Do Not Be Afraid - Explore Kashmir!
Many people had warned us about the conditions prevailing in Kashmir. But that did not stop us because we believe in exploring places on our own than believing media influenced sayings. There have been many riders who have traveled before us and cherish good memories about Kashmir. It was our chance now to create some memories.
We started our trip from Nalagarh and ended back to Nalagarh. Nalagarh is a small town in Baddi district, 60 km from Chandigarh and about 300 km from Delhi. Since it was our parents anniversary we had planned to visit them first and spent two days before starting our road trip to Kashmir. From Nalagarh we took the following route: Anandpur Sahib > Una >Hoshiyarpur > Pathankot > Lakhanpur > Jammu > Udhampur > Chenani / Nashir > Patnitop Our first stay was in Patnitop. We had decided to stay here as this falls on the route to Srinagar. This is what google maps had suggested. But we were unaware of the fact that now there is a tunnel which bypasses Patnitop.
Chenani Nashir Tunnel
Though there are many tunnels on the way, this one was the most memorable one. It falls after crossing Udhampur. It was a major attraction for us, we had never in life crossed such a long tunnel. Later when we read about it we realized that this is not only the longest but also the first tunnel in the country with a fully integrated tunnel control system. It shortens the distance between Jammu and Srinagar by 30 km and reduces the travel time by two hours. It also bypasses snowfall and avalanche-prone regions.
Though it has been one of the infrastructural achievement for us it felt a little suffocating. Neither could we keep our visors on nor off. In spite of the several exhausts throughout, the pollution levels were much higher. After crossing the tunnel, the straight road led to Srinagar, and for Patnitop, there was a diversion. We, of course, took the diversion as we had already made our bookings at Patnitop and also it had been drizzling so we had to stop. The evening in Patnitop was a very pleasant one. There are a lot of parks to relax and absorb the greenery around. The thunderstorm added to the overall experience.
Next day we started for Srinagar and reached the same spot from where we had exited the tunnel. This time we took the straight road that led to Srinagar. The road conditions were extremely bad. Though the overall distance was about 200kms it took us around 6-7 hours to reach Srinagar. There was a lot of construction happening throughout the highway. Many more tunnels under construction to further shorten the distance.
Apart from rough roads, there were few interesting facts that we learned on this route. The most interesting is the difference that one experiences before and after the Jawahar tunnel. This tunnel basically connects Jammu and Kashmir region. On one side of the tunnel is Jammu where the terrain is dry and less green, but on the other side is the Kashmir valley, with snow-capped mountains which can be seen at a distance. The sky seemed clearer and brighter on the other side. Maybe because there was no construction happening after we crossed the tunnel. Another interesting fact about J&K state is that it is divided into three regions Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh. Jammu is famous for a lot of Hindu Shrines, Kashmir is famous for beautiful valleys and is majorly inhabited by Muslims whereas Ladakh prominently follows Buddhist culture and is famous for its remote mountain beauty. It is one state but is culturally and geographically very diversified. As we approached, Srinagar we were a little taken aback with so many army officials deployed all over. It felt like a war-like situation. It felt a little scary but soon we got used to it. Srinagar
The feel of the city is definitely very different than any other for few very major reasons. One of the major attraction is Dal lake which is surrounded by snow-clad mountains. It sets the feel of the city, Shikara ride and houseboats are added attractions.
Srinagar, has a lot of gardens which are also famous tourist points. We decided to visit one out of various options available. Nishat garden was the closest to our hotel. Its a garden built during Mughal rule, it has 12 steps with water flowing from top most layer to the last one which merges into Dal lake. The setup is beautiful. We could only imagine how it had looked in the times when there were no vehicles around.
We also met we our Kashmiri friends while we were in Srinagar. We met one of our friends in a very youth-oriented hangout place called as Chai Jaai. It showcased a very different side of Srinagar. There we had the famous Kehwa of Kashmir. The authentic flavors of Kehwa made our evening one of the memorable ones. With another friend met over dinner at his house. We were touched by the way Kashmiri people took such special care of us. He actually gave us a tour of the city and introduced us to few famous important places in Srinagar. It was a pleasant evening with him and his family. The dinner at his place was delicious.
