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Kashmir: Heaven on earth

  • Published at 02:11 am April 18th, 2018
  • Last updated at 08:19 pm April 18th, 2018
Kashmir: Heaven on earth
Snow-capped mountains. Mountain lakes, and fields of flowers. Kashmir is known far and wide as the “Heaven on Earth.” Despite the conflict that has lasted since 1947, when Kashmir was partitioned, with India, Pakistan, and China claiming rights over its territories, a visit to the area has always been in the back of my mind. Thus, when Tour Pedia, a budding Bangladesh-based tour company that specializes in affordable, fully arranged tours, announced a 12-day group tour to the Indian state of Jammu-Kashmir, my mother and I jumped at the chance. We would visit Kolkata, Jammu, Srinagar, Gulmarg, Sonmarg and Pahalgam. This would be my first visit to not only Kashmir but also India. After an overnight bus trip from Kallyanpur bus station on November 23, we arrived at the Benapole-Petrapole border early the next morning. On completing all immigration formalities, we hopped into another bus of the same company, and then drove several hours into Kolkata. Arriving at our hotel in the late afternoon, we had only a handful of hours to freshen up, tour the “City of Joy,” grab dinner, shop, and also drag our luggage to the Howrah Junction train station, as our electric train, the Himgiri Express, would leave that night. Eastern Railways, under Indian Railways, operates the train, connecting Howrah Junction with Jammu Tawa station. Running on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, the train covers 2,021 kilometres through 32 stations in 36 hours and 40 minutes, crossing West Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, and Punjab, into Jammu-Kashmir. Bad luck though. Our train arrived 10 hours late on November 26 due to frequent stops caused by ongoing rail line maintenance work. The late arrival led the organisers to shift the first stage of our tour and cancel the trip to Sonmarg altogether. Whereas we were scheduled to drive directly to Pahalgam from Jammu-Tawa, instead we would leave for Srinagar and then go on to Pahalgam from there in a day or so.
Locals in the Jammu area of the state are Hindus on the eastern side and speak Hindi, Punjabi, and Dogri. Meanwhile, residents on the western side of the state, in the Vale of Kashmir, are mostly Muslims and speak Urdu and Kashmiri
Outside Jammu Tawa, we found a number of street food options. While our organizers went to find where our reserved bus was parked, a few of us grabbed a quick snack of delicious Rajma and Rumali Roti. Many of us hadn’t had dinner on the train, unsure when we would arrive. Hence, a couple of hours after our bus departed for Srinagar, we pulled into a roadside dhaba for late-night supper. The best part: Wide open starry skies outside and the lights of the Vaishno Devi temple, on a distant hill, glinting in the darkness. Locals in the Jammu area of the state are Hindus on the eastern side and speak Hindi, Punjabi, and Dogri. Most dhabas offer vegetarian options, and there are quite a number of temples in the area. I don’t think I saw more than a bare handful of mosques in Jammu, if any. Meanwhile, residents on the western side of the state, in the Vale of Kashmir, where Srinagar is located, are mostly Muslims and speak Urdu and Kashmiri. The highway from Jammu to Srinagar is two-lane and poorly lit. Built into the sides of a cliff, the road has a river running below. On the opposite side, lights twinkle in the distance. They are clusters of a few small towns, set into the sides of a mountain range opposite the highway. Several well-lit tunnels built through the mountain cut the commute time between the two major state cities. These include Asia’s second largest tunnel, the 9.2 kilometer Chenani-Nashri or Patnitop and the 2.5 kilometer Jawahar tunnel, as well as several smaller ones. Though pleasantly cool in Jammu, temperatures dropped from continuously chillier to sub-freezing level as we approached Srinagar. Unfortunately, our bus did not have a heater that worked indoors, and we literally shivered! Yet, as dawn beckoned, the sights of snow-covered grounds appeared lovely, and the roadside homes were quite unlike anything I have seen. The Bollywood flick Haider, filmed in and near Srinagar, would give one a good idea of the architecture. We arrived early on November 27 and checked into Hotel Irshad, a modest building and home owned by the hotel’s namesake. His brother owns the building next door. Tourism is the main source of income for most Kashmiris in Srinagar and smaller tourist towns, as they rent out their homes