Mission Wazwan

Our vacation this year was in Srinagar, a city I lived in briefly as a child, with many trips up into the mountains where my father’s unit was posted. Movement was quite restricted in those days and the tension in the atmosphere was obvious even to my twelve year old awareness. Believe it or not, we never saw the inside of a Shikara or wandered around Dal lake even once during the year spent in Srinagar. School, or the lack of it was fun that year. Security risks (school buses were fired upon more than once) caused closures of schools every now and then, ultimately resulting in our promotion to class IX without an examination.

My father’s unit was located about a hundred kilometres ahead of Srinagar, in the midst of largely untouched nature, proud in it’s pristine glory – rolling green hills, little brooks bubbling merrily on their way, stately pine trees littering the ground with pine cones coated with fragrant wax and the complete isolation of a land as yet unsullied by man. I remember arming myself with a compass (that I didn’t know how to use), a packet of biscuits and a bottle of water in faithful imitation of The Secret Seven or The Famous Five, and wandering into the hills with our part Beagle mongrel Toffee. In winters the entire landscape was covered in fresh, powdery snow and the village below our quarters on a hill looked straight out of a picture postcard, with naked trees and snow topped houses. Making snow angels and five feet high snowballs was a favourite pastime.

Travel to and from my father’s location was always in armed convoys; never in unaccompanied vehicles. These convoys were always scheduled at odd times. I recall one such trip back to Srinagar when our preferred route wasn’t available for some reason and the only alternative was to pass through  a known hotbed of militant activity. Departing at 3:30am, me and my sleepy brother were bundled into a well ventilated jeep on a bitterly cold winter morning. I was delighted to be pointed out a rifle stacked in a corner of the jeep and told to grab it, stick it out the window and fire when told to do so. The rest of the trip was spent in breathless anticipation of an attack and subsequently being lauded as the saviour of the convoy. As pipe dreams usually go, this one too remained in my head and luckily didn’t lend any part of itself to reality though I’m not sure if they were serious. Shucks.

Back to the present time, when Nikki and Naheed suggested an eight day trip to Kashmir, both Indu and I jumped. Indu, because our usual vacations involve only eating, drinking and sleeping, while she loves exploring places, something Nikki and Naheed are great proponents of. I of course jumped because of the food. 20th morning saw us nearly missing our flight, while Brandy, our Golden Retriever had already begun her vacation in a pet motel.

Our flight was via Jammu (another city I’ve lived in) and we landed in a cool (25 degrees) Srinagar in the final third of May. Our first destination after dumping our bags in the hotel was Dal Lake for a Shikara ride. About 2 hours long, the ride started and ended in the publicly visible area and passed through little waterways that serve as both residential and commercial areas.  The Shikara ride was unexpectedly fun! A point to note here is never to buy anything from the many boat-based vendors who will approach your Shikara with wares of all sorts. Most items are priced many times higher than the same stuff in shops off of the lake. I ended up feeling sorry for a particularly tenacious vendor of papier-mâché goods and purchased an item for three times the market price. The same goes for shops on the return journey. On the plus side you’ll find coffee, tea and snacks at a few boat cafes on the lake. If you’re a photographer you’ll find many photo opportunities here.

Was it my imagination or did most people have large noses?

The next two days were spent visiting numerous gardens the city offers (which I quickly grew bored of) and Sonmarg, which has beautiful views. Sonmarg also offers horse rides to the snow point, an activity I discovered wasn’t meant for me. The Sonmarg Times, if it existed, could well have published a headline the next morning, ‘Moustachioed sack of potatoes seen bouncing atop horse’. Apart from the Sonmarg Times, my posterior published it’s own protests and continued doing so for the next two days.  If horse rides aren’t your thing, remember, vehicles can go to the snow point too. Ask your driver for details before departing from Srinagar in case there are documented permissions involved. We found a chap making huge puris on the way to Sonmarg, selling them (in pieces if required) with halwa, and pakodas made with onion, dried peas and lotus stem. The dried pea and lotus stem pakodas were made with a rice flour batter and the onion pakodas with besan (chickpea flour). Check out the video here.

Equipped with suggestions from ‘Highway on my Plate’, we first visited Mughal Darbar and Hatrick in Srinagar. Hatrick has two restaurants in the city; Rajbagh and the University. Mughal Darbar saw us try Rista, Aabghosh, Qabargah, ‘Hindi’ Roghan Josh and Kashmiri Pulao. The ‘Hindi’ Roghan Josh was per my desire to try the Kashmiri Pandit’s version of Roghan Josh, which they called ‘Hindi’ Roghan Josh or ‘Indian’ Roghan Josh. The Hatrick in Rajbagh was a three in one; a vegetarian buffet (120 per head, 80 for kids), an over the counter snack and ice cream shop and a restaurant. We visited the outlet three times and while not the epitome of culinary perfection, it has nice food and friendly service. The outlet in front of the university was another story entirely and I do not recommend visiting it. We also ate at a restaurant called Alka Salka alongside Mughal Darbar, which was way below average. Notwithstanding the large ‘Kashmiri Wazwan’ board outside, their menu only has 4 or 5 Wazwan items listed. The service is definitely very friendly, though they have a long way to go with the food.

