Monday, April 17, 2017

Leh! A Paradise Hidden Among Mountains.

Leh, the ultimate biker destination, an age old pit- stop for trade routes in  the hills of Northern India has been the Mecca for bikers and adventurers. The city of Leh has now more bikes than people. A perfect destination that has grown very rapidly all thanks to adventure tourism. Leh has been on the wishlist for the past 6 years and finally the dream was fulfilled after much hiccups.

After I crossed over Kashmir Valley, Reshma joined me in Leh to continue the road trip. The first sight of Leh landscape from the window of a plane was splendid. The barren land with beautiful roads curving through mountains with glacier peaks and it was at that moment that it felt like the trip was totally worth it. The Land of Leh has never failed to disappoint. The natural beauty around and the Himalayas is an altogether a different experience. No wonder Himalayas is considered synonymous to meditation, nirvana, salvation. We were relaxed, our worries slowly faded away and all that remained was calmness and a smile on our face that refused to leave.

After reaching Leh, we decided to relax for a couple of days to get acclimatized and not exert ourselves.

We started our Leh sightseeing with Hall of Fame. A war museum constructed and maintained by the Indian Army dedicated to real life heroes who scarified their lives guarding the Nation. It has an amazing collection of weaponry and also on display are Pakistani weapons that were captured during war. There are several exhibits on display that are in use by men and women of the Armed forces. A section dedicated to the hardships that the Army men went through at the time of Kargil war and how they succeeded plus the emotional letters to their family members on display moved us to tears. A deep sense of respect, gratitude and pride filled our hearts. Right behind the museum is the War memorial dedicated to those who laid down their lives for Ladakh in 1947.

Though there are many Shanti Stupas across the World, the one at Leh was the most enchanting one that we visited. It was a surreal experience to walk around the stupa and appreciate the paintings and carvings. If you like to meditate the meditation hall with the massive Buddha sculpture is just the perfect place. From the stupa a very interesting site caught our attention. There were several smaller stupas built on barren land. We were very curious to know it's significance and a kind local told us that earlier at this place Capital Punishment was carried out. To ask for forgiveness for the sin committed, stupas were built with each stupa signifying one execution.

We spent hours looking at majestic Leh town and views of Tsemo Gompa and Leh Palace on the opposite hillock. With stunning vies of snowy peaks, we truly found Shanti at Shanti Stupa! With the cold evening wind settling in, we watched the sun setting behind the brown muddy mountains enjoying a bowl of hot maggi and Tibetan herbal tea at Shanti Stupa Cafe. Post sunset, the city was beautifully lit up and so was the Stupa and we could clearly see the runway of Leh airport from the Stupa. There were barely anyone at the stupa and we soaked in the beauty of this Japanese monument seeing it change colors. From our experience, we found it very safe to be at the stupa post sunset.

If you love to trek you can skip the road and opt to climb steep steps on a beautiful mountain to reach the stupa. The tiring hike to the gorgeous Shanti stupa is quite a daunting task. A good test of one's stamina given the high altitude and dwindling oxygen level but the experience and views of Leh are totally rewarding and nice. The steep hike could be quite easily done with a few breaks enjoying the stunning views of snowy peaks, Tsemo gompa, Leh palace and beautiful green Leh city. After the hike it would be a good experience to spend at-least few minutes in the meditation hall. In the evenings the monks recite prayers and play traditional music instruments creating a calm and soothing atmosphere to meditate and clear your thoughts. It is such an amazing feel even if you are not into meditation. Evenings are best time to hike up as the weather is kinder and you could watch another magical sunset. There are several adjoining hillocks that are easy to moderate treks and offer stunning views of Shanti Stupa.

