Wednesday, 1 July 2015

It’s Easy To Fall In Love With Srinagar!

I had no idea I’d love Srinagar so much! I thought it would merely be a doorway to explore the other places of Kashmir. But, I found Srinagar absolutely charming. It has its own quirks and nuances that I began discovering right from day one. Some people may get exasperated by the usual bustle of shops and vehicles, but there’s a calm side to Srinagar that remains unruffled.  

My sightseeing in Srinagar was more about knowing its people and observing their traditional way of living. I chose to skip the Mughal gardens, for I knew I wouldn’t gain anything there. What I wanted to discover about Srinagar was there on the streets, in the market alleys and in the little pleasantries that I exchanged with the locals. 

Dal Lake, Srinagar

I’m happy to share some of my best experiences in Srinagar –

The ‘lush’ boulevard walk

There’s a sophisticated air to Srinagar, which you get acquainted to as you walk along the Boulevard road. It’s a long tree-lined street that has quite a few security guards posted, for it’s a ‘high society’ area. If you keep going further ahead, there’s chief minister’s residence that you will pass by. But, that’s not so important. What I loved about the Boulevard road is the lushness of trees, golf course, the apple orchards and the fresh aroma they exuded.

The Boulevard Road 

Spotting bakeries everywhere

I am a big confectionery lover and Srinagar has quite an eminent bakery culture. So, there couldn’t be an easier way to woo me. I couldn’t resist the temptation of noshing on the traditional plum cakes that Kashmiris enjoy with tea. (I’ll write a separate post on the food in Kashmir)

Bakery culture of Srinagar

Sneaking in to a cherry farm

Devouring cherries right from a cherry tree was the best thing I did in Kashmir. It was my guest house manager, who suggested that I should visit his farmhouse in the outskirt of Srinagar. I’m glad I accepted his invitation! Though the farmhouse was in a rundown state, the cherries were in full bloom. And yes, they were delicious.

If that was not enough, I also had a chance to sneak into a big cherry farm, where they grow cherries for the market. The caretaker allowed me to take pictures and also dumped a huge bunch of cherries in my hand.

A Cherry Farm near Srinagar
It's a farm managed by the horticulture department of Kashmir.
A private farm house of New World Guest House 

My ‘solo’ Shikara ride

Dal Lake turned out to be much bigger than my imagination and it captivated me in an instant, though I was a bit let down by the cemented pavement that they have built. But, I have to say that despite the commercialisation around the lake, it has its charisma intact.

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to take the ‘classic’ Shikara ride. I kept brushing aside the Shikara riders until one day, one of them managed to convince me. He charged me way (INR 300) less than what is usually charged (INR 500). Forget about the rate though, for the Shikara ride was a blissful experience. I highly recommend it to anybody going to Srinagar.

Apparently, everybody around was amused to see me taking the ride alone. But, I felt like a queen and I just savoured the moment. 

Shopping on Shikara
Can you resist taking a ride?

Conversations with Kashmiris

The most enriching aspect of my journey in Srinagar was my conversations with Kashmiris. From quick chit-chats to endless tête-à-têtes, I had interactions with quite a lot of people. Most people were happy to see me in Srinagar. They were delighted about the fact that someone really cared to know them.

The usual words I got to hear in Srinagar were ‘aram se’ (sure) and ‘koi baat nahi’ (no problem).

A conversation over a cup of tea
... few conversations just go on
Shops on Dal Lake

The ‘Purdah’ auto rides

My everyday auto rides were also quite an experience. The autos in Srinagar have doors and curtains. Though I knew it’s something to do with tradition, I still asked an auto guy about the purpose of a door. He explained it to me very sweetly that it was meant to keep dust away and also to protect women from unwanted attention. Well, I simply smiled about it because I hadn’t seen such a provision anywhere else in India.

One of the scenic corners of Srinagar

Pari Mahal for city views

If there’s any place from where you can grasp the entire city of Srinagar through your eyes, it’s the top of Pari Mahal. Besides being a great vantage point, Pari Mahal is a lovely place to chill out, romance and watch the sun set (if there are no clouds, of course).

But, it’s not very economical to reach there. The auto guys charge a whopping fee (INR 500) for a return drive. As a solo traveller, it was a bit expensive for me.

Pari Mahal

What do you have to say? Is Srinagar the kind of city you’d love to visit?

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Friday, 26 June 2015

My Experience Of Travelling Alone In KASHMIR

People still have a sense of fear for Kashmir. The epic floods of September 2014 just added to the ‘terror’ that’s associated with this ill-fated land. But, I’d like to tell everybody that going to Kashmir has been my best decision as a traveller. So did I find it safe as a woman solo traveller? Yes, absolutely safe. In fact, it is much more comfortable for a woman to travel alone in Kashmir than anywhere else.

It’s time to break myths about Kashmir. I wouldn’t say that you shouldn’t be careful here and assume that everything is hunky-dory, but you can certainly feel normal just the way you feel in your own city.

My preconceived notions

When I started out with my journey in Srinagar (the capital of Kashmir), I had my preconceived notions about it. I thought maybe I’d need a local to accompany me everywhere, because it wouldn’t be safe to wander alone with a bulky camera hung around my neck. Thankfully, my notions disappeared on their own as I began to know the ‘true’ Kashmir and its people.

Wandering alone in Srinagar

I felt as normal and safe wandering in Srinagar as I feel in my own city or anywhere else in India. Yes, some people were amused to see me roaming alone and taking pictures, but they were helpful and appreciative of what I was doing. In fact, I also went to the old city of Srinagar where you don’t find many tourists, and even that was not a problem. Strangely though, there was a man, who passed by on a bike giving me a hateful look and uttering something to shoo me away! I was exasperated by it, but the friendliness, affection and support that I received from everybody else superseded that one instance.

