Thursday, March 16, 2017

Kashmir Valley- Tourism Vs Terrorism!

Kashmir Valley is a dream destination, epitome of romance and we had planned our trip to Ladakh via Kashmir so that we could visit not just the much hyped destinations but explore the lesser known trails in North and South Kashmir, trek around the valley, live in home stays in remote villages and interact with the locals. Very much aware of the fact that Jammu & Kashmir is a volatile state and is troubled often, we were not worried accepting that unrest, curfews and shutdown are a norm in the state and were prepared for it. We knew that we would not be harmed as we were mere tourists. Unfortunately we were not ready for what happened while we had planned to visit the state. We were prepared to deal with unrest for a few days as is a common phenomena but we were proved so wrong. We were not prepared for mob attacks, stone pelting and indefinite curfew.

As we were planning to ride into this state, a commander of Hizbul Mujahideen (a Kashmir based militant outfit), "Burhan Muzaffar Wani" was shot and killed by the Indian Armed forces. He was one of the most wanted militants in J&K, poster boy of militants embracing militancy at the age of 15 and very few to not wear a mask revealing his identity and had a bounty of 10 lakhs. Hailing from a wealthy family with his father a headmaster in a local school and his mother a postgraduate in science, money did not look like a reason for choosing terrorism as a career path. In fact before getting into militancy it seems he was a budding cricketer. For all you know he could have had a bright future as a sportsman. His family attributes his path to militancy based on an incident where Army personnel confronted his brother.  He is believed to have recruited at least 100 youth to join the militant outfit and was known for using social media to coax them.

Youth are the future of our Nation. If they choose to join militancy then how will the state progress. The state already is dealing with a lot of issues and militancy is no solution. Violence and killing can never be the solution. While youngsters at this age should be thinking about building a startup or finding a good career or soul searching or backpacking, here they are choosing to join militancy and terrorism. Ultimately, you cannot blame the situation or the environment as one always has a choice. It is this choice that shapes your future. So, choose wisely.

The most surprising and shocking part was that people in the valley protested against the killing of a terrorist and as a result the Jammu - Srinagar highway was shut. Amarnath yatra was cancelled briefly and several people were put through real tough time all because professional Indian Army did it's job in taking down a terrorist. We wanted to spend over 25 days in the valley exploring the offbeat trails and  here we were wondering if we would be able to head into the valley in the next couple of days or not. Wani was from Anantnag - South Kashmir and was also taken down there, the place where we were planning to spend at least 2 weeks. Never have we felt so threatened to visit a part of India but unfortunately that was our experience when we had to visit the much hyped valley J&K. Fearing for our safety due to mobs stoning, vandalizing and destabilizing the region we considered entirely skipping this part and just cross over to Ladakh..

An entire week after taking down a terrorist normalcy was not restored in Kashmir, thanks to terrorist sympathizers. By then, there were close to 40 people dead in the aftermath. Who were these 40 people? Why did they give away their lives? What about their families and friends? Is anything worth sacrificing their lives? Not allowing businesses to open and protesting on the streets, pelting stones at Army convoy will not help as in the end it is the people of Kashmir who are at a loss. The valley that is in its peak tourist season (June to August) had a deserted look with locals too locked indoors. So why create chaos, disrupt normal life and screw up your own livelihood? It was not like an innocent victim was killed, it was after all a terrorist who was encouraging youth to pick up arms, fight and be responsible for killing Army men and maybe more innocent victims.

Do these people even realize that the so called Kashmir separatists children or close relatives have never lost their lives for Kashmiyat. They seem to enjoy all the benefits, living luxurious lives with promising careers and ensuring that they stay in the limelight by giving brilliant speeches and addressing gatherings while people of the valley are killed, grievously injured and emotionally scarred. Not to forget several Soldiers and J&K police personnel Martyred. Everyone has had their own share of tragedies but this has now become a vicious cycle with only vengeance and terrorism benefiting and the people of the state and Army at loss. Even when the separatists are arrested it has been within the confines of their luxury homes. When will people realize that they are just pawns in someone else political game and are simply expendable?

