Ivory Station

The good, bad and the ugly: Ivorystation’s Riddhi Doshi draws a list of everything you need to know before travelling to Kashmir, something your travel agent will never tell you

Travel guide to Kashmir

The good, bad and the ugly: Ivorystation’s Riddhi Doshi draws a list of everything you need to know before travelling to Kashmir, something your travel agent will never tell you

India’s Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir is no ordinary place, It has always been mired in politics, violence and lately, even climate change – untimely rains, heatwaves, among others. Even tourism in the country is quite different from other places in the country. I say this with experience. I am just back from a 10-day trip to Srinagar, Pahalgam and Gulmarg with a group of 22 including children, adults and senior citizens.

Tourists have been thronging the gorgeous Himalayan destination this summer, mostly in large groups, and are often seen confused and surprised by the strict rules and regulations, unpredictable weather and expected service standards.

To help fellow travellers, I have drawn a comprehensive list of what to expect when travelling to Kashmir, and shared some big, small tips that will save you a lot of time and heartbreak. Remember, no tourist guide or travel agent will ever tell you this.

Travel guide to Kashmir

Picture – Pexels

  1. First off, we didn’t face any scary incidents while there. But the extremely high military presence, seeing soldiers with guns in tanks, patrolling almost every part of Kashmir is certainly unnerving. That aside, after two years of lockdown followed by political instability, this summer of 2022, Kashmir is packed, rather overflowing with tourists. Tourism director G N Itoo confirmed that Kashmir saw 1,79,970 tourists in the month of March 2022, which is a record in the past 10 years, and this number is only expected to grow. Unfortunately, Kashmir’s present infrastructure is slightly underprepared to handle such big numbers. As a result, there is overcrowding and long queues everywhere, and everything is overpriced, right from the hotels, to houseboats, restaurants, cabs, horses and even flight tickets. What are the solutions then? I have a few.
  2. Let’s start with flights. If you haven’t booked your flights in advance, try and opt for via flights instead of direct flights to save money. Mumbai to Delhi and then Srinagar. Another way to do this is to fly to Jammu or Chandigarh and take a bus or a cab to Kashmir from there.
  3. Hotels – Despite hotels’ best promises and efforts, expect delays in service, average food, overworked staff and limited resources. At one of the 4-star hotels I stayed in, they just had one bucket and a mug, something aged Indians often ask for. At another, they forgot to clean our room and at the third, the tea bags took an hour to arrive. Don’t lose your patience. Remember that they are trying their best. Also, Ramzan plays a huge factor here. The fasting, and praying staff finds it difficult to juggle work, the festivity and its rituals.

