Article Kashmiri Travel Uncategorized

Kashmir – A Winter Wonderland

May 10, 2019

The past four years have been pretty amazing for me travel wise. I’ve been to places I’d never thought I would go to. I visited Jordan way back in 2015; Amsterdam in 2016; Italy (along with a short stop at Frankfurt) in 2017; Delhi-Agra-Amritsar in 2017 & 2018; Vietnam in 2018; small trips last year to Murdeshwar, Manali, and Kerala; and Kashmir earlier this year. And if you didn’t realize, the travel bug has bitten me bad. But, amongst all these locations (and many more before that, including Gir Forest, Ladakh, Rajasthan), no place has captivated me as much as Kashmir has. Kashmir was always on my bucket list and we finally traveled there this February. It was an 8-day trip that I never wanted to come back from. Since we had my parents-in-law with us, we preferred booking a tour from a local travel agency and covered the more touristy locations in the state. And, since this was an extended winter, we were fortunate enough to catch snow in all the locations we went to except for Srinagar. 

Talk to me about Kashmir today and my eyes will shine and I will talk passionately about the beauty of the place, the warmth of the people and the vibe of this beautiful place. It is one of the most beautiful places I’ve been to. Despite the ravaged parts of Srinagar and the army presence in the capital city, its gorgeous rustic landscape, beautiful people, and food are some of the biggest takeaways from this place. And here are some of the must-do things 

FOOD

What trip of mine would be complete without a few options to eat out? In a way, the fact that global brands like McDonalds and Pizza Hut have not ventured into Kashmir (for obvious reasons) is a blessing. There is so much more local food that you can choose from. One of the must tries in Srinagar is the local bread that is available at bakeries. In fact, Kashmir is known to have over 15 varieties of bread including Kulcha, Sheermal, Tsot, Lavasa, and Baqerkhani. We were able to try out the Tsot (unique for its indentations – and perfect for breakfast), baqerkhani (a puff pastry of sorts served with kahwa) and kulcha (a hard, dry, crumbly bread) all of which we bought fresh and hot from a local bakery one rainy morning and were very delicious. 

Tsot is a thick morning bread cooked in the kandur (tandoor)
The Kashmiri Kulcha is like a hard, dry crumbly biscuit
The Baqerkhani is a puff pastry of sorts usually served with Kahwa

Another must try Kashmiri delicacy is the Wazwan. The traditional Wazwan has a multitude of dishes (about 36) and is a wedding tradition. We visited Mughal Darbar in Srinagar for a meal and were super fascinated by the items that were served as part of the wazwan, which costs around Rs. 3,500 and was more than enough to feed 8 people. A typical wazwaan starts off with a Trrami (a copper cloche covering a heap of rice and lots of grilled and fried meat. This meat usually includes – Tabak Maaz (lamb chops), Seekh Kabab,  and other similar grilled or deep fried meat and vegetables. This is followed by your choice of rotis and different gravies to go with it. 

Heaps of rice piled with flavourful grilled meat – at Mughal Darbar, Srinagar

In fact, across our Kashmir trip we had various local Kashmiri delicacies like Rogan Josh (mutton on the bone served in a spiced onion gravy), Rista (hand-pounded meat balls served in an onion-saffron gravy), Gushtaba (hand-pounded meatballs served in a yoghurt gravy), Dum Aloo (baby potatoes), Kashmiri Pulav (deliciously spiced pulao with dried fruits mixed through with saffron) and Nadur Yakhni (lotus roots in a yoghurt gravy). 

Dum Aloo at a roadside restaurant
Rogan Josh – a meat curry in an onion gravy – at Paradise Inn, Pahalgam
Gushtaba – hand pounded meatballs in a yoghurt gravy – at Mughal Darbar, Srinagar
Rista – hand pounded meatballs in a spicy onion gravy – at Mughal Darbar, Srinagar

Apart from the food, the Kashmiri Kahwa has become a firm favourite – every shop attendant, every hotel and restaurant is always ready to serve up some hot kahwa. The spiced sweet black tea drunk hot in the cold weather is comforting to both the body and soul. 

