Arriving at Jammu train station (after a 20hour train journey) you would not have recognised it for a war zone. The platform was as crowded as any in India, with the usual family groups sprawled on mats on the floor sleeping, eating, waiting. Arriving in the north west of the country I noticed a change in the faces again (similarly to Darjeeling – the north east – where they had appeared more circular), only this time they were more oblong, with prominent ears, noses and beards.
Despite the throng of people spilling out of the train we were instantly greeted by our tour guide Mahesh (having never met any of us before, it will remain a mystery to me how he managed this) and we all piled into a car, for what was to be the first of many MANY hours spent on the road over the next 10 days…
I was travelling with two lovely friends who had invited me to join them and their equally lovely families on this trip which they’d organised through a tour operator in Kolkata.
We were part of a group filling 2 mini buses and composed of about 20 guests (with ages from 20 – 60) plus 3 cooks (below) who prepared us typical Bengali style cuisine every day!
During this first journey the car was full of voices as all members of the group old and young sung along to songs on the radio, with a pause outside a small shrine to consume an offering from God in the form of sugar. The highlight of the day though was when we arrived at our hotel for the first night to find my mum waiting for us! Now it would be a family trip for me also 🙂
The following day was a painful crawl like a tranquillised sloth around the mountain bends behind a conga line of Tata trucks. Armed men in camouflage lined the streets and as we drew closer to Srinagar their frequency increased. They appeared everywhere, in doorways, on rooftops, in trucks filing past. Finally we arrived in the dark to the mystical Dal Lake glittering with houseboats, and to news that there had been a terrorist bombing at the local police station killing several people only a few hours before.
During the next 2 days we became well acquainted with the intricacies of the mini-bus due to land slides and more Tata trucks, as we traversed the breath taking mountain pathways to visit two famous valleys; Sonamarg and Gulmarg.
In both places we arrived to find a hub of cars, tourist buses and hundreds upon hundreds of horses and people everywhere. We haggled with tour guides from £150 down to £30 in seconds for a car (to take us further up the mountain), and dodged horses skidding up and down the muddy slopes under the whip of their owners and children wandering about with rabbits or pigeons in their arms hoping for money for photos with these poor creatures. Soon enough however we found ourselves halfway up these majestic mountains, playing with snow (for the first time for some of my companions) and were always heavily rewarded for our perseverance by the spectacular scenery offered by this infamous mountain range.
In Gulmarg we rode the world’s highest gondola (after spending 2 hours queuing for it!) and I sniffed out the area for revisiting for a potential ski trip this winter (anyone interested?!).