Friday, 13 July 2012

Pahalgam In The Lidder Valley

On 29th May 2012, around noon, leaving the scenic Gulmarg behind, we were in for a long haul of 150 km to reach our next destination Pahalgam.  At Rizk restaurant, Tangmarg, we had our lunch in peaceful ambience.  We retraced our trail towards Srinagar and did not know when we passed it. There must be some bypass route which goes without touching Srinagar. We passed through Awantipur but did not halt there to watch the historical ‘Awantipur ruins’ for want of time. 

Further down the Pahalgam road, the willow trees on both sides of the road made a massive continuous green tunnel, as we passed through miles and miles of asphalted road in sparse traffic with wood working factories on both sides of road. Cricket bats in semi-finished conditions made out of willow wood are piled up feeding the factories, where men and machines churned out world’s best cricket bats. 
Shopping for Saffron
We arrived at Pampore with  both sides of the road full of Saffron ( also called Kesar or Zafran ) fields.  They were barren now. October / November is the season when these fields can be seen in full bloom. Our interest was to purchase bit of genuine saffron and some dry fruits. The shop where we entered 1 gm Saffron pack was sold for Rs. 200/-, which we found cheaper compared to what we purchased at Srinagar at Rs.300/- . We were guaranteed of this high quality product by the sales staff. We went through the posters which told us how to distinguish between genuine and spurious Saffron. 
Info On Saffron
Another poster displaying essential benefits of Saffron to human body.
Poster On Saffron


Around 5 pm we entered the fringes of Pahalgam town. We were happy to have made it well before the dusk, so as to make best use of whatever time we get in late evening. On the main road, we came across JK Tourism office and were happy to see one person still working. He directed us to Yatri Niwas where we had booked the cheapest available dormitory bed online for three of us at Rs. 250/- each.  The Yatri Niwas edifice is in interior road leading from main road. The area seemed to be secluded, with growth of forest like huge trees on the opposite. The location pleased us no end. How about our dorm?  Not disappointing at all. It consisted of three bedded room with clean beds. What a value for money accommodation after a disappointing stay at our Gulmarg hotel. The washroom though common - there were two of them, clean and tidy, with hot water geysers functioning. Although food was not available in Yatri Niwas, that was not a big issue with market place nearby.
Yatri Niwas, Pahalgam
Dumping our luggage, we hit the streets to make use of the rest of the evening. We came to the road leading to main road and decided to try Nathu Rasoi – a restaurant which we have read a lot about from net. The fa├žade and ambience was good. The readymade sweetened tea at Rs. 25/- was lousy and the menu-card with Masala Dosa priced at Rs. 80/- appeared too pricey. We had enough of that restaurant and came to main road.  Sachin bought his quota of fruits which he consumed in tons in the evening after missing most of his morning and afternoon meals.  I bought a few Kashmiri silk Saris from one of the shops suggested by another shop, which my better half did not find bad at all!
Pahalgam Town
There is some kind of nostalgia attached to Pahalgam. When we came here 30 years back, there was one main road with all shops and hotels and on the opposite side, all of Lidder valley with Lidder river flowing from end to end. In between the flowing streams, there were mini-islands - all virgin and a few wooden bridges interconnecting them. One could roam there whole day and have fun seating on the bank of river dipping one’s feet in the gurgling ice cold water.

Today, the scenario has changed radically. Many of those islands have been developed. There is one garden for recreation, which even charges Rs. 5/- as entry fee. There are too many structures on the hill opposite. The township full of houses on the main road and the pine trees behind and at the top a few snow peaks peeping out, with the roaring river Lidder all over the valley, made a pleasing place to be in. 
Lidder river and the valley
With dusk approaching, we had our food in Punjabi Rasoi, a small no frills restaurant on main road. The food was ok, so was the price.  Returning via a short cut road to Yatri Niwas, we had to use a torch light – this is one commodity which proved extremely helpful in all the destinations in hills. With nothing else to do, we hit the hay.

