Next morning started with a trip to Nako. I had little interest in the place but thought might as well see it while in the vicinity. A woman requested her to drop her grandson to the village school, so that was another reason. Strangely, the children learn Hindi and English, but no local language in school. The drive took only a few minutes but we spent more time finding the space to park. The village is overrun with hotels, guest houses and similar buildings. Nako lake is another big disappointment. It is more like a dirty green pond rather than a lake. We saw it for a minute and went back to the car immediately.

View from road after Nako

View from road after Nako

After a few minutes of driving, we had to stop again due to traffic slowing down due to a small landslide. There were a few workers, I think from BRO (Border Roads Organisation) managing traffic. I came to know that that particular section collapsed only a few days later cutting off the traffic for a week, probably more. The mountains just after this section were very colourful and diverse and a lot of tourists were stopping every now and then to take photographs. After a while, we had to drive down the mountain and travel along the river. We passed a few small villages on the way and stopped at Tabo for some rest and lunch. It seemed mostly empty with only one tourist in sight and most locals inside their homes or probably in their farms. We had lunch in a small dhaba full of dogs and flies. Tabo monastery is quite old (996 AD ) but has a few new structures including a hostel, eating joint and new gompas etc.

Inside monastery in Tabo

Inside monastery in Tabo

The sun was so strong that most pictures came up way too over exposed on almost every normal setting. There was a small Buddhist temple that we saw first. Then a big hall with some paintings and sculptures. It was very dark inside and it took some time to adjust. There were a bunch of paintings and sculptures representing different characters of their mythology. I don’t know much about this so I can’t really say anything about that. They were selling some posters, tshirts and some other souvenirs. I considered getting a small poster, but there was no practical way to carry it back home. Photography was prohibited inside so there are no pictures. There are a bunch of caves only a few meters from the main roads which were used by monks as a quiet place to pray and meditate. I don’t think that they can be used for this anymore. There are a lot of hotels and guesthouses in Tabo too and more coming up. Another peaceful place going down the gutter.

View from Road below Dhankar

View from Road below Dhankar

We kept on driving and passed the road leading to Pin valley. We had no exact plan for the day and I was considering visiting Pin valley on this trip. But eventually decided against it. I had already seen some of it the last time and wanted to leave some for the next time. Next we stopped at a point just below Dhankar village. From there a few white buildings, presumably some part of the monastery and houses were faintly visible. View from Dhankar village is very good, it was nice to see it from the other side too. We then drove non-stop to Kaza and halted at Jamaica’s hotel there. He was still in Chandrataal and scheduled to come next day or day after that. I didn’t want to stay in Kaza waiting for him. We got some fuel from the pump there and moved on to Kibber. Most of Kaza was empty at the time as a lot of tourists were stuck near Lohsar due to cloudburst as mentioned in previous post. The bridge was open for traffic when we passed it next afternoon. There were a lot of stones and mud on it, but it was not holding up the traffic as it was doing before.

View of Dhankar from below

View of Dhankar from below

On our way to Kibber, 3 local women asked for a lift and gave us some of the dried apricots to eat. We reached our guest house at around 2 pm. There were a lot of teenagers in the guest house. Later the staff told me that the group was led by famous Indian mountaineer Bachendri Pal. They were going on a 3 day trek to a nearby pass. Fortunately, there was still a room available. After lunch, I still had 3-4 hours of day light left. I asked couple of locals if it was possible to make a quick hike to Gete and come back. Their replies were quite confusing. For people who don’t know, Gete is a very small settlement of 4-5 houses with great view of Kii monastery and Spiti river valley. I filled up my water bottle and camera and started on foot. The fields just behind the guesthouse were watered by a small stream coming from the general direction of Gete. So I followed the water for a while till it became too hard to walk alongside.

Pea fields in Kibber

Pea fields in Kibber

Apparently, locals in Lahaul Spiti region offer horns of animals like goat and perhaps ibex as offering to some gods or maybe spirits. There was a small white temple like structure full of such horns in middle of the fields and in many other places. There were few women working in their pea farms but it didn’t seem like the plants were ready for harvest yet. The rolling hills had a dirt path used by cars but I used shortcuts. It seemed like I was getting used to hiking in the high altitude. A light breeze was blowing when I started the hike. But it turned in to a almost a full fledged gale by the time I could see my destination in the distance. Whenever I was standing still, I could see my heavy DSLR swaying with the wind. Thankfully there was no dust, otherwise it’d have been very difficult. Whatever little I understand of this phenomena, sun heats up the air trapped in small river valleys and when it starts to go down in evening, the cold wind rushes down displacing the hot air almost violently. There were a few prayer flags on the ledges every now and they looked ready to break free and take flight any moment. While I was standing on top of one ledge, I heard someone shouting but there was no one in sight. Maybe wind carried the voice from afar.