The food at most places we ate was average, an observation that repeated itself at all except two establishments; Ahdoo’s in Srinagar and ‘Trout Beat; in Pahalgam. I think Delhi has better Kashmiri food than most of the places we ate at.

Kashmiris seem to be prodigious bakers with even the smallest villages sporting a little bakery with breads on display. We tried Lavasa, Kulchas, Kachoris and Girdas among other breads. Lavasas look like ordinary tandoori rotis though a little chewier and saltier. The Kulchas were like thick, crumbly, savory, white cookies topped with poppy seeds. The Kachoris were flaky, crisp flatbreads while Girdas were chewy, leavened breads with a golden brown glaze. Another type of Kulcha is also available that looks and tastes very much like a bagel, though saltier and crunchier.

Three days after arriving in Srinagar, we left for Pahalgam. The nice thing about visiting Srinagar is that most other destinations are a couple of hours away by car. Touted as one of the many ‘Switzerland in India’ destinations, Pahalgam does deliver. Unpolluted air, friendly if insistent locals, lovely views and great fish; if you’re visiting Srinagar, you must plan some time in Pahalgam. Log Inn and Trout Beat are part of the overpriced and innovatively named Pahalgam Hotel. Log Inn is vegetarian as are many restaurants in Pahalgam owing to it being on the way to Amarnath. It also serves the only decent coffee in town. Thankfully every item at Log Inn is available at Trout Beat (not vice versa) and that’s where we lunched on Trout Menuiere and Trout and Chips, both of which were delicious, if not correctly done. Inspired, we visited the local fishery department and cooked ourselves a trout dinner in our JKTDC hut with six medium sized trout for Rupees three hundred… less than the price of a single platter in Trout Beat. You can visit Betaab Valley and Chandivadi from Pahalgam; both combine into a single excursion. Taxis are available from the local taxi stand. Chandanvadi is named thus for the Chandan (Sandalwood) trees that purportedly grow there. We didn’t see any. Betaab valley gets it’s name from the Sunny Deol movie Betaab, that is said to be shot there. Visit Chandanvadi for snow and sledding; Betaab Valley for large brooks, trees and greenery.

Nearly every place we visited had lovely views, friendly people, insistent purveyors of local goods and… loads of rubbish. The latter was of course contributed by Indian tourists who litter with impunity. Could I ask you to please not do this when you visit and actively discourage others too? This natural beauty isn’t going to last very long in any case; why shorten it further? Let’s give our children a chance to take their own children to Kashmir and relive their childhood experiences.

In Pahalgam, we ate at another Highway on my Plate recommendation; Glacier restaurant, which too barely crossed the start line with respect to memorable food. Avoidable. A common trait with every place we visited, without exception, were the portion sizes – huge!

Back in Srinagar, we visited Ahdoo’s again, a testament to it’s great food and service. Our last meal there comprised Rista, Nadroo Yakhni, Qabargah, Chicken Malai Tikka and Kashmiri Pulao. All good! This time we chose grilled chicken tikka sandwiches, Rista, Nadroo Yakhni and Ahdoo’s Special Mutton Seekh Kebabs, all of which were great, especially the mutton kebabs.

Gulmarg was another place we visited by taxi from Srinagar. The base has fabulous scenic panoramas. You can go further uphill by gondola, which happens in two phases. The second phase is sometimes closed due to bad weather, as it was during our visit. We did get to the first phase though, which had some nice views, but not terribly overwhelming; probably due to it being a foggy day. While the rest of the group went traipsing around the hills, I chose to sit at the restaurant there and read a book. While reading, I asked for a hot and sour chicken soup, a plate of toasted bread with butter and a non-veg thali. What came was a chicken sweet corn, further strengthening my belief that most people at such points (hill stations etc) just couldn’t be bothered with proper service; the crowds will still keep pouring in. The thali was barely edible, though the mutton curry was nice. Talking of crowds, I found a tax discrepancy in both my bills; the numbers were rounded off to the nearest round number, essentially overcharging me by 2.45 rupees. On asking the reason, the chap said there was always a shortage of change, which is why it was rounded off and offered to correct the mistake. I doubt that, really. With at least 2,000 people (an average of 5 people I asked. All worked there) visiting every day, throughout the year and a minimum error of rupees 2.45, we’re talking a daily illicit earning of 4,900 rupees, which works out to a tidy sum of 17,88,500 rupees (Seventeen lakhs, eighty eight thousand five hundred) a year. Also, some vehicles do seem to be able to drive till the gondola ticket booths. Check with your driver if you can do so. The only other options are a pony ride (eek!) or a 15 minute walk. It may actually be better to walk as the views are phenomenal.

