Welcome to Kashmir – First rays of the morning sun at Sonmarg
Text & Photographs by: Dr Sunita Rajani
Kashmir has always been my dream destination since my childhood days. I used to keep telling my family each year to visit Kashmir so much that I would often tell my Dad, (who was working with the Indian Meteorological Department), to take a transfer to Kashmir so that we could visit the place. I was in awe with Kashmir, seeing its beauty in numerous Bollywood movies and my Dad’s pictures when he visited the place in his younger days. The evergreen valleys, clear blue skies and streams with snowcapped mountains always fascinated me. Luckily for me, my family shared the same dream to go on a family holiday to Kashmir. We got a chance to live our dream in October 2013 where my brother and I planned an offbeat trip to Kashmir.
It involved months of planning by doing online research from various internet sites like TripAdvisor and BMCT touring to an extent that our driver who was a local was pretty much impressed by our planning. We had hired him after reading blogs on BMCT touring and he was the best driver cum guide we could have asked for.
Hello from Sinthan Top
Here’s a quick round-up of my trip to Kashmir which I sincerely hope will inspire you to explore one of the most beautiful places in the country.
Day 1 (5/10/2013) We flew into Srinagar with breathtaking views to welcome us while landing. We landed by afternoon and met our driver Bilal who drove us to Pahalgam. Bilal our driver was a young well-groomed man. What we liked most about him were his mannerisms and his tech-savvy nature was quite impressive. He was very soft spoken and was willing to listen to what we wanted from this trip. We became friends with Bilal since day one.
It was a very scenic drive with tall green trees on both sides of the road making the drive more enjoyable. We reached Pahalgam after a two-hour drive, just before sunset. We were delighted to stay at Hotel Himalaya House which was at the far end of the valley right on the riverbanks. We were very comfortable and in love with the balcony and the entire setting. We took a stroll in the local market to get a feel of the town. We had delicious Rajma Chawal for dinner at Punjabi Rasoi and rested for the day.
Amidst the lush green valleys of Baissaran
Day 2 (6/10/2013) From Pahalgam we went to Baisaran in the morning. One has to take a pony ride through mountains and crossing streams. Once you reach this place it is refreshing with lush green valley all the way that our eyes could reach. Baisaran is a vast meadow situated on top of the mountain range overlooking the Lidder River flowing through the Pahalgam and Lidder Valley. The pony charge was around Rs. 250 per person that took about an hour to reach up. We enjoyed the adventurous pony ride. On our way up we met the locals and interacted with them. Baisaran welcomed us with its lush green valley all the way that our eyes could reach. We spent some time up there taking pictures before heading back to Pahalgam.
Later in the afternoon, we drove to Betab Valley hiring another vehicle. Betab Valley is another beautiful calm tourist spot boasting of lush green meadows and sparkling streams making a perfect location for a day picnic. The crystal clear and chilly water of the stream bubbling down from the snowy hills is a delight. We then headed to Aru Valley which surprisingly seems to be a lesser known destination amongst the tourists but is equally charming. There are scenic meadows, lakes and mountains.
Our adventure had just begun. We were to reach Daksum by evening and stay overnight. We had booked a Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Development Corporation (JKTDC) cottage pre-hand. The drive to Daksum was heavenly. We reached our cottage to find it locked and no caretaker around. For a moment we got worried, but Bilal assured us of finding our caretaker.
Bilal, with the help from some locals, managed to find our caretaker. He was an elderly warm person who greeted us into the cottage. We were informed that there was no electricity that day and the cook had fallen ill, so he was happy to get us groceries provided we managed the cooking. My brother made full use of this wonderful opportunity to demonstrate his culinary skills. He cooked for all of us a wonderful meal of rice, lentils, potatoes and bhajiya which we enjoyed by the warm glow of the candlelight. It was one of the best meals we have ever had. It was during our dinner that we chatted with our caretaker listening to his life experiences.
