Ofcourse this ought to be. Eventfullness makes trips memorable.
We are now slowly moving ahead with our now familiar chariot. Srinagar is still sleeping. Today we started early. The online tickets for Gulmarg cable car ride is with us. So nothing can stop us today. We thought we learned enough lessons from our previous failed Gulmarg attempt (Read it here). But this is Kashmir. Naturally beautiful. To enjoy it we have to face some hardships.
These are all centuries old monuments. Witnessed history. Wars, bloodsheds, a tinge too many. The streets of Srinagar. A deserted look. Typical early mornings.
No big apartments out here. But big houses offering shelter to big families are abundant. Everything bears an unfinished look.
Only the very rich and powerfull has got beautiful houses. But they cannot be seen anywhere. Big walls guard them as a security measure.
The peculiarity of city streets here is that there are lots and lots of narrow passages between these houses. If you are new to this place and is stranded in a passage, it is a mirror maze out there. Everything looks similar everywhere. Its difficult to get out. Exactly due to this reasons militants thrived this area. Its difficult for soldiers to find them once they are inside these narrow passages.
Driverji's statement sums it up all.
" During the militancy period, once a military jeep is inside these roads, chances of them getting out are nil ".
Wonder how many innocent lives are lost in the very same place through which we are now travelling. We are seeing only the best half of this naturally blessed place. Slowly life is starting up. The local buses. Slush, mud and dents.
Dense inhabitancy near the dal lake
Kashmiri men in there traditional dress.
The beautiful womenfolk of Kashmir.
The last four days helped us to know this place better. Our driverji was our interface to the our knowledge about this place. Seldom has he kept his mouth shut. Always telling stories. The number of bombs which expoded in each place, the military's fight against terrorism, hardships created by military on local people, the hardships of the people in earning a living (people can work only 8 months), the stranded development in Kashmir, the lack of educational facilities in Kashmir and a lot of other things too.
Meanwhile the vehicle reached the place where we were stopped by the guides and some shopkeepers on our last visit. This time we were more bold. Thanks to our host in the house boat. He had instilled some kind of confidence on us.
"Sir, Please come, try our jackets and gum boots, we will rent it out for a day", said one shop keeper who blocked our way.
"No, we have our own jackets and boots", my reply.
"No sir, you have to take" a little bit more stronger
"We have been here before, we know the place" a more stronger reply from me.
That is it, the shop keepers left for blocking the next vehicle. But I saw a change in our driverji's face.
"Sir, you should have taken the jackets and boots from them. You won't get it anywhere else."
Driver's advice. But we are unmoved. "Please move on". we told our driver.
But he is talking on mobile. He is talking in Kashmiri. We felt as if he is waiting for someone. He deliberately got out of the vehicle and came back after 5 mins. I got upset with his behaviour.
"We already lost one chance to visit Gulmarg. We don't want to happen it again. Quick start the vehicle"
"Sir, the owner of the vehicle called. it is an urgent call" I instantly knew he was lying.
I hate people who lie, looking at our face. A person soon appeared near us. He opened the door of the vehicle.
In good english he asked.
"May I get in"
"Sir, I am your guide, without my help you won't be able to get in the cable car"
"We already got tickets, so we don't need a guide"
"I know that sir, But still you will find it difficult"
"I know how to manage, please let us go" my voice was affirmative.
Guide's face changed, our drivers too. They talked something in Kashmiri. The vehicle came to life. But inside everything is silent. Once we rejected the guide, our driver stopped talking.
We are now climbing up. Last time we didn't reach this far. Roads are superb. The roadside scenery, even better.
Green meadows, Majestic pine trees, White smog, winding roads.
The bulletteer inside me popped up. What am doing inside this four wheeled vehicle. My butt itching for a ride through these winding roads experiencing this wilderness even more attached with the nature. I have to come again.
My dream of riding a bullet through this meadow stopped abruptly with a jolt. Our driver slammed the brakes.
Two policemen stopped the vehicle. Some kashmiri words are being exchanged. Driver came back and asked,
"Sir do you have change, Rs 50"
"Is it entry fee?"
"No sir, they are asking for vehicle's papers"
"You can show that, no?" "If we show the papers, they will find some fault and the fine will be much more, prevention is better than cure. We can give them Rs. 50 and we will be free to go"
Driverji was right. We were instantly let off and they were seen stopping the next vehicle. Bribe has become part of the system. This is not a Kashmir specific menace. A classic example of Unity in Diversity.
The climb is becoming much more steeper. The fog denser. Roads still good.
The distance to Gulmarg read - 1 Km. I have to more alert. Our host had alerted me in the morning to watch out for the entrance to Gondola ride ourselves.
I could see the board and snapped it up.
As was expected, our driver did not stop the car there. He stopped further 400 m ahead.
