Next morning we had to rush through
breakfast as our driver was waiting for us. It turned out there was no
need to rush as he was a bit late. We were not sad leaving Kargil behind
us and head on To Kashmir, that gave. The inspiration for the title of
The valley was much greener
now and that was not the only thing that changed. The architecture of
the houses changed and the prayer flags and stupas were nowhere to be
seen. We now arrived in an area where men wear beards and women are
We were at the crossover of
Ladakh and Kashmir and slowly Islam became more dominant. With the
valley being so much greener a lot more activity could be seen.
Shepherds were herding their goats, cows and sheep. Small, temporary
tents were dotted over the valley where they could stay the night whilst
away from home. During summer home was where the grass was greenest so
the cattle could enjoy a good feed before the harsh winter set in.
We started to ascend and
passed Drass, what is known to be the 2nd coldest inhabited place in the
world, and even in summer it was chilly, we were happy to have our
fleeces at reach. By now it started raining, there were thick layers of
fog and the landscape turned from vibrantly green to a dull grey. We
reached the last pass of this journey, the Zoji-La pass, which was at a
moderate height of only 3505 meters. To mark the crossing only a
signpost was there and immediately we missed the colorful prayer flags.
But we were moving into new territory with new beautiful things to show.
And just when we were
getting used to the beautifully tarred road conditions changed
dramatically as soon as we started to descend. A path, not wide enough
to allow 2 vehicles next to each other, no barriers to protect us from
crashing into the valley which was now hundreds of meters below us and
to make things worse… The rain has turned the path into a muddy and
slippery track so all ingredients were present for some more hair
raising moments. We even had to stop a couple of times and patiently
wait for a landslide to take its course and made the track even bumpier
than it already was.
Fortunately our driver
seemed to know what he was doing and we safely made it down the
mountain. We had already noticed the highly increased presence of
military troops and this remained to be so in the valley. With India
still being in dispute with Pakistan about the Kashmir region tensions
are still high. The situation however have been safe enough for a number
of years for tourists to visit so we could not wait to travel to this
mythical place ourselves.
As soon we passed through
Sonamarg, the meadow of gold, we were now descending into the Kashmir
valley. Somehow I strangely felt a kind of Swiss atmosphere. the houses
looked a like and certainly did the landscape. We passed through several
villages and everywhere the military was discretely, butt still clearly
Srinagar, the Venice of
India, as soon as we hit the streets we entered a bustling world full
traffic chaos, so typical for a modern Indian city. Fortunately we were
to leave that behind us as we were going to stay on a houseboat at Dal
lake. Our driver dropped us at a point where several gondolas were
moored and very soon we could enjoy a short trip to our houseboat.
Several boats were pretty close to the city but the more we floated
through the channels the more quieter it became, we could only hear the
peddling of the boatsman.
The arrival at the New
Crystal Palace, as our houseboat was called could not have been more
grand. The front of the boat was beautifully carved and a butler was
waiting to welcome us. inside it indeed looked like a palace. Heavy
wooden furniture, thick carpets on the floor and Crystal chandeliers. A
Living room, dining room and a long corridor where at the end our suite
was located. more Crystal chandeliers, a comfortable double bed, a
settee, and on suite bathroom, all luxury and lush decorated in a style
that remembered to the colonial years.
We zipped some Kashmiri tea
and biscuits at the veranda overlooking the lake and enjoyed the
different world we had just entered. The contrast with Ladakh could not
have been bigger. We were now ready to immerse ourselves in a new
Mr. Din Sultani, our
Buttler had interesting stories to tell about the region, he also told
us a couple of people would come by showing their products. Well, with
the intention of course to sell. The first one to show up was a local
with two suitcases filled with jewelry which must have been worth a
fortune. Pretty soon the table in front of us was filled with diamonds,
rubies, Safire, and a large selection of semi-precious stones.
Bracelets, necklaces, rings and other types of jewelry blinded us by
their beauty. Not all was to our liking as most of it was to richly
decorated. Paul found an attractive silver neckless while my eye was
caught by a neckless with 135 carat worth of small safires, something
totally different and beautiful in its simplicity. After we were able to
haggle the price down each of us ended up with a nice memory of our
trip to Kashmir.
