I was in Kashmir with my family for three days on a holiday earlier this month. On our return, there was so much interest from friends in knowing details about the trip – most who spoke to us had never been to Kashmir, a few were there many years ago, before the militancy problem emerged – that I thought it worth writing a blog about our impressions.
Movies, poets and storytellers have shown and described the splendour of Kashmir in ways I can never hope to do. Let me just say that it’s one of the most outstandingly beautiful places I have seen on Earth. We were in Srinagar, Gulmarg and Pahalgam. The last two offer positively stunning views. Gulmarg had snow, and Pahalgam offers an unforgettable horse ride up a fairly steep mountainside, that leads to a magnificent meadow ringed by trees and snow-capped peaks.
Srinagar’s Dal Lake, houseboats, shikaras and gardens are an absolute treat, made nicer by the politeness and friendliness of the locals. As you go around Dal Lake on a shikara, you come across other shikaras from who you can buy stuff like seekh kababs and rotis, or you could go to a houseboat that sells Kashmiri textiles and artifacts.
We stayed two nights in a houseboat. It was one of the older houseboats, with fairly basic, but comfortable rooms. The owner was a delightfully pleasant old man. We were told there are more luxurious houseboats available at higher tariffs.
We could not go to Ladakh, which is 250 km from Srinagar, but that would be another must-see place if you have the time and willingness to spend. As many who have seen 3 Idiots would know, the spectacular lake in the final scene is in Ladakh.
An army officer who we met in Udhampur in Jammu said the most beautiful place that he had seen in Kashmir was along the new road passing over the Pir Panjal mountain range. “It puts Gulmarg to shame,” he said.
This road, used extensively by the Mughals and therefore also called Mughal Road, remained abandoned after 1947, but the Indian government has been reconstructing the road since 2005. Since 2010, it has hosted some motor rallies, and is expected soon to be opened for public use.
My wife’s sister and family live in Udhampur, so our first stop was this town that is also the headquarters of the Indian Army’s Northern Command, We drove down to Srinagar from Udhampur. It’s a lovely scenic route along mountainsides, and along the way is Patnitop, which is something of a tourist hotspot.
But it is an over 200 km journey, and though some people claim the distance can be covered in three hours, I can’t imagine who can do that other than audacious race-car drivers. We took 7 to 8 hours, including some longish breaks. May be our driver was being extra careful; and I did not mind that. But any which way, you could find the drive a little tiring after some time. And if you don’t have too many days to spend in Kashmir, the simpler thing to do, if you can afford it, would be to fly straight into Srinagar. Trains go only up to Udhampur.
Is Kashmir safe for tourists?
That’s something many obviously want to know. The impression we gathered from talking to multiple people, including local Kashmiris, is that the problem of militancy has reduced significantly. Local support for the militants appears to have waned, because the one and only big business of Kashmir – tourism – has been badly hit for many years on account of the militancy, and because the militants are seen to be nowhere close to achieving their objectives even after so many years.
The border fencing along the line of control has proved to be very effective in controlling infiltration. Army and CRPF presence is overwhelming. You can see them just about everywhere, including in the middle of desolate farmlands. I’m not sure how the locals view that, but it could be a source of serious irritation.
One of the boys who took us on a shikara said militants were mostly coming out of some of the least developed areas of Kashmir, such as Baramulla, and that the average Kashmiri was yearning for peace.
The nearly mile long queue for the Gulmarg cable car ride was evidence that tourists are flocking back to Kashmir. Locals however noted that business this year was down compared to last year. My guess is this is more a reflection of the state of the country’s economy, but some locals attributed it to the fear generated by Afzal Guru’s hanging.
We did, however, run into one young tour guide at Gulmarg who, when he realized after nearly ten minutes of following and pestering us that he is not going to get any business out of us, left muttering something about going with Pakistan. Again, the feeling I got was he was just letting off steam; I doubt he has any genuine desire to be part of Pakistan.
The state needs development
The pestering by tour guides can get on your nerves. There are so many of them, young and old, in places like Gulmarg; they follow you around hoping you would pay them a few hundred rupees to show you around.
When we had completed our Gulmarg visit and were getting ready to go, another family that had just come and was being pestered by tour guides asked us for advice on where to go. My son provided some directions. He was promptly at the receiving end of abuses from the tour guides for `stealing their business’.
This tour guide menace is one indication of the desperate need for development in Kashmir. Clearly, there are not enough jobs. Some part of this problem may resolve itself if militancy continues to wane and tourists return to Kashmir in larger numbers. But that may be insufficient.
The big problem is that tourism is at best a six months phenomenon. For the rest of the year, the Kashmir valley is cold, and often deep in snow. The Dal Lake freezes in the winter months.
We met some enterprising small merchants who said they conduct their business in the summer in Kashmir and the same business in the winter in some other location in India. One said he sets up a shop selling almonds and saffron in Jamshedpur in winter; another said he sells Kashmiri textiles and jewellery in Varkala in Kerala. Even the traditional livestock handlers move their entire livestock along the road from Jammu to Kashmir in the summer and in the opposite direction in winter.
But such methods will not work for everybody, especially given the current state of infrastructure and the difficult terrain. I can claim no expertise in this matter. But something has to be done.