After dinner, we took a small walk around the cottage. The sky was so clear that we could see millions of sparkling stars, which was a perfect way to sign off for the day.
JKTDC Cottage, Daksum
Day 3 (7/10/2013) Post breakfast, we drove up to Sinthan Top and it was breathtaking. Zigzag roads with clear blue skies, snow-clad mountains, we couldn’t ask for more. We could visualize the Himalayan stretch up to the Leh Ladakh region. We were the only tourists there at this point. I just didn’t feel like leaving this place and all I wished was that time could just stand still here.
After Sinthan Top we were headed to our next destination to Yusmarg Valley. Here too, we had pre-booked JKTDC cottages online. Yusmarg cottages are spread over grassy pastures stretching to acres of land. The dense forests full of pine trees, with the backdrop of splendid snowcapped mountains, leave you almost speechless. The cottages were beautiful facing grasslands and a lake. It felt like a scene from Yash Chopra movies reminding me of scenic tourist spots in Switzerland. We freshened up, had tea and chatted with the locals who were in charge of taking care of the property. I recommend an overnight stay at the JKTDC property there to truly experience the pastoral beauty of Yousmarg.
Feast your eyes to the lush green valleys of Kashmir
Day 4 (8/10/2013) We decided to explore the tourist spots of Yusmarg Valley on a pony as apparently, this is the only way to reach there. Needless to say, the valley was beautiful beyond words. While I was enjoying the scenery my pony lost balance while trying to cross a small stream and dropped me down. Luckily, I did not suffer any injuries but was petrified to continue riding on the pony. My family and my guide convinced me to give it a go and I absolutely loved the rest of the journey forgetting what had happened several minutes ago.
After lunch, we drove to Doodhpatri, again a lesser known tourist destination. I fell in love with this place the moment I reached there. It was a stunning landscape of green meadows with a backdrop of white fluffy clouds in clear blue skies. I was so awestruck by the immense beauty around me, that I just sat on a bench admiring Doodhpatri. When I visited Doodhpatri in 2013, it was not as popular as it may be today. I remember, there were no shops in the vicinity where we could buy some refreshments. However, I recall, there was some construction undergoing for hotels to come up which makes me want to go back now and stay there for a few days to just enjoy the peace and tranquillity.
From there we drove to Sonmarg and took an overnight halt there. We stayed at Hotel Thajwas Glacier. It was located against a backdrop of Snowclad Mountains and streams.
Enjoying the serenity at Doodhpatri
Day 5 (9/10/2013) We left in the morning to visit Thajwas Glacier. We hired ponies for Rs. 600 per person that would take us to the glacier. The other option is to hire a vehicle but it can go only up to a certain point, then we had to walk it up. It is about 3 km from Sonmarg. October is not the time to find much snow there just a patch but good time to see the meadows. Enroute to the glacier we saw beautiful valleys, streams, mountains and meadows. Kashmir is truly heaven on earth. From Sonmarg we headed to Lollab Valley, which is quite interior and rarely visited by tourists. Since tourists are so rare here, that when they come to this Valley, the locals actually gather to see them; and this is exactly what happened with us as well. We were stopped by locals who chatted with us, took us to their homes and offered us their local tea called Noon Chai which is made from special leaves, milk and salt in a specific container called Samavar. It was a life-altering experience to chat about life with them.
Glimpses from Betab Valley
Sadly, this was the last leg of our journey and we had to make our way to Srinagar to fly back home. It was one of the best holidays of my life which gifted me some beautiful memories that will last me for a lifetime. I was in no mood to return and wanted to continue exploring more offbeat places in Kashmir. But as they say, all good things must come to an end, only to begin again, I will be back soon in the heavenly valleys of Kashmir…
Dr Sunita Rajani is a Paediatrician who is currently pursuing her super specialisation in Paediatric Gastroenterology in London. She is our first student at The Lifestyle Portal Online Writing Program.