Not much later we ended up
in an extremely interesting discussion with Aamir, a tour guide for a
group of Japanese staying at the same boat as us. We deeply got into a
conversation about the differences in cultures and questioned him about
some aspects of Islam we have difficulties with to understand, like the
lack of rights for women for instance. Guess we shocked Aamir a bit when
we told him we were already married for 13 years as gay relationships
are absolutely not done in this very conservative society. It was a
passionate conversation with respect for views from both sides. In the
end we could only agree to disagree but in the most respectful manner.
The discussion was
interrupted as Mr. Din came over to announce that dinner was being
served. And what a dinner it was. Sumptuous, tasty but far to much. It
was a true feast meal which the both of us highly enjoyed.
The rest of the evening we
relaxed at the veranda whilst enjoying the peacefulness and tranquility
offered by the fact we were located on such a quiet part of the lake.
After a good but very short
night of sleep we were woken by the alarm at 4:30. It was difficult to
get up even before sunrise but we were going to visit the local floating
vegetable and shower market. We left before dark but slowly the sun
started to rise whilst we enjoyed being peddled through the narrow
channels. Every now and then we saw a boat passing by, loaded with
merchandise while the seller must have been hoping for a good day.
As soon as we approached
the floating market we could hear the bustling cacophony of noises where
sellers tried to attract potential buyers or where they were
frantically were negotiating the best price.
What a place this was! We
were totally intrigued by what was going on around is and totally loved
the scenery. It was an amazing experience to see this ancient and still
very lively tradition. We found out that this was the daily wholesale
market after which the goods, obtained at a good or not so good price
depending on the negotiating skills of the buyer, were transported to
small market stalls for further sale to the end consumer.
Things could get quite
emotional as at one point we saw a seller and buyer in a hefty
discussion. The seller poked the buyer with a cucumber on his nose after
which the buyer angrily threw the money in the water. It was a
spectacular encounter to witness but somehow we feel this was all part
of the negotiating game.
We stayed about an hour
after which we slowly returned to the new Chrystal Palace where a warm
shower awaited us. Feeling refreshed we returned to the veranda where we
zipped some more Kashmiri tea until Mr. Din invited us to enjoy
breakfast. He told us he would be free after 10 O’clock and would like
to show us around Srinagar.
So just before 10 we
boarded the gondola again and headed towards the mooring point in
Srinagar. A driver was already waiting for us and within minutes we were
absorbed by the chaotic traffic in Srinagar. Our first stop was the
Jama Masjid, Kashmir’s central mosque and the pride of Srinagar city. It
was an enormous complex with 4 central towers, a beautiful fountain in
the center and 4 wings which in total could accommodate over 30.000
devotees at a single prater congregation, or almost 100.000 if the
central courtyard was included to. In contrast to the mosques in the
Middle east or Northern Africa we were allowed to enter and admire the
vastness of the place. There was not much decoration inside but the
carpets where the devotees took place during a prayer session were
certainly an eye catcher.
Once we left the mosque we took a stroll around the Srinagar Market, the perfect place to witness Kashmiri day to day life.
Our next visit was Sarson Ke Khet, another mosque which was totally erected in Cedar wood. Beautiful paintings covered the ceilings and although they were slightly damaged by the tooth of time we still got a good impression of them. Also the entrance was beautifully decorated but this time, we were not allowed inside, as a lot of praying was going on at the moment.
Third mosque of the day was the Hazratbal
mosque on the western shore of Dal Lake. The name Hazratbal means holy
place and is earned by virtue of the fact that the shrine contains a
holy relic, a hair of the Prophet Muhammad. The mosque is the only domed
mosque in the city; the other have distinct, pagoda like roofs.
