Tag: Kashmir

Exiting Kashmir

The last day of your vacation is always the toughest. After 7 incredible days here and lifetime of memories to take back, our driver said there were a couple more places he wanted to take us to before heading back to the airport.

Zeshat Devi Mandir

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The first was a little known temple close by to the The Lalit Grand Palace in Srinagar, the Zeshta Devi Mandir. I am typically averse to most temples because of the huge crowds that throng most temples. This one was something our particular driver liked to take his guests. It was up a few winding roads and there was absoultely no one there besides us. It was a simple structure but nestled between some beautiful mountains.

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The Lalit Grand Palace Srinagar

As I had mentioned while there are a ton of options for accomodation, for tourists on a budget there are also options for the rich and famous. Our driver very confidently told the security at the hotel gate that we were here for lunch when asked if we were guests going to check in to the hotel.

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After getting through with confidence we got off to take a stroll inside the hotel grounds. While I can imagine that the inside of the hotel were suitably lavish being a 5 star hotel the best part of the hotel was it’s spectacular location. With huge open grounds in the front and incredible mountains behind it felt like a place that you would want to one day want to stay at. DSCN2171.JPG

We took a small horse buggy ride offered here before heading out.

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Don’t miss out on Kashmir

In today’s age of Whatsapp and Twitter news has become more accessible and dangerous. It is as fast to spread misinformation as it is to to benefit from these modern technologies. On the day that we had arrived the internet had been shutdown for 2 days to prevent this very problem. Our driver told us that despite the inconvenience it was a good thing.

Our 7 days spent were some of the best. Media and politics has absolutely destroyed the livelihood of so many locals that rely on tourism. The warmth we felt here from the locals was genuine. They want nothing more than peace for their state. The acts of a few nefarious elements have unfortunately come to represent the nature of all it’s people. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In a tourist driven economy they want nothing more than to make tourists feel safe. That anyone would willingly do something to jeopardise this is unthinkable.

Kashmir was absolutely breathtaking. It’s no wonder everyone fights over it. Despite everything you may hear on TV or the internet it’s a place every Indian must visit once in their lives. I advised everyone who has asked me since about travelling to Kashmir if it was safe. I told them in the 7 days I spent there this is what I felt.

I am more likely to lose my life in a road accident in Pune because of it’s unruly traffic, than I am from anything that could happen in Kashmir

Gulmarg

Apprehension

We were only 2 days away from returning back to Pune. We were pretty excited about going to Gulmarg. When we got ready to head out, our driver told us there was a situation in the general area that we were headed to. After 5 days of unworried vacationing this was our first whiff of the other side Kashmir. The ugly side that the media and people tend to hype up. As it happened there was an altercation between military forces and some students that had lead to the death of a student.

You only live once

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Our driver left the decision up to us. Gulmarg is the crown jewel of Kashmir and after coming all the way here I just didn’t feel like going back without seeing it. So despite my wife’s reservations we decided to go. I’m glad we did. The city of Srinagar was shutdown for the day. Besides some areas that were cordoned of on our route and an increased military presence we made our way to Gulmarg without incident.

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We finally reached Gulmarg after making our way up desolate winding roads. Once we reached the top we were saw that it was the most the most crowded of all the spots we visited on our entire trip.

Gondola Ride

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Gulmarg has some stunning places to stay at the top and it has been the location for several Bollywood movies. Once you reach the base you go further up via a Gondola ride that costs you Rs 600 per person. While it is expensive, it is run by the government so you can be assured that it is safe and you aren’t being fleeced by anyone. Also it offers incredible views and the gentle pace at which you move up the mountain is an experience of it’s own.

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One thing to keep in mind is that while food and accommodation is relatively expensive in Kashmir, the activities that you can do when you reach the famous spots, can burn a decent sized hole in your pocket. However since it was our last real day in Kashmir we decided to go all in and it turned out to be the most expensive day for activities. We were so out of cash that we had to borrow cash from our driver on the way back.

