Monday, 23 November 2015

Birthday post

I had a hermit-y birthday this year. Conscience Keeper and I went on a long drive to sivasamudram, through lush fields, lakes and waterfalls (cyclones do have some advantages).  

We lunched at Gloria Sunshine a lovely home stay a few hours from the city and close to the falls

The joy of long drives

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Kashmir Diary (Day 3): Srinagar and living on a lake

Bangalore has been cloudy and cold ever since we got back, and I am wondering who slipped in the Srinagar weather with the rest of our luggage. After a snowy day in Gulmarg, I was hoping for a nice warm sun in Srinagar, but that was not to be.
Conscience Keeper in Gulmarg, warm in his t-shirt and thick skin
Later in Srinagar
The evening we arrived, the weather was dry and we enjoyed a leisurely walk around the Dal Lake and the markets in Lal Chowk. But the next morning, we woke up to a downpour. I complained so much that even the raingods got exasperated, and gave us a short dry spell, during which we covered a few gardens and forts.
Cold winds and rain, even though the Sun was out

At Chashme Shahi, which is surrounded by beautiful hills. Spot the rainbow!
The view of Dal Lake from Pari Mahal. 
Lovely blooms in Pari Mahal
A young Kashmiri couple was out on a date at the Pari Mahal. The boy, inspired by the scenery, broke into a 70s Bollywood song to woo the lady while she giggled. I forget the song, but he sang beautifully, and I enjoyed the eavesdropping.

The Botanical Gardens

Bliss is this. Downing kahwa and hot paneer pakodas while soaking in the prettiness
Later in the afternoon, we shifted to a houseboat in Dal Lake. We were eager to experience living in a houseboat, but our walk around Dal Lake the previous evening warned us to not imagine too much. The lake was teeming with houseboats, jostling for space. Conscience Keeper could not believe that the houseboats were stationery, and I had to actually call a friend to confirm that it was so.
The houseboat we stayed in tried to be opulent, with fine walnut furniture, intricately carved wooden panels, plenty of plastic flowers and all furnishing in red. While the common areas were bearable, I didn't like my room at all. It had damp mattresses and faded bedsheets, and it was too stuffy for comfort. Worse, it did not have an electric blanket (understandably so, because of the risk of fire). But for Rs 500, the caretaker put on the AC, and we settled for a furnace. Overall, we were a little underwhelmed with the experience, but with better weather and friends for company, it might be fun.
The houseboat we stayed in.  It is expensive to build a houseboat - it costs Rs 1.5 crore upwards to build one.

The dining area

Intricately carved panels

Furniture in the dining room

The living room
Amidst heavy rain, we set out on a 1.5 hours long Shikara ride to the floating markets. The floating markets sold everything, from handicrafts, woollens, dry fruits, wood carvings to even groceries.
I shopped for beautiful Kashmiri saris here :)

The floating Meena Bazaar

We were advised by the houseboat caretaker to shop here as the stuff was cheaper than in the market. We later discovered a nexus between the shop keepers, the caretakers and the boatmen (no surprise there!). Our shikara boatman begged us to not let our caretaker know we shopped at the floating market, so that he could claim the commission instead. We played along. The caretaker later came to our room and very casually enquired about our shopping. We told him we shopped at the Lal Chowk, and the conversation ended quickly. 
Srinagar in fact reminded me of pilgrim centres like Varanasi and Gaya, where you have full-time good Samaritans coming in your way to do good and charging you later for it. We even encountered sweet-talking waiters and guides who would corner us and demand tips like some of our Bangalore autodrivers do. Sigh!
The shikara in Dal Lake

Flower sellers

We had dinner, two days in a row, at the 99 year old Ahdoo's. Famous for its meat preparations, it offered us vegetarians Nadroo Yakhni, a delicately flavoured lotus flower preparation, a curry made with green apples, and the original Kashmiri Dum Aloo. All oily, but oh-my-god awesome! 
Dinner at Ahdoo's

The next morning, on our way to the airport, we stopped by the only bakery that was open for a quick tea. Bengal Sweets, located right outside the airport security checkpost, is run by a Bengali gentleman for the past 40 years, ever since he ran away as a 14-year-old from his home in Hoogly after his mother's death. A hole in the wall, it was crowded even in that early hour, and not surprisingly, because his tea and samosa dahi chaat were really good.
So after five memorable days in Srinagar - we called it a recce for a longer vacation - we left for Delhi. Hopefully, and soon, I would find myself in Kashmir once again, enjoying the tulips, the green meadows of Pahalgam and snow in the upper reaches of Gulmarg.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Kashmir Diary (Day 2): Gulmarg and the taste of India's Switzerland

I was gushing like a reality TV star before her big daring, but mine was pretty lame: I was going to see snow for the first time.

I held with disgust, at arm's distance, an unwashed, bloodstained jacket and gum boots that we rented on our way to Gulmarg's slopes. Shortly after, I was gratefully hiding under them. Temperatures plummeted as we ascended towards Gulmarg, a few hours drive from Srinagar. Snow had started a few weeks early, and we caught glimpses of snowy slopes through dark heavy clouds. "You may get lucky, you might be just in time for snow," said our driver, as he headed towards one of India's most popular skiing destinations.