Kii Monastery and the nearby village

Kii Monastery and the nearby village

Eventually I reached Gete with a view of Kanamo peak behind it and it was just as quiet and picturesque as it was last time. Took a few pictures of the village , valley and the monastery below and started to walk back to the guest house. Then a foreigner couple drove up on a scooter and said hello. They had seen me coming down from the ledge and asked if there was something to see there. While coming back, I took a slightly different route and ended up on a nearly straight drop of around 10 meters just above the road leading to Kibber. But managed to climb down slowly one step at a time. The hike had tired me out but it was a nice use of the time. I had a hot shower, my last for rest of the stay in Lahaul Spiti and had dinner soon after. The wind at the time was not strong but was cold enough that everyone was wearing jackets, caps etc. I noticed a very large and dark patch on my left leg in evening. I was wearing shorts for the last 2 days and the sun was directly on top of my left knee while I was in the car. That left me with a dark sun burn patch and it is still quite dark even after more than 5 weeks. There was more sunburn on my face and arms later but this was the worse of it.

Some blue sheep we saw near Kibber

Some blue sheep we saw near Kibber

Once back at guest house, I switched on the geyser and waited for one hour to get the water hot. Still had to bathe with cold water. Slept soon after dinner. Our journey next morning began with a quick visit to Tashi Gong village. After driving for a few minutes we saw a herd of Blue Sheep consisiting of 16-20 animals. They didn’t seem to be particularly afraid and kept on grazing and staring at us alternatively. TWe another smaller herd a few I had mistakenly assumed that the same road led to Langza too. So it was a bit of surprise when the road ended a few kms after passing Tashi Zom instead of going on towards Langza. So we drove to Tashi Gong and stopped there. I was hoping that the “guest house” we had visited last time would be open. The village had changed very little from the last time. The owner had another child this time, a boy along with the girl from last time. We asked for some chai and they started cooking full meal for us instead. We hardly had the appetite for that kind of food early morning and VK was hardly the type to eat something different from his usual daal roti chawal thing. Finally, we settled for some rotis with eggs and jam. For some reason, white flour is gaining popularity in the region even as rest of the people slowly stop using it. But the rotis were thicker and tasted different.

Tashi Gong Village

Tashi Gong Village

There are 4, maybe 5 children in the village and a teacher runs special classes for them. Another new thing was people using electric churners to make butter. Earlier they used to do it manually in leather bags. This time, they had attached churner to a plastic container. It is less tiring and probably faster. Even the Gaddi shepherds I met later were using plastic cans to churn butter instead of leather bags just 4 years back, but atleast they were doing it by hand. More on that maybe later. We took leave from the family and started drive towards Chandrataal. Instead of passing through Kaza, we passed through Chicham via the brand new bridge inaugurated just a few days before. Two years back, I was dangling in the rope way’s trolley hundreds of meters above the gorge. It was sitting just beside the bridge looking sad and discarded.

Eroded mountains forming razor sharp pillars

Eroded mountains forming razor sharp pillars

 

These with flat tops

These with flat tops

Drive from this point onwards was mostly unremarkable for me with lots of familiar sights and a few new. The much feared and talked about flooded nalah in Losar was dry by the time we reached there. I was prepared to spend a night in Losar in case it was still flooded. But the bridge was open for traffic and we passed it easily and stooped at a dhaba near police check post for lunch. Our last stop for the day was at Chandrataal campsite which looks worse with every passing year. Too many greedy campsite owners and too many stupid tourists. Jamaica was surprised to see me . He was not expecting me for atleast 1-2 more days. After some chai, I tried to set up my tent with his help. It was much easier than it seemed earlier. My first attempt in Delhi was not successful. High humidity and hundreds of mosquitoes had forced me to abandon the attempt within minutes. So I was slightly worried if the tent would work properly or not. Thankfully, we were able to set it up without much difficulty. There is not much else to talk about about this day after this. More in next post.

Previous Post: Kinnaur Lahaul Spiti Trip 2017: Ropa Valley and Leo 

We intended to leave by 6:30 am, but started the drive only by 7 am. This path was a bit more “adventurous” and had quite a few interesting sights. We saw very few other vehicles on the road. We made a rest stop at Reckong Peo for lunch. It had a great view of Panch Kailash parvats. Apart from that, there is nothing special about it. It is just a typical crowded mountain town with crazy traffic. We had lunch there in some small dhaba and drove off. There was a Tibetan monastery which the driver said that I should see. But it was damaged in a landslide and was closed for visitors.
Sunrise in Chitkul

Sunrise in Chitkul

 We went further up to Kalpa to get a hotel just above the village. At first glance, Kalpa seemed to be only marginally better than Reckong Peo and I wanted to move on further to Rodhi. supposedly the last Indian village on the route. It’s perhaps the 3rd or maybe 4th such “last village” I visited. But eventually settled for one near the road with good view of mountains in front and village below.. After getting some rest I walked out to explore and maybe find something interesting. I was waiting for clouds over Panch Kailash mountains to clear up but weather gods were not agreeing. The hotel I was staying in was constructed on a fruit orchard along the road and there were way too many new hotels coming up. At this rate, there’d be only hotels and nothing beautiful left there.
View of Kalpa village

