Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Beyond Srinagar: Portraits of a Valley

Silently-busy morning on the water highways of Kashmir 
Somewhere in between the glamorous and the exaggerated lies the real cinema, a mirror to the world. Many stories of our times have been effectively projected by it and one of these is the script of an altering Kashmir. For the Indian film industry of the Sixties, Kashmir was the backdrop for almost all boy-meet-girl flicks, and one that famously captured the romance of the era was ‘Kashmir ki Kali’ and its classic song Yeh chand sa roshan chehra filmed on the beautiful Dal Lake with a dandy Shammi Kapoor wooing a coy Sharmila Tagore. Cut to present day cinema on Kashmir, and we have an inventory of militancy-centric films, be it the acclaimed Roja, Mission Kashmir, Sikandar or the now-awaited Harud. From portrayal of paradisiacal moments to screenplays of unrest, the canvas of Kashmir has unfortunately changed. What has, nonetheless, remained unchanged is its spellbinding natural beauty that unfailingly draws the traveller who usually returns thoroughly enchanted with a desire to revisit.

So enduring is this picturesque mosaic of Kashmir that nothing has managed to diminish its appeal, not even the trail of travails the land has been a witness to for over a decade now. In many ways, the popular snapshots owe their longevity to standard government websites and brochures; to the aforementioned era of Indian films that lavishly projected them on screen; and most of all to poetry the landscape evokes, enthralling commoner and royalty alike, leading a certain Jahangir to famously exclaim “If there’s paradise on earth, it’s here…” a quote that continues to sketch an alluring picture of the Valley.

Popular postcards
Tulip Garden: In bloom between mid-March & end-April
Think Kashmir and the first image to waltz into the mind is Srinagar’s Dal Lake with its elfin shikaras, followed by a sequence of frames which include, skiing in neighbouring Gulmarg, the lovely Lidder river frolicking through Pahalgam, the squinting-blue lakes and rainbow-coloured grasslands of Sonamarg etc. This is the well-known, oft-visited Kashmir. Lying quietly beyond are its relatively unknown pockets waiting to be explored.

Despite rampant urbanisation Srinagar remains a pretty spot with lots to charm a visitor. There’s its bouquet of Mughal Gardens (a worthy addition to this is the Tulip Garden off Dal Lake that’s in bloom from mid-March to end-April), traditional embodiments found at Downtown, inviting houseboats, the quintessential floating market, chinar-fringed golf-courses, and much more. It’s a fine base for several rewarding excursions too and the month ahead is ripe to set-out to make your own little discoveries.

Natural canvas
The Valley has distinctive biodiversity and one of the places to get familiar with it is at the seemingly-boundless Wular Lake (45 km appx), lying between the towns of Sopore and Bandipore. Considered among the continent’s largest fresh-water lake, the River Jhelum fills its basin before moving on. Wular’s ecosphere makes it home for a remarkable variety of avifauna and the fag-end-winter temperature of March is still a good time for birding enthusiasts to get acquainted with the Central Asian migratory population that nestles in its waters. For birders, another notable habitat is the Hokersar wetland (12 km), where encroachments and gun-shots had affected arrivals, but recent reports suggest increased avian landings. While on the fauna trail, the Dachigam National Park (23 km) is an unspoiled landscape to visit. If fortune is on your side there will be a chance of spotting its most prized resident, the endangered hangul (Kashmiri stag), the only species of red deer found in the country.

The tapestry of Kashmir is filled with aqua hues of its myriad lakes, rivers and springs. These have influenced the region’s culture and been a muse for poets and artists. If driving into Kashmir, a few km after the NH 1A zips out of the Banihal Pass in the lap of the Pir Panjal Range, a few detours lead to a string of places with the ‘nag’ suffix, denoting ‘spots with spring- water’. These have been developed for tourism and among the line-up are Anantnag (known for the ancient Martand temple considered an architectural masterpiece), Kokernag (which as its name suggests has a spring whose waters spread like the claws of the cock) and Verinag (the source of River Jhelum). Standing a league apart and about 45 km off Anantnag towards Shopian, is the flamboyant Aharbal waterfall, said to be the Valley’s best. Its water originates at Kousernag and on reaching the rock crevice here lets out a roar as it cascades down 24 mt amidst a surrounding of sky-kissing deodars.

Lake trek: It's to be experienced 
Water trek and other trails
The landscape of the Valley with rolling hills and a network of waterways is ideal for the adventurer. Hiking and trekking paths appear almost magically and frequently as you drive into the countryside. Over the years some trails close to tourist spots have attracted their share of mountaineers, as Khilanmarg, Tangmarg, Drang, Alpather lake (all around Gulmarg) and Thajiwas Glacier, Gangabal Lake (both around Sonamarg). Amongst the newer spots, gaining in popularity is picturesque Yusmarg (47 km via Charar-e-Sharief) where the roaring River Doodh Ganga flows through its scenic meadow ringed by fir and snow-capped hills. Besides offering a lovely riverside locale perfect for old-world picnics and camping, this is the take-off spot for a number of treks, the favourite ones leading to Nilang Lake (4 km) and Sang-e-Safed peak (10 km).

The challenges of a surface trek notwithstanding, if time and budget permit one of the most splendid ways to get a real feel of Kashmir is to opt for a water trek by the shikara. It’s a sensory feast and a feasible two-night/three-day circuit is the Dal Lake-Manasbal Lake-Wular Lake-Nageen Lake round trip. This includes pitching tents by the lakeside at night, waking up under crystal blue skies to cups of kehwa and nun chai served with typical accompaniments as kulcha, tchzot, bakerkhaani (assorted breads), tucking into scrumptious local cuisine, and in essence getting to taste a slice of the slow life away from the world of i-pads and i-pods. If this tour were to be given a grade it would definitely figure in the top-twenty checklist of lifetime experiences.

Road and rail
Coming a close second in the listings of special experiences is a journey by train through the Valley. The railways arrival in 2008 generated widespread thrill and the tracks were made operational in parts over the next two years. With the entire 119-km rail-route now functional, it has given a new dimension to travel in the Valley. As the train chugs through the chinars from Baramulla to Qazigund, connecting north Kashmir with its southern tip in about 3.5 hours, it provides an incredible peek into a never-seen-before lifestyle.

There’s new flavour elsewhere too. Until recently the only road link between Kashmir and Jammu was via the NH 1A. That has changed with the opening of the much-awaited Mughal Road for light vehicular traffic. This centuries old route—traversing mountains over 11,000 ft and apparently preferred by Shah Jahan to reach Kashmir—connects Bafliaz-Poonch in the Jammu region with Shopian in the Valley. It’s a fair weather road and remains inoperative in winters but summers see a rush descend here to experience a drive on a path of history. The inaugural Mughal Road Rally has already set the pace and more voyages should follow.

It’s time for you too to pick your passion and enjoy a season when the Valley adorns colour after months of snow-white. You’ve seen it on reel. The real picture awaits an audience.

Quick facts:
Air: Daily from Delhi & Jammu; Railways: Jammu is the rail head for the region; Road: NH-1A connecting Jammu-Srinagar is an all-weather road. Taxis take around 8-10 hours for the distance. For more info: JKTDC Booking Office (0194-2457930, 2472644)

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