South Kashmir circuit: Non “touristy” fit for all travelers

Our 45 days in Kashmir took us to some remote, unseen and unknown parts of the Kashmir valley. Yet, the instant image that comes to mind with the word “Kashmir” is from my first visit to the valley, as a kid – standing enthralled at the top of the terraces of the Mughal gardens.

The crowded Mughal gardens of SrinagarChashmeshahi, Shalimar and Nishat, left us wanting for more. We decided to explore the lesser known parts of Kashmir. We headed south and started our exploration with Kokernag.

Lesser known Mughal gardens of Kashmir: Achabal, Kokernag and Verinag

Kokernag is the biggest botanical garden in Kashmir.

Kokernag Botanical Garden, Kashmir, India.

Verinag is the source of Kashmir’s lifeline – the river Jhelum. At the southern end of the Kashmir valley, on a clear day, you can even see the Jawahar tunnel – the start of the Kashmir valley, around 7km away, from some spots in the Verinag Mughal garden.

Mughal garden at Verinag, Kashmir, India

Mughal garden at Verinag, Kashmir, India

A picture perfect route connects Achabal to Verinag. We even saw a horticulture park on the way.

Horticulture farms on the way to Verinag, Kashmir

A long list of Bollywood movies are part of the portfolio of the Achabal Mughal garden.

Horticulture farms on the way to Verinag, Kashmir

The terraced gardens, symmetric designs with fountains lined with colourful flower beds, is the typical landscape here. What you might get in these Mughal gardens is a chance to interact with the main gardener. He will proudly tell you all the movies that were filmed here during the “golden era”. You might also learn a bit about the different flowering seasons and how they choose their plants for these Mughal gardens.

Summer blooms at the Achabal Mughal garden in Kashmir, India

A short walk ahead of the Mughal garden at Achabal is a place called Nagdandi. There is a Vivekanand Ashram here. One of their activities at this ashram is a yoga practitioner’s course. We had gone to the Nagdandi ashram just to have a look. On our way we met these kids, Rohit and Owais. These two friends were busy with their games.

Kids...ingenious and inventive...engineers in the making? They had themselves built these sledges. When a wheel came loose from one of them, they repaired it themselves, then and there!

You can stay at all three places, Kokernag, Achabal and Verinag. They all have tourist bungalows run by the Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Department. These tourist bungalows are perfectly located – either within or just outside the Mughal gardens.

For its central location and proximity to Anantnag, we chose to stay in Achabal.

Anantnag, experience the “real” city of Kashmir

Think of a big city near where you live. Now think of a smaller city close to it, almost like a suburb. Now think of peak hours, traffic and people leaving for work.

We usually associate Kashmir only with a beautiful holiday. Almost forgetting that the people of Kashmir lead normal lives in Kashmir, just like we do back home. They all head to central Srinagar (big city) for work in the morning. Head back to their homes (in smaller cities like Anantnag) in the evening. This makes the road connecting Srinagar to Anantnag susceptible to “peak traffic hours”.

Train journey from Srinagar to Anantnag, Kashmir, India

The solution? Like always, take the train! It might be crowded and a seat might be hard to find. But with lush green paddy fields and poplar trees for views, you won’t be complaining standing at the door.

Rice farming in Kashmir, seen from the train journey from Srinagar to Anantnag

Walking around the markets of Anantnag also gives a glimpse into the real life of the local people. Unlike the hustle of the tourist markets of Srinagar, shops here cater to the everyday needs of the people.

People are busy discussing copper prices to decide which boiler to invest in for this winter.

A copper store in the Anantnag market , Kashmir, India

A tailor, straight out of some bygone era.

A copper store in the Anantnag market , Kashmir, India

There are shops catering to horse accessories. This is the other side of tourism shopping; from the local’s perspective.

Horseman shopping at Anantnag, Kashmir, India

And lines of shops selling heaps of tobacco, because the hookah is an integral and an important part of the lives of the people of Kashmir.

Hangout place next to butcher shop, Kashmir, India

A slightly offbeat Kashmir: Aharbal waterfalls

The Aharbal waterfalls are a day’s trip from Achabal.

The Aharbal waterfalls and the walkway next to it, Kashmir

The Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Department has tourist bungalows here as well.

