Memories From Pahalgam: A Beautiful Town In Kashmir

Kashmir is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places that I’ve travelled to. There’s so much I’ve missed and yet there’s so much I’ve experienced on each travel. Each time that I’ve been to Kashmir, I was always in for a new experience and abundant beauty to feast on. The people I’ve met, have always been so kind and friendly and listening to them has always given me new, fresh perspectives, much different from what is perceived otherwise .

Lidder river in Pahalgam

Before I headed for the gorgeous Kashmir Great Lakes Trek, I decided to explore Pahalgam, as it had been on my mind for the longest time. And though 2 days aren’t enough to really ‘explore’ any place, I tried to take in as much as I could. My brother, who was joining me for the trek, agreed to also join me at Pahalgam. And so we landed in Kashmir a couple of days before the trek began.

Also read: Traversing the Great Lakes of Kashmir

Reaching Pahalgam

After some 3ish hours of driving past the city, dusty highway, saffron fields, apple and apricot orchards, we arrived in Pahalgam around late afternoon. As we were inching closer to the town, the landscape changed. A roar of Lidder and surrounding beautiful mountains were our constant companions. Our accommodation was located closer to the river and we had the best of the time listening to its gurgling.

Chai with a view, Pahalgam, Kashmir

It was cold, not biting cold but pleasantly cold and that definitely called for hot chai. We set out for a walk through the town and across the river to reach the opposite bank. The weather just kept getting pleasant and the views around just kept getting better. I stopped every now and then to talk to the locals, posing kids and to try and capture the beauty of the place in my camera. It was a walk without any plan, any destination in mind, which is why I probably don’t have much to say about it except that it filled me some kind of unexplainable joy of walking in this charming town of Pahalgam in Kashmir.

Pahalgam is quite a popular place given that the Amarnath yatra – a spiritual journey to the Amarnath caves starts from here. There are a number of scenic places to visit in Pahalgam such as the Betaab Valley, Aru Valley, Tulian Lake, and the temple ruins of Awantipora are some attractions close by from Pahalgam. Awantipora, Tulian Lake and Lidderwat especially, still remain on my list and I will have to come back here again, some day.

Walking towards Baisaran meadow

Following morning, after a hearty breakfast we decided to hike to some nearby places. Our hotel manager had connected us with a local guide with whom we started walking. The first spot was Baisaran meadow. Located about 6ish km from Pahalgam, one can also take a pony ride to reach here. The weather was lovely and the trail passed through thick pine forests. Fresh forest smell filled our lungs. Numerous freshwater streams snaked through the forest.

Walk through beautiful forests of Pahalgam, Kashmir

A little over an hour later we were at the beautiful Baisaran meadow. As it wasn’t really a peak tourist season, there was no crowd here. In fact we had the whole place to ourselves. There are a few touristy things to do here, like zorbing, but we just walked around the place, sipped the hot kehwa, chatted with the few locals and simply enjoyed the place.

Kashmir Valley
Baisaran Valley

Next, we started walking towards the Pahalgam Valley. Because we were able to keep a good pace, (and by now our guide was friends with us), he offered to take us back through a path that was used only by locals & shepherds and not going back the same way as we came. This needed us to walk some extra kilometres, and we were totally game for it. After all, why would we give up an opportunity to walk some offbeat paths?

The path, as was obvious, lacked humans, all we saw was a few livestock and some shepherd huts – everyone busy and away. It was a different thrill to walk this part of Pahalgam and we thoroughly enjoyed it. The guide bid a farewell a few kilometres before the main town area as he stayed somewhere in the outskirts. We walked back a kilometre or two to reach the main market area.

