Tourist traps are pretty common in Srinagar in Kashmir, and you have to be pretty careful not to fall in one. Kashmir will definitely top the survey of most tourist traps and scams in India if ever one is taken. I have encountered tourist traps in other tourist attractions in India and abroad, but Kashmir is a league apart. I am sharing my personal account on tourist scams in Srinagar and nearby destinations in this long but interesting post. However, if you are short on time, skip to this 2-minute informative guide in the last section of the article.
I travelled to Srinagar in May 2016 and unluckily or luckily encountered tourist traps from the word ‘Go.'
I had booked a famous houseboat through one of the biggest online hotel booking platforms in India. When I reached Dal Lake at Boulevard Road in Srinagar, I straight away went to Ghat No. 16 as shown on Google Map to take free shikhara pick-up to the boat. I called up the number provided in my confirmation email, but the person over the phone told me to go to Ghat No. 14. I was pretty surprised and went there anyway. I was picked up by Shikara guy, and then I started enjoying Dal lake view. However, Shikara guy took me way inside the swamps of Dal lake and soon dropped me to a houseboat, which had a different name. The shikhara guy soon took out our luggage and asked us to de-board. Being a frequent traveller, I could sense that there is something wrong. So, I asked for the person first, whom I spoke on the phone earlier. I was informed by houseboat staff that, the guy is out somewhere (I later found out that this guy was a travel agent and not the owner of the houseboat). I called him up and told him about my query, to which he replied that this houseboat is also part of the group of houseboats, which I had booked. As all tourists cannot be accommodated in a single houseboat, there is a group of houseboat policy, and it is pretty common in Srinagar. I was wondering how come this houseboat is rated five stars in online review websites (read about bliss effect, which skews online reviews). As I had checked the location of the houseboat that I booked and it had a pretty good view of entire boulevard road and Dal lake. So, I told him that I am not going to de-board the Shikara. The shikhara guy said that he had some other customers to cater for and told me to de-board the shikhara and sort out the matter with the houseboat. I realized that I have been caught in a tourist trap and started working my brain to evade it. I knew this for sure, that If I step out of Shikara, I will be stuck in this houseboat as there is no way of the road out there, just the lake.
I told the Shikara guy that I will pay him Rs. 500 if he cooperates with me and let me remain in the Shikara. I then called up the customer care of online travel website and six calls and 40 minutes of discussion between me, customer care and local travel agent, I was able to convince them that I have been trapped in a houseboat scam and the agent reluctantly agreed to me to shift to the correct houseboat. There was a difference of at least ten times between the two houseboats regarding location, decor, and ambience of the houseboat.
I complained to the houseboat owner about my bad and inconvenient start of the holiday. He told me he is not at fault as the booking is made by the travel agent and he manages their account with online travel website. I thought about the tourists who never find out that they were accommodated in the lower standard houseboat. People, who book a ‘good houseboat’ and accommodated on a bad houseboat are writing bad reviews for the ‘good houseboat.' Also, most of the tourists don’t feel the difference as they are just too happy to be in the houseboat. They even write good reviews about touts who cheated them. The fact that these scams are pretty common and show that online reviews (skewed) and the travel guides are unable to help the tourists in avoiding the traps.
Overnight, I purchased the domain name “tripscam.com” from the houseboat itself and resolved to work in the direction of bringing transparency in the travel industry. But, my plight was not over yet, rather it has just started.
I had booked a car hire on the recommendation of a good friend. He had given me good reviews about this driver, but later I found out that his recommendation was also skewed due to bliss effect.
Coming back to the story, the driver picked me up from Boulevard road, and our destination was Sonamarg. I told the driver about my bad experience at the houseboat. He told me such things were pretty common and I should not book tickets online. He told me that all Kashmiri people are not bad and even cursed the travel agent, who was spoiling the name of Kashmiri people. I felt happy to be with a safe and honest driver.