I could have refrained from sharing this particular incidence here on my blog, but the reason why I felt the need to write about it too, because I don’t want to talk about just the good stuff. That said, I’d like to stress on the fact that no destination should be judged on the basis of a few idiots that you come across.
Should a foreign girl travel alone in Kashmir?

Yes, of course! I met a young woman from Taiwan who was also travelling alone in Kashmir. She joined me on my expeditions to Sonmarg and Gulmarg. She seemed to be pretty comfortable on her own. There was one incidence though, that proved that our Indian men treat foreign women differently. In Sonmarg, one man came up to my Taiwanese friend (while I was busy snapping photos) and asked her, “Do you need a guy? I’ll take you to places.” Thankfully, the Taiwanese damsel was cold towards his proposal and he left her alone. But, I was shocked for a while. I told her to be more careful and not to mingle with just about anybody.

I have to say that some Indian men do act weird with the white-skinned females. Perhaps they presume that these women are easily available. Anyway, all I want to tell women travellers from across the globe is that if you are coming to India alone, just be well-researched and take help from reliable sources – tourism boards and homestay owners. Besides, it was just one trivial incidence, which can happen anywhere in the world with any woman.

Staying with a typical Kashmiri family

I had the privilege of staying with a Kashmiri Muslim family in Srinagar for the first half of my trip. I call it a privilege because when you stay with a local family, you get offhand tips and insights on their city, which is far more valuable than travel brochures. It’s a relatively new guest house named New World Guest House, which is located in a residential colony near Dal Lake. The manager, Tariq is quite a helpful chap who ensures that his guests are well taken care of. His family also stays in the same guest house on the ground floor. So, you have a chance to interact with them as well.

Being a woman solo traveller, I felt absolutely at home under the care of this Kashmiri family. They were hospitable, warm and respectful. And, the best part was that my stay at New World Guest House cost me just INR 600 per night. My room was reasonably clean and comfy. I would say it was a good deal!

I have much more to write about my solo travel experiences in Kashmir, but that would take pages! There were people who called me their daughter, sister… and bestowed so much of love upon me that it’s hard for me to weave all of that into words.

Would you visit Kashmir alone?

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Friday, 19 June 2015

The Unsung Valleys Of Kashmir

KASHMIR was a dream. But now I can happily say that I have been there! Also, I can confidently say that it’s not just a land of beauty, but a land of tradition and goodness as well. In fact, what we know about Kashmir is very little. It’s a world in itself. Everything from its landscapes to the way people dress, behave and live is totally different from what you would possibly find in the rest of India.

Before I even set foot in Kashmir, I had decided that I wanted to visit Gurez and Tulail valleys in Northern Kashmir that are still not so known to regular tourists. The flipside is that you can easily get shared taxis for popular destinations like Sonmarg, Gulmarg and Pahalgam, but apparently there’s no affordable option available to travel to offbeat places of Kashmir. But I guess in the days to come, J&K Tourism would come up with a solution for budget travellers also.


So how did I manage to travel to Gurez and Tulail Valleys? Well, I got in touch with J&K Tourism and they were kind enough to arrange everything for me.

Just a word of caution – the roads leading to Gurez are still under construction, so it takes more than seven hours to reach there. But, once you are there and you start heading towards Tulail Valley and the many hidden villages ahead, you would want to spend at least a week amidst the ‘unsung’ valleys. The beauty of these valleys grows on you.

Here’s what I loved about Tulail Valley –

Unusual landscapes

The landscapes of Tulail Valley are diverse – there are mountains with dense Fir trees, snow-clad peaks and then some of them are brown and rugged, too. You will see different shades of green painted on the hills.

The sprinkling of wild yellow flowers on the grass

I think the prettiest sight that I came across in Tulail and Gurez was of the wild yellow flowers on the grasses everywhere. The little flowers looked like stars resting on the grass – so ordinary, yet so exquisite. 

The cute log huts    

It’s wood all over the place in Gurez and Tulail Valleys. People live in cute log huts that usually have tin roofs. Interestingly, the Gilgit valley of Pakistan also has the same log huts. So, you know you aren’t too far from the border when you are exploring Tulail Valley of Kashmir.

The Sheena folks of Niru village

I hadn’t had breakfast that morning, for the graciousness of Ghulam and his daughter Hanifa was in store for me. I was invited for tea and I quickly said a ‘yes’. For me, it was just an excuse to spend a few memorable moments with these simple village folks, but I didn’t know they would prepare a breakfast platter for me in no time!

These people speak Sheena, which sounds quite different from the Kashmiri that’s spoken in Srinagar. Even the little girls cover their heads with well-stitched Hijabs (scarf).

There are many aspects of Gurez and Tulail Valleys that I must have missed, which I would like to discover on my next trip.

Practical Information: Gurez Valley is 123 km from Srinagar and 86 km from Bandipore in Northern Kashmir. Since the area is close to the border, there are quite a few check posts throughout the valley and you are required to show your ID and address proof.

Accommodation: You can stay in the J&K Tourism guest house in Gurez, from where you can head to Tulail valley, which is 20 km away.

Note: My Gurez trip was in partnership with J&K Tourism, but all opinions, as always, are my own.

Are you keen to explore the offbeat Kashmir?

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Monday, 8 June 2015

20 Stunning Photos Of Sonmarg

Although my lens could not do justice to its sublime beauty, I have tried my best to bring to you SONMARG – the golden valley of Kashmir the way I saw it. I wouldn’t want to write much… because no words can express what I felt. I would just say that it was my closest rendezvous with the mountains to date.

Enjoy the splendour called Sonmarg – 

So when are you going to Sonmarg?

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