Shepherd’s hut near Pahalgam

After feasting on a nice lunch, as my brother decided to take a nap, and I thought of visiting the Lidder again. When I told the young Kashmiri boy at the reception that I was going to the river, he gave me details of a shortcut to reach there. He promptly offered to guide me when he saw my confused expressions. He was a no-nonsense person, after guiding me to the river and some small talks, he went and sat away as if he knew I needed to be alone and undisturbed. He offered to wait so as to make sure I reached back safely, but since I was kinda confident to find my way back I politely told him he could leave.

Dandelion in forest, Kashmir

I sat by the Lidder absorbed in its beauty until the dusk. The sunset was obstructed by the tall mountains but the changing colours of sky, the rhythmic gurgle of Lidder and this strange kind of silence added such dramatic effects to that evening. Soon, it got dark and not really wanting to leave such a setting, I half-heartedly made my way back to the hotel. The Lidder roared silently behind me and the tall mountains watched over me.

The Spring Vibes

The parched landscapes turn picturesque, skies are clear without any traces of the wintry gloom, grass blades sparkle and a countless flowers bloom unfolding Spring in India. This temperate season is a transition between the extreme temperatures of winter and summer. This sublime climate Spring breathes new life into the world by painting the earth with lovely colors.

It is the perfect time for travelers and adventure enthusiasts mainly because it neither too chilly (especially in the Northern parts of India) or hot and humid – as the general climate is in most parts of the country. Apart from being pleasant, another advantage is that it is not exactly the peak season (major holidays/long weekends fall in the second half of the calendar year in India).

Starting sometime in February, Spring in India can be experienced upto April, the period varying for different places throughout the country. Like in Bangalore I have been seeing a lot of vibrant blooms of yellow, pink, and purple flowers, for the last few days, which is fading slowly. But that one March when I was traveling to Chikamagalur I’d seen the lovely blooms of the pretty coffee flowers and vibrant wildflowers while roaming in the Western Ghats of India. While the famous Tulip festival of Srinagar starts sometime in April, a walk through the bright Rhododendron forests of Sikkim is the highlight of travelling to Sikkim this season.

Spring in India is a short lived, transitional season, so head to these stunning spring destinations as soon as you can to witness the breathtaking spring blossoms. Let me know which of these (or any other spring destinations that you have visited) is your favourite.

Rhododendron Blooms at Sikkim

Rhododendron blooms

Tulip Gardens of Srinagar

Tulip garden

Coffee Flower Blossoms in Coorg

Coffee flower

Wildflowers in Western Ghats

Wildflower in Chikmagalur

Goecha La: Rendezvous With Mount Kanchenjunga

October is supposedly the best time for Goechala trek. But the rains hadn’t ceased till early October that year and I was wondering whether I should have waited for a few more days? Walking in the incessant rains and slippery slopes of slush into the wilderness of the Kanchenjunga National Park, I was both thrilled and irritated at the same time.

Goechala trek was the last leg of my 1.5 month-long of solo backpacking in Sikkim. I had carefully chosen the early October dates, but who am I to plan anything anyway? What happened over the next few days was exhausting, challenging, thrilling, and insane, yes, but most of all it was a wonderful, overwhelming, fulfilling and soul-soothing experience that warms my heart even today when I look back and think of it.

Inside Kanchenjunga National Park: Goechala Trek
Inside Kanchenjunga National Park: Goechala Trek

My best friend & a fellow-volunteer I met while volunteering in the Sikkim Himalayan Academy decided to join me for the trek. The trek had begun at Yuksom – a quaint little town that was the first capital of Sikkim. Huddled close to the mountains, the charming town gave an insight into what was coming. The stunning views of the Kanchenjunga as seen from the window, the biting cold mountain wind and the undisturbed tranquillity was like a teaser of the grandeur that we were to experience over the next few days.

We met a team of 2, 20-something local boys who were to be our guide and porter, respectively. I profoundly thank these kind-hearted, genuine and absolutely lovely mountain people because of whom, I have been able to walk in the mighty mountains so far. And of course, the mountains themselves for being kind to me, always.