Though Leh has become very popular there are still a few amazing and stunning attractions that are well within the city and see fewer to absolutely no tourists. One such magnificent place, very close to Shanti Stupa, is "Tisseru Gompa," one of the oldest and biggest in Ladakh. The Stupa is believed to be 600 years old and the name Tisseru is derived from two words Teu and gseru meaning yellow mule in Ladakhi. According to the traditional legend a big yellow mule shaped rock existed in the present location and was haunted by evil spirit bringing harm to the inhabitants of the town. The king was advised to trap the evil force by building a stupa on the site. The existence of a rock beneath the Stupa has been corroborated during scientific study carried out by Archaeological Survey Of India (ASI). This mud and stone structure is one of the most stunning monuments in Leh with the architecture a blend of Indian Stupa and Tibetan shrine. Yet we were the sole visitors to this monumental site with neither an entry fee nor a gate keeper to protect the monument.

A beautiful road from here took us to Tsemo Gompa- A castle like temple built atop one of the highest hills. This amazing Gompa again had very few visitors. Built by King Dakspa Bumdhe in 14th century, the Namgyal Tsemo Gompa got its name after Namgyal meaning victory which was attained by the kingdom after defeating Hor forces in war and Tsemo meaning at the top as the temple is situated at a mountain top.

The stunning views of Leh city and Shanti Stupa plus the snowy ranges seem unreal. Plus the centuries old monument was such a charmer and the massive statue of Mayetra Buddha towering three storeys in height was such a show stopper. The paintings in the monasteries are simply breathtaking and an age old ladder in very questionable condition is what took us three storeys above to the very top of the castle. It was an amazing experience to be right on top with incredible views of Nature and the beautiful Leh town.

Before roads were introduced all monasteries, palaces and stupas were accessible only by trek and even today it is so nice to see all these trek paths alive and kicking. There is a trek path from Tisseru Chorten to Tsemo Gompa and from there to Leh Palace.

We took the road to this centuries old Palace. Leh Palace is a legacy of Ladakhis' war with Kashmiri rulers in the 19th century. Stones, mud bricks and Poplar wood was used in the construction of the Palace. The insides of the Palace is more like a maze, the massive 9 storey palace again offers stunning views and is a perfect place to watch sunset. Shanti Stupa, Chorten, Tsemo Gompa and Leh palace all are very close to one another and can be clubbed for one fine evening.

Zorawar Fort Museum an age old fort dedicated in memory of an able warrior Zorawar Singh. Not much of the fort remains today but for a very well kept museum that provides tons of historic information about J & K, Ladakh, the people and prominent personalities that shaped this part of India. There are very valuable and amazing artifacts in the museum. The fort is under the Indian Army jurisdiction.

An interesting stop on Leh - Kargil highway is the Pathar Sahib Gurudwara. It is believed that a massive rock was rolled down by a demon to kill Guru Nanak while he was meditating but on impact the rock softened like warm wax and did not harm the meditating Guru. It is believed that the hollow block on the rock is the back of Guru Nanak. It is a highly revered place of worship. A lot of truck drivers stop by to pay their respect and pray for a safe journey in these unforgiving mountains. Like always no Gurudwara lets you walk out with out feeding you and Pathar Sahib treated us with biscuits, boondi and chai. En route is magnetic hill.

Food is such an integral part of travel there are plenty of restaurants in Leh and we stumbled upon one of the finest in terms of ambiance, value for money, and most importantly lip smacking food. "Wonderland Restaurant and Coffee House" on Changspa Road. For the very first time, we tried tibetian veg thali that has Alu Phing Tse (mixed veg noodle,) fried spinach, a bowl of rice, amazing salad and one Tingmo (steamed dough.) The Tibetan thali tasted amazing. The mixed veg curry and spinach complimented rice very well and was a very wholesome meal. The spicy green salad gave an additional kick. It was quiet a refreshing experience to try local cuisine. We had also ordered for mushroom cheese baked potato, it was exceptionally well done. The local cheese was one of the very best that we had tasted. Potato baked at perfect temperature and stuffed with good amount of mushroom and cheese garnished with local herbs melted in our mouth and was served with fresh and great quantity of salad. All neatly wrapped in aluminium foil made sure the food remained hot for longer time. Peach ice tea and fresh apricot juice that perfectly completed a hearty meal. We were already waiting to get back to this place for dinner.

