Monday, June 27, 2011

Srinagar - How to go, places to visit, things to do

Contd. : "Saab, Naashta, Coffee..", yelled the railway's tiffin wallah, waking us up from our not-so-deep slumber. Not sure if any of us got any good sleep that night.We were travelling from Delhi to Jammu via the ANVT JAT Special. As we woke up hesitantly, we were somewhere in the heart of Punjab. According to the train's schedule, we were supposed to reach Jammu at 11.00 am.The train had got delayed, so did our entry into the state of Jammu & Kashmir. Most of us spent time playing cards, joking around, reading newspapers, eating some snacks or just simply watching out of the window. Travelling in North has its own charm. The cool, fresh, northern breeze was blowing on our faces.  It offered a nice and pleasant view of the greenery all around. It had rained the previous night in most of Punjab, so it looked much greener. No wonder, this state has been the pioneer of the green revolution in India.If Punjab looked so beautiful, we couldn't imagine how beautiful Kashmir would be. The wait was intriguing us even more, as the train continued to move along in fits and starts. Meanwhile, we crossed Ludhiana, Jalandhar and Chakkibang. Most of us took a short nap, unable to take this suspense. And suddenly, the friend sitting closest to the window, yelled and called us all. There was this huge signboard that read, "Welcome to the State of Jammu and Kashmir". Cheers followed.

Jammu Tawi railway station : Jammu Tawi is this huge station. Although the number of platforms may not be as many as a NDLS or a CST, the number of people around seemed to be equal to the stations mentioned. There was chaos all around Jammu Tawi. Fruit sellers, shops, food stalls selling Rajma Chawal, security personnel, people everywhere - at reservation counters, on the platform, outside. In fact, most people like any station in India, turned the platform into one big waiting room. Put one bedsheet on the platform, and there you have your waiting room for 6-7 people. Although there were a lot of waiting/retiring rooms in the station, with toilets and bathrooms attached. The toilets were not clean and there was no way one could use them.Luckily we found a paid public toilet just outside the station. At least it was lot better than the ones inside. Jammu Tawi is a very important junction at this time of the year. With millions of yatris travelling to these parts primarily for Vaishnodevi and Amarnath Yata, makes this station an important junction.You get a lot of buses to Katra from just outside the Jammu station (for Vaishnodevi).There are lesser options for Srinagar though. We were lucky to find a vehicle to reach Srinagar.It was going to be a 8 hr road trip.It was going to cost us Rs. 4000/-. You can reach Srinagar via plane as well.Certain private airline companies have regular flights to Srinagar. 

The road trip: We started our road trip at around 4.00 pm in the evening. We didn't want to spend too much time at the station, so we never had any lunch. Just some fruits and snacks along the way was what we decided upon.And we were off to Srinagar. The journey from Jammu to Srinagar is a very scenic journey, probably one of the best in the world. Although, only a fraction of our journey was in sunlight, as most of the journey was during the night. The scenic places that came our way were Patnitop, Udhampur, Ramban, Khannabal, Qazigund. We found a lot of monkeys along the way. The roads were quite good. Of course, it was the NH1A. We witnessed calm, serene sights all along the way with mountains all around. Each time we witnessed a spectacular sight, there was just one thought that came to our minds, "This was just the beginning", and with that we went higher into the mountains.Some of the mountains were quite steep and were known for landslides and other serious accidents. Luckily we had an experienced driver, who seemed to be in quite a hurry. Apart from his unusual driving style especially at sharp turns, he was a safe driver.

Dinner at the top : "What's special ?", asked a friend. "Rajma Chawal, saab" came the reply. "Ok, What else is available ?", the friend asked again."Well, that's the only thing available". We stared at each other, a smile broke out. "Yeah, get us Rajma Chawal". We had our dinner quite late in the night, as our driver was in no mood to stop anywhere. Some amount of stern voice was needed to make him stop. This was a typical road side dhabaa. Rajma chawal definitely has to be the staple diet of Jammu. We found many such dhabas along the way.  Served with steaming hot rice and a very special chutney (couldn't really make out the ingredients of the chutney) , didn't seem special at first. With the very first spoon, we realized, "Boy!! this is yummy".There is a very special ingredient in the delicacy which gave a very distinct flavour - lots of ghee!!! And boy, did we enjoy. Special indeed.

Places to stay : We reached Srinagar around 1 am. It was quiet, with empty roads and not a single soul at that time of the night. However, there were army barricades and personnel at almost every turn. Our driver who was in more hurry than us took this opportunity (of empty roads) to speed away.Only to be severely being reprimanded by an army officer at a check post.As we went past the majestic Dal lake, we could see the brightly lit up boat houses. We reached the hotel, ' Ab-i-Hayat'.(09906460372).(Near Nathu sweets, just in front on Dal lake). After some yelling, calling and even honking, the hotel authorities opened the gates and let us in.We bid our driver adieu and settled into our hotel rooms. They were basic hotel rooms, with two beds, T.V., toilet bathroom attached, a study table, cupboard. There was a discussion of changing the rooms to another hotel etc. the next day. However, after way too much discussion and convincing, common sense prevailed and we decided not to waste valuable time in searching, bargaining for another hotel. I guess the hotel room rent being Rs. 700/- only also helped.It was time to do some Srinagar site-seeing.

