Our shared taxi driver did us good service by recommending that we get off at the end of the line, that is Upper Pahalgam. We found a nearby hotel that seemed almost unfinished called “Hotel Water Vibe” where we were the only guests for our 8 day visit. Our room was bright and airy and the bathroom was clean with hot running water however they hadn’t yet gotten around to fitting a sink in it so we used the wall spigot.
We were on the edge of Pahalgam with only the forest and few resorts beyond us. Even more lucky, we had arrived at a ‘low season’ for this town that receives both people trying to escape the sweltering heat of the south as well as Lord Shiva devotees who descend in droves during the Armanath Yatra pilgrimage which began on June 30th and ended on August 11th of 2022 after 2 year gap caused by the Pandemic. According to the locals the entire town of this Muslim dominated area is transformed during the pilgrimage with Indian soldiers lining the route and many businesses forced to close to allow for a smooth passage for the pilgrims.
Village life, daily routines
Without a doubt I thrive in the countryside. We have discovered that longer, slower stays reveal a lot more about your surroundings and the people who inhabit them. Clean accommodation, fresh food, and the ability to take long walks is about all we need to be happy. My partner learns a lot more than I ever would as a Hindi speaker so I usually sit silently using my eyes to capture the scenes and activity around me while he engages in long conversations with tea stall owners, drivers, bakers, etc.. There were two roads leading into town, one on each side of the Lidder River. The road in front of our hotel was the most scenic with the bubbling river on the left and the high mountains rising on the right. It had many attractive and old timey lodges, most of them empty at the time of our visit.
Tiny little hamlets dotted the route with the usual businesses (bakery, grocery store, barber) and even a river-run grain mill.
As we walked away from out hotel the elevation rose and the river appeared farther and farther away down the valley. After a good 30 minute walk the road descended down to the river and to a crossroad leading to another valley, the Arun Valley. This side of the river is a favorite spot for picnickers despite the need to descend a steep path down to the river.
The road sees some very heavy traffic from horses, usually a group of them led by one handler but often horses simply going their own way.
Horse rides are big business in Pahalgam. A half day’s ride can earn the owner 2 to 3,000 rupees ($25 to $38) per horse. As most Indian tourists come in large groups you can just imagine the riches to be made!
I imagine that in the pre-tourist boom days the horses were essential for carrying goods on the rudimentary roads and paths in the area. Occasionally one encounters a group of nomads on horses. They are distinguished by the colorful bridles and saddles which adorn their horses as well as the one lady leading a dog on a chain. Very often the horse minders are very young boys and men.
Tourists most welcome
If you cross the bridge at the end of this road and turn left you will be heading for the road on the other side of the river which is the commercial hub of the town. It receives most of the tourist activity and also contains several large and impressive public gardens which are very popular with the locals especially on a Sunday.
With the carefully planted flower beds and pruned bushes set against the backdrop of rising green mountains these gardens are an attractive place to hang out. You will also find the police station, a most regal colonial style building as well as many not-so-attractive tourist oriented businesses. Taxis and private cars go hurtling down this road, horns blaring warning horses, pedestrians, goats and sheep to clear the way. If you walk almost back to the end-of-the-line taxi stand you will find a road heading up a steep hill on the right with a steady stream of horses. This road leads to “Mini Switzerland” the ultimate destination for the horse-rider wannabe. “Mini Switzerland” refers to a very large meadow about an hour and a half hike up a rutted, muddy road.
Most tourists take a horse up but some like yours truly choose to use their own two feet. If you are not fleet footed I strongly suggest you stick to the main track and avoid the steep shortcut that forces you to cross bubbling streams and scramble up wet slippery trails. As with many tourist attractions, the destination often fails to live up to the hype. Although the walk to and from “Mini Switzerland” is a good workout and scenic, the actual attraction is disappointing. Tea stalls and dhabas line the perimeter on the entrance side each with their tarpaulin and plastic chairs in front offering very welcome shade to their customers. Vendors of pashmina shawls relentlessly attempt a sale. A ‘mini’ zip line runs down the middle of the meadow and seems quite popular with day trippers intent on capturing their travel adventures with their GoPro cameras. Mind you we didn’t miss the opportunity for some selfies before heading back down.
Local activity – tea sellers, goat and sheep herders and bakers galore!
Most of our time was spent sitting at tea stalls drinking either the sweet Kashmiri tea or the salted tea which was an unusual pink color but both served with a healthy dollop of butter.
From the tea stalls we could learn a lot about the place both through observation and conversation. Next to one of our favorite tea stalls was a shop that bought raw wool from the shepherds for 50 rupees a kilo which they then used to purchase salt for the sheep.
Herds of goats and sheep often streamed down the middle of the road.
The herds were sometimes led by very colorful tall and thin herders who looked like they just crossed over from Afghanistan or Pakistan with gaunt faces and hennaed beards.
Across from the tea stall was a tiny but perpetually busy bakery. The place was full of bakeries, all busy, all day. Four types of flat brea were produced at different times of the day.
In the morning a very thin bread was baked with big air bubbles in it. As the morning progressed a smaller and thicker flatbread appeared which was scored on the top and had a more yellowish color to it. Lastly two breads appeared, one very similar to a mini bagel with sesame seeds on top and the other similar to the second bread of the day but shinier and more flavorful and flaky. Needless to say we ate bread hot from the ovens throughout the day. Most people simply grabbed the the bread in a stack and carried it in their hands or else stuffed it into their pockets.
The bakeries were small, dark and cozy and usually manned by two 30-ish year old men who started their day at 3:30am. The cylindrical oven was waist high and glowed orange in the dimness of the dark workspace. One baker would be forming the bread using a rolling pin while the other would be rapidly slapping the dough on to the inner wall of the glowing open-topped oven until the entire inside of the oven was covered in flat breads. Occasionally a bread would peel off of the side and fall to the bottom. Next the baker would grab the finished bread with a wrought iron rod and toss it in a pile next to the oven. The bakeries had a small window where customers would line up to buy the just baked bread.
Goodbye Pahalgam…so many fond memories
We spent a blissful eight days wandering around upper Pahalgam, munching on bread, swilling Kashmir tea and observing rural life. Pahalgam will always have a special place in my memories. The scenery itself is a big draw not only for tourists but also for film makers.
The aqua gray waters surging through town are indeed mesmerizing and many a selfie has been taken on the numerous bridges of Pahalgam both on the main road and the back road.
Kashmir also has a wealth of mosques with a very unique design reminding me of Eastern Europe with their onion shaped turrrets.
Animals dominate the economy with huge groups of horses, goats and sheep regularly flooding the streets. And last but not least the people of Pahalgam had very interesting looks in addition to their friendly demeanor.
I would definitely like to return someday.