Next morning was a glorious sunlit day. We had our hot water bath and some breakfast and came to road for a cup of tea. On the roadside one small tea stall was doing business. The stall located just outside a plush looking restaurant was surprising. The shop keeper started a conversation and was proud to inform us that he owned the half of the plush hotel. Was it a story or for real we will never know.
Poster on Pahalgam sight seeing places
We came to the main road and saw the tourist map of Pahalgam,  showing all sight-seeing destinations their direction and distances. There are too many places to visit and tourists need a couple of day’s stay here to do full justice. Our hectic itinerary did not permit us that luxury. We decided to visit Mamaleshwar temple on the hill, a short distance of 1 km walk on a gentle slope. We passed by the river bridge and found some interesting activity on the not so deep portion of a stream, where the jeep and bus drivers were washing their vehicles.
Washing vehicles
We walked on the asphalt road up the hill leading to the Mamaleshwar temple and came across the poster which told in brief, history of the temple.
Info Mamaleshwar temple
We entered the arched entrance of Mamleshwar temple. The compound consists of a garden, a small enclosure with stored water in front of the steps to the temple. The devotees pick up bucket full of water from there for their rituals. The temple is made of stone slabs. We had the darshan of Shiva Linga – Lord Shiva being the presiding deity of the temple. 
Mamaleshwar Temple
After coming some way down the hill, we came to the view point. The Lidder valley looked good in morning sunlight, the distant township neat and scenic. Lidder river and a canal running near the hill could be seen. After some photo shoot we thought of having a stroll on the same hill after taking a left turn. We came across a number of good looking premium hotels and rest houses, each of them having a neat garden around. Tourists who are looking for some exclusive and quiet retreat at Pahalgam will surely stay in one of those places. 
Shiva Temple
We had a walk down the hill and came to main road and headed north words and came across a Shiva temple.  In our Kashmir visit we found ‘what ever be the name of the temple, it turned out to be Shiva Temple with Shiva Linga symbolizing the presiding deity Lord Shiva. Not surprising as the entire Himalaya is considered the abode of Lord Shiva. After darshan we headed towards the river side and came on top of a steel bridge from where we could get the view of valley on both sides.
Lidder Valley
Pahalgam holds a special significance for the Amarnath pilgrims as it is considered to be the starting point of Yatra. The season to Amarnath Yatra begins from around 20th June and lasts till August end. In that period all the accommodations in Pahalgam are filled and hence should be avoided by tourists. In Yatra off season, one can go to about 10 km along that route upto a place called Chandanwadi. 

By 10 am we had to hurry back to Yatri Niwas, to do the packing and by 10.30 am we were on trails to Sonamarg to cover a distance of 140 km. The next blog will be on Sonamarg.  

* Pahalgam can be best seen from the video footages shot by author and uploaded in a video site as per the following captioned link:
1)Pahlgam at a Glance 
2)White Water Rafting Over River Lidder 
3) Mammaleshwar Temple   

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Gulmarg – Gondolas, Glaciers and Grasslands In Kashmir