Just when we were afraid
that this tour would turn into an overdose of religious places we headed
to Shalimar gardens, the abode of love. It is the largest and most
famous of the Mughal gardens and was initially created in 1603. It
contains 4 different terraces from where water flows downstream. the
planting was wonderful with great grass fields in between where families
picnicked, couples had a romantic encounters and school kids were
taught about the history of the place. It was a fantastic site to visit.
There are multiple Mughal
gardens in Srinagar and the second one we visited was the Nishat Bagh,
garden of joy. This garden has a total of 12 terraces and waterfalls.
As we could see it was tremendously popular with the locals enjoying a
bit of serenity to be far away of the chaotic streets of Srinagar. The
both of us thought this garden was even more beautiful than the previous
one we visited, maybe because of the abundance of flowers, the
architecture of the 12 terraces and the views over Dal lake.
It is unavoidable as it
seems but every sightseeing tour seems to have a mandatory visit to a
local handicrafts emporium in order to see how carpets are made. Oh no,
not again please, no more bloody carpets. After having seen a demo of
the knotting process, impressive indeed, we were offered some tea and
shown a variety of carpets. We patiently and politely admired the
craftsmanship, having difficulties suppressing a yawn or two, and after
the question which size or quality of carpet we were interested in told
the seller they were oh so nice but would totally misfit in our modern
house. Thankfully he did not push us to buy so it was an easy escape.
Instead we ended up in an interesting discussion.
It was time to return to
the new Chrystal Palace. Once again we found ourselves at the veranda
relaxing before we boarded the gondola again for a relaxing tour over
Dal Lake. In the beginning we floated through massive lotus plants with
what must have been thousands of flowers, a very impressive sight
Then we entered the
channels from where we could witness the day to day life on the
waterside of Srinagar from the comfort of our seat. And yes there was
again the to be expected visit to a papier mache factory, or better call
it a showroom. The pieces were beautiful and would fit in our house as
perfectly as the carpets we saw earlier so we left empty handed leaving a
couple of disappointed salesmen behind us. The same almost was true for
a visit of a cedar wood carving place. The majority of pieces, although
extremely craft full, would most certainly find a place at home. But
then there was a simple and beautiful wooden pestle and mortar in soft
shades of grey and in a moment of being very supportive we bought it, in
the sake of good luck for the salesman.
Back at our houseboat we
enjoyed the atmosphere over viewing the lake after which, what must have
been the best meal of this trip, was served to us in the dining room.
Another beer or two at the veranda after we called it an end to what had
been a wonderful day in Kashmir.
Next morning we had a bit
of a sleep in. Packed our cases, enjoyed a truly lush breakfast after
which it was time to say goodbye to Mr. Din as we were ready to travel
to our next destination, the hill station of Gulmarg.
Traffic in Srinagar was
horrendous and chaotic so it took us over an hour to get out of the city
premises. This time it really struck us how dirty the city was,
especially compared to the cities in Ladakh there was an abundance of
dirt around the roads. Cows were feeding themselves on the garbage,
sheep and goats on the side of the road and sometimes even in the middle
of the road. There was quite a bit of graffiti calling out for an
independent Kashmir. Go India, go back. From the comfort of our car it
was still an amusing experience though.
We were glad to leave
Srinagar behind is and now our driver was catching up speed. The
landscape was gorgeous, crops were grown, cattle was feeding from the
rich fields and it was an extremely pleasant surrounding to watch whilst
About 15 kilometers before
reaching Gulmarg we made a tea stop and immediately we were hassled by
someone offering us his services as a guide. I cannot remember how often
we said no but finally he got the message and headed off so,we could
enjoy our tea. Before we left he approached us again so we just decided
to ignore him.
At the car there was
another extremely qualified guide who got the same deal of ignorance and
then we were on the road. We were now ascending to Gulmarg and were
surrounded by beautiful pine forests. It was a lush landscape and we
could understand why Gulmarg used to be one of the favorite hill
stations of the British in the colonial times. We arrived at an altitude
of 2650 meters and almost felt like being in an alpine landscape. It
was an extremely beautiful environment which we immediately loved. We
drove around worlds highest green golf course over the world and made
our way to Khaheel Palace, which was at walking distance from the
Checking in at our hotel we
noticed it was a bit dark and tired (which is the polite way of
expressing our impressions), the room was huge but not long after we
checked in we discovered some issues with the shower which was only the
beginning of a sequence of unfortunate events. Fortunately this was
only for one night but we would have loved to return to our houseboat.
