Trekking, trout fishing and whitewater rafting are the most popular summer activities in the valley
Long strolls along the Lidder River or horse rides to the forested area
Chashme Shahi Bagh, Nishat Bagh, Hazratbal Dargah, the Tulip Garden and Shankaracharya Temple
Don’t forget to visit Bobby Hut in Pahalgam, where the blockbuster song Hum Tum Ek Kamre Mein featuring Rishi Kapoor and Dimple Kapadia from the movie Bobby was shot
If you are a fish lover, head straight to the Troutbeat café
Relish delicious Kashmiri and north Indian food at Volga Restaurant
Emergency contact numbers :
Police Control Room: 100
J&K Police Head Quarters Exchange: +91-194-2443022/23
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Updated on February 09, 2015
“Idhar tourist log ko koi choo bhi nahi sakta”
(No one can even lay a finger on a tourist here)
These were the first words our driver uttered after we exchanged courtesies outside the airport and were now comfortably seated in a Tavera.
Because till that moment, my wife and I were, like most uninformed tourists, a tad apprehensive about Kashmir. Thanks to the media, the first image Kashmir conjured was of the rampant militancy. We hadn't heard of the legendary tehzeeb (refinement) of Kashmiri locals, nor the fact that militancy was all but finished in the valley. Then again, we were uninformed tourists.
Yet, our driver, “Aashiq” (yes we too smiled at the name!) was comforting us to the point of cynicism. Anyway, my wife and I checked in to our modest hotel overlooking the quiet and beautiful Dal Lake and spent the day absorbing gorgeous views and formulating defence strategies should we land in to any trouble.
Let me take you through the rest of my trip and leave it to you to decide how proactive or pessimistic we were.
Day 1: Gulmarg
For the uninitiated, Gulmarg, about 70 kilometres from Srinagar is a world-famous skiing destination and also attracts tourists for its famed gondola ride. A ropeway cable car takes you at an altitude of over 13,000 feet for stunning views and endless snow for as far as the eye can see.
The cable car has two pit stops, one at Kungdoor and then at Aparwath. A two-way ticket to Kungdoor costs Rs. 600 and if you want to visit the second phase too, the total price comes out to Rs. 1400. But do remember to buy the tickets online. After we reached the parking lot, we walked for about 600 metres to the ticket counter only to face long queues.
Depending on the time of year, the line to board the cable car can be anywhere from twenty minutes to two hours long, but it is worth the wait. We rented snow boots (two pairs for Rs. 100), waited for approximately 30 minutes to board the Gondola and reached phase Aparwath directly (Kungdoor was covered on our ride back).
Since words won’t do justice to what I saw, here’s an image:
FYI, the Pakistan border is a short 30-minute trek from Aparwath which explains the huge number of army bunkers in the unrelenting cold here. Having spent an hour rolling, falling, laying, jumping, clicking and freezing in the snow, we descended to Kungdoor, which honestly fails to charm you after the spectacular views at Aparwath. We nevertheless stopped there for delicious but costly mutton biryani and tea. As is typical with Gulmarg, the pleasant weather suddenly changed to wind and snow and we quickly came back to the base.
If I’m to handpick unsafe or unpleasant things today, I have nothing besides the pestering pony-wallahs and long queues. As for the cable car ride, it is a safe and comfortable engineering marvel and there are medical camps at each phase to attend to cold bodies, numb limbs, breathing problems or frost bites. On our way back to Srinagar, we were inexplicably happy and smirking just by recalling the sight that Gulmarg was.
Day 2: Pahalgam and Betab Valley
After devouring an omelette and delicious tea for breakfast, we set out with Aashiq to see Pahalgam and Betab Valley.
Pahalgam, in Anantnag, is a hill station on the banks of Lidder River and attracts millions of tourists and pilgrims for the Amarnath Yatra each year. We took about three hours to cover the 100 kilometres stretch which became greener, colder and more beautiful with each kilometre. Having relished the scenic beauty of Pahalgam over some Kashmiri pulao and hot tea, we went 15 kilometres further to Betab Valley. Imagine the most beautiful park you’ve been to, multiply its beauty tenfold, add a fresh water rivulet and surround it with verdant hills, and you will be able to picture the beauty that Betab Valley is!
We bought the Rs. 10 ticket to enter the fenced valley and spent two hours in spellbinding ecstasy. The water in the stream was too cold to dip our feet in to for longer than ten seconds so we just sat by on the bed of pebbles and looked around. Sitting by the stream, lazing on the trimmed grass, standing at the bridge, straining our necks to look at the imposing hills in a childish awe and hearing the chirping birds…it couldn’t have been more peaceful and romantic. We also visited the snow-capped Chandanwari (5 kilometres from Betab) but it was not comparable to the splendid views of Gulmarg.
There was but one unpleasant thing about Betab Valley. Beyond a check-point, you are not allowed to take your hired transport. You have to, as a compulsion, rent the prepaid vehicles provided by the local transport association. While the rates weren’t too exorbitant (Rs. 650 for a Maruti van), it clearly wasn’t necessary or probably even legal.
We also visited local attractions like Chashme Shahi Bagh, Nishat Bagh, Hazratbal Dargah, the Tulip Garden and Shankaracharya Temple. Actually, there’s a lot more we did.
We stayed in a houseboat, toured Dal Lake for over two hours in a shikara after sunset, went for a stroll by the Dal Lake at 11 in the night, heard stories from soldiers, interacted with locals over Kashmiri kahwa and hookah, ate Wazwan and delicious kebabs in a downtown restaurant, shopped at Lal Chowk, bought alcohol from a local shop, crossed the notorious park where the recent shootout happened, interacted with shepherds and womenfolk from villages near the border, and went to three mosques. And all this while, we couldn’t worry any less about our safety and security.
Clockwise from bottom right: Tulip Garden during the Festival; Mughal Garden; living room of our houseboat; Kashmiri Wazwan
Everyone we met seemed to echo Aashiq’s words (Idhar tourist log ko koi choo bhi nahi sakta) in their own way. I believe they were keen to re-establish Kashmir as a peaceful and tourist-friendly destination.
For me, they succeeded. Now I know how safe is Kashmir for tourists. For you; why don’t you go to Kashmir and find out.