View of Kalpa village

I kept walking and had the first close up view of a mysterious looking fruit tree  I had first noticed in Sangla. It’s yellow brown fruits were size of a walnut and so ripe that they were falling off the branches. Perhaps I kept staring at the tree for too long because a local girl from a nearby orchard came up with some of those fruits and shoved some in my hands. I was confused and looked on blankly. She gestured at me to eat them and said local name of the fruit which I forgot. Turned out that I was staring at fresh ripe apricots. Most of the time, I’ve seen and eaten them dry. I think it was my first time eating them fresh. I tried to thank her but she was already running back.
I walked for a few minutes but didn’t find anything interesting at the time. Atleast it was quiet and the view was nice. When I reached back to the hotel, driver met me outside and said that I should see Rodhi. As I had nothing better to do, we started the drive and reached there in a few minutes. On the way, we passed a certain “suicide point”. It’s nothing but a rather straight and steep fall down the cliff, may about 700-800 meters. Someone had made a small platform kind of thing near the road and two tourists  were sitting on it contemplating their place in universe or maybe gathering courage to take the leap.  One can see probably dozens of such “points” all over the region in a single day. But local Indian tourists need someone to pour cement and make it official.
The

The “Suicide Point” between Kalpa and Rodhi

Rodhi village by itself was pretty quiet and there was only one small guest house there which was locked at that time. Apart from some labourers working on the road, there were only a few locals outside. Rest were probably having an afternoon siesta. Some other locals were working in their farms and no one paid us much attention apart from a few local children. They were too shy and quick for me to take any pictures though. We stayed there for a few minutes and then drove back to the hotel. The driver had befriended 2 hotel employees, 2 cousins from Bihar brought in to Kalpa by their uncle for summer. They had little knowledge about the place apart from some random rumours and heresy.
View of the beautiful mountains

View of the beautiful mountains

I was getting a bit restless again, so I walked down the hill to village below. The stairs led directly to the main village square or whatever one can call such place. There was a small tea shop with a poster of Mithun Chakravarty inside and a bench outside. I asked for a mint tea and sat down on bench to wait. Then I noticed this man in the picture below walking at brisk pace. He stopped in front of chai shop and  probably greeted some people inside. I asked if he’d like to have some tea too. At this point, a Nepali labourer who was sitting nearby told me that I talking to a deaf and mute person. So he (Nepali labourer) asked him same question in sign language to which that local man agreed happily.  He made his living working as a casual labourer and herder for the animals of local villagers. He went inside the shop to have his chai and got out after finishing it in what seemed to be just a few seconds. My mint tea was so green and sweet, that it felt like drinking mint flavoured hot Mountain Dew. But at least it had some mint and honey in it.
A local in Kalpa

A local in Kalpa

After tea, I walked around the streets and found two temples. There were no people inside apart from two Italians in the first one. As it’s common in this region, they were mostly made of wood and stone. But the newer structures were using modern construction methods. Most of these temples had some wooden carvings, designs, some demon like masks and two leopards (tigers ?), one male and female each on entrances. Doors were mostly made of wood, but some were covered with sheets of what seemed like silver. A lot like the one in Sarahan’s Bhima Kali temple in my previous post. The sheets and temple walls usually had Indian religious designs and gods. There was one notable addition of a soldier firing his gun on wall designs of one temple.
Carving a soldier with his gun in the temple

Carving a soldier with his gun in the temple

Some of the buildings in the neighbourhood were abandoned for some reason. They were mostly made of stone and seemed to be empty for years. Most new houses were made of concrete and bricks. By this time, sun was going down and it got dark rather suddenly. Most of the shopkeepers were already starting to pack up for the day.  So I retraced my steps back to the hotel. Even that short climb left me gasping for breath and concerned about the hiking part of the plan. Only one other room in the hotel was occupied and even they were probably in their room. So I was the only one in dining area. I asked for some chicken curry as I imagined that I’d get NOT daal-chawal food now only after reaching Manali. There were a few books in dining area but not a single one was to my liking. I picked one up anyway and tried to read it to pass time.
A building in Kalpa temple

A building in Kalpa temple

As I was finishing my meal, R Kumar, who I met in my previous trip walked in. It was a nice surprise meeting him after such a long time. I had met him two years back in Kaza at Jamaica’s hotel and spent a few days traveling in Spiti with him. He suggested that I should visit Ropa and Pin valleys and provided some more information about the route he had just covered. Before I started the trip, a small bridge near Losar was under water due to some cloud burst or maybe glacier melting. The water levels stayed high for most part of the day making it almost impossible and very risky to cross the bridge in any type of car. He did it early morning when the water levels were low, but the water still flooded inside the Gypsy. Later it had some mechanical issues and needed some repairs. He had been driving since morning and went off to sleep soon.
Last sun rays of the day on a mountain peak in distance