(and if you insist to read our complete experience at this ehh… hovel
have fun reading my review I left at Tripadvisor)
We left the room and walked
towards the gondola where we got two tickets for phase one of the ride.
Going up was a great ride through the pine forests watching what was
gliding away below us. People hiking up and down, horses and some small
villages only used during summer time. After 2,5 kilometers we arrived
the middle station where we had to buy two more tickets for the second
part of the trip.
Once again the right left
us through beautiful,scenery, that was until we were covered in a thick
layer of clouds and we could only guess where we were going. Not much
later we broke the clouds again and now watched out over the clouds,
gasping at some mountain peaks at the horizon. The 2nd gondola station
was not far now and now we found ourselves once again over 4000 meters.
In winter time Gulmarg is the prime Indian skiing resort and everything
was catering for this. A bit further of the summit were the remains of a
melting glacier and from the buzz what was going on there hundreds of
Indians were esthetically enjoying their first experience of snow. It
was a scene not to be missed!
Unfortunately we had
forgotten to put on our hiking boots which made the ascend over the
rocky surface a bit more tricky but we managed anyway. The sheer joy and
fun of the Indians who had been traveling long way to enjoy some fun in
the snow was truly infective. Paul and I thoroughly enjoyed ourselves
and kept laughing about the funny activities. Booted ladies, dressed in
their colorful saris tried to make their way up to the snow, some more
successful than others. The unlikely combination of a Sikh in the snow
brought a smile on our faces. tthe way how people sat on a sledge and
were dragged by two ‘ski-instructors’ to the summit, in order to came
down in a clumsy way was simply hilarious. Skis were placed in such a
way that photos could be made of the people standing behind them,
giving the impression to be actually skiing, which without doubt would
cause jaw dropping impressions once back home (the photographers were
even carrying bags with printers so the result could be seen
immediately). And yes, there was even some real attempts for skiing
going on. As said, the whole scene was too hilarious to be true and we
stayed for over an hour watching what was going on, something that could
have come directly out of a slapstick movie.
It was hard to leave which
we did anyway as both of us were getting a bit hungry. We returned to
the first gondola station where some simple restaurants (or should I say
food stalls) where located. Still we enjoyed a tasty lunch after which
we returned to the valley.
Dinner at our hotel was better than expected but as there was not a lot of entertainment we went for an early night.
Next morning our driver was
waiting for us and we asked him to get us away from her as fast as
possible, that was a bit difficult as the road was blocked and we had to
take a detour. Not much later we had fantastic views over the valley
and when we looked up n the sky we could see eagles and black crows
fighting for a spot and each of the species attacking each other. We
backtracked the same route to Srinagar and enjoyed the natural beauty
surrounding us. It was simply magnificent.
As soon as we arrived in
Srinagar we were quickly absorbed again by the chaotic travel. It took
us at least an hour and a half to get through and then the landscape
changed dramatically. Dense pine forests at both side of the valley and
in the middle a silver green river meandering its way downstream. It was
lush and beautiful.
We stopped for lunch and
enjoyed a very good vegetarian meal, a vegetable biryani (fried rice)
and a mushroom massala, it just proved that even in the simplest of
places a decent meal could be prepared.
There was still a long way
to go but the scenery was worth it. We passed little farming villages,
some tented settlements for the not so happy few and lots of agriculture
on the way.
And yes, the military
presence was stronger than ever. At one point we even had to take our
suitcases out of the car and had them checked by x-ray. We could hardly
believe it when told to do so but then this is still a highly volatile
By now we had entered the
Kashmir valley and somehow things did look a lot friendlier than in
Gunmar. Arriving at the hotel neither of us could suppress a sound of
relieve seeing what it looked like. Only by seeing it from the outside
we felt this was going to be much better and we were right. after having
filled in numerous forms at the reception we were guided to our room
which was much better indeed than the previous night. A quick check was
done whether the water was running and also that was the case. One again
we were happy travelers.
