Shrines and Serenity – Day 3

The highlight of this day was the drive up to Jageshwar temple which is over an hour from where we were staying. This temple is one of the many ancient temples that you can visit in the area. That apart there are sacred caves that are surrounded by myths and legends. The most unusual feature of the Jageshwar temple were its multitudinous Shivlings and little shrines. Pujas and offerings can be made in some of the larger shrines and the pujaris will guide you through the rituals.

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On our way we passed the Dandeshwar temple and smaller shrines by the road side of which many there were. There were shrines dedicated to Golu Devata, a God worshiipped by the people of Kumaon.

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Caves like these supposedly lead one towards shrines many miles away

The archeological museum outside the temple made an interesting stop over. Many idols and sculptures dating back to ancient times are housed here. More information can be found on the website for the Archeological Survey of India. Photography is strictly prohibited. But the place is well worth a visit.

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A busy little town on the way

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We had a late lunch at Kripa Restaraunt which served a simple but delicious fare of vegetables and roti which you could see being made in the open kitchen.

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Bulbul

Our children had opted to stay at the resort that morning. When we got back by early evening, we found them happily engaged in a game of table tennis. We spent a quiet evening at the resort  opting to have  dinner at the Manipur Villa. There were pre-Diwali celebrations going on at the Binsar Valley Resort and we could hear it from where we were sitting.

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Pausing by the Hillside – Day 2

Sunrise at the Binsar Forest Reserve, we are told, is even more spectacular than sunset. The sun spreads its orange gold magic over the horizon, a panoramic vision of the Himalayan range including important peaks like Nanda and Trishul. So we are up early to recieve the first lights of the day. The caretaker of the guest house got us glass tumblers of hot tea to warm us that chilly morning. All around us the birds and other creatures of the jungle were waking up. During the short time we were there, we spotted bulbuls, pheasants, a little orange bird and what Sid said looked like a dog but was in all probability  a fox.

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The morning sun

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It says ‘Height above sea level 2286 Metres, 7500 feet Established in 1902’

Thereafter we visited the KMVN.  Some of the guests there told us that the sunrise here had been far more breath-taking. Back at the Club Mahindra Resort, we decided to walk up to Manipur Villa from the Binsar Valley Resort at the foothill. The uphill climb is definitely not for the faint of heart or the unfit of body. On the other hand, the four of us took frequent breaks to listen to the sounds of birds and watch a butterfly or two flit by which made the twenty minute climb up all the more pleasant.

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The Himalayan Range

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We returned to Manipur Villa in time for breakfast. A good buffet style spread was on offer and we fed hungry stomachs further accentuated by the weather, the walk and the spirit of the season. Like all Club Mahindra resorts this one too has an activity room where one can play table tennis, carroms and choose from a variety of creative arts to dabble in.

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By early afternoon, half a dozen (probably more) birds arrived by the tree outside our balcony. There were sun birds, Bulbuls, a woodpecker or two, a bird that can be best described as a kind of drongo and finally what I liked to call the ‘Spiderman bird’ for this tiny bird seemed capable of walking vertically as well.

A special pre-Diwali dinner was on offer at the Binsar Valley resort . Loud music was playing in a clearing and preparations were on to light a bonfire. We didn’t wait for it. Instead we went on to have dinner and took the shuttle back to our room uphill.

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Starry starry nights

Back outside our suite, we stood star gazing for a while. Due to the ambient light, the view from here was hazier than the previous night.

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Chandni Chowk to Binsar -Day 1

Before I begin narrating about  our holiday experience, perhaps I should mention here that Binsar has been on our bucket list for over a decade and this is why – In 2002 just after my second child came along,  my husband and Sid, then all of four had visited the place with a few friends and had returned with stories and anecdotes galore. Thirteen years hence, we were back there as a family of four.

Enroute to Binsar, we’d pass New Delhi and Kathgodam. For me, this was the first time in Delhi after twenty three long years when I was here  to attend an interview.  New Delhi, at that time, was experiencing summer at its peak and I have vague memories of visiting Rajpath, eating cardamom flavoured ice cream and then shopping at one of the many popular areas. This time when we arrived, winter was just setting in and the weather was still pleasant enough for a visit. But we’d not be staying long enough to enjoy it.