    Travel guide to Kashmir

    The writer at The Khyber Himalayan Resort & Spa, Gulmarg

  4. To avoid these issues, book your stay at reputed, star properties such as Pine N Peak by ITC or Royal Hillton in Pahalgam, Vivanta Dal View by Taj, Four Points by Sheraton, or Fortune Resort Heevan in Srinagar, Khyber Himalayan Resort & Spa in Gulmarg. And if your budget doesn’t permit you these luxury spaces, carry all the basic things you will require for a comfortable stay without relying on the hotel too much – towel, toiletries, dental kit, mini hairdryers, tea sachets and snacks. I always find the Girnar pre-mix Masala Chai sachets come in very handy while travelling, and as a Gujarati, I never, ever travel without my khakhra. Laugh as much as you’d like, but in cold places like Kashmir, where you get hungry every ten minutes, a packet of snacks in your bag is your best ally.
  5. The heaters in most hotels will never work round the clock, even if they promise otherwise. So, pack smart winter wear. By smart, I mean, new-age technology clothes that take up minimum space in your luggage unlike the old-age, bulky sweater, but gives more warmth and is comfortable to the skin.
    I would strongly recommend Uniqlo’s bomber jacket from its ultra-light collection. All through my recent 10-day trip to Kashmir, I have only worn this jacket and Uniqlo’s turtleneck thermal top, except in Gulmarg, where it was snowing and I needed another layer. The best part about Uniqlo’s jacket is that it can be rolled and packed in a tiny attached pouch. Yes, I am a fan of the Japanese brand and another product I would suggest is their AIRism absorbent sanitary shorts. It absorbs moisture, the material is super comfortable and reduces your stress of stain to a bare minimum.
  6. Talking about Gulmarg or even Pahalgam and Srinagar, the weather in Kashmir has become highly unpredictable. In March, it experienced a heatwave and on April 20, when I was in Gulmarg, it rained the whole day with a hail storm. The next day, the skies were clear until noon and then it snowed and rained again. That means you need to pack smart. Carry a raincoat, an umbrella, a hat and clothes for the hot and cold weather.
  7. Also carry a plastic cover for your suitcase, to have your belongings safe in your car or bus carrier, for when it rains.
  8. Let’s talk about the destinations now, starting with Gulmarg. It’s a quaint, eco-fragile place where no new constructions are allowed. Also, the local horse trade union and ATV union are very vociferous and, if I may, even intimidating. They ensure that no cars are allowed to the Gulmarg Cable Car point, which is the biggest attraction in this valley. The budget for the horse ride and ATV ranges from ₹700 to ₹1,200 two way for a ride back and forth from your hotel to the cable car point. But if you are willing to walk, 15 to 20 minutes, you rather do that.
  9. I travelled with many senior citizens and tried to hire a local car to ferry them back and forth. But the horse union guys learned about it and reached our hotel before we could leave and forced us to pay them some money before letting us use the car. The pretext is the loss of revenue for them. It’s not a very pleasant experience to deal with them.
  10. Though there is a way out. The main parking lot in Gulmarg has a tourist police chowki. You can go there and request them to let your car ferry senior citizens to the cable car point. They might agree. I learnt about this solution from another local driver, but little too late.
  11. Another highly frustrating practice in Gulmarg is local agents trying to help their clients cut the long queues for the gondola ride. It’s utter chaos here. Tourists yell at each other, sometimes to unsuspected visitors who had no idea what their agents are up to.
  12. And most surprisingly, you will not be able to spot a single policeman to seek help from or complain to. Not that they are not there, they are, but hardly anyone is in uniforms. So, what do you do?
  13. There are a couple of solutions. 1. Book your gondola ride tickets online. The phase one ticket is for ₹740 per person and phase 2 is for ₹950 both ways. The Gulmarg cable car authority has recently reduced the number of tourists allowed in both phases each day. Don’t wait to book the tickets offline. Even online, book a couple of days in advance. A relative of mine couldn’t get the tickets a day prior to our visit.Travel guide to Kashmir
  14. Also, keep a buffer day for Gulmarg if you don’t mind spending a little extra on the tickets. If the weather is not conducive, they might close Phase 2 after some time or not allow tourists at all. It’s always nice to keep an extra day there, just in case the cable car is shut on one of the days when you are there.
  15. The timings of the cable car are from 8 am to 4 pm. I suggest starting early and leaving early to avoid the mad rush.
