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Kashmir Part I: Chandigarh - Amritsar - Srinagar - Zojila - Kargil - Sankoo trip in August 2013

A few years back, I could not imagine myself taking a domestic flight and hiring a cab (with driver) from the airport for further sight seeing! But, this is exactly what we ended up doing for a Srinagar - Leh trip. Amit, Priya, Preethu and myself started from Bangalore airport on a saturday morning to board a Bangalore - Mumbai - Chandigarh Indigo flight and landed at Chandigarh by 2. An hour later we were picked up by the Xylo - Amit had booked - outside the airport. Xylo was spacious enough for four of us and the driver, with the luggage taking up the last row.

Our plan was to head to Amritsar first and catch a glimpse of the Golden temple, before leaving for Srinagar the next day. The contact person took us out of town as our driver for the entire trip - Sriram - was to join us on the way. We met him on the highway an hour later and the keys were handed over to him by our contact person. The real trip was to begin now!

It was about 4 by then and we were extremely hungry. Sriram stopped at the next available restaurant - Mahal - which was vegetarian. Amit - who recently started having non-veg - was very keen to have Punjabi chicken, prompting us to skip this. Next road side dhaba was skipped too as it did not look very tidy. But then, it was getting quite late and we ended up stopping at the next dhaba which did not look any better. Food too was a disaster, totally spoiling our first 'chicken-at-a-dhaba-in-punjab' experience!

It was getting dark by the time we were near Phagwara - a place name I have heard a lot from child hood, thanks to the JCT Phagwara football team. Just past Phagwara, we joined the Grant Trunk Road coming from Delhi. This section of the road is also the North - South corridor, before turning towards Pathankot / Jammu after Jalandhar. According to Amit, the NH95 to Ludhiana and Grant Trunk Road from there could have been a better option to reach Amritsar. In any case, the roads were quite good after Phagwara. I was quite sleepy to look at the roads and started dozing off soon, only to be woken up as we were nearing Amritsar.

We were soon in the busy streets of Amritsar asking for the way to Golden Temple. With names like Jallianwala Bagh showing up in sign boards and Wagah border located just about 30 kms from Amritsar, we could not help contemplating about some extra time at Amritsar. But then, it may not have been a wise thing to do as we had very little time and too many places to explore!

At about 8.30, Sriram dropped us near the Jallianwala Bagh memorial which was closed by that time. It was a no-parking zone and he had to go and find parking, while we were looking around for the entrance to Golden Temple. With a lot of people heading inside, it was not at all difficult to find the way. We gave our shoes at the shoe store and had to walk around a fair distance to reach the temple. Looked like it rained the whole day and the roads were flooded and muddy, making our bare-foot-walk a little interesting.

The Golden Temple is the popular name for Harmandir Sahib, thanks to the gold covering of the upper floors of this Gurdwara. Harmandir Sahib is considered the spiritual and cultural center for the sikh religion and hosts the Guru Granth Sahib, the central religious text of sikhs. It was built by the sikh guru, Guru Arjan, in 16th century, amidst a tank 'Amrit Sarovar'. Amritsar got its name from 'Amrit Sarovar' ('Amrit' is nectar of immortality and 'Sarovar' is pool). Harmandir Sahib has four doors which symbolizes the openness of sikhs towards other religions. Needless to say that the Gurdwara is open to all persons, with the expectation that they observe a few basic decorum including wearing a head scarf as a sign of respect.

We saw a lot of people selling scarfs to cover the head, but Amit said that we could get one for free at the main entrance. As we reached the main entrance, Amit showed us 'Guru ka Langar', the community kitchen, located just outside, which serves free food for thousands of people everyday. As he said, we did get head scarves there and covered the heads like everybody else. Before we could enter inside, a small stream of water flowed across, so that everybody could wash their feets before entering.

Harmandir Sahib
Harmandir Sahib and Amrit Sarovar

Once inside, the Gurudwara greeted us with all its glory - its gold plated walls absorbing all the ambient light and glistening beautifully. As I had seen in numerous pictures of the Gurudwara, the reflections in 'Amrit Sarovar' enhanced its beauty manifold. Whoever architected this must have been a genius! In the next one hour or so, we walked around the pool to savour the Gurudwara and its reflection from all angles - occassionaly sitting at the banks.

