Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Kashmir Log 3

Click here for Kashmir Log 1 and here for Kahmir Log 2.

We start early as usual. Sonamarg is in Ganderbal district, about 96 kilometres from Srinagar. The weather is pleasant today. It is not hot, and there is an occasional drizzle. While exiting Srinagar, we drive along the periphery of the Dal Lake for a long time. It looks misty in the early morning. At places, I notice children waiting for their school buses, the vast expanse of the lake right in front of them. Unlike children in most parts of India who enjoy holidays in the summer, Kashmiri children have their vacation for three months in the winter. A little later, our leader points out the tall golden tower of the Hazratbal Mosque in the distance.

It is a lovely drive, wonderful vistas of the valley unfolding before me from the large windows of my bus. We cross a vibrant river and are told it is Sind, a major tributary of the Jhelum. We also pass by a town called Kangan. Then we stop at Mammar for a tea break. This location is not crowded at all. In fact, we seem to be the only ones there. The place is simply out of this world! The river Sind is gushing energetically right by the restaurant. All of us forget about the tea and rush to the river. There is a mild drizzle. All the cameras come out and people start posing, trying to capture the magic of the moment. The force, energy and speed with which rivers in Kashmir flow is amazing. If I had to compare this river to a person, I would call it vivacious. Our leaders summon us for tea. Some of us request them to stop at this place again on our way back.

On reaching Sonamarg, we get into smaller vehicles for touring the neighbouring areas. We are going towards Baltal, the base camp for the Amarnath Yatra* that is to begin in a few days. This route is shorter and harder than the Chandanwari route. As we drive on an elevated road, our driver points to a small hamlet in the valley below and says, "That is Sarbal, the last village in Kashmir". Further ahead, neatly laid out army tents appear in the valley. The army personnel are here to prepare for and conduct the annual Yatra that thousands of people undertake every year. This is Baltal. Many more tents are to come up here later this month when devotees will begin their arduous trek towards the holy cave from this camp. "It is only about 16 kilometres from this point, behind those mountains", our driver informs us. But how difficult every step in those 16 kilometres must be, we think, feeling elated on having come so close to the revered place.

Later, we retrace our path to stop at Bajri Nala, a snow point where tourists are busy getting their pictures taken against the snowy background. Little ahead, a snow crushing vehicle is at work, crushing and clearing snow from the roadsides.

The next stop is at Fish Tank. This place looks like a popular picnic spot. It is filled with tourists, local families and groups of school children.  A tranquil lake surrounded by mountains. A perfect place for an outing or a picnic.

We return to Sonamarg for lunch at a restaurant. There is a wash basin outside where we stop to wash our hands. The water is almost freezing at this time in the afternoon! The rivers, the mountains, the fresh air and even the cold water reminds you of how far-removed from nature our lives are in the overcrowded cities we live in. After a delicious lunch, we are on the way back to Srinagar with a tea break in Mammar.

This is the last day of the tour and a get-together is scheduled in the hotel before dinner. We, who were strangers to one another six days ago, bond well now having spent some wonderful time together. Tomorrow, everybody goes home with happy memories of this trip. Phone numbers and e-mail addresses are exchanged followed by promises of staying in touch. There's just one place in the itinerary that we haven't visited yet. It is the Shankaracharya Temple. It is slated for tomorrow, first thing in the morning.


The temple is situated on a hill, a short drive away from our hotel. The car takes you up the winding road to a point from where one has to climb steps for the remaining distance. I am told there are 265 steps. Taking cameras and phones up the steps is prohibited. So are leather bags and belts. We are one of the first to arrive at the temple. The steps are manageable if you go up taking short breaks. The last few steps are very steep. And then you reach the sanctum sanctorum. The ringing of the bell, the fresh morning air and the black Shivalinga adorned with flowers, all of them create very positive vibes. Going so early in the morning means there are no crowds, but we miss out on panoramic views of Srinagar and Dal Lake from the hill because it is still very hazy. But this is a fitting finale to our trip to this paradise on earth, Kashmir.

We get back to the hotel, have breakfast and get ready to check out and head to the airport for our flights back home. There are hugs and goodbyes at the portico as groups get into taxis and set off. The taxi driver gets talking to me. Usual questions about my family, where I am from and how I liked Kashmir. Upon learning that I am not accompanied by anyone from my family and I met people from my group only on this tour, he assures me that even if I had come all by myself without this group, I would have been safe here. "Behan, main aapko apne ghar khaane par le jaata (sister, I would have taken you to my place for a meal)", he says proudly, displaying the warmth and hospitality Kashmir is known for. I got to sample this hospitality throughout my interactions-however limited-with the Kashmiri people.

One has to go through several tiers of security at the Srinagar airport. I pass through all of them. My flight is announced. It is time to say goodbye to this beautiful land and its beautiful people!

*The Yatra has begun as per schedule on the 28th of June.

Our tour was managed and conducted by Kesari Tours, a Mumbai-based company.

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