The Indian cuisine served here is pretty good. A very good meal for two costs around Rs.450. Time goes by very slow in Leh, neither the businesses nor the customers are in a rush. So contrary to the fast paced world back home. In several instances we saw travelers just sit by a cafe, sip flavored tea and be engrossed in a book. During one of our dinners, a group of young Israeli backpackers played soothing music and it was one of the best dinners we had in a long time. Not once did the people working in the restaurant or the owner gave dirty looks or ployed subtle ways to ask any of us to leave. Folks were engrossed in deep conversations and sat in restaurants for long time even after settling the bill. Most of the cafes and restaurants have books and board games to entertain their guests. It was such an awesome and beautiful feeling to have experienced this. Wonderland restaurant serves amazing and sinful pastries. Their mint tea is just out of the world.

Among the many eat outs a jewel in Leh main market is 'Ramposh Shake Corner.' This shop serves amazing mango shake topped with one of the best softies.

There is a cafe right next to the Hall Of Fame museum- "Aroma Cafe" that serves amazing quick bites and thirst quenchers. Iced lemon tea and cold chocolate shake are a must try and we loved their veg cheese pizza. The cafe also has books and board games to keep patrons engaged. It would be a great idea to sit out as right besides the Cafe is the Army's Airfield and we got to see several choppers and massive Indian Air force planes take off. The cafe is very reasonably priced, a heavy lunch for the two of us costed us Rs.290.

During our stay in Leh we checked into Hotel Omasila on Changspa Road. An amazing hotel, best part is that we had killer views of Shanti Stupa and the surrounding hills from our room. The room was loaded with all modern amenities and luxuries, super soft mattress and pillows with cozy quilts that would instantly put you to sleep. There service standard is par excellence. The complimentary breakfast was yummy. They have safe parking facility and the main Leh market is at walk-able distance. The sit out at the hotel was perfect, you can just sit there for hours close your eyes and soak in the beauty around. If this was not enough at night the view of the beautifully lit Shanti Stupa with millions of stars lit in the sky and the cold wind whistling in your ears makes the night even more romantic. It was just perfect in all ways.

During our second stint in Leh, we ditched the comforts of a hotel and rather opted for a calm and quiet authentic Ladakhi home stay experience on the Shanti Stupa road- "Thang Thong home stay." We were introduced to this kind and amazing Ladakhi family of 4 running the home stay through awesome friends we made while travelling, a volunteering couple, travelling to Leh for three months teaching children. Their recommendation of this home stay added more charm to our already pleasant experience in Leh. This hidden treasure does not advertise their home-stay much, a fact we found amusing. At Rs.600 per night they let out amazing, comfortable and clean rooms with attached bath and solar powered running hot water.

Like many Ladakhi families, they have an amazing organic farm that gives them almost all the vegetables they need. The host is an amazing cook and we digged into lip smacking chicken curry with rice, dal and vegetables for dinner. We ended our wholesome dinner with piping hot mint tea in their traditional poplar supported dining room. This home stay is right next to Shanti guest house. They offer safe parking facility and were kind enough to ask our preference and liking in food. Staying here, we felt pretty much at home. On the second day of our stay here, they served freshly made momos with garden fresh vegetables as stuffing and soup. Truly, nothing beats homemade food.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Witnessing The Worst Of Kashmir- A Bike Ride!

