Saturday, 19 December 2015

Karizmatic Kerala – Paradise Down Under - December 2015

This year seems to be most travelled – first to the Northernmost part of India, Kashmir & then the Southern tip (well, almost), Kerala. If one is the “Paradise On Earth”, then the other is no less, especially Munnar. That's why it is very rightfully referred as God's Own Country.

We had planned this trip almost a year in advance. We finalized & did our ticketing 4 months ahead. Various options were on cards – rarely known North Kerala & the South Kerala combo with Kanyakumari. We finally decided for a more common Golden Quadrilateral of Central Kerala: Cochin – Munnar – Thekkady – Kumarakom / Alleppy (Alappuzha).

We boarded our train, Pune – Ernakulam Poorna Express (11097) on the night of December 19, 2015. The train passes through the Doodhsagar Falls (in Karnataka) next morning. This is the one famous Falls which features in the movie “Chennai Express”. We selected this train for the same reason.

December 21, 2015:
On the 3rd day early morning at 3, we reached Ernakulam Junction (25 minutes before time). Ernakulam is actually part of mainland portion of the city of Cochin. Both are in a way, twin cities. We had booked a Tempo Traveler for our further tour. We started for our onward journey by 4.30 am. Munnar is about 120 kms from Cochin / Ernakulam.

The initial part of the trip travels through the main Cochin city, then the more urban area & finally entering into the twisting & turning roads within lush green hills. Enroute is a 4 layered Cheeyappara Waterfalls about 70 kms in the journey. After a tiring start to the day (uncomfortable sleep in train, waking-up early morning, not enough breakfast), this breathtaking Falls was a nice change. The waterfall is just by the road side & cannot be missed. Just a kilometer ahead is another Water Fall – Valera Falls. It is, however, on the other side of hill & has to be viewed through a distance.
Cheeyappara Waterfalls
Within a couple of hours, I woke to the view of Tea Plantations, a signature that we were finally in Munnar. One can view these Plantations till the eye reaches the horizon. After a brief photo-stop on the road, we reached our hotel at 10 am – Hotel Munnar – Terrace Greens.
Munnar is one such scenic location which has a mix of natural landscapes with man-made Tea Plantations. This combination makes up the beauty. Visiting here & looking around, there was a feeling as if the view here is no less than what I saw in Kashmir 6 months ago; except the snow was missing on mountain ranges far away.

After some rest in the afternoon, we decided go out for some adventure. Our driver suggested one such place – Kolukkumalai. It is one of the best places to visit, if in Munnar. Kulukkumalai Top is the highest point in the whole of South India. It is home to the highest tea plantations in the world; with the tea grown here possessing a special flavour and freshness because of the high altitude. It is situated on the border of Kerala & Tamil Nadu (when on top, one side is Kerala while the other is TN). It is about 40 kms from Munnar main town. The road is a completely Kuttcha & has to be accessed through the 4x4 Jeeps only. It costs about Rs. 1500 for a return journey of Jeep (carries about 8-10 adults). 

The experience & adventure is awesome. Passing through the bumpy ride watching the abundance of Munnar Magical Beauty was heavenly. Few water falls on the way were icing on the cake. As we started nearing the top, we could feel the Clouds around us. It was extremely chilly on the top. After watching a peaceful Sun-Set, we started for our return journey back to our hotel. Kolukkumalai for me was definitely a place to visit atleast once in lifetime.

If travelling through Packaged (Group) Tours, this place is missed / not covered in their itinerary. Ensure you add it up & make sure you won’t miss it.

December 22, 2015:
We started for our Munnar sight-seeing in the morning. Our first destination was Mattupetty Dam. It is located just outside the main town & has beautiful reservoir & water catchment area. The dam is built mainly for Hydroelectric power generation. By the side is a market for local goods, foods & spices. Just ahead of the dam along its reservoir is the Echo Point. It is actually a spot by the water. Boating facilities are available. The whole area is often visited by wild Elephants. Vehicular traffic is not allowed after sun-set here.
Mattupetty Dam
We did some Elephant Rides on the way. It is fun, especially for kids. We normally don’t get this experience. Apart from regular rides there are some more activities (feeding elephants with fruits, rain shower).

After having stomach full Kerala Meals at Saravana Bhavan, we went for a Kathakali & Kalaripayatu Show. Kerala, being a tourist place, there many such Cultural Centers all over. They showcase their traditional forms of art. They are surely worth a visit.

Kathakali is an Indian Classical Dance form of Kerala. Its genre is Story-Play; even the name is broken down in Sanskrit as Katha (Story) and Kala (Art). The distinctiveness of this art form is the colorful dressing, elaborate make-up & characteristic face-mask. The dance constitutes hand & facial gestures (Mudras & Navarasas). It is traditionally performed by male artists (even the female roles are performed by men). However, nowadays, women too take part in Kathakali performance. It is traditionally structured around mythological stories of Ramayana, Mahabharata & Bhagavat-purana.

