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A view from the 'Vintage Hotel' Kashmir | Coastweek

Coastweek -- A view from the 'Vintage Hotel' bedroom. If you are going skiing in Kashmir, November to March is a good time but February provides the best skiing conditions as it is a little warmer and has just the right kind of snow. PHOTO - AJUM ASODIA

Travelling across beautiful India should be an all year experience

 ARTICLE ONE  -- OF A THREE PART INDIAN TRAVELLOGUE WITH ANJUM ASODIA

GULMARG - ‘INCREDIBLE INDIA’ is the marketing slogan for the Indian Tourism board and they do not lie. One of the most versatile, colourful, vibrant and pluralistic countries in the world, where the north is totally different from the south, the east from the west, not just geography but language, food, lifestyle, characters, in fact almost everything.

The constants that you will see in India is the extremely large number of people everywhere, extreme poverty living next to extreme wealth, relentless hooting by all vehicles (trucks have a sign on the back encouraging the driver behind to hoot so that the front vehicle is aware of the car behind him), the rich and diverse history, amazing historical monuments, garbage (however this time Mumbai was a lot cleaner than just a few month ago when I was there, so maybe this is a start to better things at least in this huge metropolis), cheap and tasty (albeit spicy) food, superb cheap shopping and services, the real and unconditional friendliness and helpfulness of total strangers, incessant beggars and hawkers who will not take ‘no’ for an answer.

Depending on which part of India you are heading the best time will be different.

If you are going skiing in Kashmir November to March is a good time but February provides the best skiing conditions as it is a little warmer and has just the right kind of snow.

Summer in Kashmir (June to September), is equally beautiful with all kinds of flowers in bloom, greenery and pleasant weather conditions.

You can experience outdoor sports like golfing, trekking, mountain biking, horse riding, water skiing, and fishing during summer.

As you head south, the temperatures begin to soar, so the best times to go there would be October to February when it is relatively cooler, March gets warmer, April to August is unbearably hot.
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Heavy rains during July and August can make travelling tricky, September and October begins to get pleasant again.

Travel ‘N Style took care of all our domestic flights, internal transport and transfers, guide, driver and hotels which is the best way to do it if you want to do a lot of sightseeing and visit historic sites.

Bear in mind that all guides and drivers expect a small tip for their services.

Entry to historical sites and tours are paid separately on arrival at the site.

Once we decided which cities we wanted to visit and how many days per city, with the choice of hotels (two, three, four or five star), they gave us an itinerary and we picked out what we wanted to do in each city.

They then worked out the costing and took care of everything and our guides were good, driver was fantastic taking care of our needs including appropriate washroom (western) breaks on the highway, restaurants of our choice, and was there at exactly the time you asked him to come for a pick up.

 

travel writer and photographer ANJUM ASODIA | Coastweek

Coastweek -- All wrapped up tight: travel writer and photographer ANJUM ASODIA seen at the start of her Indian escape which took her through from Kashmir, Srinigar, Jaipur, Delhi and Mumbai.


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His local knowledge of the areas we visited was very good and in Jaipur he even took all my washing (five days for four people) to a local dhobi (washer person) bringing it back, washed and ironed, all for just 1,000 rupees (approximately 1,400 Kenya Shillings).

Our port of entry was Delhi at 9.00a.m., and we took a domestic flight to Srinagar just before mid-day.

Some domestic flights take off from the international airport while others are housed at the domestic terminal.

So give yourself that time to travel between airports depending on the airline you have booked, flight delays on the domestic routes are also common so always give yourself enough time to catch your connection.

Please note, that on domestic flights you are only allowed 15kg of checked in luggage and 7kg hand luggage, so make sure you only take the very essentials or be ready to pay 250 Rupees per kilogram for every kg over 15.

On arrival in Srinagar (one and a half hour flight) we were picked up by the guide and driver and taken to Tanmarg, (45 minutes) about half way to Gulmarg (the place of roses).

At Tanmarg we were transferred into a jeep with a chainlink on the back tyre so that we would not slip on the final ascent to Gulmarg on icy and narrow roads going around hairpin bends,

We reached Gulmarg, 2,690 metres (8,825 feet) above sea level, about 4p.m.

Kashmir, and in particular Gulmarg, has suffered immensely with terrorist attacks and incursions by the Pakistani army whose border is not too far from Gulmarg, consequently one could not visit as a tourist and the area was all but closed for almost twenty years.

This has left the province quite under-developed but with the heavy presence of the Indian army all over Kashmir, things have been under control for the last few years.

