Mughal Emperor Jahangir once said, “If there is a heaven on earth, it’s here, it is here.” Four hundred years on, his sentiment toward Kashmir still rings true. And while any visit to Kashmir majestic destination on all fronts, its true beauty lies beyond the tourist radar in the valley’s pristine backyards and hidden gems that earn the sobriquet: heaven on earth.
A narrow road lazily threads its way out of Pahalgam, the tourist mecca around 60 miles (96 kilometers) east of Srinagar. It runs along a couple of sleepy hamlets following the Lidder river that winds through a gravel basin on the left. A verdant valley looms ahead and soon the lush recesses of a scenic meadow roll into view. Dotted with groves of pine and deodar, various herds amble and graze in the enclosed paddocks and a motley group of daytrippers bask in the summer sun that bathes the valley. The idyllic setting is the perfect base for a trek to the nearby Kolahoi glacier. For the not-so-intrepid traveller, soaking in the tranquillity with a couple of cups of steaming kahwa – a local saffron flavored tea – and a short horse ride through the wooded meadows make a delightful alternative.
Situated 29 miles (47 kilometers) south of Srinagar, the journey to Yusmarg weaves through quaint villages and apple orchards before a bridle downward slope into the green valley hemmed by the Pir Panjal mountain range. A lone tourist bungalow is perched right in the middle of the emerald expanse of Yusmarg, which in Kashmiri means “The Meadow of Jesus.” Legend goes that Jesus Christ spent some years in Kashmir after his resurrection and had chosen these pastures for a brief respite.
A picnic lunch on the banks of the Dudhganga river, just over a mile (2 kilometers) from Yusmarg, is as enticing an option as the leisurely hike to the nearby Nilnag lake. Along the way, keep an eye out for the local Gujjar tribes that have roamed nomadically through the area for centuries.
This sleepy town suffered one of the longest and most brutal sieges by seperatist forces in 1995. In the decades since, the people of Charar Sharief have worked hard to resume a life of serenity and charm. You’ll find the town abuzz with family-owned workshops crafting kangdis (earthenware fire pots), and locals gathering toward the fabled local shrine of Charar-e-Sharief, one of the oldest and most prominent in the Kashmir Valley. The drive from Srinagar is most beautiful in spring with cherry blossoms and mustard fields brimming with color.
In the farthest northwest corner of Kashmir, Gurez valley and its people live a semi-secluded existence. And that is why the little dale has retained its pristine beauty, with the Kishanganga river meandering its way through the valley floor and village life relatively unchanged.
This valley is home to the Dards who are famous for their warmth and hospitality toward guests who are often invited into their simple homesteads for a round of tea. A trek from the district headquarters of Gurez through the valley villages is a once in a lifetime experience to soak up the nuances of the ancient cultural heritage.
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Around 60 miles (100 kilometers) from Srinagar, the idyllic summer retreat of Lolab is blanketed in a lush green valley of fruit orchards, lakes, rice fields and charming wooden homes with tin roofs.
The scenic drive through the valley can often turn into long hours with multiple stopovers consisting of casual conversations with other curious onlookers, and taking in the serenity of the women working in the rice fields, children playing in strips of grassy pasture, and elderly locals sitting at the entrance of their humble homes on the wayside. The fragrance drifting in from the surrounding forest merges with the sweet disposition of the valley locals who are always keen to welcome guests with fresh apricots and kahwa. The streams that wind through the Lolab valley are ideal for fishing trout, and exploring the mysterious Kalaroos caves in the northern fringes of Lolab valley.
Most tourists pass by this lovely spot on their way to Sinthan Top, but if you find yourself in Kashmir in late autumn, Kokernag is a destination worth lingering in. Famous for its fall foliage, Kokernag is covered with Chinar trees ablaze in every shade of red, orange and yellow. Not only is Kokernag beloved for its lush scenery and vibrant seasons, it’s also a bird watcher’s paradise if you can be up and ready by sunrise.
The oldest example of medieval Kashmiri architecture survives in the ruins of the temple complex of Avantipur. Though partially restored, the temple’s crumbling, derelict atmosphere is unmistakable. Be sure to stroll the courtyard hemmed with shrines and and rock carvings that showcase snippets of social, cultural and religious traits of Kashmir in the 9th century, when the temples were constructed.
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