Pahalgam was an optional choice in our original itinerary. However as we could not go to Sonamarg due to excessive snowfall, we decided to head for Pahalgam. Our plan was to spend some time there and then head for Patni top for the night stay.
Travelling from Srinagar, we had passed the town of Anantnag. A picturesque road travelling along the Lidder river took us into an interior area with very little human habitation noticeable along the road. Pahalgam falls on the pilgrim route to the Hindu holy cave of Amarnath. It remains a sleepy hamlet which springs into life during the highly publicized Amarnath Yatra season. It is understood that the road remains heavily congested during the yatra season which normally falls in June. Though we did not find anything disturbing on our travel, the Anantnag town is a known disturbed area. There have been incidences of terror attacks in recent past on this route during Amarnath yatra.
Traffic on this route beyond Anantnag was low. Leaving aside the discomfort of bad roads for few kilometers, the journey was pleasant mainly for the beautiful surroundings. The landscape was dotted with extensive mustard cultivation and cashew nut (akhroot) fields. The carpets of yellow mustards under a blue sky with snow clad mountains on the backdrop made a sight to behold. However on arriving at Pahalgam and then getting out the car to explore the scenes around the town resulted in some disappointment in me. May be the scenes of Gulamrg were still too fresh in our minds. Or may be because I had conjured up a different kind of image of Pahalgam based on the photographs I had seen on the net. When I finally saw Pahalgam, it turned out to be completely different. It had actually made us feel such an ordinary place that we wondered as to why people speak so much about Pahalgam. We later found that the beauty of Pahalgam actually lies up in the hills of Vaisoron.
It was past noon when we had arrived. Satiating our hunger was the first priority. Thus we headed straight for lunch at the Dana Paani restaurant located on the main road. My colleague told me especially about this restaurant and so we decided to give it a try. However I would like to record here that it was no extraordinary eatery that will leave lingering tastes on your buds.
Pony owners started following us right from the moment we got out of the car. They were trying to get hold of the handful of tourist that had arrived there for the day. We had no plan to try a pony ride as we had planned our night halt for the day at Patnitop. So we told them to get off our back and look for customers somewhere else. But they did not give up and waited outside the restaurant for us to finish our lunch. My experiences with pony rides had always been bad, the worst being the one at Kufri in Shimla. The guys made us to believe that the most beautiful place in Pahalgam can be seen only if we take the pony ride. By this time we also had a second thought and felt that we had not come all the way to see this dull town. Therefore we had decided to try it out which were suppose to take about a couple of hours. If time permits we would still proceed for Patnitop which would be some 4 hours drive from here. We deiced to go to Vaisoron which the pony owners touted as mini Switzerland.
The official rates were 500 or so. As we were not very interested, we stick to a rate of 200. Finally they had agreed for 200 for each pony. The ponies made there way up the hill through slushy mule tracks. Though the sun was shining that day, it had rained for past 2 / 3 days. The rain water coming down the hill had made the mule tracks very slushy and dangerous at places. In fact one of our horses slipped while coming down and almost caused a mishap.
When we had reached Vaisoron, there lay before us an extending meadow bordered by pine forests and snow clad hills. Here lies the beauty of Pahalgam. I had never seen such large meadows. Fresh from the rains of past few days, we felt like spending the rest of day in those blissful surrounding. We actually ended up spending more time then what we had planned which later made us to change our plan for night. We also made some purchase of Kesar which appears to be a real stuff. The vendor was bale to convince us by his tests that the Kesar he is selling is not fake or colored. Despite repeated washing in water, the Kesar retained its colour. The price quoted was also much lower than what is quoted at the shops.
While coming down, we had decided that it was too late to go to Patnitop and so decided to stay at Pahalgam for the night. The town had a rustic charm. It was kind of a village on the verge of transforming to a small town. Pahalgam turned out to be the most convenient place for shopping as a tourist. All shops and most hotels are located in about half kilometer stretch on the main road that passes through the town. On one side of the road is the Lidder and on the other side is the town. We went a little further down that road towards Chandanwari. About a kilometer down the road, village area starts. There were some hotels in that area located right on the river bank providing beautiful view. However, being surrounded by village, we had a kind of uneasy feeling and decided against taking a hotel there.
Safety was the utmost concern. So we came back to the town center for the night stay. We did not have any prior booking. Now that we had decided to spend the night, we wanted to explore hotels which will offer a comfortable stay for the night. Though the area had many hotels, most of them were closed. They open only during yatra season. As we could see that there were very little tourist, we were sure to get a good bargain. We stayed at the first hotel we went in. I think we paid 500 rupees per room.
The evening was spent in shopping. As I had mentioned earlier, the place turned out to be safe place for making purchases. The low number of tourists staying back also ensured that prices are reasonable. We were enjoying the last evening in Kashmir. But the biting cold of the evening made us finish the day early.
On our way back next day, we had a brief stop at Patnitop, the famous hill station near Katra. Needless to say, it is only for those who dare not to go to Kashmir. While catching the train back to Delhi, we probably were still visualizing those two days in Gulmarg. The unthinkable had happened. We have actually seen Kashmir. We had dared to do it. Only God knows if we will ever make a comeback.