The Kathakali show consists of atleast 2 artists (one doing a female role), a Sutra-dhar (or story-teller) & musicians. Many hours before actual show timings, artists are busy preparing themselves their make-up. The show starts with explanation of all Mudras & Navarasas. Then the actual story starts. In the end they offer the patrons to take a photo with the artists. The show is definitely fascinating.

Further we waited for another master piece of Kerala – Kalaripayattu. It is one of the oldest forms of Martial Art using techniques & styles from Yoga, finger movements & dance. It is fought empty handed as well as with weapons (swords, spears, knifes, etc.). The show consists of individual performances as well as one-is-to-one & multiple combats. This show was entertaining.

Our next plan was for Periyar Tiger Reserve. However, reaching here we came to know there is an Online Booking that is required. Visiting directly can be problematic if bookings get full.

December 23, 2015:
We checked-out from our Hotel and started for Thekkady. We saw couple of wild elephants grazing far away on top.

On the way breaked at Spice Garden. There are many Spice Gardens in part of India. The climate & soil being conducive to spices, locals have developed their lands into Spice Gardens to attract tourists. They conduct a guided tour where they take you around the garden; they show & explain various spice plantations & their uses. The tour ends at the Spice Shop which sells all those spices & ayurvedic medicines & oils. All this has an entry fee of about Rs. 100 per person.

I felt that these Spice Gardens are good to have a break & roam around. However, there is no need to buy spices from here; they are available in towns at much cheaper rates. Ayurvedic Medicines can be purchased as per requirement.

We reached Thekkady in the afternoon. Thekkady is an important tourist place because of its proximity to Periyar Tiger Reserve. It is also an heaven for Spices (Black Pepper, Cinnamon, Cardamom, Clove, etc.). After a brief rest we ventured out for some Spices Shopping.

December 24, 2015:
In the morning, we started for the Periyar Tiger Reserve. It is just 3 kms from Thekkady. After a check-point clearance, we entered inside. Vehicles are allowed to a point after which there is a walk of about 300-400 meters in the dense forest with tall trees.

Periyar Tiger Reserve (or National Park or Wildlife Sanctuary) surrounds the Periyar Lake, which was formed when Mullaperiyar Dam was constructed in 1895. In other Wildlife Sanctuaries, normally Safaris are conducted in vehicles (open Jeeps or mini-buses). This is unique in a way, Safaris here happen in boats. The driver & the attendant show if any of the animals are visible nearby. The area is a known Tiger Reserve & Elephant Reserve; however, you need to be really lucky to see them here. And obviously so, these are the special species & one should not expect them to be so easily visible on a pleasure trip of one hour. Many species of birds are seen. We were able to see the Sambars, Monkeys.

This one hour of boat ride was a different experience. I am not sure where else you can roam around a Wildlife Sanctuary in a boat.

From here we started for Kumarakom. On the way, we hopped in for a Tea Factory visit – Harrison Malayalam Ltd. Unfortunately, the factory had a weekly off on Wednesday. Hence the tea processing was not in progress. One of the employees accompanied us & showed us the processes through the silent machines. In the end, we had some purchase of tea at their Factory Shop.

We reached our hotel in Kumarakom late evening by 8 pm. The facility so far was the best in the journey. In the darkness of the night, we were not aware about the location; but as we came out of our rooms in the morning, we were just by the side of Vembanad Lake. The view was awe-inspiring.

December 25, 2015:
Sunrise - Vembanad Lake
Vembanad Lake is the longest lake in India (with 96.5 kms in length). It is also among one of the largest lakes in India. It is situated almost at the Sea Level, with some of its part below the MSL (Mean Sea Level). It is separated from Arabian Sea by a narrow barrier island. The lake is fed with 10 rivers and there is an intricate network of canals & lagoons. There are number of villages in & around this Wetland System. These are connected through this water network forming another Venice of East in India (another being at Srinagar).

Network of Canals & Lagoons
Unique feature of this lake is the mixture of Fresh water from rivers & Salt water from seas. Based on tidal action, the salt water mixes up increasing the salinity & water level of lake during some parts of the year. At other times, majority of it is a Fresh Water Lake. This ecosystem has facilitated breeding of some special aquatic species in the lake.

Duck Farming
There are options of a stay in House Boat. The House Boat roams around the lake, its canals & back-waters for the whole day with halt at some point in the night. We however, decided to stay in a hotel & take a small ride of couple of hours in a boat.

There is one Museum based on Fossils & Archeological Discoveries in Kumarakom. But when we visited, it was closed because of Christmas.

