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Old 25th June 2022, 08:34   #1
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Default Exploring the Kashmir Valley

One evening, sometime in late April 2022, we were planning for this year’s summer vacation and I turned to my mother, a retired geography teacher and asked, “Mom, where in India can we take a road trip in late June which won’t be affected by the monsoons?” We had originally planned for a trip to Munsiyari and Chaukori, which we could have done in early June but had to shelve those plans due to a work trip till 16th June.

My mother thought for a while and said, “Kashmir and Ladakh. They get the monsoon last.”

My six year old piped up. “Are we going to Kashmir this summer vacation, Baba? Lets go no!”

I fell silent. I hadn’t planned on doing Kashmir anytime soon. Plus my original plan was to do both Ladakh and Kashmir together. But just for a lark, I began my hunt on Google maps, for a leisurely jaunt through most of the Kashmir/ Jhelum Valley. Another complication was that I did not want to go to Srinagar. I had been there before and didn’t feel the need to go back. So, we looked at the satellite towns/ villages around Srinagar, places where most people would take day trips to. We listed Pahalgam, Gulmarg and Sonmarg.

Travelling with a senior citizen and a six year old child comes with its own challenges, opportunities and rules. Here are our ground rules for road trips:
- No driving at night. At best we can start at the crack of dawn. But we must plan to reach our destination by sundown.
- No driving for more than 8 hours a day. 9, if there’s an emergency/ unplanned exigencies.

With these in mind, we planned for the following route

Day 1 - Sonipat to Pathankot
Day 2 - Pathankot to Pahalgam
Day 3 - Local sightseeing in Pahalgam including the Aru and Betaab Valleys
Day 4 - Pahalgam to Gulmarg
Day 5 - Gulmarg Gondola including a three hour trek to and from Alpathar lake
Day 6 - Gulmarg to Sonamarg with a quick visit to Zojila
Day 7 - Sonamarg to Patnitop
Day 8 - Local sightseeing at Patnitop including the Patnitop Gondola and Sanasar Lake
Day 9 - Patnitop to Chandigarh
Day 10 - Chandigarh to Sonipat

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By mid May, all our hotel rooms were booked. Will talk about these hotels and why we chose them in individual posts. I came back from my work trip on the 16th of June and on the 18th morning, we set off for Pathankot.

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Old 25th June 2022, 09:03   #2
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Default Re: Exploring the Kashmir Valley

In same situation for Kashmir trip in July. Waiting for your detailed catalogue especially regarding road conditions and hotels.
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Old 25th June 2022, 09:23   #3
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The drive to Pathankot would usually have been a breeze. I would generally start at dawn with a breakfast halt at the Sagar Ratna on the outskirts of Karnal and reach Pathankot by noon. However, due to an ‘Agnipath’ protest on the NH 44 on the outskirts of Jalandhar, we were stuck in a long traffic jam and eventually had to take a huge detour around Jalandhar which set us back by about 2 hours. On the bright side, we went through some very picturesque rural Punjab roads.

We chose the Best Western La Vista in Pathankot simply because it was the most comfortable in the city. I knew I had two long days of driving and I wanted to make sure that all in the family got a good night’s rest.

We started at dawn the next day for Pahalgam. The staff at the Best Western were kind enough to pack us a breakfast for which we gladly stopped by the wayside at Battal, just before the Jammu border. We crossed the Chenani Nashri Tunnel by 9:30 am. However, as has been the case for many months, terrible traffic at Ramban cost us a good couple of hours.

(Off Topic, but I think it’s relevant for people who like driving into the mountains) In my opinion, traffic snarls on single lane mountain roads might be caused by any number of reasons, but it is almost always exacerbated by impatient drivers wanting to overtake a long line of otherwise patient drivers. These cars invariably block oncoming traffic causing even more delays for everyone. It’s common sense, when on a mountain road, if your overtaking manoeuvre might encroach upon oncoming traffic, stay put. Your time will also come. On one occasion, a local taxi tried to overtake me while I was stuck in line and in the face of oncoming traffic and subsequently, got stuck itself. We rolled down our windows and asked a simple question - “Where do you think you’re going?” To which there was no answer of substance. A CRPF jawan who was managing traffic in the vicinity had had enough and walked up to the driver to give him a mouthful and a tight slap. Sadly, my reflexes weren’t quick enough to capture that moment on camera.

