This is one trip that I never planned. Leh was beautiful and enchanting but never tempted me to go there. Initially Rajshekhar sent me a message asking me if I would like to join for Valley of Flowers trek or Leh Cycle Trip with Youth Hostel. Valley of Flowers can be covered anytime when we go to Uttarakhand. So I felt there is no point in going to just Valley of Flowers. I told him if a Cycle Trip is planned for Leh, I am slightly interested in it. As most people voted for Leh, that was chosen. But timing was an issue. I would have preferred to go in late August or early September since I was taking my mother on a Pilgrimage to Kashi and Gaya in late July. To start a journey of 15 days with a short gap in between was something that was tough for me. But again, I thought of completing this off. So we finally started on 4th August. We all didn’t go together. Our plan was to meet in Ramakrishna Mission, Srinagar on 5th August.
I reached Delhi on 4th August and stayed there for a day and started to Srinagar on 5th. Srinagar Airport is very small. But it is one of the most sensitive Airports in the World. Check in takes a long time here but coming out is a breeze. There are local transport buses from Srinagar Airport to City and costs 70 rupees. This option can be used if you are not traveling in a big group. Airport to Srinagar City is about 30 minutes drive. But a Taxi costs you around 750 rupees. I took a Bus and reached Jehangir Chowk in Srinagar. From there I took an Auto to Srinagar Ashram which is about 2-3 Kms from that place. One thing about Srinagar roads is that you will see lot of Army men and J&K Police all throughout. It’s a little sad that it has to be so. But it’s mainly because of the militants who are ever ready to pounce in anytime in J&K that Indian Government has to guard the City and roads 24×7. It’s really sad that we haven’t been able to work it out. No immediate solution seems to be in sight.
Ramakrishna Misssion, Srinagar is small and beautiful. There is one Swamiji and one Brahmacharin who stay here. There is also one B N Kaul who is there at this center from the very beginning. He is a highly knowledgeable person who has seen what has unfolded in Kashmir valley since many decades. He is highly educated as well.
In the evening we started for the Dal Lake. On the way we visited the Jeshta Devi temple. This is one of the very few Hindu temples in Srinagar which is unguarded by the Army. It is located at a picturesque location and gives a nice and warm feeling. Some of us had come here 2 years back during our Amarnath Yatra.
From here, we proceeded towards the Dal Lake. During the last visit, we didn’t take the boat ride and this time we thought of compensating for it. The Government has fixed the rate for boat rides. If you follow that rates, it is just fine. It is around 650 rupees for 1 hour. The lake didn’t seem so deep at many places. But it could be at others. It was a nice evening boat ride in Dal which appeared to me more cleaner than what it was about 2 years back when we visited during the Amarnath Yatra. I also heard that there is a 50% drop in tourist number this year since that attack on Amarnath Yatris where about 10 people died in firing. Many locals here say that the attack was done by the J&K police themselves. Of course I can’t verify that but it is really sad. One Muslim driver here said that just the way he can’t bear to see Haj pilgrims being shot by anyone, it also hurts him to see the Amarnath Yatris being shot. There is humane impulse everywhere but there is really no explanation for this targeting of Amarnath Yatris. I can’t understand how someone could be so cruel and indifferent to the lives of fellow and harmless human beings.
Coming back to the Dal, it’s cleaner and greener. We rode for around 90 minutes and had a pretty good glimpse of the lake and its surroundings and also the commercial activities that are being carried out. There are many boat houses here and many shops on the lake. We visited a shop but didn’t buy anything. Our driver had told us that the products are too highly priced in these shops. Many vendors approach you to buy even when you are in the boat.
From Dal lake, we proceeded straight to Ashrama where we had our dinner. The next day we thought of visiting Gulmarg. But there was an accident there recently in that Cable Car which resulted in the death of 10 people. With that Cable Car in doubt, Swamiji said there is nothing much to see in Gulmarg and that we better visit Virnag and Kokernag. So there was a slight change in our plans.
