I have been very vocal about my love for Instagram. It’s probably one of the nicest ways to discover new places and make them a part of your bucket list.
Chai Jaai, in Srinagar was on top of that list of mine, but then, I had no real plans of visiting the city. Not in the near future anyway.
The universe, I suppose, thought differently.
Things panned out in such a way, a spontaneous trip to Kashmir was finalised for the Republic Day weekend and the first thing I thought of was Chai Jaai… that’s right, not the Dal Lake, not the Kashmir snow, but Chai Jaai!
Fast forward to my first evening in Srinagar. I was witness to a beautiful sunset near the Jhelum with Chai Jaai standing tall behind me.
Inside the Mahatta Photo Studio, Chai Jaai looked something straight out of a photo book of the old English countryside – in fact it reminded me of Central London’s Liberty London store just off Regent Street.
You enter the cafe and come face to face with a flight of stairs where the walls are lined with portraits of Kashmiri people. It’s a place that’s not just inviting; instead you find yourself lured in to discovering a whole new world at the top of the staircase.
You’ve been transported into what can only be described as a fine blend of Kashmir and England, frankly, I could just make this my second home.
Chai Jaai, a name that literally translates as ”a place to have tea” was just that and then some more.
As I sipped on my English Breakfast tea with snowflakes hanging from the ceiling, I admired the interiors and had a lovely conversation with the staff that was most eager to talk about themselves and to know of this tourist’s Kashmir travels ahead.
They shared what they thought I could hope to experience in Gulmarg as that’s where I was headed to next.
As our conversations died down, the music took over. Enjoying some contemporary folk music that played in the background, I savoured my final cup of tea.
With the temperatures heading southward of zero degrees celsius, the evening was coming to a close. I realised it was getting late.
My first day ended with a secret desire to come back, a sense that this place was calling out to me.
The next few days were all about discovering Srinagar, Gulmarg and Sonmarg – time flew, this spontaneous trip was soon coming to an end.
A night before I was to leave back for Mumbai, a curfew had been declared in Srinagar. I messaged Chai Jaai on Instagram asking if they would still be open the next morning despite the situation. I promptly received a response, “this side is usually okay”.
However, I was still given the number of a person in Chai Jaai whom I could call in the morning to confirm. Such an effort said a lot to me about the lady behind this beautiful place, Roohi Nazki.
Incidentally, Roohi moved to Mumbai in the 90s after political issues began to escalate in the Valley only to return back in 2015 and for her to open up this tea room. A space that has become a safe cultural hub, a place where the locals and the tourists can just hang out and enjoy sunsets, tea and a range of things to eat.
So I had about 30 minutes before reaching the airport.
As I made my way back to Chai Jaai, the winter sunlight shone through the tall white windows on to the warm varnished tables as we were served my standard English Breakfast tea, Harissa, Sheermal and the stunning Kashmiri Kahwa that could be sweetened with Gulkand – an unexpectedly magical combination.
What ended up being more stunning was when a heart-shaped cake was brought to the table – complementary from Roohi. I was stunned, overwhelmed and just in love with how loving this place was. The cake melted in my mouth, just as love would, and, I just didn’t want to leave.
Who would want to, right?
This was the perfect way to close out the most magical trip to Kashmir.
After catching up with the humble and inquisitive staff of how my trip had been, I left reluctantly but quietly voicing a secret desire to return soon.
What I left with was more than what I could ask for – a stomach and a heart full of love from Kashmir.