Just in case you’re like me and need a dose of fresh coffee every now and then, you’ll find a Cafe Coffee Day at the beginning of Boulevard Road; same place you’ll go to for a Shikara ride. Talking of coffee, you may like to check out Coffea Arabica, that serves platters, decent coffee and also sells locally made Gouda. More about that coming up shortly. Self service with a book shop and a bunch of middle eastern platters on sale, Coffea Arabica has an airy yet cosy ambiance. The food, as usual, was quite average.

Indu and Nikki were of the firm view that the valley is just beginning to gear up for tourism and therefore we can’t expect great things from them. My point of view is that if we’re paying for it, we need value in return and if they’re offering a product, they need to do a good job of it. In most such cases, complaints are the only way for the management to be informed of product or service deficiencies. What do you think?

Some prices as a ready reckoner for your trip. You’ll find prices printed on boards at most places for things like pony rides, shikara rides and so on.

  • Hotel Mirage, Raghbagh: Booked for Rupees 6,234 for three nights via Makemytrip.com. Decent rooms, lousy food, friendly if slow service, great lawns, excellent location. Very close to Boulevard Road, Ahdoo’s, Mughal Darbar and Hatrick. An auto rickshaw from here to Boulevard road costs about 50 rupees and about 30 rupees to Ahdoo’s or Mughal Darbar. Hatrick is walking distance.
  • Feast Inn, Rajbagh: Rupees 1,600 per night for a double room. Decent rooms, passable service, no facilities other than buttered bread and tea. Again, very close to Boulevard Road, Ahdoo’s, Mughal Darbar and Hatrick. An auto rickshaw from here to Boulevard road costs about 30 rupees and the same to Ahdoo’s or Mughal Darbar. Hatrick is walking distance.
  • Pony rides at Sonmarg can be had for 450 rupees against the asking price of 900 rupees. Cold weather clothing wasn’t required at the end of May though many people opted for the same.
  • Sledge rides at most snow points cost between 50 to 90 rupees per point. The more points you pay for, the higher up you’ll start from.
  • Taxis from Srinagar to most destinations like Pahalgam, Sonmarg and Gulmarg or from Pahalgam to Betaab Valley and Chandivadi cost 2000 rupees on average for an SUV type of vehicle (w.r.t. seating capacity – Scorpio, Tavera…). Smaller vehicles will cost less.
  • Taxi from Rajbagh to the airport will cost about 550 rupees (SUV/MUV).

Finally, ensure you reach the airport as soon as possible, maybe even 2 or 3 hours early. On reaching the airport you’ll find yourself in line to get your luggage scanned and yourself frisked before reaching the airport. The earlier you reach, the shorter the line. On passing this, you’ll encounter another line waiting to get into the airport. Immediately on entering, your luggage will be scanned again and you’ll be frisked, again.  On collecting your scanned luggage you’ll need to proceed to the check in counter. After checking in, you’ll proceed to the security check, where any hand baggage (only ladies purses, cameras and laptops are allowed. No cabin baggage) is scanned and you’re frisked, yet again.  From here, you need to go identify your baggage through a doorway to the left. Only the passenger with the baggage tags is allowed to go do this. When done, proceed to the waiting area. Remember, anything you buy, even after all this checking, requires a baggage tag, receipt notwithstanding. This means, if you decide to buy a book from the bookshop upstairs, you need to go back to the security check station and ask them to check, tag and stamp it before you’ll be allowed through the boarding gate. Just before entering the plane you will be frisked again and your hand baggage may be examined. Once in the plane, you can finally sit back. Plus point? The chicken patties from the shop on the ground floor are fabulous and with all that security, your plane probably isn’t going to be hijacked or blown up mid-air.

All in all, this trip was a wonderful experience and both Indu and I thank Nikki and Naheed for the effort they put into it. :-)

Sid Khullar

Sid Khullar is the founder of Chef at Large, a blog that began in 2007. He enjoys cooking, writing, travelling and technology in addition to being a practising Freemason. Health and wellness is a particularly passionate focus. Sid prefers the company of food and animals to most humans, and can be reached at sid.khullar@chefatlarge.in.