We reached the taxi stand of Sonamarg, and some pony riders came near the car to provide a drop to Thajiwas Glacier. I enquired the price, and they told me its Rs. 6000 per person. I did not even carry that much cash, and I told them to go off. They told the driver to take us to nearby ATM, but I said that we do not wish to receive the ride. I secretly told the driver that we would go and get fresh in the restroom and see things later. After getting fresh, I checked the Google map for location of the Thajiwas Glacier, and it was not far. I had experienced trekking before in Bernese Overland in Switzerland and so decided to trek to the place. When we started, the same pony riders started walking behind us and asking us to take a pony ride. I continued walking towards the green meadows, and taxi stand was soon some 500 meters away from us. However, the pony riders kept following me and soon encountered me that I can’t walk to the glacier. Why? He told me that it is not allowed and it is compulsory to take a pony ride. He came in front and blocked my way. He told me that, he has been waiting for last two days for his number in the queue, and when our car stopped at the taxi stand, he was allotted to us. I was like ‘what?’, I never agreed for the pony ride in the first place. I looked nearby, and there was no tourist or person around to help. So, I told him that I am not going to the glacier. I will just sit in the nearby meadows and come back. I continued walking and took a diversion towards a garden, where a couple was sitting on a bench. As soon I was some 200 m away from the bench, I told the pony rider strictly to stop following me and go back. He told my partner that he is going to hit us if we don’t go back towards taxi stand. This might sound like a film, but it actually happened to me. I screamed for help and ran towards the couple on the bench. They looked educated and looked like a local Srinagar couple. We told them about our encounter and asked them for help.
They told us that we are free to walk to whichever place we want and nobody can stop us. They pointed us to nearby police post (near to taxi stand). Seeing that the couple is showing us the direction of police post, pony riders went back. A few minutes later, two guys, who were tourists passed by us. They seemed to be trekking toward the glacier, and I happily joined them. They were from Delhi and were brothers. With the four of us now, I was feeling safer. Rest of the trek was fantastic and similar to the experience; I had in Macchilechen to trek. After 3-4 hours, we returned to the taxi stand. It started drizzling while we were returning. The trek was one of the most memorable travel experience of my life.
While trekking, we shared our encounters with the brothers. They told me that they were offered pony ride at Pahalgam at Rs. 600 per person and we were given expensive rates because of the driver commission. Sonamarg was the last point of their Srinagar tour, so they shared their tips on Pahalgam as well as Gulmarg. They told us the standard rates of pony rides at various places and advised us to go for a pony ride at Aru Valley. I realized the framework for tripscam.com, the problem of scams can only be solved when people like these two brothers voluntarily share their tips for helping others.
After returning to the taxi stand, I told the entire story to our cab driver. He sympathized with me and cursed the pony riders. He told me that I should have visited the police post and complained. He was unaware that I was an enlightened soul now. Nevertheless, I did not fight with him as I wanted to travel safely in the car. I didn’t wish to spoil my tour and waste time. We stayed overnight at Sonamarg and next morning, started off for Pahalgam. I made a mistake in continuing the journey with this driver and could've had actually dropped him en-route at Srinagar. Nevertheless, more bad experiences awaited me ahead, which actually helped me to establish this startup.
I reached Pahalgam around 2 PM, and our encounter with pony riders repeated at Pahalgam parking. We were offered the tour to Baisaran valley or little Switzerland at Rs. 5000 per person. I told my driver that we would visit Betaab valley. He told us that the local taxi union does not allow Srinagar car to operate in Pahalgam. He called another guy, who offered local sightseeing at Rs. 6000. Thanks to the brothers, I knew the rates, and I told the driver that I will go for lunch now. I walked off to a nearby restaurant. The pony riders and the local taxi guy followed me. This time, I didn’t speak to these people at all, but they kept saying that they have been allotted to us and their number has come in the queue after 03 days. To my dismay, pony riders accompanied me till the restaurant and kept waiting near the gate of the restaurant. I explained my situation to the restaurant staff, but they said they couldn't help openly as the riders will trouble them later. However, they told me that there is a local taxi stand where we can get a taxi at Govt. rates for sightseeing at Pahalgam. But, I was wondering how to tail off these riders as they were consistently watching us through the window of the restaurant. I planned a trick to get out of the trap. I ordered for food and kept waiting at the table, while my partner escaped from the back door via the kitchen and went to the taxi stand. He took the taxi from the counter at Rs. 1500, where he met Shabir (Later, our first trusted company’s first trusted guide at Pahalgam). On listening to our situation, he offered to help and told my partner that he would tell the pony riders to go away. So, both of them (driver and my partner) came by road and picked me up from the restaurant. We just drove off to Chandanwari. The rest of the tour was pretty awesome at Pahalgam. After staying overnight at Pahalgam, I departed for Gulmarg around noon.
