Or a guide to alternative travel to Kashmir. Where can you go other than Srinagar, Gulmarg, Sonmarg and Pahalgam when you travel to Kashmir?
We spent almost 6 weeks travelling in the Kashmir valley, using the local Tata Sumo jeeps to places totally-off-the-tourist-trail. Travelling in public transport helped us connect with the locals. They would ask us curiously where we were from, what we did and what were we doing NOT hiring a private taxi!
In return, we got to hear stories from their lives – what they’d felt on their first trip to Mumbai, how much they had loved the sea. They would give us tips for travel to places in Kashmir – hidden places which only they, the people of Kashmir, know. We’ve had the privilege of being literally pulled into a family home and sharing tea with the entire village.
Want to have an offbeat travel experience in Kashmir and not just “do” Kashmir?
We want to share our tips for travel to Kashmir – to offbeat places. How can you make the most of your travel experience in Kashmir?
Getting to Kashmir: Alternative to the Jammu-Srinagar highway
Tourists to Kashmir usually just fly into Srinagar. With direct flights from Delhi, Jammu and many North Indian cities like Chandigarh and Amritsar this is the fastest way to get directly into Kashmir.
Another popular route to get to Srinagar is the highway NH-1 from Jammu. The officials try to keep this highway open for traffic through the year. In the season transition months, traffic jams caused by the migrating sheep are well known along this highway!
The roads are smooth and in good condition – which sometimes leads to rash driving! Twisted winding roads lead all the way from Jammu to the Jawahar tunnel – pop a pill if you’re susceptible to motion sickness.
Not many know of an alternative highway to travel to Kashmir.
- It’s the national highway (yes!) NH-1B connecting Kishtwar in the Jammu region to Anantnag on the Kashmir side. This one’s open only in the summer months adding to the virginity of the roads.
- You reach the top of this highway on Sinthan Pass. The Sinthan Top is your chance to see the snow in Kashmir – minus the crowds. Don’t be surprised if you find the snow mountains all to yourself. If all the snow play tires you out, take a break here for a bowl of piping hot noodles!
- After Sinthan Top the well-maintained roads take you down to the base at Daksum, a village with glacier-fed streams, wildlife sanctuary, endless trails – everything that you need to be lost in nature or within yourself (JKTDC also has stay arrangements). From here, flat roads via Vailoo and Kokernag lead all the way to the city of Anantnag.
Before Kashmir: Sanasar, a “hill station” on the Jammu side
While Jammu might be too hot for leisurely strolls in the summer months, there are places on the Jammu side which are cool (literally, too!) to explore. Sanasar is a village atop a hill, 20 km from Patnitop. The Jammu – Srinagar highway, NH-1D, earlier (before the Chenani-Nashri tunnel opened) crossed Patnitop. Buses ply twice a day from Patnitop towards Sanasar. They are loaded with the locals, many of them Gujjars, who are returning from the Udhampur market after selling the milk from their flock.
You can stay at one of the cosy wooden cabins run by the local youngsters. If you prefer a bigger setup, JKTDC also has a hotel on the Sanasar meadows.
What can you do in Sanasar?
- There’s a lot to explore on the Sanasar hill station itself – the meadows are huge spanning an entire mountain top.
- There are springs and golf courses.
- You can ride a horse. Or just relax on the meadows.
- However, if you’re looking for a truly offbeat experience in Sanasar, you can do what we did – just pick a trail and start following it. The village of Sanasar is nothing like its touristy counterpart. People live in cubicle mud houses all along the mountain slope. This slope is not motorable – which means they have to climb up or climb down several kilometres to reach basic amenities.
- You will cross tiny settlements, farms and streams. You can visit the local school – on a mountain slope!
- You’ll walk with tiny shepherd kids and their huge flocks.
- And – if you’re as lucky as we were – you’ll be invited to have tea that turns into lunch at a farmer’s house because there isn’t any place else to eat along the way!
Accommodation in Kashmir: Ditch the hotels on the crowded market streets, live on the meadows
- Every tourist destination has its share of popular streets. In Kashmir, these are usually the market streets and that’s where the majority of the hotels are located.
- A few lanes away from these crowded streets targeted for tourists is where the “real look” of the city/town/village emerges.
- It might not have all the tourist luxuries, but this is definitely a more charming place to stay. You’ll see more locals here, not more tourists just like you. This is where you see the people going about their lives, spending time with their families, with their friends and neighbours.