During our stay in Srinagar, we visited city areas which were not major tourist points.
Sonmarg is around 80kms from Srinagar, which is approximately 2.5 hours of the ride. We started early morning from Srinagar. The weather was slightly cold and roads were absolutely empty. We crossed various villages and river stream on the way. Since we had a lot of time in hand we wanted to make the best of it. When we were almost halfway through we could not resist our temptation and went off the road to chase the river which was flowing alongside. The scenic beauty was worth the adventure.
After spending some time there, instead of going back to the main route we asked the locals about the alternative route. As expected we found the route but for that, we had to cross the shallow river first. It got all the more exciting and thrilling. With the help of the locals, we managed to cross the river. This route was untouched by any tourist. There were a lot of kids in school uniforms commuting by foot to attend their classes. The life of these locals seemed so peaceful and far from the chaos of city life.
Sonmarg, is a land of beauty and magic. The mesmerizing views just took our breath away. The openness of this place is beyond any description. It's incredibly beautiful. The majestic meadows and sound of fresh water kind of make you want to go lost in this place. The air felt so pure. The magnificent and gigantic snow covered mountains were right in front of us. They stood tall, strong and elegant at the same time.
Lucky enough we found a spot away from main tourist area. There was a river stream flowing nearby and we just could not stop ourselves to go off-road again. After spending some quality time by the river we moved further from Sonmarg, the roads were well maintained and we just kept riding. Next to Sonmarg is Baltal, which is the base for pilgrims of Amarnath. The yatra was due to begin in the month of June, so for now, there were not many camps except the army’s. We moved further ahead until zero point. This is the same route which takes you to Kargil and Leh. Zojila Pass was just a few km from here. Though our hearts ached to move further we decided against it.
Pahalgam is about 92 km from Srinagar. As predicted by the Met department, it was cloudy that day and by the time we reached Srinagar highway, it started to rain. We crossed a lot of small villages on the way. Throughout the roads were covered with dense trees on both the sides. It indeed is a scenic route.
Like Sonmarg, Pahalgam is another base from where the trek to Amarnath Temple begins via Chandanwari. This trek is about 40kms and is considered difficult. Pahalgam is situated on the banks of River Lidder and is surrounded by various valleys and lakes. It is also known as Switzerland of Kashmir which we could not disagree. We could cover two valleys during our stay, Betaab, and Aru Valley. Betaab Valley
It is interesting to know that Betaab Valley got its name from the movie “Betaab” which was shot here in the early 80s.
This valley has a well-maintained park with an entry fee of Rs 100/-. It is situated on the river bank, surrounded by snow-covered mountains. It's a picturesque setup and a major attraction for families. There is a lot of open space for kids to play and do some fun activities like zorbing.
We were here until late evening when it started to get dark and surprisingly very cold. There is a small snack counter towards the exit of the park, where we had hot coffee and Maggie before we headed back to our hotel. Aru Valley
Aru valley is located 12kms from Pahalgam and is 11kms upstream from Lidder River. It is a base camp for exploring glaciers and various alpine lakes. These lakes are also famous for skiing in winters. Approx 500 km of the area around Aru Valley is categorized under Wildlife Sanctuary and is a home to various endangered species.
The weather was not very promising the day we visited Aru Valley, it was clouded and we expected it to rain any time. Rains in-fact made everything look so surreal. The lush green meadows made our hearts ache. It was a little too much for us. We could barely keep our eyes off the scenery that surrounded us. Everything looked pretty relaxed and welcoming. The whole setup felt very European. We had a chance to have a long discussion with the hotel owner. It gave us a lot of insight about the area and about the problems that Kashmiris have been going through for so many years. The owner also recommended the trek to Tarsar Marsar lake. But we could not take this opportunity as we had not come prepared for trekking. But we promised ourselves that next time instead of staying in Pahalgam, we will make Aru valley our base and explore the nearby areas. During our stay in Pahlagam we explored a lot of areas which were not tourist points. We just could not get enough of it.