The government has undertaken a massive four-lane highway project between Jammu and Srinagar that cuts through mountains – creating multiple tunnels and bridges, including a 9-km tunnel that will be India’s longest. When completed, it will reduce the road distance between the two towns by at least 50 km, but more significantly, will halve the traveling time, and put an end to the snow-related traffic jams that often last for days in winter. A similar rail project is also in the works. You can see some parts of this ongoing work as you go from Jammu to Srinagar, and the current target is to complete the road project by 2016.
Hopefully, these projects will be completed on schedule and will provide a level of integration of the Kashmir valley with the mainland that will be a source of meaningful economic development for the Kashmiris.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author's own.
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It happened on that fateful day, when my husband and I got approval for two weeks of leave at the same time – we decided to go to Vaishnodevi. As the idea spread, few more young members of the family joined in and eventually train reservations were made from Jaipur to Jammu for nine people.
To Jammu - We began our journey on March 20. It was an overnight journey in Jammu-Tawi express, and we reached Jammu the next morning. From there we took a bus to Katra. Although there are several good restaurants in Katra, but to have chola-kulcha from any roadside vendor is a must. We had our lunch at Katra, and after taking some rest, started the uphill climb in the evening.
Vaishnodevi - It was a 14 km uphill climb. We reached Ardhkuwari after three hours, which is supposed to be the mid-way. From there, a new route has been made recently, which is less steep and cuts down the time too. We took that route gratefully. As we ascended the temperature started to drop. It was around 2 – 3C. In six hours we were at the Bhawan. It wasn’t too crowded at that time of the night and so the line was not very long. We had our darshan without any rush. We had rajma-rice at a restaurant and started descent – which was the most difficult part. In 12 hours we did the entire trip, but our legs ached for rest. Next morning, we went to the nearest J&K tourism office and asked for advice. After all the calculations we decided to go to Srinagar, Kashmir for five days.
To Srinagar- We started our trip to Shrinagar in a tempo traveler. As we ascended, the scenery got more enchanting. We moved along river Chenab and saw River Jhelum from a distance. On the way, we had The Best rajma-rice with pomegranate chutney. After a 12-hours-long drive, we reached Srinagar at 11:30pm, had our dinner at a dhaba. Thereafter, we started out on two shikaras in the middle of the night to reach our houseboats in Dal Lake. There is a huge electricity problem in Kashmir, and as luck had it, there was no electricity on that chilly, rainy night. There was no activity in the lake, and the dark shadows made it spookier.
The houseboat - The houseboys had already lit the bukharis to keep the houseboat warm. Bukhari is a typical Kashmiri stove kept alight with embers of wood. The houseboat was exquisite. It had three cedar-panelled bedrooms, a big dining room, a kitchen and a living room, with all the conveniences of a luxury hotel. No houseboat in the lake is directly accessible from the banks, so if you need to go to a STD booth to make a call, you need to go in a shikara!
Shopping in the houseboat - Sensing the presence of tourists the handicraft sellers, the Kodak guy, the saffron seller, and many more, started crowding our houseboat early in the morning. There were papier-mâché items ranging from jewellery boxes to mirror frames, a range of intricately carved walnut wood furniture and accessories, beautiful woolen shawls, bells, Kashmiri jewellery, and more.
Srinagar - Srinagar is located in the heart of the Kashmir valley at an altitude of 1,730 m above sea level, spread on both sides of River Jhelum. We could see bare, snow-covered mountains in the distance from our houseboat. The chinar trees lining the lake were bare; however the pine and fir trees were all green on the mountains. We explored the city on the first day. We went to all the usual tourist places including Shankaracharya Temple (where the song – jai jai shiv Shankar was filmed), Chashmeshahi water fountain (water here is supposed to be pure and blessed – we drank a few mouthfuls), the Pari Mahal, etc. From all these places we got a panoramic view of Kashmir Valley. But then it started to rain and we came to know that two bomb-blasts had happened in the major market area and so it was unsafe to go around the city. We returned back to our houseboat and the houseboy cooked dinner for us.
Gulmarg - We woke up at 6 am the next day, wore several layers of clothing and went to Gulmarg. It was extremely cold that day and it was raining hard to top it all. On the way we rented suitable gear for the snow – waterproof overcoats and gum boots. The uphill drive to Gulmarg was awesome. The fir-lined route was covered entirely in snow. The Gondola ropeway took us to the top. It was a breathtaking seven-minute ride. We saw hi-rising fir and pine trees all covered in snow. By the time we reached the top, our entire cell was cocooned in snow! We played with delight in the light, fluffy, knee deep snow for hours and frequently went inside the tourism hotel to warm our hands. Finally, it was time to go down, all us were about to freeze and so we were glad to leave.
Pehalgam - Route to Pehalgam, along Lidder River, was enchanting. The security was very high and we were stopped at almost all the check posts. Throughout Kashmir there are military bunkers after every 20 meters and you will see militants standing with their guns in alert position almost everywhere. Military convoys circle the entire region day and night. It was slightly scary in the beginning, but we finally got used to the fact that after all, they are here to save us.
Back to Delhi in Spice Jet - We saw the enchanting white Himalayas spreading below us till the horizon. The massiveness of the Himalayas has an overwhelming power. We will hold that sight in our memories forever. I would give a 5 star rating to this trip. It is sad to know that tourists are afraid to visit Kashmir because of its unstable situation. Please do visit Kashmir and you will see for yourself that it is a paradise on earth indeed!
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.