After several days (July 8- 18) of patiently waiting out and hoping that the situation in Kashmir would ease out and naively expecting that normalcy would be restored in the valley, our hopes were shattered. The continuous support that a terrorist received from the people of Kashmir was depressing to say the least. It was one of our worst travel experiences and their solidarity and sympathizing for a terrorist totally broke our trip.

Since we were just the two of us and not in a group, safety was also another concern. With monsoon kicking in Himachal, it did not seem like a good idea to ride all the way to Manali and reach Ladakh.
We were speculating if we should just end our trip and head back home as moving further was a big question mark. Our hearts were not convinced as we had waited too long for this trip and it did not make sense to abandon it after close to 20 days. We were so near yet it looked so far... With Amarnath Yatra resuming, our hopes increased and we decided that one of us would fly back home and wait while the other would wait it out in Patnitop, gauge the situation and then take a call. If the Army does not give clearance he would come back to Jammu and send the bike home.

Like u,s there would have been several other travellers who would have planned their dream vacation, made all the hotel and flight or train reservations with hopes of enjoying these few days to de-stress from their hectic work schedule. They would have to cancel everything and financial or emotional burden is under any case unjustifiable. The bottom line is not just people going on happy vacations or merry making, a sense of living under constant threat and worrying to fend oneself from stone throwing mobs is not really anyone's dream vacation. Just imagine the plight of several people who rely on travel industry for their bread and butter being affected because an enemy of the state was taken down, above all, the poor local residents, businesses that suffer massive loss.

We have heard of people travelling to Kashmir and despite the unrest they had no problems and had a very enjoyable and pleasant vacation with no problems whatsoever. I guess we were just unlucky but this is the second time a trip to Kashmir went for a toss due to curfew so considering what we went through and what happened would we want to go back to Kashmir another time, we guess no we would not.

While the valley might be naturally beautiful, not all people from here seem to be so. There are other peaceful options like Himachal and Uttarakhand, we wondered why we or others would plan a trip to this volatile place. Ladakh and Jammu regions of the same state are very peaceful and trouble free. In our opinion, Kashmir should be totally avoided at all costs unless rioting, burning police stations, schools and stone throwing mobs are your kind of adventure. So much for paradise on Earth.

A curfew that lasted for a period of 53 days with more than 85 people dead, 13000 civilians and 4000 army personnel injured- this is the price that the state paid for taking down a terrorist. This was such a horrifying experience. Ultimately whoever is in power, whatever be the situation it is and always be that the common man gets jacked. We only wish that the situation just gets better - a distant dream but hope is what we will stick on.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Jammu- City of Temples!

Situated on the banks of river Tawi, with the Pir Panjal range in the background, Jammu is the perfect gateway to the mesmerizing snow capped mountains from Punjab. It is the winter capital of the State Jammu & Kashmir.

Though the Kashmir situation was still tense (June 2016,) the highway to Jammu seemed very peaceful. After reaching Jammu, we were shocked and pleasantly surprised to see life here in Jammu was very peaceful and calm. The city was functioning like any other city with all businesses open and running and we even got our bike serviced. We could see people enjoy their day to day life, shopping in malls, movies being screened in theaters and not once did it feel like there was unrest in the state. It was very hard for us to believe that less than 300 km away there was total chaos. To understand how the situation in the valley was we spoke to locals and truck drivers and they all had just one phrase "Uppar Mamla Kharab Hai, Mat Jao"/ "Things are bad up there, don't go." The only thing Jammu had in common with Kashmir valley was that mobile and internet services were suspended.

With Jammu and Kashmir being a volatile state, we expected a lot of military presence but much to our surprise Jammu had very less security presence. In fact, we have seen more Army men patrolling the streets of North East India.