  16. Carrying a print out of your tickets is advisable, but if you can’t, a phone copy is good too, which you must download before you reach the cable car ride station. You will not receive phone data services here, especially at phase 1, where they will check phase 2 tickets.
  17. Also, there is no way to go to phase 2 directly. You have to first get to phase 1 and then change cable cars at phase 2, which means you will have to queue up twice.
  18. But once you get to phase 1 or phase 2, you will realise that all the hassle to get there was worth it. In phase 2, you are surrounded by snow and the mighty Himalayas all around you. For a Mumbai girl like me who had never experienced a snowfall, being there with my family in the white paradise was an exhilarating experience. Even at the age of 38, I made snow angels, got into snow fights, attempted to build a snowman and made many, many Instagram videos and reels.
  19. But remember, phase 2 is quite high, those with breathing problems or altitude sickness must avoid going here. Phase 1 too has snow, but you will have to trek a little bit to get to your white spot. Another option is to hire horses that can ferry you there.
  20. Also, for those who didn’t get the cable car ticket, the option is to hire horses all the way up. This is, however, an arduous ride. While the Gandola rides are under 15 minutes each, the horses can take up to two hours or more each way.
  21. Another very important thing, snow boots or gumboots and long, warm, rain-resistant jackets for you ones to enjoy the snow. These are available for rent in Gulmarg, but I suggest you buy them from Tanmarg, 12 kilometres below Gulmarg, en route from Srinagar to Gulmarg. There are no crowds in these stores and the rent is lesser too, About ₹200 for, both, gum boots and a jacket for two days. Whereas in Gulmarg the rents are usually higher and people there don’t take kindly to bargaining.
  22. But do check your coats and boots thoroughly. Make sure that the boots’ hooves are not washed away or else you will keep slipping in the snow. Also, get a size bigger than your actual size to avoid tightness when in snow. Ensure that your jacket fits you well, isn’t torn, the zip is working properly and the hoodie has a string to tighten it around your face. And yes, don’t forget snow gloves, which you can buy at Tanmarg for ₹100 to ₹125.
  23. Kids usually feel very cold in phase 2. I saw many of them crying in pain. I suggest making them wear thermal socks and also carrying self-warming patches. These are palm-size, warm patches that can help warm the body and ease the numbing effect caused due to long exposure to snow. It’s a must-carry.
  24. The good news though is on both the phases you will get hot kahwa (Kashmiri drink infused with saffron and dry fruit) and chai sold by itinerant vendors, though at very high prices. But that’s what you pay for service in one of the most difficult terrains in the world. Phase 1 also has a cushy restaurant, which always blasts its heater. So, if you need some respite from the cold, that’s the place to be.
  25. Phase 2 has some snow rides as well. In summers, it’s snow sledge and horizontal skiing. It’s about ₹1,500 for both and ₹100 for just a photo op with the ski equipment :). I didn’t opt for either as I wanted to spend time taking it all in rather than packing way too much in the limited time.
  26. Done with Gulmarg, now let’s climb down a little and get to Pahalgam, a beautiful, scenic valley with a pristine river, It’s here that I witnessed horse traffic jam for the very first time in my life on my way to Baisaran Valley.Travel guide to Kashmir
  27. This is the place you must bargain. The horse guys will lure you with photographs of different points and waterfalls. I fell for it. Sealed the deal for 4 points for ₹1,200, down from ₹5,000 they initially asked for. Anyways, we started our horse rides on the somewhat treacherous road (it’s not for the faint-hearted) and in 30 minutes were at Baisaran Valley, a splendid green plateau, surrounded by the Himalayas. “Where are the other three points?” I asked and the horseman said we passed them on the way, I was flabbergasted, but that’s just how it is there.
  28. Also, despite the horse guys’ promise to let you spend as much time as you like at Baisaran, they will start hurrying you back down after 20 minutes as they want to pick up other riders. The solution, be stern at the very beginning and decide on an agreed timeline. Don’t be vague. Specify – 40 minutes, an hour and keep a watch and make them stick to their promise.
  29. Now, let’s get to the next destination, Pahalgam. One of the most popular destinations here is Chandan Valley. It’s where the Amarnath Yatra starts from. Don’t go here if you are planning to visit Gulmarg as all you will see here is a dirty patch of snow and a sea of people. It’s best avoided.
  30. To best enjoy the pristine river of Pahalgam, stop en route Aru valley. You can walk to the mini bridges built on the river here, pose for photos on the stones and also walk across the narrow rivulet if you can take the freezing cold water. But be careful, my husband caught a cold after his mini-expedition here and had to relieve the built-up congestion by guzzling down Dr’s brandy.
