Kashmir on your mind? The newly formed Union Territory of India, Jammu and Kashmir is welcoming travellers without any quarantine restrictions. This comes as a huge boost for Jammu and Kashmir as they made severe losses in their tourism sector due to the lockdown infused by the coronavirus pandemic. As Jammu and Kashmir has been experiencing an upward curve in recovering from the coronavirus pandemic, the latest news from the Union Territory is that a district called Doda has become coronavirus free as the hilly region has not registered a single case in the last 15 days or so.
Kashmir more often than not is misunderstood as a very volatile place, given its history. However, we can vouch for the fact that it is not only safe, but it is also among the most beautiful places you are ever likely to see on the planet. You will also meet some of the nicest people there.
Like many touristy places, Kashmir is also no stranger to tourist traps that are not worth your time or money. You must not fall prey to such tricks and at the same time, have a good time and take in the beauty of the place.
Staying in a house boat is not something you experience every day. My (Pramod) only experience before Kashmir was when I stayed in a house boat with friends 10 years ago in Kumarkom, Kerala. There, I did not just get to stay in one but also was chauffeured around the lake. On our house boat in Kashmir, the staff treated us as one of their own and took utmost care of us. They cooked us fresh food every day, answered every query we had and catered to every other need of ours.
But to our surprise, we were hassled by more vendors in our house boat. In situations like this, it is important to be firm and say No, but not be rude at the same time as it is their livelihood, after all. While we were able to get away without blowing money, Sakshi’s mom sympathised with them and eventually bought more than she would have usually. If you are planning to stay in a house boat, we would suggest you to talk to the owner in the very beginning, asking him not to trouble you with any vendors during your stay. That’s what we did on the second day and our house boat owner obliged.
We cannot stress enough on the fact that it is always useful to have great bargaining skills. The Shikara ride around Dal Lake is one of the most scenic rides. The calmness of the water, engulfed by the mountains around is a rare sight in the hustling and bustling cities, but in Srinagar, it is as soothing as it gets. Firstly, ensure you get a good deal before getting in. And once you are on the lake, you will be thronged by other Shikaras trying to sell you souviniers, clothes, etc. You get some of the best quality saffron in Kashmir and it is important not to get fooled by the ones they try to sell during Shikara rides, in which they offer you 1 gram of saffron for INR 80. In reality, a gram of saffron is at least INR 250. Please make sure you buy in authentic shops, which are available almost everywhere in the city.
There is little doubt that horse riding constitutes nothing short of animal cruelty. However, in many touristy places in Kashmir like Pahalgam, horses are used as a mode of transport to reach some scenic spots. In Pahalgam, to visit a place called ‘mini-Switzerland,’ riding a horse is the only way to go. One important lesson we learnt about bargaining there is always get the price down by at least 60%. For example, if they quote INR 2000, start from 1000 or 1,200. You are more or less likely to get a deal in that range. If not, just walk off as no part of the state is short of beauty.
At such places, you’ll spot many photographers with a DSLR camera, who’ll offer to take a series of photos of you during the journey. While it might look like a harmless deal, he will eat away a lot of your time at every step of the way making you do weird poses. For someone who likes to be left alone, it could be too much to take.
Tip: If you are seeing snow for the first time, Mini Switzerland it is a brilliant place to visit. If not, I would recommend not to take the trouble. The people, who we had been interacting with made it look as though it was going to be out of the world, but in reality, it was perhaps like any other meadow drenched in snow. While it was beautiful, we thought it was over-rated for the money and effort we put in. From our experience, we would suggest you don’t visit Pahalgam during winters. During the other seasons, you can hire a cab there and check other spots like Aru Valley, Betaab Valley, etc. That would certainly be worth it.
While local drivers are without a doubt the best guides, a few have ulterior motives. Ours was more determined to get us to buy things from shops belonging to his friends. So much so, because of his stupidity, we missed seeing a place on our list – Drang Waterfall and Valley near Tanmarg. We were enraged by it and called the owner of the travel agency through which we booked our car. She was quite understanding and insisted that we should have told her about it so that she could have had him changed (Noted!). Nevertheless, it did not leave a sour taste and we still enjoyed the trip. But, this is something that could happen to you too, so please be careful.
To find out more about our Kashmir trip, click here