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.

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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.

Visiting the Turtle Village of Coastal Maharashtra

“The mother turtle never meets her babies, and so she takes the utmost care to protect the eggs as she leaves them in mother nature’s lap”, Mohan – my host spoke, as we sipped on the ginger tea. Since my arrival the previous evening, he had shared many interesting facts about the sea turtles. The dawn was breaking, but it would still be some time before the first ray of sun entered this densely covered, remote village; tucked away amidst the Sahyadri mountain range in coastal Maharashtra.

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On the way to Velas

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The bus stand of some tiny village, enroute Velas

After a long wait & planning, finally I was at Velas – the turtle town of coastal Maharashtra, to attend the turtle festival. The trip also served my purpose of going off the radar for sometime. No place is really remote if your cell phone has signals, and so I was happy when I lost the network the minute I entered the village; and my phone didn’t ring until I left the place. Those two days were blissfully spent relaxing, contemplating, meeting new people, learning new things & exploring the place without any digital distraction. I hopped on the pillion seat of Mohan’s bike as we headed for the beach. It was a cool morning and the nonchalant village was slowly waking up from a sweet slumber. The narrow streets were lined with rustic houses and numerous trees. The bike was wobbly on the unpaved and bumpy dirt roads; I tightened my grip on the grab bar.

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Velas Village

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Velas Village

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Turtle nesting facility at the Velas beach

India is a global nesting hotspot for Olive Ridley sea turtles and Velas accounts for 40% of Sea Turtle nests along the coast of Maharashtra. The volunteers check the turtle nests for hatchlings twice every day: 7am & 6pm. During the nesting season, which is between November-January, the volunteers at Velas keep a close check (night patrolling as well) on the shores & track the turtle trails for nests. Goes without saying, these are sand nests, cleverly dug in the safest places on the shore. Once the nest is spotted, the eggs are then carefully transferred to a fenced nesting facility on the beach. This safeguards the eggs from any possible threats. Replica of the original nest is made by taking the accurate width & depth of it. After about 45-50 days the hatchlings slowly start making their way out of the sand nests. They must be released into the waters as soon as they out. Only the volunteers are involved up to this point and the event of letting the hatchlings into the waters is open for everyone – that’s what the famous Velas Turtle Festival is all about. March-April are the months when the nests open. It is said that the sea turtles have strong memories associated with their birthplace and hence will swim over 3000 miles, returning to their natal beach to lay eggs.

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The turtle trail

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The hatchlings. PC: Mohan Upadhye

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Volunteers letting the juveniles into the water. PC: Mohan Upadhye

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The baby turtles making it to their home

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New born Olive Ridley. PC: Mohan Upadhye

It had rained untimely a day before and this sudden change in weather had affected the temperature of the nests. I was disappointed as I had no luck spotting any baby turtles. To cheer me up, Mohan offered to show me the vulture nesting site in a nearby town called Harihareshwar – another beach town. I learned more interesting things there. As we know these scavenger birds feed on the dead/rotten meat; for which they’ve got extremely corrosive stomach acids . Now, they make nests on tall trees like the coconut, but their droppings destroy the trees and vegetation around it. For this reason people do not allow the vultures on their lands/farms. The forest department along with other nature conservationists here, decided to provide a certain amount as compensation to the farmers who owned those trees where the vulture made its nests. Happy and encouraged with the scheme, the people gladly host the vultures now & the environmentalists have succeeded in saving one more species from getting extinct.

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On the way to Harihareshwar to see the Vulture Nesting colony

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Life in a village

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The rustic houses

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My homestay at Velas

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Enjoying the simple, home cooked food by the friendly hosts

In the evening, we went to the beach again with no luck still. I strode away to explore the beach and a nearby hillock. The sun was about to leave the sky. Feeling the wind in my hair, I sat watching the performance of the birds returning home, waves lapping on the shore, and the changing colors of the sky. The feeling of doing nothing and sitting on a hillock in this remote village was kind of peaceful and empowering. I headed back towards the village road when the sun traveled to another side of the globe. It was dark soon & we could hear muffled sounds of many insects. Suddenly I saw a firefly, and another and another and another. Soon I was in the middle of at least a hundred fireflies. It was a breathtaking sight! I’d never seen anything so beautiful. I tried capturing it in my camera, but couldn’t, the camera did no justice to what I witnessed. I finally gave up and decided to enjoy the moment instead. I stood watching them breath lovely fluorescent lights in the ink black landscape, in some kind of beautiful rhythm that could only be felt.

