Staying on a houseboat on Dal Lake was a unique experience. At first it felt a bit stifling as I could not go to a cafe for a cuppa whenever I wanted to as I had to wait for a shikara or water taxi to take me to the shore. But after a day I got used to the serenity of the lake, the gentle calling of the birds and the vendors. It was much better to stay in a boathouse rather than in a hotel on the boulevard. I wish the residents and tourists would take better care of Dal Lake and stop throwing plastic and other wastes in the lake.
The best part of the stay on Dal Lake was getting up at 4:30 in the morning to catch the congregation of vegetable and flower vendors, otherwise called the floating market. Fresh vegetables and flowers are sold here every day and the vendors must make a very early start, even before dawn. The serenity of the Lake perhaps helps them to keep calm as we were surprised to see people bargaining without raising their voice. The environment was all very friendly. One of the flower vendors gifted me with a nice big lotus. We got delicious walnuts covered in chocolate, vanilla and/or lemon along with freshly baked walnut, coconut and honey cookies from the sole floating confectioner.
Five days and nights of bliss on Dal Lake ended too soon.
The old part of Srinagar is a place not usually recommended by tour operators or locals. We are always on the look-out for nooks and corners not frequented by tourists. My husband, Shakil, fortunately came across a young local guy at the premises of Hazrat Bal Mosque, who recommended we take a ride through the old town. And so we did. I always found the pictures of places like Ladakh, Kashmir, the northern areas of Pakistan very alluring with their narrow alleys, wooden architecture and a particular look and feel of the sunshine in these places. I dreamed of visiting such alleys a thousand times and finally my dreams came true.
I have read about Hazrat Bal Mosque and Dal Lake in Salman Rushdie’s novels. It’s amazing that I got to see these places with my own eyes. Coincidentally, I was reading Midnight’s Children on my way to Kashmir and while I was there. The Dal Lake, Tai the boatman, and references to Kashmiri blue in the novel took a whole new meaning.
The three not-to-be-missed places in Kashmir are Sonmarg, Gulmarg, and Pahalgam. A horse-ride in Sonmarg takes one very close to glaciers. One can opt for a walk too.
In Gulmarg, cable cars ply and stop in two phases – phase 1 is about 8k feet and phase 2 takes one up to 13.5k feet. As we went up on the gondola, we could see the ski tracks all along the way. At the very top, one can try out sledging or skiing with experts or like me, one can simply rest on a rock and revel in the pristine air and the bluest of the blue skies.
But the best was yet to come for us. Pahalgam was superb with its emerald green valleys, fresh green meadows, natural flora of so many different hues of pink, yellow, purple and what not! It was a steep horse-ride of an hour and a half to a meadow where few tourists go. There were only me, Shakil, Maroof, the guide and not forgetting the horses, Pawan and Hira. As we let Pawan and Hira graze among the grasses, we wandered on the meadow, taking in all the nature. We met a family of four who were very warm and hospitable, inviting us for tea. Pahalgam was worth all the hurt and bruises from the 3-hour long horse-ride up the valley and down the dale!