Last sun rays of the day on a mountain peak in distance

He was still asleep next morning when we left the hotel. On the way, a local woman decked up in local green dress and lots of jewelery asked for a lift till the bus stand in Reckong Peo. There was some local festival going on and she had missed the group bus. After we dropped her there, we saw quite a few local people dressed up like her on their way. It is somewhat comforting to know that there are still some places in India where even the women in their best jewelery feel comfortable enough to ask complete strangers for a lift. Compare it to Delhi or most other cities and it’s an entirely different story. If I am not forgetting someone, we gave lifts to a old woman in Ropa, a school boy near Nako and 3 women in Kibber.
A very noisy waterfall we saw on the way

A very noisy waterfall we saw on the way

Coming back to the topic, instead of going straight towards Kaza, we took a detour to Ropa valley. I was hoping to stay there for the night. This valley is off the main road and has only 4, or maybe 5 small villages. Their names were Shyaso, Sunnam, Gyamo and Ropa being the last one. First few minutes of drive on the approach road were along a fairly strong mountain stream. But as we approached villages, we could see a number of apple farms on the mountain slopes. Such farming activity was impossible earlier. But with electric pumps, it is now possible to get water from river and irrigate such farms almost anywhere. The contrast of a large green patch on a bare brown mountain was a sight to behold.  There was some flat ground near the river bank and there were a lot of farms around the settlements. On the way, a old woman asked for lift till Ropa and we dropped her where the road ended.
I asked some locals if there was some guesthouse or a place to stay. One said that there used to be one a few years back, but was demolished or maybe closed down.
Behind Ropa village

Behind Ropa village

That meant that we had to go towards Nako or someplace nearby instead of spending night in Ropa village. But before that, I wanted to see if it had something interesting. As mentioned earlier, it was yet another “last village” on the road. The village was not that big and had old style as well as modern houses with a fair bit of construction going on. There was a small trail from where the houses ended going along side river. I started walking on that and noticed a large number of Himalayan mountain lizards almost everywhere basking in the sun. Their size ranged from 8 inches to probably 20. This is a common specie in the region, but I have never seen such a large number in a single place. I saw atleast 20 while walking 10 meters just along the trail.
Doorway of a house in Ropa

Doorway of a house in Ropa

There were a few labourers ahead who were working to expand the trail and maybe make a road. They seemed surprised to see me there but were friendly enough. After a while, there were a lot more fruit orchards but the place seemed empty. Most of the apples were ripe and ready for plucking. I was briefly tempted to pluck one and get a taste. After walking on a comparatively straight path, the trail led to top of a ridge and became a bit tough to walk on. From there, I could see a small shed with a shining tin roof at some distance. I spent a little time considering whether to walk till there or not. Eventually I turned back after considering the long drive that lay ahead of us.
While on the way back, I heard a very strange sound twice and I had no idea what kind of animal made noises like that. After a minute I came across a local villagers resting in shade and asked him if he heard the same thing. He said it was a “khota” (donkey) probably tied in some shed up the hill. Seemed logical, but I have never heard a donkey make noise like that. When I got back, driver suggested that we leave for Nako instead of Kaza or Tabo.
As soon as we cleared Ropa valley and got on the main road, one front tyre of Innova got punctured by a sharp stone.  The tyre nuts had probably expanded due to the heat and we could get them off only after pouring 2 bottles full of water on them. Later, we had to stop at Pooh and get some more repairs done.
A very beautiful view near confluence of Spiti and Sutlej

A very beautiful view near confluence of Spiti and Sutlej

We stopped at a small settlement Kah (2920 m) on the way for some tea, food and rest after seeing dhaba signboards. But the first one we entered didn’t have anything. Other one across the road, seemed closed but it’s owner came out and asked us to go downstairs. There she served us some rajma chawal in a pretty dingy looking “dhaba” kind of place. But it was something after such a long drive. The family had a bunch of apricot trees too and they were drying them in open. They sell them for Rs 250 to 450 per kg. Here, we buy them for three to four times as much.
There is a big patch of empty land in the village overlooking Spiti river as it flows by. Seemed like a nice place for camping.
Kah village

Kah village

We then left for Nako and found another road going towards Leo village not too far from our destination. It was another mountain village like Ropa but a bit bigger and many fruit farms.   Most of it is settled on a single mountain. There is a new bridge and remains of one old one. The latter was washed away in a flood in 2002. As we crossed the bridge, we stopped to ask a local. When he realised that we were going to Leo as tourists, he laughed and exclaimed, “What are you going to do there ? There’s nothing for tourists.”  There are two more villages on this road, I don’t remember the names now, but seemed interesting enough for a short trip.
Old bridge. Notice the almost black water

Old bridge. Notice the almost black water

But we pressed on regardless and stopped at village bazaar for a cup of sugary tea. Two men were playing a game of carom inside the shop and we watched them as we sipped our chai. The people were friendly and seemed amused to have “tourists” in their village. Like Ropa, Leo didn’t have any accommodation either. So we left for Nako as the sunset was approaching. We were only 6-7 km away from Nako, when we passed a small roadside restaurant with guesthouse along the road. The driver was not very fond of Nako and I liked view of the mountains from that point. So we decided to halt there. The guest house was run a by a small family and had only 3 or may be 2 rooms. Bathroom was shared but we just needed to spend the night.
View of Leo village

View of Leo village

We had some tea after putting my luggage there and walked off to take some pictures. After dinner of Thupka noodles, I stayed on the roof, trying to get some pictures of milky way in the night sky before going off to sleep. There were too many bullet riders who made the task of taking pictures in dark very difficult, but that maybe is a story for some other time.