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Once the Gondola drops you off at the first base point, you can stay there and enjoy the various activities like skiing, sledging or the snow motorcycle rides. Or if you chose to spend another Rs 900 you can take the next phase of the Gondola ride that goes right up to the top of the mountain. Some guides told us it wasn’t worth it but we chose to go anyway.

End of the World

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I was so glad we did. While there is nothing to do in terms of activities at the top when we alighted the Gondola we simply felt like we had reached the end of the country. The only signs of life besides a few tourists around us was an army bunker camouflaged with the snow in the distance.

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We couldn’t spend much time here as the Gondola was close to shutting down for the day. The ride back down down a steep slope was an equally amazing experience.

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Once we made it back to the first base we spent a lot of time just soaking in the views. For those us who have never experienced a snow filled landscape like this one it was hard to think of leaving that view behind. We spent a lot of time clicking pictures here and finally decided to come down via snow sledges that are sometimes dragged and sometimes driven by the downward slopes of the mountain.

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Safe and Sound

On the way back there was no traffic on the roads owing to the strike. Another driver joined us on the way back because the family he had taken to Gulmarg decided to stay back for the night due to his fear of the incident. We didn’t see much traffic on the way back but we did see a local public transport bus. They told us if a public bus is on the road it means that things are ok and we could travel further on without worry.

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It was a long day that started with a little nervousness but we were glad to be back safely with some incredible memories to bring back for the day.

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Gardens of Kashmir

It was the day that we were finally visiting the gardens of Kashmir. After having some poha that was spelled as puha in our hotel menu we headed out early. While I love gardens of all kinds, my wife is not a big fan. Since we were to spend the entire day exclusively visiting gardens she wasn’t the most excited as we headed out.

Parimahal

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Our first stop was a ride to Parimahal a terraced garden that offered spectacular views of Dal Lake as well as the city. Situated on a hillock we had a great time walking across it’s multiple levels each offering different views of Srinagar. The crowds were moderate and a gentle breeze accompanied us everywhere.

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While I had initially imagined Kashmir to be a conservative place with couples not tending to show their affection in public this place completely surprised me. There were young couples everywhere and it seemed like this was one of those places where they were truly free to just be themselves and enjoy each other’s company.

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While there are lovers names scratched into the walls at some places thankfully it wasn’t so much that it became an eye sore.

Chasmeshahi

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Chasmeshahi falls on the way to Parimahal at the top but we chose to go here on the way back from Parimahal.

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It has a point of fresh water whose source is not known. Our driver told us that Nehru’s water came from here. While it’s upto you if choose to believe in this I think a story whether true or made up always adds to the charm of any place you may visit.

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Nishat Baug

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Next up was Nishat Baug a 12 step terrace garden built in 1634 A.D. Overlooking the Dal lake from the first terrace onwards and extending to a great distance upto the uppermost terrace it’s a vast garden lined with fountains water channels and chinnar trees.

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Once we went upto the last terrace we stopped midway to just lie down in the grass and listen to some soft music. With the perfect weather that day it was a sublime experience.

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Shalimar

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Built by Emperor Jahangir for his wife Noor Jahan this was the last of the mughal style gardens we saw before heading to the Tulip Gardens

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Tulip Garden

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The Tulip Garden is open only for 1 – 1.5 months in the year when the tulips are in full bloom so were lucky to see them. Late evening is the best time to see them as the afternoon sun makes it hard to see them for a longer stretch of time.

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Botanical Gardens

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We still had some time to to spare after visiting the Tulip Gardens so we ended the day with a silent peaceful pedal boat ride at the neighbouring botanical garden. Most people tend to give it a skip but I highly reccomend it.

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Betab Valley & Chandanwari

The first part of this series can be found here.

The second part of this series can be found here.

The third part of this series can be found here.

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After waking up a little early to this amazing view, we checked out of the hotel and headed into town for our trip into Betab valley. We couldn’t take our private car here so we needed to hire a local car from the stand to take us there. You pay them based on the number of points you wish to see.

Betab Valley

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Betab valley got it’s name from the movie Betaab starring Sunny Deol, that was released in 1983. It had several scenes shot here and subsequently it has regularly been used as a location for movies. The day that we were here, filming for a Tollywood movie was in progress.

