Sunday, 24 June 2012

Srinagar after 30 years – Kashmir Valley

My first visit to Kashmir in 1982 is still fresh in memory.  A ten day trip comprised taking train to Jammu Tawi from Mumbai. Night halt was at sprawling Tourist Reception Centre, Jammu.  A visit to Raghunath temple  in the evening and whiling away some time in the city and winding up the day with a Kashmiri cuisine in one of the restaurant, trying out Gostabe – minced meat ball curry, which was too spongy to take off  the plate while trying to tackle it with knife and fork!  

Next morning boarding state transport bus for Srinagar, going through Jawahar tunnel was a novel experience. The high altitude halting points like Kud, Batote and Patni Top with purchasing of fresh fruits was all for the asking. At Srinagar, a room in the big campus of Tourist Reception Centre with sprawling garden blooming with early summer assortment of flowers.  The conveniences of availability of bus for destinations like Gulmarg, Pahalgam and Sonmarg was a big advantage. Dining at TRC or nearby restaurant like Ahadoo  although pricey offered some genuine KLashmiri cuisines. Gulmerg and Pahalgam were covered as one day program, where as we had to stay put up at a Pahalgam hotel for one night to enable us to have a feel of the place and also to have a pony-back  journey to Thajiwas glacier. 

We came back with a lot of fond memories including some irritants like, shawl-wallas and pony-wallas constantly pestering us at all the destinations. At  Pahalgam we had booked a papier mache table lamp by paying some advance to shop keeper who made a solemn promise of  sending the item by post parcel; it never arrived. On the other hand, being short of cash at Pahalgam,  we could not pay our dues at the hotel. The owner after inspecting my GOI identity card, allowed me to send the balance amount by Postal Money Order, which I duly complied.  

Our this year’s  Kashmir Valley trip was with a purpose of going from Srinagar to Leh via the road route with our focal point being Kargil. Kargil,  which is considered as pit stop for almost all the Leh bound tourists from Srinagar, became our starting point of jeep journey to Suru Valley and Zanskar valley in western Ladakh which are hardly visited by tourists. This part of Ladakh we missed or rather did not give priority during our first visit in 2010.

Our Indigo flight on 27th May 2012, departing Mumbai at 11 am had a perfect touchdown at Srinagar airport on a sunlit afternoon at 1.30 pm. As planned we got our pre-paid taxi service voucher for Rs. 500/- at the booth in airport itself and coming out we were given our taxi number token in a booth near the taxi stand.  An amiable Kashmiri driver put our baggage inside his Tavera taxi; we three occupying window positions to have a look-in to the land which we yearned to see for so many years yet could not venture for the fear of unknown. The vicinity of airport and some distance onward were manned by Military. Being Sunday afternoon, the wide clean roads were without much vehicular traffic. Most of the shops had their shutters down. The presence of a large number of trees lined on both sides of the roads was eye soothing. The driver told us that for the previous two days it was raining and bit difficult for the tourists. We considered ourselves lucky to have brought sunshine with us from all the way from Mumbai! After nearly 30 minutes we entered the fringes of Srinagar town. The Jhelum river with embankments across it, consisted of a few house boats and smaller boats for ferrying across. New bridge erected on Jhelum offered us the river view in both upstream and downstream direction. We were in Dal gate area in no time. In the vicinity of our hotel City Plaza, driver  showed us the entrance to Durghanag temple as well as the Krishna Vaishno dhaba – a supposedly best joint for vegetable food in that locality.
Lunch Time

Dalgate basically offers connectivity of Dal lake with Jhelam river. Since Jhelam is at a lower elevation, there is danger of Dal lake water flowing to Jhelum. The Dal gate offers a buffer of a kind with double vertical gate arrangement. In my first visit to this city, I did experience the entry from Jhelum to Dal lake via Dalgate. This time we had no such idea. I am not sure whether that facility is allowed now. 
Hotel City Plaza