- Keep such places in mind when you decide on accommodation during your travel to Kashmir.
Women getting the vegetables from the farm or the firewood from the woods behind, children playing their evening games, men returning home from farm work.
Imagine returning to your room in the evening – and seeing all of this. Even better – playing a part in it all! If you show enough interest, trust us when we tell you, you’ll be flooded with invites to “come have tea” to “stay over with us, why bother with a hotel?” We heard it all the time during our travel to Kashmir.
But first, you have to move away from the lure of the markets where you are looked at as a tourist – a means for them to earn their living. Once that drops, and you are just another person, a beautiful genuine experience emerges. This experience will be your most cherished takeaway from your travel to Kashmir.
- We have lived right on the meadows at Yusmarg, seeing the morning sun turn the snow peak a golden pink – with not a soul around to disturb us. (You can contact the Yusmarg Development Authority to ask about this accommodation at 01951-2442666/9419000272)
- In Chatpal, we lived on open lawns with the forest on one side and the stream on the other. (Contact the Kokernag Development Authority at 01932-244155 or 9419015811 to enquire about accommodation in Chatpal, Kokernag or Achabal).
- Even in the crowded Pahalgam, we chose a guesthouse in the middle of the forest. We had to walk 45 minutes up a winding road (once in pursuit of a shortcut even getting lost in the forest and inviting the ire of the Indian Army – you DON’T want to do this!), but being surrounded by the forest which was home to the many shepherds of Pahalgam, it was totally worth the effort.
- In Srinagar, we lived in a homestay far far away from the Srinagar everyone sees. In return, we got to come back to a real family in a far-off city of Srinagar.
- Every popular tourist destination has a more beautiful less popular (read: cheaper!) counterpart a few minutes away. There is an Aru valley for every Pahalgam, a Tangmarg for every Gulmarg. These slightly-away-from-the-main-town are the places you should choose as a base during your travel to Kashmir.
Trekking in Kashmir: Don’t go everywhere on horseback
Travel to Kashmir is your chance to fall in love with the Himalayas, maybe even be in awe of them. The Himalayas are to be felt, breathed in and become one with. The best way to experience the Himalayas (when you can’t live there forever) is to walk through them.
Check into a hotel.
Hire a horseman and his horse.
Visit the “points”.
Is NOT the best way to see Kashmir.
Naturally, Kashmir is studded with trekking options.
- From the more popular Great Lakes trek to trekking to the Kolahoi Glacier, Kashmir has multi-day treks to suit every fitness level.
- There is even the super luxury (foodwise, at least!) Amarnath yatra trek.
- If multi-day treks aren’t your thing, you’ll have a whole lot of one-day trek options during your travel to Kashmir. Any walk of a couple of hours is a potential trek in most of Kashmir.
- Chances are, you’re already in the middle of a forest somewhere close to the mountain. Just walk around. Climb up a mound. Cross a stream. Run down the meadow. Stroll around in the forest.
- By all means, enjoy a horse ride if you like it. But do take the time, and give yourself the privilege of falling in love – with the mountains, with nature and with yourself!
Some of our most interesting encounters have been when we have walked to places in Kashmir.
- After the Amarnath yatra, we spent a day in Sonmarg and decided to walk to the Thajiwas glacier. We didn’t manage to get there – because these little guys stalled us – and how! The two hours spent with these kids – laughing, dancing, singing right there on the Thajiwas path – are priceless memories.
- Being offered tea by a nomadic woman even when she had to go see a doctor while trekking in the mountains around Chatpal
- Or being told by the bakarwals to not worry about stay arrangements when we went on an impromptu trek near the Aharbal waterfalls – the encounters we’ve had while trekking around – we’ve experienced hospitality in Kashmir not possible when you are just “doing the sightseeing points” during your travel to Kashmir.
Caves and archaeological ruins in Kashmir
Kashmir isn’t really known for any architectural wonders but it does have its fair bit of ruins. And beautiful, mysterious ones at that!
- Like the Satbern caves at Kalaroos in the Lolab valley. No one knows where they lead to, who made them or why. But a short climb up a hillock, the caves make an exciting adventure. The views of the lush carpets of rice fields from the top aren’t too shabby either.
- (The Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Department has some beautiful tourist bungalows across the Lolab valley. Contact the Lolab Bangus Development Authority at 9419017791 to ask them about the accommodation.).