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A view of Betab Valley from the top

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Our Little Guide

While we don’t usually hire guides, there was an enthusiastic little guy who offered to guide us for a small fee. He told us that he was studying in Std 8th. With so few tourists around, it really looked like he could do with some money so we let him accompany us.

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No one but us

Betab for me was a place of desolate beauty. Besides us there were just 5 -6 tourists walking about. While that is a sad thing for the locals it really let us appreciate it’s beauty with nothing else to distract us.

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Our rather poor attempt at building a snowman

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Chandanwari

After spending about an hour at Betaab Valley we headed towards the Chandanwari glacier.  These are a few photos taken while were driving towards it.

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Once you reach Chandanwari you can do a small trek up. Most people don’t go right up to the top as it can be a little strenous. But we chose to go up higher than most.

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It was a fun climb upto the top. The view from up there was worth it. Our boots would often sink into the snow right upto our knees. Having snow get into your boots can be quite an unpleasant experience and I had to stop a couple of times so our guide pull out my shoes and empty it of the snow. Neverthless slipping and sliding down the glacier was a fun experience.

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Avantipura

While we were on our way back to Srinagar we stopped at the Avantipura ruins. It was most recently where the song Bismil from the movie Haider was shot.

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Plastic

We stopped once again at the dry fruit shop from the previous day as our driver had to pick up a larger quantity of Kesar for a previous customer worth almost Rs 15000 to courier back to him. As it was the 4th day into our trip I noticed that there were signboards  proclaiming a polythene bag ban at several places. When I thought about it I realised that while Kashmir wasn’t a perfectly clean state it was much cleaner than you might expect. It may be hard to say if this can be attributed to the plastic ban or due to it’s nature as a tourist state but I hope that things continue to get better.

Pahalgam

The first part of this series can be found here.

The second part of this series can be found here.

On the way to Pahalgam we stopped at a dry fruit shop that sold almonds, walnuts and saffron. The almonds that we tried here were different from the ones we are used to. They could almost be described as juicy, oily and really fresh. We ended up buying way too many expensive and tasty dry fruits. By the time we paid up and were ready to leave the total weight of them worried me a bit. I’m the kind of guy who is always worried about his luggage getting tagged as overweight at check in. We also tried some authentic Kehwa tea that is a Kashmir specialty. It might not be to everyone’s like but don’t leave Kashmir without trying it atleast once.

Bat Factory

Though me and my wife have absolutely zero interest in cricket, another couple in a car tagging along with us wanted to buy a bat. So we made what is considered an essential stop on any trip to Kashmir. This particular road had scores of shops lined up on either side of them. The Kashmir willow tree, whose wood is used to craft these bats is what makes them special.

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To Pahalgam

The district of Anantnag that falls on the way to Pahalgam was once known as Islamabad. As with our previous ride to Sonmarg we had another river the Lidder to keep us company along the way.

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On reaching Pahalgam we checked into a small hotel with a beautiful view of the same river. While there are other better hotels available in the main town area we preferred this one one which was right inside a little village.

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Pahalgam has two different sections that you typically visit from there. The first one takes you uphill and after another negotiation for a pair of horses we set off again. This particular ride is a tough one for the horses as well as their guides. It was hard not to feel a little guilty riding these gentle creatures as they slowly and made their way up some pretty steep slopes.

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The ride consists of a few designated points along the route and we stopped here for a bit of Bhajji by the river.

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When you reach the top most point you can enjoy some truly stunning views. We took a break here to do a small photo session in traditional clothes that you can simply wear over your regular clothes.

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One of the last points is up at the top where you can find a large flat piece of land. This serves as a skiing start off point for tourists when it is covered with snow in the winter months.

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There were some points during the ride that our guide would point out locations where scenes from some famous classic Bollywood movies were shot. Me personally not being too familiar with these movies made it hard to relate.

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The entire ride can take easily take 2 -3 hours which gave us plenty of time to chat with our guide who was a fairly young guy who had just started college. We learnt that horses names were Dharam and Veer. One was a little older and always took a longer and carefully calculated route while the other one always took the shortest one possible. Descending the slopes while on your horses can seem a little scary initially. It requires that you put complete faith in the horses and their guide.

