Route to Pahalgam never stops fascinating you. It is not only ‘picture perfect’, but equally intriguing, making one feel: whether it is meeting the fate of Punjab. Such is the flip the highway down the south Kashmir is getting.
To have a ‘departure from usual’ moment, we left Srinagar early dawn to bypass the traffic snarls. Beyond Panthachowk, the track almost offered no hindrance. After passing through spring-caught fields, we reached Cheeni Wudur, now Apple Valley. We stopped there at a local tea stall to have tea.
We were told that the village was once the hotbed of militancy. But now, it was responding to tourist-thrown economy. It housed several signature highway tea stalls and restaurants for tourists and travelers. 15 minutes later, we resumed our drive to Pahalgam.
With our destination still 30km away, the driver drove on the route passing through Bijbehara via Srigufwara to Pahalgam. The route is the new alternate to the erstwhile Khannabal Pahalgam route that was built for Amarnath yatris by the late CM Mufti Muhammad Saeed.
Scenes were no different in Srigufwara: the aromatic fresh air making rounds over the village. With the changing time, the once dreaded bunker was no more dotting the landscape there. It was nearly impossible to travel through the route for the fear of psychological torture that the army would subject one to some years ago. Times have changed so has the mood. Like Cheeni Wudur, Srigufwara was opening to south Kashmir’s tourist rush. It has also become a small business hub, housing scores of restaurants and tea stalls. Many travel-weary tourists stop at these spots to have refreshment.
The route that we followed left us in awe and admiration of nature. We drove through a splendid view of the majestic Himalayan Range. The Lidder River gurgled past us. The water level was high due to the onset of summers.
We were still one good hour away from Pahalgam. As we drove past huts, women carrying pitchers and children walking towards schools, we reached Pahalgam. Snow-capped mountains, lush green and rugged landscape make the health resort—also called the ‘valley of shepherds’—one of the most popular holiday destinations in Kashmir.
The calm and tranquil enveloping the hill station is astounding, to say the least. Away from concrete city jungles, the beauty of nature was indeed captivating.
Upon halting at Pahalgam for 30 minutes, our van straightaway drove us to Betaab Valley. The Valley is towards north-east of Pahalgam and falls between Pahalgam and Chandanwadi. It is surrounded by lush green meadows, snowy peaks and covered with dense vegetation. By now we were all not-reachable. The phone signals were down.
Deep into the woods, Betaab Valley turned out to be like any other destinations: concretized and mishandled. Macadamized roads have been built on postcard landscape, thus eroding its beauty quotient. The manhole concrete rings used around trees further take sheen out of the place. Two concrete lavatories and an administrative block have been constructed deep in the jungle. The concretization that has entered into the resort has ended up making a mess with it.
But we never let the glaring eyesore spots to derail fun and frolicking. We were now cut off from the rest of the world; chattering, eating melons and enjoying while time was passing. After a break of 1:30 minutes, we drove down to Pahalgam for a scrumptious meal. Quickly, our ride took us to our next destination, Aru.
We drove uphill to Aru Valley, 11km from Pahalgam, nestled at an altitude of 11,800 ft. It was ultimate destination and one of my favorites. The reason why we had travelled 120 odd km from Srinagar, as our boss puts, was to take a break from daily routine. We drove through a wildlife sanctuary that erupts into a riot of colours in April and May.
What a view: snowcapped mountains, deep blue skies! It was an hour-long awe-inspiring drive to Aru: a bumpy ride worth every minute. As soon as you step on the grounds of Aru, you need time to let the beauty of your surroundings sink in. Each step we took was like walking through Paradise. Literally!
It’s such a picturesque and serene place. The views kept changing as the Sun set in the mountains.
On both sides of the road, there were the thin branches of the trees erected high. The sky was crystal clear. It was the truest blue I had ever seen. Snow-borne peaks all around had a thick forest cover: the green of the trees visible beneath the white canopy.
For the next few hours, we walked, strolled, hiked and wandered in the valley in total silence. We grew acutely aware that we were trespassing on the un-trodden land.
The 120 odd km 3-hour drive from Srinagar took us along winding roads with the river Lidder flowing beside us and prayer flags fluttering at intervals.
At Aru, it was fascinating to see people braving all odds, taking steep tricky trek, to reach the spot where paragliding was done. Started by Ibrahim, a native of Pahalgam, this adventure sport is a new in thing. A short ride from the ridge costs just Rs 1000. While the longer ride sets you back by Rs 2000. But, every minute of the glide is worth the money you spend. Next time when you are in Aru, make sure you take a glide over lush green meadows, though pine, and land at by the side of white water stream.
Before calling it a day, we sat down by the side of the stream and drank tea. This was one of the best parts of our day long journey.
To my utter surprise, the trip more than replenished my sense of waning cosmic consciousness. It was a soul stirring experience, reaffirming my belief that it is impossible to overcome the lure and fascination of the Himalayas if you love mountains. Right from Pampore onwards, the breath-taking views at every turn of the Srinagar Jammu highway imprint images in the mind.