In spite of the crowd, the place was amazingly calm and serene. It was awe inspiring to say the least - rare for a man-made structure. I could not help thinking that we had to visit the place once during day time - and may be spend the whole day sitting by the pool! The one hour in the night that we had hardly did justice to place. We did take a full round of the pool, but did not have the time to go inside the Gurdwara. Especially with the long queue waiting to get inside, it would have taken a long time.

Even though we did not go inside the Gurdwara, we managed to have food at the 'Langar', which amazed us with the way food was served. As soon as you enter, a plate, spoon and bowl is given to you. Once you take the seat (in a mat - all people sitting in a line), simple vegetarian food is served, which included rotis, dal and a kheer. Once you finish, you are supposed to carry the utensils outside and hand it over to the cleaning squad. The speed at which thousands of these utensils return to the people distributing it to the next set of visitors is simply amazing - yet the plates were so clean without a spec of dust in it! Apparently, most of this was handled by volunteers and the food was totally free for the visitors - the only thing expected out of us was basic decorum and respect for the surroundings!

Our stay was booked at Shri Guru Tegh Bahadur Niwas near Lawrence Road and we were soon trying to locate the place. It looked like there was a good spell of rain just before we arrived and the roads were all covered with water and drainages overflowing. With a few road blocks all over the place and a few city / market areas on the way, it took us some time and a few wrong turns to reach Shri Guru Tegh Bahadur Niwas, which looked right in the middle of a nice residential layout and cozy. At the hotel, we faced another issue - there was no lift and it was some trouble moving up the luggage to our room upstairs. We did have quite some luggage as well and decided to re-arrange the luggage a little so that, at our next stop, couple of bags can be left in the car only.

It was a whirlwind visit to the Harmandir Sahib and we contemplated going back for a day time view of the Gurdwara. But, the roads were a mess after the rain and it would have taken us a long time to go and come back. It rained more in the night making it even more difficult. Also, we had a long journey ahead of us - all the way till Srinagar, so Gurdawara had to be on some other day.

In the morning, we realized the extent of damage done by the overnight rain. The roads were fully water-logged, making it fun to wade through knee-deep water! We had some adventure looking for Amit's friend's house as he had to collect a tent from there. Xylo and Sriram did negotiate the flood very well though - good signs for the time to come!

Just out of Amritsar, we got in to a road side 'Vaishno' dhaba for a Paratha breakfast. This time, the 'Punjabi Dhaba' turned out to be a much better experience - may be we should've stick to 'Vaishno' dhaba even on the previous day! No such improvement for the road ahead though, with the Amritsar - Gurdaspur stretch turning out to be very bumpy and looking more like a jeep track.

The plan for the day was to cover about 450km - including ghat section with potential road blocks - to reach Srinagar by night. In spite of the bad roads, we still had to keep going non-stop. With nothing else to do, I could not help dozing off in between. There were a blur of events in between, which included a stop for buying some essential medicines at Batala and a traffic block and road diversion at Gurdaspur, which eventually lead us to good roads. Soon we re-joined NH1A (after Pathankot) and a little later we were in J&K state. We also crossed a few rivers with a bridge across the muddy waters of river Ravi turning out to be quite big.

It was time for lunch as we neared Jammu - we spotted a restaurant complex to the right and stopped by. It looked like a hotel complex with a multi-cuisine restaurant 'Cilantro' and another vegetarian hotel. At 'Cilantro', we opted for a buffet, which was a little costly, but spared us the trouble of choosing from the menu! The ambience was good, the rest rooms were clean and the food had some variety - may be these factors were worth the cost.

Apparently, there was a road connecting Samba to Udhampur via Mansar, which was about 40kms shorter compared to NH1A. But, we did not knew about this road (neither about the state of the road) at that time and continued on NH1A. At Jammu, we took the bypass and was soon in a ghat section connecting Jammu to Katra and Udhampur. The four of us had taken the same road when we visited Vaishnodevi temple after our Saurkundi Trek, last May.

