There are some places that you have to visit at least once in your lifetime and there are some that you must visit more than once, to take it all in. Kashmir falls in the latter category.
The quickest way to get to Kashmir from Delhi, is to fly into Srinagar. The alternate route is to take a train to Jammu and from there by road to Srinagar.
Luck by chance
The weekend before, our last minute plans of flying to Dharamshala to spend a few days there fizzled out because our Kingfisher flight got cancelled [learning: never try and fly to Dharamshala].
Anyway, we were a little wary of the flight to Srinagar facing the same fate. So we kept polling flightstats to ensure that our 'Go air' flight had been departing on time the previous days and it was going to behave on the day we were supposed to leave.
Our flight was scheduled to depart at 6:15 am, so we were supposed to wake up at 4:30am to take our cab to the airport.
We woke up at 6:30am! To realise that the cab guy had not called us, my alarm had not gone off and the flight most probably had.
We immediately looked up the next available flight to Srinagar and luckily found an Indigo flight that was leaving around 11:30am.
To our surprise when we got to the airport we realised that our original Go air flight had been cancelled and since we had done a web-checkin for the same, we could avail a full refund! *Grin*
This was Eid season and we landed in Srinagar on Aug16th [15th Aug, being curfew time].
We had booked our stay only for the first day and our plan was to figure out the next day's plan the day before.
Staying on a house boat was one of the items in our list, and we ticked that off by staying on the Peacock houseboats in Nigeen lake.
Nigeen and Dal lakes are connected by a few canals, but Nigeen is the more peaceful and less commercial of the lakes.
The houseboat was good, initially I had booked it directly on their website and when I realised its 50% cheaper on Expedia we got it via that and cancelled the original booking.
We hired a Shikara to take us around the Nigeen and Dal in the evening. It was one of the most relaxing and lovely boat rides I've ever had.
The Dal lake is beautiful. There are lotus gardens, vegetable gardens, floating markets, a tea shop on a boat in middle of the lake. Awesome Kashmiri roti and pakoras along with Kahwah are not to be missed. There are salesmen in boats who float along side and show you wares, you can strike a good bargain with them if you want to buy some gifts for friends and family back home.
As you float by, there are many shops alongside the banks. We found this lovely shop/cottage industry alongside one of the canals, where an old man was making lovely wooden toys and decorative items.
We bought a few things, but mostly enjoyed just chatting with him. He had a lot of things to say and even ended up carving out a lotus for Amu, as a gift :)
The advice he had to offer me was, that if I were ever in any sort of trouble, I was not to depend on holymen and god-men. All I had to do was to wake up at 3 am in the morning, spread out a cloth on the floor, kneel and say my prayers to GOD asking for help, and everything would be set right :)
The taxi guy
Our friend recommended Parvez, who has a taxi service. Parvez was great to talk to on the phone and sent his brother Arshid to help take us around Kashmir in a very comfortable Tavera.
Arshid was really sweet and helpful. Wonderful chap. I would highly recommend hiring their services if you plan a trip to Kashmir.
You can contact Parvez on --> 09419373541
Having spoken to Parvez and after a bit of research we realised that Srinagar is a good base for visiting most of the nearby places.
Gulmarg is about 50kms away from Srinagar, once the climb begins, the views get stunning. You are only allowed to take your car into the touristy spots if you have a hotel booking to stay overnight.
Else you have to drop the car off at the parking and can either choose to walk around or take a pony.
The pony rides etc are very organised and the prices are pre-set. We took the ponies because it was off season and the pony guys deserve a bit of business - 300 bucks for the first hour and 200 for every following hour.
There is not much to see via pony, but it's alright. They end by taking you to the Cable car - Gulmarg's usp and the world's highest cable car (or Gondola as it is called) - and offer to wait for you till you get back. I recommend you ask them to leave and pay them, since its a 20 minute walk from the Cable car station to the parking lot.
The cable car has 2 phases - 300 rupees for the first phase that take you half way up and an additional 500 for the second that takes you all 14,500 feet up to the snow (or what remains of last year's snow).
You would want to spend time up there, and there are sleds that you can ride and pose on skis.
Of course if one were to get there in the winters it would be a winter sports heaven. The snow lasts all the way till March, before it begins to melt.
Gulmarg was beautiful, but we decided to return to Srinagar in the evening. There are apple orchards you can visit on the way back, they'll give you a quick tour and you can buy apples at a great price.
Sonmarg's claim to fame is a Glacier, which is best visited in the winter. I can imagine Sonmarg being beautiful when there's snow around. At this time of the year around, its best given a miss.
90 kms away from Srinagar, the road to Sonmarg easily has the best views, with the Sindh (Jhelum's largest tributary) flowing in its full glory right alongside the road.
However, other than the scenic road, there is not much here to do. What remains of the ice is a slushy mess.
In the winters this will be a place one MUST go to. For an August trip, skip it. We got back to Srinagar early and got some food at 'Mughal Darbar' a must eat place. Remember that it is a restaurant on the first floor above the bakery. There is restaurant of the same name on the ground floor, but that apparently, is not the real deal.
We got ourselves a place to stay right by the Dal lake. A lovely hotel called 'Nehru's', with a view of the lake. Make sure you keep an evening aside to walk by the lake as the sun sets. The hues and colours the lake takes on are fantastic! We also took a 60 minute Shikara ride, after the sunset. Brilliant!
We reached this place on the eve of Eid and everything was nice and quiet.
On the road to Pahalgam, once finds Saffron fields on both sides and there are a lot of stores selling authentic Saffron. We've been warned not to buy Saffron from any place other than this, and we heeded the warnings :)
Also, there a loads of bat making factories enroute to Pahalgam - Kashmir produces arguably the best bats in the world - and one can get a really good kashmiri willow bat for as less as 300rs.
Anyway, the previous couple of days had been filled with pony rides and trips to & fro from Srinagar. So we wanted to unwind and the best place to unwind was 'Hotel Pahalgam'. Easily the hotel with the most beautiful views of the Mountains and the river Lidder.
We decided to stay here, though having gone with no booking, meant we got the last room they had, which turned out to be an expensive suite. They have a deal with the meals inclusive, but a little bargaining got a a decent price with meals excluded, this let us try the local fare outside the hotel.
We decided to do NO sight seeing, but we've heard there are loads of lovely places to see, including the famed 'Betaab valley'.
If I would plan this trip again, maybe I would have spent a day extra in Pahalgam and skipped Sonmarg altogether.
We left Pahalgam on Eid and got directly to the airport, much in advance. The entire security check-in process at Srinagar airport takes a long time, so make sure you give yourself enough time to finish the formalities at the airport.
Overall, we had a lovely trip. We plan to head out again in the winters or at least when there's snow around. I am sure Kashmir will have a very different look and feel then.