By afternoon, we left Kumarakom & reached Cochin (Kochi) by 3 pm. We decided to visit few sight-seeing’s of Cochin. We reached the St. Francis Church at Fort Kochi. Fort Kochi, by the way, is the region in Kochi one of the old areas by the sea-shore.
St. Francis Church
St. Francis Church is the oldest Church in India – built in 1503. It was famous for one more reason. Vasco Da Gama died here in 1524; even his body was buried in this Church. The remains were then carried back to Lisbon 14 years later. His Grave is still preserved inside the Church, apart from graves of other Portuguese. The area around the Church is a local street market. There is one play garden for kids & a walk-way by the sea-shore. The renowned Chinese Fishing Nets can be seen lined-up by the shore.
Chinese Fishing Nets
From here we went to a place which we though we would hush-up in few minutes, but ended up in spending some quality time in admiration - Kerala Folklore Musuem. It has an exceptional collection of Art & Artefacts. Mostly focussed towards South India Culture. The artefacts range from Weapons, Utensils, Dresses, Idols, Props of various Dance Forms, Paintings, Photographs, masks, etc. Rs. 100 ticket is worth every penny. And more so that the Museum is not any Govt. Enterprise, but run individually by one, Mr. George.
Folklore Museum
We decided to spend the evening shopping in the market. However, being Chirstmas, the market was absolutely closed. We just, therefore, roamed on Marine Drive - the most happening place of Kochi. This promenade is an ideal place to spend some "self" time. Vast Arabian Sea on one side, modern malls & shopping complexes on other & the street vendors lined-up along. We spent about an hour here roaming.
Arabian Sea - view from Marine Drive
Further we checked-in our hotel for a final night of our trip.

December 26, 2015:
we had an evening flight. So we decided to munch another local place about 10 kms from our hotel - Hill Palace.

Hill Palace is another Archeological Museum managed by Govt. of Kerala. Originally it was built in 1865 by Maharaja of Cochin. Apart from Museum, it houses a Kids Park & Deer Park. It is built on a hillock which can be accessed by walk-way as well as simple steps. Vehicles are not allowed till top.
Deer Park
From here we bid farewell to the God's Own Country & proceeded for our return journey.

Stay Details:

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Vaishno Devi Calling - Mata Kaa Bulawa - July 2015

“Agar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast, Hameen ast-o hameen ast-o hameen ast (If there is Heaven on Earth, It’s here, it’s here, it’s here)”. These are the words of Persian Poet Aamir Khusru explaining what Kashmir is all about.

We company friends (4 of us) decided to visit Vaishno Devi. It was Kiran’s idea and a wish, which we three also realized & decided to take it up. Then Srinagar was planned as well for 2 days.

Plan was made 3 months in advance & train tickets were booked immediately. We had booked return tickets for Pune – Jammu Tawi Jhelum Express (11077 / 11078). Stay arrangement at Srinagar were made at Privilege Guest House through one acquaintance. Stay at Katra (base town for Vaishnodevi) was not planned; it was decided to directly reach Katra & look for stay. Since the time of July was supposed to be the off-season in that region, it was expected that there would be no rush.

Prelude to our trip was filled with some negative news all around. Due to fire at Itarasi Signal Control Station on 23rd June 2015, many trains were getting cancelled including Jhelum Express. During last 10 days of our journey, Jhelum was running only alternate days. One week before our departure, there were heavy rains near Sonamarg & a cloud-burst. Jammu-Srinagar Highway (NH-1) was closed due to land-slides. There was some news about agitation in Srinagar as well. We started making alternate train reservations. We had made about 3 more reservations, in case our train gets cancelled or NH-1 is closed.

Finally, we got a confirmation 2 days prior that our train will be running. At last we boarded Jhelum Express (11077) on 18-Jun-15 evening from Pune Station. After covering one of the longest train journeys in India – 38 hours for about 2000 kms – we reached Jammu in the morning of 20-Jun-15 at 11.15 am (late by 1:15 hours).

Katra is a place about 40 kms from Jammu by road. It’s a small town but an important one because of it being the base camp for Vaishno Devi Pilgrimage – 2nd most visited temple in India after Tirupati. Vaishno Devi is one of the holiest pilgrimages for Hindus. Vaishno Devi Temple has been recreated at two places – a smaller one at Pimpri (near Pune) while a much larger one at Indore. After seeing both, it was my chance to see the original.

Katra is very well connected with Jammu – Private Buses, Taxis ply regularly from Jammu Railway Station. And, now Katra can be visited by train as well. Jammu-Katra is on the ambitious Kashmir Railway Project which India has undertaken. Under this project, Kashmir Valley will be connected to India through Railway (fully operational hopefully by 2020) which was so far not possible due to the terrain. Technological advancements will now make this possible to lay railway tracks from Jammu till Baramulla via Srinagar. Just one leg of this project is yet to be completed – Katra-Banihal. Other 3 legs are ready & being used – Jammu-Udhampur, Udhampur-Katra & Banihal-Baramulla.