About 30kms from Jammu, at Domel, the Katra road (which leads to Vaishnodevi) forked to our left. The road was being widened in this region causing a few bad stretches and road blocks. It was smooth for a while and passed through a few villages before we got caught in a big traffic block near to Udhampur. Here, one side of the road collapsed at a blind curve, totally blocking traffic in one direction. We were stuck here for a while.

While waiting in that road, we had many things for company - a lot of vehicles, couple of snack shops, a river flowing in the valley down below and a few mountain ranges all around us. It was also time to get worried now - that we will not reach Srinagar at any sane time. It all depended on how well Sriram can cope with the late night drive through potentially difficult terrain.

About an hour later, traffic started moving and we could wriggle out of the long line of vehicles. Before it started getting dark, we passed by Patni Top - a popular hill station here, which is visited by a lot of people after a Vaishnodevi pilgrimage. The light faded after this point and the roads were mostly empty - with about 180kms to go to Srinagar and road conditions totally unknown, it was beginning to get scary. Our next stop was for a tea break at a road side tea shop. On a casual enquiry about the road conditions till Srinagar, we were told to find an accomodation at the next town and travel next day!

I could not help remembering and sharing our Delhi Trip, when we covered a bad stretch of road between Lakhnadon and Sagar. In this case also, there were a few small towns in between. We took a few stops as well hunting for dinner and a ladies restroom. Luckily, we managed to find the later, but the dinner did not happen until about 10 - by which time we crossed the Jawahar Tunnel and was now nearer to Srinagar. We stopped at a road side shop and managed to get bread and omlette parcelled.

A very comforting fact was that Amit received a phone call from Riyaz Baktoo - our host at Hospitality Home, where the accomodation was booked. He sounded genuinely worried that we did not turn up yet. Amit informed him that we will reach late and he told us that we can call him up whatever time we reach Srinagar. This was especially comforting as the localtion of Hospitality Home, was a little off-the-city-center.

We reached near Dal lake, Srinagar by about 12.30 in the night and we all could not help thanking Sriram for getting us there safely. Clueless about how to reach the location of our home stay, Amit called up Riyaz Baktoo again. When asked for directions to Hospitality Home, he surprised us again with a u-guys-wait-there-i-am-coming! As promised, he came in his vehicle and located us through a couple of phone calls. We followed him through a few deserted roads - where a few stray dogs had ganged up - to reach the hotel without much trouble. He warmly welcomed us in to the home stay - our rooms were at the 1st floor, with the Baktoo family living downstairs. The room was nice and cozy with well arranged blankets and towels. This was already the best hospitality we had ever seen!

It only got better next day morning - as soon as we got ready, we were served tea and a nice bread jam breakfast. We asked him for traditional lunch options at Srinagar and he suggested trying out Wazwan (traditional Kashmiri multi-course meal - usually thirty six courses) at Mughal Darbar. He also helped us prepare an itinerary for the day. Morning, we could head to Nagin lake - which was walkable distance from our stay, visit Srinagar main town by noon, have lunch there and then head to Dal lake for boating. We decided to do exactly that during the day.

Preethu @ Cherry Park
Preethu @ Cherry Park

We took a short walk to Nagin lake first and then strolled around the nearby Cherry park, checking out a few boat houses and lake side accomodations. An interesting incident here was meeting an elderly gentleman, with whom we had a nice conversation. He had visited a few places in South India - including Kerala - and was excited on learning that me and Preethu are from Kerala.

He enquired us about our plans in Srinagar and was surprised to hear that we had only one day here. On hearing that we are heading towards the Leh / Ladakh region, he suggested us to visit places like Gulmarg and Kokkernag, instead of wasting time going to visit the sukha-pahads-of-ladakh! He insisted that we should cancel all our Ladakh plans and spend more time in Srinagar and surrounding places. We just smiled to this and he repeated 'Ladakh mein kya hein, sirf sukha pahad hein ... Gulmarg jao, Kokkernag zaroor jao' (roughly translated, ladakh has only dry mountains, you go to Gulmarg and must go to Kokkernag)! Even though it was impossible for us to change the plans now, we did feel that spending only a day in Srinagar was not fair. We promised him that we will come back to Srinagar and spend more time here!

