounds with trout and mahaseer. Ponies can be hired for the trip up to Thajiwas glacier, which is a major local attraction during the summer months. Sonamarg is the base of a major trek that passes along several mountain lakes –Vishansar, Kishansar, Gadsar, Satsar and Gangabal. Sonamarg is also the take off station for the drive to Ladakh across the Zojila, a major pass in the Great Himalayan Range, through which the Srinagar-Leh Road passes. Sonamarg is also a base for undertaking the yatra to the holy Amarnath cave, during Sawan Purnima. Sonamarg is situated at a distance of 84 kms from Srinagar, on the Srinagar-Ladakh Road. The route passes through the picturesque town of Ganderbal (21 kms), Kangan (40 kms) and Gund of the Sindh Valley, before reaching the resort. Spectacular views of the Harmukh range dominate the horizon all along the route.

GULMARG (60km from Srinagar)

  • Gulmarg’s legendary beauty, prime location and proximity to Srinagar naturally make it one of the premier hill resorts in the country. Originally called ‘Gaurimarg’ by shepherds, its present name was given in the 16th century by Sultan Yusuf Shah, who was inspired by the sight of its grassy slopes emblazoned with wild flowers. Gulmarg was a favourite haunt of Emperor Jehangir who once collected 21 different varieties of flowers from here. Today Gulmarg is not merely a mountain resort of exceptional beauty, it also has the highest green golf course in the world, at an altitude of 2,650 m, and is the country’s premier ski resort in the winter. The journey to Gulmarg is half the enchantment of reaching there, roads bordered by rigid avenues of poplar give over to flat expanses of rice fields interspersed with picturesque villages. Depending on the season, nature’s colours could be the translucent green of spring, summer’s rich emerald, or autumn’s golden hues, when scarlet chillies festoon windows of village homes. After Tangmarg, the climb to Gulmarg begins through fir-covered hillsides. At one point, known simply as View Point, travelers generally stop their vehicles for a few minutes and look out a spectacle of snow-covered mountains, almost within touching distance. What to do : Horse riding/Hiking/ Cable car riding to Khilanmarg/ Snow Skiing during winter months (End Dec -Middle March)

PAHALGAM – The Valley of Shepherds (90km from Srinagar)

  • Situated at the confluence of the streams flowing from Sheshnag Lake and the Lidder river, Pahalgam (2,130 m) was once a humble shepherd’s village with breathtaking views. Now it is Kashmir’s premier resort, cool even during the height of summer when the maximum temperature does not exceed 250C. A number of hotels and lodges cater to all preferences and budgets, from luxurious hotels to unpretentious trekkers’ lodges. The most beautiful of these is the huge, undulating meadow of Baisaran, surrounded by thickly wooded forests of pine. Hajan, on the way to Chandanwari, is an idyllic spot for a picnic. Filmgoers will recognize it instantly as it has been the location of several movie scenes. Pahalgam has within it no fewer than eight tiny villages, one of which is Mamal. There is a Shiva temple here, generally considered to be Kashmir’s oldest existing temple, dating to the 5th century.
  • Lidder River : Pahalgam is also associated with the annual Amarnath Yatra. Chandanwari (2,895 m), 16 kms from Pahalgam, is the starting point of the yatra that takes place every year in the month of Sawan (July to August). The road from Pahalgam to Chandanwari is on fairly flat terrain and can be undertaken by car. From Chandanwari onwards the track becomes much steeper, and is accessible on foot or by pony. About 11 kms from Chandanwari is the mountain lake of Sheshnag (3,574 m), after which, 13 kms away is the last stop, Panchtarni. The Amarnath cave is 6 kms away from there. During the month of Sawan, an ice stalagmite forms a natural shivling in the Amarnath cave, which waxes and wanes with the moon. One can go for Horse Riding or Hiking – Pahalgam is the base of a major trek that passes along Aru and Kolohi Glacier

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