In today’s world, with jam packed work profiles which often don’t match with the school holiday schedules, planning a quality vacation with family has indeed become a mind boggling task. After a lot of deliberation, somehow, we managed to take off 4 days and deciding to make the best of it, we homed onto our very own Paradise on Earth, the Vale of Kashmir…!!! So especially for those who don’t have that kind of time to spare, here’s presenting our rendezvous with Paradise, albeit a short and sweet one, (smartly planned with a Sunday thrown towards the end). With the blistering heat in the plains, the timing was perfect in the first half of April, coinciding beautifully with the ongoing Tulip Festival.
Stay in houseboat at Nagin lake
Day 1: We reached Srinagar early in the morning. While landing, the mesmerising view of the beautiful snow clad mountains lit up by the orange glow of the rising sun greeted us, this sight is something you won’t forget and little wonder that even our 7 year old was wide awake so early in the morning. We booked into a houseboat instead of a hotel and didn’t regret it. With beautifully carved interiors, made out of Walnut wood, in typical Kashmiri fashion, the houseboat is an artistic delight, a mini hotel, floating on water. A typical double bed would cost anywhere between Rs 3000-6000 depending on the location and type of boat…(they too have grades). We had opted for a house boat in Nagin lake (which is cheaper than Dal Lake but offers similar facilities). Having grabbed a quick bite, we ventured out for a Shikara ride in Dal Lake. There were water sports as well (a bit crude form of it though…but we still did it anyway).
Towards one corner of the lake was the floating market, basically houseboats converted into shops. You may enjoy window shopping here but my suggestion is not to buy anything as they quote prices almost 4 times you get elsewhere in Srinagar. Surrounded by mystical mountains on one side, the Shikara ride was indeed a pleasant experience. Don’t miss the famous ‘Char Chinar’, a cluster of 4 Chinar trees atop a small island.
Indira Gandhi Memorial Tulip Garden
After a blissful “aquatic” experience, off we headed towards the “Indira Gandhi Memorial Tulip Garden”. Tickets were quite reasonable for the delight it had to offer (Rs 50/- for adults and Rs 20/- for children). The timing of our visit coincided perfectly with the Tulip Festival which is held only once a year and lasts for about 15 days to coincide with the level of bloom of the Tulips. Outside the entrance is a board which displays the level of bloom as a percentage, anything above 50% is good enough.
When we entered, we were in for a delightful surprise. The sight was simply mind blowing to say the least, never before had we seen such a myriad of colours arranged in perfect unison, a sea of endless colours intermingling with the majestic mountains in the backdrop. Adding to the flavour is the multititude of events being organised from Handicrafts exhibitions to cultural evenings, all in all a perfect synergy of the natural and cultural heritage of Kashmir, a must see.
Having savoured the magnificence of the Tulips, we still had a little more traveller’s appetite left.. Off we headed towards what ladies the world over simply love and men simply detest – the market place. Srinagar city market offers lot of variety for both the elite and the hardcore shoppers, a.k.a the true bargainers !!! Be sure to bargain like crazy and don’t be surprised the way the prices drop rock bottom from the initial quote.
Things not to miss are the Kashmiri Shawls and Jhumkas which you may get as less as Rs 150/- (the initial quote may be as much as Rs 500-1000). If you are interested in buying authentic Saffron and dryfruits, you may get cheap stuff in a number of shops, but be careful of adulteration. To be safe, for the best stuff, visit Amin-Bin-Khalik (check out their website abk.co.in), a nice looking shop on Residency road, the stuff will be a tad bit expensive but 100% genuine and of excellent quality.
The day had taken a toll on us and the tummies had started rumbling. Ahdoos Restaurant on Residency road is an excellent place to dine in. We enjoyed the famous Haaq Ka Saag alongwith Nadru Yakhni (a Kashmiri delicacy made from Lotus Stem and Yoghurt), wrapping up our meal with delicious Phirni served in typical Kashmiri style.
Tired, we finally retired to our house boat for a blissful sleep.
Skiing and adventure fun in Gulmarg
Day 2: Excited after our first day, the traveller’s appetite was rumbling for more. Today’s itinerary included a trip to Gulmarg followed by a visit to the Kheer Bhawani Temple in Ganderbal. By about 7.30, we are all set and set course for Gulmarg. Enroute we stopped at Tangmarg, where we were equipped with the usual Gumboots, gloves etc (it’s an unofficial compulsory stop where the locals will fill you up with stories of how vital it is to wear the gloves, jackets and sunglasses…the works…but…be sure to keep your best bargaining skills handy here as well). Well clad, we reached Gulmarg at around 9.30. We had booked our tickets online for the Gulmarg Gondola, the second highest cable car system in the world (visit gulmarggondola.com). The Gondola journey is in two phases with ticket costs separate for both (Rs 700/- for stage I and Rs 900/- for stage II, total Rs 1600/- two-way ticket per person).
