It’s 4am in the morning, and minus-4 degrees outside. We open the door to the balcony just an inch, and peep out of our hotel room. We want to see the view one last time. The carpet of snow stretched for miles; and the pine trees — dark, ancient green — in the distance, defiant of the cold, moving only to brush the snow off their shoulders now and then. It’s still night outside. Stars-in-the-sky kind of night; not the sort we get to see from our city windows. We can’t see the pines, but we can imagine them. We know where they will be. Where we’d see them if we didn’t have to leave Gulmarg at 4am.
You see, a few days before we’re to depart for Srinagar, we learn Prime Minister Narendra Modi is visiting around the same time. Our well-meaning friends who’d been saying, ‘Is Kashmir worth it? You never know what happens there’ issued a fresh round of warnings. But we’d been planning this for months, and nothing was going to stop us. Guess we have that in common with the PM: We like to travel.
Four days into our Kashmir trip, and one day after Mr Modi’s address, we hear of unrest on the road from Gulmarg to Srinagar. “Leave early, and don’t enter Srinagar” is the express advice. So that’s what we do. In the quiet of pre-dawn, we race through the picturesque valley, the winding roads where we’d seen snow on our way up, the quaint little town of Tangmarg, and the apple orchard where we’d stopped earlier. Five hours later, we’re in Pahalgam.
We change our plans. We spend the night at a briskly bargained hotel room in Pahalgam. When we do return to Srinagar, the army presence seems to have multiplied. “Don’t go towards Old City,” we’re told. And then, a day later, things are back to normal again. The bazaars are open, there are tourists out and about, bakeries open with that lovely smell only bakeries can have. It’s life as usual, as if the past two days didn’t happen.
So, is Kashmir worth it? Of course it is. It’s a place where both popular perceptions hold true: it is paradisiacal. And it is, at times, shrouded in fear. So keep an eye on the news, keep your plans flexible. And check the PM’s schedule before you go.
Touristy activities in Kashmir have as much charm as those off-the-beaten-path. We suggest a mix of both.
Shikara ride on the Dal: The city is wrapped around the serene Dal. And a shikara ride on its waters is a must. Sit back and take in the city, the humbling, misty mountains and the floating markets. Pick up a snack of onion pakodas mid-water from the floating stalls.
Visit the gardens: Ancient Chinar trees, their leaves fiery red in autumn, and flowers so outrageously big and colourful, you’d think someone dreamt them up. The gardens of Srinagar — especially Nishat Bagh and Shalimar Bagh — can rival the prettiest ones in the world.
Explore the neighbourhood: Pick a narrow alley around Dalgate market and dive in. If you enjoy looking at old houses and the way people live, these labyrinths won’t disappoint. Exposed brick structures with wooden roofs and windows, some dilapidated, provide a glimpse at the hidden heart of the city.
Eat Kashmiri wazwan: If you’re brave enough to attempt the full wazwan (a meat-heavy meal with at least 15 courses), we suggest you skip breakfast. Those with more ordinary appetites can pick dishes. The Lahabi Kebab (flattened mutton kebabs in gravy), Rista (meatballs in red curry) and Gustaba (meatballs again, but in a yogurt gravy) are all must-haves, even if not in the same meal. Ahdoos, on Residency Road, is highly recommended. But try the quaint Linz Café down the road to eat alongside locals.
Try local breakfast options: We wander into a local bakery, and ask the price of a kulcha — it’s hard, crumbly and closer to a cookie than a bread. “Sixty rupees,” we’re told. That’s expensive, we think, only to figure that’s the price of a kilo. Buy some in the morning to go with your tea. Another breakfast dish, available only in winter, is the Harissa. The pounded meat dish reminds us of the Hyderabadi Haleem. It’s so heavy, it could suffice as your only meal for the day.
Gondola ride: Few sights match what you see suspended from steel wires, with imposing pines to both sides. The cable car up to Kongdoor (stage one; Rs 600) and then to Afarwat peak (stage two; Rs 800) look straight out of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).
Visit an apple orchard: Look for apple trees on your drive to, or from, Gulmarg. Ask nicely and you’ll be let in for free. Just don’t be the annoying tourist who wants to pluck the fruits.
Betaab valley: Remember the 1983 love story, Betaab, starring a young Sunny Deol and Amrita Singh? Deol may be past his heyday, but this magnificent green valley, with a stream running through it, continues to be popular. Walk around, click #nofilter photos for Instagram, even as you wonder what the valley was called before they made the film.
Trek to Sonamarg: For those not faint of heart, or glutes, the five-day trek is an option worth considering. It starts from Chandanwari (the Amarnath Yatra also begins here), goes alongside River Lidder, with the highlight being the Kalohi glacier.