Icy Stream Inside The Forest: Goechala Trek

The younger one, the guide, whom I ended up naming Chyanu Bhai (meaning younger brother in local parlance, I may have got the spelling wrong though) by the end of the trek, looked so young that I was considering requesting for an experienced guide. Turned out that he actually had an experience of independently guiding groups to Goechala for the last 5-6 years. He had been assisting his elder brother (who is a seasoned trekker & trek leader for some of the reputed travel & outdoor companies) for years before independently taking up the guide’s role.

Entering The Kanchenjunga National Park

After getting the permits checked, we walked through the gate of the Kanchenjunga National Park feeling exhilarated. The walk was comfortable with a gradual climb, soothing forest views and the sun shining all the way up to the point where we halted for lunch. We met a few other trekkers, made way for many ‘Dzo’s – the big yak-like creatures that are used to carry the stuff uphill. Chyanu told me those aren’t really yaks, but a crossbreed of yaks and buffalos/bulls.

Dreamy landscape: Goechala Trek
Dreamy landscape: Goechala Trek

The trail this day involved crossing a few bridges that were laced with the colourful prayer flags, and milky white water gushing underneath with a roar. “It is from places such as these that the wind carries the prayers and the soothing sounds of waterfalls far and wide into the valleys and plains, spreading the blessings of the mountains”, Chyanu said, with a sense of pride when he saw me looking fondly at the waterfall cascading beneath and touching the prayer flags. I smiled and told him I completely agree with him – how could I not? It was true, after all.

It felt cooler as we advanced higher and deeper into the thickets of the Khangchendzonga National Park in the later hours. And in no time, it started drizzling. Chyanu urged us to walk faster, but the slopes were getting slippery with mud & droppings of the dzos (I had accidentally dunked my feet in it once and felt awful the whole time!).

Beautiful Vistas: Goechala Trek
Beautiful Vistas: Goechala Trek

In spite of speeding up the pace, we were not able to reach the camp as the rains got pretty heavy. We saw some makeshift huts about an hour before our actual campsite. We were super tired and it was getting dark too. Our resourceful porter spoke to the locals and managed to arrange for us to spend the night there. We were starting to feel the cold of the mountains now. It was here that I tasted the first local drink of Sikkim – ‘thongba’ or ‘bamboo’ – as it is more popularly known as, with our hosts while waiting for dinner. The thongba is made of millets and is served in a container made of bamboo. I don’t remember well how it tasted but I sure do remember the hearty laughter as we sipped and passed around the thongba, aroma of the lentils being cooked, subtle warmth of the firewood and the sound of rain falling outside.

Misty Mountains: Goechala Trek
Misty Mountains: Goechala Trek

There was rain throughout the day 2 and honestly, I couldn’t look around much while walking as I had to be careful of my footings. It was getting difficult to keep up a good pace but we did manage somehow. On day 3 we woke up to a clear sky and the walk this day was such a relief – not only because it didn’t rain but because the walk was lovely. We hiked through dreamy meadows where the free, wild horses grazed at a distance, made our way through hazy forests, walked along and crossed many icy streams – the walk was just too beautiful! The peaks surrounding us were still enveloped in the clouds, giving the whole scene a very dream-like and unearthly look and feel.

colourful wild flora of Kanchenjunga  National Park
Beautiful Landscapes of Goechala Trek

Reaching Dzongri

By the time we reached our campsite at Dzongri, it had started raining heavily again. I was to learn an important lesson here – never to underestimate the mountain weather – not that I ever did but on the Goechala trek (in the month of October, when it doesn’t normally rain so much) it came as a strong reminder of how unpredictable and so damn powerful it is. Most of our bags along with its contents, shoes & socks got drenched. That night we spent a good deal of time in the kitchen tent drying our shoes and socks (mainly) and discussing whether to move ahead or wait for the weather to clear. Next morning we packed up and started walking towards the next destination – Thansing.

