When the Queen of the Valleys beckons, whatever may be the season, it is tough to resist the call. Yes, I mean the snow daubed Kashmir Valley nestled amidst the mighty Himalayas in the North India. The favorite summer resort of the Mughal emperors, this glamorous destination has lots to offer round the year and in winter it appears as a beautiful damsel clad in white.
Where the mercury dips much below the freezing point in December and January, it may make you think twice to visit this place in chilly winter season. For me, it was a bold decision too especially when a troop of seventeen is accompanying that included kids as well. But Kashmir is awesome in winter if you can be little daring. The biting chill will not be bothersome provided your logistics are supportive enough. I took this seriously considering the headcount and at the end, the experience was rewarding.
Landing in Srinagar on a chilly January morning with azure sky and bright sunlight overhead was highly mood lifting. The crowd was thin. One can spot a few enthusiastic foreigners and honeymooners. With our eager minds ready to experience some lovely vistas, we headed for the booked houseboat accommodation in Dal Lake. Beauty of this place can neither be defined nor described but can only be felt. Even I found kids and other members compeletely bowled out by the sheer beauty of Dal Lake encircled by the mountain range.
The intricately designed houseboat interior highly influenced by Mughal art is no less gorgeous than 5 star hotel suites. On reaching houseboat, we were offered hot coffee and sumptuous breakfast that infused the desired warmth. The kids were in the celebration mood exploring every corner of this novel staying arrangement right on the pristine lake.
We enjoyed a day long Shikara ride sailing past the wonderful banks with the majestic Pirpanjal range in the distant horizon. The spectacular Akbar fort standing on the side of the lake reflected the glorious Mughal architecture. Shikara vendors afloat on the lake occasionally stopped with their merchandise including wild honey, saffron , woodcrafts , woolens, paintings on polished pinewood pieces, foreign chocolates etc. Crossing the floating gardens, finally we landed on the lovely Char Chinar Island, beautiful as the paradise with four brightly colored Chinar trees planted at the corners presenting nature in a different shade. It was a welcome change for the kids who jumped ashore and started running and having a ball to everyone’s delight.
By sun down, we sailed backed to our houseboat. The Shikara rider collected his remuneration, lit a cigar and paddled out in cold night and was soon lost in the darkness. The dinner was a sumptuous affair with delicious multicourse local lamb dish called wazwan that perhaps induced a sound sleep at night. Next morning, the sun broke over the lake with all glory throwing multicolored reflections off the dark green water luring for few excellent photo shoots.
We again took a Shikara ride to explore the capital city, Srinagar. It is a fascinating city worthy of exploration on foot. Gorgeous hotels dotted everywhere with local handicrafts workshops mushrooming around every corner. Winter being the subdued season, business was not in full swing. We explored the Shankaracharya temple way up on a hillock that needed ascending steep steps. The climb was tiring but our entire team was enthusiastic. We covered the gorgeously landscaped Mughal gardens Shalimar Bagh , Nishat Bagh and Chasma Shahi whose pools and fountains were bonus attractions. The gardens literally turned on a leash of refreshing feel in us. We all were in high spirits and the kids were at the peak of merriment.
We felt ravenously hungry due to long on-foot exploration when we decided to have some local delicacies. We had generous helpings of Rogan josh and Modur Pulav in a great eatery located over River Jhelum on the Zero Bridge. The former was a flavored lamb preparation and the later was sweetened rice flavored with aromatic spices from the valley. The combination was deadly which satiated our appetite.
Next we headed for Gulmarg, the dream hill station that always beckoned me. Rightly called the meadow of flowers, this spectacular skiing destination nestled upon the Pirpanjal range wore a glistening look with the bright sun dazzling along the snow clad slopes. The route to Gulmarg from Srinagar was stupendous. Actually no adjective fits enough to describe the sublime beauty. Army convoys and sheep herdsmen crossed our paths. The route had a rugged beauty and we spotted huge chunks of frozen ice as huge as boulders along the wonderful route.
On reaching Gulmarg, we could feel the mercury plummeting sharply. As the heights escalated the conifers gave way to small shrubbery and the vegetation turned scanty. The permanent snowline presented awesomely beautiful scenery. We hired real warm fur coats, snow boots and gloves to protect ourselves from the biting cold. The team’s mood was upbeat and the kids soared with glee as they enjoyed sledging.
The gondola ride to the Kongdoori mountain gondola station deserves special mention. It was extremely thrilling to experience Asia’s highest and longest cable car ride at an astounding 14000 feet above sea level! The superb view of the snow clad valley and the dwarfed pine trees in this 12 minute ride from such an astounding height is simply beyond any wordy narration. Thanks to the winter that we do not have to queue for hours.
Snowmobile biking on a 15 kilometer groomed track was undisputedly the best part of our Gulmarg exploration and as exhilarating was exploring the locality at night in – 14 degrees bone shattering freezing cold! The hotel where we stayed offered the perfect cozy shelter for the chill- beaten late night adventurers.
Pahalgaon, our next destination was another stunner. This extremely tranquil stretch of pinewood greenery nestled upon 7200 feet of mountainous terrain appeared brightest than ever. We put up in a decent hotel overlooking the silver stretch of the flowing Lidder River. The drone of army helicopters overhead created a different kind of appeal and suggested the strategic importance of this pristine nook surrounded by mountains on all sides.
We along with the kids enjoyed trout fishing in Lidder, and trekking along the pine forest trampling the natural velvety carpeted ground below formed of pine needles, imbibed a fresh dose of vigor. Relishing the place for a couple of days, we dragged our unwilling souls back to Srinagar. As our vehicle troop meandered towards Srinagar, Pahalgaon Mountains loomed behind and decreased in size eventually vanishing from our visibility but remaining etched in our minds forever.