Before I embark on any trip, I have this habit of googling and youtube-ing the history, geography and demography of that place. And since Kashmir has been in my bucket list ever since the time I remember having a bucket list, my google search history is replete with it. Now I happen to get a very childish kick on discovering that any place I’ll be visiting/have visited has been a popular spot for movie shoots. This gives me the added advantage of gaping at those places through professional lens. So when I found out that a large chunk of the songe Jiya Re (Jab Tak Hai Jaan) where Anushka Sharma dances away to glory in the shortest of hot pants was shot in Pahalgam, I did not even think twice before allocating precious two days of our itinerary to that place. Pahalgam looked beautiful in that song, so much so that many of my male friends were bowled by the pine and deodar trees in the background than Ms Sharma’s daddy-long-legs. 😛
But is was this Pahalgam leg of the journey that gave us the maximum hiccups in an otherwise smooth and peaceful trip.
1. Pahalgam in July is mercilessly inhabited by Amarnath yatris. Yatris here, yatri there, yatris everywhere. Very holy and religious people they are, and that’s all very good, except…why on earth would all non-vegetarian products be banished from the local market just because the yatris might, and understandably so, want to stick to the vegetarian fare? I mean, it’s Kashmir, and Pahalgam literally means Valley of Shepherds. Where are your lambs? Anyway, the situation was so morbid that we had to make do with roti, dal makhani, mix veg, puri sabzi and the like for the next two days.
2. Pahalgam is also the place which has a huge number of settlers from other parts of India coming and settling their business establishments there, and truth be told, they are not even half as professional and hospitable as the local Kashmiris. I got into a row with a chai wala who refused to serve me chai at 5.30 in the evening, and I was, not so humbly, told, “Bol diya na nahi hai, matlab nahi hai.” It was my fourth day in Kashmir, and I’ve been treated so well up until then, that this incident really went down as a blot in the trip.
3. But the worst part was that due to the influx of yatris, Chandanwari (one of the most popular spots in Pahalgam) was closed to tourists. That was the one time I really, really wanted to become a pilgrim. But alas, neither did I have a permit, nor a certified medical clean chit.
But what we did see took us to another world altogether. The Aru Valley was straight out of a book of paintings…the Lidder river meeting the mountains meeting the clouds which floated around like soft balls of cotton. We halted at this place where tents were erected to give the adventurous lot a feel of being closer to the hills. It also served as the trekking base to various spots. A cuppa hot Kashmiri Kahwa right at the heart of nature is an experience I’ll forever remember.
The Betaab Valley was, well, where Sunny Deol romanced Amrita Singh singing Jab hum jawan honge, jaane kahan honge. And we all know what jawaani did to Sunny Deol. Nurturing a dhaai kilo ka haath is no mean feat!
Now Pahalgam has a lovely little market. You get amazing cushion covers, naamdas, carpets, bags, jackets and bed covers at amazing deals. I got a crazy lot of bags, mostly for gift purpose, and a cute little naamda and a jacket as well. Check out my Mum and T going nuts over deciding upon what to buy and what to leave.
Okay, now comes the time when I should tell you about what happened to my cherries (about which you can read here). We came to Pahalgam after a couple of days’ stay in Srinagar. And Srinagar did give a run for its money to Delhi when it came to the blistering heat. The fruit sellers had convinced us through and through that our cherries would stay hale and hearty at any weather condition for as much as 100 (happy?) days. Fools that we were we got truckloads of fruits. The plums and apricots survived but the cherries…oh the cherries…if I could salvage even 500 gm of the 4 odd kilos I bought, I would have treated you to cherry ice cream. But alas. 🙁
To compensate for the untimely demise of the cherries, we now turned our attention to dry fruits. Yes, now we are talking. Walnuts, almonds, dried apricots, dried figs, raisins, black currants, saffron, and my favourite-est item..Kashmiri Kahwa! I’ll tell you a little secret. I had to buy a spare travel bag to make room for all these guests!
Our last day was reserved to be spent and lazed away in a houseboat in Srinagar. T and I however excused ourselves at Residency Road to gorge…one last time…on Kashmiri wazwan that we had missed so bad in the last two days. As luck would have it, Srinagar was again shut down that day…in protest against the gory incidents of Gaza (may peace be restored there soon.) So two women in their late-20s walked down the empty streets of Lal Chowk and Maulana Azad Road, oblivious to the calmness around us, in a way we never thought would have been possible 5-6 years back.
On reaching the houseboat around the early hours of evening, we decided to go on the customary shikara ride across the Dal, which is not just only studded with more than a thousand houseboats, but also with 400 odd shops selling shawls, sarees and the works.
Luckily for us, the houseboat that we were staying in was vacant otherwise for that particular night. So we had free access to not just our palatial suite (which they spelled as “sweet”. How sweet!), but also the lavishly designed drawing and dining space. Designed of intricately-carved walnut wood, this royal houseboat provided an experience ethereal. Stare at the Dal for hours after sunset, catch fleeting glimpses of the colourful shikaras at a distance bathed by the moonlight, dine like a king in the larger than life dining room and when the menu included Lamb Biriyani, Haak and Mutton Curry, the kingliness jumped up by leaps and bounds.
We woke up next morning to the blank realisation that the long-awaited trip to Kashmir was now finally over. I no longer need to google the place which has consumed the largest chunk of my Internet data. But who knows, I still might. Because this heaven on earth is an abode I would want to visit again and again…to soothe my eyes, to heal my soul and to rejuvenate my spirit whenever I’m low.
Note: Before you visit Kashmir, make sure you acquire a postpaid sim. They don’t allow prepaid sims there for security reasons. We didn’t know this and all of us carried prepaid, which resulted in our getting cut off from the rest of the world for those 7 days. But you don’t really want to attend an official call when you’re soaking in the breathtaking beauty of Kashmir, so why bother really!