Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Srinagar & Gulmarg

On our first day in Srinagar, we visited the Mughal gardens: Shalimar Bagh, Nisha Bagh, and Nashim Bagh. While peaceful and serene, the gardens were not in bloom in early November and thus not in their full splendor. The rest of the day was spent shopping at shawl emporiums and similar stores. I bought quite a few shawls. For those of you who like shawls, I suggest you buy them in Kashmir (situation permitting): the shawl prices in Srinagar are 30-40% less than in major cities in India.

On our second day, we travelled 4 hours west to Gulmarg, "Meadow of Flowers" and Kashmir's most famous hill station. Gulmarg has 2 gondolas which take tourists up the main mountain in the village. The gondolas are unfortunately not well maintained and we abruptly stopped several times while using them (not a pleasant feeling). Secondly, we had to contend with a lot of pushing and shoving just to get into the Gondola. Ah, poor infrastructure and a lack of civility exhibited by tourists, two problems common throughout India, also plaugue Gulmarg.

In any case, the first gondola takes passengers up to 2,600 m. The second gondola takes passengers from this point to Afarwat Peak at 4,200 m. At 4,200 m, it is difficult to breathe and a bit cold. There was a little snow / ice on the mountain: nothing extraordinary, but it gave many of the Indian tourists their first glimpse of snow. Kashmiri ''guides'' were offering cheap sleigh rides but I passed on this because there wasn't enough snow for it to be fun. One Kashmiri guide offered to take me to the top of the mountain from where I would be able to see the Line of Control. But Aathish, our tour guide, thought that this was a scam and that you couldn't see the LOC from the top of the mountain - if so, he said, everyone would have gone there. So I too declined. But now I regret my decision because it probably would have been possible to at least see a bit of the LOC. I might not have seen any fences or army patrols, but the guide might have said something like, "You see that mountain way over there? Yes? Well, that's in PoK." To which I would have said, "Ahh. Ok, let's go down - it's too cold and it's too hard to breathe up here!"

My aunt and I were discussing the infrastructure issues with Gulmarg and what could be done about them. Gulmarg is in a beautiful place and has a lot of potential. We thought that if the gondola and ski resort were privatized (say by the Ambani group) it could really be turned into a tourist paradise. They could offer great services and charge high prices, thus enabling them to offer even better services. But then we felt that Kashmiris would never allow a large private enterprise like this to come into their state. In fact in Srinagar we didn't see any of the big chain stores that you see in the rest of India - clearly they are being kept out. Kashmiri cities are 10 years behind other cities in India. Fortunately, with the abatement of the militancy in Gulmarg, the city has a chance to improve its infrastructure.

We spent the remainder of our time in Srinagar sight seeing and shopping. We took a boat ride on Dal Lake and visited Dal Lake's floating market. We also visited the Shankaracharya temple, which, because of its location on a high hill, affords a great view of Srinagar. The temple was peaceful and well worth the numerous, steep steps that visitors need to climb in order to reach it. We faced no trouble with the authorities and the weather was nice, though cold in the mornings and night.

The hotel manager at our second Srinagar hotel, Hotel New Park, explained to me that the way Kesari Tours was showing us Kashmir was only one way of seeing Kashmir (and probably not the best way). Indian tourists, he explained, generally focus on pleasures and shopping in Kashmir. Western tourists, however, usually focus on off-the-beaten path adventures. For example, while we took SUVs to the base of the Shankaracharya temple and climbed the steps from there, Western tourists would have hiked the entire distance that the SUVs covered and then climbed the steps. The manager was once a part of the Indian Mountaineering society and also leads several day treks from Srinagar along rivers and lakes into the Kashmiri wilderness.

Where can I sign up?! I told him that my mindset and interests were much more similar to that of the Western tourist and that I wanted outdoor adventures. If / when I come back to Kashmir, it will be an outdoors-focused trip. That is where the real Kashmir is, I think.

1 comment:

Alok J said...

Lack of attention to tourism development is a big issue in India, I see. Here in the US, they make a mountain out of mole of a small tourist spot, they market so well. The example I always quote is that of a dog jumping from one cliff to another in Wisconsin dells. People flock in boats to see that event. Compare that to Gulmarg!!