July 20, 2015:
When we reached Jammu at 11.15 am, we came to know there is a passenger train (DMU) at 12 noon for Katra. We decided to undertake this train journey, as this was newly launched service (PM Modi inaugurated Udhampur-Katra Railway Service in July 2014). We caught up the DMU amidst heavy rush. The train takes about 2 hours to reach Katra. By road it is about 1 hour as the train goes by the longer route via Udhampur (Jammu-Baljata-Sangar-Manwal-Ramnagar-Udhampur-Katra).

The route is excellent. Tracks cut through the mountains with Tawi River by the side is awesome. After 56 bridges (read it somewhere, I didn’t count) & 30 tunnels (I counted these), we reached Katra at 2 pm. Katra Railway Station (or Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Katra – SMVD Katra as it is named) can be the Model Railway Station in the country. In first instance, it seems to be an Airport. Clean Platforms, Clean Tracks, Wide Walkways, Cool Entrance, Green Lawns, Solar Panels over the shades, an Escalator (though it is not yet functioning) – all these are too good.
Katra Railway Station
Outside the Station, there are these Hotel Agents. You need to fix-up a price and they provide Pick-up to the Hotel, take you to the Vaishno Devi Starting Point, Pick you up from Vaishno Devi back to Hotel & finally drop you from Hotel to Railway Station or Bus Stand. All this inclusive in the Hotel price. We finalized one at Rs. 1500 for an AC Room for 3 beds (suitable for 4 people) – Hotel Nest, near Jiji Chowk, Katra (Phone No: 9858575372, 9906331858, 9103331858). It’s a decent hotel, nice rooms, with clean toilets. Immediately we rushed for a lunch at a mess just opposite. Then had a nice bath after 2 day train journey & got ready to 5 pm to move for our Vaishno Devi Darshan. The hotel guy took us first at the Registration Point to prepare an access card. Each pilgrim has to be personally present for this. A photo is captured while registration & an access card is provided. Also it is better to carry another Photo ID proof along.
Access Card
One caveat – please do not carry any additional belongings. No food & water is required. Better to carry separate cash instead of Wallet & Cards. Camera & related equipment can be carried depending upon your load taking ability. Remember you need to walk an ascent of about 12 kms (normally takes about 4 hours). Mobile can be carried as it has become a necessity nowadays. Free Lockers are available above and those are quite spacious. All the belongings can be kept in those. Any leather items are not allowed inside the cave (Wallet, Belts, Watch, etc). Importantly, if possible, an extra Top or T-shirt should be taken. It will be useful to change in case the one you are wearing gets wet. We hadn’t taken one & while returning in the night, it was chilling out there & my shirt was wet due to rains while climbing up.

After getting our access cards, we moved towards the base entrance and started our walk at 5.30 pm. We purchased the “Jai Mata Di” head-bands & a walking stick. Ensure take a visiting card of that shop. You can return back those walking sticks & get back half the money. Sticks costs for Rs. 10 & 20 depending on the size & type.

One can either walk or hire a Horse, or a Doli. Pitthus are available to carry the luggage or small kids & babies. Rate card is available. Nowadays Helicopter service is also available during day-time. Ponies cost Rs. 700, Dolis cost Rs. 4000 (both-ways) while helicopter service costs Rs. 1039 (one-way). Helicopter service is from Katra to Sanjhichat which is about 2.5 kms from Bhawan (which houses Main Cave).
Yatra starts from here
The walk-way is nicely made-up of well-laid blocks. Most of it is shaded; with work still going on. Initial 3-4 kms are fully lined-up with shops & hotels on both sides. Impression of Gulshan Kumar can be seen on these shops with his photos & the T-Series name & brand still displayed. Gulshan Kumar is said to have contributed immensely in development of this area. In between, steps are also there which actually act as a short-cut to the walk-way; however, climbing these is tiresome & those are not recommended for aged & those suffering from BP & heart diseases.

Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board has provided excellent amenities all along – First Aid Centers, Drinking Water, Snacks Centre, Washrooms, Sitting Areas. Security Check-points are also there in between. The Shrine Board has done a commendable job in preparing & maintaining the route. Same must have been since last 15-20 years. Earlier, the route actually was a small path cut through the hill; even riding on a horse was frightening. Watch the song “Mata Ne Bulaya Hai” from Hindi Classic movie “Avatar”; it shows how the pilgrimage was in 1980s.

Vaishno Devi yatra, they say, happens only if there is a Call from the Goddess (Maa Kaa Bulawa).