Enroute Goechala In Sikkim
Enroute Goechala In Sikkim

Trek to Thansing was again a pleasant one, though it drizzled intermittently. We were inching closer to the last campsite, the views were more unobstructed and overwhelming, colourful patches of wild flora dotted the stretches, mounds of boulders, and grassy slopes kept the sight of trekker’s huts at Thansing hidden away from us.

Colorful Flora, Icy Streams, Giant Mountains: Goechala Trek - don't miss the wild horses grazing
Colorful Flora, Icy Streams, Giant Mountains: Goechala Trek – don’t miss the wild horses grazing

We were about 1ish km away from the campsite, exhausted but happy with the walk and the enchanted by the beauty. Though the campsite was still not in sight, we spotted our porter walking towards us three mugs and a kettle of hot black tea. He had reached the camp with the luggage, prepared tea for us and walked back all the way to serve us tea in the middle of nowhere – saving us the walk till the camp to have it – such are these kind-hearted mountain people 🙂

Chai in the mountains against a stunning backdrop: Goechala Trek
Chai in the mountains against a stunning backdrop: Goechala Trek

Reaching Thansing

The Thansing campsite is my most favourite one ever, though I was able to see the surrounding beauty only after returning from the final climb to Goechala viewpoint and before starting the return journey. Apparently, there are 3 spots or viewpoints (named so for convenience I believe) – viewpoint 3 being closest to the Goecha pass. But as per the rule put up by the Sikkim government, no one is allowed beyond viewpoint 1 – not sure if it’s still the case. So be sure to confirm this and if you can go further and beyond then I guess nothing like it. I learned only later that you don’t really trek up all the way to the actual Goecha Pass due to restrictions by the government. Now I’m not too sure of the reasons, but only wish it will be allowed some time in the future.

It still rained continuously when we reached Thansing. The thick mist obstructed the beautiful views of the surrounding valley & peaks that you can so clearly see otherwise. Though I was thoroughly enjoying the trek and every experience added to it, I was a little disheartened as continued rain could mean we’d have to turn back without visiting the Goechala viewpoint. We had a buffer day but I dearly wished the rains took a break. That night, oblivious to the snowy peaks that towered the clearing where we camped, I prayed for a clear day before falling asleep to the sound of mountain rains.

Trekker's hut at Thansing: Goechala Trek
Trekker’s hut at Thansing: Goechala Trek

Trekking To Lam Pokhri

Next morning as planned, we set out for the Lam Pokhri lake that is almost to the east of Thansing. It was intermittently drizzling and misty. The mist lifted every now and then to reveal a few smaller, unnamed lakes – absolutely clear and pristine. Halfway through, we met a few European trekkers who had also set out for Lam Pokhri but had to return without visiting the lake, as the weather ahead had turned bad; we too considered turning back to Thansing. The mist cover was getting thicker and though we traced our steps back the same way we came, I couldn’t see some of those smaller lakes that we saw earlier.

A Nondescript Lake On The Way To Lam Pokhri: Goechala Trek

The Final Climb Towards The Goecha Pass

It was the last day, last chance, I prayed fervently. I think every trekker that day at the Thansing campsite was praying for a clear day. Chyanu told us he will keep a check on the weather and wake us up at 12.30 am. We ate and slept early that evening with a mix of excitement and nervousness.

At 12.30 am, we woke up – happy at the sight of clear skies. With head torches strapped to our forehead and geared with a day pack, we finally started trekking at 1.15 am. I looked up and gaped at the millions of stars shining in the dark sky and the many snowy peaks along with Kanchenjunga shimmering in the soft silvery moonlight – no matter how much I try I just cannot put the feeling the whole scene instilled in me, in words here.

Without really knowing how or what the trek path looked like and putting all our faith in the mountains, the guide and his experience, we trekked for 4 hours straight reaching just before sunrise at the viewpoint 1 to witness something extraordinarily beautiful, something grand…

Gold!

