By Moutushi Ghoshdeysarkar
It would be a cliché to say the view was picturesque, Kashmir is too beautiful to express in words. We were on our way to Pahalgam. As we left the city of Srinagar behind and hit the highway, my window was splashed with colours, the yellow mustard fields, the green lining of the willow trees, the greenish-grey hills, the shimmering white snow cap and then the pristine blue sky; one making a backdrop for the other. It is like a layered painting conceived by the greatest of artists.
It was a little after 6 am, and the roads were almost deserted.
A bandh (shut down) was called on that day demanding justice for Asifa, the hapless little girl. Procuring transportation was difficult but our hotel manager (Walisons Hotel) Sajad bhai went the extra mile to extend his cooperation. He insisted that we move on early, a village en route to Pahalgam in Anantnag district was supposedly in an enraged temperament and could pose a threat. Thus the journey at the appointed hour.
Suhail the kashmiri boy, all of 21, drove at a slow but steady pace, showing us the Kesar fields, the walnut trees, the willow trees, the bat market and the kesar market lining the highway with countless shops, ofcourse all closed at that wee hour, interestingly most of the kesar shops had ‘Zamindar’ on their Signboard pre or post fixed with something or the other.
Soon we were driving past sleepy little villages, the apple orchards and then we met the Liddar. Rajib asked Suhail to stop and urged us to get down. I had no idea that the air outside would be so chilled.
Srinagar was at 5200ft and we were now approaching 8989ft, much closer to those snow caps. Pahalgam boasts of being the gateway to Amarnath pilgrimage. The famous Amarnath yatra starts from ‘Chandanwadi’, 16kms uphill from the main town of Pahalgam.
Srinagar looks like any other town, bustling with activity, big and small buildings, flyovers and congestion. Jhelum and the flood channels are fairly clean and looking at the ornate bridges on them, with a glimpse of the snow-capped mountains at the horizon, one does get reminded of being close to paradise. But Pahalgam is paradise.
The river that is called Liddar, fed by numerous streams trickling or babbling down the snow-capped mountains, gives a distinct character to Pahalgam. It is at the heart of this tiny picture-perfect town.
There is only one way to enter Pahalgam, through a small check post on the road. After the welcome banner, the road goes upstream beside the Liddar. On one side the hill slopes up and the other limits the gully that the river creates. A few hotels are scattered on either side of the road, each kindling a desire to frame it or better be a part of that frame.
The road leads to the centre of the town which is at the river level. The town centre is a stretch of about 2 km on the same road; it has two big parking lots (to hire cars) at each end, curio shops, eateries and hotels, a mosque, an ancient temple and a gurdwara. It also has two ATMs and branches of J&K Bank and HDFC. SBI atm counter had been closed since long. A public utility stands a little way up the slope from the road, opposite to the Gurudwara, Swachcha Bharat!
The road then bifurcates, one leading towards ‘Chandanwadi’ and the other towards Aru Valley and further.
The town has another level accessible by two roads, one a steeply inclined road which goes straight up the slope from the town centre to the main gates of the JKTDC (Jammu Kashmir Tourism Development Corporation) tourist lodges where we were housed for the 3 unforgettable days of my life.
Another, which we took on the day we arrived, a little round-about but less steep, is an offshoot of the main road at the onset of the town centre. This level is on the slope of a hill that goes up, up and up; mostly has JKTDC lodgings, some government offices and residences of the forest and other departments.
There is a village at the fag end of the road on this level. This road is called the circuit road.
In Pahalgam, riding is the thing to do, if one is not angling or rafting or trekking! It had been raining and snowing for the last couple of days and it was only for us to ride that snow white gleamed on the mountain tops, and ride we did.
We checked in to a pre-booked (online) two bedroom cottage, had tea and breakfast sitting at the garden table. Gulam was just a phone call away to take care of all our needs. Villagers from the nearby mountains came with their wares to sell, we mostly declined, taking just one dress material as a gesture of empathy. All winter they weave and wait for the tourist season that begins in April.
Tourism is the only livelihood of the people of Pahalgam, in fact of Kashmir as a whole. The hotels, the shops, the weavers, the artisans who do paper mache or woodcraft to the drivers, horse tenders and the horses and even the masseuse, all depend on us, the tourists.
The masseuse, another Gulam bhai was persistent about rendering his services and finally, we promised to avail them in the evening. He came around 7 pm and massaged Rajib and Roddur. It was good and reasonable at only Rs 300.
We took the horses from the guy, whom the manager of JKTDC recommended, the rates are written on the board for all to see as though fixed, yet negotiations go underway if the hours are lengthier and the numbers are more. We took three ponies for a 4 to 5 hrs trip (12kms) for Rs 4800.
Little did we know about the adventures that awaited us! Roddur had been very eager since he rode a horse in Darjeeling and a camel in Jaisalmer. I was very sceptical since in Darjeeling, I mounted one and got down immediately screaming hypnotically and in Jaisalmer was almost hanging for my dear life at the camel’s butt. Rajib was only worried about being able to sustain the long ride.