as local hotels to visitors. The March-October peak season generates the most profit, with the Kashmiris having to struggle the remainder of the year. Several locals also sell local apples, oranges, pears and other fruits on pull carts, or warm winter clothes to tourists. The clothing items include scarves, hats, gloves, warm innerwear, and even the phiren, a long flowing coat commonly used by Kashmiris. Under the phiren, they carry a kangri, a pot of hot charcoals, to keep warm. [caption id="attachment_259714" align="aligncenter" width="800"] A local park at Srinagar | Photo: Courtesy[/caption] After a short rest and breakfast, we headed to Dal Lake to ride the shikara, a local wooden boat. Unfortunately, my mother could not join us, opting to stay at the hotel, as the burgeoning freezing temperature had raised her blood pressure. Riding four to each shikara, we traversed the length and curves of Dal Lake and enjoyed its sights, including its floating garden and lakeside shops. Soon, we were besieged by boat salesman, selling everything from local-made jewelry, saffron and other spices, fruits, and even a modeling opportunity that involved dressing up in traditional Kashimir garb and having photos snapped. One gentleman cooked kababs and rolls on his boat, which became our late lunch. Though the entire group planned to visit the Mughal Garden after Dal Lake, I left early for the hotel with some of my boat-mates to check on my mother. En route, we passed a local park awash in autumn reds and yellows. Forget the typical tourist site! I decided to head here after ensuring my mother was all right. [caption id="attachment_259705" align="aligncenter" width="800"] Ponies await to carry tourists to Phase 1 and Phase 2 in Gulmarg | Photo: Pearl Matthew[/caption] The next day, after breakfast, we travelled to Gulmarg (meadow of flowers) for a day trip. The hill station and town is located in the Pirpanjal range of the western Himalayas. Though glowing with wild flowers in late spring and summer, it is otherwise covered in frost and snow for the rest of the year. Gulmarg has become a world-class ski destination in India, attracting skiers and ski-enthusiasts from throughout Asia. It also offers a couple of options for pony rides. The shorter Rs 900 ride, which my mother opted for as I trekked by her side, takes one to the gondola ticket house. The gondola climbs up to Phase 1, which is midway to Apharwat Peak. The gondola then climbs up to Phase 2 at the peak itself, which offers one a panoramic view of Nanga Parbat, the world’s ninth-highest mountain, on a clear day. The longer Rs 1,200 route takes one past several scenic spots to Phase 1. But don’t be misled to believe these prices are set in stone. Those with a healthy dose of patience and excellent bargaining skills can get this price down to Rs 400. [caption id="attachment_259706" align="aligncenter" width="800"] Apharwat Peak | Photo: Pearl Matthew[/caption] As a few of us couldn’t afford to pay the exorbitant fee, we sought the shorter tour and bargained our way down to Rs 500 and Rs 400. A couple of us decided to walk the distance to the ticket house which only took 20 minutes, and then rode the gondola. Unfortunately, as it was a cloudy day, we could not see Nanga Parbat. The next morning, on November 29, as we prepared to leave for Pahalgam, we received news that a special strike was going on and most shops were closed. Luckily, we found one restaurant open where we had our breakfast with steaming milk tea. We also received news of our Jammu-Kolkata return train, set to leave on November 30, being cancelled due to the ongoing maintenance work. No worries, though, as the organizers ensured us they would look into other options, possibly a Jammu-Delhi train instead. [caption id="attachment_259707" align="aligncenter" width="800"] Betaab Valley | Photo: Pearl Matthew[/caption] En route to Pahalgam, we passed a couple of film locations of Haider: Martand Sun Temple, where the song “Bismil” was filmed, and a bridge on the Jhelum River. We also made a short stop at the Pampore field, India’s largest and the world’s third-largest, producer of pure saffron. We made a second stop at an apple garden where I took my first sip of fresh Kashmiri apple juice. Pahalgam is a small town in the midst of a mountain valley. No snow, only the dusty, half-dead look of winter. Rows of mini Kashmir flags, strung together on threads, criss-cross its centre street overhead. A small market town lies a couple of kilometres down the road. The Pahalgam locals keep ponies and horses tied up outside during the day for guides to take tourists up the mountain slopes, through