But I couldn't open the door to get out. We are already surrounded. Men, drapped in woollen blankets. Looking quite ferocious. Some on top of horses and some beside them.
"Sir get into this horse sir, we will take to the starting point of Gondola"
All voices were singing the same song. Ignoring them we got out.
"Yeh hamara pehla visit nahim. Hameim rasta patha hey, Chod dhijey". (This is not our first visit, we know the route, please leave us alone). I told without getting into eye contact.
We all walked away ignoring there pleas. I could well hear their comments.
"We will go to Pakistan, if Indian people treat us like this"
"You and your kids will be dead tired by the time you reach the cable car starting point"
"You will lose your way and will suffer"
Our house boat owner had told about all these today morning before we left. Many thanks to him. Other wise we would be really confused. Our driver also wanted us to get into one of those horses. I can see the horsemen crowding at the next tourist once we ignored them.
We walked straight to a shop which rents out boots and jackets. Yes there were plenty of such shops here too. Our driver had lied earlier. The price was cheaper too. We wanted some gum boots. 4 pairs for Rs.500/-. A 300m walk. We are in front of the walkway to Gulmarg cable car ride.
The point which we have to remember, if we decide to walk alone. Interestingly the walkway is paved with interlocking tiles. The green meadows on both sides. Cool climate. The walk seemed to be much better option than the horse ride.
We can see the start point of the cable car ride from here.
We are in no hurry, as we already have the tickets. We are literally feasting on the beautiful meadows around. 30 minutes walk and we could see the queue. A pretty long one. Quite messy too. A policeman was standing nearby.
"Sir, We already have the online tickets, can we proceed without standing in the queue?" my query
"You have to stand in this queue. Go and stand behind them"
"What !!!!, Sir I already have the ticket, Why should I stand in the queue again?"
"If you want to get into cable car, you stand in the queue, else go away" his voice was getting harsher.
The endpoint of the queue is not in sight. A jolt for all of us. There seems to be no other way. We have to stand here.
15mins, 20mins, 40mins, 1hr, time is moving ahead precisely. The queue travelled hardly 10metres.
A guy approached us. The cuts and bruises in his face makes him look mean.
"Sir I will get tickets for you sir"
"We already have online tickets'
"Even if you have online tickets, you have to change it to regular tickets. I will change it for you sir, please give me the ticket"
"Is he trying to play a prank on us" I asked my wife in our local language.
"What should I pay you for this service"
"Sir, I am a guide, I need Rs 200 per ticket, I will accompany you the whole day"
"From where do you exchange the online tickets for the real tickets"
"In that building sir, but if you go, you won't be able to get the tickets"
I felt as if, the whole of Kashmir is trying to cheat us. Why in this world should I pay this guy for getting tickets when I have already made the payment and got tickets. My temper was slowly getting out of control
"I DON'T NEED A GUIDE, PLEASE GO AND TRY YOUR LUCK WITH ANOTHER TOURIST"
But this guy had given us a vital information, The building from where we have to exchange the online tickets with the real one. I rushed to that building. My wife and kids still stood in the earlier queue, in case the information provided by the guide is incorrect.
There are 4 counters here. 2 for issuing tickets, 2 for exchanging the online ticket. All are closed. I can see a small queue in front of the online ticket exchanging counter. That's where I have to stand. That stupid policeman wasted our precious 1hour. 30 minutes passed after I started standing here. Meanwhile I befriended the guys standing ahead and behind me. A policeman from Delhi and an Army officer from Chennai. Both were sharing the same story as that of mine.
Suddenly someone started pushing us. We are being pressed agains the rails. Some people are stamping on us and are getting on the front. the counter has opened and we could hardly move. The guys who pushed us aside were standing in front. They collected the tickets and went back. The counter closed. We were dump struck. I knew one guy who pused us aside. He was the same person who approached us as guide. Now I know how the whole thing worked. Why the guide told me that we won't get tickets.
Soon an announcement was heard
"The second stage cable car ride is not operational today, owing to bad weather, Only 100 more persons will be allowed in the first stage also"
We are shocked. Will this be failure again. We plotted a plan. Next time when the counter opens, we will not allow any of those guides to come ahead. We waited. I can see some guides rushing towards us even before the counter opens. They are getting signals from people inside that it is going to open. We waited patiently. Two of them reached near us. This time we are prepared. As soon as he reached, we pressed them against the rails. A brawl ensued. But we were more in number and we already had communicated our plan to all other people in the queue.
The guides raised there voice. So did we. These guys were healthy. But we are not relenting. Luckily more people joined us in blocking them. This time we are lucky. We were able to exchange our tickets.
I too reached the counter
"Sir, No tickets for the second stage. Here are your tickets for the first stage"
"If the second stage starts later in the day, should I come again here to get the ticket?"
