“Travel is the new fad,” Navkiran said.
About midway into our trip, we were talking about the newfound national pastime — travel — in the midst of a free-flowing conversation on food, friends, work, and life.
The we is a group of people that had never met before, but were all fascinated by the idea of a culinary exploration of paradise on earth.
Photo Courtesy: Vaydehi Khandelwal
Two young companies, Offroads India and Food Talk India got together a couple of months ago and decided that happily full bellies, against a picturesque background, in pleasant sunshine, are sure to bond well.
Never has a truer thought been thunk!
And that’s how the trip happened. And all of us gastronomes (fancy word for a foodie, which is a fancy word for someone who loves food, which should mean any normal person) signed up.
I arrived at Srinagar airport and met first with the local guide/bartender/comedian/magician/singer/you-get-the-drift of the group, GG, along with my first bunch within the bunch. The four of us headed with our cameras to the X Gardens before it was time to check in to the hotel rooms.
View at the X Gardens
These mysterious X Gardens were either the Mughal Gardens, or the “Vertical” Gardens (There’s a chance that we were mishearing the locals say, “Botanical Gardens.” Either way, there was nothing too vertical about the gardens.), or even the Shalimar Gardens. Some things are perhaps best left to the imagination.
Upon our arrival at the hotel, and getting introduced to the rest of the group, we figured it was as good a time as any for the second national pastime — chilling. And so we sunk into the tea lounge couches, with little bean bags for cushions, to talk about food, friends, work, and life.
With a good installment of that done, we sprung out to sample some street food — get the tummies acclimated. That, and watching the sunset from our “party room” balcony, and we were all set for the next round.
Of chilling. This time on the Dal lake. On a shikara, a local dinghy.
Her Majesty’s Ship, The Royal Shikara preparing to set sail
While my fellow sailors and I talked shop, and joked with the jewellery-seller on the neighbouring boat, the joy of 20 Questions was rediscovered on another boat.
On the way to our next stop, the fancy golf course restaurant, we let the 20 Questions virus take the entire group, and over several rounds, worked up an appetite for our first rendition of the famous Wazwan meal— a traditional Kashmiri meal, with all mutton preparations imaginable served one by one on a bed of rice.
*Burp* and we were back at the party room for a few rounds.
Fast-forward to just after day 2’s sumptuous breakfast buffet…
…which happened as we looked at this
We spent our mid-morning at a local bakery, where, since the 60s, a family has been baking Kashmiri snack breads in a mud oven. We not only got to watch the little savoury doughnuts go from dough to — HOT-HOT-HOT-I-CAN’T-HOLD-THIS—crisp goodness, but also got a chance to step into a local’s house and have the cooled-off breads with some kahwah (Kashmiri green tea).
From there, we took off on another culinary expedition. The idea was to go to a modern bakery with more mass production capabilities.
Nom nom continues
Little did anyone know that this bakery would also serve the best hummus-pita and peri-peri chicken pizza that anyone had ever tasted. And the best banoffee pie and cakes too. Thank God for that spare dessert stomach I always kinda-sorta knew I have.
A quick hop in and out of another garden and a fort, and we were ready to uphold the one-day old tradition of spending the evening on the lake, this time in a larger boat, a doonga. Our second “half” of the Wazwan was served here, where we dove deeper into tradition by having four people eat out of one large plate, all seated on the floor.
As our tummies realised what was really happening on the trip, we called it a night and prepared for an early departure to Pahalgam the next morning.
The drive to Pahalgam is short and largely pleasant, especially the parts where the hide-and-seek with the Lidder river goes on for long stretches. Herds of sheep and goat (literal, not metaphorical) seem to be the only thing that blocks traffic, yet the lovely hill people smile through traffic jams as much as through sudden spells of harsh rain.
The road not taken
With the showers, the weather was a little nippy — one warm layer and a little shudder still. Which was a great run-up to the bonfire dinner. The dreaded last night of the trip.
If only there were s’mores
We drove back to Srinagar in the morning, and stopped at a local favourite restaurant for one final round of indulgence — Kashmiri pulao. And more mutton. And more kahwah!
Luckily for us Delhi-bound-folks, with our delayed flight, there was just enough room for one final surprise… The most beautiful part of the trip, natural beauty aside. A tea room-cum-art exhibition that had opened literally the previous day. We kids barged in with a dozen cameras and lenses and sunglasses and scarves, overawed by the beauty of the décor and art.
And this wasn’t even the art part
Neither was this
And then of course, the video testimonials, the hugs, the speeches of “Nice meeting you”s.
The trip ended much too soon, with so many stories about food, work, friends and life. Well, at least some of them live to see another day. We’ll probably not all stay in touch once the excitement of the trip has faded, but were those ephemeral friendships with the soul siblings worth it?
For the love of Kashmiriyat.
All pictures embedded in the post are from my camera; some have been clicked by Karan. Offroads’ official reminiscence video is available here.