That very night, we boarded a train to Kathgodam from the old Delhi station.  The pre-festival traffic was bad and we thought we’d miss our train. But we managed to make it in the nick of time and boarded the Ranikhet Express. An overnight journey and we arrived at Kathgodam station during the wee hours of the next morning.

The weather was nice and the locals had light winter wear on. It was going to be much cooler where we were going. Our destination was still four hours away from Kathgodam. A short stop to freshen up and gobble down some breakfast and we were on our way. There were many interesting sights on the long journey into the hills. Women filling pots of water by the water pump, women carrying bundles of straw on their heads, children on their way to school, the healthy shades of greens, oranges and purples on the organic vegetables sold on roadside stalls. We passed the Bhimtal Lake, a favourite holiday destination before starting our ascent towards our resort near Binsar.

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Lake Bhimtal

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Club Mahindra has two resorts in Binsar. Binsar Valley Resort is situated at the foothill and boasts of more rooms and space,  Manipur Villa  is situate atop a little hillock which can be accessed using the private shuttle and the view from there is spectacular. We had rooms in the Manipur Villa. It is a quieter place too. Like with all Club Mahindra properties, the location was perfect.  We were taken to our room where we left all our bags excepting for one suitcase into which we’d packed all our warm woollens. We were going to spend that night at Binsar Forest Reserve. After lunch we left for our evening in the wild.

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The Binsar Wildlife Reserve is popular for its birds and the wonderful sunset and sunrise. Leopards are sighted frequently by the locals and those that work there. We reached in time to see the sun set and even as the evening turned several degrees cooler, we got into our sweaters, wrapped shawls for further warmth and sat down to watch the sun as it melted  into the twilight mist.

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Darkness fell and all the doors were shut tight because animals are known to lurk around in the vicinity. We were to have our dinner at KVN. Popular among tourists who wish to stay within the reserve, the place also serves some simple but delicious food that was filling enough to beat the winter chill.

The temperature that night, according to an app on the mobile phone, went as low as 5 degrees C or less. Returning to our lodging after dinner,  Abhi, Sid and I stood and stared at the night sky marvelling at how clear the Milky Way appeared. Even as Sid turned around to call my husband, Abhinav and I spotted a shooting star. We forgot to make a wish though in all the excitement.

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Paradise and Back – our last day there

We were done with sight-seeing mostly. We hadn’t seen Pari Mahal but the area had been cordoned off that day. Visitors were still not being allowed into Dachigam wildlife sanctuary either. We left the houseboat after breakfast and went to a shopping area near Jamia Masjid. There are several shops here selling crockery and though they are not made in Kashmir, they cater specifically to the Kashmiri people. We were looking for tea cups and saucers with intricate patterns and designs.

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We stopped by Sona Sultana next. One will be amazed by the wide array of furniture and wooden artifacts made from Walnut wood. From screens to side tables to dressers, trays to serve hours d’oeuvre and ingenious nut-crackers, you can spend hours ogling at the mind-blowing range of Walnut wood products that are on display over three floors. A dinner table that could seat over 12 people had carvings of trees all along the edge, each one being of a different genus. There were many things we wished we could have in our home. Larger products will be shipped to your residence if need be.

We had  lunch at Alka Salka. It’s near Ahdoos restaurant, but less crowded. The food was very good too with many choices and options in the menu card.

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In the evening, we visited the Grand Lalit Hotel as we’d been told that their lawns and gardens were worth a dekko. It is a sprawling, well-kept property. We spent a good half an hour or more in their open cafe, sipping coffee. Thereafter we went to Jee Enn Sons bakery in the old city. There are plenty of goodies you can pick and choose from. We’d gone there for the specific purpose of buying and carrying back to Mumbai the melt-in-the-mouth coconut cookies and anything else that could last the journey. Apart from cookies, we also bought a flaky plain pastry called kachori that is very different from what we get hereabouts. It needs to be noted that the cookies and kachoris did indeed last the journey and was consumed with much pleasure by us and a few others who were recipients of the same.

It was time to bid adios to this beautiful land of snowy mountains, splendid lakes and rosy cheeked girls. Most parts of the country was going through a severe and catastrophic heat wave. The last day was also the first day for us in Kashmir when there weren’t any rains. It was comparatively warmer than it had been all along. Sweaters and jackets came off. But the indoors was still cool and comfortable.