On 28th May 2012, around noon, returning from visit to Shankaracharya temple, Srinagar, we had another short break on Bouleward road for a few more snap shots of Dal lake and took to the trail to 51 km journey to Gulmarg. Around 1.30 am, hunger pangs made us take a break at Rizk hotel at Tangmarg, still a short distance of 11 km from our destination. We savored the lunch of Veg. fried rice and sweet and sour vegetable, yet not so pricey for the ambiance which the restaurant offered.
Rizk Restaurant
Around 3 pm we entered the fringes of Gulmarg town and did not find it too difficult to locate the Kingsley hotel right on main road next to the Taxi stand. The hotel lobby is approached right from the dusty road; the horse shelter being near, the horse dung powder will surely be major constituent of the dust! The man on reception took a long look at my online reservation printout for a double room for three persons. We were allotted a room on first floor with two beds, the room had windows covered with polythene sheets, so not much could be seen of the outside world. ‘We have landed yet another average hotel in this tourist season like we did in Srinagar,’ I realized. However by the time we checked out of this hotel next day, my views changed. This hotel turned out to be much below average!
Kingsley Hotel
We took to the streets at 3.15 pm and had a view of imposing pink colored Rani Temple on a hillock, a sloping stepped walkway for tourists to reach the place. A few buses were parked nearby and tourists were trundling their way up. We too decided to go up and have darshan and have a top view of the valley and town. When we were through with our temple visit, the rain which eluded so far, finally caught up with us. We took shelter under a shed near the temple. It was frustrating watching the rain accompanied by wind lashing droplets and getting us drenched. As happens in mountains the rains come and go abruptly, we had bout of sunshine in ten minutes. 
Rani Temple
With weather improving and the green meadows enticing, Sachin and Raj could not control themselves and took off by the winding road for a trek to unknown. I just observed and shot some landscapes, watching the tourists taking off on pony for rides to various short haul destinations.
Pony Rates
The horsemen with their horses and jeep stand in the foreground; the vast stretch of Bugyal (green meadows) in mid ground; the dense cluster of pine trees and the snow peaks in backdrop made Gulmarg a picture post card of a beauty.
Gulmarg Landscape
At around 6 pm, Sachin and Raj returning, we managed to call our car driver to make next day’s arrangements of taking us to Gulmarg Gondola Cable Trolley station. No response initially but later on when he came on line, he informed us that we must do online booking for Gondola ride to avoid long queue expected at the booking counters. With no cyber cafes functional around, he suggested us to try one of the shops in the market selling assorted items. Shopkeeper had a lap top and logged on to www.gulmarggondola.com  and booked three Gondola first stage tickets up to Kongdori at Rs.300/- each plus Rs. 50/- per ticket as his service charges. Although we needed morning tickets to enable us to leave Gulmarg in afternoon for Pahalgam, we were given 2 pm tickets; he assured us that we would be able to get boarding passes for morning tickets if we went to Gondola station early at 8.30 am in the morning. We had no options but to have faith in this guy and see how our Gondola ride goes.
Multi-purpose shop
We had some simple veg. food in one of the dhabas with chairs spread outside on road. Raj fed the excess rice leftover to stray dogs who are found in almost every destination in hills.

Returning to hotel, we had some argument with the manager who refused to give additional bed even though we paid additional charges as normally charged for three persons occupying double bedded room. He wanted letter from hotel booking agent Travelguru.com for providing beddings to the third person. We never had such kind of experience anywhere till now. With night approaching, we thought it wise to pay the additional charge of Rs. 300/- demanded and take up the matter with the hotel booking website. After our bitter experience, the room staff tried to make amends by attempting to start the heater of the electrically  heated mattress. One of the mattress got excess heated and the other did not work. We asked them to switch off the heaters and went to sleep.

Next morning brought some more woes for us in Kingsley hotel. The water heating arrangement in hotel bathrooms in general in Gulmarg is a huge PVC drum, filled with incoming water, heated by immersion heater dipped inside. In this hotel it was no different. Raj put on the heater switch and had his bath as usual by taking the amount of hot water needed in a bucket through the tap at bottom of the drum. Next in went Sachin. As soon as he opened the tap, boiled steaming hot water  from a fully filled drum gushed out in full force through the hole left after the tap broke off from the drum. Sachin was saved by skin of his teeth from getting a serious burn injury. The hotel staff came running having seen steaming water coming out of the drain. There was nothing they could do. We managed our bath from whatever hot water we could salvage.

