Sunday, November 23, 2008

Pahalgam

Undoubtedly the best part of our Kashmir trip was our 2 days in Pahalgam. Pahalgam can be reached via a picturesque, 3-4 hour drive east from Srinagar on tree-lined highways with saffron fields on both sides of the road. Along the way to Pahalgam, we stopped at the Avantipur ruins, home of a former Vishnu temple. The temple was mostly destroyed in an earthquake yet it is still impressive and is a strong reminder of Kashmir's Hindu past.


When we reached our Hotel Mount View, we were stunned by the view of the valley. The Lidder river was almost dry, but the mountains surrounding the valley were breathtaking. In the afternoon I took an amazing 3 hour horse ride through Pahalgam. Incidentally, my grandmother did the same horseback ride in 1940. Now, I'm the second person in my family to visit Pahalgam and do the horseback ride. Cool!


I had an excellent 'godi wallah' (a.k.a. pony man) to lead me through the ride. When I wanted to go fast, he ran beside the pony to get it to go faster. When the terrain become treacherous, he guided the pony so that I never fell (one person in the group did fall on the horse ride and she did sustain minor injuries). Unfortunately he couldn't speak any Hindi (only Kashmiri), but that was a small price to pay for great service.
The views along the ride were incredible. We came upon a beautiful clearing known as 'Little Switzerland'. Halfway through the journey we reached a point where we could see the entire Kashmir valley. We stared right at the Lidder River as it snaked through mountains to Srinagar. This is the true beauty of Kashmir, I felt. The remainder of the journey took me through a small village which afforded me the chance to see more poor villagers going through the hard routines of daily life.
After Pahalgam we left for Katra in Jammu and passed by a cricket bat factory along the way. But that is for the next blog.
Final thoughts on Kashmir:
  1. Kashmir is safe for tourists. When I was in Pahalgam, I chatted with 3 members of the J&K police. They said that the Kashmir is many times safer than it was 5 years ago. Militancy in the valley has largely declined, thanks to the efforts of the J&K police, the army, and the CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force). We didn't face a single dangerous moment in our time in Kashmir. Yes, from 1989 till about 2002, Kashmir was unsafe (for Hindus more than anyone else). But for all the time before that and for the last 5-6 years, it has been safe.
  2. Still, be prepared for annoyances. The next tour group after ours had a much less enjoyable trip because of election-related protests in Srinagar and surrounding areas. Also, there is an abundance (read too much) military in the state and thus too many checkpoints. The locals are weary of the military presence and I don't blame them. Despite the large improvements in safety, everyone is wary of everyone else. Nowadays, the violent terrorist militancy has been replaced by a largely peaceful ''Azadi'' (freedom) movement which stems from the people. This movement ebbs and flows - it picked up in 2008 with the Amarnath controversy and picked up again around election time. At these times it's best not to go to Kashmir.
  3. The scenery is beautiful but it's not what makes Kashmir unique. I have seen just as good scenery, if not better, in California, Vermont, Switzerland, New Zealand, etc. What does make Kashmir unique is the people, culture, and political situation. All of this provides Kashmir with a mystique that none of the afore mentioned places have (though those places do have their own auras). However, Kashmir can be an excellent and affordable destination for you if you live in India. For instance, I paid only 450 Rs (about $10) for my 3-hour horseback ride. This could have easily been 5-10x more expensive in the Western world.
  4. The best months to go to Kashmir are June-September. If you can visit Kargil and Leh during your trip, then even better. You will enjoy Kashmir more if you are in good physical shape because of the horseback rides, treks, and high altitudes.

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