Talking of our selection of Hotel City Plaza – we did not have a real choice. The hotels in Srinagar this year for season May / June was booked 3 – 4 months in advance through online booking. Although an average hotel, City Plaza is located very close to TRC Srinagar, Jeep Stand and walking distance from Dal lake - the principal attraction of Srinagar city. Checking in, we immediately took to Street to get a bite to eat. Even at 3 pm the famous Krishnas Vaishno Dhaba was bustling with tourists, so we prudently tried another dhaba adjoining it with practically no crowd. The meal was simple vegetarian. Aimless thereafter, we walked to the TRC Srinagar and spend some time on the garden with assortment of blooming flowers. 

By late afternoon, while walking by first gate of the Shikara stand across Dal lake, we were accosted by a Kashmiri youth, who seemed to have acquired the art of smooth taking in English – by servicing overseas tourists. We were soon herded into his shikara at agreed rate of Rs. 500/- for specific places he prepared to show us. The per hour shikara ride is actually Rs. 300/- as per the rate displayed prominently. I did not know whether we were being  taken for a ride on that evening with a promise of one hour plus trip! We occupied the cosy shikara with enough space to seat three persons on reclining position, and two more perhaps in cramped up position opposite. Since we were three, we made full use of the space; my two friends reclining and I sat at the edge for all the photo shooting I had planned to do. 
Shikara Ride
The Dal lake shikara journey is surely a soothing balm to a tired soul. We lazed in cool breeze blowing across in otherwise hot afternoon, the transparent yet not so clean lake water showing all the vegetation growing at the bottom of the lake. The colorful shikaras gliding across noiselessly all across the lake, make the lake surface a visual delight. An entire township appears to be floating and moving. A boat passes by selling biscuits and snacks, one with vegetables and yet another with Kashmiri Chai. We passed by a floating vegetable field mounted on wooden structure, which can be towed away to any location. We did not find any vegetables growing there, but a boat was stationed on top of it. We passed by a boat with a photographer dressing up a couple in Kashmiri outfit doing a memory shoot. On the edge of the lake, came to our focus a hotel adorned with really big colorful rose flowers in front. 
Hotel Heaven ........
Our shikara passed by a bunch of lotus leaves, though no flowers were seen. We reached at a narrow watery lane in the lake with shops on both sides, some selling shawls and dress materials, some dry fruits and saffron and one selling ornament like stone beaded necklaces. It was a novelty getting off the shikara and hopping to the shop on the water edge. As my friends were shopping for saffron and dry fruits in one shop, I purchased one necklace and a pair ear rings. Saffron was purchased at Rs. 300/- per gram in one of the shops. After two days while passing through Pampore on way to Pahalgam, we had one more purchase of same product at Rs. 200/- per gram from a shop adjoining saffron field. Some price difference that! 
Hopping and Shopping by Dal lake
On return journey, we passed by a large number of houseboats, some of them exquisitely carved from walnut wood; most of them had American / English names to entice the overseas tourists. 
Exquisitely carved house boats
Embarking at gate no.1, we strolled on Bouleward road which runs alongside the Dal lake and has some of the best and pricy hotels on the other side. After a cup of tea in a small restaurant, some more walk and at 7 pm we arrived at Punjabi Vaishnav Restaurant for dining. A vegetarian meal was palatable yet not so pricy.
We were contemplating of contacting out travel organizer (rather taxi provider) for next day onwards journey to other destinations in Kashmir valley with a drop at Kargil. On contacting over phone the gentleman wanted us to come to his office at Rajbagh. An autorickshaw hired for Rs. 200/- took us to his place around 8 pm. We had a short chat with the gentleman who promised to provide us with car and driver at 9.30 am next morning at our hotel for three days at the rate of Rs. 2000/- per day plus Rs. 5000/- for Kargil drop. Additional cost of Rs. 12/- per km were to be levied, if we exceeded 100 km per day. After making full payments, we made our way to hotel for  doing next day’s packing. 
On 28th May we woke up on a bright sunlit day. We had our bath and took to the Durghanag temple around 7 am, just opposite to our hotel.  The main temple has Shiva Linga the symbol of Lord Shiva as presiding deity. The not so small compound has a few more temples and a small area with water for washing hands and legs of devotees.  After darshan and spending some time looking around we were back to hotel room for packing of our belongings prior to checking out.
Durghanag Temple
After a breakfast of bread butter and jam, we waited for the vehicle to take us to Shankaracharya temple on hill top. The travel company did not disappoint us. A Tavera car with a youngish looking driver turned up to pick us up at 9.45 am. We checked out of our hotel and loaded our luggage at the rear and three of us had the luxury of window seats. We had one more ride this time in car on Bouleward road and had a morning view of Dal lake. It looked as lovely, however with less number of boats. We had a glimpse of an island within the lake, with hotel and a garden. As we started climbing the hill through asphalted road covered on both sides with dense growth of trees, Dal lake could be seen occasionally. 

