The autumn in the valley is nearing its end. The surrounding mountains have started wearing snow caps. With the lazy afternoon sun falling on them, the snow-capped mountains radiate a golden hue making the green valley look like a field of ripe corn. Far from the madding crowd, we are hypnotized by the silence of Srinagar. For people panicking about Kashmir, I bet, you haven’t witnessed a quieter destination like this.
Before my maiden trip to Kashmir, I was as anxious as a common traveller having seen headlines on media. Stepping out of the airport gate, I realized, it’s impossible to connect to anybody because my mobile connection is prepaid. Only post-paid connection works here. I approached a CRPF personnel to inquire about a public telephone.
A native of Sonmarg, the gentleman with an automatic rifle, politely lent me his phone to speak to the hotel. I was amazed and relieved. After the call, I asked the CRPF person, if he lends his phone to anybody in trouble. He replied with a smile, “That’s my job, Sir! Tourists coming to my place should never be inconvenienced.” This single retort could have summed up the trip.
On our second day into the trip, we met the GM of RK Sarovar Portico, Saiful Alam, who over a grand lunch of authentic Kashmiri spread of Rogan Josh and Biryani, suggested we must visit Pahalgam otherwise it’s impossible to get a glimpse of the real paradise. The hotel where we were staying, a Sarovar property, has an expert at the concierge for all your travel needs. And that’s where Aman, the travel expert suggested that we leave after breakfast next day for Pahalgam.
People call Pahalgam, Switzerland of Kashmir. The road leading to the subdivision from Srinagar, doesn’t look much European though. On the way, you travel for almost 90 minutes through Anantnag district, the most notorious district in terms of terror attack. However, if you are travelling in and around Independence Day time, you will notice an army man with a gun Daytime you focus your camera to capture the pristine landscape.
Half an hour before reaching Pahalgam, the landscape changes. From a canal accompanying you on the road, it’s now a full-fledged river gushing through the rocks. The green mountains are wearing red with ripe leaves of Chinar trees that look like maple.
The car comes to a halt on the banks of Lidder River that accompanied us for quite some time. This one is a small river originating from Kolhoi Glacier and joins the Jhelum River later. Before walking any further, we decided to sit beside the river for a while. Our Bisleri fed stomach started craving for the pristine water. Getting inspired from the horses just on the opposite bank, we started drinking the river water.
That’s how nature hypnotizes you. No matter how much you worry about an upset tummy the next day, you indulge in it. And when you engage with nature with a pure heart, it definitely takes care of you. The river water gushing through the rocky stream is making gurgling noise and you can spot a shoal of trout fish right under your knee dipped legs.
There is government approved rates listed at the taxi stand near the river for pony ride. While you are free to see Pahalgam by foot, travelling to prettier places like Betaab Valley, Sheshnag or Baisaran will require a pony. The rates are fixed and you feel sorry when the pony owner starts telling you about his poverty. This is the bitter truth about the valley. A place where tourism is the prime source of livelihood is into ruins, thanks to the terrorists and the decision makers on both sides of the barbed wire. But do remember, the pro tip to travel Kashmir happily is to never discuss anything political with the locals, no matter how much you are provoked.
And we start the horse ride along the steep mountains to Baisaran, the shortest package there and the backdrop to tons of Bollywood films before the producers could spend money to travel to Europe.
The road is steep for a while before becoming a joyride. There is no reason to miss out on this (if you don’t have a slip disc). The initial part of the journey will take you through the markets of Pahalgam. Never before have you ridden a pony through busy streets with cars stopping to admire your Don Quixote avatar.
It would take 40 minutes to reach Baisaran on horseback. And just like they said in older times, enjoy the journey and not just the destination. After the bumpy ride, you would be astonished to find a grassy meadow with mountains all around. But this isn’t an ordinary meadow. With rolling landscape and pristine green hue all over, this meadow extends till the horizon before merging into the snow-capped mountain.
The beauty of Baisaran is something you need to feel and cannot be expressed in words. Sitting there for an hour works like magic for stressed urban soul. It would seem like the world has come to a standstill and you would now understand why Kashmir is synonymous with the Garden of Eden. I have never seen 25 odd varieties of colourful butterflies at one instance before.
However, the peace got punctuated frequently when poor children from the Bedouin tribe keep approaching us for a pose with their pet rabbit and asking for money. On the way back, we could see the Kashmir Valley – a breathtaking panorama.
On the way back to Srinagar, we stopped to see kesar (saffron) farming, which grows abundantly. It’s a labour intensive farming, with just the stigma of kesar flower being harvested by hand. You know why it’s expensive. Besides, kesar can be collected only in the month of September, when it’s ripe.
That’s the truth about Kashmir. Lawmakers’ indifference to this place, corruption and terror activities have made the beautiful people beg for a living. For a landscape that would be a favourite of the Gods, Kashmir should have been preserved. Rest assured, this a onetime chance for you to be nearer to paradise. And if you love food, Kashmiri cuisine is also bliss, though a bit rich and heavy.