@ Nagin Lake
Among the floating Lotus garden!

Later in the day, we did a boat ride in Nagin lake, which turned out to be a nice experience. The lake had thick vegetation and good avian population and more importantly, did not have many tourists. We could spot a few king-fishers and shrikes as well around the lake. The boatman explained that Dal and Nagin lakes are actually interconnected and there is a bridge at the connection point. He also took us around to a Lotus garden and we had a good one hour exploring the lake. He took the effort to get a few Lotus buds and even made garlands for the girls using the Lotus stem! By lunch time we headed back to Srinagar in the vehicle and was soon looking for Mughal Darbar. It was not so tough to find, even with another restaurant right next to it with the same name. The restaurant staff was really helpful too - they straight away told us that traditional Wazwan will be too heavy for us. He suggested us to just share a mini Wazwan between two people - we could always order more if we manage to finish this!

Amit and Priya chose to stick to vegetarian and chicken only, while we followed the waiters suggestion. There was a small googly as we soon realized that Wazwan does not come with any rice or roti - so we chose to order plain rice separately, which went very well with some of the dishes. Food was good in general and Wazwan was terrific! The plate in front of us had various assortments of meat, including chicken - all yummy! We managed to finish the mini Wazwan without much trouble and ended up ordering one more - needless to say, nothing was wasted from the second plate either!

@ Dal Lake
Boats in Dal Lake

Post lunch, it was time to head to Dal lake. We opted for yet another boat ride in a cozy shikara. The beautiful Dal lake is at the center of tourism in Kashmir, particularly Srinagar. The lake is actually quite big with a shoreline of about 15+kms and surrounded by famous mughal gardens like Shalimar Bagh. Clearly, the boat ride covered a small portion of the lake adjoining the Boulevard road and went up to Nehru park, amidst the lake. It was still an enjoyable experience, especially with the Shankaracharya hills forming a nice backdrop for the lake. It was a bit sunny when the boat ride started, but towards the end it turned a little misty, with sun peaking in and out of the clouds.

Sandeep Preetha @ Dal Lake
One pic of ours too!

Amit Priya @ Dal Lake
Amit n Priya

This was Amit and Priya's second time at Srinagar and they had already spent a good amount of time in the city. The two of us were not so keen on the usual tourist spots - neither did we have a lot of time. So, we decided to take it easy and relax for the rest of the day. We stopped once for a coffee / tea + ice cream break and then took a stroll around Boulevard Road. The road side market was just coming alive - so were the eateries. But, we still managed to buy a few memoirs and find a chat place, where a few golgappas were gobbled up eagerly!

We returned early and stopped en route for dinner. Amit was trying to locate a small restaurant where they had food last time, but after a bit of searching, he realized that the place is now closed. We got in to another dhaba instead and had a simple vegetarian dinner - just what I needed after a heavy Wazwan lunch! On our way back, we had some trouble finding the way. But, with help of GPS in Preethu's phone and Sriram negotiating a few really narrow roads with steep descend, we managed to reach back.

Next day morning, we were out before 7. Breakfast was not ready by then, but we were served with some 'Phirni' - to conclude the awesome stay we had there. We said goodbye to the Bhaktoo family, headed towards the Hazratbal road and passed by a bridge over the connecting point of Dal and Nagin lakes, before entering NH1D towards Kargil / Leh.

Preetha near Sind River
I love misty mornings!

Sind River
Making way through the rocks

A little after Srinagar, we were moving by the Sind river, which was more of a stream making its way through a rocky trail. There were green-covered hills all around us and the morning mist added to the beauty. We stopped a few times for photos - near the stream, when we saw a herd of sheep and again when we saw a couple of army-men. Amit had a small chat with the army-men and was told that 'they dont have to be here, if not for the tourist flow'. Still, they were pretty nice to us and happily posed for pictures.

