Jammu and Kashmir is a land of several valleys. These beautiful valleys reside within the network of numerous swift flowing rivers enclosed by lofty white mountains. The snow capped mountains with the green meadows of chinars, willows, junipers, blue-pines, spruces, firs; the blue waters of the streams and lakes; the vibrant, fragrant roses all together spreads the aura of bliss everywhere. “Agar firdaus bar ru-ye zamin ast, Hamin ast o hamin ast o hamin ast” – Amir Khusrau. (If there is a paradise on earth, It is this, it is this, it is this.) Kashmir so aptly described by the famous Sufi poet.
Jammu and Kashmir provide multiple opportunities for exploring it. Ours was primarily of the religious type. The rest was some sort of buy one get one free offer. With my parents’ absolute longing, we were here to visit the revered Mata Vaishno Devi. Just like “if winter comes, can spring be far behind?” – P. B. Shelley. So is – if Katra is near, can Srinagar be far behind. After completion of our religious rites we were on the Jammu – Srinagar Highway. Our much-anticipated enthusiasm of the initial phase of the journey died soon, as we meandered through the dusty roads. The traffic was interrupted every now and then by the group of nomads traveling with their herd of livestock. Sometimes it was the roadways work, which left a single lane to traverse. While the rest of the times it were the army convoy moving on a priority basis. All the causes were honest. But we, the passengers of the stranded vehicles had a really tough time to cope up with these true reasons. The dust, the scorching sun and the unbearable heat dried up all our excitement as well as our energy.
After a prolonged period of struggle on the hot and grime roads, green Patnitop came as a respite. Then again interruption came in the form of our non-cooperative driver. He made it clear so that we do not spend much time to relax and refresh. We hurriedly covered the parks and the Nag temple here and we were on the highway again. He clarified that with such traffic situation we have to rush. Else we will be very late to reach Pahalgam. We gently abided. Then again the same scenario. The worst condition was at Jawahar Tunnel in Banihal Pass. Being a sensitive region of high importance, the tunnel is heavily guarded by the military, round the clock. We got stranded here, in a long queue, for more than an hour. Our driver was out to arrange for the permits of the vehicle. It was already dark and the clouds were in a mood of the gala performance. Thundershower and heavy rain accompanied by hailstorm continued for some time. We were helplessly locked within the car, sweltering. While the weather god was playing Tandava, outside.
After a long wait and the permits done, we were on the way again. The heavy showers made the mountain roads dangerous. The visibility was also deterred. Even the screen wipers were unable to cope up with this unwieldy flow. After a long drive through the winding roads and reaching some unknown place on the other side of the hill. The tired clouds were on their threshold of retirement, carried on draining its store of water, although in a much slower pace. By then it was already very late, with all shops and stores closed for the day. We reached Pahalgam with the Lider river accompanying us flowing by the road. We were made to rest in a small hotel of our driver’s choice. With an unwilling driver and a late timing we had no other option but to retire in this small, cosy, log cabin of the hotel.
The view was spectacular with the crystal blue sky in the backdrop of the towering ranges residing amidst the vibrancy of the deodar, fir and pines. While the Lider river playfully winded by. I was totally smitten by the serene view from the old Mammal Shiv temple. The valley of Pahalgam was visible from here. The snow capped peaks seemed even closer and the green surrounding even brighter. We were unfortunate to have the deer park near the river, closed for the day. The Betaab valley, named after the Hindi movie Betaab was an impeccable painting of God. Even the flappable crowd could not alter the composure of this haven. It was a woodland of willow, apricot, deodar and pine in the meadow by the stream. While the Aru valley provided a narrow cramped entrance. There was a lot to explore. With my mother feeling sick, we could not take a walk in the wilderness. The Baisaran Vally had limited scope to explore as the only mode of transportation is through horses. We decided to give it a miss.
Being on the roads was not a pleasurable experience in our trip this time. Pampore, famous for the Saffron fields provided us a Kahwah (a Kashmiri green tea preparation) break. We joined the group of people, crazily purchasing Saffron, Walnuts, Almonds and other dry fruits. Again after a mundane drive we reached Srinagar. With no prior booking for hotels in Srinagar, we were again at the whims of our non-cooperative driver. He gave up a couple of options for hotels of his choice. He was rude and unwilling to let us choose our own. We made the payment in advance and booked the vehicle from Katra. So there was no other alternative for another vehicle. We had to reluctantly settle in a shabby old hotel for the next few days. Srinagar is located on the banks of the Jhelum, with its main hub by the Dal Lake. The city is too ‘Touristy’, with the streets huddled up with hotels, restaurants, souvenirs and handicraft stores.
I was missing the picture of Srinagar that I painted in my imagination, listening to my father’s stories. The roads were flooded with tourists. The walkway by the Dal Lake was more of a fair like situation. The only relief after these disturbing moments was the guided tour of a fruit garden provided to us by an employee of a roadside food stall, on our way to Gulmarg. He was a teenaged boy with a pinkish fair complexion, wearing a warm smile. We did see the ripe strawberries, the young pears and apple flowers, the almonds and apricots too. The most exciting part was blowing a Dandelion bloom. He even guided us the right way to do so. Interestingly silly, right?
