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Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Srinagar and Agra - A Travelogue



A family trip either to the Himalayan peak or overseas to visit Indian Islands was on cards, after too many permutations and combinations we grouped fifteen members in all and boarded the christened military train – Tamil Nadu express on the way to Srinagar. To board the train in time was itself an experience and so next day noon; we promised to abide by the name of train and cheered a Bacardi. Alighted at New Delhi Railway station and tussled to Airport after befittingly bargaining for our taxi cabs, the necessity of bargaining started here and it followed till we pushed ourselves south!!

The foot step at the airport brought the child within each one of us, check-in and boarding spicejet, made our maiden flight journey a true success! On reaching Srinagar airport we sensed a breath of icy air, we were ecstatic and searched for nameplate bearing “Suresh Solomon” and we followed him. On the way to our hotel “Akbar Inn”, we saw total numbness in the city. On recognising it was a Friday I discussed with a Islamic friend of mine, the religious fervour with which the Kashmirs observe their namaz,  without knowing that there was a shootout killing 7 civilians just an hour back and it was a called shut down all over Kashmir. So this was our Welcome Kashmir message!! In the evening we experienced the beautiful Shikara ride at sub Zero degree temperature, it was terrific in the splendid icy waters of famous Dal Lake. Only during our Shikara ride we realised our decision not to spend a night in house boat was a wise man’s decision. So we averted the first day disaster. Our ride was package sponsored, otherwise would cost Rs. 150/- per hour per shikara.