Srinagar was quite hot. But the heat of Srinagar doesn’t scorch your skin like the heat in other places. Anyway, heat also meant pretty good sun light which enabled us to see everything clearly. Srinagar has very beautiful houses with a good architecture which also helps them to withstand the winter when they get heavy snowfall. I was very impressed by the houses here. It is so unlike our cities where the houses nowadays lack all art and architecture. We just get concrete buildings with 4 walls and a roof. That is what I see in most of our cities nowadays. But Srinagar presents a sharp contrast. It’s also green and beautiful.
On the way the trouble started. We were told that there was a heavy stone pelting that is taking place in Ananthnag which is on the way. Stone pelting means the Army will be brought into action and also the roads will be blocked with stones. The stone pelting can take place anywhere enroute which means our vehicle won’t be safe. Our driver Saukat took an alternative route which was not really good but had lot of Apple Orchards. At least it helped us that way. We got to see Apple trees from close quarters. We wanted to purchase fresh apple from the owners but they were not selling. But some children of these unwilling owners took pity on us and plucked some fresh pear fruits and gave to us for free. Children are always wonderful. Thankfully, we had some Bounty chocolates which we could give to them.
Virnag is the birthplace of river Jhelum. The water here is very clear and tasty too. But it’s very cold. Only one of our friends took a dip here. But many children here were jumping into this cold water quite comfortably. They have maintained a nice garden here at the origin place of river Jhelum. There is a small Shiva temple here and also one Shiv Ling next to the water source giving ample evidence that it was previously a Hindu place of worship also.
From Virnag, we proceeded to Kokernag. After having our lunch in J&K Tourism restaurant in Kokernag, we visited the Park that is one of the best in J&K. Both Virnag and Kokernag gardens have an entry fee but it’s not high.
Kokernag Garden is perhaps the best Garden that I have seen till date. It’s clean, green and beautiful. Lot of families come here on the weekends. They will bath, eat, play and sleep here. Yeah! It’s perfect for all that. All in all, it’s a very happy park. We were all very happy to have gone there. The Garden has beautiful water streams, roses, seating places and what not! It’s definitely worth visiting once if you are anywhere close.
From Kokernag, we reached back to Srinagar in the Evening. On the way we saw one dilapidated temple of Lord Avanthi Nath, built by one of the Kings who ruled Kashmir in the past. After doing some shopping, we went back to Ashrama for dinner.
The next day was Raksha Bandhan. We went with Swami Ritatmananda and Bramhacharin Manoj Maharaj to Adi Shankaracharya Hill in Srinagar. It’s said that Bhagavan Adi Shankara performed Tapas here. Also he was hailed as the Jagadguru when he defeated the native pundits in debate. It is said that he was the first person from the South to prove the highest knowledge. This Hill is named after him. It’s a beautiful place. It’s highly secured. Festivals like Raksha Bandhan attract many Hindus in this region to this temple who come here and offer their worship to Lord Shiva. It was very much one of our own local festivals which we call ‘Jaatre’. It was good to see so many Hindus assembling here. There is nothing communal about this but only one’s identification with the followers of one’s belief on a religious occasion. They also had Bhandaras here which give free and delicious food to the visitors. After spending some time on top of the hill doing some Bhajans and contemplation with two monks, we came back to Ashrama in the evening.
One interesting incident happened here. While coming back, there was a street side ice cream vendor who sold local ice creams. Swami Ritatmananda had gone to the Car earlier than us. When we all came back, he told us to buy ice cream for everyone from that vendor. We got horrified at the idea of buying a local ice cream for nothing could be scarier than getting a stomach upset during a travel. But Swamiji was insistent that we buy. We bought about 9 ice creams and Swamiji also ate. Later Swamiji told us that that vendor is a poor man who has taken much trouble to come to the top of the hill to make a living and that it’s mean of us not to buy from him. Perhaps Swamiji saw that he didn’t have too many buyers when we went there. Anyway the ice cream was good and didn’t cause any stomach upset to any of us and also one important lesson was learnt.