Kashmir Kahwa

STAY ON A HOUSEBOAT

The Floating Heaven houseboat is one of the few luxury houseboats at Nigeen Lake.  Nigeen Lake is part of the Dal (dal in Kashmiri means lake) but much more secluded than the popular Dal. All the houseboats in Kashmir are made of  local cedar wood and are anchored at the lake. Shikaras are stationed at the shore to take you to the boats, which most often are rather opulent with a carved exterior and interior, luxurious carpets, chandeliers, lustrous wooden furniture,  beautiful tapestry, and some gorgeous furnishings in Kashmiri work. A night at the boat is more than enough especially during winter. The rest of the day is usually perfect for a lovely shikara ride along the still waters of the lake with some absolutely magical surroundings.

Nigeen Lake

VISIT JAMIA MASJID, SRINAGAR

I always believe that walking through the old part of any city gives you a feel of its true essence. Old Srinagar is famed for its stone throwing incidents, and locals usually keep tourists away from the area – but since we insisted, our driver took us there rather reluctantly. We walked through the market and visited the old Jamia Masjid, which was built in the 1300s by a Mughal emperor. Spanning over 1,46,000 sq. ft, the mosque was devastated by three fires over different periods of time and was finally restored in 1480 AD. 

Jamia Masjid
The minarets of the Jamia Masjid bear a curious resemblance to Buddhist pagodas

THE GARDENS IN SRINAGAR

While the gardens in Srinagar are worth visiting all year round, we were told that spring is the best season since that is when the flowers are in full bloom. But, do go in winter, the views from up above are pretty awesome. You have the Mughal Gardens, Pari Mahal (a terraced garden offering spectacular views of Srinagar) and the Tulip gardens (which are in full bloom in April). 

Mughal Gardens, Srinagar
The view from Pari Mahal, Srinagar

PAY YOUR RESPECTS AT HAZRATBAL DARGAH, SRINAGAR

Hazratbal Dargah is one of the most popular dargahs in Srinagar – not only for its religious significance but also for its promenade that looks out at the Northern shore of the Dal Lake. The marble structure with its iconic Islamic dome is definitely worth a visit. 

Hazratbal Dargah, Srinagar

PAHALGAM 

As we drove up from Srinagar to Pahalgam, the lands on either side of the road began to disappear under fluffs of snow till we reached a point where either side was a blanket of pure, unadulterated white snow. Had you been in the car with us at the time, you would have seen how palpable our excitement was. After all, this is what we had come to Kashmir for – snow, snowfall, walking in it, playing in it, building a snowman, making snow angels – absolutely enjoying the magical world of snow. 

We stayed at the Heevan Resort in Pahalgam – a gorgeous hotel set amongst the mountains with beautiful pine trees on one side and the Lidder river on the other. The resort is beautiful with some great hospitality, food and ambience. We spent two nights here, and I think I left my heart in Pahalgam. 

Lidder River, Pahalgam
The room at Heevan Resort, Pahalgam

Pahalgam is known for its beautiful valleys – the Pahalgam Valley, Kashmir Valley – and the trail that leads up to ‘mini-Switzerland’. We took ponies up the trail and while it is a little tricky, the lovely animals have a sure footing and are pretty adept at climbing up without incident. ‘Mini Switzerland’ is a vast area that was filled to the brim with snow and is surrounded by pine trees all around. Being popular with tourists, it is a rather commercialized location – you can indulge in activities like sledding and snowbiking, etc. or you can even sit at the small canteens and indulge in piping hot and spicy Maggi noodles and hot cups of Kahwa and just take in the ambience. 

