Five years ago, when I first visited Srinagar for a friend’s wedding, I did not expect to return to Kashmir every year thereafter. The universe has conspired for me and since then I’ve been to Srinagar in the spring, Gulmarg in the winter and, for the first time, Pahalgam this summer.
Kashmir lives up to its picture-postcard image and the glimpses we all see in movies and photographs. In the past, I have spent many idyllic days in the valley just gazing at the Dal Lake, mist hanging over it delicately, or the Apharwat range in Gulmarg, snow slowly turning its green panorama to white. But in Pahalgam, natural beauty changes gear.
Imagine a hamlet nestling in the mountains, no more than a strip of land, with majestic peaks protecting it from all sides. It surprised me to see that the mountains of the Pir Panjal range were looming above me, not in the distance. Everywhere were imposing, impossibly green peaks, within reach; Pahalgam itself like a little spaceship that once landed in the middle of nowhere and has been forgotten by everyone, by time itself. From anywhere, you can spy snow-capped peaks, even in the height of summer.
The hero of Pahalgam, however, is not the mountains. The Lidder, Pahalgam’s river, takes many forms and offers many gifts. Sometimes it’s jade green, calm and silent, running along the road discreetly; sometimes white and frothy, crashing against stones wildly. At certain places it turns a strip of grey-blue, reflecting the clear blue sky, at others as wide and noisy as the sea. It is everywhere, and it gives Pahalgam’s sleepy citizenry livelihood as well as an accessible, ever-present, holiday spot. The calmer stretches of the Lidder are good for angling, with abundant brown trout and the mahaseer (the permit is easily obtainable from the Department of Fisheries in Srinagar) and the wilder bits are good for white-water rafting – so whether you want balm for the soul or rush for the body, the river provides both.
The Lidder river, and not the dramatic mountainous scenary, is the actual hero of Pahalgam (DINODIA).
I came to the Lidder for the first time behind my room. The newly opened Pahalgam Club has a few teething issues but it more than makes up with its location – barely 10 steps from my room was a deck on the river, where I sat for many hours, sipping kahwa, with a book in hand, watching the waters gush by below me, mountains above, and snow-capped peaks in the distance. The staff of the Pahalgam Club make for a good example of the people you meet here. Everyone was always smiling and working round-the-clock without complaint.
When I recovered from the awe of what was around me, I dragged myself away from the Lidder and walked out to the market. The main town of Pahalgam is all of one road. On this is everything: shops, hotels, restaurants, ATMs (closed on Sundays to deter men from gambling their money away!), grocery stores, bakeries and places of worship. As I walked along the couple of kilometres that KP Road stretched for, I marvelled at life in this town. It was early evening, the sun on its way down, but there wasn’t the usual buzz that cities have at this hour. A man, in a crisp white kurta-pajama and grey waistcoat, just sat on the pavement, ignoring, or oblivious, of the mountains behind him, watching people go by. Occasionally people would come up to him for a chat. Horses and herders trotted by him, nodding as they went past, but the man stayed there quietly, and was there till I returned over an hour later.
Don’t forget to shop for trinkets at the local stores and indulge friendly shopkeepers in idle conversation (DINODIA).
The unhurried life of small towns has impressed me before. The more we know, the more we want; the more we have, the more we fear to lose. People in Pahalgam, much like other small towns, seem happier, more peaceful, despite being in a conflict area like Kashmir. They discuss the political problems, they rue the fate of their state over cups of kahwa or nun-chai, but their expectations from the everyday, from life, are contained. This goes for the silent mystery man, who appeared to be in his 40s, as well as Adil, 20, who manned the jewellery shop which I entered to buy a souvenir for my mother. “Yeh kaisa hai?” I asked, pointing at an earring. “Waisa hi hai,” he replied.
I looked up at this strange answer to see him grinning, pleased at his joke. I left a few minutes later, him knowing all about my mother’s tastes in jewellery and me about his young life. Adil was one of the many fleeting friendships I struck during my three-day stay, which seems to be filled with friendly, chatty people.
You will find herds of sheep grazing at every corner in this picturesque little town (DINODIA).
Bashir, my driver and guide for the next day, was another of my tiny friendships. If you visit very touristy places, you are used to guides having ‘tie-ups’ with certain shops, where they gently nudge you to shell out your cash. Pahalgam was free of such hustling – no one at the Club, nor Bashir, pushed me to any one particular place when I wanted to stop for lunch or buy something local. He, in fact, surprised me by often asking me to not buy something, or not stopping where I wanted to, saying it was too expensive! (I must look very poor.)
Over four hours I visited the most popular places around Pahalgam: Aru Valley, Betab Valley and Chandanwari, where you can walk on a glacier (Bashir advised that I do not hire the wet boots touted here and he was right, they weren’t required). All three places are scenic touristy spots, where even locals can be seen on weekends, with their picnic baskets. I, however, found that the best parts of Pahalgam lie in between these spots, away from the crowds.
On the way to Aru, climbing high in the mountains, I saw some of the most stunning scenery, the Lidder down below, merely a silver streak from this height. There was no one here, unlike when you actually reach the valley, and right here on the road, in the middle of nowhere, you can enjoy vistas that seem like they have been painted freshly by Cezanne or Monet.
I told Bashir I wanted to meet the Lidder, touch it, without going to any crowded place. As we drove back, he stopped the car on a turn and asked me to get out. Right by the road, some five steps down, was the river. Gingerly, I stepped down to say hello to the Lidder – ice cold and clear, glinting in the sun. As I sat there with my feet in the water, I looked up at the Pir Panjal, the sun golden over its snowy peaks, and thanked the universe for conspiring to send me to Pahalgam.
From HT Brunch, June 12, 2016
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