- Martand is where you go to see the least visited sun temple. Most of the structure is dilapidated now, but where else do you get to see a sun temple with the backdrop of snow mountains? The wooden houses in Kashmir are something worth appreciating as well. All wood, heavily decorative structures aren’t made anymore anywhere else.
Nothing “touristy” about these markets in Kashmir
- The embroidery and the woodwork in Kashmir is no doubt special, and an obvious attraction during your travel to Kashmir.
- Kashmir is the only place in India where saffron is cultivated. Naturally, saffron shopping is high on the list of most tourists in Kashmir.
- While these local specialities must be devoured and even brought back home if you’re so inclined, do not give the local markets in Kashmir a miss. Srinagar has all sorts of markets to satiate your urge to splurge.
- However, a walk around markets in cities like Anantnag will give you a more local experience. Walking through these markets is like walking through a bygone era.
- The bakers, the tailors, shops selling tobacco by the heaps, horse riding equipment, copperware – these local markets aren’t your regular grocery and vegetable shops you would see in most other cities.
Strike up a conversation with the shopkeeper if he isn’t busy. Ask him about the samovar and enjoy the tales he then narrates about them. Buy a batch of biscuits or bread as it comes out of the oven. Observe how the old men choose the exact tobacco they want for their hukkah. Or what a horseman looks for in a saddle.
Pashminas and walnut wood objects are fine things to possess, but who knows what memorabilia you’ll find wandering through these local markets during your travel to Kashmir!
Choose the other “marg”: Yusmarg over Gulmarg
The gondola rides in Gulmarg steal the thunder from Yusmarg – at least that’s the impression we got during our travel to Kashmir. We didn’t feel it was justified.
Yusmarg is a perfect destination to travel to Kashmir with kids
- Vehicular traffic isn’t allowed in Yusmarg. Kids can run amok through the meadows of Yusmarg without the need of too much adult supervision.
- Streams, lakes, forest, meadows – Yusmarg has it all. Everything that fits the perfect image of Kashmir is right here in Yusmarg. And to top it all – you can actually walk to all these places.
- We went on a day trek to the Nilnag lake, through a forest crossing some picturesque villages on our way back. Even halting in a family’s home in the afternoon for an afternoon siesta!
- We went for a guided trek (the tourism officer insisted on a guide – “You are our guests. We can’t risk you getting lost in the forests here. Please take a guide with you.”) through the higher meadows of Dragdolan, far away from the villages with only some nomadic settlements here and there.
- We lived in a beautiful wooden cottage right on the meadows. At night, we could sprawl on them and observe the dark star-studded sky. Not a sound to disturb our solitude!
Glorious gardens, minus the crowds
Mughal gardens are a top attraction during your travel to Kashmir. Srinagar has the most famous Mughal gardens in Kashmir – Chashme Shahi, Nishant and Shalimar being the most popular ones. And yet, we do not have a single photo from our visit to all these gardens. They were so crowded when we visited in the summer that all we did was walk in and walk back out.
That – and we had seen better ones. In Achabal and Verinag in south Kashmir. The same tiered structure, cascading waterfalls, springs, colourful flowers. And it doesn’t feel like you’re walking in a mob.
Don’t see TV, talk to the people: From the Gujjars to the kids to the army jawans
This is a sensitive one, something that crosses everyone’s mind when they start planning their travel to Kashmir. Is it safe to travel to Kashmir? How are the people? How will they react to us, tourists?
Staying far away from it all, in our homes we have only the external media to form our opinions. And the world sure looks a scary place through the media lens.
Our recommendations to understand what travelling in Kashmir is really like?
- Travel to Kashmir.
- See for yourself, with your own eyes its pristine beauty.
- Talk to the people – everyone.
- The vendors, the horsemen. Ask them about their aspirations.
- The tourism officers the – ask them about their visions for the development of Kashmir.
- The women – ask them of their struggles in running the household. Find out how easy or difficult it is for them to step out of their homes and work.
- The kids – play with them. Ask them if they like school, what their favourite subjects are.
- The army officers and the jawans – ask them about the courage it takes to stay away from home for so long.
- Have conversations. Connect with the people. And then and only then, form your opinions.
These broad tips for travel to Kashmir can in fact be applied to travel everywhere for a genuine feel of the place you’re traveling to. These tips are our go-to travel mantra.