Kashmir: Paradise in every aspect

FOR most travellers, an early morning flight could be close to hell, but if the destination is a paradise called Kashmir, even the most stubborn late riser manages to get to the airport on time. I went one better and stayed up most of the night before for fear of missing the alarm I had set. Throughout the flight to Srinagar, I kept conjuring up the beauty of Kashmir from what I had read and watched in films. Images of Shammi Kapoor serenading a flower-girl portrayed by Sharmila Tagore in a Chikara on Dal Lake as he sang "Yeh chand sa roshan chehra..." in the film Kashmir ki Kali, as also Shashi Kapoor as a Kashmiri lad impressing his urban heroine in Jab Jab Phool Khile and the latest Shah Rukh Khan-Anushka Sharma starrer Jab Take Hai Jaan, shot in the valley, kept replaying in my mind. Kashmir certainly is a favourite haunt for not just tourists but also the film world and politicians.

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Our journey

A group of us were flying Vistara Airline, which recently started a daily service to Srinagar from Delhi and we didn't have to be part of the long queue at the check-in counter because there's a separate counter for Premium Economy class. We also had access to the Vistara lounge, which is elegantly fitted and equipped with business stations, wi-fi, a reading room and a VIP room. The airline's in-flight services as well as the food are really appreciable. Preparing to land around 8 am, we seemed to be surrounded by snow-capped mountains and the mesmerising view. As the plane spiralled down into Sri Nagar Valley promoted most of us on board to whip out cameras and capture the moment.  Stepping off the plane, the cool environs were a welcome relief from the blazing heat of Delhi we had left behind.

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Our stay

A 30-minute ride past colourful wooden houses, people in trademark loose apparel known as pheran, vibrant shops selling a variety of wares, VIP houses as well as under-construction roads took us to the hotel, Vivanta by Taj, our home for the next two days in Srinagar. The hotel is stunning in its picturesque location, surrounded by mountains and overlooking Dal Lake. Our talkative driver turned out to be a mine of information. Asked about the best places to visit, he cheerfully said we could enjoy the view of snow-capped mountains, and if this didn't  suit us then we could experience staying in a houseboat and taking a ride in the serene lake. Better still, he said, we could visit the beautiful gardens laid out by long gone Mughal emperors or head a little further to Gulmarg, the "pride of the valley", famous for its rolling velvety grassland with blooming flowers.

In the city

After a quick brunch at the hotel, we started out. A member of the team suggested a visit to Gulmarg as snow was expected there; and she was right. The driver also advised us to pick up
snow jackets and boots from one of the shops. Some 55 km from Srinagar, Gulmarg is situated at a height of 2.650 feet and during our two-hour drive we passed several shanty shops, small villages, houses and lush green fields. The quaint, colourful houses in paddy fields were amazing and I couldn't help wishing I could inhabit one of these. Finally, we reached our destination, perched on a green mound made famous by the film song "Jai Jai Shiv Shankar... picturised on a tipsy Rajesh Khanna and Mumtaz. Situated at the western end of Himalavas in the Pir Panjal range, Gulmarg is surrounded  by alpine forests and meadows and houses Asia's highest cable car system. Around 2 pm we got to the point from where the cable car starts and the place was overcrowded with tourists from all over the country. There were a number of pony owners who beckoned us but we finally managed to board a Gandola, as the cable car is known here. The ride quickly took us to a height of 8,530 feet to the Kongdoori station, where we encountered visitors taking selfies, singing, jumping around and throwing snowballs at each other. Vendors added to the merry confusion as the chanted, "Chai, coffee, boiled egg kahwah" The next stage of the ride took us to a height of 12.293 feet and on to Kongdoori mountain. Stepping out of the cable car, we were greeted by a gust of snow and the sea of white as far as the eye could see, provided a great photo opportunity.

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When we got back to Srinagar, it was a dinner time and with Kashmiri cuisine on everybody's mind, we made it to Adhoos, the most popular eatery in the city. We gorged on Gustaba, Rogan Josh, Rista and Tabak Maas, to name a few of the delicacies. We saved the next morning for an early shikara ride in Dal Lake to experience the famous floating vegetable, fruit and flower market. With a circumference of 26 km, this is one of the biggest lakes in India and in Srinagar it has a monumental significance. Trust me, there is different world in and around Dal Lake that will surprise a visitor. There are houseboats, shops and restaurants on boats that tourists can hop on to and off. Locals clad in pherens sell vegetables, flowers, eatables and beverages. Our shikara boatman told us that this market was not just a tourist attraction but a regular affair that supplied local people with their daily needs.

No trip is complete without a visit to a temple or a shrine, so our next halt was Shankaracharya Temple, situated atop a hill of the same name. We had to climb more than 200 steps to get there, but it was worth the effort. Even if one is not religious, the place does hold one's interest because it affords a panoramic view of all of Srinagar - its bridges, wooden houses with tin roofs, a cricket ground and a golf course. We then visited Hazrathal, the biggest and holiest shrine in the city. This beautiful white structure of Islamic architecture is believed to house a holy box with a strand of the Prophet Mohammed's hair. When in Kashmir, it is hard to miss its many gardens, but we managed to visit only one - Shalimar Bagh. And it was really awesome. Our trip ended at Lal Chowk, the heart of the city, where one can pick up a range of handicraft articles. Leaving the place, we couldn't resist chanting. 'Agar firdaus ba ruay Tami ast, am asto. am asto, ami asto' (If there be paradise on carth. it is bere, It is here. it is here!).

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