We do not normally book a package tour when we go on a holiday. We prefer reading up about a place and then locating its charms on our own, or taking help from a local or from someone who has already been to that place. For our trip to Kashmir, however, we decided to book a package tour – a customised holiday just for the two of us. The itinerary included a one-day sojourn to Sonamarg, which is about a 1-1/2- to 2-hour drive away from Srinagar.
We started off for Sonamarg bright and fresh, early in the morning. It was quite cool, but I refused to pull up the window glasses of the cab. I did not want to miss seeing a single sight, and wanted to be ready to take a photograph whenever I passed by anything that I wanted to capture. And I did find many a thing like that.
We passed through lush green paddy fields that looked amazing against the hills,….
….. caught our first glimpse of (melting) snow-covered mountains,…..
….. were charmed by rivulets of melting snow that ran down mountains, densely populated with poplars,….
…. stopped by natural streams to fill crystal-clear water in our water bottles,….
….. wished we could live in one of these quaint houses situated amidst the hills, …….
….. and didn’t realise that the drive had come to an end and we had reached Sonamarg! That was quite a feat! We had read that Sonamarg is located 2800 metres above sea level and were so certain that we would puke on the way that we were armed with candies and tablets. Thankfully, we didn’t.
Tourist vehicles are required to stop at a certain point in Sonamarg, after which you need to take a pony or climb up the mountain to see some beautiful sights. The place where we stopped itself was so beautiful that I didn’t want to see any more sights and wanted to spend the entire day there. Take a look!
If not for the plastic bags and soft drink cans and water bottles littered all around, the place could have easily passed for Switzerland. 😦
OK, I admit, I refused to take a pony or climb up because the paths looked steep and deadly, and I was too scared to think straight. 😦
Thankfully, the OH intervened and convinced me to take a pony ride up the hills, as we did not know whether we would be visiting Kashmir ever again or not. I am glad he did, or I would have missed out on so much!
So, we hired a pony each and some jackets and boots (we were told we would need warm jackets and skid-free boots to travel to the Thajwas Glacier above the hills), and off we went. I got a mature, obedient pony called Lulu and the OH was seated on a mischievous one called Badal, who was bent on disobeying his master. The master of these ponies was a lad called Abdul, little more than 12 or 13 years of age. I took in his instructions on how to hold the pony and how to balance myself, and holding on to the stirrups for dear life, we began the ascent.
We later realised that we had been swindled in the pony hire charges, but that is a story for another day.
After a treacherous climb of about an hour and many shrieks later (not all in joy!), we reached some tents selling chips and Maggi and tea. We were freezing by this time, and were only too happy to get our hands on two piping hot bowls of Maggi and two cups of tea.
I must say the ascent was spectacular, though the climb is not meant for faint hearts. I almost had a series of heart attacks on the way, but I am still glad I took that pony ride.
After the tea and Maggi warmed our freezing selves, after we had gotten over the nerve-racking ascent, and after being immensely grateful for the bulky jackets and shoes we had hired, we set off for a walk to the nearby Thajwas glacier. Abdul promised us we could spend as much time there as we wanted to, and that he would wait for us to begin the descent back to the point where our cab was parked.
It is an amazing feeling – one that cannot be described – to see snow melting into streams of clear water just metres away from you!
That there is the Thajwas glacier, which you have to climb up to. Ponies do not go beyond the tea-and-Maggi tents. It is BREATHTAKINGLY beautiful.
Here is a close-up of the peak, enveloped in clouds. Isn’t it lovely?
We didn’t want to climb up to the very peak, but we did want to get close to all that melting snow and get our hands on it. That meant another treacherous climb, this time on foot. See for yourself! We didn’t want to ride on the sledges that many tourists took to reach to the peak.
After touching the snow – which was quite hardened actually – and getting thrilled over the entire experience many times over, we realised the sky was getting cloudy and dark and that we should begin climbing down. And just then, the wind started howling and the rain started pouring. ‘Mumbai ka fashion aur Kashmir ka mausam dono ek jaise – har paanch minute mein badalte hain,’ the locals told us. We didn’t know about the Mumbaiyya fashion part, but were inclined to agree with the Kashmiri mausam part. After all, it had been bright and beautiful when we climbed up!!
We began the descent nonetheless, slipping on the rocks many a times and finally reached the tents – with scratches on our hands and feet, and my pajama torn, but with happiness in our hearts.
It was an experience in itself finding Abdul in the throng of ponies and pony-wallahs that surrounded the tents, which had started billowing in the wind. We almost hugged him in relief when we found him. 🙂
The descent to the cab-waiting area was comparatively less scary, and we had begun to get a hold of how to control our ponies.
On the way down, we saw yaks (for the first time ever!)….
… and little goats jumping over (dirty 😦 ) streams, which made for totally enchanting sights!
Another hour, and we were in our cab, ready to go downhill again and back to Srinagar.
We cast a last glance around us….
…. bid farewell to the ponies…..
….. and the mountains….
… and set off on our way, grinning amongst ourselves over what a scaredy-cat I had been. 🙂