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Experiencing Paradise – Day 7 – Evening on the Lake

We returned to Srinagar that morning. On the list of must-sees on the way was the Martand Sun temple. We dropped it as there were some security concerns and went instead to Mattan temple. This serene shrine is surrounded by ponds sourced by springs and abounds in fish. You may feed the fish as an offering. We were told that the complex also houses a Mosque and a Gurdwara.

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Mattan temple

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Passing by small towns

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Our next stop was the temple ruins at Avantipura. It is under the care of the Archeological Department at present and entry passes are available for a small fee. A well-informed guide will run you through the complex, pointing out the various stone carvings that you may miss if you were to do it by yourself. Some of the stone sculptures are still intact. The structure itself dates back to mid 800 AD.

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The temple ruins

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We were going to spend that evening and the night on a houseboat. So we stopped by Ahdoos for lunch. We headed towards Dal Lake after a sumptuous lunch. These house boats are maintained by different people or groups of hotel and are stationed along the bank of the Lake. Shikaras are used to access these boats and that is the only way in or out. Prior to our arrival there, we’d been advised where to expect our Shikara pick-up. Various points called ‘Ghats’ are allocated to certain houseboats and hour-wise charges for shikara rides are listed on mounted boards.

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A comfortable suite on the house boat

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The houseboat has a common verandah at the entry point as well as a living area and dining room which was tastefully decorated in a manner typical of Kashmiri homes. Our room was the last one down a narrow aisle. The welcome drink was Kahwa served in dainty teacups.

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Thereafter we went for two boats rides. The first ride was an hour long and the children accompanied us as well. Expect salesmen in shikaras that float alongside yours who come to convince you into making a purchase. By the time they were done, our one hour was already over. But no complaints, as we’d picked up some nice jewellery as well as a few beautiful papier mache objet d’art. You’ll also find boatmen selling you soft drinks and packaged chips and boats laden with all kinds of fruits that are meant to be converted into a fruit chaat.

We were planning to stay put after the first ride, but the owner of the houseboat who’d arrived by that time convinced us to go on another ride, a longer one this time. According to him, the Char Chinaar, a miniature island with a handful of maple trees was a not to miss. This time it was a quiet and peaceful ride and no vendors approached us either. The view along the lake was outstanding. A few men, probably boatmen who’d taken the evening off, were having a friendly game of cricket on the tiny island. We spent a little time there before returning.

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The Chinnar Trees on the island

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On the mainland, a Friday night music concert echoed across the lake and filled the gaps left by the silence that deepened at twilight. A fisherman made a catch. A family of three passed us by at an unhurried pace. The vendors had mostly gone home and there were but a few shikaras still left on the lake. Kites and Kingfishers made a last attempt for an evening snack as the sun began its descent.

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The city coming alive on a Friday evening

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Dinner was a simple affair on the houseboat.

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Experiencing Paradise – Day 6 – Verdant Valleys

We took a walk that morning and Sid decided to join us on a cycle hired from the hotel. There is a paved path which one can use to walk on along the river Lidder. Men with horses kept moving down the road in preparation for a normal working day. We returned to the hotel for breakfast, a reasonably decent spread of assorted breakfast  including some unique Kashmiri flat breads.

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Walking track by River Lidder

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Horses all set and ready for tourists

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A bird’s eye view of Betaab Valley

Pahalgam, as mentioned in the previous chapter, is a favourite with movie makers for its scenic beauty. The snow was still melting in some  places and crowds thronged the areas. We arrived at Chandanwari first.  We’d decided that we were not going to venture into the snow, so we did not hire boots this time round. We spent about fifteen minutes there. Little boys and girls holding a lamb or young goat will pester you, asking you if you want to click a picture holding the creature.

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Our next stop was the Betaab valley where the eponymous movie was shot. Betaab Valley is now a sprawling  garden with a river flowing close by, tree-lined  pathways and a great picnic spot. Apart from tourists, huge groups of school children, families and honey-mooning couples could be seen everywhere.