Need to ensure not more than 4 persons board a shikara. It would require an art to escape from the rowing merchandise of still photography, saffron, dress materials, snacks, vegetables, flowers etc.  Our first sought out destination was a drive to Sonamarg through NH 1D which was a spectacular facet of country side in Kashmir, Nallah Sindh, the largest tributary of the Jhelum River in the valley of Kashmir. The river ran crystal clear like thinner stream as glaciers were yet to melt. We lost our senses when we peeped through the windows to look at houses packed with full of snow. The roads leading to the houses were not visible and on enquiry with our driver we were informed that even schools were closed for full 3-4 months every year during winter. So, all our doubts on the literacy rate of Kashmir were floored. On reaching Sonamarg we found the spot nestled within the imposing Himalayan peaks. At an altitude of 2800 metres above sea level the valley was  rightly believed to be bestowed with mystical water which turns everything into eternal riches. Hoof!!! Pudhu vellai mazhai ingu polligindrathu…….!!! 
Pudhu vellai mazhai ingu polligindrathu
Everyone was eager to make a move somehow to the snow-clad peaks. Pony ride was a must and so bargaining fetched us a pony for less than Rs. 500/-. A ride on the pony for few kilometres got us a chance to enjoy sledge ride on snow. The sledge assistants quoted Rs.250/300 per point and enlisted some 11 points altogether, but we got them for Rs. 150 covering all points. The bargaining stuff would bring down your cherishing experience but we should remember that it’s a part of the trip to the Snow clad Mountains. The sledging spot was breath taking, lively experience in difficult terrain and we were “aasman ke behaut kaareeb”. Although we skipped Krishnasar Lake due to one of our female companion not accompanying us on pony due to pregnancy, but fellow tourists should visit it as it was just few kilometres from there. On our return we stopped to photograph at another sledging spot, the moment we got down from our ponies we had no words to express the beauty of nature and we almost ran humpty dumpty in the snow clad mountains.  The day’s destination was done and we wanted to fill our belly at sonamarg itself but our driver took us to his favourite commission dhabha to find Plain rice Rs.60/-, Plain Dal Rs. 60/-, Roti Rs. 5/-, Pakkoda Rs. 80/- and Allu Matar Rs. 150/-, as we had no other choice we enjoyed our lunch at 5pm.
Heaven on Earth
The destination for the subsequent day was Phalgam, shortly called “Heaven on Earth”.  It was a 3 hour one way trip journey from Srinagar.  This time the ride was along the saffron fields, orchid trees, grassy fields and the cricket bat factories of Kashmir. Getting around Pahalgam is done mostly by walking, taxi and ponies. We chose ponies again and this time the rate quoted by the ponywallahs was double the quote at Sonamarg. They quoted Rs. 1750/- per pony for whole ride and we started with Rs. 300/- as usual and we ended up paying Rs. 550/- pony. It was bargain hunting which helped us because we saw people pay Rs.1250-1500 per pony.  The terrain was too testing and the pony ride was a true adventure. The pony took us to Baisaran or 'Mini Switzerland’ and it was too awesome an experience riding in the midst of snow fall. From there we rode to Kashmir valley, hoof!!! “You can just keep gazing for hours”.  Chandanwari, Betaab Valley and Aru can be reached by taxi for an onward trek to Lidderwat, Kolohoi Glaciers, etc. It would cost you about Rs 1500 as there was no bargaining. Though we could have had our lunch at Dana pani, we chose Hotel Hakeem and it was not bad either. White water rafting was a must do thing on the return from Pahalgam but as glaciers were yet to melt, we were deprived from experiencing the raft craft, still we adventured to have a feel of the icy water, I slipped and fell flat in the water and rest was a Salman Khan Style still pose in the shivering cold. We were lost in the dream Stream of Lidder River, watching its flow and the pebbles beneath. It was getting dark so we started from there only to stop to drink Kahwah, traditional green tea recipe of Kashmir. The tea was made from green tea leaves with saffron strands, cinnamon bark and cardamom pods. One of my friends hopped big to recollect the movie Mission Kashmir where the same drink was offered to soldiers. It was a nice drink after which we were marketed some apricot, Afghanistan black grapes, badam, apple jam etc. Wherever the driver stopped, it was his commission mandi but we could not help ourselves in the naive world. Mugal garden, Tulip garden and Shalimar garden would be worth visiting in the summer as we could hardly see anything green in the garden, why talk about lack of flowers then.
The cheery packed Srinagar trip came to a halt only after we (male members) ventured in to have a look at Lal-chowk, the market area of Srinagar. It was getting dark, with rain and chillness creeping through the ear drums; we walked a long stretch only to find shops getting unfolded for the day. When we stepped further to taste lamp kabab, a sound of a gunshot shell shocked everyone, within 30 seconds life was normal for the localities unlike us, we decided to ply back to our hotel rooms only to find the auto-wallas exchange conversation in Urdu which we were too alien to us, but somehow in serious distress we luckily landed safe at our hotel, thus ended a short couple of hours ordeal (taste) of real Kashmir. We prayed Allah! Allah! Allah!!! and Insha Allah! We were safe. Next day we departed from hotel after multiple frisking by CRPF, AAI, Private airlines we boarded the flight back to India sorry New Delhi.
Our trip to Agra started well from Hazarat Nizzamuddin. We broke our fast at Comesum in Agra Cant Station. My itinerary was to reach Taj Mahal by a hired taxi, get dropped and after roaming for an hour or two, lunch outside Taj Mahal and get transported to Agra fort on the way to Agra cant. With the same itinerary, I approached Agra tourism but it was jam packed priced Rs.330/- person. So, immediately I rushed to pre-paid taxi counter to find out the viability. The fellow in the traffic police routed pre paid counter betrayed me by saying that there were no one-way trips available at Taj Mahal to move either to Fort or station back. As I could not decipher more, I hired a couple of 5 hour taxis by paying Rs. 650/- auto. After a kick start the taxi walla  said Taj was a splendour to watch, so we necessarily should visit agra fort first and on the way to Taj he would show Mini Taj Mahal, which was a must watch. We stuck to his plan as we educated illiterates believed him. Mini Taj Mahal was a real bakwass, it was a UP cottage industry and the stop was to gain commission for him on our purchase. Then he got us dropped at West gate of Taj and there were camels and rickshaws which claimed that it was 2 kms from there and they would charge just Rs.10/- person. We preferred a camel ride and now it was the camel walla turn to fox us, he claimed that it was lunch at Taj from 12.45 to 1.45 and so we can shelter or have a look at the UP cottages sales adjacent to it. We got Wild, as already we were mocked by the mini taj mahal fox call. So we asked him to ride us to Taj and when we got to the ticket counter we heard there was no lunch time at Taj except a full day holiday on Friday alone.
After watching the splendors’ TajMahal, we thought of going back to station but as we had one more hour we thought of having a good lunch and that was the messiest of things we did. He took us to a restaurant which served us worth- less, taste- less lunch and I had no other option but to show my anger on the hotel manager, my wife in addition to almost pulling the driver’s collar for a hasty betrayal on all fronts. Finally as we reached Agra cantt and I pacified everyone to order their will-full food at comesum.  My initial plan was perfect but the pre-paid counter men held hands with the taxi wallas and foxed us. So those visiting Agra from Agra cantt need to be extra vigil.
The final day was destined for a local tour at New delhi, but as one of friends on tour had to leave the suddenly due to his wife’s miscarriage, our mind went shell blank. In total fuss I could not even call my friends and acquaintances residing in New delhi to assist in the local tour. We again hired a couple of day –vehicle at Delhi for Rs. 700/- vehicle for visiting Red fort, Jamma Masjid and Rajghat. We could have minimised cost had we hired taxis/autos to places separately, but considering the mood at the dawn, we had no complaints. Shopping at Delhi requires the art of choosing the right yarn and right quality before deciding to buy. The art of bargaining alone will give you hand while shopping in Pallika Bazaar and Sarojini Market to a little extent. Karol Bagh is a long stretch and you tend to get tired walking for such a distance though all the goods of your choice will be available to shop at. The most sasta market is Jamma Masjid Old delhi market were the quotes are very reasonable but then quality matters.
In short the trip was a huge success and we aptly cheered every day with Magic moments. Thank God we made it.