Gulmarg at a distance

Gondola to the mountain top

We took a gondola ride to the higher slopes. It was drizzling and cold, and I put my hands out in delight. "Snow!" I said, as icy white particles settled on my gloves. "Hail," pointed out Conscience Keeper. So I stomped around the snow and sulked till fluffy white flakes silently settled on me. Snow - finally!

The slopes of Gulmarg

Out in the snow

There was plenty to do out there: skiing for dummies, sledging and motor biking. We chose to sledge.

And how! (See below)
B looked at this picture and told me I had violated his honor and so I should have married him ;)
Perched high above was this eating joint, which served the banned substance - Maggi! Someone was very, very happy!

I got introduced to the famed Kahwa - a sweet Kashmiri tea concoction served with almond and saffron strands. I could not stop having them.

With most tourists from West Bengal, the place was like a Durga Puja pandal, minus the goddess.

We hoped to explore the higher peaks, but gondola service to the next phase was suspended due to inclement weather. So after a wonderful afternoon out in the snow, we came back to our hotel. We stayed at Hotel Hill Top, which was comfortable (electric blanket - tick; hot water - tick; clean loo - tick), served decent food, and had an attentive staff. 

Snow was fun, but after a while, I really started wanting some warm weather. Bangalore spoils you.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Kashmir Diary: Day 1 (Srinagar-Pahalgam and every other place in between)

It is every 80s-Bollywood fan's dream to dance around tulip fields in Kashmir, and we made this dream come true this November. Well, almost, because no tulips awaited us (huge miss - by months - it is to be enjoyed in April). In four days, we covered Pahalgam, Gulmarg and Srinagar. (The entire trip was planned through which booked our air tickets, car travel and hotel rooms. Overall, we were happy with their services.)
Since it was the first week of November, the season was interesting - autumn was just changing to winter - but we were not sure what the weather would be like. In four days, we experienced autumn, rain, hail and snow.
When we landed in Srinagar on a Saturday afternoon, the city was enjoying a warm sunny day. We headed to Pahalgam directly from the airport, which took us about four hours.

The highway roads are still in disarray after last year's floods
A cool pick up line!

Along the way we passed through the lovely purple fields of saffron, bat-making factories and apple farms.

In the fields of Pampore, women pluck out the flowers from which Kesar (saffron) strands are extracted. This is the only place in South-east Asia where Kesar is grown. The harvest season lasts only a couple of months. Saffron is super expensive - 1 gram costs about Rs 300.
Kesar flowers
One of the women in the farm poses with her boy. She also generously offered me some flowers.
We also stopped by the ruins of the Avantiswamin temple in Pulwama. This Vaishnava temple was built by King Avantivarman sometime during his reign from 855-883 AD.
The ruins of Avantiswamin Temple

At the temple
There is a peculiar kind of delight, and also nutritional value, of plucking a fruit and eating it straight from a tree. We stopped by an apple farm and tasted the juiciest, sweetest Kashmiri apples. Unlike in Bangalore, where weeks-old apples are sold for Rs 50 a fruit, we bought them for Rs 50 a kg. Even then, we could overhear tourists haggling over the price of apples. Sigh!
Walking around the apple farm 
Grading of apples
A Kashmiri couple plucks apples from trees.. They offered us the sweetest apples we have ever tasted.
Somewhere along the beautiful road lined with Chinar trees, we fell asleep. We woke up from our nap to find ourselves in a pretty picture postcard place, complete with a setting sun, a noisy brook and snow tipped mountains. I hopped out of the car to breathe in the heavenly air, only to rush back to cover myself in sweaters and scarves (note the plural). 
In the outskirts of Pahalgam

Approaching Pahalgam
We reached Pahalgam just before dusk. There were crowds along the river bank and the popular Poshwan Park, but we chose to explore the inner lanes around our hotel property instead.

Lidder River

Young girls play in an open ground

Cricket remains the favourite game
Pahalgam's paradise has its rough edges. There is poverty, and lots of trash. Tourists have been merciless in their ways - there are mounds of plastic in the most pristine banks. The local authorities do not seem to be doing anything about it.

Trash banks along the river 
We stayed the night at Himalaya House. It wasn't as fancy as its next door neighbour - Pine Springs Hotel where we went for dinner - but we got a hot shower and electric blanket and a great view from our ass warming bed, which worked out just fine for us. The cook was absent (it is off season) so I had to make do with bread and apples for breakfast, while Conscience Keeper enjoyed his omelette and boiled eggs.
The hotel is built above a river channel so there is a constant buzz of the river in the background

The Himalaya House
The next morning, we enjoyed the company of two local youth in their 20s who had come to sell their wares - Kashmiri shawls and dresses that their family of seven embroidered at home during the harsh cold months. One has completed his BA, the other has trained in stenography (who does that anymore?). They both had a singsong accent so typical of Kashmiris, and spoke with much humility and respect. Despite their own financial woes, they kept insisting on giving us a discount, for "I am like his sister". Of course we refused to bargain or take the discount (we try hard to be responsible travelers), but their largeness of heart taught us a lesson or two.
We left Pahalgam for Gulmarg after breakfast, but I wish we could have spent a couple of days more. There is much to do and see in Pahalgam. There are special transport and mule rides available to travel to Betaab Valley, Aru Valley, Chandanwari and Sheshnag lake which are all a few hours away from Pahalgam. But then, in Kashmir, the 'here' is beautiful too, so staying put in my hotel balcony turned out to be a great idea too. Or so we told ourselves.