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EXPLORING INDIA : From Kaziranga to the Himalayas to the desert of Jaisalmer to the backwaters of Allepey to the sun baked coral beaches of Lakshadweep....A first hand account of exploring this beautiful country.



Sunday, June 07, 2009

Kashmir Part-II : Srinagar

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Srinagar : Day 1
We had covered Srinagar in two parts. Our initial planning for Srinagar was for two ½ days. But eventually it turned out to be of 1 and ½ day. On Day-2 morning, we had covered few locations and then proceeded to Gulmarg in the afternoon. On return from Gulmarg we had covered the remaining locations on Day-4. However day-4 turned out to be an entire day instead of the planned ½ day because our trip to Sonamarg got canceled as a result of road closure due to excessive snowfall.

We started the day with a visit to the Sankaracharya Temple located atop a hill overlooking the city. The hill presents a magnificent panoramic view of the Dal Lake as well as the city. The entry to the hill as well as the temple complex is heavily fortified with heavy presence of paramilitary forces. One has to get down from the vehicle and walk past the check post at the entry point while the vehicle gets a security check. Vehicles are allowed almost to the foot of the temple where one had to undergo actual physical frisking. Once frisking is over, a climb of 242 stairs will take you to the temple. But it is worth the effort.

Our next stop was the Chesmasahi Bagh, which is one of the 3 famous Mughal gardens of Srinagar. As the Raj Bhavan comes on the road to the garden, video cameras are not allowed in the area. One has to deposit it at a security check point and collect it back on return. It is said that Jawaharlal Nehru used to drink water from the natural spring flowing through this garden. He is said to have a system in place to ensure regular availability of water from this spring in Delhi! Whether you believe it or not is upto you.

It is a small garden. My opinion on this is ‘Nothing spectacular’. May be because there were not many varieties of flowers blooming in it. But it was spring time when I went there. As was being done by all tourists, we also had collected water from the natural spring. Anyway, the experience made us to skip the Botanical Garden located next to it. All these places have a parking fee and entry fee in place. Have a look at the parking ticket and note the line ‘No responsibility for blast’! Scarry! Isn't it?

We then headed for the Dal lake for one of the must do activities while in Kashmir – a Shikara ride in the Dal lake. The entire Shikara things runs on commission system. There are numerous boarding point with hundreds of Shikaras, but only a few tourists around. Everyone there rues the golden day’s tourism. Militancy had kicked the people making a livelihood of tourism the hardest. The cab driver will drop you at a point from where he gets some commission. Anyway, we bargained for a trip for 300 bucks. Shikaras are large enough to accommodate two families.

Our shikara set off cutting though the greenish water of the Dal. Barely a few minutes into the ride we were accosted by floating salesman. We successfully fended many of them off. But one got stuck to our boat like a leech sticking to its prey, courtesy the interest shown by our ladies team in their jewelry. You would like to be lost in the serene surroundings and the life on the Dal. But half of your trip will be spoiled by these constant hackling of salesman.

There is a sprawling market on the backsides of the houseboats. It is a big floating market. You will feel like being in a different world. But the prices are exorbitant. The shops are grouped together in such a way that if you land somewhere you can cover only a few shops. You can not hop from boat to boat and see the entire market. The shikara will take only to a group of shops from which he gets commission. These floating markets are totally dependent on shikars to bring customers. On being cajoled by us, the boatman confessed that he gets 20 rupees for every stops he makes irrespective of the fact that customers buy or not. Prices are so high that you will be made to think twice before buying. The same thing is available for much cheaper at Pahalgam or shops en-route.

The shikara ride lasted for about 2 hours. They will tell you that ride is of 3 hours. But of these about an hour will be spent on those shops. We cut it short by deciding not visit any shop after two such stops. We also had to check out and proceed for Gulmarg.

Houseboats : Yes or No ?

Quite a large chunk of the Dal is occupied by Houseboats. There are hundreds of them, but only a few occupied. Houseboats were introduced by the British who were not given rights by the then king to live on the land. Would I like to spend a night a houseboat ? The answer is NO. The reasons are:
1) They are stationary and standing on a stationary pool of water.
2) The water being made available in toilets is being pumped from the water below. Just think that all your excretions have also been disposed off in the same pool of water.
3) You will require the services of a boat for getting ferried to the mainland and back. You are cut-off from the land.

I had experienced a night in houseboat at Allepey, Kerala. The difference there was that the boat halted only for the night. Yet we could not take bath in the greenish water of backwater canals.

What not to do as tourist while in Srinagar?
You will not find many tourists around. May be 100-150 persons could be seen on any day, most of which are Bengalis. As a tourist you should visit only the designated tourist points and not venture out to trouble hotspots like the Lal Chowk. The entire local market is around the Lal Chowk. But your shopping should be limited to the shops located along the Dal. There are many shops and shopping complexes to cater to your need in that area. The security around Dal is also quite good with considerable presence of security personnel. Venturing out to Lal Chowk can put you into trouble. You are easily identified as a tourist there and it certainly is different from other places in India. There are many barricades put up on the roads within the city. In each of them you will find a bunker built in the middle of the road which is manned by policeman with sophisticated weapons. Quite unlike in other places in India where you will often find lathi holding policeman lazing around often unnecessary barricades put on the roads just to convey the message the police exists. But in Kashmir, the message being conveyed was quite different.