I was staying at our hotel in a village in Aroo Valley in Pahalgam. While having breakfast in the lawn, I met a hawker who was selling Pashmina Stole. He showed me various items of Pashmina and told me that he gets the original cloth from weavers and artisans in the villages. I was staying in a village resort myself and not in a touristic place. Therefore I believed him. He showed me a white pashmina and quoted a price of Rs. 25000. It was very light, seemed hand woven and I liked it very much. I tried to show my ‘Dilli-wali’ (Delhi like) bargaining skills, and he reduced the price to Rs. 15,000. I told him that I am not carrying the cash and he agreed to drive till Pahalgam with us to get cash. I tried further bargaining, and he reduced the price to Rs. 14000 as the last price. I was almost ready to buy the Pashmeena. Around that time, I noticed the cook of the restaurant indicating me number “One” by showing a single finger. Last night, I had given personal compliments to the cook for dinner. Therefore, he acted pretty friendly, and I thought, he is saying the price is Rs. 10,000. I felt things to be fishy and told the hawker that I am not keen on buying it. I went back to my room and spoke to the cook near the restaurant. I was taken aback when he told me a price for the pashmeena was only Rs. 1000. While checking out in the noon, hawkers were still waiting for me. While our luggage was put, I asked him to sell Pashmina at Rs. 1000, and he said: “it's not possible.” While our car engine roared and we were about to push off, I gave him a final look from the car window. He came to me and handed over the stole and said Rs. 1200, which I paid. I was thankful to the cook who saved me Rs 12,800, and I realized my Delhi-based bargaining skills are useless in Kashmir.
By this time, we were pretty sure of the commission earning skills of the driver, and he was equally aware that we are unlikely to get trapped in any scam. We had told him to stop at Pompano for buying Kesar, but he said the shops are not good for us. I informed the driver that we are not going to continue with him for any other day. He can just drop us to Gulmarg and take his money for three days. Then, I checked online and found a good shop name for Kesar from the blog. The driver was unwilling to take us to that shop, but we still did and bought Kesar. We saw the shopkeeper paying some commission to the driver. I realized that even genuine shopkeepers need to pay commission and probably it’s a norm. Maybe, the fake Kesar showrooms are paying a higher commission.
The driver stopped for tea and snacks near the entry point to Gulmarg road. I decided to take out some money from ATM to pay the driver. While I was standing outside the car, a guide approached me and informed me about sightseeing at Gulmarg. He told me local taxi couldn't operate and he will be a complete guide for entire sightseeing at Gulmarg including Gondola. I informed him that I was not interested in any tour as we are just going to stay in the hotel and go for Gondola on our own. Unsurprisingly, he told the same story that he has been allotted to us, and he has been waiting for his turn for two days. I was not even at any tourist attraction but on the road. I realized that even if you stand at any stranded point in Kashmir, there is a high probability that some guy will come to you and say he has been waiting for you from 3 days to be your guide.
This article has been so long, but there’s no end to Srinagar traps. Gondola ride scam was the mother of all scams in Kashmir, and there was no way to skip it.
After dropping the car, I stayed overnight at our hotel and next day went for Gondola ride. This time I didn’t reply to any pony rider and kept walking towards the Gondola station. The idea was to turn deaf ears to these people completely. At the Gondola station, another scam awaited us called “Skip the Queue” scam and “Black Ticket Scam.” Even if you buy tickets from the internet or airport, there is a high chance that some agent will tell you that they are invalid tickets. If you don't have your own ticket, they will offer you tickets in black (high rates). I was offered “Skip the queue” services by a Guide, who told me that he would get boarding pass within 15 minutes for a certain charge. I went straight to the queue for the boarding pass, which was not pretty long and I was at 20th number. The counter was about to be opened. There was a single queue for agents as well as tourists, and it was moving pretty slow. It took 2 hours to take boarding pass.
Why? Agents were carrying some 6-8 tickets each. Also, other agents came from outside and handed over the tickets to their partners already in line. Some touts came and joined the line with their partners. It was a ruckus, and I got ticket effectively at number 100 in the queue. Tourists were shouting at the counter against the agents. Some were even making videos and threatening to expose the scam. There was a single policeman, who was unable to manage the long queue. After getting the boarding pass, there was another queue to board the Gondola. In that line, there were many tourists who didn't have boarding pass at all. They were waiting for their agents who were in the queue. We just skipped them in the queue and went ahead. It took some 15 minutes in this queue.
Rest of the Kashmir trip was fine, except for overpriced stores at the Srinagar Airport. We met a lot of Kashmiri people who were pleasant, and they offered us good advice. Even, we bought 5 K.g. Walnuts of the best quality from a villager at Rs. 250 per K.g., referred by a co-passenger in the bus.
Please don’t be afraid of travelling to Srinagar because of the scams, just be cautious about them.
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