Disclaimer:  Nero is in Kashmir, as tour leader of a group holiday. Having arrived the previous day, he’s had a trying evening as they all go shopping and in different directions. For hours. What will happen hereafter on the trip?

To read part one of the series, click Kashmir Tour Diaries: The Prelude


Day Two: Trip to Sonamarg

The troubles of a tour guide are many.  With that profound thought and a snort, I shut off the alarm that had been behaving in an extremely uncouth manner,  determined to rouse me from my slumber.  The biggest trouble, I declared as I flung the blanket in disgust and left my bed two minutes later, was to have to wake up before your entire group did.

But you know, there are far greater problems in the world. Loud children at the breakfast table, grumbling drivers waiting outside impatiently, grandmothers expecting dosas for breakfast in Kashmir, flustered waiters rushing with dishes that were not in the pre-decided menu, disapproving hotel managers, and the ability to keep all these people happy.  Aah, the joys of a vacation.

An hour later, the twenty six of us were neatly divided into two groups, each party then climbed into a tempo traveler and we bid adieu to the gates of Hotel Adhoos, even if only for a few hours.

As tour leader, I sat at the front with Fayaaz, our twenty five year old driver who would go onto tell me so many stories on the trip. The group was now at its merriest, singing songs and being extremely off-key. Chips were being passed all across the mini bus, and the kids were devouring them as if it was their last meal. But that’s what an intoxicatingly cool breeze and a holiday can do to your spirits. I looked outside, smiling, and the rain fell ever so slightly, that exact drizzle where you get drawn to put your hand outside the window and let the drops slither over your arm. Silently, I recounted to myself all that I should know about Sonamarg. My research, I congratulated myself, was impeccable.

“Uh Neeraj, can you tell me what tree that is?” a voice asked from the background. I turned back to look at an old man beaming at me, positively pleased with his question.

There comes a time in one’s life when he wishes he had actually watched those Krishi Darshan shows on DD. Turning again, I stared hard at the tree, and it looked just like any tree should – leafy, barky, greeny ..

At such moments in life, when I do not have the slightest clue of what the answer could be (mastered over years of not knowing answers in school, college and MBA), I believe that the best thing to do is to furrow your eyebrows so exaggeratedly that the audience is misled into believing that you do know the answer but goddamit, just forgot it one nano second back. So, I went about doing so, furrowing, exaggerating, furrowing some more.

“It’s a kikar,” Fayaaz whispered softly. “Kikar” I boomed loudly to my audience. “Used as firewood, and in building fences,” Fayaaz muttered again. “Used for building fences and hedges. And also as firewood,” I declared with the voice of a man who had been talking about the dear old Kikar species all his life. The old man looked satisfied now.  And I, well I only winked at my driver, and the seeds of a new friendship had been sowed.

Sonamarg is an approximate fifty sixty kilometer drive from Srinagar. It lies on the Srinagar – Leh route, and is usually the last halt on the Kashmir side.

At eleven, we stopped at a roadside dhaba, and rushed to eat the steaming hot pakoras that a strapping young lad was cooking on a slow flame. The cold breeze was now flirting with us, and how well, grazing the skin, drawing that shiver, and then receding,  letting go as if nothing had ever happened.  The dhaba itself was sitting in a splendid location – it’s front faced snow covered mountains that had such a thick blend of white and brown that they almost looked photoshopped, and the back opened out to a gurgling stream. The kids were enjoying splashing water on me, and the parents were enjoying their kids splashing water on me. I bore it, all the while feeling like a martyr.

Icy streams, Sonamarg


Back to the journey, and how we marvelled at the sights. At one point, we crossed eight foot high snow walls on both sides of the road forming a tunnel of sorts. In December, these walls rise up to twenty feet. Once the tourist cars reached Sonamarg, there is a check point where one gets off and the cars aren’t allowed to go ahead after that. The mountains should overwhelm your every sense,  for they rise everywhere wherever your eyes can go, but it is your immediate surroundings that take precedence, unfortunately. For as soon as your cars come to a halt, there is a melee of  young Kashmiri boys, most in their early twenties, who are rushing to you, offering their services, screaming their wares, extolling their horses, doing anything to have you paying them.

It is not a pleasant sight, more of a mad scramble that they make at you. Behind them are small pitched tents, where after you hire the services of a guide, they usher you in for you to change into your snow clothes. Small, forlorn, overworked ponies stand nearby, waiting for yet another journey into the mountains.  There are four wheel drives too, ready to take you, but then at that moment you think you are Robin Hood, Don Quixote, Rana Pratap all rolled into one , as adventurous as can be, and hence its only a horse you want to mount. Tourists will clamber onto the horse’s back, and since most of them have never done so before, they will push wildly at the saddle, jerk the reins, dig their shoes onto the animal’s body, grapple with its neck all to just clamber on top of it. It is a living thing, you know.

The journey through the mountains upto Thajiwas glacier is amazing though. As you trot forward, one pony step at a time, the panorama literally opens up to you and you can see the different hills taking shape, coming out of their hiding. It is like that Napa Valley round in Roadrash game, the graphics opening up wonderous hills as you ride forward.  While the lower hills are half brown, what with the snow melting, as you go higher, everything becomes white.  I took all of it in, but a part of me couldn’t stop worrying about the pony or the guide. “Rani”, Pervez (my young guide) said when I asked him the pony’s name. You really are a queen, little one.

As the path turned and weaved, it gradually became narrower. And more crowded. The melted snow had turned the mud to slush, so it became even more difficult. Some of the horses veered around the edges of the cliff, and a few people shrieked thinking they might fall down the gorge. Pervez just smiled, he and the horses had been here too long, traversed this path everyday and sure of each step they took. It would take some doing for a horse to actually fall down the cliff.

Snowy heights

When we reached the snow boarding point, there was a huge crowd there, Bengalis, Gujaratis, almost every Indian community. It should have tainted the beauty of the place, but so massive were the cliffs, so pointed their faces that you could not but feel excited. The sport of snowboarding involves a wooden sled, dragging it up hill and then sitting on it and sliding down the slope. The bad part is that in India, a man pulls you and the sled up the slope.  All over boys were pulling kids, mothers, fathers on the sleds up hill and it took every bit of their muscles to do so.  I tried pulling the boy who was handling my sled, up, and I slipped, skidded, heaved for  ten feet before stopping and laughing  at the fruitlessness of it all.  Just walk up the hill with your boy, people, and come down on the sled,  it’s the right thing to do.

We left Sonamarg - its gorgeous hills, the snow, the fir trees -  in the evening, back to Fayaaz, the mini bus and darling Srinagar.  Earlier, we had played in the snow, even the adults gamboling about like mad kids, laughing, screaming. Then, a kid could not be found and there was chaos, a crying mother, a furious grandfather, and a darkening sky.  But those have not been detailed, for Sonamarg, much like any or all of Kashmir is not about the tourists – it is about Pervez, Rani, the hills and the slush.

Aah, the joys of a vacation.

Neeraj Narayanan

At WeAreHolidays, Neeraj Narayanan is Head of the Content and Digital Media Team. He has a Masters in Advertising & Media Communication, has had experience as a Communication Consultant to the Government of Gujarat, and as a Brand man in the IT giant firm - Cognizant.

On weekends, he conducts Heritage Walks in Delhi.

Neeraj Narayanan – who has written posts on WAH Blog.