Vaishno Devi is actually the natural rock formations – 3 Pindis (Maha-Saraswati, Maha- Laxmi & Maha-Kali) inside a Cave. Bhavan is the place, the congregation of buildings, which houses this Cave. Bhavan is about 12 kms from starting point at Katra. Mid-way at about 5/6 kms, the route separates out into two – one through Adhkuwari and another through Himkoti. The one through Himkoti is 1 km shorter. Horses go by Adhkuwari route. Adhkuwari is the half-way to the yatra to the Main Cave. It is about 6 kms from Katra.
The bright lights at the centre is the "Bhawan"
Katra town as seen from top
- bright lights at the centre is the Railway Station
We took the Himkoti route. This seems to be newly constructed route. This becomes much simpler if you are walking; because, there are no ponies allowed on this way. Ponies do come in-between while you are walking, breaking your rhythm. Battery operated vehicles ply from Adhkuwari to Himkoti (only for aged, differently abled people – subject to availability).

With few pit-stops, we reached the top at 9.30 pm. This seemingly exhaustive journey is not so tiresome actually. Since you travel in a group (known as well as unknown people), with an intense desire, shouting (or listening to) slogans of “Mata”, you doesn’t feel that effort. Once at the top, we had some light food, deposited our belongings in lockers & went for the Darshan. There was not much rush and it took another hour or so for us to reach the Cave.

Goddess Vaishnavi in her child (Kumari) form lived sometime during Lord Ram’s Age. On his insistence, she came at the bottom of these hills (Trikoot Parvat) for meditation. During some Bhandara arrange by a local Brahmin, she was harassed by Bhairon Nath. Vaishnavi ran away from him, climbed up the Trikoot Mountan & hid inside a Cave. She did meditation here for 9 months. Bhairon Nath reached here searching her. Vaishnavi ran away from him by breaking away the Cave on other side using her Trishool. This Cave is now known Garbha-joon & is at Adhkuwari. Pilgrims do go through this Cave & it is said that coming out is like a new birth after washing out of all the sins.

Vaishnavi climbed up to run away from Bhairon Nath. She came across another Cave; she hid inside. Bhairon Nath followed here also. At the entrance of the Cave, Vaishnavi severed the Head of Bhairon Nath killing him. So much was the force that the Head flew away & landed at the hillock above the Cave. Bhairon Nath died, but he expressed his remorse & shame before Vaishnavi for his wrong behavior. Vaishnavi granted a wish to him; Bhairon Nath temple is made at the place on the hillock where his Head fell & the devotees would have to visit that temple after Vaishno Devi Darshan. This will complete the Vaishno Devi Yatra.

The Main Cave is rarely used now; it’s entrance can be seen while you pass through it. This was the Cave through which pilgrims used to go years ago. It is about 4-5 feet in height and stream of chilled water continuously flows through it – the Charan Ganga said to originate from the Sanctum Sanctorum. However, as the number of pilgrims started to rise, it became difficult to manage. Hence this Cave is used only during lean periods; now two parallel paths are constructed around it which directly take you inside Sanctum Sanctorum. If you are lucky enough, you could get the chance to go through the original Cave.
Inside, are the 3 rock formations (called Pindis) signifying 3 Goddesses – Maha-Saraswati, Maha-Laxmi & Maha-Kali. The Pindis are beautifully decorated with golden crown, ornaments, flowers, red clothing. The view is satisfying. Inside, you can identify the entrance of the Main Cave coming from the right side. Heavy gushing sound of water is heard; it is the Charan Ganga originating from here.

After such a peaceful Darshan, we decided to return back. By the time, we got our belongings from the Locker, it was 12 midnight. We started our descend. Walking down is obviously less tiresome than ascending. By 3.30 am we were at the bottom. We took an Auto-Rickshaw for our Hotel (note: Hotel Pick-up is not available between 11 pm to 6 am). We had heard from someone that there are Masseurs available and a Foot Massage is important as it relaxes & frees your leg muscles to relieve for any pain later. These Masseurs are available near Bus Stand and they do the Massage there or also accompany with you to your hotel. The Auto-Driver took us to Bus Stand and we took the Masseur with us to the hotel. It was relieving Massage really. And it really helped. We had the whole Kashmir tour in front of us and we didn’t felt that much exertion.

July 21, 2015:
After a brief sleep of couple of hours, we left for Jammu, this time by Bus. Regular buses ply for Jammu from Katra Bus Stand. After getting down at Jammu, we hired a Taxi, finalized a rate with him as we wanted a special taxi for 4 of us. We got Tavera for Rs. 4000. Normal rate is Rs. 700 per person (they take 7-8 passengers).

