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Paradise on Earth

The august embrace of Gulmarg, Sonamarg and the entire Kashmir Valley – of lush green meadows, sparkling white glaciers and warm residents with their warmer cups of Kahwah – will make you yearn for more, always leaving with a promise to return to this jannat.

This time, when I sat myself down with a cup of frothy cappuccino at Delhi Airport (August 10), my phone buzzed with my sister's call. Her voice sounded dazzled by the fact that I have been travelling exhaustively through the last few months, making plans in seconds. I caught up on her anxiousness."Just sipping a nice cup of coffee, with a teaspoon of Gulmarg, stirring another spoon of Sonamarg and a bit of Srinagar to spice it up," I giggled unapologetically.

Hidden behind the veil of giggles was my transcendental joy of travelling alone through the magical and picturesque valleys of Kashmir. The next thing I knew, I was in Srinagar making my way to Gulmarg. I was mesmerised, I could hear my heart thumping against my chest – it had been a long cherished dream to visit Kashmir, the land of untampered beauty. And, today, I stood at Srinagar Airport, ready to script my dreams into reality.

Without further ado, we sallied forth for Gulmarg. It was a two-and-a-half hour drive from the airport with an obvious halt for lunch. It was about 1.30 pm and I gorged on paranthas and two cups of bewitching Kahwahs, the special Kashmiri tea consisting of saffron, almonds and honey.

Rumbling the flavour of Kahwah around my tongue, we set forth for Gulmarg. The immaculate hilly terrain was strewn abundantly with poplar, willow and walnut trees. I could see the walnuts dangling from the greenish-brown branches. My kind travel guide and chauffeur, Muzzaffar, informed me that they usually do not buy walnuts but pick them as the ripe ones fall off the branches. My luck did not favour me this time – yielding to some unpropitious deity, my eyes could not spot any walnut.

Muzzaffar further claimed that the branches of the poplar trees are used to build and strengthen the roofs of Kashmiri houses. What a splendour — just then, I saw a roof of a house being constructed with heavy logs supporting the tin shade above.

Sitting in the front seat, I was bedazzled by the magnificence of Kashmir. We passed quaint and tranquil villages where nature's bounty beckons a traveller's soul. The villages were adorned with lush green fields of maize, walnut trees, apple and berry orchards. My heart abounded in distant dreams of Gulmarg, how resplendent would it be? My soul nudged at my heart. Seeing my fixation, my guide pursed his lips into a sweet smile and then burst into a giggle, "You are enthralled just by this, can you even imagine what lays ahead?" My enchantment had left me at a loss for words and cognitive thinking.

The village roads were dotted on either side with two-storied beautifully painted houses which resembled immaculate paintings. The roads through Tangmarg led us to forest roads. It was so silent and sedate that the rustle of the leaves distinctly reached my ears. It was the first week of August, supposedly the time of monsoon; but the air was warm and laden with the fragrance of wildflowers, walnuts and berries.

Gulmarg is a distance of 60 km from Srinagar Airport and I sat slobbering over the views of the way. The winding terrain was full of wild white and violet flowers which the locals call Ghaas. I stopped and stooped over them to inhale the fresh scent. Horse riders galloped past to my delight, as we drove higher up the mountain pines, deodars burst into my view. Finally, I spotted Gulmarg after a half-an-hour drive. Nature was at her best, it was a wide and lavish spread of green meadows besprinkled with rose-hued flower beds.

It was warm and sunny. As far as I could stretch my vision, grey and green mountains shrouded the horizon with thick green foliage embracing its slopes. I stopped there for an hour and soaked myself in the pristine beauty of nature preceded by a cup of honey-flavoured Kahwah. At this time, I could not spot the snow for which Kashmir has gathered renown. I was informed that since the last four to five years, during July and August, the ice has been melting as a result of global warming and increasing levels of pollution. A brief spell of dolefulness set upon me as I wished to see the humongous glaciers up on the mountains. Nevertheless, I visited Kashmir and the splendid views of green have more than elated my soul. Clouds towered above us as we drove down from Gulmarg. The mountains looked magnificent in their wild glory.

Our next halt was Tangmarg, a 45-minute drive down the mountains, where I set my foot in the apple and walnut orchard. The ripe apples invited us to pluck them at random, satisfying our gustatory pleasure. Our next and the last stop for the day was Dal Lake and a traditional ride in a Shikara. I even witnessed a variety of floating agricultural products like tomatoes and brinjals harvested on the lake.

Though monsoon, yet there was no sign of rain or clouds even on the next day. It was a warm, sunny morning. The locals were also praying for some rain and pleasant weather as the scorching rays were beating down all the time. At about 9 am, we drove off to Sonamarg situated at 18,950 feet. Here too, both the weather and the people were very warm, I must admit. Muzzaffar's expert driving skills covered a distance of 90 km (from Srinagar) in two-and-a-half hours. We passed a quaint village on our way, a favourite halt for bikers en route Ladakh. We stopped to have kahwah by the roadside and hosted ourselves on the small rocks along the banks of Sindh River. Yes, it was Sindh and the water was very cold and fresh – a fitting contrast to the warm weather. On our way to Sonamarg, we passed the resplendent villages of Kangana and Thone, full of ambrosial apple orchards.

Yes, it was hardly three hours and I was immersed in the pristine beauty of the lofty Himalayan mountains and, suddenly, I had to pinch myself to believe my senses – ice on Thajiwas Glacier, a few kilometres away from the Sonamarg viewpoint. The locals almost pounced upon me to hire ponies and pay a visit to the glacier. Instead, I preferred a small trek up the mountain. I trekked for three kilometres in the mountains and viewed the glacier from the top-most point. I felt the cold breeze on my face for the first time in my entire trip. I ran to and fro on the mountain land in absolute bliss. Thajiwas in front of me, the green vales of Kashmir full of succulent orchards beneath me and the cold occasional breeze all around me. I felt so ecstatic that I longed for the moment to be perpetual. I rolled over the soft velvety grass. Seeing my moonstruck behaviour, Muzzaffar had a quick laugh, only to soon jolt me back to reality. "Let us get down Madam, as by 3 pm we need to leave this place for security reasons due to Amarnath Yatra," he reminded me.

It was almost 2 pm and I staggered down the slope. Having a full plate of lunch, we drove up to see the trout fishing pond and then it was time to bid adieu to Sonamarg, the way to Ladakh and also Amarnath. On the way back, I had the taste of Khas Khas – homemade bread, a local delicacy.

At about 7 pm, we arrived back at Srinagar. I was enthralled by the beauty of the valley but equally pensive as my flight back to the Capital was due the next day. Finally, the evening was well spent at Muzaffar's typical Kashmiri house with many more cups of Kahwah, homemade bread and exquisite Kashmiri shawls. I bought a few as tokens at a much-subsidised rate. My two nights of respite in heaven had ended and the memories I secured are unforgettable, all courtesy Muzzaffar.

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