One of the best elements of a good travel experience is being able to capture brilliant images of the attractions and the culture of the people. I was with a group of four people from our travel agency who was sent in the summer of 2011 to the valleys of Kashmir, India. My boss wants to help promote this country as part of our new travel catalogue and posters for the agency. Our cameras were all packed and ready after the news that our tourist visas were approved at the Travisa Visa Outsourcing. A week after complying to other requirements our boss handed our individual plane tickets and the name of the contact person we are going to meet when we reach Kashmir. To explore the beautiful slopes and lakes of the Kashmir Valley that nestles in the northwest mountain range of the Himalayas and connect with their people is something I was eagerly looking forward to on our two week photo tour of Kashmir.
The journey begins with an 18 hour Air India flight from San Francisco International Airport via New Delhi to get to Srinagar Airport. We were fetched by Mr. Singh, our contact person at the hotel where we stayed; he briefly gave us tips on how to enjoy our work and leisure vacation in Kashmir. I am thankful we have him as our guide because we would certainly miss many important points if we explored Kashmir on our own. He worked out all the necessary passes and permits we need to bring with us during the course of our tour. That same day we began our adventure in the town of Srinagar with a photo tour of the Indira Gandhi Tulip Garden. We were welcomed by rows and rows of a hundred thousand tulips in this wide garden. It was fun taking photographs behind a rainbow of colored flowers and various species of plants. Coming there in the middle of April was the perfect time to see the tulips in full bloom. The garden was so clean and our guides were eager to tell the history of the garden. We got busy taking pictures all around as friendly locals greet us with a smile and warm hellos. We met a group of Kashmir kids and they gamely pose for wacky shots for our cameras. Kids are adorable, no matter where you go.
We went out early the next morning to tour and enjoy a three night stay at one of the house boats in Dal Lake. This is one of the best things that Srinagar has to offer. We had enough time to relax and forget the hustle and bustle and got pampered like kings. Set behind an array of snow capped Himalayan Mountains in the background; the lake was beautiful and serene. We boarded a flower decorated Shikara (wooden boats) plowed by a boatman who rows with a single blade oar and treads the lake with skilled craftsmanship. The houseboats were made of cedar wood frames and carved by professional wood artisans in Kashmir. Our houseboat has a dream living room, a comfortable bedroom and an outdoor terrace overlooking the lake. The chef prepares traditional Indian food and also gives in to our requests for burgers and fries. A guide accompanies us whenever we tour the lake on board the Shikara. The lotus lake was an incredible place however; the floating market was littered with trash and so much haggling from deceptive sellers. In contrast, Nagin Lake was more peaceful and calm with less crowds and vendors. The view from the houseboats terrace was very refreshing especially while enjoying our breakfast. Still, both lakes were marvels of peace and lovely scenery. After sunset it is a spectacle of color on the water, as lights from the house boats illuminate the lake at night. It was indeed a memorable experience for me and my workmates.
After our stay on the houseboats, we head off to our trekking adventure of the Shankracharya Hill. It was good exercise as we climb its more than three hundred stairs to reach the hill top. We were off to a good start from our jump off point at Dal Lake, but in the forest we passed thru military camps and checkpoints and we readily show our permits and tourist pass. Our guide translated the purpose of our climb but one of us was asked to stay at their camp to look after our things because cameras, mobile phones and other gadgets were not allowed when entering the Shankracharya Temple which is on top of this dormant volcano. Nevertheless, we continued our hike, after an hour of trekking we reached the temple with amazing views from the top. We had a good view of the two lakes and the whole town of Srinagar. What a great reward after all the trouble we have been to.
We had packed lunches and sandwiches prepared by Mr. Singh for our trip to Pahalgam town the next day. He drove for an hour on rough roads to reach the magnificent Betaab Valley, while we marvel at the scenes we see on the road to get there. We got stuck in heavy traffic as we got near the attraction. I guess being stuck in traffic is also part of the travel experience when visiting a touristy place. Upon arrival we immediately set up our cameras to capture the sight of flowing streams, pony riding kids, and the lush vegetation surrounding the valley. We pick a nice spot on its well maintained greens for a late afternoon picnic that day. Afterwards, we took time to visit an old temple in this town called the Mamaleshwar Temple. A young Kashmir guy opened the temple and guided us through its history. The ancient historical monument is covered in lime plaster. From the temple we had a great view of the Lidder River. Later in the afternoon, we enjoyed playing a good game of golf at the Pahalgam Golf Club. It was fun hitting the greens of this 18 hole golf course, the views of the valley were such a refreshing sight! The fairways were well maintained but its club house was undergoing construction during the time of our visit. Aside from having a great time, we also get to have a good photo shoot of the Himalayan Mountains overlooking the manicured lawns of the marvelous golf course.
The next day Mr. Singh brought us to the next town in Kashmir, the snow capped mountains of the Gulmarg town. We were able to see all the sites at the Apharwat Peak on board the Gulmarg Gondola, the cable lift that is the fastest way to reach its peaks. This amazing ride above the clouds was well worth the experience! A tram full of amused tourists frequents the peak every ten minutes. The resort itself is full of hawkers selling chocolates and good eating places too. The Gondolas still appear exceptional despite being worn out. We also have the chance to ski and snowboard along the slopes of Gulmarg Ski Area on rented gears found within the site. It was quite a challenge to ski its highest paths and photograph the view all over the mountain. A new chairlift was being constructed during our visit with the aim of making Gulmarg the ultimate destination for winter sports in India.
I find Kashmir to be an ideal getaway vacation and awesome place to visit with family. Whenever I wanted to relive everything that I saw in this city, I just close my eyes and instantly I am transported to the feeling, and the scenes of unforgettable India. I plan to go back there with my wife and kids this summer. I want them to experience the charm and mystique beauty of this paradise.