the pine forests to Baisaran Valley, also known as Little Switzerland, or any other site. [caption id="attachment_259708" align="aligncenter" width="800"] Side street in Pahalgam | Photo: Pearl Matthew[/caption] On arrival, we dropped off our luggage at the hotel and took a car to tour Aru Valley and Betaab Valley. As the bus was ill-equipped to travel the narrow mountain road, we switched to two nine-seater vehicles. What spectacular scenery! Mountains, each higher than the other, some covered in snow, others rocky, but with snowy peaks! While traversing Aru Valley we passed a ghost market town that had been busy back in the day and now was just ramshackle makeshift buildings. [caption id="attachment_259710" align="aligncenter" width="1376"] Aru Valley | Photo: Pearl Matthew[/caption] At Aru we stopped, clambered over the snow, and climbed down the slope to the stream. Some of us snapped photos on top of a small stone fence held up with wire. Safety tip: Walk down the center to avoid stepping into the wires! On climbing back into the cars, we drove down to the side of a stream at Betaab. Some of the more intrepid in our group ventured to the rocks in the centre of the rapids for photo opportunities. Later on the road at Betaab, we faced some traffic, that of a horde of sheep blocking the way. After some maneuvering though, we managed to pass through them. After we arrived back in town late in the evening, we learned our Pahalgam tour would be extended by a day and the organisers had managed Jammu to Kolkata train tickets for December 2. Another day to explore! How exciting! The following morning, the group had the option to take a Rs 1,000 pony ride to Baisaran Valley, but most declined or ventured out on their own, haggling for their own rates. We also had the option to walk down a couple of kilometers to the market. [caption id="attachment_259711" align="aligncenter" width="800"] On the trail to Baisaran Valley | Photo: Pearl Matthew[/caption] My mother and I, with a friend we met on our tour, decided to head to Baisaran on our own. She opted for a guide and pony at Rs 400, while we decided to trek up the mountain. For the next hour or so, we passed pine forests and a tiny stream where we drank our fill. Setting off from Pahalgam which sits at an average elevation of around 9,000 feet, we seemed to have climbed at least 1,000 feet more in that time. We stepped into Baisaran, mesmerised with the beauty of the surrounding mountains. No snow here either. Only warm sunshine and green grass, as if spring has arrived. After a few hours spent idling and snapping photos, we headed back. Since the guides are comfortable with the slopes and cliffs from a young age, they travel quickly, while we tourists, though straggling behind, are happy to enjoy the wilderness. [caption id="attachment_259712" align="aligncenter" width="800"] On the Jammu-Pahalgam highway | Photo: Pearl Matthew[/caption] After dinner, we packed as we would leave Pahalgam before sunrise the next day. The commute to Jammu was long and we arrived in the afternoon, though our train would not leave till that evening. Nonetheless, the scenery en route did not disappoint: Endless rocky mountains, a turquoise stream, and a few more tunnels. [caption id="attachment_259713" align="aligncenter" width="800"] A stream running next to the Jammu-Pahalgam highway | Photo: Pearl Matthew[/caption] At Jammu Tawa, we learned our train would be delayed by three hours. To kill time, we visited the cafeteria next to the waiting area for dinner meal options and snacks, and revisited the roadside eateries for more Rajma and Rumali roti, also partaking of pani puri and tea from streetside vendors. Our train finally left around 11pm that night. And again, with the ongoing maintenance work, we arrived in Kolkata 12 hours late, two days later, in the dead of night. My experience in the “City of Joy” is minimal. The next morning, after traversing traffic to find a small hideaway restaurant for brunch, then stopping at a small roadside sweetshop to buy a box of Kolkata’r mishti – alas, no roshogolla, their supply had run out! – my mother and I returned to the hotel as our bus would leave for Dhaka at noon. Barely getting on in time, we headed out of the city, arriving at Petrapole around 6:30pm. In less than an hour, we completed the immigration formalities, and boarded a new bus of the same company at Benapole. Stopping at a roadside restaurant a few hours later for dinner, we finally arrived in Dhaka early the next day on December 5.
Sayeeda T Ahmad is a poet and nonfiction writer. Her debut poetry collection, Across Oceans, was published by Bengal Lights Books.