Happy and glad that Jammu was calm and peaceful, we started our Jammu darshan with Peer Kho Temple or Peer Gufa. This age old Shiva Temple with a series of caves is considered to be one of the most sacred Hindu pilgrim site, justifying the tag- "Jammu- city of temples."  It is widely believed that the cave has a naturally formed Shiva Lingam and this temple also finds a place in the epic Ramayana where Jamvant (the Bear God) meditated. It is said to have been built around 15th century by Raja Ajaib Dev for Peer (Saint) Siddha Ghareeb Nath and the caves are at a depth of around 20-30 feet.

En Route Peer Gufa
Bahu Fort Complex
Keeping religious beliefs aside, it is an interesting experience to walk through narrow passages occasionally stopping to admire rock cut carvings. There are a lot of commercial establishments around attracting touts who asked us to deposit our camera and mobiles. Please note that this is certainly not required. Though photography is prohibited, we were not stopped from carrying our DSLR and phones inside. It was good to see that they trust us to adhere to the rules rather than confiscating our belongings.

Our second stop was a very interesting heritage complex that comprised of ruins, museum, garden- Mubarak Mandi Palace. Constructed over a span of 150 years, it was the royal palace until 1925. In it's heydays, this was an Army Headquarters and a Durbar. The palace construction is a blend of Rajasthani, European and Mughal style architecture and the intricate carvings and details on the doors and windows speaks volumes of the effort taken to match up to the royalty that it deserves/the richness (grandeur) of the Dora rulers. We were told that any good news that comes from the valley to the kingdom was delivered here. There are 5 temples built around this complex and there are three entry gates. Two of them still stand tall while the third one did not last the test of times. The palace has been a victim of fire more than 36 times and twice the victim of earthquake, so most parts of the palace are now in ruins. Majority of the complex is in absolute shambles and ruins and is a very sorry sight. Outside most of these monuments, a pluck card reads "Building unsafe, do not come near." We took a very interesting heritage walk through the narrow by lanes. We would highly recommend you to do this. Major parts of the palace are now government offices and there are thickly populated residential colonies around the complex.

The best part about the complex is J&K Dogra Art Museum. It is a rich source of information and in our travel experience, one of the best kept museums in India. The museum is divided into four galleries. The extensive collection of silver and copper coinage from different eras is a treasure trove and this was the first museum where they had magnifying glasses to view the inscriptions.  The collection of weapons are just breathtaking, with several different types of guns on display- a few of them that stood out were antique seven and eight barrel guns. It would have been an absolute nightmare to aim and shoot with these guns. There was an exclusive section dedicated to swords and there was a 18th century beautifully carved silver walking stick with an inbuilt sword. The 4th century carving of Terracotta human heads was so lively. There were paali and takri stone inscriptions and a 17th century gold plated bow that belonged to Shah Jahan.

Among other amazing artifacts were 19th century murals from Resai fort, massive tea kettle, hookahs and centuries old sculptures. The naturally cooled marble hall was beautifully decked up with white stone, There are several precious stones in the inlay work of the marble hall. The museum also houses various Hindu Veda literature and Puranas. It was for the first time that we saw Skanda Purana on palm leaves, there were books in Devanagri script, Ramayana translated in Persian (17th century) and other old manuscripts. All of these were acquired from Jammu.  The museum took us back 1600 years. It has extensive collection of Dogra jewelry. The traditional Dogra dress and Pashmina shawls were in their best shape. This museum stands testimony to the rich culture and heritage of Jammu and was inaugurated by the first President of India- Dr. Rajendra Prasad. It is open from 10am - 4pm and remains closed on Mondays and National Holidays. Another surprising thing is this is one of the museums that lets you click pictures inside, of course, with a few terms and conditions for Rs.120. Entry ticket is priced at Rs.10 for Indians. En route to Mubarak Mandi is a view point that offers brilliant views of Golghar.