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The Adoo Valley on the other hand was not that crowded. There were school children there too but fewer tourists at that time. Vendors selling Pashmina shawls will follow you around hoping to make a sale. Each of these places are about 45 minutes to an hour away from eachother. The sights on the way to each of these places is breath-takingly beautiful as some of the glaciers are yet to melt. Mountains streams flow through the rocks and at one point we saw a group of people who appeared like tiny specks as they made their way up a glacier. (Yup, need that pair of binoculars asap).

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On the way back we stopped by at Dana Pani Restaurant  yet once again and ordered the same things because we’d enjoyed ourselves so much the previous day. [It was very crowded that day, but we didn’t have to wait for a table and although we got place to sit on the crammed mezzanine and had to literally make fellow customers get up so that we could exit once we were done, the effort is really worth it. The food is that good. Alternately, check out other places, of which there are many good ones, in the vicinity.]

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We returned to Pine N Peak and headed straight for the lobby to have the on-the-house Kahwa. Thereafter we found a nice quite spot on the lawn and spent some time there. The view was gorgeous and even as we watched clouds gathered around the hills, covering it up and soon it was drizzling. As the temperature dipped some more we scurried back into the lobby. We opted for a quiet dinner in the room itself. Our tryst with the mountains was coming to an end.

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Experiencing Paradise – Day 5 – Lullaby by River Lidder

When you have a holiday itinerary with multiple destinations, there is always this one place that you are dead certain (and mostly you are right) is going to blow your mind and be one of your favourite places on that trip, or maybe of all times.

This time it was Pahalgam, a favourite destination for a perfect holiday and movie-making too. There are no cinema houses in Kashmir but a Kashmiri will proudly point out a lodge where a crucial climax scene from a movie was shot or the ranch where a love story with two newcomers was panned. The ranch from the film has since turned into a crowded park.

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Paddy fields

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Farm fresh

We were to spend two nights at Pahalgam in Hotel Pine N Peak, a well-rated hotel. We left Srinagar for Pahalgam after breakfast. Pilgrims from the neighbouring district of Jammu were visiting Kashmir in huge numbers to attend the Kheerbhawani temple festival and they were returning on buses that morning. There were ‘n’ number of such buses on the road and this resulted in some amount of traffic congestion that delayed us slightly.

Enroute to Pahalgam we passed many saffron and paddy fields. Rice is the preferred food grain for the Kashmiris which we found surprising. In India, the staple food grain of South Indians is usually rice and it’s  rotis or parathas made from wheat flour for the North-Indians. In fact there were more paddy fields here than one has seen in Kerala in a long time.

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Down by the river

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We also passed by saffron fields and apple and cherry orchards as well. Due to the limited yield of saffron at any given time, the product is very expensive and is sold in containers of 1 gram onward and is worth its weight in gold.

On the way, we stopped by a shop that sold saffron among dry fruits and many other things. After a saffron tasting session, we picked up a few boxes of this fragrant treasure. Here are some pointers to distinguish genuine saffron from the fake ones – saffron is never sweet to the taste, but bitter and it never melts away completely always leaving behind a residual strand. On the other side of the block, a little shop/bakery was selling some refreshing Kava.

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Kava is the Kashmiri green tea spiced liberally with cardamom, cinnamon and saffron. It is served with slivers of almonds and you may sweeten it with sugar or honey. Here we also discovered the delicious coconut cookies with it’s soft centre.

From there on we passed by the Jhelum-Sangam. There were horses roaming around everywhere and the apple orchards spread a sweet fragrance. Arriving at Pahalgam town, we stopped at Dana Pani where we had lunch.

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The evening tea at Pine-N-Peak hotel lobby is on the house and after checking in, we downed a few more cups of kava. We’d found a new favourite beverage. We went for a short drive thereafter, stopping by an interesting foot-bridge and probably a popular picnic spot. The view from there was just beautiful with the Lidder river flowing by our feet, the mountains and the amazing greenery all around us. Several birds flit by including brown pigeons, the black bird and another black bird with a yellow/orange tail. Following that we stopped by the local zoo that has just a few but largish enclosures with animals that ranged from black bears to gorals and a leopard that remained hidden until someone spotted it and a crowd gathered around.

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A goral

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Letting sleeping leopards lie…

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Our last stop was the Mamleshwar temple. It dates back to 900 years. The small stone structure has a pond that is sourced by the hill springs and within the sancto sanctorum one can find a Shiv Ling and a two-headed Nandi bull.

