Mughal Emperor Jahangir described the beautiful valleys of Kashmir four centuries ago and said, “Gar firdaus bar rue zameen ast; hameen asto, hameen asto, hameen ast.” which means “If there is paradise on earth; it’s here, it’s here, it’s here.” Kashmir renowned for its lush green valleys and breathtaking landscapes has often been compared to heaven on earth but in my experience, it’s not just the exquisite scenery that’s alluring, it’s the heart warming people and their welcoming nature that add to its beauty.
The higher Himalayas & the Pir Panjal mountain range surround Kashmir valley from all sides. The most ancient route to the valley is the Salt route, also called the Mughal road after the Mughals occupied the area. Passing through the snow-covered mountains of Pir Panjal range traders have used this route since ancient times to transport salt across the region on horses. Mughal Emperors like Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb travelled in caravans across this route to Kashmir. Emperor Akbar started work on this road in 1587 AD while Emperor Jehangir commissioned an Iranian engineer to build Sarais (rest places), mosques and hamams (bathing pools) on the route for the royalty’s convenience. The road connected Gujrat & Lahore (now in Pakistan) to Srinagar and had 14 halting stations, some visible even now from the road. Emperor Jehangir is believed to have died on this road near Rajouri. Part of the historic Mughal road from Bafliaz to Shopian, about 84 km passing through stunning alpine snow-covered mountains, lush green valleys and Pir ki Gali, a mountain pass at 11,500 ft and the highest point on the Mughal road, has been renovated and opened to public since 2012.
Mughal road is a more scenic & less crowded route from Jammu to Srinagar than the National highway, even though it’s a bit longer. We wanted to visit the less explored, non-touristy parts of Kashmir, so in the summer of 2015 before we went to Ladakh, we travelled to Kashmir via the historic Mughal road all the way up to Lolab valley. Nine of us, on 4 motorbikes and 1 jeep began our road trip from Delhi to explore the paradise of Kashmir. Map of our route here. (Read more on my Travels to Ladakh.)
Our first night halt was at Anandpur Sahib Gurudwara in Punjab about 315 km from Delhi. We enjoyed the delicious Langar – a community kitchen by the Sikhs where free meals are served to all visitors. The next evening after another 300 km we reached Jammu, from where the Old Mughal road begins. Looking forward to our journey through the historic road the next day, we were to pass through the towns of Akhnoor, Rajouri, Bafliaz, Pir ki Gali pass to Shopian (280 km), I wondered how beautiful these places would be if their names sounded so poetic!
Next morning we started early, it was a smooth ride till Rajouri and we managed to cross Thanamandi by 4 pm, a small town before the higher mountains of Bafliaz. And then it started to drizzle; we stopped to wear our rain coats and decided to stop at the next roadside dhaba (teashop). Soon it started pouring heavily and the only saving grace was the tree cover above us. We were now on the recently opened stretch of the road that wasn’t much developed and still had loose stones and no streetlights. The light had diminished by half as we entered the dense forested part of the mountains and floating clouds minimized the already low visibility; it was a slow climb up with wet roads. We kept riding waiting for a roadside dhaba to stop and take a break, but we couldn’t find any! It was pitch dark now and our fingers had started to go numb with the cold. We were desperate to stop and finally after a few kilometers we found a small shed dimly lit in red. Soaking wet we entered the shed and were relieved to find out it was a dhaba. There was barely enough space for all of us to stand inside the tent, trying to warm our fingertips with cups of chai, we gobbled up Maggi noodles as we discussed what to do now as it poured outside.
The guy who served us mentioned that the road was being constructed and this was the last stop before Pir pass. And, that there wasn’t any place ahead to stay until we crossed the pass and reached Shopian, around 70 km away! He offered us his place for us to sleep as there was another tent next to this one and said, “Yehi reh jao, aage kuch nahi hai pass tak.” “Stay here, there’s nothing ahead till the pass.” It was still pouring outside; with no other choice, we changed our wet clothing and tucked ourselves in our sleeping bags. Our bed that night was over blankets kept on layers of cardboard over a plastic sheet on the ground. It was freezing cold and we were almost on top of each other, trying to get some sleep with the sound of raindrops falling on the shed. The next morning we woke up before sunrise and saw the place around in the light. Surrounded by mountains covered in Deodar trees, we were right next to a glacier! We saw the sunrise while drinking tea and realized how lucky we were to find this little shed and that we had slept quite literally on the road!
In desperation to get going and reach Aharbal, we quickly packed up, had breakfast of bread & eggs and started the rest of our journey on the Mughal road to Aharbal. The historic road passes through gorgeous landscapes of dense Deodar forests on massive snow-covered mountains and long stretches of lush green pastures where you can see tiny dots of sheep grazing. Sukh Sarai by the river, one of the rest stations on the old road, an abandoned dilapidated structure of crumbling stones, yet it survives till today reminding us of the historic past.
We reached Aharbal, a small & non-touristy hill station about 75 km from Srinagar by noon and stayed at the J&K tourist bungalow located by the river. Recuperated from last night’s adventure with a warm shower and a few of us went for a ride exploring a nearby village to buy what every Kashmiri wore – a Phiren, a long traditional Kashmiri dress made of pure wool, it’s quite warm and covers most of the body. We went around looking for a shop that sells clothes and met this friendly woman, who was happy that we had come to visit her village and taught us how to tie a scarf around the head in traditional Kashmiri style! We didn’t find any Phiren in the end to buy but were happy to wear one and take photos, thanks to one of the caretakers of our bungalow! 🙂
Wandering around the streets till evening we stopped at a dhaba, for some delicious Kashmiri kahwa (saffron tea) and they were baking fresh sheermal (flatbread). Drooling over the delicious aroma of bread all I could think of was Rogan Josh (Kashmiri Mutton curry) to go with it! I enquired if they had any, and not only did they have Rogan Josh, but also Rishta & Gushtaba (meatballs in gravy)! So we ended up ordering our dinner from that dhaba and packed it for everyone back at the bungalow. And the rest of the evening went about discussing our on-the-road adventure, what if’s and the laughter followed by the most delicious Kashmiri dinner!
If it weren’t for the downpour that evening and the people we met on the way, we would’ve had a different experience riding through the road, probably a more comfortable one with nothing much to talk about other than the beautiful views. I will always cherish our memories of that adventurous night on the historic Mughal road, where we not only got to ride on it we even slept on it for a night! 😉 And I realised that travelling with family & friends through this beautiful place and making memories – this was paradise!