Beetab Valley, Phalagam
The Kashmir valley has so much to offer to the casual traveler, especially in terms of scenic beauty. Any 2hr ride into the countryside surrounding Srinagar will bring one to green meadows, shimmering rivers and lakes, and snow-capped alpine mountains. While reading up on which places to visit out here, we were a little frustrated with the lack of in-depth information. From what little we could gather, we decided that Gulmarg, Yousmarg and Sonamarg were the best amongst the lot and therefore a ‘must visit’. Pahalgam also seemed to be another popular destination, however, LP mentioned that it was mainly a take-off point for the Amarnath Yathra trekkers. Assuming that the yathris had already started assembling there, we decided to skip the village just to avoid crowds. But when we got to Srinagar, fellow travelers and locals insisted that Pahalgam cannot be missed. Moreover, since the Amarnath Yathra was not due to begin until July 1st, this would be a good time to visit. So on June 14th, we packed up from Srinagar and caught a Pahalgam-bound bus from the JKSRTC depot at 9am.
Given the on-going strike and tensions in the old city, at first, the officials at the JKSRTC counter said that they weren’t sure if buses would ply that day; there was always a danger of ‘pathar-baazi’ (stone pelting) on the streets, with government buses being easy targets. Madhu and I sat around along with other expectant-travelers hoping things would go our way. And luckily, after about 45minutes of waiting, it did! The buses finally started leaving the depot and even though they were behind schedule, the travelers’ collective sigh of relief at being able to get out of Srinagar for a day was palpable. Of course, majority of the people on the bus were out on a day-trip; only a few like us were on a one-way trip with plans to stay overnight. Madhu and I hoped that when we return to Srinagar after a couple of days, things would have returned to normalcy in this lovely city.
Just as the bus to Gulmarg had stopped annoyingly for almost half an hour to get passengers to shop at nearby stores and hire snow jackets and shoes, our Pahalgam bus too stopped in front of a store selling ‘Kashmir’s famous dry-fruits’. Almost all passengers made a bee-line for it. Madhu and I were hungry as we hadn’t had time for breakfast that morning but when the only tea-stall in the area sold just tea and biscuits, we joined the queues at the dry-fruits store as well. Even though almonds and walnuts are the true local produce of Kashmir, we bought cashews as they are our all-time favorites. To add a little bit of local flavor, we also purchased a packet of dried apricots; it was absolutely yummy!
As the bus trundled up towards Pahalgam, the last 15kms were the most scenic ever! The road ran along the left bank of the lovely Lidder River. We saw some people rafting in its waters, while some were fishing and yet some others had simply stopped their cars and got out for a closer look. Somewhere along the way, I noticed a park called Batote Park, which was built right by the river bank and looked like a fantastic place for an afternoon picnic. If we had been traveling in a car, we would have definitely stopped here for a few minutes.
The bus pulled into Pahalgam’s main bus stand at around 1pm. We felt bad for the day-trippers who suddenly realized that they had less than 4 hours to explore the area before the bus took off on its return journey to Srinagar. As soon as we alighted, we were engulfed by touts from the various hotels in the area. Madhu had read and heard that a nearby village called Laripora would be a much nicer place to stay than the touristy Pahalgam village but we had no idea how to get there. So when one of the touts offered to take us to Hotel Brown Palace in Laripora, we agreed and hopped into his Maruti Omni.
The village of Laripora sits a little higher, on the side of a mountain overlooking the Lidder river and Pahalgam village. Hotels and guesthouses dot the street that leads up to it and beyond. The wide dirt-track suddenly dissolves into a slushy mud bath right in the heart of the village, gaining back its form and shape again past the village homes. Hotel Brown Palace is located just beyond the village and looked really nice. However, they didn’t have any rooms available so we were taken to Mir Lodge, which was next door. Although, not as nice as Brown Palace, it had a decent double room available for 3 nights and we booked it without wanting to waste more time looking around.
We dropped our bags off and headed out on foot towards Pahalgam village in search of a place to eat. But just a few meters down the road, a van pulled up next to us and two smiling youth asked us if we would like a lift. Assuming them to be staff from Mir Lodge, we happily accepted and got in. En route, as we talked to the youth, we realized that they were complete strangers, had nothing to do with Mir Lodge, were heading to Pahalgam market for some work and had offered us a ride just to help out; unbelievable!
Our first day in Pahalgam was spent in lazing and walking around the village roads. We decided to keep the sightseeing for the following days. That night we met the owner of Mir Lodge, who had driven up to Pahalgam with his wife and daughters for a break. He got the staff to build a bonfire in front of the lodge by its spacious lawns and then invited his guests to come over and enjoy the pleasant weather with them. He turned out to be an easy person to chat with and so were his teen-aged daughters, who, though, dressed in traditional Muslim scarves, were not shy. The girls made kebabs in the lodge’s kitchen and the family graciously shared it with us. The owner talked about growing up in Kashmir during its pre-conflict days, enjoying its unhindered beauty. He remembered seeing the shooting of many Bollywood films in the area; Kashmir was a popular location then. Since the 1990s though, when militant insurgency rose to its peak, hardly any films get shot here. He seemed happy that at least now there is no militancy. But he rued the fact that strife in the old city hadn’t ended as it should have. For the sake of a safe, trouble-free family life he hoped for a day when things would return to normalcy; we couldn’t agree more! The evening ended with a round of Gajar ka Halwa (dessert made of shredded carrots stewed in milk with sugar and dry fruits), which was also prepared by one of his daughters.
