Mesmerizing Kashmir in winter :
The over 400 years ago, Emperor Jahangir defining Kashmir had said:
“Gar firdaus bar-rue zamin ast, hami asto, hamin asto, hamin asto.” Meaning: “If there is a heaven on earth, it’s here, it’s here, it’s here.” Unsurprisingly this 17th century maxim continues to resonate with every single person who visits Kashmir, even today.
There is no thaw in the Weather but the Warmth in Kashmiri Hospitality is Inherent and Unmistakable.
Free Stay coupons at the most sought after property in Srinagar-Kashmir, serendipitously located close to Srinagar’s defining landmark – Dal Lake, “The Lalit Grand Palace” Hotel, (former palace of the Maharaja of Kashmir), is an irresistibly alluring call for anyone to come to the Valley in chilly winter season of 2018.
Staying riveted to the air-plane window, you watch fascinating snow clad Mountain Ranges stand resolutely, oblivious of the human tension prevailing in the valley.
The breathtaking view of these monstrous Alps, as they pass by, gives you a sense of what lies for you in the next four days in Kashmir.
It is mid-noon and Zuber the taxi driver is there at the Airport with his Innova. Passing from close to the iconic Dal Lake you see numerous house-boats floating on its one side. Mid-Lake, few Shikaras are rowing tourists over the, still unfrozen, Lake and the famous “Four Chinar Trees” standing on a small island in the background. Zuber suddenly turns right and you see your hotel Gate right in front.
This is a sprawling palatial property with ubiquitous leave-less Chinar and Pine trees all around. After check-in you proceed immediately for sightseeing Srinagar.
The first place Zuber takes you is the popular “Shankaracharya Temple” also known as Zyesteshwara temple or Sulaiman Thong or (Takht e Sulaiman) by Muslims and Pas Pahar by Buddhists. This Shiva Temple, consecrated in the 6th Century by sage Adi Shankaracharya is perched 1000 feet above the plain at Shankaracharya hill on the Zabarwan Mountain and can be reached climbing 250 steep steps. Walking around the temple, you are enthralled to see the picturesque view of the city.
Unfortunately due to security restrictions you cannot carry your camera or mobile along. So no pictures.
Next you visit “Shalimar Baugh”. After paying the entry fees of Rs. 24, you are a bit disheartened to watch the dry landscape of this otherwise beautiful Garden. Except for the decrepit Noorjehan Mahal there is really nothing much for you to see.
It is leaf-fall time in Kashmir. The autumn has mercilessly robbed the inherent flavor of these fabled gardens. Interestingly the Chinar & Pine trees, despite their naked branches, add artistic look to the landscape of the Valley.
State of “Nishat Garden” is no different. Equally barren and insipid although with some patches of green here and there as consolation.
5.30 pm, it’s getting dark and chilly. Back at your Hotel, justifiably dismayed, you have a peg of Rum followed by dinner before getting tucked in the warmth of a thick-white razai on the bed.
Gulmarg via Tangmarg
Next Morning Zuber is there to take you to Gulmarg. A beautiful hill station of Kashmir, situated at a distance of around 70 Kms.
Thirteen Kms before you reach your Gulmarg, is a place called Tangmarg. You can hire a pair of Snow Shoes and a Snow Coat @ Rs.200 per day. As you prepare to leave, you find yourself surrounded by locals who call themselves as guides. Arif joins as guide for the next two days @ Rs. 700 per day.
As you commence the climb up the mountain, spectacular beauty of Gulmarg begins to unfold. The effect of Snow-fall a day before is seen all over. Parts of the pine trees, the mountain slopes are all covered with white snow making the drive incredibly captivating.
Couple of short halts on the way helps your camera capture nature’s amazing splendor. Your excitement is ratcheted seeing a bunch of beautiful Snow Langoors crossing the road in front of the Car. As you point the lens towards them, they oblige you with interesting poses. The thirteen kms pass off in no time.
Its 2 pm. The weather is clear, so you feel it is propitious to experience the Gondola ride right away. The unpredictable weather at Gulmarg can change any time. Taking chance for the next day would hence be unwise.
At the Gondola base station, Arif helps in purchase the tickets. There are two levels (phase 1 & phase 2) where Gondola takes tourists. For the first level the ticket price is Rs 700 and for the second, it’s additional Rs. 900.
Kangdoori, the first station, is situated at the altitude of 3099 Mts (above Sea level) and is at a distance of 2,5 Kms from the base station. It takes for the cable car around 10 minutes to reach here.