The situation in Kashmir valley continued to be grim due to killing of Hizbul terrorist Wani (July 2016). With one of us safely back home, I stayed over at Patnitop to gauge the situation and then decided to continue the ride to Ladakh. The valley was shut by terrorist sympathizers but this was the time when thousands of pilgrims head for Amarnath Yatra and government was trying their best to help those stranded in the valley. The Yatra was cancelled for a brief period and while I was in Patnitop I heard on the news that Amarnath Yatra was resumed. An Indian Army convoy escorts the yatris till Baltal, which is 20 km from Sonamarg. I saw a flicker of hope and was happy that I would be able to cross Kashmir valley and reach Ladakh along with the Army convoy that escorts the Yatris. The entire highway would be cordoned off and manned by Army to provide security cover to yatris. Little did I know that in the next 5 hours, I would be asking myself "Will I live another day?"

I left from Patnitop towards Anantnag from where the convoy would start. As anticipated, I was stopped after crossing Baniyar, just meters away from Jawahar Tunnel. I was asked by the security forces to wait till Night fall and cross after 10 pm along with hundreds of other Amarnath Yatris. 

Slowly and steadily vehicles started piling up gearing up to leave with the Yatris. After 2 hours of waiting, I was approached by a J&K Police personnel who told me that I did not have to wait for the convoy and could leave for Srinagar. Assuming all was good and the situation was getting better since it was a police personnel who mentioned it and I had no reason to doubt his statement, I followed his command and rode through Jawahar Tunnel, an engineering marvel. It was such an amazing feel to ride here and soon I had the first stunning views of Kashmir Valley (Titanic View Point.)

The entire 60 km stretch was deserted. I crossed Quazikund, an area that had witnessed violence a few days earlier but was now peaceful and calm. I felt relieved and my anxiety slowly died down. I happily rode further towards Anantnag, the most troubled area at that time as terrorist Wani was from here and was also taken down here. I was stopped by the Indian Army, the Army personnel were in riot gear ready to face any adversaries or challenges and they asked me routine questions. They wished me good luck and asked me to proceed and I felt pretty safe and confident. It seemed like slowly the mobs were losing interest and the situation would soon return to normalcy.

It was the exact opposite though. Riding further and in just 4 km, I saw a mob of about 50 guys some hundred meters away. I panicked and stopped the bike wondering what to do, some locals who were standing there told me to head back to 'Kanabhal Chowk' near degree college in Anantnag as it was one of the safest areas with DC office and Army camp."Bhago Bhago" the locals yelled at me, Frightened, I took a U- turn and rode back to Kanabhal. It was a welcoming and calming sight at Kanabhal to see a few shops with shutters half down and civilians around. I took shelter at a closed shop and saw plenty of Army men in full riot gear, armed with assault rifles and armored vehicles around. Soon a few locals initiated conversations and asked where I was headed. They advised me to stay put until the convoy along with the Yartis reach and ride with them at around 11 pm. They also advised me not to stay in Srinagar but to continue further for my own safety.

The locals were keen to share their views. Initially during the conversation I was little scared and diplomatic but after a few hours I got comfortable and shot straight forward questions. The locals were very clear and most wanted "Azadi." They wanted Kashmir to be an independent nation.We spoke a lot about politics and how both local governments had failed the Aam Janta. Couple of hours passed and since they were pretty cordial I opened up and asked what would they do if declared Independent? A few of them wanted Islamic law "Sharia" imposed, after which I asked them what other plans apart from that, economy wise what would they do? What would they do if Pakistan occupies Kashmir like they did with Baluchistan? They said how will locals allow that! As far as I remember Baluchistan residents are still fighting for Independence from rogue state Pakistan. Kashmir was not forcefully occupied by India during partition. The Instrument of Accession was signed by the then Kashmir Maharaja in return for military aid and assistance while Baluchistan was forcefully occupied by Pakistan in 1948. So "NO" Kashmir and Baluchistan situation is not the same.

Soon we moved on and locals said Kashmir is Muslim majority and Hindus have taken a lot of seats in Kashmir University. While this man's son studied in Anna University in Chennai. I was genuinely hurt by his double standards and hypocrisy. Then I asked about the Pundits who were chased away from the valley. There was no answer for a few seconds, then the usual India Government chased them away BS came out. One even went on to say "That they were not natives but migrated to the valley and hence do not belong here." At this juncture, one old man said "India intervened in 1971 and helped create Bangladesh, something Indira should not have done." That's when I asked what about rape camps set up by Pakistani army and other atrocities carried out by them? There was no answer.