Gulmarg, at the base of Mount Afarwat, can be classified as a small village with nothing but hotels, dhabas, shops and kiosks that sell supposedly local handicraft (pashmina shawls and carpet) to renting out winter clothes (jackets, gloves, wellington boots, sweaters, scarfs, balaclavas).

Since Kashmiris do not like their women working you will only see Kashmiri males in Gulmarg doing all the jobs in the hotels, restaurants, driving the ‘taxi’, pulling the sleds, hawking etc.

These men make the journey every day from and to Tanmarg (about 45 minutes) as there are no living quarters for locals up here, except at large hotels which provide basic accommodation for their staff.

While the local people can drive a hard bargain they are also very trusting and will give you an item with the promise of payment on return even though they do not know you from Adam.

I went to a little kiosk to hire boots and the guy charged me 100 rupees a day, telling me to pay him when I returned the boots, no details taken – I don’t think he even knew which hotel I was from.

Another amazing trait among the Kashmiris is that when they are talking (their language is a mixture of Sanskrit and Persian) you don’t know if they are angry with each other or not.

A driver may get blocked or get stuck in the snow by another car and you can hear a very loud and animated conversation going on between the two, with, I am sure, quite a few choice words thrown in.

The very next minute they will come out, help push the stuck car out and hug as best friends, laughing away.

We stayed at the three to four-star Vintage Hotel which is very nice but a twenty minute walk from the ski slopes.

Walking from the hotel to the ski slopes is nice but only if you can keep your balance on slippery surfaces.

Otherwise you can hire one of the vehicles (taxis) that are plying the route and bargain a rate.

There are also many young boys and men who make a living pulling people on a sled all the way to the Gondola, but bargain is a must.

I was surprised to see the pesky crows have even reached these heights, but then India is not known for it’s cleanliness and it is common to see overflowing garbage bins with so many stray dogs foraging among them, on the way to the snowy slopes.

Winter hotel rates in Gulmarg are slightly lower than those in summer, the latter being their peak tourist season.

During winter, you would spend 9,000 rupees a night for a double on bed and breakfast at the Vintage, while the five star Khyber Hotel would charge about 12,000 rupees (USD 200) for the same.
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Khyber, located walking distance from the base of the ski slope, is on the scale of the Taj group of hotels. The entire hotel rooms including the gym and spa face the beautiful snow-capped mountains and valleys.

There are also many back-packer hotels which are much cheaper, like the Global Ski Village which is actually a one-stop shop for skiers.

Here, you can hire all your skiing equipment and a skiing coach in the basement, have a meal at the cafeteria on the first level and stay in an en-suite room on the second level.

For a personal ski coach and equipment you can pay about 2,500 rupees a day.

The room, which is very basic but clean and has a timed heater goes for about 2,500 rupees a day with breakfast.

Global Ski Village is located just off the beginner’s slope and a short distance from the gondola (cable car) base that takes you to the first level of the ski slope on the mountain.

Heating should be the primary factor when booking a hotel in Gulmarg during winter, it gets very cold.

Locals wear Kashmiri coats made of wool and pull in their arms out of the sleeves into their coats so it is a strange sight watching a man walking with his sleeves flapping in the wind.

Like all skiing trips, it is a must to have very warm but lightweight (preferably thermals) and waterproof clothing, with very good waterproof boots (proper ones for walking on snow and ice otherwise be prepared to fall and injure yourself).

All these can be hired from the shops and kiosks that line up the road to the ski slope.

The highest green golf course in the world is here at Gulmarg as is the ’Gulmarg Gondola’, one of the highest cable car in the world, reaching 3,979 metres while Afarwat stands at 4,200 m (13,780 ft) earning itself the title of the highest ski slope in Asia.

Due to Gulmarg’s steep terrain, the region is popular among advanced and extreme skiers from around the world and has been visited by a number of ski professionals and featured in a number of ski films.

At the first level of Afarwat, is Kongdoori Station (2,600 metre or 8,530 feet) where a small dhaba (cafeteria) serves everything from tea, coffee, hot chocolate, snacks, parothas, biryani, fried rice – the list goes on.

Sitting in the dhaba that is almost submerged in snow on all sides sipping Kashmiri Kahwa (green tea infused with saffron, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger and slivers of almonds) - is this paradise ?

A word of caution though – the washrooms here are still the Asian squat type and not heated so any water that is thrown on the floor ends up becoming icy and slippery.

Gulmarg has been the location for many Hindi films which include Bobby, Jab Tak Hain Jaan, Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani, Highway and the famous mandir scene at the end of Yeh Vaada Raha was shot at the Shiv Mandir bang in the centre of the village.

Gulmarg is by far the one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited and I am told that summer here has it’s own kind of amazing beauty.

