A ten-day holiday in Kashmir at the fag end of spring before the onset of the peak summer season – wife and I visited Kashmir for the first time, from 20th to 30th April. A few notes based on what we experienced first-hand…
The first thing that strikes you when you are travelling from the airport to Srinagar is the number of armed military / paramilitary personnel along the road. Every 50 metres there is a person with an AK-47, standing guard over the civilian population going about their business. CRPF/BSF/ Army are everywhere; they move around in convoys under heavy protection, even routine movement of personnel is in fully armoured vehicles. About one in fifteen people resident in Kashmir now is a military overseer.
Shrinagar is like any other city, with its share of hustlers, touts, and tourist-traps. It is however, much more understated, orderly and clean than other Indian cities – it reminds you of a European city. It has the Dal Lake, several beautiful gardens, and it has a bustling old city where we enjoyed walking around.
The cab from the airport to the city costs 1000 rupees for a distance of 16 km. If that sounds high, it is, and it is also in line with general cab rates in Kashmir. Except in the busy parts of Shrinagar city where there are some autos, Kashmir as a whole does not have hail-down cabs, Ubers, Olas, public buses or any other form of transport except private-hire yellow-board cars. We always believe in hiring an Innova for the entire length of any trip, and in any case here you don't have any other choice. However, compared to Uttaranchal, Ladakh and West Bengal, where we have toured in the mountains, there are some differences here. First, the cabs are much more expensive. Second, it is not possible to use your cab to tour any of the "spots" in and around any town that you stop in – you have to hire a local cab for that, again at exorbitant rates. For a ten-day trip in Uttaranchal we would probably pay 45,000 to keep an Innova with driver with us at all times, at our beck and call. In Kashmir, expect to pay 60,000 or so, and spend another 25000 or 30000 on cabs to tour within each town that you visit.
The hotels are not great for the price – value for money is something that you should not be worried about if you are visiting here. For a hotel with the same facilities as you get in any other Himalayan destination, expect to pay roughly double.
It is not even full-season yet, and tourists have descended in droves. There is no accommodation available and hotel rates are being pumped up further. Come May, it will be worse. And even worse, the Amarnath Yatra starts a month from now, which will add thousands more to the number of tourists.
We landed at Shrinagar, and headed out the next day to Aru Valley, 16 km from Pahalgam. We were quite happy to give Pahalgam a miss – a beautiful place quite overrun with tourists. If you are staying at Pahalgam be prepared to pay premium prices to go to places where hundreds of others are jostling with you for a look at the scenery. Aru, where we were, is out of the way and much better in that respect. We were at a quaint small home-stay called Rohella Guest House. We went to Simthan Top, about a hundred kilometres from there, a day trip. It is a must-do trip, about the same distance even if done from Shrinagar. Wonderful views on the way, and when we reached the top, it was actually snowing. As it usually happens in India, right on top of the pass, there was a tent with a chaiwallah serving chai and Maggi. I don't touch the stuff, but Maggi is inescapable wherever you go.
From Aru, we landed at Sonamarg where we had one full day. Seeing the crowd, we wanted to escape; Sonamarg is incredibly kitschy in its touristiness. We didn't want to sign up for the obligatory pony ride to take the obligatory sled on the local glacier. So, on our driver's suggestion, we headed out to Naranag. That was the best decision of the entire trip. Naranag is the starting point for the Kashmir Great Lakes trek, and we did trek to a place called Dumail, a confluence of two rivers ('do' + 'milan' = dumail), a distance of about 5 km. The trek is worth doing, the entire route is like it is out of a picture-book, with a river running throughout by your side, and pine-covered mountains and snow-capped peaks in sight. In fact, the entire Kashmir Great Lakes trek is a must-do, from whatever I hear – it is six days of similar terrain in which you trek.
From Sonamarg, we headed to Gurez Valley, a remote back-of-the-beyond destination, on the LOC with Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir. Again, a wonderful journey, and a great place to stay, though only for a day. Beyond a day, there is nothing to do there.
From there to Shrinagar, where we spent some time exploring the old city around Jama Masjid; checked the prices for a Shikara ride on Dal lake and decided that the experience was not worth it; and visited one of the gardens for which Shrinagar is justly famous. We never bothered to include Gulmarg on our itinerary and are glad we didn't, since other travellers reported experiences like standing in the queue for two hours just to take the obligatory Gondola ride!
The people of Kashmir are wonderful, warm, and genuinely hospitable. One question I get asked frequently from my friends and acquaintances is whether Kashmir is safe. Kashmir is not just safe, it is ultra-safe, even for solo women travellers, and always was, even during the height of the terrorist problem. At no place do you get any feeling of discomfort, and you can be assured of help from the locals wherever you go.
The scenic beauty of Kashmir is undeniable. The beauty here is very different from, say, a Himachal, or an Uttarakhand. However, you are in a kind of a peculiar situation here. The places with facilities where you won't feel bored, are too touristy, and the places which are out of the way lack the facilities which most tourists are accustomed to. And the prices, both of hotels, and of transport, are definitely not what one can term as value for money.
The trip to Shrinagar Airport to take the flight out was a memorably bad experience. The security measures, coupled with lack of basic things like trolleys, make it quite a nasty experience for passengers.
We have been to several Himalayan destinations so far including Ladakh, Sikkim, Uttaranchal and West Bengal. Kashmir is no doubt very scenic and beautiful, but every one of these other places is equally beautiful. And they have much more to see and do, are much bigger in size and scope, and are more friendly on the pocket too. Except if you are coming here to do a trek – I intend to come back to do the Kashmir Great Lakes trek – it is an overhyped destination. Many and varied are the places you can visit, even if you consider only the Himalayas; and many of those places are worth considering over Kashmir.