A Golden Sunrise Over The Mount Kanchenjunga
A Golden Sunrise Over The Mount Kanchenjunga

I stood awestruck at the grand sight that was unfolding before me. The mighty Mount Kanchenjunga stood majestically as if being crowned by the golden ray of sun, turning the world’s third highest mountain into a golden spectacle. Soon the other snowy peaks too bathed in gold. We can go on without not seeing such sights ever in our life and it wouldn’t change much but seeing something this powerful will guaranteed change something inside you – not being preachy and you’ll agree with me too if you have even once seen a sunrise from the mountain top.

Kanchenjunga Mountain Range
Kanchenjunga Mountain Range

On our way back after witnessing the riches of nature, we saw the actual trail that we took in the dark of the night – and it was a very beautiful one. We halted for breakfast by the Samiti Lake and its lovely reflections. Another campsite – Lamuney is around here and though it is closer to Goechala, Thansing is the most preferred site for many favourable reasons.

Samiti Lake & Reflections: Goechala Trek
Samiti Lake & Reflections: Goechala Trek

Tshoka – a tiny Tibetan settlement was our last camp. You’d see a few houses, trekker’s huts, a monastery, a lake and lots of pretty views. Being back broke the trance and solace of the mountains I walked in the past few days but I was at peace. That day I walked around, stayed up late and woke up early to soak in the essence of the mountains as much as possible, one last time, before we started the final descend, physically leaving the mountains behind but feeling it in every pore of my skin.

Gandikota: Of Rocks, River And ‘Gorge’ous Views

Pennar river & gorge at Gandikota

Gandikota: A Beauty Lost In Time

We walked through the narrow alleys of the Gandikota village, dotted with houses, with goats tied to posts, chickens running around, men and women busy in conversations. I looked around the massive red sandstone walls of the impressive Gandikota Fort dating back to several centuries ago that must have guarded the town.

Spread over several miles, the fort has a long perimeter wall that can be seen alongside the ruins of the once-majestic fort and the beautiful Pennar river. The Pennar river – serene and tranquil, cuts through the Erramala hill ranges and forms a stunning gorge – the highlight of Gandikota.

Pennar river & the perimeter wall of the Gandikota Fort

I had heard about Gandikota, almost always being referred to as the Grand Canyon of India. Though I understand doing so gives one an idea about the place, but feel it’s more of a marketing gimmick. Calling a certain place a ‘this’ of ‘that’ is taking away the uniqueness of that place and comparing it to something else. And comparisons, in any form, is something I personally do not prefer.

Pennar River & Gorge

Though Gandikota was actually an offbeat place until a few years ago, it’s not anymore. It still is less-frequented, possibly due to the fact that the place is quite remote with only limited options to stay, eat, etc. I had visited the place in February 2018, and if not for the comfy road-trip that H agreed upon, it would have been kind of difficult for me to be there.

Entering the Gandikota Fort

The February weather is supposed to be cooler, at least it is so in the other parts of the country, but it wasn’t the case in Gandikota. The mornings & evening were comparatively manageable, but it got really hot during the day. So do check the weather, pack light clothes, sunscreen, hat, etc. On the other hand, you may want to consider visiting here during the relatively cooler months of December, January or the post-monsoon months of September-October, as per your convenience.

Charminar inside the Gandikota Fort

I was under an impression that I’ll definitely find someplace – out of the many – to stay, but after a lot of research, I learned that the Haritha Resort, maintained by AP Tourism department is your best (& only) bet for accommodation in Gandikota.

Pitching your own tent near the rocky cliffs is possible as well. There are no restaurants or shops in the vicinity of the fort or even around the village, so you may have to carry or cook your own food. Jammalamadugu is the nearest place where one can find any shops, ATMs etc. and which is 15ish km away. Perhaps this is the reason why not too many people crowd the place (which I think is a good thing! call me whatever).