We had lunch just before the Banihal tunnel at Cafe Yakjaah. A slightly off beat restaurant, but the roganjosh was so worth it! I am told that the biriyani is highly recommended too. Past the Banihal tunnel, we crossed into the Jhelum valley, which we were to explore over the next few days. It had started drizzling by then - something that would feature quite prominently in the days to come, as you will see.

One of the things I noticed was the increased military presence on the highways. CRPF jawans at literally every 50 feet, all along the NH 44. We turned off the highway at Anantnag and headed up on the banks of the River Lidder, which is a major tributary of the Jhelum. We finally arrived at our destination - the River Front Guest House at the entrance of the Aru valley. We chose this location mostly out of default. We wanted to stay at a place that was on the banks of the Lidder. We had a few other options, such as Walisons, etc but they were all either fully booked or out of our budget.

The Riverfront Guesthouse is exactly what its name says it is. It’s on the river front as the pictures below will attest. And it’s a guesthouse. Not a hotel. This meant that it lacked a number of amenities which we have come to get used to in our other travels, such as a TV, running hot and cold water etc. It also came across as very grimy and uncared for. But, at least we had wifi.



Views of the Lidder from the River Front Guesthouse

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Last edited by arjyamaj : 27th June 2022 at 07:38.
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Old 25th June 2022, 09:41   #4
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The next morning, we hired a local cab to take us around Pahalgam. The three places we wanted to visit were Chandanwadi - one of the starting points of the Amarnath Trek, Betaab Valley and Aru Valley.

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Sadly, it was raining almost throughout the entire day and we really couldn’t stay for very long outside the cab.

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We also decided that we had had enough of the guesthouse and that we would move to a nicer place. The Pine Spring Resort on the outskirts of Pahalgam suited us well. We moved in there after a sumptuous wazwaan lunch at Hotel Paradise in the Pahalgam main market. The next morning, the rain gods allowed us a brief glimpse of Mount Kolahoi and some other snow capped peaks. Mount Kolahoi is the tallest peak in the Kashmir valley.

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Old 25th June 2022, 10:02   #5
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We moved from Pahalgam to Gulmarg the next day. The clouds got darker and the rain, more insistent.

At the entrance to Gulmarg, we were greeted by a large mob of people - mostly travel guides, hotel agents, and people selling all manner of rain and cold weather gear. Thankfully, we had a reservation at a place inside the meadows and had our own car. If you arrive at Gulmarg in a hired vehicle which is not registered in Gulmarg, you will be asked to park it and take a local taxi within Gulmarg. You could also take a pony ride, or an ATV into the meadows, or simply walk. Bottom line is - commercial vehicles registered outside Gulmarg will not be allowed past the entrance of the town.

We were booked to stay in the Gulmarg Meadows. This is a set of Swiss tents in the middle of the meadows in Gulmarg. I chose this property for four reasons. The first, that it would give us continuous access to the meadows, to go for walks etc. Second, that we’d get the best views of the mountains around the meadows early in the morning. Third, that it would be away from the madding crowd and closer to nature. Fourth, it allowed us to drive into the Gulmarg meadows.

Sadly, with the continued rainfall, we hardly got any views when we arrived. It was even worse the next day. Cold, wet and miserable, we were rueing our luck at being stuck in what we later learnt, was one of the wettest Junes in local history.

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The main attraction of Gulmarg in the summer is the gondola. This cable car operates in two phases, taking tourists up to Apharwat peak at a height of 14000 feet. In the winter, this is a good place to start skiing while in the summer, it’s a great place to get some good views in. We had originally planned to do a small day trek to Alpather lake, which would have taken us a few hours to go and come back. Tickets were available online on https://www.jammukashmircablecar.com/ and we had bought them for both phases. However, due to inclement weather, the gondola was closed for the day, as it had been the day before. I’m hoping the money will be refunded sometime.

Dejected, we had to make do with a visit to Sranz waterfall. A silver lining in the literal clouds was that due to the rainfall, there were hardly any other tourists there. We were told that usually there was a line of tourists waiting to visit the falls.
However by the evening, things were looking up. The weather was clearing a little. All of a sudden, a number of snow covered mountains burst through the cloud cover. We were told that these mountains routinely get snow in the winter, but that this was the first time in 48 years that snow had been seen on these mountains in the month of June. Our fortunes were turning.

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With the rain abating, we took this opportunity to walk around the meadows for a bit.