Gulmarg with its literal meaning of Meadow of Flower gave us a distressing memory. The snow-clad mountains were dressed up in the gloominess of clouds. The snowy cliffs were close enough, separated by a vast undulated grassland. The pleasant view in the backdrop had a chaotic, overly crowded car parking and horse shed. Our impudent driver hurriedly dropped us and moved off. Now our experience became even more harrowing. A group of horse-keepers fenced us, offering us their prices for the horse ride. We were neither interested nor comfortable or prepared for the horse ride. Even after we refused multiple times, they got themselves glued to us, nagging and following us. There were horses all around. It was a lawless situation with hordes of people everywhere. Herds of horses with their riders pushing us aside to make way. In this disorganised scenario, by some means, we managed to reach the meadows. The horse-keepers still following. We could not reach the point of the gondola service. It was far from the place we were dropped from the car. We managed to climb the ancient Shiva temple. Then the rain started, keeping us stranded there for a long. Haggard and disheartened we returned to the parking. Finding our car in this chaos was yet another moment of anguish, with our barred prepaid cellular services in the State.
While on our way back, we visited the Kheer Bhawani Temple. The location of the Temple eased our turmoil. This temple of lesser tourist fame attracted less crowd. It was a relief in the sprawling premises of the temple courtyard. The large Chinar trees (local name Boonyi, symbol of Goddess Bhawani) enclosing the campus provided us the umbrella of its green foliage, to relax and unwind. The road trip to Sonmarg was much different and pleasing from the rest. The road kept winding along with the Sind river within the greenery. The same road leads to Leh. After a few kilometers of ascent, we came across glaciers as if sliding down through the slopes to meet the river. We moved on through the enticing sights to reach Sonmarg. Again the beautiful snow covered peaks formed the backdrop of the uncontrolled mess of vehicles, horses and peoples.
The famous gardens of Srinagar – Shalimar Bagh, Nishat Bagh, Chashme-Shahi, Achabal Garden and many more offers the splendid view of the various gaudy, vibrant blooms, in front of the lofty mountain ranges. The aromatic multi-coloured roses with its vibrant companions of Lotus, Water Lily, Daffodils, Dahlia, Jasmine and many unknown, filled the fields with its glorious hues. There were even age-old Chinars with huge girths, standing tall bearing the burns of the history. Still strong and high to tell the story of the past. The Tulip season was over and we did miss the spectacular Tulip Garden. The gardens were of no exception, they too were overcrowded. The ancient Shankaracharya Temple on the top of the hill provided the view of the scenic Srinagar city with its famous lakes and rivers. The forest around the temple houses a variety of floral species. Climbing the stairs within the forest to reach the temple was a kind of nature walk. The pristine white shrine of Hazratbal offers a majestic view of its white marble structure getting reflected in the waters of the lake and the mountain beyond the Nishat Bagh, on the opposite.
It was the first time we experienced some solitude in Srinagar. Early morning boating at Dal Lake. With the cool morning breeze blowing across our faces, our Shikara was floating on the placid green waters. There were houseboats lined up on the other side. While the morning business was on for the lake dwellers. Some rowing to school and college, some selling flowers, some clearing the underwater moss and weeds. The Rupa Lanka (Silver Island), marked its presence with majestic Chinar trees on the four corners, giving it a name of Char-Chinari. The Nehru Park was on one side of the lake. Our middle-aged boatman was talking about the hardship of life in the troubled times. He is content now, with lots of tourists coming every year and thus providing them a source of income for livelihood. He prays things to go well in the same way. He kept on rowing the boat as we moved on. Now through the narrow passage with the vegetable garden on one side and the Meena Bazaar on the other side. A couple of children helping their father to load the boat with the harvest from the garden. A boat laden with flowers approached the nearby Houseboat for selling fresh, vibrant blooms. The boatmen of the floating market were preparing their items and gears to entice their customers. From transportation to business, water formed the lifeline of the dwellers here. It was altogether a different reality. The splashing sound of the water created by the dipping oars ceased, our boat trip came to an end and we were on the banks of the lake. This was the most remarkable memory of Srinagar, that I will treasure.
With the sun rising high, the inflow of tourist increased. In a moment, this peaceful laid back life in the waters transformed into a noisy hub. I have always preferred trips to isolated places. But this time, it was so different. Even within this astonishing nature, I was longing for tranquility. Although sailing through the gentle waters of the Dal Lake erased all my complaints against Srinagar. I was not very happy to see so much crowd. But more tourist brings more business and thus flourishes the region with economic stability. With the troubled socio-political situation, the government has taken many steps to keep the youths engaged. The scope of employment is provided through the multiple options of horse riding and mandatory separate vehicle services in all the tourist destinations in Kashmir. Things had been good to the locals since then. From the travelers point of view, things would have been better if done in a more organised way. After all the troubled times in this region, people had seen a ray of hope, with an increase in tourism. While bidding adieu I prayed for more development, betterment and peace in this ‘Paradise on Earth’.