One of our travel specialists - Bella - recently took a group to the Himalayan Foothills, and Kashmir, from the hustle and bustle of Delhi, taking the famous toy train to Shimla, visiting Amritsar's magnificent Golden Temple, and staying in a house boat by the stunningly beautiful Nagin Lake - here's her diary...
Day One - To Delhi
Our group was picked up at 17:00 hours and we headed to London Heathrow Terminal 3. After a seamless check in, we all awaited our overnight flight on Virgin Atlantic to Delhi.
Day Two - Delhi
On arrival in Delhi we were met by the Indus Representative. It was nearly midday by the time we arrived at the 4* Royal Plaza Hotel. The temperature was soaring up to 30°C. We were welcomed by two beautiful ladies clad in silk saris with marigold garlands and red vermillion. They graced us by putting the garland round our neck and applying red vermillion on our forehead followed by a drink of cold sherbet.
Our afternoon excursion started with a visit to the Akshardham Hindu Temple. This temple is fairly new as it was built in November 2005 by 8,000 volunteers. Each element of the temple echoes with spirituality. The temple has over 200 merits (idols) carved in sandstone and marble. There were beautiful open gardens, water bodies and step styled courtyards. At sunset there is a performance of a 24 minute water show (musical fountain) which was very spectacular.
Our next stop was the National Mahatma Gandhi Museum. This is the place where they have outlined his final footsteps from his study to the platform before he was shot. The whole memorial place which shows his life in graphic form was very emotional and most of us had a tear in our eyes.
It was an early night for everyone as we had to catch the train to Shimla our next destination the following morning.
Day Three - To Shimla
An early morning transfer to Delhi Train Station. Even at 6.30 in the morning the whole city felt like it never slept. There was bustle and chaos going around. The food stallers were all ready to serve the early morning commuters. The "Chai" man was busy calling out to the travellers. We all had a little cup of his sweet masala tea with cardamom.
We boarded the Shatabdi Express from Delhi to Kalka at 07.40. I was quite impressed with how punctual the train was. We had a reservation in the AC chair car and with it we got served complimentary Western/Indian breakfast including tea and coffee. Arrived promptly at Kalka Station and boarded the Himalayan Queen (toy train) to Shimla, the British Summer retreat place. The Kalka-Shimla Railway is a 2.6ft narrow gauge railway which travels along a most mountainous route. The views were dramatic of the hills and surrounding villages and took around 5 hours to reach our destination. We felt the drop in temperature as we arrived at the foothills of the Himalayas.
We checked in at the beautiful heritage hotel The Clarkes, which was only 10 minutes from the station. This heritage hotel has recently been upgraded to Heritage Grand category and is one of the oldest hotel in Shimla. It is known for its architecture dating from the colonial era and is within walking distance of all Shimla's attractions. After a lovely dinner we all retired in our lovely spacious rooms.
Day Four - Shimla
After breakfast we had a walking tour of Shimla. We walked through the Mall to the gaiety theatre and the mock Tudor houses. One of the most interesting places that we visited was the Viceregal Lodge also known as the Rashtrapati Niwas. It was formerly the residence of the British Viceroy of India. It houses some of the most ancient articles and photographs going back to the time of the British Raj. The gardens and lawns are well manicured and remains in use for the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies.
Day Five - Jakhu Temple and Kufri
Morning visit was to the Jakhu Temple (Monkey) which is at a height of 2,455 metres above sea level. The Jakhu Temple is Shimla's most famous temple and a steep 30 minute hike is dedicated to the Monkey God Hanuman, so it was quite appropriate that hundreds of these Macaque monkeys loiter around harassing people for Prasad (temple blessed food offering). Nearby a 33 metre high statue of Hanuman looms above the treetops and is visible from most of Shimla.
The monkeys on this route can be a menace so it has been advised to carry a walking stick to discourage them.
In the afternoon we had a visit to Kufri, which was quite an interesting one. It is one of the small hill stations in Shimla. There we visited the Himalayan Wildlife Zoo, which hosts rare antelopes, felines and snow leopards. It would have been quite pleasant to walk in this Wildlife environment if it was not raining heavily. In the winter months the potato plantations turns into a popular ski track.
The afternoon was at leisure and some of us decided to have some retail therapy on the famous Mall Road where there were endless bazaars selling pashminas, fabrics and jewellery.
Day Six - To Amritsar
We took an early morning drive with packed breakfast to Ambala Cantt where we boarded our train the Paschim Express to Amritsar. Arrived quite late in the evening and checked in at the Hyatt Hotel for two night stay.
Day Seven - Golden Temple and Wagah Border
Amritsar is a city in the North Western Indian state of Punjab, not far from the border with Pakistan. Our morning visit was to the Golden Temple which is in the centre of the town and is considered the holiest complex of the Sikh religion. It's a central worship area and is built from white marble overlaid with gold leaf. We had to wash our feet and hands before entering the temple and all had to cover their heads. On entering the temple we could hear the prayers being recited and the feeling of tranquility overwhelmed us. The man-made lake and the architecture of the temple was mesmerising.
We were then taken to the "Langar" (dining hall) where thousands of people are offered "parshad" (offering). We were given the tour of the kitchen where all the men and women worked harmoniously. It was amazing to see a chapatti machine producing hundreds of chapattis in an hour.
Next to the Golden Temple is the Jalian Wala Bagh Garden also known as the Amritsar Massacre. It was in 1919 when a crowd of non-violent protestors who were participating in a festival got open fired upon by troops of the British Army. There were still visible bullet marks on the wall and it was a very sad end to our morning tour.