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We took advantage of the setting sun and receding clouds to capture a time-lapse of the sunset.


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Old 25th June 2022, 10:38   #6
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The next morning, we also got a great time-lapse of the sunrise as well.


Having missed the gondola ride the day before, we were determined to get at least one phase in before setting off for Sonamarg. We managed to get tickets for the first phase which takes you up to about 8530 feet to Kongdoori, which is a shoulder of Aphwarwat mountain. As I've mentioned before, the Gulmarg Gondola operates in two phases. The first one takes you to 8530 feet, the second one takes you to 14000 feet, close to the peak of Aphwarwat mountain. There, one can experience high altitudes, snow and even go for a small day trek.

We had wanted to trek beyond the second phase to a little-known mountain lake called Al Pathar. However, tickets for the second phase weren’t available. With the gondola having been closed for two days we expected a rush. So, we went early and didn’t have to stand in line for more than a few minutes.

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However, when we went up to Kongdoori, the mountain was covered in clouds and we could barely see anything. After a quick Maggi and tea, we headed down, back to Gulmarg and headed out to Sonamarg. The sun shone brightly for the first time in the four days that we had been in the Jhelum Valley. As we descended from Gulmarg and ascended towards Sonamarg, new peaks began emerging from behind the clouds and from the distance.

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Upon reaching our destination, Hotel Akbar in Sonamarg, we came to know that our return leg might be affected. At that time, the Srinagar- Jammu highway is still blocked due to numerous landslides that had taken place during the incessant and abnormal rainfall earlier this week.

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Nevertheless, we wanted to enjoy whatever we could in Sonamarg and after a quick lunch, we headed up to Zojila. Zojila, which is the gateway from the Kashmir Valley into Ladakh, is only 25 km from Sonamarg. However, due to terrible landslides and heavy vehicular movement, our journey took nearly 2 hours.

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Here is a timelapse of the road. I’ve edited some portions out, mostly those that involve us sitting in traffic.


A word of warning: this video is four and a half minutes long. I'd recommend skipping to the last minute or 30 seconds or so to take a look at the portions affected by landslides.


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Getting to Zojila was a bit of a personal achievement. Having read, heard and watched so much about the high mountain passes of the far North, I had always wanted to go through them. This was the first of the notable passes we had driven to. I'm sure in later years, I'll do the famous ones of Rohtang La, Khardung La or even the lesser known ones such as Umling La or Kaksang La.

On the way down, my mother mentioned that she had a bit of a headache. My six year old concurred. Nothing to worry about, these were just symptoms of high altitude sickness, which begin post 2500 metres or about 8000 feet. Here's some advice from my years of mountaineering -
  • Drink plenty of fliuds, warm if possible
  • Stay outdoors but dont exert yourself
  • Dont cover your ears, cover your head if need be

In this case, we were reducing our altitude and everything was fine into an hour of our return to Sonamarg.

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Old 25th June 2022, 10:48   #7
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The next morning, with the Jammu Srinagar highway still closed, we took the decision to delay our Patnitop visit on the way back. Instead, we decided to move to Srinagar where we checked into the Jamal Resort in Nishat, near the Dal Lake. While we hadn’t planned on going to Srinagar at all in this trip, it would seem that the travel Gods thought otherwise. We spent an excellent evening on the lake and at Nishat Bag.

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The next day, we heard that the Jammu Srinagar highway had been opened up and that stranded vehicles were being evacuated. Even so, we decided to stay on another leisurely day at Srinagar. We spent some time at the Kashmir Government Arts Emporium along with its excellent and well maintained park. At the park, we marvelled at the huge Chinar trees and the Magnolia Grandiflora in full bloom.
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Very close to the Arts Emporium is the Bund Road which has a number of interesting shops for souvenir and gift shopping. An old friend had recommended going to Suffering Moses, which we learnt, has a huge collection of handmade wooden, textile and papier mache products, if somewhat expensive.

Lunch was at Ahdoos, an old favourite of locals and travellers. It would be hard to miss the Trami there.

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Old 27th June 2022, 07:27   #8
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Our return leg was less eventful, as one may imagine. We did not want to rush home. Instead, we made night halts at Patni Top because we wanted to ride the gondola there and Jalandhar, which is exactly halfway between Patnitop and my house in Sonipat.