He also asked me about my profession. When I told him that I worked as a game designer he responded by telling me they love playing Teen Patti on their mobile phones to pass time during the cold winter months.

When we made our way back to the village below one of the locals casually asked us where we were from. When we mentioned Pune he immediately said Keshavnagar Mundhwa which is the exact area where we stay. He said that he loves that place and it’s people and invited us to his home for tea. We were too tired and just a little bit sceptical to accept his offer.

In a tourist driven city when a local mentions that he knows the city you came from it’s easy to assume that he is only saying that to entice you to spend some money on his wares or some other experience. However in this case we had to assume that he was telling the truth because it was highly unlikely that he could have guessed correctly the exact area that we stay at in the vast city of Pune.

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We had a nice dinner at a place called Nathus in the center of the town. There were only 3 -4 other tables occupied in an otherwise fairly vast restaurant. To truly understand how much tourism has fallen in Kashmir, Bilal our driver told us that there was a time that you had to wait an hour to get a table in this very same restaurant.

As we settled into the silence of the night the only sound that lulled us into sleep was the Lidder river.

Sonmarg Kashmir

The first part of this series is available here.

Dal Everywhere

On our 2nd day in Kashmir we headed to Sonmarg which, along with Pahalgam and Gulmarg is one of the 3 main tourist areas in Kashmir. It’s a one and half hours’ drive from Srinagar. One of the the first things we realised on our drive there is how huge and pervasive Dal lake truly is. It felt like we could see a part of it no matter where we were in Srinagar.

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Kashmir & Politics

While I’m not much of a follower of the political situation in our country our driver was fairly chatty and informative about it. He was a big fan of our former Prime Minister Mr Vajpayee. According to him at the time that he was in office most of the people of Kashmir believed he was heading down the path that would have bought much needed peace to the beleaugured citizens of the state. He said a greater threat to Kashmir actually comes from China. All the squabbling between India and Pakistan seeks to benefit them the most.

The Sind River

We took a pit stop at nice open air cafe by the Sindh river on the way to Sonmarg. The river remainined beside us all the way to our destination.

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Bargaining Skills

The process the government has in place, to ensure that the locals in all areas can make a living from tourism means, that we couldn’t take our own private vehicles beyond a certain point on reaching Sonmarg. So we needed to hire local vehicles or horses for the rest of the journey. Dozens of locals hounded us as soon as we got out of the car. Our driver had given us some preliminary advice on negotiating the best prices and an agreed upon gesture from his side to indicate that we had settled for a reasonable final value. We used that system everywhere from then on.

The Gentle Pace of a Horse

After negoitiating horse rides they remained our gentle companions for the better part of 4 hours. While hiring a vehicle would have saved us time, the easy, gentle pace of these creatures let us appreciate the beauty of the mountains and the river beside us in the most relaxed and enjoyable way possible.

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As we trodded gently up the road we saw several sections where an avalanche had come through and then been cleared away. We have seen the ferocity of avalanches on TV and here we were moving calmly through the aftermath of one.

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The Sind river continued to keep us company

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The sheer beauty of this region gives you a sense of why India, Pakistan and China fight over it.

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Sonmarg Picnic Point

At the end of the horse ride while they remain tethered outside you can spend some time at a small enclosed area where you can participate in some snow activities like a sledging and skiing. We did neither preferring to just walk around in the snow.

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Who is God?

On the way back we had a fascinating discussion on the concept of belief and religion. I am not a religious person but I am always fascinated by others perspectives on it. Our driver while a believer in God was completely against false prophets or men who are treated as gods. He said if you don’t believe in the traditional concept of God just consider your parents as your gods.

Hazratbal Masjid

On our way back from Sonamrg we stopped at the beautiful Hazratbal Masjid.

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As beautiful as the structure is, the gardens and the overlooking lake and mountains in the background make it a perfect place for those who wish to pray or just enjoy a few moments of peace.

