There is no need to chase the sights in this mountain town. All you need is a slight change of pace.
Along the highway from Srinagar to Pahalgam, visitors can spot golden mustard fields and icy mountains. Photo by: thitikorn-yupa/shutterstock
It is often said that the journey is more important than the destination. For me, no place embodies this better than Pahalgam. The ‘Valley of Shepherds’—so named after its first inhabitants—is home to every Kashmir cliché. Just about 100 kilometres from Srinagar and 7,000 feet high in the lap of the Himalayas, it has pine-covered mountains, crisp air, and crystal clear waters. Even in summer, the temperature stays a cool 25 degrees and by October you can see the snow settling on the peaks. In Pahalgam, beauty lies all around you, every minute of every day. All you have to do is slow down and enjoy the escape into a world totally different to the one you might be used to.
The first morning, I find myself on a pony named Mastana, clutching for life and on my way to Baisaran. Some six kilometres from Pahalgam, this valley is also called ‘Mini Switzerland,’ courtesy its green meadows. As I try to balance myself and take photographs at the same time, my guide Mudassir chuckles at my attempts through the journey. The comfortable pace and height of mountain ponies is perfect for a first timer like me and if you’ve never been on horseback before, this trip is a great way to start, especially with the views along the journey.
The 1.5-hour ride winds through mud tracks, going higher into woods of pine and fir, sometimes through mist. Dark monsoon clouds descend over Kashmir Valley, covering the conifers in gossamer mist, adding a haunting beauty to the route.
Shepherd boys wave at us as we cross temporary settlements of nomads who come up here every summer from Jammu. From the time it was a small shepherds’ village criss-crossed by the Lidder River, the mountain and river have remained the region’s best takeaways. If you strip away the bustling markets, hotels and restaurants, and the town centre’s out-of-place amusement park, Pahalgam is still worth visiting for its sheer natural beauty.
In Baisaran, I am at a loss—without a picnic basket and a rug, there isn’t much to do here. However, I do manage to pick up some local handicrafts. Two Kashmiri brothers spot me on a bench under a tree admiring the alpine vistas, and come rushing to sell their wares. Despite not wanting to lug stuff back on the pony, I find myself shelling out money for two hand-embroidered pashmina stoles.
Power of Place
Back at my hotel, I recharge my aching bones with a cup of kahwa. The new furniture and modern amenities introduced during a renovation in 2017 have not taken away from the old-world charm of the 30-year-old WelcomHotel Pine-n-Peak. A cosy property with 66 rooms, suites and cottages, the hotel atop the Rajwas Plateau has a perfect vantage point for views of the gushing Lidder and the surrounding mountains. With just one restaurant, Pine-n-Peak is no fancy affair. However, its big picture windows, and warm wooden interiors done up with local Kashmiri handcrafts such as crewelwork, sozni embroidery and papier-mâché bits and bobs, make it an ideal mountain stay. Sitting under the lawn’s gazebo, nibbling on a warm walnut pie or sipping on single malt in the deliciously chilly evenings, I could hear the Lidder sing along with the monsoon winds. (www.itchotels.in; doubles from Rs12,000 plus taxes including breakfast.)
For the Love of Wazwan
For a taste of local delicacies, look no further than Paradise restaurant, located in the market at the town centre. At lunch time, the no-frills eatery is usually packed to the brim with locals and there will be some waiting time. Once you get in, you’re in for a real treat—yoghurt-based yakhni gravies, tabak maaz (fried ribs), mutton rogan josh, goshtaba (meatballs in white gravy) and many more meat-based dishes. They are all served with a mountain of rice and washed down with kahwa. The tiny restaurant is not exactly a fine-dine but it’s worth giving up some of my city-girl hang-ups for a taste of an authentic Kashmiri wazwan.
At the centre of all things lovely in Pahalgam is the Lidder. The aquamarine hue of the glacial river lights up the landscape wherever it goes—and it goes everywhere. From walks along the town market and the views at high-tea at a local café to the drive to nearby picnic spots like Aru Valley or Betaab Valley, the Lidder follows. Sometimes as wide as the sea, sometimes as narrow as a stream, its sparkling waters keep you hooked. One of the best things you can do in Pahalgam is Lidder-gaze, watching the river curve its way around the mountains.
According to local guides, the Overa-Aru Wildlife Sanctuary in town plans to start jeep safaris into the forest early next year, adding some action to the town. Until then, Pahalgam is less about doing things and more about taking things in.