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Velas beach

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Sunset at Velas Beach

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Thanks to the co-host Vaibhavi for this click

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Another click by the co-host, Vaibhavi

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Velas beach as seen from the hillock

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Beautiful sunset by the beach

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The happy feet@Velas Beach

Reaching Velas

Velas is a tiny village in Coastal Maharashtra, with minimal connectivity. Best routes are Mumbai-Velas or Pune-Velas, I had taken Pune-Velas route.

Distance from Mumbai: 225 KM (approx.)
Distance from Pune: 199 KM (approx.)

If you wish to take the state transport bus, try to book it in advance as there’s only 1 direct bus from each place per day, for Velas.

Where to stay

There’re plenty of homestays in Velas. Call on the numbers given on the website & book it in advance. During the turtle festival (again, refer the website for dates), there’s a huge surge of tourists.

Trekking in the Incredible Valley of Flowers

“Phoolon ki Ghati” the board read, meaning “Valley of Flowers”. A mountain stood tall behind it with its peak buried in the wispy clouds. The mist moved about slowly with an aim to embrace everything in its path.

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Entrance to the Valley of Flowers National Park

Incredible! I thought aloud, as I stood captivated by the magnificent view. I stood where the path forked after crossing a gorge & a massive stream. I would take the other path the following day to trek along the glaciers to another wondrous place called Hemkund Sahib. The weather had cleared that morning & day was perfect for the much-awaited trek into the Valley. Perfect weather meant no thick fog, light or no rain, but the temperature would still typically range from 15 to 8 ˚Celsius (59 to 46 ˚F); nights being especially cold. Geared up with my day-pack, a light jacket, and a raincoat hanging around the waist I started trekking towards the fabled Valley, breathing in lungs full of freshest-ever air.

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IMG_0274 Magnificent sites while trekking towards the park

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Melting glaciers

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Crossing the glacial stream

The Valley of flowers can be reached by trekking around 16 km from Govindghat to Ghangria. Porters & ponies are available as well, but of course trekking is the thrill most prefer. There are helipads at the base in Govindghat and near Ghangria too, and that apart no other vehicles are available on the top (such bliss!) We halted at Ghangria the previous evening & trekked to the Valley at the following daybreak.

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The enchanting valley

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Slice of paradise

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The guides inspecting a plant/flower

Hidden for centuries, the Valley was first discovered by Frank Smythe & R.L. Holdsworth, when they chanced upon it in 1931. The story of this discovery is quite interesting too. While returning from a successful Kamet expedition – the second highest mountain in Garhwal Himalayas, Smythe & Holdsworth were caught in a thick fog and lost their way, however, they continued walking. But as the clouds cleared away gradually, they found themselves standing amidst a fairyland bustling with zillion wildflowers.

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Garden of gods

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Many species of flora unique to this place is found in the valley. Almost each one of it has great medicinal values.

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As I inched closer to the valley, it was like a fairytale come true. Glacier melted afar, air crisp with assorted fragrance, meandering clouds almost touching the ground, cold stream gushing & freezing the breeze that touched it, and wide stretches dotted with dainty, vibrant flowers surrounded by lush mountains. Half expecting to hear the tinkling of the fairy chimes; I walked amazed by the stunning flowers & enthralling beauty of the place.