There were of course very kind locals as well who felt bad that we (outsiders and travelers) were affected unnecessarily. They also said a lot of atrocities were being carried out by the Indian Armed forces. Though a strong supporter and admirer of the Armed Forces. I was not going to blatantly support the Army. If what they say is true, it is very unfortunate and the people responsible should be punished. The same concerns were echoed by the people of North East India too. So I do believe some issues are true and should be stopped. I hold the Indian Army with utmost regard and respect and hope such incidents never happen.

I agree that just by spending few hours with them I have not become an expert but for sure I edge over an armchair critic and in my opinion, if Kashmir is declared an independent nation, it would be a failed state.

After taking to locals for a couple of hours, one of them asked me to give him a ride to Srinagar and assured me that he would take care in case we were stopped by mobs. He said he would talk to the local guys there and take me to his place safely where I could rest for the night and leave for Sonamarg the following morning. I was hesitant but the locals around supported his suggestion and assured me that I would be safe as I was with a local. I decided to go with their suggestion, a decision that I was going to regret in a matter of minutes. It was a bad call and turned out to be one of my worst travel experiences.

En route the guy asked me not to worry and told me in case we were stopped and questioned, I should mention that my name is Younis and I was his cousin. I told him I was not comfortable and would not lie. As we left to Srinagar we were stopped by a mob of 30 odd guys in their teens armed with rods and sticks. The Kashmiri local asked me to not say a word and said he would manage them. As soon as we stopped, they immediately started yelling and asking questions in their local language as to who I was and what I was doing there. They turned off my bike's engine but I had the sense to quickly grab the key. I was asked to take my helmet off and as I did the first thing they asked me was "Tum Hindu Kya?" Are you Hindu? While I nodded in affirmative, my pillion cooked up a story that his sister in hospital needs blood and is in Srinagar and I have to be there.

Until then I had heard from locals that there is no discrimination based on religion in the valley, there is no Hindu Muslim here and they were all united. But sadly reality is bitter and unforgiving. They asked me what I did for a living and what my religion was. I told them I am a travel writer and a Hindu while the Kashmiri local and my pillion told them in his local language that I was an engineer and a Muslim. They understood my pillion was lying to them. They asked me to drop him there and proceed and were kind enough to me as I did not lie to them. I told them in clear terms "NO" I will not leave without my pillion and then they asked me how much money I had taken from him to drop him to Srinagar. I told them I had not taken a penny and I did not have any reason to take money. Somehow we managed to proceed further and I thought that would be the end of all troubles. I was so wrong as in a couple of minutes our luck ran out.

There was another mob and the guys were truly awful and ruthless. They stopped an ambulance to check if there was a patient inside. It was disgusting and sick to see the extent to which they were going. One of them was very violent and agitated and asked me to take off my helmet. On seeing that I was sporting a stud which is solely for style he moved ahead to strike me on my face as it is a custom for some Hindus to pierce their ears and they sport it for purely religious reasons. Luckily for me, he was stopped by the rest of the mob. This conclusion was so ridiculous as I even wear a Kada so I should be a Sikh too? by birth I am Hindu but an atheist by choice. I just could not understand why was Religion suddenly so much of a concern and how did it matter what was my belief or faith but who is going to put sense in their heads.

Meanwhile another local car's windshield and windows were smashed, a scene I had only watched in movies was unfolding in front of my eyes in reality. Everyone was yelling, while some asked me to show my 'I card,' the agitated guy threatened to burn my bike if I did not leave while some others randomly opened my bags and were searching the contents. I was sane enough to hide all the cash that I was carrying in a way that sometimes even I had difficulty in digging it out from my bag. Once they could not find any money in my bags they asked my pillion to get down there and I was forced to leave without him, he apologized to me and I headed back to "Kanabhal Chowk," my safe haven.