Haritha Resort at Gandikota – managed by APTDC

If planning a stay in the Haritha hotel, expect very simple and basic food. The resort is well-maintained, the cottages are spacious and tidy. The staff speaks little English but is pretty helpful. As Haritha is the only accommodation available here (with about some 10-15 cottages) the bookings generally tend to get full soon. Also note that the booking can only be done online.

By the time I went to the APTDC website for the booking, there was no availability. I dropped a mail to the ID mentioned in the footer, & was super impressed when I actually received a call. The rep. was super helpful and after checking a few options like date change, etc, which were not matching with my plan, connected me with the Divisional Manager. I wasn’t sure if we’ll be able to continue with the plan or not but was happy to come across a team that was putting efforts in helping me.

Ranganath Swamy Temple near the Gandikota gorge view

After I had dropped the plan, two days later, the super helpful Divisonal Manager called me and told me we needn’t cancel our plan and that the accommodation will be managed for us! I must admit this level of customer-centricity was highly impressive. We set out on the road trip the next morning.

Panorama of the gorge

The drive was a pleasant one and passed through pretty sunflower fields, rocky hills and several nondescript villages. The final stretch of road leading up to the village had boulders and stones of various sizes on either side, that looked as if someone had neatly stacked them up.

Sunset and the ruins

A little before sunset we were relaxing on one of the many boulders strewn around the gorge formed by the Pennar river. The chaotic voices of the surroundings were subdued by the strong winds that blew over the dark water and across its magnificent gorge. We sat quietly watching the changing colours of the sky, the sunset on the rocky ruins opposite the gorge and the Pennar river moving quietly giving an illusion of stillness.

When I found a perfect spot

The next morning, however, we decided to go to the surrounding cliffs, a few kilometres away from the fort. It was absolutely quiet here, with not one soul around. If not for the cloudy skies, the sunrise over the gorge would have been a stunning sight. We walked around, hopped over the boulders until we found a perfect spot. I don’t remember how long we sat there, soaking in the peace and beauty of the surrounding that, for that moment, was just for us.

Other Places To See And Activities To Do In Gandikota

In the fort premises, there are numerous monuments and structures like the Juma Masjid, Charminar, Granary, Ranganath Swamy Temple etc. Apart from these, several adventure activities take place in and around the fort area. If interested one can also go for water sports like boating & kayaking in the nearby Mylavaram dam. The second largest natural caves in India – Belum Caves, which is at a distance of about 60ish km from Gandikota can also be visited.

Gandikota: Of rocks, river and ‘gorge’eous views

A Late Post From Cartist – A Creative Art Festival For Car And Art Lovers

While on a trip to visit family in Pune, happened to come across Cartist – a creative automobile art festival and roadshow. So, these car and art lovers are on a road journey across India showcasing the work of talented artists. The festival provides a platform, encourages and promotes the artists, art students and creative individuals. You can read more about them on their website.

Though this is a late post about the Pune venue, the Cartists will still be journeying across India and you could catch them at their next destination.

My brother-in-law, who is a Professor at the Agriculture College of Pune told us about this colorful art festival that was happening on his college campus. The Agriculture college is a beautiful, stone building with a lovely campus. When we strolled in at the venue in the afternoon, some of the artists and art students were at work with their creative hats on, armed with brushes, colors, and paints.

If you someone who appreciates art & creativity or an artist yourself, take a look at these. If you have missed them at Pune, don’t worry they will be going to more cities in India where you could catch the artists at work or maybe participate.

For now, enjoy these pictures from the art show in Pune.

Agriculture college campus, Pune
Agriculture college campus, Pune

Cartist Map
Cartist Map

Art festival Pune
Art festival Pune

Art Festival India
Art Festival

Art Festival Car Paintings
Art Festival Car Paintings

Cartist Art Festival
Colours and creativity

 

Cartist Art Festival
Artist at work

Cartist Art Festival
Cartist Art Festival