Amar Mahal Museum is a French style royal residence and was built in the 19th century for Dogra ruler- Raja Amar Singh by a french architect. A part of this palace is now converted to a luxury Heritage Hotel and another part is the Royal Residence, which is off limits for tourists. The museum with several portraits offers a peek into the royal family and also has Pahari paintings depicting scenes from the epic Mahabharata on display. They also have paintings on display by M F Hussain and Laxman Pai among other renowned painters. There is a golden throne weighing 120 kg on display that was once used by the royal family. The view of Jammu Tawi river from here is scintillating. The museum is open on all days except Mondays and National Holidays and is closed for lunch from 1pm-2pm.

En-route from Pathankot to Jammu falls an amazing dhaba,- Sanjha Chulla, their cold kheer and tulia kulfi are their signature dishes and are totally worth it. So is their namkeen lassi which is a thicker and creamier version of butter milk.

While in Jammu, Wazwan is a must try and Naz Hotel on Residency Road is one of the best places to try authentic Kashmiri food. This restaurant is believed to be the oldest in Jammu. We ordered one portion of rice, half portion Rista and Mutton kebab. Rista, a meatball dish in gravy was rich in flavor and aroma. and the mutton kebabs were soft and meled in our mouth. We relished the food and surely it was a delightful experience and this place is a little paradise for meat lovers. Their service quality was pretty good and the meal costed us Rs.390.

We got to taste the best of  "Rawalpindi" in Jammu at Rawalpindi Sweet Shop - a perfect breakfast joint in Trikota Nagar. This age old place is a landmark in itself. It started first in Rawalpindi, then part of India and post partition the family moved to India and set up their shop in Jammu. This humble hotel serves amazing Puri and Channa. The channa is just out of the world with perfect amount of spice and rich in flavor with puris that were fried in pure desi ghee and had a touch of masala and tasted sinful. This place is also famous for it's lassi. In fact, their glass of Lassi is so huge that it looked more like a jug. The pricing was pretty reasonable, a plate of Puri and a glass of Lassi costed us only Rs.100.

After hearing a lot about Pahlwan Di Hatti, we visited this place in Gandhi Nagar. To put it in a nicer way, this place was a total letdown. We tried their much hyped Pav Bhajji which was nothing more than ordinary. We tried their signature and recommended sweet "Nutties" but were disappointed, a normal candy would have tasted better. We tried their Pani Puri and the puris were not crisp. And finally, we tried their Shahi Kulfi which was very moderate. Our recommendation would be to totally skip this place.

During our stay in Jammu, "Gupta Resorts" which is more of a luxury hotel was our home. Again, thanks to OYO Rooms we got a steal deal of Rs.1700 per day. Being very strict budget travelers, this hotel offered us over the top luxury and comforts. We decided to pamper ourselves in the lap of luxury after 1000 km and 16 days. Their rooms offered super soft mattress and pillows, cozy quilts, spacious bathroom with a comfortable shower cubicle.  The hotel is owned and run by very friendly and humble folks who gave us a barrage of insider information of where to eat or savor our pallets and a lot of places of interest in and around Jammu that are worth exploring.

Their restaurant Curry Vault serves amazing and top class food. We had ordered Kheema naan and paneer kulcha that tasted heavenly with mushroom masala. The kulcha and naan were uber soft and the super flavored, aromatic Kheema and paneer stuffing just melted in our mouth. The mushroom masala was mild, had a blast of flavors and the quantity was very generous. All of this costed us Rs. 370. The owners take special care when it comes to their restaurant and their service quality was top notch. The restaurant's class shows how passionate the owners are about their food.

After having a wonderful stay at Gupta Resorts, we encountered an unpleasant experience. During breakfast, the flask in which tea was served was infested by several worms. We were taken aback by this incident and immediately brought it to the Management's notice. They accepted, apologized and replaced the tea immediately but by then we had lost our appetite. They took care to ensure that this incident never gets repeated and the owner himself was there to apologize and made sure we were comfortable with our stay. Their approach towards customer satisfaction was commendable.