We had a halt near an opening through the trees, for video and still photo shooting from top. The small boats looked even better from this elevation. Some motorboats were zooming raising a lot of foam and waves, some guy latching on to a rope tied to boat doing water surfing. 

We neared Shankaracharya temple and parked a little distance from entry point, deciding to walk some distance so that while returning we do not waste time in a vehicular jam. We were informed by drive that camera of any kind, mobile phone of any kind, ever leather belts, pouches and wallets be kept in the car itself. Loose cash and coins can be carried in pocket. Near the entry point a few army jawans did strict frisking, similar to one undergoes at airport these days. Having cleared that we went up the stone steps, some 200 of them I guess, when we reached a flat ground with benches spread out at the foot of the temple.  We took off our shoes, washed our hand and feet by taking water from a big plastic drum and climbed some more stone steps to the temple enclosure. Having darshan of Shiv Linga the symbol of presiding deity Lord Shiva, we descended through a different route and had a view of cave where Sri Shankaracharya meditated. 

On our return trip from the hill, some more photo-shooting later we were on way to our next destination - Gulmarg, the account of which will be covered in next blog. 

Important Info:
1) May/June are considered to be the height of touring season for Srinagar, hence air reservation and hotel reservation may be done 3 to 4 months in advance.
2) There are plethora of taxi hire portals who offer their services. It is better to check by email and telephonic talk the type of vehicle you require and also a program. We booked through Trans India Holidays for our requirement of taxi through our internal journey in Kashmir valley and also drop to Kargil at the end of Kashmir circuit. A Tavera car witrh driver and all expenses paid cost us Rs.2000/- per day with limit of 100 km of traveling. For extra km we were to pay Rs. 12/- per km extra. Kargil drop from Sonmarg cost us another Rs. 5000/-.  Unlike in other states, in Kashmir, the taxi rental sums are collected in advance. In July to September months, the taxi rates are generally lower.
3) For accommodation, we had one night’s stay  at Hotel City Plaza. It is an average grade hotel and cost us Rs. Rs.3,600/- for double room with additional bed. All better hotels tried even 3 months in advance were fully booked. We avoided staying in Houseboat because of logistical and other reasons.
4) Restaurant bills will be higher in Srinagar compared to other destinations in Kashmir valley.
5) Many stay put in Srinagar and take one days trip each to Gulmarg, Pahalgam, Sonamarg. But, if one wants to get a feel of a place nothing better than actually staying overnight in each of these places. 
6) Saffron is best purchased at Pampore, on the way to Pahalgam,  where there are large number of shops located near the saffron fields. Fruits and Dry fruits can be purchased at Srinagar or any other place in the valley costing more or less the same. 

* Author has the prevelage of having recorded a number of video clips at Srinagar which will give the readers of this blog some visual treat. The captioned videos can be accessed from the follwing:
1) Dal Lake Shikara Ride 
2) Dal Lake View From Shankaracharya Hill 
3) Tourist Reception Centre
4) Durganag Temple