@ Sonamarg
At Sonamarg

At about 8.30, we reached Sonamarg and stopped at Hotel Snowland for breakfast. The surroundings looked beautiful with misty / snow-capped hills all around us. As of now, the slopes of the hills were covered with pine trees - but, we were told that those slopes will be covered in snow during winter.

views from Zojila
Making way through the clouds!

Soon, we continued our journey towards Kargil via the winding roads of Zojila (pass). First, we passed by Baltal camp area, which is the starting point of Amarnath trek. As soon as we took a few hair pin bends in the pass, the mountain ranges around us started looking majestic, especially with the abundance of clouds around us and a hint of rain. Baltal camp started showing up way below as we quickly gained altitude. The drive did not last long as we were soon asked to join a line of vehicles parked on the left side of the road, waiting for a convoy of army trucks scheduled to come down.

We did not mind the wait as we could breath in the beautiful views all around us. Soon, the army trucks started making their way down one after the other - which turned out to be a long convoy and took almost half an hour to complete. Once, the convoy passed us - by about 10.30 - the traffic started moving, albeit slowly. The real problem started after this though - with the large convoy passing through the road, the road conditions had worsened, creating a few marsh lands on the way.

As we moved up, a few of the vehicles seem to have got stuck in the slush. The traffic was still moving slowly, until a Maruti Swift, right ahead of us was burried deep in slush. After waiting in the Xylo for a while, we eventually realized that things are not going to get resolved automatically. Soon, Amit and me got down, rolled up our trousers and got our hands (and feets) dirty trying to push the Maruti Suzuki Swift out of its mysery. We did manage to push the car forward, but it promptly came down again, with the driver unable to get the car to climb a slope and make its way out of the slush. Eventually, the driver gave up and asked for help. I got in and tried to take it out of the slush, but the car was stuck in between a few boulders and was unable to move.

I was a little worried and did not want to damage the car - giving way to another guy, who was a local. He eventually cleared the way by dragging the car on top of a boulder, leaving it with a broken mud guard and possibly many other damages which was not clealy visible. Given a little leeway, our driver managed to get past the Swift. After a few more slush pits, we left the traffic blocks behind us and started moving. Our - Amit and mine - feets were covered knee-deep in slush, but this was most fun we had in a long time!!! May be the only way to have topped this was to drive up Zojila in a 2-wheeler!

herd of Sheep in NH1D
making our way through the herd

By 11.30, we went past the Zojila (pass) and entered level ground. Road (NH 1D) was still a jeep track at best, with a muddy river (guess, a tributary of Sind) flowing on one side. Surroundings were mostly barren and slushy, with very little traffic or people to be seen, except for an occassional vehicle passing by and a couple of herds of sheep.

near Drass
plantations near Drass

Soon, we were at Drass area - stopping at a tea shop for a short snack / photo break. Hint of rain had gone by now making way for a sunny day - bright blue skies sprinkled with cotton clouds - even the terrain was considerably greener here. It was nice to see a few wheat plantations here - Amit had a chat with some of the locals, who gave us some idea of how tough the life is at this altitude. The crops are possible only at summer and the area is covered in snow during winter. This area is also very close to the Indo - Pak border and was the venue of a lot of blood shed during the Kargil War, in 1999, when militants crossed over the border during the peak of winter.

@ Kargil war memorial
time to say 'Jai Hind'

The roads were very good after this and the going was smooth. We could not help taking a few photo breaks, given the clear blue skies and the greener terrain. It was almost 2 by the time we passed Drass - but we were told that good restaurants could be found only at Kargil, which was more than an hour away. A few kms past Drass, we were at the Kargil War memorial, with the Tololing hills forming a beautiful backdrop. Though quite late for lunch, we had to go in to take a look and pay our respects to the martyrs of the Kargil war.

Shingo river near Kargil
Shingo river - on its way to join Indus

As we approached Kargil, we could see the Shingo river by our side, which creates a confluence with Indus river near Kargil. The voluminous Indus will then flow across the LoC, passing by some of the most beautiful places on earth. Indeed, 'Panchhi Nadiya Pawan Ke Jhonke ... Koi Sarhad Na Inhe Roke'! Rather hard to translate the beautiful poetry by Javed Akhtar - but it roughly means that the borders do not stop birds, rivers and the wind!