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Late Night Walks

While our hotel had excellent food the menu was a little limited so we thought of trying dinner elsewhere for the night. We weren’t sure if it was safe to go out at night, but our hotel guy assured us that it was completely safe no matter when we went and came back. So we tried South Indian for dinner and ended the night with a walk by the Dal Lake which was only a few meters from our Hotel.

The next post covering the 2 days we spent in Pahalgam is here

Into Kashmir

Apprehension

When we first decided that we would celebrate our 3rd anniversary in Kashmir it was a decision driven by budgetary constraints. The unrest in the region was never at the forefront of my mind until we actually started telling people we were planning to go there. Most people only asked us questions that fell into the category “But is it safe to go there?” It gave me some unease and I did begin to go online and look up news. There had been a violent incident just a couple of days back and an unexpected bout of rain and snowfall. To put my mind at ease, I called our driver in Kashmir who was going to take care of things. He assured us that, as tourists we would not be affected by these things.

Flying Quick

It was the first time I had booked a flight with only 40 mins between connecting flights. I was a little worried when the first flight from Pune to Delhi was a little late getting in. Luckily it turned out the same airplane was going on our onward flight to Srinagar. So we just had to wait outside the plane for a while as it under went maintenance.

While long haul flights can be uncomfortable experiences, short ones are a breeze and this one afforded us some additional pleasures like the view of snow capped mountains as we began to descend into Kashmir.

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The view of snow capped mountains from our airplane window

Flora and Food

After we were picked up at the airport by Mr Bilal our driver and semi guide for the rest of our trip we started towards our hotel. We saw scores of Chinar trees along the way. The Chinar (maple) a tree with a lifespan of 500 to 600 years was once unique to Kashmir in India. Numbers have fallen in the last few decades.

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It was about lunch time once we had checked into the hotel and we decided to order Dum Aloo Kashmiri which is a dish that is available almost everywhere in Pune. We were curious about how it might taste here. Turns out, quite different and much better than the version we get back home. Our local version tends to be on the sweet side while the Kashmir version was bursting with flavour.

The First Temple

Post lunch we headed to the Shankaracharya temple where photography was not permitted. Below is an photo from Wikipedia.

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The Ancient Shankaracharya Temple – Srinagar – Wikipedia

Roughly 250 steps lead up to the main temple. After arriving from 38 C temperatures in Pune the cold breeze blowing at the top, the amazing view of Srinagar and the silence offered us some much needed respite and peace.

Dal Lake

Taking a Shikhara ride across the massive Dal lake is an essential experience. After negotiating a good price with the owner we set out on our ride at about 5 in the evening. As soon as your boat begins to float away the first thing you will experience is vendors on their own boats trying to sell you various items like jewellery, souveniers and saffron. With tourism having dropped so drastically in the state it can feel a bit cruel to wave them away. However once you are clear of them is when you truly enjoy the beauty of the lake.

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You can easily spend 2 -3 hrs on the ride revelling in the views and the silence of the lake. The Shikhara ride covers a few designated points spread over the lake. We took our time at each.

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We stopped at this floating cafe to pick up some tea and pakodas. Having both while floating gently across the lake was a great experience.

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A floating cafe

One of the other interesting points is the floating market. Consisting of a handul of stores selling mostly garments and handicrafts your Shikhara stops beside the one your wish to go to and you can step off for a while to do a bit of shopping.

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The floating market

Lining the side away from the land are scores of houseboats where you can choose to spend a night. Surprisingly, most people, including our driver advised us against staying in a houseboat owing to the smell and general hygiene issues you are likely to face.

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Houseboats

Before heading back to the road we chilled out for a while at a point called Nehru Park which is a small park in the middle of the lake. It also houses a small book store /coffee shop in a small building.

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Nehru Park

While we started the ride in daylight towards the end of darkness has set in completely. With the lights from houseboats and the edges of lake surrounding us it felt different yet as nice as the day time. Drifting slowly towards land as it went dark, with nothing but religious chants to break the silence, was a truly sublime experience

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I intentionally included this blurry picture but it seems to perfectly capture the surreal nature of our ride as the night set in.

The next post covering our day spent in Sonmarg is here