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Our evening was spent in the lawn where a little boy came over to chat with us (and it turned out later that he was from Mumbai too). Dinner was a time to experiment and we all headed to Trout Beat which we’d seen when we were leaving Dana Pani and is situated next to it. There are some good food outlets in the area too .The boys were delighted with the fare at Trout Beat. The trouts are fished out from the local rivers apparently. The service was helpful and snappy. The menu boasts of trout is various avatars including continental. Fortunately for me some good vegetarian food came from a nearby sister outlet.

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We were pretty much done for the day. In an all-time first, the Lidder River sang a night long lullaby while we slept.

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Experiencing Kashmir – Day 3 – Spellbound in Srinagar

Heavy rains continued into the next day. We decided to remain in Srinagar and see what the capital city had to offer. Our original plans to visit Kargil with a short halt at Drass was abandoned without further ado.

First we visited the Shankaracharya temple situated atop a hill that is surrounded by woods. The view from the hill is outstanding. Due to security reasons, there is heavy patrolling in the area. Also photography isn’t allowed within the temple premises. The temple can be approached by ascending 243 steps and it proved to be quite a challenge. The premises consists of the living quarters of Adi Shankara where it was believed he had resided after arriving on these hills,  and a small shrine made of stone(a relatively new structure) dedicated to Shiva although it is said that there used to be a temple here as early as 200 BC.

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Srinagar and the Dal Lake with its houseboats

We stopped at Jamia Masjid next. Spread over a large area, this mosque has 370 wooden pillars and a large courtyard with well-kept gardens besides wide spacious halls to offer prayers. Certain sections of this mosque had been destroyed by fire on three separate occassions over the years and have been restored each time. Within the complex, women are expected to cover their heads (the hair should not be seen as an elderly man sitting at the entrance informed me politely) The mosque itself is a marvellous structure. It was during this visit that we were acquainted with a gentleman. Over a brief chat he told us much about the mosque and shared with us his candid views on the state of affairs thereabouts.

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The pillared hall in Jamia Masjid

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Akbar Fort (or Hari Parbat) as seen from the Jamia Masjid courtyard

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Our next stop was the Badaamwaari, the garden we’d missed on our first day in Srinagar, a definite must-see. Badaamwaari, as the name indicates, is an orchard of almond trees, but that is not all there is to see here.

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The delightful Badaamwaari garden

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The day was proving to be an amazing insight into the richness and beauty of the Kashmiri culture. The next one hour was spent in admiring the exquisite carpets that was adorned in striking patterns and rich colours as well as Pashmina stoles that were all so pretty, that it was difficult to pick but just a few. Special designer Kashmiri coats are available too. Take time to marvel at the way the carpets are woven to perfection in the workshop. A special script that only the designer and weaver can decipher is used to protect unique ideas and patterns from being plagiarised.

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Splendid weaves on Pashmina stoles

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We stopped by  the Hazratbal Shrine next. As the prayers were on, we didn’t go inside. This shrine is very sacred to the Muslims as a valuable relic of immense import is housed there. We walked around the mosque moving towards the lake from where you can see the shrine in all its splendour.

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Hazratbal Shrine – a marvel to behold

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After that we picked the children up from the room as they’d not accomompanied us on the sight-seeing spree and then made our way to Ahdoos restaurant that came much recommended for its delicious food. Wazawan is a typically Kashmiri feast which comprises several lamb and chicken dishes along with a few vegetarian dishes as well to be eaten with rice. Kashmiri food, like everything else in that state, is also rich in aroma, flavours and textures. Nothing is ever simple here, I’ve come to believe. My husband and boys toyed with the idea of going in for a Wazawan ‘thali’ and finally decided to opt for Rogan Josh and Gostaba, which are just two of the many dishes that make up a Wazawan.

Kashmiri Nan with a stuffing of cottage cheese and garnished generously with dry fruits and cream

Kashmiri Nan with a stuffing of cottage cheese and garnished generously with dry fruits, saffron and cream

Streetside vendors

Streetside vendors

Hoping to pick up a few memorabilia and keep-sake trinkets, we went to the Handicraft Emporium. The ground floor was under renovation after the extensive damage wreaked by last year’s floods. One can pick up carpets, dress material (again with the splendid cross-stitch and embroidery typical of Kashmir) or various objects made with papier mache.