 Jaswant Thada, a mausoleum built in memory Rao Jaswant Singh II | Coastweek

Coastweek --  Jaswant Thada, a mausoleum built from the best Makrana marble in 1899 in memory Rao Jaswant Singh II. PHOTO - AJUM ASODIA

The architecture draws inspiration from Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic forms

SRINAGAR - Our next stop for the night was in Srinagar, in the Kashmir Valley on the banks of Jhellum River. Founded in the third century BC, Srinagar is famous for it’s Mughal-era gardens, lakes and houseboats.

Take a trip down the old city, tour the Shah-e-Hamdan mosque built in 1400 in memory of Mir Syed Ali Hamdani who not only introduced Islam to the region but arts and craft including the famous Pashmina shawl.

The architecture draws inspiration from Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic forms and creates a wonderful blend of wood and stone.

Jamia masjid, also built in 1400, has 370 wooden pillars and can accommodate 33,333 people at any one time for prayers.

Once inside one is shut off from the hustle and noise of the old bazaar outside, even when standing in the perfectly square open courtyard from where you can see the high peaks surrounding Srinagar.

Handcarts outside in the bazaar sell mountains of potato and water asparagus pakodas (batter dipped fritters).

An hour trip on a shikhara (small specially designed wooden boats propelled by heart-shaped oars that have been here for centuries) on the placid Dal Lake is worth it.

Dotted on the lake are houseboats and mobile cafeterias on boats.

Houseboats were introduced during the British Raj when officers would come to spend the pleasant summers, away from the stifling heat of southern India.

In the past, houseboats were just one or two bedroomed with a kitchen, dining area, rooftop terrace and a verandah to sit on.

Because they were so small, one would rent a houseboat and float around the lake visiting other villages.

Now the houseboats are massive three-bedroomed (each en-suite with a proper bathroom), fully furnished kitchen, dining hall, living room complete with a central log heater, and a lovely verandah you can enjoy the evenings on.

With their huge size, they cannot move around and are parked on the lake where you can, like a hotel, hire either one room or the entire boat which comes with a cook and cleaner.

They have piped sanitation from the boat into the sewage system on land but the smell is still in the air.

This commercialisation has quite ruined the romantic vision I had of houseboats.

Handicraft shop which make beautifully carved wooden items from walnut trees, carpets, shawls, Kashmiri jackets are all over the place and the one we visited belonged to a man whose in-laws live in Mombasa.

Some of the very famous films (Shammi Kapoor has many, since Kashmir was his favourite destination) shot in Srinagar are Kashmir Ki Kali (Sharmila Tagore’s Hindi debut film), Jaanwar, Junglee, Jab Jab Phool Khile, Kabhie Kabhie, Lakshya, Mission Kashmir, Jab Tak Hain Jaan among others.

Staying at the Vivanta by Taj (about 10,000 rupees a night for a double on bed and breakfast) is a spectacular experience.

Perched on top of a hill with superb views of Dal Lake and the city with the Zabarwan Mountains in the background, it has plenty of decorative infinity pools of water which give a surreal look to the hotel.

Because of close proximity to the Pakistan border and past terrorism attacks there is a very strong presence of the army in Srinagar and Gulmarg.

Your bags are screened repeatedly - when you enter the gate of the airport, as you enter the airport building, and once again before loading on the aircraft.

You are also put through numerous personal security checks and must verify your bags on the apron after check in otherwise your bags are not loaded on the flight.

All laptops and ipads are switched on and verified at the security check.
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AGRA - From Srinagar we flew back to Delhi where we spent the night. The next morning we left by an air-conditioned Innova for Agra (about 200kms from Delhi) on the bank of River Yamuna, where we spent one night at the three star Clarks Shiraz.

Agra Fort, is an Unesco World Heritage site and won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2004

It can be described as a walled city on it’s expansive 94 acres.

Originally built as a brick fort by the Hindu Maharajahs and housing five hundred buildings, it was taken over by the Mughals in 1488 and they governed the country from this fort.

When the Mughals captured the fort, among the treasures was the famous Kohinoor diamond that is now part of the Queen of England’s regalia.

Emperor Akbar constructed the current red stone structure and in 1558 officially made Agra the capital of the country.

Shah Jahan, Akbar’s grandson destroyed some of the red sandstone buildings and re-constructed them with white marble, often inlaid with gold or semi-precious gems.

What was really stupendous was the construction of decorative fountains throughout the fort.

In that day and time, without any water pumps, the Mughals built proper working fountains, some emitting different coloured water.
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SEE ALSO:
 

 PART TWO

Four renowned Indian emperors have lived in mighty Agra Fort

 PART THREE

Royal family, concubines and mistresses were kept in 'Zenana'

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