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This enchanted land lays frozen for about 6-7 months of the year. As the snow starts melting in April, the seeds start germinating. The valley is in full bloom between July to August (which is of course the best time to visit), after which the plants start maturing. The valley changes its colors every few days as new flowers bloom. By the end of September most plants are bearing seeds & berries, and the valley soon gets covered by the fresh snow as the Himalayan winter sets in. Stretched over a span of 87.5 sq. km, the valley is a glacial corridor about 8 km long and 2 km wide; with an altitude of 10500-12000 feet (approx.). The Pushpawati River flowing in the vicinity is adorned with pink Epilobium latifolium, commonly known as ‘River beauty’ during its flowering season and is quite a sight, our guide told us.

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Few of the flowers blooming in July end (early August)

We wandered deeper into the valley and reached the memorial of Joan Margaret Legge – a botanist who had slipped and fell off and was forever retained by the garden of gods. A memorial with beautiful inscription stands on the burial spot.

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Miss Legge’s memorial with a beautiful inscription

I breathed in a waft of fresh air, and let my thoughts drift away with the valley’s breeze – over the flower beds, into the gurgling streams, among the stray clouds, along the slopes & over the thriving mountains. The Pushpawati meandered gently from afar as I sat savoring the quiet moments of this alpine valley, where fairies reside.

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Important: Valley of flowers is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, please be a responsible traveler. Take nothing but memories & leave nothing but footprints.

~She leaves a tiny part of her heart everywhere she travels and memories from the place fill up the void in her heart and soul.~

Scuba Diving In India

Splash! A leap of faith taken! The surface closing overhead, you are sinking in slowly. Buoyancy is working its science but the weights on you help you descend into the colorless waters. You hear the sound of your breath and your heartbeat regulates with the rhythm of the quiet waters. Tranquility takes over and everything becomes still, even the chaotic thoughts go hush. An absolute peace pervades as you glide weightlessly in the vibrant underwater realm.

No, it’s not a dream; it’s a Scuba Dive experience, attempted in words, though some experiences cannot be articulated.

Scuba Diving is gaining popularity in India, given its vast coastline & numerous islands. Land locked on one side & surrounded by seas on the other three; peninsular India offers a whooping chance to experience some of the most unparalleled adventures.The many islands in the Andaman and Arabian Seas with its incredibly rich marine life and pristine undersea world provide boundless opportunities to experience the mysterious world beneath the waves. The dive sites here are some of the best ones in the world.

Also read: Diving In The Andaman Sea In Phuket

Listed below are the places in India where you can go Scuba Diving.

Lakshadweep Islands

Located 300KM off the coast of Kerala, Lakshadweep – meaning one hundred thousand islands, is a stunning archipelago. Closer to Maldives, these palm-covered, sand-skirted coral islands have best of the dive sites. Its pristine turquoise lagoons, unspoiled coral reefs & diverse marine life are diver’s paradise. Bangaram is a popular choice among the travelers. Dive to witness the colorful reef visited by manta rays, turtles, and occasional whale shark.

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SOURCE

Andaman & Nicobar Islands

Located in the middle of nowhere, the Andaman Islands are a remote archipelago of about 300 islands floating in the Andaman Sea. Havelock is the most popular one for its legendary beaches and best dive sites. The island’s opaque emerald waters are home to vibrant coral reefs and rich marine life. Dive to see barracudas, batfish, turtles join the schools of snapper amidst the colorful coral & sponges. The pristine snow-white beaches put up a great show at the purple sunsets.

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Goa

Buzzing with tourists and visitors from all over the world all year round, Goa needs no introduction. Diving off Goa’s Grand Island into the Arabian Sea has a charm of its own. Dive in the crystal clear water here and glide over the lush coral gardens, school of fish and historic shipwrecks of Spanish & Portuguese ships.

Goa

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Netrani Island

Located off the coast of Karnataka, Netrani Island is a remote piece of land floating in the Arabian Sea. It is known for its clear waters, rich marine life and variety of coral. As it’s located further out in the open waters of the Arabian Sea, divers have also spotted humpback, killer whale and occasional whale sharks passing by their migratory routes.

