Why are we writing about Yusmarg of all the places in Kashmir? It is simple. Though close to Srinagar, it is a hidden wonder. Very few visit Yusmarg. Blame it on Militancy and closeness to Pir Panjal ranges, it was not heard by many. Till now.
Before i share our experiences in Yusmarg, First things first.
First. No, we did not do the "Great Lakes Trek" i had written about. Rain in the mountains played spoilsport and we did not want to take the risk. Previous groups had a miserable experience of staying in their bivouac for 48 hours in torrential downpour. Not a good experience of getting stuck like that. When we reached Srinagar, the weather forecast was not encouraging but we were hoping for the best. Finally, when we made it to Sonamarg, our start point, we heard that rains were certainty. Now we had to take a call. We decided against going though some in the group wanted to go ahead and take a chance.
Second. Kashmir is absolutely Safe and Normal.
We never had any plan B. Now we had to make one. With almost eight days at our disposal, we had enough time to explore. The plan was finalised. We decided to make use of the opportunity to explore around Srinagar, visit Mata Vaishno Devi temple near Jammu, drive down from there to Dharamsala, onwards to Amritsar before catching the flight to Bangalore.
To say Kashmir is "Jannat" or "Heaven" is an understatement. It is a beautiful beyond words. The place, the people, the cuisine........... We had a lovely time.
Muzaffar, our cabbie was introduced to us by Yasmin who runs a lovely home stay in Srinagar. He had come to pick us up at the airport when we arrived and had shown around Srinagar on that afternoon. A tall and lanky man with flowing beard, he looked pious and religious kind of a guy. I, as usual, started the conversation with him asking how the situation in the valley is, the houseboats, shikaras, Dal lake, floating market, Mughal gardens, Hazratbal shrine etc....He seemed knowledgeable and very positive. He was feeling bad that Afzal Guru's hanging in February and the situation in the valley aftermath of the incident reduced the tourist inflow in peak season of April-May.
"Janab" He said - this is how Kashmiris address - "You see for yourself and judge. Do you feel insecure here?"
"No" i reply.
He is right. The city is normal. This is the same refrain i heard from many Kashmiris i spoke to in the city. "Srinagar is safe and normal. Mainstream media does not want to highlight positives of the valley."
"Where do you take us tomorrow" i ask Muzaffar, getting down from the car after a quick tour of Srinagar.
"Yusmarg" pat comes his reply. I look at Brinda and she blinks too. We had not heard of this place at all. I had heard of Gulmarg but not Yusmarg.
"Jannat hai Janab. Better than Gulmarg"
"Ok, Let us do it then. Let us start after breakfast in the morning". He leaves and confirm that he will be here next morning.
Sitting next to him the car, I ask him the story behind the name "Yusmarg". He says that the word "Yus" is a short form of Yusuf which is the Arabic word for Jesus. Marg - means Valley in Kashmiri. The legend is that Jesus came to Kashmir through this valley and hence the name Yusmarg.
We drive through dusty, crowded streets of Srinagar. The town is bustling with energy after previous day's Hartal. For the next few KMs the drive is inconsequential. Mid way at Nagam, we start climbing and the road becomes curvy as we drive along a large valley. The landscape is green - brown and the road is flanked by the orchards of Apple, Pear and Almond. It is a bright afternoon and the weather is pleasant. The road is good. We cross the town of Charar-e-sharif famous for its Dargah of Hazrat Sheikh Noor-u-din Wali, locally known as Alamdar-e-Kashmir. A shrine of importance for all Kashmiris, the town became more famous in nineties when the militants laid siege to it and hid inside. A long drawn gunfight between Indian Army and Militants liberated the shrine
|Apple trees on the way|
|Dargah of Charar-e-sharif|
Leaving Charar-e-sharif behind, we climb gradually. The road opens up and we see pine and cedars appearing on the horizon. There is a nip in the air laced with pine and cedar as we leave behind the valley. A large meadow with cedars in the background appears at a distance. Muzaffar assures that this is only the beginning. We just can't stop from getting down and clicking some pictures. The stream, meadows and the trees make it picture perfect.
