Mughal emperor Jehangeer once said, "If there be paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here!" He was talking about the incredible Kashmir, a huge valley comprising a massive part of the northern-most state of India, Jammu and Kashmir. Here's my secrets to a safe and memorable trip to Kashmir, with keeping the budget in mind.
Myth #1: Kashmir is torn by war, terrorism and violence and is not safe to visit!
Fact #1: While its true that Kashmir faced a lot of war and terrorism in the recent history, but it's nothing more than part of history now. Kashmir is Safe! Peace has prevailed since last 3-4 years and tourists can feel really safe to visit without any headache. You'll find armed military personnel stationed every few hundred metres along the roads. Since the main economy of the Kashmiris primarily depend upon tourism, they're extremely hospitable and even in case of any problem, tourists are rarely harmed.
However, for foreign nationals, it's important that you get yourself registered with the Foreigners’ Registration unit of the Tourism Department. The registration counters are at Tourist Reception centers at Srinagar Airport, Srinagar City, Gulmarg, Sonmarg, Pahalgam and other places. In case of an emergency you can contact the nearest tourist police office or police station. The emergency number of the Police Control Room is 100.
Myth #2: Kashmir is expensive!
Fact #2: Kashmir is easily affordable if you know where to spend and where to save! If you want to spend lavishly, there's no dearth of 4 star or 5 star hotels across the valley. But if you'd like a budget travel, here's my tips:
- Avoid those ponies/ horses at Gulmarg or Sonamarg. While the touts would attempt to scare you telling it's 10-15 km walk and one can never complete by walking, it's a fairly comfortable journey. It takes about 20 min by walk at a medium pace from the parking to the Gondola (Cable-Car) at Gulmarg and about 75 min by walk (and 1 hour by pony) to the Sonamarg glacier. The 75 min walk might seem apparently long, but walking through the heavenly Sonamarg, you won't even realize how time flew by. Note that the walking route is different at Gulmarg than that of the ponies. While touts would like to misguide you to the longer pony route, the shortest route is to walk on the vehicular road along the meadow.
- Dal Lake Houseboats are fancy. But they are about Rs. 1000/- or more costlier than a hotel of equivalent quality. Nevertheless, one should not go back from Srinagar without staying in a houseboat. Best advice is to split your stay between one night at a houseboat and the rest at a hotel.
- When it's time to buy souvenirs or those traditional Kashmiri handicrafts, don't go to those bustling markets! Rather, choose those shops beside highways. They'll always give a better deal. And yes, products are highly overpriced and your bargaining skills would come handy!
- Visit in the off-season period of Winter and early Spring to get off-season discounts at hotels. ☺
Myth #3: Houseboats are unhygienic and facilities are limited; some even provide water from Dal Lake in the bathroom!
Fact #3: There are about 1400 houseboats in the Dal Lake, each with 2-4 rooms and a common dining-cum-living room. They vary in quality just like hotels. But in general, houseboats are clean and hygienic! And ALL houseboats have a direct municipal water connection, so you need not worry about the water you want to wash your face with! However, just to be safe, it's advisable to bring drinking water of your own.
Myth #4: Kashmir is best approached by air!
Fact #4: That's true only if you've a very strict time schedule. If you can spare an extra day, it's always advisable to take the scenic route via road! There are overnight trains from New Delhi and other trains from all major cities in India that'll take you to the nearest train station from where you can hire a car to Srinagar. The journey may be tiring but you'll never regret taking the breathtaking route once the Kashmir Valley first emerges at the Titanic View Point after the Jawahar Tunnel. However, since the road journey is really long, it's better to make the onward journey via road and train while taking a flight back from Srinagar.
Myth #5: Jammu is the best approach for Kashmir Valley by train/ road!
Fact #5: Wrong! The scenic, tiny station of Udhampur reduces the long road journey to Srinagar by 1.5 to 2 hours! Udhampur is a small station further ahead of Jammu. There are a few good direct overnight trains that'll take you to Udhampur from New Delhi. Even the train journey after Jammu to Udhampur is through a scenic route. And railway line construction is underway to connect Srinagar directly from Jammu, which would make the one of the most scenic train routes of all time. It's expected to be operational within 2-3 years.
Myth #6: Kashmir is best visited during the summers!
Fact #6: Kashmir can be visited round the year depending upon what you're looking for! If you'd like to see the tulips at full bloom and don't mind the snow, Spring is the time to go! On the other hand, if you'd like the snow to remain only in the glaciers and a more comfortable weather, Summer is suited for you. But keep in mind that the Summer brings tourists from all over India to Kashmir and it's highly overcrowded at that time. Moreover, there are occasional showers during May playing a spoilsport. If you'd like to avoid the crowd, get off-season discounts and play some winter sports, you'd love the snow covered Kashmir during the Winter!
Myth #7: You'll need at least 8 to 12 days for a memorable trip to Kashmir!
Fact #7: Even 5 days can be sufficient to visit all these places, if you're willing to make a tight schedule! Sample itinerary:
- Day 1: Fly in from New Delhi at an early morning flight to Srinagar, go out for local sightseeing. Night halt at Srinagar hotel.
- Day 2: Day trip to Gulmarg. Night halt at Srinagar hotel.
- Day 3: Day trip to Sonamarg. Night halt at Srinagar houseboat.
- Day 4: Travel to Pahalgam (early morning), local sightseeing upon arrival. Night halt at Pahalgam hotel.
- Day 5: Start early morning to get back to Srinagar, take a late afternoon flight back to New Delhi.
However, a more relaxing itinerary is recommended to do justice to the beauty of the Heaven on the Earth!
Must see places:
- Srinagar (Dal Lake and Mughal Gardens)
- Gulmarg (Gondola ride to LOC - Line of Control between India & Pakistan) - day trip from Srinagar is sufficient
- Sonamarg (Sonamarg glacier) - day trip from Srinagar is sufficient
- Pahalgam (Chandanwari, Aru and Betab Valley) - try to get a hotel beside Lidder River among the pine woods, not in the bustling main town. Note that you'll need to use a local Pahalgam vehicle for local sighstseeing.