“Gar firdaus ae baruhe zamin ast, Hamin astu Hamin astu Hamin ast.” (If there is heaven on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.) No reference to Kashmir can start without this quote. & yet, I’m divided on my agreement with the quote. There is no doubt that the Kashmir valleys are sights to behold. At the same time, are they the best there can be? Did Amir Khusrou travel the world before he bestowed Kashmir with this honor? Or even travel all of India? No, don’t get me wrong. I’m not doubting the beauty of Kashmir. I’ve seen it firsthand myself. But to call it paradise when you’ve worthy competitors is a trifle unfair, isn’t it? If I limit myself to India, I’ve found the barrenness of Ladakh, the rain-drenched hills of Himachal, the forts of Rajasthan, the sunsets of the Rann of Kutch, the backwaters of Kerala & many more to be equally beautiful, if not more.
The Gulmarg Gondola
Nonetheless, Kashmir captivates in a way that leaves an imprint on your mind for your entire life. We were fortunate enough to visit the beautiful cities & surroundings of Gulmarg, Pahalgam & Srinagar. We were here around Independence Day. Everybody cautioned us that it wasn’t a safe time to visit the valley. But we felt that this would be the safest due to heightened security. & we were right. While paramilitary & police presence is a common sight, on 15th August, there was a curfew-like situation which made our movement easy.
The Bridge on the Lidder
Our first stop, Gulmarg, proved to be a pretty little town with the gondola being its claim to fame. A walking distance away from our hotel, Nedous, was the station, from where the gondola took us to a staggering height. Here, enthusiastic folks can try their hands at snow sports, while the lazy ones can sit & admire the scenery. On open meadows, we saw horses galloping. It brought back to mind the vivid descriptions that Enid Blyton would paint. Ah, the joys of childhood! Rolling green hills surrounded our cottage. Tall pine trees adorned these hills. & I did ask myself- who would say this is India? Looks more like Switzerland!
The Mughal Garden of Chashmashahi
I believe the main thing that irked me about Kashmir were the people & their self-defined rules. In Gulmarg & Pahalgam, we could visit the sightseeing spots only if we hired a local taxi. We weren’t allowed to use our Srinagar-registered taxi. What’s the insecurity here? Why create this nuisance for travelers? Why differentiate yourself from your brethren? It’s all Kashmir, isn’t it? You’re all Kashmiris, aren’t you?
Rolling Hills and Chalets
On 15th, we moved from Gulmarg to Pahalgam, a distance of 145 kms. The roads were deserted and the only presence we saw was of security forces. At one check post, we were stopped by a group of men. The leader, clad in a vest & khaki trousers, & with an automatic in hand, came up to our vehicle, peered inside & asked our driver if we were all tourists. Satisfied, he let us go. The driver told us he was a J&K policeman. We were left wondering. He looked like a goon. He neither had a uniform on nor was he displaying an identification. How was a layperson to know who he was, & with what authority he was stopping us? I’m afraid to say this but he may very well have been a militant.
Our apprehensions abated once we reached the busy but picturesque town of Pahalgam. All the curfew we’d witnessed on our route evaporated here. Even with a light rain, locals & tourists thronged the main street, rushing to eat, shop or just idle away time. Sadly, our experiences at the three restaurants –Trout Beat, Paradise & Heena – we tried, were quite poor. The worst was that the servers, chefs & managers didn’t seem to care that we didn’t enjoy their food or hospitality. & I thought Kashmiri hospitality was something to write home about. I know a bunch of Kashmiris who have moved out of Kashmir, & they’re warm & friendly people. So, what’s with the attitude in the Valley?
The Mughal Garden of Nishat
We’d also only heard till date that Kashmiris refer to the people from rest of India as Hindustanis, & we saw it firsthand there. My dear brothers & sisters, whether you like it or not, you’re Hindustanis too. So get a grip! I hope the solidarity that ‘Hindustanis’ showed with ‘Kashmiris’ during the recent floods would have made them realize who their true well-wishers are.
Up above the world so high
All the bitterness evaporated with the sights that Pahalgam had in store for us. We stayed at Travelers’ Inn, a cottage which could be reached only by crossing a treacherous wooden bridge over an angry Lidder river. The cottage had a land where at any given point of time, five horses could be found grazing. Right in front of the cottage was the river, peaceful & crystal clear one moment, & angry & muddy the other. Surrounding the cottage were mountains that started off green at the base and turned white as your eyes reached the peaks. It was one of those places where you could easily spend a few days just curled up in an armchair, in the sun, listening to the river, & reading a book. The beautiful valleys of Aru & Betaab were nearby; so if you did feel like moving a limb, you could head here to soak in more natural beauty.
Walnut brownies with vanilla ice-cream, anyone?
Another thing that annoyed me was not getting any product at MRP. & why exactly is that? It’s no more a situation where you don’t get tourists Kashmir. The valley is relatively stable now, at least, the main tourist places are. & you’ve an inflow all year round. So why the need to charge extra for packed products like water, biscuits etc.? & I’m talking only about Kashmir. I’ve not experienced the same in Jammu or Ladakh. Oh, of course, the rules that apply to the rest of India don’t apply to you. You are ‘protected’ by the draconian article 370. But, you know what Kashmir, the article is doing more harm to you than good. Your livelihood suffers because private organizations are unwilling to set up shop here. Your youth is left to either clamber for government or security jobs, or to fleece tourists, or to flee the valley. You yourself end up throwing your young ones into the mouth of militancy. Social problems rear their heads only when there’s economic discontent. So what’re you doing about your economic status Kashmir?
Lights around the Nigeen Lake
Our last stop was Srinagar. I’d an impression about Srinagar that being a capital city, it’ll be crowded and polluted with nothing to see. I couldn’t have been more wrong. As you leave the heart of the city behind, the beautiful & quiet suburbs welcome you. The Dal Lake occupies a major part of the city and the promenade is a breeze to drive through. We opted to stay at Nigeen Lake, touted to be prettier & quieter. I’d only heard about the beauty of houseboats. When I entered our Wangnoo Houseboat, I was so enamored that I wished we could extend our stay. A plush setting with wooden interiors, the houseboat was fit for royalty. The canopied-bed was an added charm. & the best part was the home delivery of almost anything we wanted.
Greenery to Soothe the Eyes
Srinagar offered Pari Mahal, Chashmashahi, and Hazratbal & Nishat Bagh to us. All those history lessons, all those story books, all those references in movies came back to me as I gaped openly at each of these places. & we finally found Kashmiri food that we loved. Ahdoos served us a wazwan that erased all the bad food experiences we’d endured till then in Kashmir.
Our sojourn to the beautiful valley was short and sweet, with a little bit of spice thrown in. Our cameras managed to pick up colors that we didn’t even know existed. We loved the kahwa but the dishes didn’t excite us much. We brought back blackberries, firans, jewelry, kahwa, ponchos, saffron, walnuts and walnut tarts. Yum!
Life on the Lake
The natural beauty and the salubrious weather makes it indeed a paradise, but when man interferes with paradise, it ceases to remain so…