This series of posts is a travelogue of my recent vacation covering Kinnaur, Spiti, Lahaul and Manali in 16 days. It was a solo trip for most part and involved travel on road, camping, trekking and just lazing around on different days. My previous trip to this region was in 2015 in which I planned to visit Samudri Tapu glacier among other places but had to drop the Samudri Tapu part after people with me backed out and the water bodies swelled up overnight with unexpected precipitation.
Somewhere in Spiti

Somewhere in Spiti

There was some snowfall and rain this time too, but I was a bit lucky to finally complete the Chandra Taal to Suraj Taal trek which was the main purpose of this trip. I had to do the trek with a Gaddi shepherd instead of a proper guide, but it worked out quite well in the end. Rest of the stuff was not planned at all and just happened without any plan. It was quite an enjoyable vacation. I saw a lot of very interesting and beautiful places, met some great people and some stupid ones too.
 Following is the general itinerary. I will be writing all of this in detail in a series of posts later

 General Travel Itinerary

 
Day 1: Evening bus to Shimla from New Delhi. Meet up with driver and evening stop at Sarahan with rest stops for breakfast, tea. Visited ancient Bhima Kaali temple and walked around the town.
Day 2: Drive to Chitkul via Sangla and Rakcham. Walked around the village and beyond. Discovered a pretty mountain stream and that famous last Indian dhaba by accident. Hiked 3 km to ITBP check post. Civilians not allowed past that point.
Day 3: Next day stop at Kalpa with rest stop at forgettable Reckong Peo. Walked around fruit orchards, saw that “suicide point”. Spent some time a that “Last Village”
Day 4: Next night stay at a small guest house just before Nako. It overlooked Leo village which we visited earlier. We also made a stop at the last village in Ropa valley. Interesting yet quiet place.
Day 5: Night stay in Kibber. Spend 3-4 hours hiking and exploring places near Gete village.
Day 6: Visited Tashi Gong and “roads” nearby on car. Passed Chicham’s brand new bridge to reach Chandra Taal.
Day 7 to 9: Stayed at camp site, hiked and explored some new places and revisited some old ones.
Day 10 to 12: Trekked to Suraj Taal with a Gaddi shepherd as my guide. My first proper solo camping under the stars.
Day 13: Took a lift in truck from Sruaj Taal to Keylong and a bus from there to Manali.
Day 14 to 17: Lazing around in Manali.
A small village Gete

A small village Gete

Rough Route on Google Maps:

This map is showing Chandra Taal to Suraj Taal road route, but I trekked the distance (approx 45 km).
Blue sheep I saw on the way

Blue sheep I saw on the way

GEAR:

 I had some of the camping and hiking gear already and bought some new stuff for this trip from physical stores and online both. Following is the list:
1.  Food which included dry fruits, chocolates, MREs,
2.  Some essential medicine including one for AMS, stomach upset, first aid and so on.
3.  Enough clothing for the trip which included wind-cheater, t-shirts, gloves, socks, caps, sun-glasses, bandannas and other stuff.
4.  A camping stove, 2 propane canisters. In hindsight, 1 would have sufficed.
5.  Rucksack Quechua 70 liters . Slightly heavy but very rugged and well designed.
6. Tent Quechua.  Proved itself in strong winds and easy to setup and pack.
7.  Hiking shoes.  Old but very rugged and comfortable.
8. A water bottle and a bottle with filter. But didn’t use the latter much. Mostly drank whatever water locals were drinking or from flowing streams and springs.
9. A multitool like this one   I haven’t had a lot of use for it till now, but a good thing to have.
10. A camp light, torch for light. Lighter and matches for fire.
11. My trusty Nikon D7100 with it’s default 18-140 mm lens and it’s essential accessories in a separate camera bag. Didn’t bring any other lens to keep weight low.
12. A foldable solar panel  and a DC camera battery charger for charging camera batteries. Worked quite well in it’s first field test.  Detailed post http://jjamwal.in/yayavar/charging-dslr-camera-batteries-by-solar-panel-while-traveling.
13. An aluminum pot with cover, steel mug, plastic spoon and plate.
14. A map, pen, compass, tape, scissors and a few other small stuff.
15. Wifey’s permission.
Total weight of luggage was 16 kg rucksack and 5 kg camera bag.
Chandra Taal Lake

Chandra Taal Lake

Rest of the posts will have details of the trip in some detail.
Suraj Taal

Suraj Taal

Even though I’m from Jammu and have a lot of family members and friends working in Kashmir, it hasn’t been a place I cared enough to visit. Last time I was there in 1999, I had to cut short my stay after Kargil war started. Since then, I never really gave any attention to the place except for the usual stuff it’s infamous for. But recently. me and wifey made a quick trip to Srinagar to meet some family members working there. This post is a travelogue of this trip. I am not sure if it can be called a travelogue or not, but I expect it to have a lot more rants than usual.  I didn’t take my camera with me on this trip, so all the pictures are from wife’s cellphone.

