According to most travel forums, Sonamarg is inaccessible during winter due to heavy snowfall and avalanches. However, this being one of those impromptu trips that Masood and I like to take sometimes, we found ourselves in Sonamarg a few days before winter said goodbye.
Srinagar was having this cute snow flurry that we found totally adorable, so how bad could it get at Sonamarg, right?
An hour into our drive from Srinagar to Sonamarg, it began to snow. Nothing heavy; just tiny flecks of cotton falling from the sky.
Minutes later, with the snow getting heavier, we stopped for a quick tea break. The picture on the right is exactly that place. That structure with the red roof is the public restroom I couldn’t use because my highly inappropriate footwear (I wasn’t prepared!) kept slipping on the ice.
The drive to Sonamarg during winter is dangerous but the locals maneuver expertly. There were moments when I felt the tires skidding. There were times when I was certain the car was permanently stuck in the snow. There were instances when I thought I should’ve visited during summer.
But I’m glad we visited during the winter. The place is gorgeous, just like a scene from a fairy tale or the Chronicles of Narnia.
Note to my beloved readers who have just offered prayers of gratitude that spring has arrived and all the snow has finally melted off their part of the world, you may now stop rolling your eyes. I’ve committed every single snowflake to memory to see me through our desert summer months. Thank you.
Where was I? Oh yeah, I was grateful this wasn’t our vehicle:
Kashmiri people do not have red skin. I was fiddling with my camera’s settings to get the snow to come up white in the photographs (instead of blue or gray) and in the process, the beautiful skin of these people turned erythematous.
Sonamarg has a population of just 400; the rest are tourists. Nestled amidst the picturesque Himalayan peaks, it’s one of the most popular places in India to visit during summer.
The view during summer, our driver told us, is breathtaking. Sonamarg is synonymous with quiet meadows and flower-carpeted fields surrounded by pines and lakes.
Just 80 km from Srinagar, Sonamarg has some of the highest mountain ranges of the world. These snow-clad peaks reflects the golden rays of the sun, giving a sparkling effect to the entire valley. This is the reason why this place is named Sonamarg, or “The Meadow of Gold”.
That’s not what we saw, obviously. No golden rays and sparkling effects for us. No quiet meadows and flower-carpeted fields. What we experienced was a town covered in beautiful white snow.
And horses blocking our way.
We sat in the car for a long time waiting for the oncoming traffic to pass us because the snow had turned a two-way lane into a one way, slippery road. Tourism is the main source of livelihood for the majority of locals. Winter is an off-peak season, hence it wasn’t surprising to see grown men simply standing at the roadside at eleven in the morning, just watching the traffic crawl by.
The nearest airport to Sonamarg is located at Srinagar, at a distance of 70 kms away. Srinagar is air connected to Delhi with regular flights. Taxis are available from airport to Sonamarg.
Sonamarg is also well-connected to Jammu (60 km) and Srinagar (70 km) by buses.
There are no trains to Sonamarg.
In my opinion, there’s no need to stay overnight at Sonmarg. It’s a small place that can easily be covered in a day.
The best option is to hire a private taxi through your hotel in Srinagar. Having a dedicated driver for the entire duration of our stay in Kashmir saved us a lot of time. Plus, the knowledgeable drivers make very good tourist guides.
There came a point during which the driver informed us we couldn’t go any further by car. We either had to a) ride a horse, or b) walk. I stayed put inside the car. Like I said earlier, we weren’t dressed for this much snow.
Another guy came along—someone who our driver seemed to know very well—and offered us heavy coats and wellies for rent. Masood went ahead and took a coat. I still remained in the car. “Maybe I should just stay here and photograph every single snowflake that’s falling from the sky,” I almost suggested.
Eventually, I put the coat and gloves on (the gloves we had to buy from, and you won’t believe this, the tea stall). The wellies the guy bought with him were two sizes large for me. Next thing I knew, his lady companion took off hers and gave them to me! She then put on the large ones and casually walked away.
Picture taken whilst riding a horse:
“I don’t want to ride a horse!” I told Masood, very determined to make my point. “I’ll walk.”
I was pretty sure it’s one of those tourist traps where they tell you how it’s impossible to reach Point B without their assistance. That was why I was bent on walking and enjoying the snow at my own pace. We were told that they’d take us someplace where there’s a river or something.
Our driver, however, was eventually able to convince me that since I’d already travelled all the way here, I should go check this place out. And since my expertise lies in sand and not snow, he advised against me walking on my own least I took 2 years to return to our car. Also, the snow was getting heavier so we needed to leave for Srinagar soon. There was the possibility that the only road back to our hotel would be closed down due to bad weather.
I would say it was worth riding the horse because we couldn’t have covered that much distance in 20 minutes and because horse riding is fun no matter what the climate is.
I’ve also learned that a horse can actually slip on ice and lose balance (even if the horse’s owner assures you in the beginning of the ride about how that is such a remote possibility). It was Masood’s horse, and thank God it caught its balance right away.
The horse ride took us to a gated place that was enveloped in even more snow. There, we were surrounded by locals who wanted us to ride their wooden sledge. It’s more like a wooden plank that they pull through the snow.
We refused the sledge ride. Instead, we walked around a bit. The entire place was white and so breathtaking. The majestic mountains all dressed in white. The proud pine trees dusted with white powder, and every minute or so you hear rustling from one of the branches dropping off the heavy snow that gets accumulated on it. And the flowing river that passes through this scenic place, its water refusing to freeze with its surroundings.
At the end of the trip, the horsemen were so kind to invite us to their home for lunch and tea, but we politely declined.
Our noses turned red and our toes were freezing, but visiting Sonamarg in winter was definitely worth all that (specially if you haven’t seen snow before).