The rest of the afternoon
we took some time to relax and repack our suitcases for the flight home.
We went for a nice little stroll to the center of the city, crossed the
river to the other side and made a beautiful walk alongs the river
through pine forest and the golf club. The views were amazing, a bit
like Switzerland but then with an Indian touch. We saw a small
footbridge that we crossed to be back of the right side of the river and
found our way through a small housing complex where the less fortunate
lived. Some memories of my slum tour in Mumbai, earlier this year, came
back but that was a wrong comparison as this place was much smaller and
definitely much much cleaner.
Back at the hotel we sat in
the garden and discussed the options for tomorrow. We could go for a
guided walk with a guide, rent a driver and car to do some sight seeing
in the area or go for a pony ride. Seeing the condition of the poor
animals that was out of the question as we did not want to be cruel to
I was having second
thoughts about our return journey, having to leave at six in the morning
for what would be at least a four hour drive in order to catch our
plane to Delhi at noon. It all felt a bit rushed for me and I was not
happy with it at all. So I asked Paul what he would think to change our
plans and return back to the houseboat, spend the afternoon and night
over there and leave the morning after a sumptuous breakfast to head to
the airport. The result was a big smile on his face. In spite of the
additional expenses we would end our holiday on an absolute high ( I
guess I already made clear that we absolutely loved our stay on the
houseboat) and start our return journey in a relaxed way.
Both of us were extremely
pleased so we toasted on this unexpected but extremely nice change in
plans with a bottle of water. No beer or soft drinks were available so
we were a bit limited in our choice.
Dinner was great and tasty
and we did thoroughly enjoy it. We surfed the net a bit before we went
for a good sleep, it had been a long day…
We thoroughly enjoyed a
decent night of sleep, had a shower, did our final packing and were
ready to return for some final pampering at the houseboat before
returning home. Time schedules seems to have shifted a bit in this
hotel, not only was dinner at a quit late time fir Indian standards,
20:30, but the same was valid for breakfast. Not that we were
bothered…. Both of us felt extremely relaxed and knowing we would
return once more to our favorite hotel experience during this trip made
us feel happy and content.
The trip was slowly coming
to a close but what a fantastic trip it had been. Memories of our
hair-raising journey from Manali to Leh came back to our minds, the
fantastic monasteries in Ladakh and then the incomparable natural beauty
of the rugged Himalayas. Crossing the highest motor-able pass in the
world was a truly breathtaking experience and both of us were extremely
pleased that, besides some minor headaches, neither of us had shown more
severe signs of altitude sickness. It has been a most memorable trip
indeed and without doubt a very special and adventurous journey the both
of us have undertaken together. We certainly took our traveling to new
We enjoyed our breakfast
and the drive back to Srinagar. Halfway we made a stop at the
Avantisvamin Temple in Avantipur, dedicated to Vishnu. After having
spent most of our time in a Buddhist and Islamic environment it was nice
to finish of at a sacred place of a third of the major world religions,
Hinduism. The temple was build from 853-883 A.D. and was in a bad
condition, it were mainly ruins but at some place there were still
traces left to be seen from the rich carvings.
In the afternoon we made it
back to “our” houseboat, for one final time and indulged in the lap of
luxury provided by Mr. Din at the New Chrystal Palace. Relaxing whilst
enjoying the stunning views over Dal Lake, a dinner which was more like a
great banquet, a good night of sleep , and finally a sumptuous
breakfast. We could not have thought of a better way to finish off our
trip in Kashmir than at the place we loved the best. The New Chrystal
Palace at Dal Lake.
And then time was really
up. Back to the airport for the flight to New Delhi. There we had a long
layover of ten and a half hours before continuing to Munich and
Dusseldorf. Needless to say we did not feel like hanging around at the
airport for so long so we looked for something nice to do in New Delhi.
Well, we found much more than that…
Finish the Journey in Delhi