Kashmir Diaries III: To the meadows of gold and flowers – Sonmarg, Gulmarg!
“…Oh, pilot of the storm who leaves no trace, like thoughts inside a dream
Heed the path that led me to that place, yellow desert stream
My Shangri-La beneath the summer moon, I will return again
Sure as the dust that floats high in June, when movin` through Kashmir.”
- Kashmir, Led Zeppelin
When, way back in early 1970s, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Bonham penned the lyrics of the song ‘Kashmir’, sitting in a place on the other side of the globe, little did they know that the eponymous region was so aptly described in that song of theirs. However, to restrict the grandness of Kashmir within the mere limit of one song or one poem or one novel or anything – for that matter, would be doing a deep injustice to it. Kashmir is beyond what one might call heavenly. Entirely so.
So when our destinies took us to Srinagar, the city was bathed in the half light of the moon. Not much of the landscape was visible owing to the fact that it was night when we entered the city, and given that we’d had a long and tiring journey, we decided to go off to sleep. The next morning, after a proper Bengali breakfast consisting of luchi-aloor dum (which I decided to skip, inevitably), we set off for Sonamarg, now known as Sonmarg – thanks to semantic pejoration. At about a distance of 90 kilometres from the capital of Jammu and Kashmir, Sonamarg – which translates into English as the ‘golden meadow’ – is a famous tourist destination, and a trip to Kashmir seems incomplete without visiting the same.
Comfortably nestled in the lap of the Himalayas, the lush meadows of Sonmarg present a sight straight out of some dream. The Nallah Sindh, the largest tributary of Jhelum, runs loyally along the serpentine road through the valley. Glistening pebbles, shining oval stones of colours ranging from black through grey and white, the occasional log here and the leftover branch of some tree there – the stream of clear water down from the mountains make for an extraordinary visual treat. The landscape of the place hardly finds any parallel anywhere in the country; and one can safely bet something priceless on that. More than the actual destination, the way to Sonmarg is what leaves one mesmerised. The pristine, untainted beauty of the roads – be it the ubiquitous brown and yellow and red-leaved trees or the breathtakingly beautiful vegetation along the river – everything seemed to have a tale of its own.
Once Sonmarg is reached, tourists can avail services of either horses or other cars to travel up till the Zero Point – the place where people can see, feel and slide down on the snow. However, crossing the Nallah Sindh on the way, cascading down from the snow-capped peaks, on horseback, would rank as adventure in itself. The tlot-tlot of the hoofs on the slippery pebbles and the constant fear of falling off the horse is enough to provide an amateur rider with a potential heart attack. But no, safe and sound, we made it till the place – thanks to those delightful creatures called horses! There’s not exactly a lot to see in Sonmarg if manmade structures are what one craves for; but speak about nature – there’s hardly anything that one’s eyes would not want to lap up enthusiastically.
After spending an entire day rather wrapped in the untainted beauty of Sonmarg, we headed back to Srinagar. On the way, some piping hot extra-milky-extra-sweet tea and pakoras from a roadside dhaba acted as elixir. All the tiredness of the day seemed to vanish with a gulp of that delicacy. Gradually, we travelled back to the hotel.
The next morning meant only one thing for us: the prospect of seeing snow – a lot of it – and maybe, snowfall too. For we were to go to Gulmarg; and the mere utterance of that word conjured up visions of pristine sheets of snow and shining pearly white mountain peaks. Situated at about 50 kilometres from Srinagar, the ‘Meadow of Flowers’, as Gulmarg translates into, is a place which is famous for more things than one. The world’s highest golf course is located in Gulmarg, and the world’s highest gondolas ferry passengers daily in two phases, to and from Gulmarg to Kungdoor (Phase 1) and Kungdoor to Aparwath (Phase 2).
4500 metres above the sea level, a literal sea of snow, the uninhibited sun – shining steadily down on the mountain peaks – and in the midst of it all, glass trolleys carrying humans to that height – if this isn’t a snippet of paradise, who knows what else is! The journey upwards requires a total time of about twenty-two minutes. Through the glass doors of the gondola, all that appeared around was a wonderland. Nothing else seemed to matter within the glass cocoon: beauty; dangerous, blinding beauty; was all that made sense to the senses.
Up at Aparwath, ice-cold winds ranging from a gentle breeze to a terrible blizzard all visited us in bits and parts. The people manning the gondolas at Aparwath are particular about one thing: time. From the moment you get down to the moment you board the one back, half an hour is the maximum time you can spend there – give or take five minutes. Down at Kungdoor, one isn’t left with a lot of energy to explore the surroundings... Aparwath takes care of that!
Once down to Gulmarg, one has the option of strolling through the local market – a cluster of shops, basically – mainly selling woollens and other stuff. However, buying woollens from Gulmarg isn’t very advisable because shopkeepers tend to quote sky-high prices. Slowly, as the sun went down in the distance, with Led Zeppelin crooning ‘Kashmir’ into my ears, we started off for Srinagar... leaving tales of horsemen, snow-capped mountains and Gulmarg behind!
The next day was slotted for roaming around Srinagar... which would find its place in the next piece. Keep reading!