First stage takes you to Kungdoor. Here you can enjoy the beauty of the Kungdoor meadow, a bowl shaped valley overlooking the Gulmarg bowl. Other attractions include the Snow Scooter ride (the snow remains till about first week of July, depending upon the snowfall), mini sledge (especially for the kids) and skiing (a primitive form though). There are also a host of eataries available, but be prepared to dish out a whole lot of money (carry enough cash, no credit or debit cards here) and do remember to keep your bargaining skills handy for the snow scooters etc (they will initially quote astronomical rates). From here, we went upwards towards Stage II at Kungdoori Mountain, a shoulder of Mount Apharwat, located at an altitude of 12293 feet (the actual top of the mountain is even higher, about 30 minutes walk from Stage II).
In case you are interested in seeing both stages, you should go to stage II first as they shut it down during inclement weather, which may happen suddenly. We could only spend about 30 minutes here as the weather turned from bad to worse and had to head down, Be sure to carry spare socks, gloves, jackets and headgear (woollen caps etc, although you do get the same at Tangmarg, but preferably carry your own, at least for the kids). After an exhilarating experience, we came down, exhausted yet raving for more. We headed towards Hotel Khyber, a beautiful world class resort tucked in one corner, surrounded by a beautiful sylvan coniferous forest. The hotel indeed is a traveller’s delight, but equally exorbitant too. But it’s worth every penny if you are willing to dish out that kind of money. However, a meal wouldn’t hurt much. We had a few knick knacks though as we had to rush towards our next destination.
We reached Kheer Bhawani Temple at about 4 pm. Situated on the eastern outskirts of Srinagar in a quaint little village called Tul Mul, the temple is dedicated to the Goddess Kheer Bhawani (due to the rice pudding or kheer which is offered to the Goddess, it has become part of the name of the temple) and is constructed over a sacred spring. It is one of the most important temples of the Kashmiri Pandits and attracts a large congregation of pandits every year. The spring is said to change colours and during signs of inauspicious times in the valley, it turns to black. The temple courtyard has massive and very old Chinar trees and in one corner, you can see a crude image of the Map of India (the way the trees droop down, giving the appearance of the map of India).
After an eventful day, we headed back to our houseboat and retired early for the night.
Sightseeing attractions in Pahalgam
Day 3: We were up at the crack of dawn and left early for Pahalgam. Till Anantnag, the journey was pretty much uninteresting, after which started the breathtaking view along the Lidder River Valley. Enroute, we stopped over at the Mattan Temple and Gurudwara Sahib. The temple is an important pilgrimage site for the Kashmiri pandits and is venerated by Muslims as well. There’s a beautiful Shiva Lingam here and a small pond which is full of fish. Also situated here is Gurudwara Mattan Sahib (also called the Gurudwara Patshahi Pahili – of the First Master or Guru – devoted to Guru Nanak Dev Ji ). The original shrine was made by Sardar Hari Singh Nalwa and was further renovated in the 1980s. The Mattan Holy Complex attracts a large number of devotees every year.
Fish pond at Mattan Temple
Fish Fiesta in Mattan Pond
After a pious beginning, we reached Pahalgam around mid-day. We booked into a river side cottage and having quickly dumped our stuff, headed towards “Betaab Valley”, around 15km from Pahalgam. The valley is located astride the Lidder River on the Pahalgam-Chandanwadi axis (the Southern route of the Amarnath Yatra) and gets it’s name from the movie “Betaab” which was shot here. A beautiful meadow on the banks of a fast flowing river surrounded by majestic mountains, it’s indeed a sight to behold.
The day was still young and we decided to make the best of it. We headed towards Aru valley, an offshoot valley along the Aru River, which is a tributary of the Lidder River. The valley itself gets it’s name from the village Aru (and river), which is a base camp for trekking to the Kolhoi Glacier and Tarsar Lake. The place offers a large number of tourist attractions from Mule rides to trekking, but what we enjoyed most was the Para-Gliding, the rates too were quite reasonable around Rs 1500-2000. Our 7 year old was simply thrilled with the experience and did it twice (seeing his enthusiasm, they gave us a discount of Rs 500/-).
We came back at about 8pm, had a quick dinner and retired for the night.
Baisaran – Mini Switzerland of India in Kashmir
Day 4: With the first rays of the sun we were out of the cottage for yet another adventure. We set course for Baisaran. Dubbed as Mini-Switzerland, Baisaran is an enchanting meadow located about 5 km from Pahalgam. Surrounded by dense pine forest coupled with the snow clad mountains, often covered with misty clouds, the meadow is truly a treat to the senses. The place is accessible only by ponies, which you can hire at Pahalgam. The pony ride took us almost about 3 hours, with a couple of stops in between, but with the sight that welcomed us, the trip was worth the effort.
We spent the day just lazing around and enjoying the marvels of nature. We were back at Pahalgam by evening and had an early dinner at the Pahalgam Hotel (for Bollywood enthusiasts, this is where Salman Khan and the crew of Bajrangi Bhaijaan stayed). The meal was sumptuous and the ambience was just amazing. After filling up our rumbling tummies to the brim, we retired to the cottage.
Time to go back… Finally, our enchanting journey was over and it was time to go back. We left Pahalgam at 6 in the morning and reached the airport by 9. With mixed feelings, we boarded our flight and bid goodbye to Paradise. Although a short vacation, in just 4 days, we were able to capture the essence of “Kashmir”, an experience which has left an everlasting impression in our hearts.