We started at 9 am for Srinagar. Jammu-Srinagar is about 300 kms along the NH-1 highway. First 50 kms till Udhampur is the 2 lane highway with 3-4 tunnels & bridges. It is newly constructed about an year ago. Once Udhampur is crossed, comes the undependable part of this Highway. Next 200 kms till Kashmir Valley starts, the road is a complete Ghat Section with turns all around. High rocky patches on side while deep valley on the other. This road witnesses closure & blockages due to climatic conditions, land-slides in rainy season, vehicle breakdowns causing traffic jams of hours together. So much the undependability, that at times Jammu-Srinagar can be covered in 6 hours while at times, it may take more than 10 hours. We took about 11 hours to reach Srinagar – about 3 major traffic jams in between due to vehicle breakdowns.
Enroute Srinagar - NH-1 Jammu Srinagar Highway
However, the road is awesome; the view is fantastic. If you wish to visit Kashmir, you need to travel atleast once through this Highway. Air journey to Srinagar would not be that satisfying – The Paradise is better experienced on land & not seen through the air. The road turns through the hills with large Deodar trees all around. Houses with colored roofs are constructed over the slopes of the hills. Large rivers follow you at every nook & corner – Tawi at first, then Chenaab & Jhelum towards the end in Srinagar. The route goes like Jammu-Udhampur-Patni Top-Ramban (halfway)-Qazigund-Anantnag-Srinagar. Somewhere near Patni Top, a large construction activity is going on. It is the Chenani-Nashvi Tunnel Project – a 13 kms tunnel (Asia’s largest) is being constructed. After it is completed, hopefully by 2017, it will save about 50-70 kms. This is equivalent to 3-4 hours of today’s journey.
Dam on River Chenaab
We had an awesome Rajmaa-Chaawal here at place named Peera
Another attraction of this route is the Jawahar Tunnel (or Banihaal Pass). It is about 200 kms from Jammu. It is the only route which connects Kashmir Valley with rest of India. It is therefore strategically important for India & hence controlled by the BSF. State of J&K is comprised of 3 regions – Jammu, Kashmir Valley & Ladakh. And Jawahar Tunnel is the entry to the Valley. It is the Gateway to the Paradise on Earth. It is located within Pir Panjal Mountain Range. Our driver was saying we actually crossed about 420 hills from Jammu till here.

It comprises of 2 uni-directional tunnels, 2.5 kms each in length. It is well ventilated inside. Open to traffic 24 hours & 7 days a week. Fully under control of BSF. Another tunnel is newly constructed below this one. It is for the Railway Line between Banihaal & Srinagar.

From here starts the Kashmir Valley. Actually, we did feel the change in weather after we crossed the Tunnel; climate was much cooler. From here on one can see the Kashmiri Villages, Snow-capped Mountains far away, smart & beautiful Kashmiri People wearing Phiran (traditional woolen overcoat), Kahwa (tea like drink). And also to mention, the presence of Armed Forces; all through the road, after every few kms, a patrol party comprising 3-4 CRPF Men can be seen.
Road now is pretty straight; the 200 kms of turns & twists are not here anymore. The mighty Jhelum on your left indicates that your now entering Srinagar, capital city of the State of J&K.

We reached Srinagar by 7 pm – almost a drive of 10 hours. Straight we went to our Guest House, since it was late, we were tired & there was nothing else to do.

July 22, 2015:
We had one acquaintance in Srinagar. He volunteered to accompany us & show us around. Next morning, he along with his colleague came to our Guest House. He had made arrangements for a vehicle. We started-off at about 9 am. We decided to go to Gulmarg. It is a place very near to Srinagar – just an hour’s drive (40 kms).

Originally named as Gaurimarg referred to the Goddess Paarvati, later on it was rechristened as Gulmarg – literary means “Meadows of Flowers”. It is a vast expanse of pastures further extending towards snow clad mountains. The meadow is World’s highest Golf Course during Summer, while in Winter it get converted into a Skiing Facility. The time we went, it was lush green all over, with colored flowers in between & occasional trees with snow peaks at the backdrop. Emperor Shahajahan is said to have collected various types of Flower Plants from Gulmarg to be used in various Mughal Gardens at places in Delhi & Agra.

Many a films have been shot here – Jai Jai Shiv Shankar song, Jab Tak Hain Jaan song. The room in which the Bobby song “Hum Tum Ek Kamare Mein” was shot at one house here. It is now famous as “Bobby Hut”. The guides show these here.
Temple where 'Jai Jai Shiv Shankar" song was shot
After vehicle parking, there are two ways one can go ahead – a horse ride & a rope-way (Gandola). They take you to the top near snow. There are many shops from where one can hire Gum-Boots, Jackets, Caps, etc. While a horse ride can be exciting & adventurous, after sometime it becomes monotonous & boring. We did take a horse ride, but it took us about 3-4 hours for whole journey. You need to do a good bargain for a horse-ride – we finalised one for Rs. 1200 per person.