To begin with, the flight and our arrival in to Srinagar were uneventful. As we drove to the main city where we were staying, I noticed a lot of security personnel on the roads. It was a mix of CRPF, J&K Police and surprisingly BSF in some places.  There was construction of some flyover going on in middle of the city and the road was pretty much non-existent forcing us to take a detour. After a bit of rest, family took the wifey out for some sightseeing.  Their original plan was to take us to Kheer Bhawani temple. It is a pretty important temple for now displaced Kashmiri Pandits as well as other Hindus too. I had no wish to visit the temple, so I refused and preferred to read something or watch cricket match. But there was some stone pelting going on in Ganderbal area and some other localities on the way which forced a plan change and family took wifey to Chashme Shahi and a shikara ride on Dal lake.
Botanical garden

Botanical garden

Next day, we hired a local car and visited Shankaracharya Temple first. The road leading up to the temple on hill top is very picturesque and green. There were a lot of brown eagles with white spots in the tree canopy as well as road which raced the car for some distance. Theres a security check point at base of stairs leading up to the temple and you can’t take cameras and phones beside this point. There are roughly 200 steps made of stone. Even though my last trip was almost 18 years back, I was a little surprised to see the changes. The open ground in front of temple was gone and covered by some tin and wood huts built by CRPF unit deployed there. The Dal lake near base of hill was much smaller, dirtier and full of weeds, a lot worse than what I remembered. Later on, I could smell the stinking water of the lake when we got near it.  This once beautiful and huge lake is dying fast and the people as usual are too stupid to stop. Another annoying thing was that the muslim dominated J&K government was trying to rename the hill to Takht-e-Suleiman. The turds are already renaming many places in Kashmir to muslim names like Anantnaag to Islamabad and so on.
Nishat Baag

Nishat Baag

From Shankaracharya Temple, we drove to Botanical Garden near Chashme Shahi. There’s a small lake with some boats and a nice garden around it.We had some tea and snacks there before moving on to  Nishat Baag, which is one of the better places in Srinagar city. There were only a few tourists, mostly Bengalis and a few Gujaratis who usually travel in big groups. As we walked around , the gardeners working there kept offering us flower seeds. We bought some but I have little hope of them doing well in Delhi’s weather. The garden itself is big with running water and fountains which work more or less. There are some huge and centuries old Chinar trees in the garden and all around the valley.
Our next stop was Harban which has garden and a lake for sightseeing. Last time I visited it, the lake was completely dry and the garden looked half dead. This time there was some water in the lake but the area seemed to be much smaller. Garden was green with some water flowing through, massive chinar trees and nice flowers. We didn’t stay there for long and stopped at Shalimar. Our driver didn’t want to stay there for long as a lot of stone pelting incidents happen in the area.  While on road, I could see a lot of walls with pro-ISIS and anti-India slogans including a wall of Shalimar Baag. We had our lunch of Kashmiri Masala Dosa, Cheese Dosa, too salty Maggi noodles and some kehwa in a “Vegetarian” roadside restaurant in front of Shalimar Baag. The eatery even had Jain and “Half Jain” food for sale.  Since everyone in the group was vegetarian except me and all other nearby shops were closed, we had few other options.
Shalimar Baag is nice by itself, but it was noting really special after we had visited 3 other similar gardens. The water channels and fountains needed cleaning but was done in a half assed way. We stayed there for about 20 minutes and left to visit Hari Parbat. It is a old fort and has a temple, gurudwara and a mosque. The temple was looted and vandalised by muslims a few years back, like dozens of other temples in muslim majority Kashmir and idol damaged. It was repaired and family along with some Hindu co-workers arrange bhandara and puja there whenever possible. But we had to turn back as the road was blocked due to some more stone pelting going on in the area.
Walnut blossoms

Walnut blossoms

So we decided to go back home through Old Srinagar. Driver drove much faster than usual because he feared more stone pelting following end of muslim prayers. Next day he claimed that his relatives had caught one stone pelter who attacked their vehicle just outside Srinagar. According to the driver, the stone pelter turned out to be a Kashmiri policeman who was organising stone pelting in the locality. According to him Abdullah owned National Conference party was behind most such stone pelting incidents and were using policemen loyal to them in Kashmiri police to organise stone pelting and to incite the mobs. Considering what junior Abdullah has been saying on this issue, the conspiracy theory seems quite credible.
Old Srinagar seemed to be a depressing ugly place unlike most other such older parts of a city. There were some old abandoned houses which belonged to Kashmiri Hindus forced to leave Kashmir due to violence by Kashmiri muslims. Some such houses were encroached upon by probably neighbours and random shops. Nearing our place, we saw some shops in the market which had sustained damage from stone pelters.
Panaroma shot of a farm