Places to visit / Things to do :
We took a vehicle to travel across Srinagar that day. A one day site-seeing trip should cost you roughly around Rs. 1400/-. But it depends on the vehicle too. Here are the places that we visited -

Mughal Gardens: As the name suggests, these gardens were built by ancient Mughal rulers. The Mughal gardens consist of many gardens - Nishat, Shalimar, Zabarwan Park, Chashme shahi being some of them. Each one has its own specialty. Shalimar being the largest one. Chashme shahi garden has a water canal which has pure water continuously flowing from the mountains. Many people fill up their water bottles with water emanating from the water hole. We also visited the Pari Mahal. This monument used to be a Buddhist structure, which was later modified by the Mughals. It oversees the great Dal lake and offers spectacular views of the lake. Entry into each of the gardens costs Rs.10. They are well maintained with different flowers, fountains and even security. These gardens have prominently featured in some of the old 60's Shammi Kapoor movies.

Dal lake: Situated in the heart of the city, there is buzz happening around this lake all around the year.  In fact, this lake provides livelihood to many locals. Most locals set up their shops selling antiques, fruits, dry fruits right here on the banks of this beautiful lake. Most gardens and other important monuments like the Hazratbal mosque are on its banks. The lake is also known for its flora and fauna. It has its own ecosystem, with different floating plants which give the lake its own unique feel. Then there are the boat houses, which are well maintained and costly too. In case, you wish to stay overnight in the boat house, you can book the boat house for a night or so. However, it is stationary. In case, you wish to have a boat ride, you can always take the shikara.  

Hazratbal Mosque: We visited the mosque in the night. The lake side mosque is one of Kashmir's most holiest shrines. The shrine holds an ancient relic. Supposedly it contains prophet Mohammed's hair. There is security just outside the mosque. There are barricades to restrict vehicles from parking just outside the shrine. The shrine looked really beautiful from lake side. Decorated with  fluorescent green lighting, it looked awesome. There are gardens around it make it a peaceful place.    

Shankaracharya Temple: There are various stories about the temple. Some say the Pandavas built them. Some say the great Mughal king Akbar built it.It is said that the famous seer Adi Shakaracharya had once visited the place.  The temple dedicated to Lord Shiva is one of the oldest Hindu temples in the state.Located on a hillock, one has to climb a series of steps to reach the temple. It is said, the view from the temple is awesome and gives a great view of the Dal lake. Many of the Hindu rituals are still followed this day.

Gulmarg : To travel to Gulmarg you need one whole day. Gulmarg is just 2 hrs away from Srinagar. Its better you book a vehicle for Gulmarg. It cost us around 1700/- for our trip.The moment you get down in Gulmarg, you are greeted with a strong smell of horse dung. In a moment, you would find yourself surrounded by dandies or horse pullers. Each one giving a story of his own, how difficult it is to get a ticket for the gondola. Now here are some things you should know - Gondola is a cable car which takes you from one level to another. In Gulmarg, the snow can be seen right at the top of the mountain(at level 2). To reach there, you need to travel via two gondola rides. So, if you start from the base, you take the Level 1 Gondola and once you reach there, you take the second level. Locals may advise you how difficult it is to get tickets and may advise you to go to some other place like Khilanmarg on horse backs. In fact, some of them even are ready to bet on you not getting the tickets. None of that is true. Just walk up to the Gondola ticket counter and there you would have the tickets. Tickets are sold only at the prior level. Level 2 tickets can only be bought at level 1, and not at the base.   The base Gondola counter is to the left. We had lost our way, as we took a faux route to the right.We ended up taking a longer route and lost a lot of time in the process. However, we found a cute little restaurant, where we had our lunch. At the counter, we hardly found any queue. The only thing to remember is you need to be early enough. The counter at second level closes at 3.00 pm. So if you dont reach before 3, you might end up disappointed.  We too reached second level only around 3.30 pm.
However, we found a guy who had some extra tickets and charged us a bomb for them. We took the tickets anyway, and took the Gondola ride.  As we traveled up, the visibility changed. There was lot of snow out there. As it was summer,  the snow was not fresh and was more solid and slippery. People were slipping and falling. There are sking equipment available, if one wished to ski up there. There were ski instructors who could give you a 10 mins pillion ride for a mere 100/-. It began to rain and people were constantly being told to return. After enjoying our time in the snow, we returned back. On our return, we tried the Kashmiri kabah.   I won't go into details of this beverage. If you haven't tried it. It is served really hot and served in glasses instead of cups.  This rich, exotic drink will surely surprise you.

Sonamarg : It is one of the most beautiful places in Kashmir. A four hour drive from Srinagar. Named as Meadow of Gold, it is truly a golden treasure for nature enthusiasts and photographers alike. The mountain peaks, glaciers, the gushing rivers, greenery all around are worth visiting. There were some white water rafting spots available as well.  Thajiwas glacier is one of the major attractions of the place. Ponies are available for travelling to the glacier, which is an hour away from the main road. We found a lot of rock climbing training centers run by government agencies.If we had gone further, we could have visited the Zoji la pass, beyond which lies the ultimate place on planet - Leh - Ladakh. However, our destination was somewhere else..Baltal. 

Conclusion : We spent 3 interesting and eventful days in Srinagar and places nearby. Visiting Gulmarg was important because, we got a glimpse of the conditions we were going to face. After the visit, we felt we had acclimatized to the conditions and were ready to face the ultimate and most important leg of the journey. Only destiny could tell what was in store for us in the future...because next up was "The Amarnath Yatra"...Just as I write this, I can hear a feverish drum beats thumping in my ears.."Babam Babam..."


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  2. Thanks Shiv, me too felt the same.Reliving every moment.

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