On my way back I saw a CRPF convoy marching and like an idiot I overtook them and was taken aback! They were the target of stone pelters and I was right in front of them in the line of stone throwing mob. I never expected young guys with masked faces to attack security personnel with stones. The Same forces that have saved them during floods and other calamities.

I covered, ducked and scrambled ahead and luckily no stone hit me. I was really worried that a gun or pellet shot would hit me. I did not want to die in that manner, a little ahead of me I spotted a shed with a mini truck parked there and a hundred meters ahead was the last but furious mob. I did not want to ride further so I parked my bike behind the mini truck and my heart was racing. The only thing I could think of was my family and friends, I was cursing myself and was desperate to go back home. At that moment the kind young truck driver asked me to come and sit in his truck as CRPF were approaching and they could mistake us for stone throwers and beat the shit out of us. I sat inside the truck and witnessed unruly mob throw stones at the Army. The sound of stones hitting the Army vehicle echoed around with the mob cheering and hooting. Army personnel got out of the vehicle in pursuit of the hooligans and they scrambled and ran into their burrows like rats. I have no shame in name calling them as they did not have the balls to face battons and lathis of the Army. The minute they were confronted they ran into sewer like rats and that is where they belong.

A few minutes after the CRPF passed thru it was safe and the truck driver decided to leave and so did I and reached Kanahal. Never had I been so happy waiting for several hours on the road doing nothing and waiting for Army to bail me out. While waiting there for several hours I made a few friends who opened up about the situation. One J&K traffic police said "Though my shift ends at 8 pm, I do not go back home until 1 am for the fear of being targeted." Other J&K police officers admitted that they do not call out their profession loud as they would end up being prime targets.

"Setting one's own home on fire to kill roaches" is something that I have heard as a proverb but I got to witness that firsthand in Kashmir. Killing of a terrorist had resulted in a total shutdown and it had extended beyond two weeks. Life has come to a standstill for locals and peak tourist season was a total disaster with tourists heading to other calm and peaceful destinations. For the very first time in my life, I experienced rioting mobs and hooligans on the streets.

And Yes it was dumb and stupid of me to go to a disturbed area, even more stupid to ride despite knowing mobs were there. But my question to you is, 'Are you not the champions of free speech, Kannahya Kumar is a hero, Beef is your favorite food? It is a free country and terrorist supporters are cheered on and you ask me why did I go there? No I did not willingly go face mobs thinking it would be cool. I was following directions given by people in charge and then relying on locals but what happened was unfortunate and it is very much possible that the locals were under a different impression or it could even be possible that things changed in a matter of minutes.

Shouldn't  you say bravo you go on man! Let the Armed forces take on these guys. But no you would say Army is killing civilians! Hypocrites. Civilians do not throw stones at Army, Block a National Highway, Burn down schools, homes and businesses. DO not question what religion I belong to. So grow some balls and "call a spade a spade!" And by no means I'am stereotyping Kashmiris, I was spoken to so nicely, they were willing to let me stay with them, asked me if I was fine and comforted me. While on the other side I was harassed too. So when you ask the Army not to shoot or arrest or use pellet guns do also ask locals to not throw stones. I am a witness on how professional and calm the CRPF were while being under attack. They only tried to arrest stone throwers. So the next time on Eid the CM of J&K decides to pardon Stone throwers, she better have a constructive plan other than vote bank politics.