We drive for another kilometre and come to a pristine lake next to the road. It looks like a lake you will find in Europe. Thankfully, there is no boating and the lake is still unspoilt. Driving on, we reach the tourist information centre of Yusmarg. It is Sunday but there is hardly a crowd. Which is good for us. We find horses and their handlers - Gujjars - around. Gujjars are a nomadic community in the Himalayas who live in mountains and rear sheep. During winter, they migrate to valleys and in summers they go back to mountains. Hardy people for whom moving in the mountains is a cakewalk.
|The lake at the entrance of Yusmarg......You can notice tourist huts by J&K Tourism in the horizon|
We look for any information on the place. Like many places in India, we don't find any. A small board near the car park area gives details of the places that can be seen along with rates for horse ride. There is absolutely no information how to explore the place if one does not want to go riding. We are the only few visitors in Yusmarg on this day and we get surrounded by Gujjars. These guys are quite amiable unlike the ones we saw in Gulmarg. They plead with us to take a ride. Unsure about the safety, we are reluctant to get on one. Rashid, the guy with a horse, assures us that nothing wrong would happen. He is willing take us to Dargah and then to Doodh Ganga for Rs 350 each.
"Can we go by foot?" I ask Rashid.
"Yes" he says pausing for a moment and then adds, "You can. But the trail is muddy due to overnight rain".
But we haven't come prepared and are wearing only walking sandals. There is no chance of trekking here without proper shoes. I was also not sure if there were any guides. Thus, we didn't have an option but to hop on to the horses. If you don't do these treks on the horse, there is nothing to do in Yusmarg. We get an additional helper to go along with Brinda apart from the handler.
We start our exploration of Yusmarg. Imtiaz, a ten-year-old kid comes along with me while Rashid and his friend go with Brinda. We walk on the newly built pathway towards Doodh Ganga and turn left towards the Pine forests after ten minutes. We are now in charming countryside. The trail goes through pine and cedar forests. The trees are tall and big. We can see lumbering operations going on. We cross the tiny hamlet of Rashid and his fellow Gujjars and move deeper into the forest.
|The muddy trail though the lovely forests.......Pine and Cedars all around. |
|Brinda on the horse with helper and handler|
The Alpine temperate forests are unlike the tropical ones we have seen in South India. There is not much undergrowth and the trees are either Cedar or Pine. The tree cover is not dense allowing enough sun to lit up the trail. Moti, my ride looks younger and spirited. He negotiates the ups and downs of the trail with aplomb. It is mostly down hill. Sometimes he makes his own trail going off the beaten track. Ever alert Imtiaz brings him back.
"Don't hold the reins tight" says Imtiaz. He teaches me how to use right or left rein to control the horse. I nod and test my understanding. I am sitting on a horse after 30 Years. Last time i sat was during my days in Military Academy in Madras. None of us opted for Equestrian club as Horse riding was considered as buggery. So this was my maiden attempt to ride a horse. Brinda in front was nervous initially but got her confidence after the helper also came along.
An hour's ride in pristine forest brings us to a lovely stream. Across the stream is a small Dargah of Peer baba. I ask Rashid about the Dargah. Rashid says that there used to be a baba who lived in these forests revered by Gujjars. On his death, the Small dargah was built. Gujjars pay obeisance to him. A festival is celebrated once a year in his memory.
I am not sure how long this place will remain untouched. But for now, this is just a paradise. It reminded me of our trip to Valley of Flowers last year. We did not see many wild flowers here though.
The ride from now to Doodh Ganga followed the stream. We climb and walk through the woods. Moti balances well on the loose stones and move quickly. Imtiaz is vigilant as ever and make sure that Moti does not go astray. I am also gaining confidence and enjoying it. We now reach a high ground. We see a stream rolling by and a lovely valley in front of us. Climbing down from the mount we walk down to the stream. The stream flowing over the rocks create a small waterfall. This place is known as Doodh Ganga. Doodh in Hindi is Milk and Ganga is a metaphor any river/stream in India.
|Doodh Ganga valley|
|Doodh Ganga |
We spend few minutes in the place. We now see more visitors coming in. Doodh Ganga is the place which most visita as it is the nearest place from the Tourist Information centre. The cost of horse ride is also cheap. From Doodh Ganga, the return trail is a sheer climb and the horses struggle a bit as the ground is slushy and slippery. But they manage well.