After my morning tea, I had another go at the Rani temple for a view from top. The snow peaks seemed to have received some fresh snowfall and were in its white pristine glory. The pine trees looked a huge green mass covering part of the distant mountains. The green meadows were alluring as ever.
Gulmarg Landscape
At 8 am, we started our walk for the Gondola station for our early morning tickets. On reaching we found people already queued up in all the counters. The online booking counter for online booked tickets had the least crowd. The driver’s tip regarding advance online booking certainly helped. As Raj stood in queue, I tried Kawa Chai costing Rs. 25/- per cup and did some photo shooting. 
Gondola Ticket Counter, Gulmarg
The counter opened around 9 am. One Sardarji with online receipt for 40 persons was bypassed by the booking clerk and Raj shoved in our three person’s ticket copy. On obtaining our boarding passes, we went to the Gondola Station for another queue, where Sachin stood. It seems most of the people queued up there did not have the boarding passes and were standing to get an advance entry as soon as they got the passes from their representatives. Some planning that!
Gondola Station, Gulmarg
Armed with boarding passes, we were allowed to jump the queue by the security and were soon inside the Gondola station where the trolleys were coming one after another, taking six passengers each and taking off for Kongdori. We got three front seats to have a clear view of whatever the journey had to offer. I had my Handycam going but was not expecting good footages because of somewhat dusty transparent front. We passed through villages drenched in early morning sun, a lot of villagers were trekking up, the pine trees on both sides were right upto the end.
Kongdori Gondola Station
Coming down the steps of Kongdori station, we reached the ticket booking office for Second stage which will take us to Afarwat at 4200 m. Not having facility for online booking of this ticket, was a disadvantage. Raj was behind some 10 people in the queue but there was no sign of ticket windows opening. After a wait of some half an hour, a guy ambled up and opened the enclosure and at 10 am ticket counter opened. Then what happened was not to our liking. The travel agents, the pony-wallas, the ski-wallas, were allowed to jump the queue and provided with tickets. There was a lot of shouting by one of the genuine tourist against this practice but the security person seemed not to notice; he made a token show of semblance of maintaining order. We were losing precious time as we were to leave for Pahalgam a good 200 km away for our next destination by noon. As Raj patiently bore with the ordeal, Sachin and myself made use of the time for shooting still and videos of Kongdori. There were a lot of ponywallas looking for customers for taking them to Khilanmarg a few km through the meadows. 
Snow-view from Kongdori
Finally we got hold of our second stage tickets which cost us Rs. 500/- each. The vista from cable trolley this time was all white snow all the way up. Some 15 minutes later we reached the cable trolley station of Afarwat at 4200 m, a lone edifice in ocean of snow. As we got down the stairs, we directly stepped on snow, which was somewhat dirty with tourists trampling all over it.

Afarwat Activities
At least 50 tourists were on the snow; some shooting pictures, some doing skiing, some sledging and some just walking on it  like penguins in slow measured gaits. We just watched all that and after 15 minutes, returned to trolley station for return journey. The tickets for both the stagers are valid for three hours from time of issue. 
Return Journey view from Gondola
After reaching Kongdori we changed over to stage 1 return journey. The trolleys, mercifully, there are too many of them, kept coming and departing at a high frequency, so reducing our wait to minimum. The sheer volume of tourists taking cable trolley at Gulmarg at Rs.800/- for both stages, make a decent income for JK Tourism, in spite of some bad management at stage 2 ticket counter at Kongdori.

At 11.15 am we reached Gulmarg. What we observed took us by surprise. The place was teeming with tourists, a few thousand of them. How many ultimately secured tickets is any body’s guess. As we made our short walk back to hotel for check out, the entire road leading to Gondola cable trolley station was filled with tourists, some in overcoats and gumboots hired at Rs. 50/- fully geared for high altitude of Afarwat. Some were riding ponies even for this small walk. As we entered the hotel lobby, I was ruminating, ‘what an exciting stay at Gulmarg, including the travails at hotel and gondola station!’

Checking out with one more cold stare at the manager, we boarded the car for our onward journey to Pahalgam.

* Readers of this blog will surely enjoy some video footages of Gulmarg captured by author as per the following captioned link:

1) Gulmarg At A Glance 
2) Rani Temple 
3) Kongdori - Gulmarg Gondola Stage 1 
4) Afarwat - Gulmarg Gondola Stage 2 
5) Gulmarg Gondola Cable Trolley Ride - Stage 1 & 2