It turns out that the best way to enjoy Pahalgam is to stay away from Pahalgam. No, I am not suggesting for a moment that anyone skip this most picturesque area in Kashmir. But the best – perhaps the only – way to enjoy it is to stay outside, as I do.
On a recent holiday to Kashmir with my husband and friends, I choose Langanbal just a few kilometres shy of the urban chaos that Pahalgam has become in recent years. Like every other place surrounding this popular resort town, Langanbal too is classic picture-postcard territory, with the glassy Lidder gurgling right by the road and snow-capped peaks in the distance.
The first evening in Langanbal is grey and drizzly, but we head out in search of a place where we can dip our feet in the water. The Lidder is freezing but oh, so refreshing. The kids in our midst issue a challenge about who keeps their foot inside the water for the longest. I grit my teeth and manage about 20 seconds.
Stepping out of the rocky areas along the river, we bump into a small group of shawl vendors who strike up a conversation. Much of what they say, as I discover later, is standard dialogue amongst locals selling anthing, from pony rides to papier maché boxes. “We wait for tourists like you all through the year, so why don’t you buy something, one small thing?”
I do end up buying a couple of Kashmiri shawls from them; neither they nor I believing the claim that they are pure Pashmina. But then we receive an invitation for chai at their homes. We smile and mumble, not sure how much they mean it. And then we make a rush for the resort just in time to beat the summer downpour.
The next day, we resolutely ignore the suggestions from our hotel desk to visit Baisaran, fiercely peddled as mini Switzerland. Now, it would be infinitely better if Pahalgam embraced its innate Indianness and stopped looking at Switzerland as some kind of travel ideal.
But I guess for the families from Delhi, Mumbai and as far down as Chennai seeking an exotic summer getaway within India, this is just the perfect package. There are pony rides on offer, film shooting spots aplenty and always the promise of fresh snow just a few more miles ahead. And so, there is even a mini Matterhorn here, the local name for the tallest peak in the area, Mount Kolahoi.
Where we head to instead is Aru Valley, with the Lidder for company the entire way from Langanbal, first crossing Pahalgam and then higher up into the hills. What, no Betaab Valley, asks our cabbie in disappointment, referring to the location where the 1983 movie starring Sunny Deol and Amrita Singh was filmed.
At Aru Valley, it is tough to dismiss the pony-walas, but we soon leave them all behind to hike up to the first point, where the entire ground is carpeted with tiny yellow, white and purple flowers. The snowy peaks seem closer from here, the air proportionately fresher and colder. And the only sounds are the murmured conversations amongst the Gujjars – the nomadic shepherds of this region, and the sudden bursts of laughter from the local school children enjoying their recess on the banks of the stream way down below.
Here, as in Langanbal, the shepherds invite us home for chai. But once again, the rain clouds begin to loom large, and so we head down. After a quick rajma chawal lunch at a dhaba near the parking lot, it is time to get back into the cab. On our way back to Pahalgam, my husband gets a call from an unknown number. It is the shawl-wala from the day before. “When can we come and pick you up from the hotel?”
And surely enough, within fifteen minutes of our reaching Langanbal, Bilal and Feroze pull up in their tiny Maruti car. All of us – adults and three kids included – follow them to their home in the next village, high up in the hills. In this old house with a yard filled with apple trees, three brothers live together with their families, and a couple of inquisitive neighbours land up to share cups of nun (salty) and qahwa (saffron) chai with us.
While the men chat, I slip away to the kitchen to talk to the women of the household. The new baby gurgles in a corner, the teenager proudly shows off her high school English, and the matriarch furrows her brow in concentration while she speaks to me in broken Hindi. And in that village home in the hills of Kashmir, I feel welcome and safe, ensconced by the warmth of complete strangers.
Pahalgam is 90 km (3 hours) away from Srinagar, the nearest airport, connected to all major Indian cities.
Within town, the WelcomHotel Pine and Peak offers plush accommodation, while Kolahoi Green in Langanbal is a quieter option.
Drop in at the Almirah bookstore inside the Pahalgam Hotel for exquisite home stuff hand-embroidered by Gujjar and Bakarwal women.