A word on the road conditions. Between Delhi and the Chenani- Nashri Tunnel on the NH 44, roads are impeccable. Dual carriageways throughout Punjab and well into Jammu. There may be a few stretches of undivided roads. However, we counted innumerable landslides between Chanderkote and Banihal. Expect to add atleast an hour and a half to the estimate that Google Maps will give you. Beyond Qazigund, the roads are butter-smooth all the way to Srinagar.

Roads in the Jhelum Valley are generally well kept, especially those maintained by the Border Roads Organisation. There will be the odd- broken patch here are there.

Before I end this travelogue, I'd like to express two opinions which may be debatable. The first concerns hospitality.

I've travelled to quite a few countries and every state in India with the exception of Kerala, Manipur and Mizoram. In most places, without exception, once you have been identified as a tourist or a traveller, people are generally kind and hospitable. In some cases, people will go out of their way to ensure that your stay and travel are as comfortable as possible. In many instances, in Rajasthan, Punjab, MP, Indonesia, Malaysia and Morocco, for example, hospitality is seen as a celebration of sharing one's culture and natural environs with a guest. That, "This is our land and we welcome you to share it with us".

However, I found Kashmiri hospitality generally lacking. Instead of a celebration, the general sense I got was that of tolerance, bordering on mild annoyance, sometimes rudeness. The only time I saw any smiles was when a hotel staff was expecting to be tipped.

This wasnt the case with everyone we met though. For example, the owner of the Akbar Hotel is a kindly old gentleman with whom I had a lovely conversation. An old gentleman who owns a leather goods shop on Bund Road offered my mother a place to sit and some water in the middle of a hot Srinagar afternoon.

I'm not implying that Kashmiris are inhospitable. I'm simply saying that they're less hospitable than other states. I suppose one might be irritable and annoyed too, having lived under military watch for most of their lives.

Of course, I might be mistaken. It might simply be that we were unlucky to meet the wrong people and stay at the wrong places. I'm happy to be corrected on this.

The second issue is that of affordability and the level of service. I understand that many parts of Kashmir are open for tourism for only some months of the year. And that whatever earnings one gets from those few months must last the entire year. I understand also, that the pandemic has been tough on tourism (as it has on many other industries). However, for the prices we saw and payed on various travel aggregator platforms, we simply didnt get the level of service for that price.

Perhaps Kashmir is overpriced, but worth it?
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Old 27th June 2022, 17:02   #9
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Thread moved out from the Assembly Line. Thanks for sharing!
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Old 28th June 2022, 14:10   #10
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Fantastic travelogue! Any more photos and details on the car itself? Something that you had to take care of, or anywhere you had to use 4x4 during the trip?
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Old 28th June 2022, 15:34   #11
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Very well compiled travelogue. Reminded me of the good times I had in these places since my childhood days.

Being from state of Jammu and Kashmir, I fully support your view about Kashmiri hospitality. It is not a new phenomenon but was there way back in 60 and 70s. It is because the local population was spoiled by Foreign tourists, they never bothered about Indian tourists as there use to be hoards of foreign tourists. The terrorism and covid stopped foreign tourists and now they have to survive on Indian tourists whom they never thought worthy of their service. There is still a lot of improvement in their behaviour as now it is Indian tourists which making their industry run. Not particular to Kashmir, this attitude I have seen in other places in India where there is a large influx of foreign tourists.
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Old 28th June 2022, 17:22   #12
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Originally Posted by arjyamaj View Post
At the entrance to Gulmarg, we were greeted by a large mob of people - mostly travel guides, hotel agents, and people selling all manner of rain and cold weather gear. Thankfully, we had a reservation at a place inside the meadows and had our own car. If you arrive at Gulmarg in a hired vehicle which is not registered in Gulmarg, you will be asked to park it and take a local taxi within Gulmarg. You could also take a pony ride, or an ATV into the meadows, or simply walk. Bottom line is - commercial vehicles registered outside Gulmarg will not be allowed past the entrance of the town.
One can take outside taxis anywhere in Gulmarg, there is no RTO in Gulmarg hence no concept of taxis registered there. The problem is that local goons have made their own rule of not allowing vehicles to go inside near the meadow area unless one has hotel bookings. Even then, they force you to take the (slightly) longer route.
What you have stated exists in Pahalgam, there is an unwritten agreement between the outside taxis & local taxis that outside taxis will not ply ahead of Pahalgam for Aru & Betaab valley & Chandanwari.