Srinagar : Day 2
On arriving at Srinagar from Gulmarg, we were told that road to Sonamarg is closed. As we had prior booking for JKTDC Hut at Sonamarg, the official at JKTDC was good enough to offer alternate accommodation at Srinagar TRC. We had another unseen delay in the morning at Gulmarg as the vehicle which withstood two days snowfall, refused to start. The driver had to go down to Tangmarg and get a mechanic. But that put our plans back by 3 hours.

Anyway, while it was snowing at Gulamarg, areas down below including Srinagar was getting wet in heavy rains. Thus weather played the spoilsport. It was unseasonal rain resulting from depression in the Bay of Bengal. Because of the rain temperature nosedived. When we left Srinagar a couple of days back, the temperature was pleasant. But on return to the city, it was very cold, much colder than Gulmarg. In fact the cold was so biting that most people were off the roads and majority of the shops were closed. The driver also warned us that if rain continues there may be landslides and hence we should change plan for the last night and make Patnitop our night halt. We just prayed to god and kept our fingers crossed. We consoled ourselves with the reason that had it not rained we would not have get two days of snowfall at Gulmarg.

Anyway, braving the rain and biting cold, we had visited the Hazratbal Mosque. This was the first time ever I had visited the Sanctum Santorum of a mosque. Ladies are allowed inside the building but not inside the Sanctum Santorum. It is located on the other side of the Dal. The road leading to it is narrow and the city buses were a menace. The buses are too big for the narrow roads and are undisciplined. The complex is heavily protected. If you recall there was an incident few years back when militants took control of it.

Next was a visit to the Tulip garden. Located on the foothills of the Zabarwan, it is suppose to be the biggest Tulip garden in Asia. Covering the foothills like a colourfull blanket, the tulips were in full bloom and the JKTDC organized weeklong Tulip festival was on. This garden remains open only for 3 months in a year. There is a hefty entry fee of Rs.50/- for adults and Rs.20/- for kids. We rued the opportunity to visit the park when it was shining on day-1. Rain was following the tourist and played havoc to everyone’s plans. It was difficult to take out the camera. When it was not raining heavily, it was drizzling.

We completed the customary Srinagar sightseeing by visiting the Nishat Bagh and the Shalimar Garden. The Shalimar was better than the Nishat. My opinion is that none of these Mughal Gardens were spectacular. The Millenium Park near Nizamuddin Station is Delhi is much better. If someone feels that these gardens are magnificent, I will like to know the criteria, other than the historical value, that made them think so.

For shopping, we had tried out the Govt emporium. But the best place to shop was the National Cottage Emporium. They had fantastic collection of shawls. Their lists of sowrooms in Delhi have addresses at the Hyatt Regency, Le-Meridien and Maurya Sheraton. This tells high quality of products they stocks. Prices are bargainable.

Almost all our food was taken at the JKTDC restaurant at the TRC except for once. We tried out the Mutton Roghan Josh, a Kashmiri specialty, at a local restaurant on the Dal road.

That completed the Srinagar sightseeing.

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posted by Rupankar Mahanta at 7:54 PM | 6 comments

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Relocation : one stop solution

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End of another busy week. Most of the time was devoted to sorting problems of personnel getting transferred during this season. It may sound strange to many, but my company has an Annual Transfer season in which about 2500 personnel gets transferred across 24 locations in India. This comes every year in May – June. It is a Govt. of India organization where everyone is expected to serve in at least three regions in their career. The wisdom of moving 2500 personnel has been questioned many times as it involves substantial cost to the company as well, but is unavoidable. I look after the system related issues during this annual exercise.

A transfer, specially the ones where one has to relocate, is indeed a painful exercise. It not only changes your address, it changes your world upside down at least for three months. I had undergone three such relocations in 10 years – two of which had been long ones across different states. Your headache starts right from the day you are handed over your transfer order. Run around to find a reliable moving company which does at least packing and moving. Then find insurance, getting your car shipped, necessary clearance from local transport authority for shipping your car, search for accommodation and school for your kids at new place, , transfer certificate, surrender phone and gas connection, etc., etc. The list is endless. I remember someone putting a list of at least 70 things to do on transfer on company’s intranet.

It would have been really wonderful had there been an agency offering single source services for all relocation related problems. I had come across a site moveme.com which apparently offers one stop solution to many, if not all, of problems on relocation. The services offered are the absolutely essential ones like packing and moving, insurance, etc. One of the features I liked was the Move Planner and Movement Checklist. Unfortunately, in India we do not have any such moving company offering single source solution to your relocation related issues. You have few which at best offers online removal quotes. Here you have to run around yourself and get the things done yourself. But the headache is tremendous. It takes another few months for you to settle down at the new address. Someone should start a service like moveme.com in India which will reduce some of the pain of relocation.

Anyway, I also have compiled the second part of the Kashmir trip as Kashmir-2 and will be putting it up in next 24 hours.

posted by Rupankar Mahanta at 7:24 PM | 1 comments

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