Pahalgam has four different areas to explore: a meadow above the village called Baisaran and three scenic valleys – Betaab, Chandanwadi and Aru. Baisaran and Betaab valley can be trekked to or accessed on ponies, while the other valleys are far out and need a car ride. We decided to save them for later and on our 2nd morning there, we headed out on foot to Betaab valley. On the way, we passed a bunch of horsemen with their horses, waiting for their first business of the day. They weren’t pleased that we had decided to go to Betaab on foot, but were warm nevertheless. They chatted with us for a while, shook hands with Madhu and just as we left, requested us to engage them whenever we decide to go to Baisaran. We were quite struck with their warmth and easy-going approach. Yes, they were definitely fishing for business in the future but they had a super nice way of going about it. The horsemen near Pahalgam’s main market were far more aggressive and demanding. We made a mental note of looking out for these guys if and when we are in need of a pony ride.
The walk to Betaab valley from Laripora first took us past the neighboring village of Mirpora and then on to the tarred road that connects Pahalgam with Chandanwadi. We walked about a kilometer and a half on this road as it rose above the Lidder river, giving us fantastic views of the settlements below. On the way, we met two locals who smiled back at us warmly and also stopped to chat (Kashmiris are turning out to be even friendlier than the Himachalis!). They asked us the usual questions: where we from and whether we were enjoying Kashmir! On learning that we were heading to Betaab valley, they instructed us to continue on to the first switchback and then take a village road, which cuts across to the valley faster than the tarred road. We thanked them profusely and continued on. Just as they suggested, at the first switchback, we found a dirt trail leading off to the right. It was nicely shaded with large walnut trees; lovely green fields extended behind them. We came across a village with many traditional homes and a small school. Children in neat uniforms were outside playing in the schoolyard. It was fun watching them while they watched us right back with curious eyes. Beyond the school, we passed a lovely stream and then yet another cluster of homes. Here we saw a group of 3 local women standing and chatting. I decided to check with them if we were still on the right path to Betaab valley. Even though their Hindi wasn’t perfect, they managed to communicate that we hadn’t strayed. As we walked on, the road sloped upwards and turned out to be a little steep. A few meters up, we stopped to catch our breath. The 3 women I had spoken to earlier came up the slope behind us, smiling broadly. One of them told us, in broken Hindi, to follow them as they were heading towards the valley themselves.
The women were dressed is salwar kameezes without the traditional pheran over it. They carried empty baskets and a mean-looking sickle, out to collect firewood. They smiled, talked amongst themselves and giggled throughout the way probably at our expense; it was quite amusing! One of them, the tallest and funniest amongst them, asked us how we were related. And then with a mischievous grin told Madhu that he looked much older than me LOL. I almost fell over laughing in glee LOL. More local women joined us as the village road finally cut back on to the main road. Along the way, one of the women pointed to my daypack and asked what was inside. I had some of the cashews and dried apricots that we had bought the previous day. I took them out and offered it to the women, who seemed thrilled. They held out their palms while I tried hard to distribute the meager contents as evenly as possible. Madhu noticed that some of them dug into the snack immediately while others wrapped it up in their dupattas, presumably for later or to share with others; we were touched!
Half a kilometer later, another tarred road forked downwards off from the main one. The women led us down here and then quite suddenly we found ourselves in a parking lot at the entrance of a gated area; we had reached Betaab valley. Madhu and I bought entry tickets for ourselves while the women were let through the gates ticketless. They waved us goodbyes and disappeared into the wooded area beyond; they had made our walk to Betaab valley absolutely special!
Betaab valley is a large picnic area with the Lidder river flowing right through it and green, snow-capped mountains forming the backdrop. Made famous because of the shooting of a Hindi film ‘Betaab’ – starring (in fact, introducing) Sunny baba and Amrita Singh – the area is quite gorgeous and beautifully maintained. A paved walkway runs around the perimeter of the meadow and plenty of trees provide many shaded spots for visitors to picnic under. Apart from tourists there were picnicking school children as well with large food hampers; they looked all set for a fun day outdoors! Visitors can spend hours here, if armed with enough food and books to laze with, but Madhu and I simply walked around, sat for a while beside the river, stopped for a coffee at the lone food-stall and then left.
On our way back to Laripora, the weather suddenly deteriorated and dark clouds led to a steady drizzle. After waiting it out in our room for a while, when the drizzle lessened, we headed out to Pahalgam village for a late lunch. This time no one offered us a lift, so it took us about 20minutes to get there. We ate at Nathu Rasoi, which offered delicious, good quality, vegetarian food. But it’s extremely popular and therefore, packed, chaotic and noisy! We concentrated on the food, ate quickly and left. The rain didn’t subside rendering any more sight-seeing activities for the day impossible.