The ethereal kashmir has been a bone of contention between two very unhappy neighbours. But its lush green meadows, snow filled valleys, warm kangris, hospitable people and delicious cuisine keep drawing travellers despite the tension.
I did this trip independently with a friend without a tour package, guide or private taxi. Here are some useful tips if you would like to travel like me in and around Srinagar and mingle with locals.
Note: All prices mentioned here were recorded in December, 2015.
1. Bus from Srinagar airport to city: Airport is about 22 km away from the city. A few state transport buses arrive at the airport in sync with flight timings. They normally traverse the city and end at Dal Gate (where Dal Lake starts). The ticket costs Rs.20 till Dal Gate. If you’re keen on catching a bus, do not waste much time in the arrival hall, as the next bus will come only at the time of the next flight arrival. There is a counter inside the airport near the baggage belt to help with queries about the bus services. The person handling the counter is very helpful and polite. The bus is normally a rickety 20-seater, but not overcrowded. Everyone gets a seat with luggage adjusted around.
2. Shared taxis: For long distances like Pahalgam/Aru/Sonmarg, shared taxis are quite common. You can get one from the taxi stand at Dal Gate. At times, it can take upto 1 hour for the seats to get filled. It’s okay for men and women to sit together. A typical trip to Aru can involve two changes in between. Besides being cheap, it’s actually a great way to mingle with the locals. Be rest assured, someone will offer you help in changing taxis and it’s not that much of a hassle anyway.
A typical route to Aru from Srinagar (100 Kms/ 3.5 hrs) and back:
Srinagar –– Anantnag –– Pahalgam –– Aru (Rs. 80 + 80 + 40)
Aru –– Pahalgam –– Bijbiara –– Srinagar (Rs. 80 + 80 + 30)
In the off season, as it happened in my case in December, there might not be too many shared taxis. So, you might have to time yourself according to those that are available. For example, on the morning my friend and I were supposed to take a shared taxi back from Aru, we were suddenly informed that there was one leaving at 9 am sharp and there would be no other during the whole day. Our host rushed out to save seats for us while we had a quick breakfast.
Unlike Himachal, tourists in a shared taxi are not a regular sight in Kashmir. Therefore, do not be surprised if locals are amused by you and strike up a conversation. After all, that is the whole purpose of this ride, isn’t it?
3. Passenger Train: These trains often run late (by 15- 20 minutes) and are jam packed. We also had to stand halfway on our way to Banihal. Trains are poorly managed, there are torn seats and you can see garbage on the floor. But, let that not deter you to take the Srinagar- Banihal- Srinagar ride. The scenery outside on this 1.5 hour (one way) ride is nothing short of spectacular. There are forested valleys and villages on both sides of the track. These trains run all day. They start at Baramulla or Budgam and go upto Banihal with a total runtime of two hours. Srinagar railway station falls enroute. It cuts across the stunning Pir Panjal mountain ranges and passes through India’s longest rail tunnel between Qazigund and Banihal (11.21 km).
1. Ahdoo’s Restaurant: This 100 year old restaurant has been revamped. It’s little on the pricey side (Rs. 700 for Wazwan) but large portions make a dish good for two. The decor is modern with great service and food.
2. Mughal Darbar: This restaurant carries an old world charm. Prices are on the humbler side but service and food are on par with Ahdoo’s. Remember to go to the first floor of the building. The one on ground floor, apparently, is not the original Darbar.
3. Café M: If you feel like some coffee, dessert and therapeutic Kashmiri music.
4. Jan Bakery: The landmark establishment at Dal Gate for everything baked– cookies, kashmiri breads, snacks, cakes, pastries. I carried lots of stuff back home. They were all great.
There are two kinds of stay options in Srinagar:
a) On Dal Lake in a House Boat– If you’ve been to a houseboat in Kerala, you might not find houseboats of Srinagar as charming. Here, houseboats do not move around on water, they are all anchored on the side and mostly one beside the other. So in all likelihood, your room’s window might be opening onto someone else’s. Nevertheless, it could be an interesting option for a night or so to experience something different.
b) In a regular hotel– If you would like to pick regular hotels, these are two neat budget options: J.H. Bazaz and Swiss Hotel.
Unless there are some specific safety alerts, it’s perfectly okay to take a stroll in Lal Chowk or around Dal Lake in evenings. Chances are your hotel staff may warn you against it. But, I personally did not see any problem and it looked perfectly okay. But, please judge the situation yourself when you are in the city.
I was so enamoured by local hospitality that by the third day, I was tying a scarf around my head. Before some of you raise your eyebrows, let me tell you my reasons: a) To beat the cold, as it was December b) As my personal conscious effort to merge in the crowd. That’s it. I did not find it demeaning or a blow to my feminist alter ego. It was a choice I made as a traveller. There is no need for women to cover their heads otherwise.
In general also, if you would like to mix up with the local life, it helps to not stand out too much with your choice of clothing. And this applies to both men and women.
I am not a shopping enthusiast and I don’t collect souvenirs. I normally only buy speciality food items and edibles to carry back home for family. So here are few tips for shopping food items:
1. Dry fruits– Head to the no-nonsense (read, non-touristy) Badam Shop in Koker Bazar, Lal Chowk. Walnuts are a speciality of Kashmir region but other dry fruits are also available with this wholesaler.
2. Baked food items– Jan Bakery at Dal Gate for Kashmiri breads, cakes, cookies. Amazing selection.
3. Spices– If you enjoy Kashmiri cuisine, you might want to carry back the local Kashmiri Masala tikki. It’s a premade kashmiri masala mix which I have tried back at home and it works wonders! It’s easily available at local grocers and department stores.
4. Kahwa premix– If you like your Kahwa the traditional way, then this may not be for you. But, if you might like to have it the convenient way when you are back home, Kanwal’s Kahwa premix works just fine. It’s easily available at local grocers and department stores.
Richa Gupta is based in Mumbai, is an avid traveller and also passionate about writing and encouraging responsible and alternative travel ideas. After having worked in the fashion industry for over six years, she decided to quit and started with a little not-for-profit initiative to help people with travels which not only help support local culture, economy and environment but also offer life changing experiences. Her work and blog can be found at http://travels-and-stories.blogspot.in