  31. Also, for reasons unknown, a lot of Mumbaiites fall ill here in Pahalgam. It’s usually Gastro, which causes vomiting. Your only respite, the one government-run hospital and its kind staff. You will only have to pay ₹10 for a prescription and buy medicines from a nearby chemist. It’s open 24/7. But I recommend an easier route, stick to mineral water, eat light and walk a lot, and definitely avoid the greasy food of Delhi-based restaurant chains, which are always overcrowded. Rather, try small, local dhabas that will prepare fresh food only after you place an order. Pro tip – Definitely try the cauliflower Yakhni at any of these.
  32. Pahalgam is also a good place to shop. The itinerant craftsmen from nearby villages will sell embroidered, cotton suits for as little as ₹500. They tend to get a little pesky though, but you can’t blame them for making the most when the sun shines, especially in troubled Kashmir.
  33. En route Pahalgam, you will pass Pampore, a town where they grow saffron. It’s ₹250 here for one gram of saffron, which my mother believes, is the best she has seen or smelled, though we got it for ₹170 in Kashmir. They also sell blue and blackberries. Please don’t buy these. They are infused with a large amount of sugar, used as preservatives, which can hurt your throat. Mine did.
  34. Let’s get to Srinagar now, the prettiest Capital city ever. A stay in the houseboat and a shikhara ride is an experience you must not miss. But here too the itinerant sellers will push their luck. Bargain hard or tell them you are done with shopping.
  35. While going to the famous Shankracharya temple which has 250 steps, you will have to get off at the checkpoint and get in again after the bus and car are scanned. When we went, there was no parking close to the temple, so we had to spend ₹100 fr an auto-rickshaw to get to the entrance of the temple from where our bus was parked.
  36. Also, if a car or a bus enters and exits the checkpoint twice, the drivers will be questioned, hence they avoid making multiple rides.
  37. At Chashma Shahi (one of the Mughal gardens) check-post, entrance to the governer’s spot, I was interrogated too. As a bus isn’t allowed after the check post, we requested our Innova drivers to make a second trip to carry some of us to the entrance o the garden. Turns out, the military wasn’t pleased. But after a couple of questions, they let us go, anyway.
  38. Remember, Kashmir is a tricky place. Your driver might tell you things about entry restrictions that you may not believe. But, in most cases, they are true.
  39. Also, the best Mughal garden in the Valley according to me is the Shalimar garden. I would suggest that you don’t waste time going to others, especially to Chashma Shahi.
  40. Please do not pay ₹200 for the sound and laser show in Dal Lake. It’s organised by a private player and is absolutely not worth it.
  41. Do not shop from stores around the gardens or around Dal Lake, especially dry fruits. The best place to buy these is at the local market around Jamia Masjid.
  42. Do not miss seeing this beautiful monument. It’s a must-see.
  43. Try the all-veg food at Krishna Dhaba. The best vegetarian food I have had in Kashmir.And now, go pack your bags and have an informed, amazing trip.
  44. And now about leaving Srinagar. Leave at least 2.5 hours before your flight as there are two points where your luggage will be scanned. The first is a military checkpoint, outside the airport and the second is inside the airport. At the first checkpoint, you will have to offload all your bags, scan them, get checked yourself and then load them all bag in your car. If you need help, porters are available.
  45. At the handbag check counter, the only women’s area gets very crowded. The other scanners are quite empty, but unlike other airports, the security here insists that all women’s bags go through just one scanner and that causes a lot of confusion, especially when flights are preponed. Yes, that happens too. So, be prepared.
  46. An extremely important thing to remember, DO NOT carry any spices you might have purchased from Kashmir in your handbag. You will have to either surrender it to the security or go back to the flight check-in counter and send the parcel again. This means waiting in the queues all over again.
  47. The small Srinagar airport is quite chaotic. There are fewer check-in counters and a lot more flights. It’s also hard to find a place to sit. Even the lounge is tiny, but its Elaichi chai is to die for.

To sum it up, Kashmir is different. It’s darn beautiful, but unfortunately, very political, and everyone must pay a prize for it. If we as tourists find it difficult, how tough would it be for the locals there?

Also Read: Della DATA is an activities-filled, luxury glamping camp in Lonavala