‘Mini Switzerland’, Pahalgam

BETAAB VALLEY

Located in Pahalgam, Betaab Valley is nothing but a valley with a park in the midst of it. But the snow was so high we could just see the tips of what used to be bridges, and benches and even dustbins. Dotted with trees across the pure white snow with the flowing Lidder river on one side and small villages atop the mountain, the valley is named for the Bollywood movie that was shot here in the 80s. 

GULMARG – THE SKI RESORT OF INDIA

The ski resort of India – what a breathtakingly beautiful place Gulmarg is. From roads that had 11 ft high walls of snow on either side, to the mountains that were covered in snow, Gulmarg is such a special place. 

You can go skiing, ride the cable car to two phases – 11,000 feet and 14,000 feet. You can see the mountains that separate India and Pakistan, see shepherd huts that are half buried in the snow and open up after winter is over. No matter where we went, Gulmarg was covered in a white blanket. We traveled in the gondola or cable car all the way up to 14,000 feet where we could see the peaks of mountains all around us. And then we sledged down from the first phase (11,000 feet) of the mountains – one of the most exciting things I’ve done activity wise – with snow spraying through the air into our face and hair while we laughed in sheer glee as we flew down the mountain.

Icicles outside our hotel balcony, Gulmarg
A shepherd’s house covered in snow, Gulmarg
14,000 ft up!

SONMARG

Our trip to Sonmarg was a beautiful disaster – while the horse ride to the Sonmarg valley (again a park covered in snow) was rather long, the trail was beautiful as was the valley. What deterred us was the heavy snowfall, which at first was magical and exciting but started to wear us down after we realized we were rather ill equipped for it in terms of the clothes we were wearing (warm but not water resistant). Nevertheless, we visited the park, shook the snow off trees, crunched through several feet of snow, slipped through the ice, and enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. And then, nothing could beat sitting around a heater and drying surely but slowly in the warmth of the fire after a gorgeous snowfall. 

A horseride in Sonmarg

SHOPPING

Kashmir has several handicraft items that you can buy – but trying to understand what’s authentic and what’s not is quite a challenge. We bought some pashmina shawls, some lovey curtain material and bedsheets covered in handmade Kashmiri work and even some bedsheets. We also brought back with us Kashmiri Kahwa powder along with local almonds, saffron and Kashmiri chillies. 

After eight days of traveling through the state, I can safely say ‘Kashmir is a feeling’. The numerous photographs, the videos, movies, don’t do justice to the vibe of this beautiful piece of land. You have to be there to experience the paradise. Drink the hot kahwa that is readily offered to you the moment you enter a shop or restaurant or hotel. Bask in the warmth of Kashmiri hospitality. Immerse yourself in the nature that God has gifted this troubled state. Dream of coming back every single year; I know I do. 

Tips 

  • Prepaid sim cards do not work in Kashmir – so carry a postpaid connection if you  want to stay connected 
  • Srinagar and the roads connecting different tourist spots have heavy army presence, if you are driving a rented vehicle, ensure you adhere to the traffic rules (a lot of times the Army asks cars to park on the side to allow convoys to pass through safely) 
  • For religious places, ensure you are fully covered including on your head
  • Carry clothes that are weather appropriate – nothing ruins a trip more than inappropriate clothes 
  • Wifi is available in most or all hotels
  • The houseboats usually do not have central heating. While we had a traditional heater on our boat, our main source of heat at night was an electric blanket that did a damn good job.
  • There are a lot of hidden costs when you visit in winter – plus each district has its monopoly, so you may find yourself shelling out more for snow boots, heavier jackets, and separate cars to take you to trickier and more icy places. 
  • Do not expect to eat much of western food in Kashmir – having said that, the place has some amazing food for both vegetarians and non-vegetarians 
  • Finally, do not be scared to visit the place – the locals are more than hospitable and helpful. We went during rather scary times this year when the Pulwama attack happened and despite all that took place, not once did we feel unsafe with the locals. 

Kashmir survives on tourism – if you don’t visit the place, you will miss out on one of the most beautiful places in the world and in India – specifically. Visit it – I plan to again. 

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