Panaroma shot of a farm

We were planning an early start next morning but found it impossible to sleep till late night. It was mostly due to 3 nearby mosques near our place competing with each other to see which one could make more noise. Each started it’s loudspeakers near 8:30 pm and kept playing the noise they call prayer well past midnight. I forgot to mention it earlier, but this was a very consistent experience throughout our stay. There was no single locality during our stay in Kashmir where one couldn’t hear some noise from more than one mosque. Most of it was in Kashmiri which we didn’t understand, but atleast one near Harwan was in Urdu. The preacher seemed to be non-Kashmiri and was rambling on about injustice done to muslims since beginning of time and the usual “islam khatrey mein hai” crap. Another thing was even school going girls wearing hijab and some other dress almost like burqa, but not covering face. Don’t  know what they call them. It was never like this.
Stuff like this gives an outsider an idea how mosques were used to scare and intimidate Kashmiri Hindus to leave their homes when exodus happened. It is probably even worse now.
We started for Pahalgam next morning around 75 km from Srinagar. We also considered Gulmarg, but decided that Pahalgam would be a better choice. On the way, we stopped at a kehwa shop in Pampore. Women managed to spend a more than decent sum of money on saffron, honey and quite a few other things.
Our next stop was Martand temple which everyone called Mattan temple to my consternation. It is constructed over a fresh water spring and has a specie of medium sized fish in large numbers.  There was a sign board prohibiting feeding fish anything apart from a special feed being sold by a shop there. Hindu priests from this village used to travel all over the state and did some religious work and horoscope creation kind of work in far off places. Now Hindus are almost gone and there are only a few Sikh families living there. There was a Sikh religious ceremony going on in temple garden when we were there.
Just after rain stopped

Just after rain stopped

We then drove alongside Lidder river towards Pahalgam on a road with beautiful scenery. Some river rafting is arranged on this river but the starting point had only 3-4 tourists sitting in the rafts. There was an area with a number of big tourist resorts lined up but all were empty as tourists were keeping away. On the way driver told us about some movies which were shot in the area and seemed quite proud of it for some reason. Just before reaching main Pahalgam town he informed us that the car will not go any further because the local unions don’t allow it. There is hardly anything to see or do in Pahalgam town itself and the few points nearby which are worth seeing are a few km away. We like to hike and wanted to see those places as they seemed to be bit better than just walking around the shabby town but were not sure about the idea.
Near end of

Near end of “hiking” route in Pahalgam

As soon as we got off the car, the mule owners swarmed around us. I had no intention of riding any mule but the mule owners were very persistent, annoying and pain in the ass. I was more interested in walking to a few places of interest. But wifey was wearing some girly shoes not suitable for walking long distances, so in the end we got one mule and it’s handler to show us the way with understanding that wifey may ride it if it was difficult for her to walk. Rest of the family stayed in the town. I wish I had remembered names of the places we saw on this hike, but it was more or less a waste of time. The trail was wide as a road, full of mud due to too many mules walking on it and stank due to their crap everywhere. Another mule handler kept following us for 20-25 minutes trying to convince us to hire him to and turned back only after some getting abuse.  Wifey got on the mule we had hired a few minutes of hiking because of all the mud. I had my hiking shoes on so it was not much of a problem for me.
There was an old shikargaah of Dogra Kings on the way, a rough road led right up to it. Our first stop was a small but beautiful meadow. It had entry fee of Rs 20 and some tea shops.When we arrived, there were atleast 50 mules on the gate already. There were also a few locals with goats, rabbits, kashmiri dresses which tourists pose with for pictures. While we were there, it started raining and we had some kehwa, tea and pakoda in one of the tea shops. It was a beautiful place but experience was somewhat spoiled by the above mentioned locals and lots of children begging.  Our next stop was a point on  a ridge with couple of smaller snack shops where we had to stay a bit longer amount of time due to another heavy rain shower.  We had forgotten to bring our jackets and the rain made it very cold. Nearby mountain peaks also got a bit of snow. After rain stopped, we went downhill and made a stop at a stream going downstream which everybody was trying to pass of as a waterfall. The downhill trail was very slippery and muddy due to rains and mules destroying whatever grip the soil on hill offered.  More kashmiri locals came up to rent their goats, take pictures and similar useless services, so we left rather quickly.  Very few tourists progressed further from that 1st stop at the meadow, so the trail was mostly empty.
Panaroma shot, meadow in Pahalgam