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SOURCE

Pondicherry

French colony, cobbled streets, faded colonial-era townhouses, Boho-chic vibes, French food, spirituality and Auroville that’s Puducherry (former Pondicherry) located on the southeastern coast of India. Drift Diving off Pondicherry into the Bay of Bengal is gaining popularity due to the marine life spotted here. A great range of fan corals, whale sharks, manta rays, school of jack fish & other rays can also be seen.

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SOURCE

Written as a Guest post for TheMobo (published on 11 July, 2015)

Roaming in the Western Ghats

Sitting in a sparsely crowded bus station at 5 a.m. and sipping hot tea, I looked around. A few curious faces stared back at me. I was waiting for the daybreak. A sudden plan & I had packed my backpack, journeyed overnight and landed in a new place at the wee hours. And so here I was, waiting for the sunrise to take over the hostile darkness. In about an hour or so, there was light & we strutted in the small town to lookout for a place to stay. After checking some places (read negotiating the tariff) we finally dumped our luggage in an okay-ish room (clean+affordable is always a thumbs up for me).

Without much delay, we set out on the roads to feel the mountain wind in hair. An impromptu budget trip is always fun and comes with a unique experience each time. This time it was an auto ride all over the map of the coffee town of Chikmagalur!

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Auto adventures

While everywhere else the scorching sun was being cursed, he seemed to have toned down his brightness settings for this part of the country. I was really happy with his decision – as I instantly fell in love with the place. It jogged my memory to the mist covered Himalayan hamlets, which are close to my heart!

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On the way to the mountains of western ghats

A rough auto ride (after an overnight bus journey) followed by a little trek was tiring. But what waited at the end of it was a sight for soar eyes! Abundant earth colors splashed all over, distinct forest scent & refreshing cool breeze stole all the weariness.

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Welcomed to Mulayanagiri

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View from the top

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6000+ feet above sea level

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Such a happy scene to look at!

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Mountain, soil, flowers, greens, mist…

I was atop Mulayanagiri – the highest peak in Western Ghats spread over in the state of Karnataka, India.

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From the top of Mulayanagiri – not so great pan image, though.

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Wandering about…

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Dreaming of heaven with open eyes

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Dark skies, thundering and some dramatic effects, creating a mood

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Beautiful landscapes

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The tired but happy feet

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Pretty flower that was about to bloom in multiples & carpet the entire mountain soon

Deliriously roaming around and clicking pictures and soaking in the beauty of the place, next up was a trek (yet another one) through the coffee plantation to a Jhari (also Jerry) falls. A cascade carelessly falling, its gurgling sound – a song of nature, closely resembled an enchanted place from a storybook.

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Hiking through the coffee plantation & forests

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The coffee flower

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First view of the Jhari falls. Tiny eh? wait & watch!

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A little closer

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There! That’s the Jhari/Jerry falls, falling merrily

We retired for the day as our heart and soul drenched with content.

Following day started early as we headed for the Muthodi forests in a hope to spot tiger! Sadly, we did not spot it 😦 Here’s what you should do for better chances of spotting most animals, tiger (if you are lucky) included – start early, be there by 6 a.m. You can also avail a stay in the forest guest-house by visiting the Bhadra Tiger Reserve office in Chikamagalur (08262-234904). If you are in a bigger group (8-10 people) hiring a Jeep for about Rs. 4000/- turns out to be a better option and you can start the safari right away without waiting for more people to join in. We paid Rs. 1000/- (500 per person) for the safari.

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Bhadra Tiger Reserve, Muthodi Forests

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Enjoying the peace of jungle

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The quiet Bhadra river inside the Muthodi forest

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Crisp air and clear water – nature at its best

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Almost in the centre (little lower) is seen the Giant Malabar Squirrel

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The forest sky

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Pretty in Pink – flower of the bashful ‘touch-me-not’ plant

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Wading through a stream on the Safari

To beat the heat, Chikmagalur is one of the coolest (literally) places to visit. After enjoying some local shopping and purchasing coffee (Chikmagalur is called the ‘coffee land of Karnataka’) I bid adieu to the beautiful place.

~She leaves a tiny part of her heart everywhere she travels and memories from the place fill up the void in her heart and soul.~