It was after assurances from my friend that is was absolutely safe to visit Kashmir, did i make up my mind to plan a trip to Kashmir in end October 2012. It was something like a dream come true. I prepared the tour programme, booked the flights about 6 months in advance and then finalised the hotels after thorough re-search in the net. We would travel straight to Pahelgam from Srinagar airport and spend 3 nights in Pahelgam. From there we would come to Srinagar and spent 4 days there before returning to kolkata.
Everything was in place. On the date of the journey we had to wake up at 3.30 am in the morning to catch our flight to Delhi and connecting flight to Srinagar.I had read in reviews that the view of the snow capped mountains from the aircraft just before landing at Srinagar was awesome. I was prepared with my still camera and camcorder and oh my god what a view it was. It was sheer delight. We could see the peaks of the Pir Panjal range (part of the Himalayas) with all its full family, the white clouds floating around like big fields of cotton.
Then suddenly the jolt -my camcorder wasn’t working. I took a lot of pictures on my digi cam but my handycam would not work at all. I tried my best but no way. I was very upset to face such a situation at the very beginning of our tour.Anyway we landed at the Srinagar air port at around 12 noon- a small table like plateau, well in time. We could feel the chill right away. We collected our bags, pulled our jackets and headed for the Scorpio (hire charges Rs. 2000/-) waiting outside.
It was the day of Eid, a local holiday. It was sunny and bright and we started for Pahelgam 97 kms away. Roads were good and since it was a holiday there was hardly any sign of people on the streets and all shops were closed. We sped past Pampore, Avantipura, Sangrama, Khanabal, Anantnag. Pampore is famous for its Saffron plantations (the only place in the world other than Spain) and we passed big stretches of land where we could see purple saffron flowers all over.
Sangrama is famous for its cricket bats but since it was a holiday, all shops were closed.
We planned to stop at these places on our return journey to Srinagar 3 days later. We reached Pahelgam at 2.30 pm and checked into Mantoo Cottages. The first sight of the resort and its surroundings created a nice feeling in us. The resort is located at Laripora village about 2 kms from the main market area. I chose this place to stay in the midst of nature.
The beautiful lawn, flower plants, the hills with snow capped peaks surrounding all four sides and the Lidder river flowing gently created a mystic picture. We went to our room and after some rest and hot coffee, came out to wander around the village to get the taste of the rustic atmosphere which we miss in the city.
There were goats and chickens running around the street, people doing their household work, horses strolling lazily. It was much colder there than in Srinagar. After sunset we returned to our room. Our exploration begins next day. The good news -after trying hard i was able to bring my camcorder to work again, i was happy.
Next morning, had early break fast and went out to look for ponies as we shall explore Pahelgam on horseback. After some bargaining with the local pony owners we decided to visit Baisaran, Dabian, Kashmir valley & Pahelgam valley.We hired 3 ponies, one each for us and started off at a gentle pace. The pony attendants walked beside us guiding the animals. These places are some of the most beautiful locales in Pahelgam but can be explored only on horseback. So aged people and those who are not capable to ride ponies will be deprived from such scenic places. we moved on through the hilly trails and reached Pahelgam valley, a point from where the city can be viewed. Then we moved across streams, hilly terrain, boulders and reached a vast grassland called Baisaran or mini Switzerland.
The lush green grasslands, lined with pine trees and mountains beyond, were a treat for the eyes.After running around for some time we mounted on our ponies again and started moving down the slope of the mountains through the pine forest. By this time we had learnt to control the ponies with the reins. My son particularly was very excited. It was really an amazing experience. Next we arrived at Dabian.
This too is a grassland with step cultivation, pine trees and mountains beyond. We had some hot noodles from a local shanty and then moved on to Kashmir valley where we could see a water fall far away dry at this point of time. It was now time to return. The pony attendants took us through zig-zag trails, woods and villages and finally arrived at the main market place. We got off our ponies, our backs aching with the bumpy ride we had all day.
It was about 4 pm and we were very hungry. We headed straight to Nathu’s Rasoi, a very popular vegetarian restaurant.
We had our lunch and also packed food for dinner which we shall ask the waiter at the resort to serve us hot at night.We walked around the market place, there were shops selling all kinds of items from clothes, fruits & vegetables to medicines.We bought apples, ripe small ones but very sweet and juicy.