Tourism bungalow at Aharbal waterfalls, Kashmir

A passageway along the gushing river makes for an exciting approach to this thrilling waterfall.

The Aharbal waterfalls, Kashmir

The meadows around the Aharbal waterfalls gave us a glimpse of some wildlife of Kashmir.

Wildlife of Kashmir at Aharbal waterfalls

And in pursuit of a picture, our first sting of the potent grass of Kashmir! A slight touch of this spiky grass is enough to cause severe irritation on the skin. It starts out quite intense, which got us really anxious.

The potent grass of Kashmir at Aharbal waterfalls

Luckily, some local tourists were also around. They educated us about this grass, and told us the sting would mellow down soon. If we couldn’t bear the sting till then, nature had a solution. The antidote to this grass always grows right next to it!

Our visit to the Aharbal waterfalls gave us a first hand experience of the fickle weather of the Himalayan mountains. It had been dark and gloomy when we reached the meadows around the Aharbal waterfalls. By the time we were on the walkway to the waterfalls, it had become bright and sunny!

The meadows around the Aharbal waterfalls, Kashmir

The Aharbal waterfalls and the walkway next to it, Kashmir

If you come prepared (to stay back in Aharbal), there is a trek that can be done around the Aharbal waterfalls. We had been told about this trek by our co passengers in the Sumo we were traveling in. A short walk ahead of the Aharbal waterfalls, the paved road ends at Gurwatar. From here, we could walk to the meadows of Kungwatar. The Kungwatar meadows are a popular night halt on the multi-day trek ahead to Kausarnag lake.

Nomads walking to the Kungwatar meadows from Aharbal waterfalls, Kashmir

It was late afternoon when we reached the unpaved section of the walk. Shepherds were heading towards Kungwatar, to spend their night on the meadows with their sheep. Unlike what our co-passengers had told us (Kungwatar was a walk of 2 km), the nomads informed us, that it actually was a 2-hour long walk.

Shepherds taking their flock of sheep into the hills

We hadn’t come prepared for a night stay. That clearly eliminated the possibility of reaching Kungwatar. The nomad families offered solutions, saying we didn’t have to worry about food and shelter. There would be many families up there, and we could easily fill our stomachs with the food they would all be cooking. The fire would keep us warm, and the tarpaulin tents would be comfortable to sleep in. It was a generous gesture of hospitality, but we had to head back to Achabal.

By then, we had spent a few days in the tourist bungalow at Achabal. The caretaker and the staff treated us like their personal guests. Our sudden decision to not turn up for the night would have got them worried sick. We decided to be good responsible guests and “reach home on time”. We walked up to the Sangam point, said our goodbyes to the nomads and headed back.

A slightly offbeat Kashmir: Sulphur springs at Kolam Chinar

on our way to the Mughal garden of Verinag, we saw a board saying these were medicinal sulphur springs. We decide to give these a look. We got off the Tata Sumo taxi at this board and went looking for these springs. Without realising it, we had walked past the sulphur springs. Clearly, they were nothing great to look at.

Shepherds taking their flock of sheep into the hills

What did catch our attention were the colourful houses here in the Kolam Chinar village. We walked a little further into the village. A group of friends were busy playing and doing cartwheels. They must have found our cameras amusing, because they insisted on us taking their pictures as they went about their play.

Kids playing at Kolam Chinar, a village with sulphur springs in Kashmir

After a while, they sauntered off to the nearby fields. We followed them there. It was a typical rural setting – people working in the farms, their cattle tied around the fields. And because this was Kashmir, the mountains and a stream had to be part of the setting!

The farms at Kolam Chinar, a village with sulphur srings in Kashmir

The farms at Kolam Chinar, a village with sulphur srings in Kashmir

As we were keenly observing all of this, the people working in the farms were also observing us. Hesitantly, we walked towards them and were taken aback by their friendly greeting, like we were long lost friends! A few family portraits and the mandatory “Where are you from” questions followed. This was followed by the standard greeting among the people of Kashmir, “Come home, let’s have tea.”

