Meadows of silver and gold.
By Kalpana Rangan
Rising peaks, snow-flakes on hills, artistic boats on lakes, blooming flowers on lush green trees, sturdy chinars, beautiful women in kaftans and ponies walking up the slopes! Yes, we had stepped into the Indian paradise, Kashmir. Going around Srinagar, Pahalgam and Gulmarg we were sucking in its beauty. The last lap of our tour was to Sonamarg. We were driving from Srinagar to Sonamarg. Will this part of Kashmir be any better than the others, I wondered. We started early in the morning soon after breakfast. It was a bright day and we could see the sunlight flickering on the peaks far away.
As we drove off from our hotel in old Srinagar, we noticed women in kaftans driving cattle and men drinking tea outside kiosks. Huge chinars, pines and flowering trees lined the roads. As the car sped by we could observe the sunlight reflection on the calm waters of Dal lake. We spotted a few boatsmen paddling visitors for a morning ride. Just five days ago we had stayed in a houseboat on the lake. It was an enriching experience as we watched boats sail by even as the sun set and cast its golden glow on the clear waters. How beautiful it was to relax on the boat as it meandered through narrow streams flocked by little shops and twining trees! Islands of plants and houseboats everywhere, not to forget sweet corn and fruit sellers cajoling tourists to buy from them!
Dal Lake to Leh highway
Passing Dal Lake and going beyond, we were taking the Srinagar-Leh Highway towards Sonamarg 85 km northeast of Srinagar. Once again, we were driving through winding roads with pine forests, green meadows, distant snow-capped peaks and streams all along the way. The Nallah-Sind, a tributary of river Jhelum, running all through the way at the base of the hills with pebbles and sturdy stones highlighting its flow accompanies you till Sonamarg. We noticed school children crossing a bridge to go to the other side of the river. Kashmiri women and children were complementing the stunning surrounding scenery with their fair complexion, sharp features and charming smiles. Our car slowed down to allow shepherds to drive their sheep to the fields off the road and up above. We couldn’t stop clicking pictures of the morning activity in this hilly territory.
No less stunning than swiss Alps
It was indeed the Switzerland of India! I had visited the Swiss Alps years ago. Now, driving from Srinagar to Sonamarg, I wondered if the scene outside was any less mesmerising than the Swiss scene. Sloping hills criss-crossing each other, dense pine forested hills contrasting with snow- covered mountains, thick sheets of ice pasted to the hills sloping down to the stream, small bridges and rich fields with small cabins on the side, grazing sheep and trees laden with apples. Was it just a vision or a reality? Surely, a slice of heaven on Earth!
Sprawling chinars all the way
We never felt the two hour long journey. With cool breeze blowing on our faces and stunning scenes outside, it was a pleasurable drive. We passed by towering chinars, sturdily rooted to the ground and spreading out their branches wide above. Talk of Kashmiri landscape and chinars stand out in the scenery! Chinars that can be spotted all through the Kashmir valley are the most important trees of this heavenly land. From the gardens of Shalimar to the forests of Kashmir, chinars are most visible and prominent. Called ‘booune’ in the local language, the leaves of chinars beautifully change their colour according to the season. Deodar, fir and pine are the other trees in abundance here, apart from willow, cider, almond, walnut and apple trees. We could spot saffron fields on the way along with rows of rice fields.
Rainbows, silver peaks and meadow of gold
We were passing a village dotted with tin-roofed cottages with small wooden windows. Waving children greeted us even as their mothers in long robes and heavy earrings looked on smilingly. Behind we saw two steep hills with white streaks streaming all the way down. Suddenly a rainbow appeared over a stream! Snow-capped peaks faced us all through the journey. Soothing green meadows were seen between dense hills! When sunlight trickled on them it gave a slight golden sheen. Was this the reason for this snow-covered territory to be named as Sonamarg or ‘meadow of gold”?