By 3.30, we were finally at Kargil town and found out that there were no vegetarian restaurants available there. Our driver Sriram was having trouble eating at non-veg restaurants - even Amit and Priya was finding the meat-feast a bit difficult to handle. After a bit of searching around, we found a restaurant which had some vegetarian options. Sriram chose to skip and the only option left for us was to buy some bread for him.

Sandeep Amit Priya in a restaurant @ Kargil
time to eat!

Amit and Priya, decided to stick to some vegetarian dishes. At the same time, they assured us that they dont have any issues with we opting for non-veg. I did not find the veg options very appealing either and ended up ordering another Wazwan! It was quite good too, though not as awesome as what we had in Srinagar!

After a few pictures and a bit of search around to buy bread for Sriram, we eventually headed out - towards Sankoo, a small village, about 40 kms from Kargil, en route Zanskar valley. We could not go to Zanskar valley as it would take considerable amount of time to go there and come back, but Sankoo was much closer and a good option to halt for the night.

approaching Sankoo
way to Sankoo!

We passed by a military camp area and Preethu spotted a very handsome looking sardarji in military uniform! It could have been interesting to stop the vehicle and strike up a conversation - but, it was only an after thought after we passed the camp. Soon after this, we entered Sankoo village, which had beautiful views of hills all around. I keep repeating about the "bright blue skies and the cotton clouds", but this was probably the best I had ever seen! With the snow-capped hills in the back-drop, a small stream flowing by and a few more criss crossing the road, it was indeed an amazing combination.

It was geting dark as well and we started looking around for some accomodation. Apparently, a PWD guest house - located about a km off the village towards Zanskar road - was the only place available and we headed out in search of the care-taker. It took us a while to catch hold of the person and get him convinced, but Amit managed to do it so well in the end and we were given the best of the rooms available at practically no cost.

It was past 7 by then and we decided to leave the vehicle at the guest house and walk up towards the village for dinner. After checking out couple of the few small restaurants available, we settled down for one which served a rajma-chaval meal. An hour later, we were back in the room and the lights went off.

way to Zanskar @ Sankoo
lets go to Zanskar!

The real beauty and serenity of the place dawned upon me when I woke up early morning and took a walk around. It was beautiful all around with snow-capped mountains at a distance and "bright blue skies and the cotton clouds" (there I go again!!!). The only problem was the dry and barren soil - a green carpet could have made the place heavenly!

guest house @ Sankoo
Mountain view Apartments!

I was back to the guest house by 7.30 and the rest of the gang was just getting ready. Not long after that, we were back at the Sankoo village looking for breakfast. While having breakfast (bread / butter / jam / omlette), the one of the guys in the kitchen started playing a religious sermon in his mobile. It was played very loudly for us to hear and was a little caustic in nature - talking about why and how a particular religion is the ultimate one even as per the Hindu scriptures. This was probably the first instance of any kind of animosity we faced during the entire trip. Eventually, Amit walked up to him and requested for some "ghana" (songs) instead, which passed the message and put an end to the sermon.

By 8.30, we said good bye to Sankoo and headed back towards Kargil. A stream was flowing by the side of the road, which eventually joins Indus. We passed by the military camp again and to our utmost surprise, the sardarji was once again marching along the road! This time, we ended up stopping the vehicle and Amit said "hi" to him. Paji sounded like a nice jolly fellow as well and clearly had realized that something was fishy - but he entertained us as well! We exchanged a few pleasantries and before it turned awkward, said "bye" to him and headed out.

At Kargil, we were back on NH 1D - this time towards Leh for the rest of our trip, before eventually reaching back Chandigarh a week later after a beautiful Leh trip, inspite of the advice we got from Cherry park - 'Ladakh mein kya hein, sirf sukha pahad hein'. But, I could not help thinking that the Amritsar - Srinagar - Kargil leg of our Kashmir trip was bit of a rush and we had indeed missed out many places like Gulmarg and Kokkernag. This is exactly what we need to make up for the next time!

© 2019 Sandeep Unnimadhavan