Apharwat Peak, situated at the altitude of 3979 Mts., is the second Station. You will have to change platforms to catch another cable car that takes further 10 minutes to come here.
Presumably, skiing from Phase 2 to Phase 1 is the steepest and supposedly the most challenging slopes in the World. Veteran skiers love zipping down the ‘powder’ (‘Powder’ is the technical term used by skiers to describe fresh snowfall for its softness and fluffiness) snowy slopes on a pair of skis with amazing élan. If you are a beginner, try taking a shot at skiing on the ‘Piste’ (Piste is the existing groomed ski-path favored by beginners) that can push up your adrenaline to amazing heights.
Apharwat Peak is full of large swathes of Ice spread all around. Tourist activities are therefore happening only at the 1st phase.
As you alight at Kangdoori, the 1st Station, you are amazed to see the beauty of the wilderness around. The pristine expanse of snow with some abandoned shepherd houses is breathtaking. The mesmerizing scenery compels you to fall into love with your life still deeper.
As you trudge over the soft snow trying to explore the snowy expanse you see tourists play snowballs and snow fights. The atmosphere is filled with enjoyment. If you love adventure, pay Rs 2000 and go on an exciting Snow-Mobile ride deep into the icy desert. On return, they even allow you to drive the Snow-Mobile yourself, albeit only on a predestined stretch.
Back to the Base Station, soon you are at your astonishingly beautiful Hotel – ‘Khyber’. Surrounded by snow from all sides, ‘Khyber’ seems to be an ideal place to stay here during such frosty winters.
It’s getting dark and time to have a drink in your room and proceed for dinner before hitting the pillow.
Next day, both Arif and Zuber are at the Hotel to take you for sightseeing Gulmarg. (You have an option to hire an ATV ‘All Terrain Vehicle’ to go around the place.) Driving along the only road covered with white snow on its either sides, you pass from near the Skiing Institute, next to it is the huge Golf Course, covered with snow it has now been converted into a Skiing area for tourists.
Then you visit the cute Maharaja’s Palace constructed exclusively from Chinar Wood. With an entry fees of Rs 25, you can visit the inside of this palace. Close by is a strategically located view point, a vantage place from where you get a thrilling view of Gulmarg town including the popular Shiv Temple. The captivating shadow of the temple falling on surrounding white snow gives it a extra fabulous look.
Post lunch at a small restaurant in the main market you return back to your hotel.
Back to Srinagar
Following Day, after some amazing early morning pictures you get back to Srinagar. On the way you halt once again at Tangmarg to return the hired snow shoes and coat.
Hazrat Bal Dargah/Shrine
The majestic white marble dome structure – the revered “Hazrat Bal Dargah” situated on the left bank of the Dal lake is the first place of visit. Walking around the shrine you see an attractive Black Kite perched on one of its tree ready to take flight. Your camera with shutter speed adjusted to over 1000 does the rest.
Next you visit the Kashmir University entering through the Maulana Rumi Gate. Spread over many acres of land, it has separate buildings that cater to various educational faculties. At the center garden you see young couples sitting in cozy corners perhaps making plans for their future life together.
Back at the Lalit, you keep your bags and leave to visit two important places remaining in your itinerary; Chasmeshai and Pari Mahal. Though both the places look uncharacteristic of their fabled reputation, you are still able to see more greenery at Pari Mahal.
From the top platform of Pari Mahal, interesting landscape of Srinagar is revealed. There is a huge Palace of the once Maharaja of Kashmir, ‘Hari Singh’ at a distance and on the islet within Dal Lake are four Chinar Trees standing together. Attractive and agile birds keep flying frequently from one branch to another including one gorgeous ‘Yellow Billed Blue Magpie’ and few Mynas’.
As you return back to the hotel you are amazed thinking of the striking contrasts between the landscapes of Srinagar and Gulmarg, during this time of the winter. Even the hotel exterior with lights on in the evening looked amazing.
Sadly the killing of seven civilians, allegedly by Indian security forces near Phulwana on the same day, has engendered consternation on the faces of the locals. The disquiet is palpable. Resultantly, roads leading to the popular hill station – ‘Pahalgam’, are closed.
Next day, as you bid final “Vanakkam” to the Valley; driving back to the Airport with bag of pleasant memories, you are compelled to corroborate with the words of Emperor Jahangir and conclude “The Mesmerizing Magnificence of Kashmir is Indeed, Indeed, Indeed Indisputable”.