A farmer family from Kolam Chinar, Kashmir

The home soon filled with everyone around in the village. All of them excited to meet and talk to the people who were excited to see their farms! Someone asked, “so what’s grown in Mumbai? Do you have a tall trees like our Chinar?” Sadly we realised, the only real answer to that question was, only money grows in Mumbai. The only things taller than their Chinars were the buildings! Of course, we refrained from these melancholic answers.

Tea with snacks at a family home in Kolam Chinar, a village with sulphur springs in Kashmir

In typical Kashmir style, a “table runner” was set up before us. Porcelain cutlery followed. The cups and saucers were soon filled with shirchai – the pink namkeen chai (salted tea) and fresh baked roth (local biscuits).

They let us leave only after assurances that we would return to stay with them for longer.

A slightly offbeat Kashmir: Temples and ruins

Another route from Achabal goes to the Mattan temple and the sun temple ruins at Martand. The temple at Mattan has formidable security all around it.

A temple at Mattan in South Kashmir

Around here we also saw some dilapidated houses of the Kashmir Pandits, who lived here many years back. Some houses still had the names of the families intact. Everything else, however, was in a state of decay.

A temple at Mattan in South Kashmir

A little further up are the archeological ruins of the Sun Temple at Martand. The only other place where the sun temple stands intact is at Konark. This makes these ruins at Martand a rarity. Efforts are being made to preserve these ruins.

Ruins of the sun temple at Martand, Kashmir

Ruins of the sun temple at Martand, Kashmir

These ruins at Martand can also be visited as a brief stopover on the way to Pahalgam.

A slightly offbeat Kashmir: Forest walking at Daksum

Ahead of Kokernag, at the base of the Sinthan Pass is the village of Daksum. Just before the village is the Rajpari Wildlife Sanctuary. It is surrounded by a dense coniferous forest. The melting glacial waters flow as a stream through it.

The Rajpari Wildlife Sanctuary at Daksum, Kashmir

The Rajpari Wildlife Sanctuary at Daksum, Kashmir

With abundant forest trails, Daksum is a nature lover’s paradise.

Wooden bridge leading to Daksum, Kashmir, India

Sinthan top for snow, another main attraction of Kashmir

Sinthan Top is the one place in Kashmir that has snow all year round. Even when the meadows of Gulmarg turn green, Sinthan Top is still covered in snow.

Sinthan Top, Kashmir, India

Very few people know of it. Which means it is quite likely that you can have all the snow to yourself.

The stretch of national highway NH1-B from Daksum to Sinthan Top, Kashmir

Since there aren’t many tourists here, there aren’t any vendors trying to sell you things either. Untouched, pristine and quiet, Sinthan Top, for us, is the best place to experience the snow in Kashmir.

The stretch of national highway NH1-B from Daksum to Sinthan Top, Kashmir

However, we are yet to experience the most exciting part of traveling to Sinthan Top. The Sinthan Pass (our first mountain pass of the Himalayas) is an alternative way to travel from Jammu to Kashmir. In the summer months, this highway, NH1-B is open for traffic.

Construction workers repairing the road to Sinthan Top in the summer months, Kashmir

It connects Kishtwar on the Jammu side to Anantnag in the Kashmir valley. It is not as well paved (especially on the Kishtwar side) as the regular Jammu-Srinagar highway. But, if you have the heart for it, this is a great route to enter Kashmir. Imagine, the view of Sinthan Top would be your first sight in Kashmir!

Sinthan Top, the highest point of Sinthan Pass, part of national highway NH1-B connecting Kishtwar in Jammu to Anantnag in Kashmir

We traveled to Sinthan Top in the Tata Sumo taxis that were going to Kishtwar.

Want to go really offbeat in Kashmir? Head to Chatpal

Chatpal, for us, tops the list of offbeat places in Kashmir.

Chatpal, Kashmir, India

Treks, meadows, walks, streams, forest and solitude – Chatpal has it all!

We began our stay in South Kashmir with Kokernag. We made Achabal our “headquarters” and traveled to all the places we have mentioned above by local, shared Tata Sumo taxis. For most places, we would first go to Anantnag. The different taxi stands in Anantnag have regular connections to all other places.

This part of Kashmir was a perfect way for us to explore the real beauty of Kashmir, together with the local people of Kashmir. Offbeat enough to stay away from the crowds, this part of Kashmir helped us ease into our travels. We felt more confident while exploring the remote valleys in Northern Kashmir or venturing out for the Amaranth yatra.