There is another good option available – a Gandola ride (rope-way). It is one of longest Rope-ways of Asia & highest in World. It is in two stages. Stage-1 is from Gulmarg till Khilenmarg (literary means Playground) which is at the foot of Apharwat Peak (Ticket price is Rs. 600). “Yahoo” song from film “Junglee” was shot at Khilenmarg. Stage-2 is from Khilenmarg to Apharwat Summit (Ticket price is Rs. 800).

Gulmarg is within miles from the LOC. Actually from the Apharwat Summit, they show the Pakistani Posts across the LOC. We actually missed this view by opting for a horse-ride instead of a Gondola. By the time reached back after our horse-ride, it was almost 4 pm. And due to bad weather, Stage-2 was closed.

Nonetheless, we had an awesome time. Some different experience riding a horse to climb little ahead of Khilenmarg. Total distance might be about 7-8 kms one-way. Horses are well-trained. They know the route and they take you properly to the destination; sometime need to give directions by using the reins. The route is scary sometimes; real tough. Heavy climb, rocky patches, slippery paths. But the horses take you extremely well. They take you till the point of snow. The snow here actually is not the one like we see in movies. Actually, it is brown in color due to mud mixed with it. But the view is breathtaking.
We were just taking few photographs & were planning to walk a little ahead towards some more snow, when it started raining really heavy. There were some shacks made to serve tea. All the tourists took refuge there. We had the famous Kashmiri Drink, the Kahwah, here. It ran heavily for about 20 minutes. Then the rain stopped abruptly, the way it started. The locals said this is the weather here all year at this altitude. Due to such unreliability, we decided to get down at the earliest. We didn’t had any rain protection with us.

We reached the parking at 4 pm. By the end, we were really bored by the horse-ride and wished to reach back at the earliest. It is due to this boredom & time consuming, I feel it is better to prefer a Gondola at Gulmarg. It takes you at much higher altitude, sure-shot to witness good snow; it is time-saving; it will be an awesome experience to travel in one of the highest & longest rope-way as your cable-car disappears in the clouds. My next visit here is going to be a Gondola ride surely.

We had missed a lunch due to our horse-ride. We decided to go back to Srinagar & have an early dinner. Our friend took us to – he said – one of the good hotels of Srinagar, Mughal Darbar, which serves good Wazwan. Wazwan is a food preparation that is Traditional Kashmiri. However, I alone being a vegetarian had to adjust with Paneer. Rice is an important meal here. Raajma-Chawal is a very delicious dish here. Meat is also part of most of the dishes of Kashmir.

After our dinner, we visited Lal Chowk, to have some ice-cream. It has one large Clock-Tower called the Ghanta-ghar. It is the place of extreme significance in History as well as Present of Srinagar (for that matter, the whole of Kashmir). The place is a witness of enormous protests, countless rallies & number of political speeches – in the past as well as today. In a way it is one of the happening places in Srinagar. The Ghanta-ghar can be seen in movie “Haider” (Shaahid Kapoor’s speech).

July 23, 2015:
Next morning, our plan was to visit Pahalgam, about 90 kms from Srinagar. We started early at 7.30 am. The route is via Anantnag, the same route we came from Jammu on NH-1. What all we missed due to low evening light that day, we were able to see now – the vast Saffron (Kesar) Fields & its shops of Pompore & Cricket Bat factories. At Anantnag, route bifurcates, one towards Jammu while another to Pahalgam. Awantipora is another attraction – the remains of an ancient Hindu Temple. We skipped this due to paucity of time.

Pahalgam is one more tourist destinations of Kashmir located in the Lidder Valley & apart from its scenic beauty, famous because of being on route of Amarnath Yatra. The road to Pahalgam is extremely scenic. After Anantnag, the River Lidder follows last 40 kms route till Pahalgam. The view is extremely scenic - clean white river water with white stones & boulders all around. We reached Pahalgam by 9.30 am. Pahalgam is bigger town compared to Gulmarg. It is a main place for Amarnath Yatra. Helicopter Service for Amarnath is available from here. Nice hotels are available. Good market place is there for a good shopping of Kashmir Special Goods.

There are various spots nearby. Ponies are available here too. They refer to some place called as Mini-Switzerland. However, we were terrified with ponies now. We moved ahead towards Betaab Valley, a place about 15 kms ahead of Pahalgam. The place has got this name from Sunny Deol – Amrita Singh starrer film, “Betaab”. It was shot here – see “Jab Hum Jawan Honge”.

