|"Agar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast, Hameen ast-o hameen ast-o hameen ast",|
wrote by a famous Sufi mystic, poet, composer and musician Amir Khusro, belonging to medieval period which means;
"If there is Paradise on face of the Earth it is this, it is this, it is this (Kashmir)".
With reignition of the debate on Article 370, the constitutional clause that gives special status to the disputed land of Jammu & Kashmir, the contemplative self prompted me to pen down the childhood memories of a family holiday visit to Kashmir exactly 10 years in the past. This was the time when Shahrukh Khan starrer Main Hoon Naa, featuring Indo-Pakistani conflict gained tremendous box-office success. Considering the relatively amicable Indo-Pak relations and absence of any militant activity for a while, we found it an ideal window to tick off Kashmir from our annual summer vacations checklist.
We set off from Indore to Delhi via a train journey with our family friends. To keep a balance between budget and time, we took a flight for Jammu thereafter. (I recall complaining about landing amidst a vast barren land as opposed to the idea of a lush green mountain view. My father tapped me on the head telling we were yet to go to the Kashmir valley.) We were fortunate to get a friendly driver for road trip to Srinagar. I don’t remember his name but frequent parleys regarding tourist footfalls on the controversial and terrorized land revealed that his own elder brother was forcefully taken into a militant training camp. This shocker was a routine affair for the Kashmiri localites. As alleged by the driver a person of the family had to be involved in such groups in order to preserve his family. To our horror we came for a leisure trip to a place where people are unsure of seeing the Sun the next day. My friends and I started playing Antakshari to ease the sudden eerie that gripped our wagon. We witnessed a long convoy of Army vehicles before passing through the Jawahar tunnel. The One and half a mile tunnel pierced through the heart of a mountain isolates you from the world gripping you into its serene darkness. The two-way tunnel facilitating round the year connectivity from Jammu to Srinagar is heavily guarded by military round the clock.
Things to do
On reaching Srinagar, we headed out in Shikaras for the search of House boats at the famous Dal Lake. However, we found them quite unhygienic and over-pricey as opposed to hype created around them. So we settled to lodge in Hotel Zabarvan, a mid-segment lakeside hotel located in the Boulevard area. Taking a good night’s rest we went on to see the Mughal gardens the next day. The ambrosial array of flowers were reminiscent of God’s own platter of colours. One may try the mouth-watering Kashmiri cuisines just outside these gardens. These local delicacies can knockout any connoisseur be it the sizzling kebabs, the exuberantly spiced Rogan josh, meat-loaded rishta-gushtaba and Dum Aloo, Hakh (spinach like leaf) with Zafran (saffron) rice for the green eaters.
Next day we reached Sonamarg, driving by the spectacular country side facet of Kashmir. Sonamarg, which means 'meadow of gold' has, as its backdrop, snowy mountains against a cerulean sky. Situated on the banks of Nallah Sindh, tributary of Jhelum River, the river snakes amidst the imposing Himalayas. Ponies can be hired for the trip up to Thajiwas glacier but I would recommend a trek to enjoy the view. Gulmarg boasts Asia's highest and longest cable car project, the Gulmarg Gondola, spanning from Gulmarg resort at 8500 ft to Knogdoori Mountains at an altitude of 12000 ft. The mile long serpentine queue for the ride seemed as if the Gondola’s offering a stairway to heaven. Unrehearsed of the weather conditions at the Kongdoori station, we were hit by bone chilling winds and we rushed back for the down-station. Nevertheless, the view from the cable car was absolutely breath-taking as if God himself descended on Earth to paint on a life-size canvas. For those who are still wondering, Gulmarg has been the location of shooting of superhit Bollywood Films like Bobby, Jab Tak Hai Jaan, Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, Highway to name a few.
Pahalgam, our next destination offers an unforgettable horse ride up a fairly steep mountainside leading to a magnificent meadow ringed by trees and snow-capped peaks. We also visited Chandanwari which is the starting point of the holy Amarnath Yatra that takes place every year in the month of Sawan (July to August). We stayed there for two days in JKTDC guest houses, popularly known as Pahalgaon Huts. We had a sumptuous lunch of Rajma and Chole at the famous Purnima hotel. Yes, the unfortunate June 12, 2004 grenade blasts that killed 5 and injured 29 people in that dining hall happened just two days after our visit!! Both our evening dinners were at some Chicken and Tea stall in the market place. I fail to recall the exact place but that exquisite Roasted chicken is something I still crave for. For those shopaholics, this market offers a wide range of exclusive Cashmere shawls handcrafted to perfection.
Patnitop, the last chapter to our escapade to the paradise on earth, is perched on a plateau in the Shiwalik belt of the Himalayas across which the Jammu-Srinagar Highway passes. Paragliding at Patnitop offers stunning views of the mountains cape enveloped by thickly wooded Cedar/Deodhar forests in the Chenab basin. Encompassing such beautiful destinations we were rejuvenated yet reluctant for our return journey. We could not go to Ladakh, which is 250 km from Srinagar, but that would be another must-see place if you are an adventure freak and relish the adrenaline pumping high altitude treks.
Altogether, the journey was truthfully mesmerizing and although we had a lucky escape from the blasts, it’s sad to see such a beautiful place being guarded by army personnel at every point. Let’s pray that Kashmir is peaceful again with the efforts of new central govt. for strengthening the Indo-Pak ties as even the average Kashmiri simply wants peace and freedom.