Top tips for traveling offbeat in South Kashmir

  • People in the smaller villages of Kashmir are not used to seeing many tourists. They are as curious about you as you are about them. Do not consider the questions offensive. Be friendly with the locals.
  • Resorts and ponies will not be found in these parts of Kashmir. This is the real Kashmir, not the “showcase for tourists” Kashmir!
  • The front seat of the Tata Sumo taxis, next to the driver was our favourite seat. It doesn’t get cramped if the driver takes in more passengers and is perfect for “photography on-the-go”!
  • We traveled everywhere by a shared Tata Sumo taxi. The routes below will help you plan an itinerary. Italics indicate no changeover.
  • Route 1: Achabal-Anantnag-Kokernag-Vailoo. Change over into the Tata Sumos that go to Kishtwar. Vailoo-Daksum-Sinthan Top.
  • Route 2: Achabal-Anantnag-Kolam Chinar-Verinag. There is also a direct road connecting Achabal and Verinag. Regular shared taxi service, however, might not be available on this direct route.
  • Route 3: Achabal-Anantnag-Kulgam-Aharbal.
  • Achabal-Ranipora-Martand-Mattan. OR Achabal-Anantnag-Mattan-Martand.

Map of the places in South Kashmir around Achabal

These posts will help you plan your travels to Kashmir

Yusmarg: Should you stay here on your Kashmir trip?

Chatpal, an offbeat gem hidden in Kashmir

Tourist attractions around Dal lake in Srinaagr, Kashmir

Lolab valley, undiscovered Kashmir

Kokernag, a garden outing in Kashmir

Amarnath yatra, trek on a pilgrimage in Kashmir

Or if you are traveling ahead of Kashmir to Ladakh

And Zanskar too…

zanskar journey india travel

Need help planning your trip to Kashmir?

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Sandeepa and Chetan. Married. Indians. Exploring Travel as Lifestyle. Featured by National Geographic, Yahoo. We hope that through our travel stories we inspire others to make their dream into a reality.

Comments

46 thoughts on “South Kashmir circuit: Non “touristy” fit for all travelers

  1. Pingback: South Kashmir circuit: Non β€œtouristy” fit for all travelers - SandeepaChetan's Travel Blog - Imad Clicks

  2. thepoetwithin

    Hey Guys, great stuff. Loved the images and the exploratory spirit.

    Need help on following:

    Where to stay if I need to visit Chatpal and Sinthan Top.

    Can two day trips from Pahalgam do it for us?

    How to book the forest house/guest house at Aharbal?

    Thanks,
    Himanshu

    1. Sandeepa Chetan Post author

      Thank you for pointing it out, Gunjan. Have corrected it now. also, thanks for reading the travel post in detail πŸ™‚ Much appreciated! Happy travels!

  3. Pingback: South Kashmir circuit: Non ‘touristy’ fit for all travelers | SandeepaChetan’s Travel Blog – Santa's Reindeer

  4. vishvarsha

    That moment when you realize editing your itinerary due to lack of time could be so painful!
    I had to drop Kokernag plans during my trip to Kashmir and your pics and this article made me regret that decision.
    Lovely pics! And people do need to know Kashmir beyond Srinagar, Sonmarg and Gulmarg.

    1. Sandeepa Chetan Post author

      Indeed Prasadji! This region of Kashmir is relatively easy to explore, with some good stay options everywhere. And so much quieter and less crowded than the touristy side of Kashmir. Warmer people too πŸ™‚

    1. Sandeepa Chetan Post author

      Did you mean to say JKTDC? By the way, do bear in mind that JKTDC and the JK tourism Board are two different entities. JK Tourism Board offers these accommodations and their prices are a lot more affordable than JKTDC, since they work on a no-profit-no-loss model.

  5. Yogi Saraswat

    Around here we also saw some dilapidated houses of the Kashmir Pandits, who lived here many years back. Some houses still had the names of the families intact. Everything else, however, was in a state of decay. Very beautiful images with information !!

  6. Coolpams

    Magnificent Pictures. πŸ™‚ Just loved them. Can you share which camera are you using to take these pics?