Betaab Valley, as per me, was by far the best location I saw in our trip. Lush green pastures, covered from all sides by mountain ranges (snow-capped at some places) & a stream of ice-chilled water of Lidder River flowing across the plains. The water is sparkling clean (actually it is a melting snow at the top) & awfully chilled. We tried to get into the water (just above ankle length); could not stay inside for more than 15 seconds. The area is converted into a park & is extremely well-maintained. There is cleanliness all around. Place is brilliantly photogenic. There is a nominal ticket price of Rs. 5.

We spent about 3 hours inside. We returned to Pahalgam, had our lunch and again proceeded to Aru. It is lesser known place about 12 kms from Pahalgam. It is situated on the banks of River Aru, a tributary of Lidder. The road to Aru from Pahalgam is an adventure. Very narrow road running by the banks of River Aru & negotiating sharp turns, finally takes you to the Aru. It is actually a place resting in the Lidder Valley.

Aru River
After about an hour’s time, we decided to leave back to Srinagar. We reach at the Dal Lake at 7 pm. We bid adieu to our friends from here & proceeded for a Shikaara ride. Actually our’s was a very short trip to Kashmir. 2 days here are insufficient. Our main aim was Vaishnodevi Yatra. Since we had couple of days with us, we planned Srinagar. But we were not able to visit the city (various Mughal gardens, Shankaracharya Temple, Hazaratbal Dargah, Tulip Gardens, etc). We skipped Sonamarg & Yusmarg.
Shikaaras - characteristic of Dal Lake
But being in Srinagar for two days & not visiting Dal Lake, was not acceptable to us. Hence, it was almost getting dark, but we decided to have a Shikaara ride. Shikaaras are the small wooden boats. They have a multipurpose use – mainly used for transportation of people apart for fishing, transportation of goods, aquatic vegetation and also homes. They are mostly made of Deodar wood. There are about 1800 Shikaaras here. A ride costs around Rs. 300 & carries about 4-6 people. We took a Shikaara ride. Our Boatman explained us some information about the lake apart from some view points. He was speaking fluent English apart from Hindi.

Dal Lake is the life-line of Srinagar. About 1 to 1.5 lakh people are dependent on the Lake. They live on the Lake; their earnings depend on the Lake (tourism, fishing, aquatic plantations, shops, etc). It is said to be about 22 kms in perimeter & forms interlinking with many small lakes & water bodies. Nageen Lake is also one such famous Lake for tourism. Two hillocks over look the Dal Lake – Hari Parbat on one side while Shankaracharya on the other.
Dal Lake with Hari Parbat at the backdrop
Houseboats form highlight of Dal Lake. These were originally built by the British. There was some rule by the Maharaja of Kashmir that building of houses in Valley was restricted. Hence British came-up with this unique concept. Since then, Houseboats have become part of Dal Lake. They are made from Deodar or Walnut wood, have intricately crafted interiors & exteriors and can be large enough to house 3 bedrooms apart from a Living Room & Kitchen. Price of a Houseboat normally is in Lakhs of Rupees while its life can be more than 100 years. Unlike Kerala, Houseboats here are stationery and parked along the banks of Dal or Nageen Lake or along Jhelum River. The boatmen show the Housboats where movies like Mission Kashmir & Bemisaal (Amitabh Bachchan) were shot.

Floating Plantations another wonder of the Lake. Locals here grow various Plants, Vegetables (Cucumber, Pumpkins) & Fruits (Watermelons) over the Lake waters. This is the technique is use since centuries here. These are formed by interweaving the weeds in the water forming mats. Plantations are done on these. It is like a farming done on the surface of water. The produce from these Floating Gardens form a source of livelihood for its farmers.

There is a full-fledged Floating Market on the Lake. From a hair-pin to handloom, everything is available. Shops are set-up actually on the boat. One just needs to get from his Shikaara to the other Shikaara-Shop. Various Shikaaras are moving in the Lake carrying small items like jewellery & vegetable for sale. Even, we saw one Shikaara selling Kedaabs.

Dal Lake is rightfully known as “Venice of the East” and more truly is referred as the “Jewel in the Crown of Kashmir”. It’s for this reason, the Dal Lake with its Shikaara forms the identity of Kashmir world over.

Our ride ended by 8 pm. A brief shopping & dinner followed.

July 24, 2015:
Tonight, we had our return train to Pune – Jhelum Express (11078) which departs from Jammu Tawi Station at 9.45 pm. We had some time off; so we decided to visit the Rahgunath Temple – one of the attractions of Jammu. It is a temple dedicated to Lord Ram; while has many small temples of other deities in the vicinity. The temple is located in the market area & is built by Maharaja Gulaab Singh.

Finally, we came to an end of our memorable trip; with a self-promise to visit once again – with a plan to spend more time in Kashmir. We reached Pune on the evening of July 26, 2015.


Jammu to Katra - Route Comparison - Road Vs Rail

Jammu to Srinagar

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