Ladakh trip day 13 and 14: In Kashmir valley

12, 13th July 2011

We had very little distance to cover today but a major bottleneck of the journey was Zozila Pass. Due to very narrow road, vehicles are allowed in only direction at a time. Hence we had to start as early as 5AM from Drass. The first rays of sun were falling on the Himalayan Mountains as we left Drass. Unlike the parts of Ladakh we had seen, the area around Drass was filled with greenery. The streams were numerous and looked “clean”. The amount of snow was also high.

On the way we saw Zozila war memorial. This is built in memory of the soldiers who captured Zozila from Pakistani intruders in 1948.

The road so far was good which made me wonder why Zozila is so hyped. I didn’t find any necessity of allowing vehicles from only one side. And then came the most dramatic part of the trip. Everything changed when we crossed one bend. We were now seeing the beautiful valley of Kashmir!! The barren lands were no more. The change was so sudden and unexpected. I had heard that Kashmir is great but to believe you need to see. Indeed it was so beautiful!!

And down in the valley we were seeing a huge township consisting of tents. We were wondering why people in Kashmir are staying at tents!! Until we realized that it was the Baltal camp of Amarnath Yatra!! I never thought that Amarnath Yatra is held in such a grand scale. It was a real bird eye view of the camp. The tents, vehicles, Helicopters taking off and the yatris walking towards Amarnath could be clearly seen.

And then we realized why Zozila is called a dangerous pass. The road down to Kashmir valley was extremely steep with vertical cliffs. It was the scariest journey of the entire trip. I could hear my heart beat each time the vehicle went to the edge of the road!! The photos here don’t give justice at all for this place. One has to experience to get the feel of Zozila. It was the last pass that we would cross in our trip!! As we got down from Zozila the road from Baltal joined the main road. We were now moving along Amarnath Yatris.

Sonamarg was the first town in Kashmir valley. At about 8000+ft it is famous for meadows. In fact the word Sonamarg means “Meadow of gold”!! A popular tourist destination in Kashmir. Right now we were looking for a good place to have breakfast. We found one pure vegetarian hotel run by Punjabis and promptly had food there.

One can sense the overwhelming presence of Army in Kashmir. For the safety of Amarnath yatris, army was deployed all along the way. The presence of Army gives lot of confidence to people like us. Militancy is at low in Kashmir but not yet completely eliminated. And more importantly Kashmiri Pandits are not yet back in valley. So, the situation is not still perfectly fine. But attacks on tourists are rare but one must be prepared for sudden strikes and hartals called by local people.

The journey from Sonamarg was slow due to heavy rush of Amarnath Yatra vehicles. But we were not complaining as we could enjoy the beauty around. Two decades of militancy has stopped all “developments” in Kashmir. Hence unlike Himachal or Uttaranchal, the area looks fresh and pristine. In Manali, at each direction you see a hotel or a resort. It is not so in Kashmir (At least the places we visited). And “Article 370” makes it impossible for outsiders to “invest” in the state.

We passed though the towns of Kangan, Gund and Ganderbal to reach Srinagar. We had not still decided about the place to stay. Our travel agent in Ladakh had given us a contact of a house boat owner. We called him up and got directions to reach. Srinagar seemed to be a much bigger town than we had thought of. Driver refused to take us to Dal lake instead he stopped at Srinagar taxi stand and asked us to take an auto. There is a strange rule that Ladakh taxis cannot roam in Srinagar. It is very strange considering that Ladakh is in the state of J&K.

We took an auto reach Shikara point. Shabaan our host was waiting for us. We went onto a boat and started towards the house boat. The life seemed to be relaxed looking at the slow of the boats there!! After about 10 minutes of boat journey, we were at the house boat. We never imagined that the house boat could be so luxurious and grand. Having bargained for everything in Ladakh, we were thinking of doing the same for house boat. But looking at its grandeur we decided not to do so!! At Rs 3000/- for 3 people (including food) per day was a good offer. I am sure that the same boat would cost 3-4 times more in Kerala!!

Just sitting at the verandah of the house boat and watching the surroundings was a nice time pass. Dal Lake was also house to several species of birds. We decided to do an hour long tour of Shikara ride on the lake. A great experience just to sit (or sleep!!) and enjoy the silent waters of the lake. The lake itself is like a township. People come on the boat and sell fruits, vegetables, clothes, food and even ornaments!! The boatman said that about 15,000 people stay in Dal lake. There were moving gardens, houses and shops on the lake.

After Shikaara ride, we decided to visit Mogul gardens. Having experienced the looting spree of auto guys, we had asked our host to arrange a nice driver for our tour. He was waiting for us at the Shikaara stand. We visited Shalimar, Nishat and Chashma Shahi gardens. Having seen Brindavan gardens in Mysore, I did not feel anything special in these gardens. A stream flowing in Chashma Shahi is believed to heal lot of diseases and hence people throng to collect the water. While in other gardens people take bath under the fountains!!

It was almost dark by the time we finished with gardens. There is also Shankaracharya Temple on top of a hill but unfortunately we could not see it. That was sad.

We had quiet dinner followed with a photography session on Dal Lake.

Last day:

Today would our last day of the trip. Since our flight from Srinagar was at 2PM, there was no hurry to get up early. At about 10:30AM our host came hurriedly and announced that there was a hartal called in Srinagar. He wanted us to quickly start to avoid any trouble. We quickly called for a boatman and left the house boat. Big thanks for our host who took complete care of us during our stay in Srinagar. He made sure that we get a taxi to airport and promptly called us later to make sure that we safely reached the airport.

We went through the empty streets of Srinagar. It was a complete bundh with not a single shop being opened. There were protestors on some streets but luckily we did not meet them!!

The security at Srinagar airport was unprecedented!! Never in my life had I seen such multiple levels of security. One needs to be present 2 hours before departure to cross the security checkups.

- Two km before the airport, we pass through a gated locality where all the luggage’s are scanned, people need to pass through metal detectors and vehicles checked completely (sometimes even by opening the bonnet!!).

- Again the baggage is scanned before entering into the main building. This causes long queue in front of the airport. This can be exhaustive as passengers need to stand in open sun. We had to wait for 45 minutes before our turn came up.

- Carry-on baggage is not allowed. Only exception is camera and laptops. Rest of the luggage must be checked-in.

- After collecting boarding pass one must go near the tarmac and identify his/her bags.

- Whatever we carry into the aircraft is checked. Unlike other places where they just do for formality sake, the checking in Srinagar is thorough. They open each and every zip of the bag, remove every time and make sure that it is genuine. They even clicked my camera to check that it was indeed a camera!!

- And just before boarding the flight, airlines themselves do a check on passengers!!

Finally, the moment had come to say goodbye to the great place!! It was a mixed feeling considering the great time we had in Ladakh and that we are going to our Homes after so long. This was my longest trip ever I made.

Ladakh hangover remains for long.

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