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A sight of Shangri-La

A sight of Shangri-La
My Shangri-La beneath the summer moon, I will return again, Sure as the dust that floats high in June, when movin’ through Kashmir.’

Decades ago, Led Zeppelin crooned these words while thinking of Kashmir. They were certainly not the first ones. This ‘paradise on earth’ has attracted many to write and sing about its unparalleled beauty since times immemorial, including the Rishis and Sufis in this beautiful, pluralistic vale of snow-capped Chinars.

As soon as one comes out from the other side of the Jawahar tunnel, the change in atmosphere hits like a pleasant jolt. Everything is white, fresh and sparkling. The first view of the valley takes one’s breath away, with meandering rivers, the picturesque Dal lake and the breath-taking beauty of the snow-capped Himalayas, crowned by the vibgyor of the rainbow and so much colour that it hurts the eyes. Though an all-seasons place, Kashmir bursts into its true beauty in the months of winter. The white cover of snow gives it a delicate, out-of-this world serenity. The whole valley takes on a lazy, enchanted look. One of the most famous landmarks of the state, Dal lake, freezes over at low temperatures and becomes even more picturesque.

Surrounded on three sides by majestic mountains, and a large number of gardens and orchards laid along its shores, this beautiful lake attracts thousands of tourists every year. This is the second largest lake in a state which boasts of many more. Other famous lakes are the Nagin lake, Wular lake and Manasbal. Nagin lake is located just a small distance away from Dal and interconnected by a small water channel.
The beguiling beauty of the Manasbal, however, is difficult to capture in mere words. One of Asia’s largest fresh water lakes, it changes character every few miles. Edged by picturesque villages around terraced, breeze-rippled fields of paddy, the lake is called a birdwatchers’ haven. 

Just besides the Dal lake is Nishat Garden, a wonderfully decorated park laid out by Asif Khan, brother of Mughal queen Nur Jahan, in 1633 AD. The Mughal Gardens are an important part of Kashmir’s cultural heritage. The great Mughals, to escape the sweltering heat of the plains during summers, developed beautiful Mughal Gardens in Kashmir, which continue to attract tourists from all over the world. 
The presence of the Zabarwan hills in the backdrop adds grandeur to the garden, which provides a wonderful view of the Dal to visitors. To add to the beauty, a magnificent water channel flows right in the middle of the garden. The Nishat garden is a popular picnic spot, with many shopping hubs nearby.

The real fun of winters in Kashmir, however, lies in the snow. A festival is held in January and February every year at Gulmarg, the winter games capital of India. Teams from various states in the country and from abroad, participate in skiing, snowboarding etc. The Winter Games Federation of India and J&K Tourism Department jointly organise this festival, in which local artistes also perform in cultural shows.

Gulmarg’s legendary beauty, prime location and proximity to Srinagar led to it being established as a ski resort by the British in 1927. Those who do not want to ski can simply take in the view while trekking on the snow-laden paths. The Gondola Cable Car is another added bonus, which tourists make use of to look out at the stunning vistas of the area.

Another place definitely worth visiting is Pahalgam, the valley of shepherds. Situated at the confluence of streams flowing from Sheshnag lake and the Lidder river, Pahalgam is Kashmir’s premier resort, where a number of hotels and lodges cater to all preferences. Filmgoers will instantly recognise many places in Pahalgam, as it has been the location of several movie shoots. The district has eight tiny villages. A Shiva temple, generally considered to be Kashmir’s oldest existing temple dating to the 5th century, is in one of these villages. Pahalgam is also associated with the annual Amarnath Yatra. Chandanwari, 16 km from Pahalgam, is the starting point of the yatra. It is also the base for a major trek that passes along Aru and Kolohi glacier. If anybody is in the mood for some golf, this is the ideal place as the Pahalgam Club has a 9-hole golf course.  

For shopaholics, Kashmir is an ideal place. From the really cheap to the luxurious, options are many. The famous bazaars of Srinagar are great for buying hand-woven carpets, in demand the world over or walnut furniture. Items featuring popular Kashmiri embroidery are in plenty such as rugs, and can be bought quite cheap from the wholesale markets. Whether it is Pashmina shawls, or the flavourful saffron, this is where it all starts. And everybody should at least consider buying one intricately-carved handicraft item when in the valley. While in Srinagar, one should definitely visit the Sri Pratap Singh Museum, accessed by a footbridge across the Jhelum River. Mughal papier-mâché work, weaponry and traditional Kashmiri costumes are among the highlights.

Not for nothing did the poet say, ‘Agar Firdus Baroi Zameen Astu, Hami Astu, Hami Astu, Hami Astu’ (If there is a paradise on earth, this is it, this is it, this is it).
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