As soon as I got up, my head reeled but I hung on, for one if I backed out the fun would get spoiled, two there was no other way to go to Baisaran valley also called ‘mini Switzerland’, except for on ponies or foot and I could not have trekked alone.
After a while I got comfortable, this was a classic case of defeating fear with mental powers, I did it! The metalled road soon ended as we started the climb to the next level up the slope through a winding road that was full of muck and water from the incessant rains that had hit the valley till the day before.
The ponies want to walk through the mud, as the stones laid on the mud road hurt their legs, thus they move over to the edge often. We went on for a while stopping at times to see the Pahalgam valley peeping through the pine trees as if to take a look at the new bride. And beautiful she is.
At a point we stopped to pose with rabbits which the local boys catch from the forest and are happy to get any dime that one cares to give them. Then came a turn where we left the path which came close to be called a ‘road’, though muddy and clearly made only out of regular use.
We started climbing up the slope, no tracks, no marks, just a straight climb up. All my fear had vaporized by then and I was amazed to find that the horseman was able to find a footing on the slope where I could see none and the beast followed.
We went over the logs, through gentle streams, adjusting our bodies, bend back when going down, bend forward when going up and in the midst of all this I give a sidewise glance and find Roddur riding all by himself at a little distance giving instructions to his horse. Under normal circumstances, I would have been petrified but there atop my pony in that vista, I assumed myself to be Ibn Battuta going on a long journey and thought of him as a fellow traveller used to ridding naturally, which he proved to be all through when we hit even harder descends down the slope.
Finally we reached Baisaran valley. Rolling meadows, surrounded by pine forest with a backdrop of the snow capped mountains. It seemed like a gateway to heaven. Baisaran is the camp site for trekkers who go up to Tulian Lake at 12000ft. Baisaran is 5kms from Pahalgam.
We sat for a while, drank kahwa and ate maggi which is readily available. Roddur did some Zorbing and Rajib clicked, clicked and clicked.
The onward journey, again through the off-beat, no track path took us to a village which had 3 houses. The Gurjar lady happily let us photograph her ware and we gave her a few bucks.
There was a nice stretch of land after the village and then came the most horrific descend. We were to ride down a slope which had an inclination of almost 45 deg down to a waterfall. I was trying to focus on the awesome scene.
Suddenly Roddur’s pony was sick of following mine, which was being led by a horseman and went astray. It had been doing that all the while but this descend was not to be fooled around on, so my horseman took its reins too. It would have made quite an intense scene in a movie. One horseman trying to lead two horses down a very steep slope with riders on them, one of which, me, was quite a rounded bundle prone to lose balance any instance.
Rajib had a horseman to himself but that didn’t make it any bit easier.
The waterfall was another prattling stream cutting through the rocks, coming from somewhere uphill. One could wade through it in April and the drier months, but after July it swells up and makes quite a sight rumbling down over the rocks, rendering the crossing over impossible.
There is a small shack for refreshments.
The descend further is not so steep but a difficult terrain for the horses. Its all rocks and slippery too! The ponies tripped a couple of times. I reasoned that since they had four legs, a little trip won’t make it fall and if we could just cling on to it, then we won’t crash land either.
Soon we hit the metalled road that was the other end of the circuit road that we had started our journey from. There is a small village and settlement at this end. Children were waving and running along.
Roddur seemed to be in his element all through; he mostly rode on his own, up the hill, down the hill and was having a roll.
The next day, to Roddur’s dismay and discomfort, we travelled on the four legs of a car that we are more used to. We visited the famous Betaab valley, where Roddur tried Zip Lining to my surprise. He is scared of heights and is a very non sporty person.
We went till the snow line at Chandanwadi and had jhaal muri, in the Aru valley where we found possibly the costliest public utility in India at Rs 10/- per head.
Back in Pahalgam after the sightseeing, we tried trout fish. It was too expensive but delicious. Food all through the Kashmir valley needs a special mention. Just as the valley is a paradise, the food is that of the Gods; from 5 star rated restaurant to road-side dhaba, everybody knows how to cook up the most mouth-watering savoury.
Kashmir is also famous for its Papier-mâché art in addition to their signature motifs on textile and wood carvings. Walnut wood is widely used for decor. Pine is used for the base of the Shikaras. The saying goes that its only after some 10-15 years that the pine realises it is in the water, the decay might start then.
We picked up most of the home decor from Pahalgam.
The day before our departure we explored the 1300 years old Sun temple, the mughal garden at Achbal and Kokernag; that is another delightful story which needs to be told separately.
Closing the Pahalgam chapter, we headed for Srinagar. Liddar kept company for a good time and then we parted, once and for all? May be not, who knows. Loaded with souvenirs and kesar and cranberry and blue berry and kehwa and saffron cream, and many more things and enchanting memories we came back to a sweltering Srinagar.
Srinagar we found is chilling when it rains and sizzling when it doesn’t, that is in April.