The Handicraft Emporium

The Handicraft Emporium

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Papier Mache moons with typical Kashmiri artwork

It was only late afternoon but we were pretty much done for the day.

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Experiencing Paradise – Day 4 – Over the Hills and Far Away

After putting it off for two days, we were headed towards Gulmarg finally.

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Rice fields

The biggest attraction in Gulmarg is the snowy peaks and the cable cars set up by a French company. The cable cars take you up to Phase 1, where when we visited the snow had all melted and Phase 2 which is at an astounding altitude of 3,747 m and is covered with glaciers. The sights from the cable car is beautiful and would have been even better going towards the next level.

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View from Phase One of the Cable Car Ride

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As the mist lifts off, the mountains come into view

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Mud Huts put up by local dwellers who leave the area when winter arrives

Unfortunately Phase 2 was temporarily out of service and we could only go up to Phase 1. The options as in Sonmarg were to take a pony ride and probably slide down on a sledge from there. Although we had hired boots and jackets from a little shop at Tungmarg, we decided to return to the base. Once again the slush makes the ground very slippery. During holiday season, it would be wise to prepare yourself for huge crowds and long queues to board the cable car. Another option, as a friend suggested, would have been to stay back in Gulmarg for a day or so. IMG_20150526_130543744_HDR IMG_20150526_130202823_HDR IMG_20150526_130015573_HDR We drove around the area for a little less than an hour and then returned to Tungmarg and had lunch at a place called Rizk. The inevitably obvious joke was cracked, ‘Dad, are you sure you want to take the rizk?’ The food there was very good. And be warned! Any food that says ‘Kashmiri’ also means ‘rich in dry fruits, nuts, saffron and butter’. We had a delicious Kashmiri pulao. Gulmarg is a no-plastic zone. But it wasn’t just that. I noticed (like I did in most smaller towns in Himachal Pradesh), shops hand over purchases in cloth bags, never polythene ones. Throughout Kashmir wherever we went, they handed out only cloth carry bags. Another thing I’d began to notice was the road discipline. Cars make way; drivers are polite and patient; there is no road rage and I saw on the entire trip but two people losing patience and shouting. And thankfully, no unnecessary honking.

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Experiencing Paradise – Day 2 – Some Snowy Tales

We were hoping to visit Gulmarg that day. But incessant rains and inclement weather, called for a change in plan. Instead we decided to visit Sonmarg. Sonmarg is around 2 ½ hours away by road. The last of the winter’s snow is yet to  melt and Sonmarg is a major tourist attraction. The area abounds in amazing visuals of mountain glaciers.

Some pretty sights on the road

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A sight to behold right outside Sind View Restaurant

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Enroute we stopped for tea at Sind View which commands a view of River Lidder. From there on we passed many apple and cherry orchards. The cherries were in various stages of ripening.

We stopped by a spot where a huge chunk of glacier was yet to melt across the road. The sudden drop in temperature hit us much to the amusement of the locals.

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No one told them that the summer has arrived there

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Sonmarg was crawling with tourists. The climb up to the glaciers requires one to take a pony ride to a certain point. Here men dragging sledges will haul you up to a higher point on the snowy slopes. Having reached a comfortable distance, you’ll slide down the slopes until you reach the point where you’d started out. Gumboots and heavy jackets are available on hire and are essential if you wish to walk on the snow. Also one needs to take care  while treading through the sludge as you can slip on it.

What strikes one as a major racket is apparently the only source of income for these people. The man who pulled my sledge told me how they depended on these few months which lasted as long as good weather did to earn their keep.  It was pitiful to watch them haul grown up people up the slope and I myself was prompted after a while to get off and walk up the slope which can be managed if you are wearing gumboots. Later on one of the men, younger than the rest, spoke to me in chaste English while complaining about unequal distribution of wages between them. And certainly, it was sad to find a seemingly educated person pulling people up slopes.

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We returned to the foothills where we had lunch at Hotel Sonmarg Glacier where the food was reasonably good. Thereafter we returned to Srinagar.

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