"No sir, you can get it at the place where second stage starts"
"Will I get refund, if I don't get to use the second stage"
"Yes, it will be automatically credited into the account which you used to book the ticket".
Finally we are ready. In no time I joined my wife and kids. Here we stand in the final queue to get into the gondola. We can see the gondolas coming down to the station.
Oh Boy!!! aren't we excited. The man made gondolas precariously hanging on those cables, taking us high and high up in the mountains where we could feel the ice clad mountains, for the first time in our life.
This again is seeming to be an eternal wait. As we stepped into the station, I could see myself pinching to see whether this is happening for real, for many times during the past 3 hours, I felt as if we are not destinied to ride on a gondola. But it is happening. The Gondala is right in front of us
ooooooooooooooiiiiiiiiiii...... A cry of joy. As we started our slow but steady upward climb. The glass area is huge. We can get a panaromic view around.
Photos and words cannot explain the beauty around.
We felt like birds flying through the meadows, touching the tree tops, feeling the cool breeze.
There are pathways below. Horses could be seen taking the toursits for a ride.
Everything seemed to be beautiful. As we are gaining height, visibility is getting more and more worse, because of the dense fog. Neverthless we could see our destination station.
Our first stage of the journey is nearing completion. The excitement made us forget all the hardships. The ride more than made up for everything. "Papa, will there be snow when we get out the station" "Yes dear, there will be" "I already has one pouch with me to take some snow, to show my friends, when we are back home". An innocent gesture. We stepped out of the station. pretty crowded. Greenish. Covered by fog. But where is snow.
Oh, God. This is our last day in Kashmir. Yet no snow. The fog is slowly clearing out. I can see people trekking up a nearby mountain. Thanks to the camera's zoom, I got a view of what lies ahead
Yes there is snow. But it is far away. Not as easy as we see in the picture.
"Papa, come let us go there and play with snow"
There is no other option. If the second stage was operational, we could have landed in a place full of snow. Now we have to walk to reach that area to feel the snow. Our trekking started.
The terrain, rocky, occasional streams, the shower yesterday made the rocks slippery. The gum boots are of no use in slippery rocks.
One more zoomed shot of what is happening ahead inspired us more to do this trek.
It is not easy as we thought intially. See the size of rocks at some places
Some people are sitting on the way. Tired of the climb. Some are gasping for breath. The coldness and the altitude will make you feel fatigued. It is better to climb with intermittent breaks. My daughter slipped. Luckily she hung on to my hands.
"Acha (father) please, we can go back, I can't climb" she pleaded.
"If we go back how can we see snow, how will we your pouch with snow?"
We started again. My son is enjoying the climb.
Finally after huffing and puffing a lot, we are about to land our feet snow. White, fluffy, slippery, difficult to stand on, touching it makes our fingers numb. Little dirty though.
The child inside us woke up. We are seeing snow for the first time. A cry of excitment came out!!
Kids packed up some snow. Almost 1 hour simple sped away. The last cable car back is at 5 pm. It is already 4. We have to start now to reach the station atleast by 5. The fog ahead of us is clearing up and the sight we witnessed blew us away.
We are used to green veiled mountains back in our home state - Kerala. But this is different.
Another 1 hr we are back at the place where we started the trek.
My daughter found out a small jet of water gushing out from ground. It is so clear.
It is so cold to touch. Washed face with this water and all our fatigue vanished to obilivion. A long queue is already formed for the getting into the cable car.
All this excitement had made us forget one thing. We didn't have our lunch till now. When we thought about it, we started to get hungry. A plate of bhel puri satisfied our hunger.
Another bout of fog sets in as we were entering the station.
Once inside the car, we felt as if we were flying through the clouds.
The downward visibility was also very poor
Everything seemed to end quickly as we started our stroll from the station after the cable car ride. The fog vanished and sun came out. The meadows was looking beautiful under the sun.
We felt that we should not strain our kids anymore. They already trekked a lot today. I called up a horseman and asked him to ferry kids back to our vehicle. He agreed for Rs. 100.
This is our last day of our Kashmir sojourn.
As we walked down the meadows, we kept on talking about the experiences, the beautiful places, the level of commercialisaion of tourism, how guides loot the tourist and amidst all these how beautiful and naturally blessed place this is. We couldn't travel the second stage of cable car ride. Still we are happy. The ride in the first stage itself was awesome, the trek eventhough exhilariting was something we will remember for ever.
Odyssey to Paradise on Earth - The full story
Part 1 - Delhi
Part 2 - Kashmir Initial impression and Gardens
Part 3 - Gulmarg - A failed attempt
Part 4 - Parimahal and Royal Botanical Garden
Part 5 - Pahalgam: "The Valley" of Valleys
Part 6 - The house boat experience at Dal Lake (Srinagar)