Before sunset we drove to the Wagah Border, about 30 minutes’ drive from the centre of Amritsar, and where they do the ceremony of lowering the two flags which takes place every evening. It is a daily military practice that the security forces of India and Pakistan have jointly followed since 1959. The ceremony starts with a blustery parade by the soldiers from both sides and ends with the lowering of the two nation’s flags. There certainly was an electric atmosphere in the air at the drill by the two forces. This ceremony has actually been filmed by Michael Palin.
Day Seven - Nagin Lake
We took a lunch time flight on Spicejet from Amritsar to Srinagar (capital of Kashmir). The flight was only an hour and we all got transferred in 4x4 vehicles to the Wangnoo Deluxe Houseboats on Nagin Lake. We were greeted by the owner of the houseboats together with the house boys who were going to look after us. Each houseboat has been built by hand and the interior beautifully carved from fragrant cedar wood coloured paper machie items. All the houseboats have a living room, dining room, 1-5 bedrooms all with en-suite bathrooms. The comfort of the veranda at the front of each houseboat was the perfect setting from which you can view the mountains and enjoy the sunrise.
To complete our pleasure we all had a personal houseboy who was on hand at all times to care for us and ensured our personal comfort. We had the pleasure of staying on one of these beautiful accommodations for 4 nights.
Kashmir is one of the dream destinations in the world. It is no wonder the Mughal Emperors fell in love with the land, snow clad mountains and tranquil lakes bejewelled with lush green meadows. The lake looked beautiful and there was so much greenery around. There were surroundings of well-kept colourful gardens. We were served with Kashmiri Kahwa in the beautiful gardens with biscuits. Kashmiri Kahwa is made of different spices like cardamon, cinnamon and saffron which are the main produce of the country. There is no milk added but it is a very soothing drink.
Just before sunset we had a 'Shikara' (boat ride) on the lake where we saw the Bahris, the local community who live on the lake. Four people can sit on the Shikara opposite each other and it is very comfortable and relaxing. Whilst on the boat ride you get approached by the local sellers who sail up to you in their little boats selling flowers, shawls, silver jewellery and saffron. It was quite an experience trying to barter whilst on your Shikara and how they are willing to close the sale at half the price. If you have no money on you it does not matter as they know exactly which houseboat you are staying in and will come to collect the money later. The whole thing was a very interesting experience.
As we were in a group of eleven we decided to have our meals in the Houseboat restaurant where the house boys served us our meals and waited on us. You also have the choice of having your meals in your own dining room in your houseboat. There is always full board when you stay on the houseboats. Every morning the house boys come and collect your laundry and return it back in the evening for a cost of 50 rupees (50p) per garment.
Day Eight - Nagin Lake and Jamia Masjid
After breakfast we took a walking tour discovering the heritage and culture of the city, during which we saw the Jamia Masjid (Mosque) and ancient shrines. Afternoon was at leisure to relax on the front veranda of your houseboat.
Kashmir has the most beautiful gardens with flowers like the daffodils, pansies, talk holly hocks, marigolds, tulips, snow drop roses, massive dahlias, asters, daisies and blue forget me nots.
Day Nine - NISHAT AND SHALIMAR GARDENS
We had an evening visit to the two beautiful Nishat and Shalimar gardens with its beautiful flowers and water fountains. The Shalimar garden was the inspiration of Emperor Jahangir for his wife Nur Jahan. The view of the sun setting in Nishat was very spectacular sight.
Day Ten - MANASBAL LAKE AND JHAROKHA GARDEN
Our morning took us to Manasbal Lake, which is considered to be the gem of Kashmiri Lakes. We took a picnic lunch at the Jharokha Garden. The views over the lake were amazing and spectacular.
We visited a silk worm farm where we saw how these fascinating worms weave their magical thread which is then used to make the Kashmiri pashminas.
Day Eleven - GULMARG
After an hour and a half journey through fir covered hillsides we arrived at the "meadow of flowers", Gulmarg. The word Gulmarg means valley of flowers. Daisies grow here in abundance and lupins here can retain a height up to 5 feet. The temperature was a lot cooler but the air felt so pure and the views were magnificent.
We checked in at Hotel Highlands Park for our last three nights in this beautiful part of the world. This hotel is very famous for film shooting for the Bollywood cinema. The hotel has the most beautiful gardens and all the rooms have an open fireplace.
Day Twelve - APHARWAT HILL
In the morning after breakfast we took the world’s highest gondola ride up to the Apharwat Hill which is 14,000 feet above sea level. This place is popular with the ski loving population. The scenery from the tip of the peak was breath-taking, what with the snow clad mountains and lake.
Day Thirteen - GULMARG BIOSPHERE RESERVE
We were very fortunate to have our guide Mr Sheriff who has been the local guide for the last 40 years. He took us for a walk through the Gulmarg Biosphere Reserve (Wildlife Sanctuary) where we saw the musk deers, flock of sheep and goats. Again the scenery of the Kashmir Vale was amazing from the forest and we had plenty of opportunities for photos.
Day Fourteen - RETURN TO DELHI
It was very sad to depart from this beautiful scenic place to the bustling city of Delhi where we had our final night in India.
Day Fifteen - BACK HOME
Flight back home from Delhi on Virgin Atlantic to London Heathrow.
If you are interested on a holiday to India, why not contact Bella? She's incredibly passionate about India, and would love to help
01234 326 778
Local Kashmiri Girls
Golden Temple, Amritsar
Keeping an eye on the chapati machine
All hands on deck with the washing up
Houseboats on Lake Nagin - outside
Balcony on Houseboat
'Shikara' Boat Ride
Shalimar Gardens, Srinagar
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