Since our resort was at the end of the bus route 2 km away we decided to return by local bus instead of hiring a taxi. The local buses are one of a kind here. The footstep is so high that you need to push a person into the bus from behind and when you are inside the ceiling is so low that you cannot stand without bending your back.
We got into the bus bought tickets at throw away prices. The locals including men, women in salwar, elderly men, girls stared at us while i took photos. The bus stand was at a small ground near the Lidder river at the edge of the village. We got down and spent some time at the river bank. There is not much water in it at this time of the year. We walked back to the resort and into the comfort of our room.
Power supply in the village is hardly steady and most hotels and resorts have their own backup generators. Next day we shall explore Pahelgam by car.
After breakfast we called the Tourist Taxi Association and hired a Maruti Omni, a small van like car for us. Today we would be visiting Betab Valley, Aru Valley, Chandanwari and Mamleswar Temple. In Pahelgam you shall have to hire a car only from the Association for going places, even if you have you own vehicle it cannot be used. This rule is to provide earnings to the local people. The Association has its Rate chart fixed depending on the number of places to be visited and the type of vehicle required. The car arrived at our resort within 10 minutes and we were climbing up hill through the winding roads in no time. The climb was quite steep, we went past villages and after about 25 minutes we arrived at Betab Valley.
We bought entry tickets and entered the area. This is basically a huge park for shooting movies. The movie of ester years ‘Betab’ was shot in this park and hence the name. There is a beautiful stream flowing in the middle and a log hut beside it, complete with small bridge over the stream. The park has paved walkways around the entire edge and there are places of thick bushes and trees giving a look of the woods. Small hutments are there here and near. The area is huge and is surrounded by tall mountains with the snow peaks visible. On the slopes we could see herds of sheep grazing around – thus the name ‘Pahelgam’ meaning Village of Shepherds. The entire scenery was very beautiful.
After spending around half an hour,we walked back to our car for our next destination – Chandanwari. The climb was now steeper and the we felt colder. From the top we could see the Betab Valley below. After travelling for almost 45 minutes we reached Chandanwari. This place is the starting point of the famous pligrimage to Amarnath temple. During the month of June hundreds of devotees make their journey to Amarnath Temple through this place.
At that time the quite villages buzz with pilgrims. Many tourists had already reached this place. A few shops selling their wares and owners shouting to attract customers. We took hot coffee from a shop, it was quite refreshing in the cold. The journey to Amarnath is about 35 kms from here. The first few kms are rocks cut on the mountains in the form of steps and then later on thin trail going through the mountains. Most tourists climbed a few stairs paid their respect to God and came down. We walked a few steps and felt how tiring and difficult it was for the pilgrims to follow this journey. On the right side river Shesh Nag was flowing with sound of water breaking through the stones and boulders filled the atmosphere. There were hills all around, blocks of snow could be seen glistening in the sun. We spent some time beside the river taking photos and left for our next place – Aru valley. Now we had to come down hill and back to Laripora village passed our resort and moved on to the other direction. Road condition was bad as we moved on through villages. After some time we again started going up hill, by this time the Lidder river was on our left side. We noticed that almost the entire river bank was beautified in the form of parks or picnic spots. We traveled for about an hour and arrived at a vast grassland called Aru valley. There were ponies available for rides through the slopes and pine trees, few shops and a couple of hotels.There is nothing in particular to see except the scenery. The Jammu Kashmir Tourism- Eco Cottage stood amongst the back drop of hills and pine forest as the only building in the locality.
The Cottage was closed at that time. Many travelers had suggested a night stay at Aru but i never found it justified. The Lidder river flowing well below was a treat to watch from the cliff at one side. Tourists were busy taking snaps in traditional attire of the Kashmiri men and women being given on hire by the locals. My wife too tried some colourful outfits complete with jewelry and posed for photos. The place was absolutely calm and quiet and also lonely. It was noon already and we were hungry. We started our journey back to the market place to visit Mamleswar Temple. This temple was built in the twelfth century and has archaeological importance. It is a small temple with railings all around. There is a small reservoir in the centre, with flower plants and other trees. The deity inside is of Lord Shiva.
Having finished our tour we headed for lunch at Nathu’s again. Though there is another good vegetarian restaurant – Danapani, most of the tourists prefer Nathu’s because of its sprawling interior. We availed the local bus again and returned to our resort. We spent the evening siting in the lawn enjoying the sunset and sipping hot coffee. It was our last night at Pahelgam. We shall move on to Srinagar the next day. Car has been booked for the same. I shall write about Srinagar in a separate Post.