I recently concluded a fun and adventure filled trip to Jammu and Kashmir. At first I was hesitant to undertake this trip with family as several people warned me not to go ahead in view of the ‘alleged’ disturbance in that area. However I am happy that I insisted on going ahead, Kashmir being one of the important places in the list of my must-visit destinations.
Yes, you might get scared initially as you will see army-men all over the place. They are paranoid about security with multiple and thorough checks of your bags and vehicles. However you get used to these soon enough.
We landed at the Srinagar airport and the drive to the hotel (Lalit Grand Palace) through the road besides the famed Dal Lake was enough to mesmerize us. There was a blast at the Dal gate on the previous day and most of the local people were indoors but we faced no problem at all in reaching the hotel. A shikara ride and surf boarding in the evening were clear signals that this will be a trip to remember.
We spent the next day visiting the Nishat Garden and Shalimar garden and lazing around the hotel, conserving energy for the next day’s trip to the holy cave of Amarnath. We also took the royal buggy ride in the evening, which has a historic appeal of its own. It is said that the buggy belonged to Maharaja Hari Singh on whose palace property, the hotel is built.
The helicopter ride to Amarnath through Baltal was very exciting as it was the first time we were riding a chopper. We could see thousands of pilgrims going to Amarnath, on horses and on feet.
The helipad at the holy cave is a small flat area built in the middle of a snowy plateaue. A steep climb of about 200 steps and we were at the feet of a large snowy Shivlinga (about 20-25 feet in height). The ground under our feet was freezing and we had to constantly keep walking to avoid frost-bite.
It was a dream come true for us – both religion and adventure wise. On the way back, I got to sit with the pilot in the cockpit. Amazing experience it was, seeing the fantastic landscape from the vantage point.
I was in Kashmir with my family for three days on a holiday earlier this month. On our return, there was so much interest from friends in knowing details about the trip – most who spoke to us had never been to Kashmir, a few were there many years ago, before the militancy problem emerged – that I thought it worth writing a blog about our impressions.
Movies, poets and storytellers have shown and described the splendour of Kashmir in ways I can never hope to do. Let me just say that it’s one of the most outstandingly beautiful places I have seen on Earth. We were in Srinagar, Gulmarg and Pahalgam. The last two offer positively stunning views. Gulmarg had snow, and Pahalgam offers an unforgettable horse ride up a fairly steep mountainside, that leads to a magnificent meadow ringed by trees and snow-capped peaks.
Srinagar’s Dal Lake, houseboats, shikaras and gardens are an absolute treat, made nicer by the politeness and friendliness of the locals. As you go around Dal Lake on a shikara, you come across other shikaras from who you can buy stuff like seekh kababs and rotis, or you could go to a houseboat that sells Kashmiri textiles and artifacts.
We stayed two nights in a houseboat. It was one of the older houseboats, with fairly basic, but comfortable rooms. The owner was a delightfully pleasant old man. We were told there are more luxurious houseboats available at higher tariffs.
We could not go to Ladakh, which is 250 km from Srinagar, but that would be another must-see place if you have the time and willingness to spend. As many who have seen 3 Idiots would know, the spectacular lake in the final scene is in Ladakh.
An army officer who we met in Udhampur in Jammu said the most beautiful place that he had seen in Kashmir was along the new road passing over the Pir Panjal mountain range. “It puts Gulmarg to shame,” he said.
This road, used extensively by the Mughals and therefore also called Mughal Road, remained abandoned after 1947, but the Indian government has been reconstructing the road since 2005. Since 2010, it has hosted some motor rallies, and is expected soon to be opened for public use.
My wife’s sister and family live in Udhampur, so our first stop was this town that is also the headquarters of the Indian Army’s Northern Command, We drove down to Srinagar from Udhampur. It’s a lovely scenic route along mountainsides, and along the way is Patnitop, which is something of a tourist hotspot.
But it is an over 200 km journey, and though some people claim the distance can be covered in three hours, I can’t imagine who can do that other than audacious race-car drivers. We took 7 to 8 hours, including some longish breaks. May be our driver was being extra careful; and I did not mind that. But any which way, you could find the drive a little tiring after some time. And if you don’t have too many days to spend in Kashmir, the simpler thing to do, if you can afford it, would be to fly straight into Srinagar. Trains go only up to Udhampur.
Is Kashmir safe for tourists?
That’s something many obviously want to know. The impression we gathered from talking to multiple people, including local Kashmiris, is that the problem of militancy has reduced significantly. Local support for the militants appears to have waned, because the one and only big business of Kashmir – tourism – has been badly hit for many years on account of the militancy, and because the militants are seen to be nowhere close to achieving their objectives even after so many years.
The border fencing along the line of control has proved to be very effective in controlling infiltration. Army and CRPF presence is overwhelming. You can see them just about everywhere, including in the middle of desolate farmlands. I’m not sure how the locals view that, but it could be a source of serious irritation.
One of the boys who took us on a shikara said militants were mostly coming out of some of the least developed areas of Kashmir, such as Baramulla, and that the average Kashmiri was yearning for peace.
The nearly mile long queue for the Gulmarg cable car ride was evidence that tourists are flocking back to Kashmir. Locals however noted that business this year was down compared to last year. My guess is this is more a reflection of the state of the country’s economy, but some locals attributed it to the fear generated by Afzal Guru’s hanging.
We did, however, run into one young tour guide at Gulmarg who, when he realized after nearly ten minutes of following and pestering us that he is not going to get any business out of us, left muttering something about going with Pakistan. Again, the feeling I got was he was just letting off steam; I doubt he has any genuine desire to be part of Pakistan.
The state needs development
The pestering by tour guides can get on your nerves. There are so many of them, young and old, in places like Gulmarg; they follow you around hoping you would pay them a few hundred rupees to show you around.
When we had completed our Gulmarg visit and were getting ready to go, another family that had just come and was being pestered by tour guides asked us for advice on where to go. My son provided some directions. He was promptly at the receiving end of abuses from the tour guides for `stealing their business’.
This tour guide menace is one indication of the desperate need for development in Kashmir. Clearly, there are not enough jobs. Some part of this problem may resolve itself if militancy continues to wane and tourists return to Kashmir in larger numbers. But that may be insufficient.
The big problem is that tourism is at best a six months phenomenon. For the rest of the year, the Kashmir valley is cold, and often deep in snow. The Dal Lake freezes in the winter months.
We met some enterprising small merchants who said they conduct their business in the summer in Kashmir and the same business in the winter in some other location in India. One said he sets up a shop selling almonds and saffron in Jamshedpur in winter; another said he sells Kashmiri textiles and jewellery in Varkala in Kerala. Even the traditional livestock handlers move their entire livestock along the road from Jammu to Kashmir in the summer and in the opposite direction in winter.
But such methods will not work for everybody, especially given the current state of infrastructure and the difficult terrain. I can claim no expertise in this matter. But something has to be done.
The government has undertaken a massive four-lane highway project between Jammu and Srinagar that cuts through mountains – creating multiple tunnels and bridges, including a 9-km tunnel that will be India’s longest. When completed, it will reduce the road distance between the two towns by at least 50 km, but more significantly, will halve the traveling time, and put an end to the snow-related traffic jams that often last for days in winter. A similar rail project is also in the works. You can see some parts of this ongoing work as you go from Jammu to Srinagar, and the current target is to complete the road project by 2016.
Hopefully, these projects will be completed on schedule and will provide a level of integration of the Kashmir valley with the mainland that will be a source of meaningful economic development for the Kashmiris.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author's own.
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