Sonamarg Such A Welcome Site
As the sun set and darkness took over and the mosques had the final call of prayers, Army went ahead to remove obstacles on the road as trees were felled on the streets and large stones were on the road. It was all removed and we left at 11 pm. Chewing gum was my best friend all through the journey. I reached Srinagar at 12:30 am and stopped at Boulevard road near Dal lake where I was offered a house boat as it was too late to ride alone to Sonamarg. But by then I had had enough of Kashmiri hospitality both good and bad. I declined and fighting bitter cold rode to Sonamarg and reached by 2:30 am. It was such a nice feeling to know I was from harms way and slept. Leaving to Kargil in the morning I felt like a bird out of a cage.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Patnitop- J&K's Other Summer Retreat

Patnitop is the most sought after tourist destination from Jammu. Temperature soars during summer in Jammu while Patnitop remains cold and pleasant. This beautiful hill station only 112 km away from Jammu, is a perfect destination to unwind. The sheer number of resorts and massive hotels stands testimony to how popular this destination is.

The roads from Jammu to Patnitop are pretty good as this is the same route to Srinagar- NH1 Highway. Close to 40 km of the stretch is a four way lane with work going on and in a few years the entire stretch could be a four way lane. The picturesque landscape, pine trees, beautiful roads and the river Chenab flowing next to the road makes the entire ride blissful.

Close to 8 km before Patnitop is Kud, a popular picnic spot. It is known for its beautiful flowers and locals throng this place during weekends. The most popular attraction in Kud are sweet shops as it is famous for the sweet "Patisa." It is supposed to be had hot and just melts in your mouth. This place is also famous for their ice cold fresh water springs that are said to have medicinal properties.

Patnitop offers a lot to the traveller - meadows, pine forests, snow clad mountain peaks, nature walks, and a host of adventure activities like trekking, camping, paragliding and also skiing during winter months. It also has a golf course.

The main highlight of Patnitop is Padora Chowk. The meadows surrounded by pine trees and cattle grazing is a captivating sight. Horse rides can be availed from here to various view points. Of course, one can enjoy the natural beauty by choosing to trek the path to the view points.

Avoiding the horse rides, I headed 8 km away from the meadows towards the village and it was peaceful, quiet and soothing. En route I saw a small home bang in the middle of forested area. This one home solely stood out amidst thick green vegetation. Moments like this make me realize and accept that the so called houses back in metros are way too hyped. The high rises with so called views that come with a hefty floor wise premium can never offer unending views such as this. It is a pathetic attempt to justify our empty lives. The home owners living in the valley in the middle of nowhere may certainly not be rich and comfortable as per our society standards but they certainly have so much that we city folks with corner cubicles and infinity pools can never have.

In and around Patnitop, there are various places that offer Paragliding and one such place is Dawariyai- takeoff point for Paraglding and the landing happens in Kud. During winter, skiing is another activity that can be indulged in. Since the slopes are not too steep they are perfect for beginners to try their hand at skiing.

The best part about Patnitop is the amazingly less populated trek paths. One can walk for hours amidst massive trees with birds chirping around and excellent views. I bumped into an amazing "Northern Railway Cottage" in the corner of circular road. The cottages are mind blowing and look so magical and out of the world. JKTDC has put up amazing huts in Padora Chowk. It would be amazing to stay in one of these provided you can put up with a lot of tourist crowd. For booking contact 8803575198/8803874406.

Railway Cottage
There are few popular temples in Patnitop, needless to say highly commercialized. One of them even prohibits women from entering the main sanctum. While on one hand there are temples dedicated to Goddess, on the other hand there are such temples that prohibit women from entering. Biggest hypocrisy in the name of religion.

Midway on the Jammu- Srinagar highway after Patnitop is the Baglihar dam.The sheer volume with which the water gushes out when the gates are open takes your breath away. A spectacular sight indeed right off the highway.

I checked into Hotel "Jai Shree" on Padora Enclave, a decent property but with laid back service standards. During the day, there was not a single soul to take orders at the restaurant. Rooms are stuffy but clean and have basic amenities. They provide WiFi and the hotel is very conveniently located.

With the situation in Kashmir unclear and fresh reports of violence, I rode into the troubled valley, destination Sonmarg via Srinagar.