Few minutes of climb and we are back on flat trail. We now see beautiful meadows on either side of the trail. The tourism department has built lovely cottages on these meadows. I am not sure whether it is open as we could see the main tourist information centre being under construction. Thankfully, Yusmarg is still not commercialised and the stay options are only managed by Jammu and Kashmir Tourism.
|Isn't this lovely!|
|A Gujjar with his cattle|
Our horse ride in the mountains is over. It is an exhilarating experience. We thank Rashid, Imtiaz and pay them generous tips. They are happy. Rashid invites us to his home for a cup of "Gujjar tea". His house is far and we had to leave. We decline his offer politely, have a cup of tea in the only restaurant in Yusmarg which is managed by J&K Tourism department.
The restaurant is located on a high ground on a meadow overlooking the lake. We see a Kashmiri family enjoying the picnic lunch. As we stroll on the meadows, two cute little Gujjar girls come to us and say hello. It is a holiday for the school and they have gone to the forest to pick up some produce. They look lovely and innocent. I give some chocolates and bid them goodbye.
|Lovely girls of Yusmarg|
We start our journey back. Few minutes on the road, we are greeted by rain. The sun and the rain play hide and seek as we drive along the valley. I look through the window to see a lovely rainbow above the valley.
Muzaffar show us Almond orchards as we drive along. He stops suddenly when he sees a family plucking the almonds. He gets down and talks to them in Kashmiri. He asks us to get down and shows us how the almonds are harvested. The almonds here are different than the ones with juicy exterior we have seen in South India. There is a small kernel which opens to a soft shell in which will be hidden the almond seed. The family is generous and asks us to take the almonds if we wished. Muzaffar gets a big bag and fills up with raw almonds. I ask him if we have to pay anything. He suggests Rs 100 as a token. The family is not willing to accept saying that we are their "mehman" (guests) and i force them to take it as a token of our appreciations!
|Almond trees and the ones which are plucked (below)|
Yusmarg is a hidden wonder. Unspoilt and pristine. It is also trekkers' paradise. There are many trails leading to Pir Panjal ranges. Doodh Patri - another hidden gem - can be trekked too. This area is still not exploited by Commercial tourism.
|Following are the Panoramio pictures taken by Khan Gowher from Google Earth. These are the vistas you will see when you trek around Yusmarg|
|Google earth snapshot of Yusmarg. You can see lovely trails to Ayed on the left hand corner - notice Panoramio pictures on the map. |
Go there. There is no crowd. The woods are lovely and meadows are beautiful.
Since Yusmarg is close to Srinagar - 50 KMs - the best option is to hire a taxi. Alternately, there should be buses to this place from Srinagar. Other option is to go to Charar-e-Sharif by bus and take a taxi from there.
We saw few lovely cottages by J&K Tourism. I am not sure whether they are operational. One can check with J&K Tourism office in Srinagar for details.
a) Yusmarg can be done as a day trip comfortably from Srinagar.
b) It is also a nice place to stay and enjoy the nature. Go for long walks, angle in the lake....
c) If you are a trekker, then you can make this place as base to explore around. There are trekking trails to Ayed, Pir Panjal and nearby places which are beautiful. I am also not sure of availability of any guide. It will be good to check with J&K Tourism or local tour operators.
d) Yusmarg will be snowbound during winter which has its own charm.
e) On a clear day, one can see Pir Panjal ranges in the distance. To our bad luck, the sky was overcast and the mist had covered mountains.
f) I happened to see Jammu and Kashmir Tourism development Corporation website which looks nice. You can book accommodation through them. Here is the link.
You may also like to check out the following posts on Kashmir in this blog.
Spectacular Srinagar - Floating market on Dal Lake!
Spectacular Srinagar 2 - Lullaby on Dal lake!
Skywatch Friday - Srinagar from Taj!
Road Trip Vignettes - Cricket bats from Kashmir
Skywatch Friday - Vistas of Kashmir Valley
Skywatch Friday - Road to Gulmarg