Quote:
Originally Posted by arjyamaj View Post
However, I found Kashmiri hospitality generally lacking. Instead of a celebration, the general sense I got was that of tolerance, bordering on mild annoyance, sometimes rudeness. The only time I saw any smiles was when a hotel staff was expecting to be tipped.
.
.
I agree with most of your points. Kashmiris are so much dependent on tourism that some of their ways border on extortion, for example stopping cars & pushing people to rent jackets & gum boots even on a clear day, guides soliciting their services & warning of severe inconvenience if you don't & horse owners tailing you non stop to hire them.
At the other end of the spectrum are some truly warm & hospitable people who are polite & will do out of their way to help them.
Both are contrasting indeed.
Kashmir is beautiful no doubt, worth visiting, but be prepared to have your experience spoilt by some unscrupulous people.

Last edited by aah78 : 29th June 2022 at 02:02. Reason: Quotes trimmed. Spacing.
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Old 28th June 2022, 18:46   #13
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However, I found Kashmiri hospitality generally lacking. Instead of a celebration, the general sense I got was that of tolerance, bordering on mild annoyance, sometimes rudeness. The only time I saw any smiles was when a hotel staff was expecting to be tipped.

This wasnt the case with everyone we met though. For example, the owner of the Akbar Hotel is a kindly old gentleman with whom I had a lovely conversation. An old gentleman who owns a leather goods shop on Bund Road offered my mother a place to sit and some water in the middle of a hot Srinagar afternoon.

I'm not implying that Kashmiris are inhospitable. I'm simply saying that they're less hospitable than other states. I suppose one might be irritable and annoyed too, having lived under military watch for most of their lives.
Your experience suggests that people are trying to get business from tourists by hook or by crook. Sad state of affairs indeed.

Business and people's income in general has suffered greatly after August 2019. Same year there were devastating consequences on all sorts of orchards and related businesses due to extremely heavy snowfall too. Then came COVID. Earlier the businesses were hampered due to clampdowns of all sorts. Zero tourists for almost 2.5 years.

Mostly they make money from foreigners who spend more than Indians. And they were absent till 2021. Not sure about 2022. I hope people's income increase and they are able to do away with forcing tourists into buying stuff and services. Kashmiri locals, as locals in other states, are generally very civilised and welcoming. Your experience is an eye opener! I hope things improve fast there for everyone.
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Old 28th June 2022, 21:31   #14
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One evening, sometime in late April 2022, we were planning for this year’s summer vacation and I turned to my mother, a retired geography teacher and asked, “Mom, where in India can we take a road trip in late June which won’t be affected by the monsoons?” We had originally planned for a trip to Munsiyari and Chaukori, which we could have done in early June but had to shelve those plans due to a work trip till 16th June.
Beautifully written! Thanks for sharing your experience! Did you experience any power loss at high altitudes?
Compass in red looks really awesome!!!

Last edited by aah78 : 29th June 2022 at 02:01. Reason: Spacing fixed. Please don't quote large posts entirely. Thanks!
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Old 28th June 2022, 22:08   #15
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However, I found Kashmiri hospitality generally lacking. Instead of a celebration, the general sense I got was that of tolerance, bordering on mild annoyance, sometimes rudeness.

However, for the prices we saw and payed on various travel aggregator platforms, we simply didnt get the level of service for that price.
I was there last month (May 2022) on a solo motorcycle trip across the length and breadth of Kashmir. If you want Kashmiri hospitality, look beyond Pahalgam, Gulmarg and Sonamarg. I visited Kupwara, Mughal Road, Bangus Valley, Lolab Valley , Gurez, Shopian etc. Absolutely beautiful places untouched by tourists and extremely friendly people. Also speak to people outside the tourism industry anywhere, they are extremely warm.

However, when I came to Gulmarg and Pahalgam, I couldn't find a room for less than 2500 . I am a solo budget traveller and I target maximum 1000 per day . In places like Ladakh, there is a place for every budget and comfort. You can get a place to stay the night for as minimum as 200. In these two places however, I had to shell out 2500 for sub par run down rooms. One did not have an attached toilet and had a shabby common toilet while the other had electrical issues with earthing that made it dangerous to touch the taps. I had decent experiences with JKTDC, it's archaic but basic things work.

Last edited by Ragavsr : 28th June 2022 at 22:09.
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