Another panaroma shot, meadow in Pahalgam

From there, we walked back to the parking through the village. On the way we were again accosted by very annoying children from village who asked us for money and even watches. If they behave like this with Indians, I can only imagine their behaviour with foreigners. The walk back was on a level road and the mule just trotted on a steady pace, so I was left far behind.  The views and weather were quite nice through a wooded area. Perhaps the word in such places travels fast. On the way, I must have come across atleast a dozen mule owners who must have asked the same thing in different words “Paidal hi aa gaya sahaib” ! A few also asked me to hire their mules for  the rest of a km long hike.  Preparations for Amarnath yatra had started already and I noticed some para-military units assigned for the security of pilgrimage setting up camps. Sad to see that Indian Hindus have to be guarded so heavily inside India from muslim terrorists and mobs.
After reaching the parking area, came to know that the other women had spent all the cash which was not a small amount shopping. After we paid mule handler some extra money as tip, the owner started bothering us for a tip too. Utterly shameless bunch of people. Total duration of the hike was  4 hours, give or take a few minutes and cost of hiring a mule for whole circuit was Rs 3000.
We started our drive back to Srinagar immediately but made a stop at house of a colleague of family near Pampore.  They were very nice and hospitable people and made us feel quite welcome in their home. Elder of the family served in Jammu region during his working years and was a little nostalgic telling us of his experiences there. Ride back to the Srinagar was uneventful and we reached there around 8:30 pm without any incident.
There’s not much to write about after this apart from usual noise from nearby mosques and the long security checks at Srinagar airport.
TL;DR for people who are planning a Kashmir trip:
Q: Is the place beautiful ?
A: A lot of beautiful places, but man made places are badly maintained and natural places poorly preserved.
Q: Is it safe ?
A: Few days before we confirmed tickets, some tourist vehicles were attacked and tourists received injuries. Another tourist vehicle owned by our driver’s family was attacked similarly while we were there. A terrorist attack happened in Anantnag almost the same time we were driving through it.  We could’t visit a few places because of stone pelting and curfews. All these incidents happened in different parts of the valley. There is very little danger from terrorist attacks though.
Q: How are people ?
A: If you know them personally, very hospitable and welcoming. But if you are a prospective customer, then majority of kashmiri tourism businesses are extremely conniving and annoying. Before you say, “it’s like this everywhere”, NO it’s not as bad as in kashmir.
Q: Is Kashmir worth visiting ?
A: Maybe, if you are willing to take risks like those mentioned above. If you really want to visit Kashmir, don’t do it during Amarnath yatra season. Everything will be very over-priced and in short supply.

Dinner was fried chicken, potatoes, daal with rice. After serving us dinner, the caretaker went to his home for the night. The closest inhabited house in the village was about 150 meters away and the village was pretty quiet and had only a few lights on. So it was a pretty nice, quiet place. A lot of stars became visible few minutes later and we spent quiet a bit of time listening to the sound of river, nocturnal insects  and doing a bit of star gazing.  The beds were not not great but we slept comfortably. We packed up or stuff and started the drive early. We had planned to visit a place call Rikynjai, which was supposed to be a drive of about 4 hours according to Google Map. We called the only hotel there and made reservations. It was quite a bit more expensive then what I am usually willing to pay for a hotel, but it was supposed to be for just 1-2 nights.

Bridge leading over the river, missing a lot of wooden planks.

Bridge leading over the river, missing a lot of wooden planks.

At that time, the location of the hotel on Google Maps was shown somewhere near a small town called Nongstoin (West Khasi Hills) and we made the journey accordingly. Nongstoin turned out to be a small crappy town but the worse part was that the Google Maps was wrong yet again. The actual location of our planned destination was near Shillong, about a 100 km away. Now as I check it, the location has been updated to the actual coordinates. But at that time, we felt pretty annoyed. We thought about spending the night in Nongstoin and then move on to Shillong and Cherrapunji. There were no hotels and the only state run guest house was big but wifey didn’t like it.  So we started looking for some other place to stay.
Saw it on a pear tree outside our room in Rombagre

Saw it on a pear tree outside our room in Rombagre

We made some calls to the tourist department and they told us about 1 hotel 30-35 km away, Someone from the hotel was nearby and he said that he could meet and take us there as the actual location of hotel was on top of a hill in a wooded area with just a trail going there, But he couldn’t meet us and we never saw the landmark he told us to watch for on the way. So we had no choice at the time except to reach Shillong for the night. We reached there and I was pretty annoyed at everyone. Atleast the hotel there had hot running water, electricity and other utilities which worked properly. Hotel didn’t have dinner ready, so we went out to have something to eat and see the city.
Waterfall near Nognstoin

Waterfall near Nognstoin

 Compared to humid  West Garo Hills area, Shillong was comparatively cooler. We walked around looking for a place to eat. I was looking for local cuisine, but majority pf the restaurants just had the usual Chinese, south-Indian, north-Indian kind of stuff. There were a few signboards for bars but all were closed down after imposition of prohibition. People in villages were brewing their own booze (something like a fruit wine called bicchhi) and drinking it clandestinely and I suppose alcohol was available in black market in cities too. After a bit of walk, we found a small Naga food joint. The menu was rather limited and consisted mostly of 3-4 fish, pork and vegetable dishes with rice in different combinations. Wifey didn’t eat anything there though. I also bought a bottle of Naga chilli pickle from there. Only way I can eat it is by pouring 3-4 drops of the brine/oil in a large plate of rice. Eating the actual chilli makes whole mouth go numb and ass on fire next morning. Anyone reading this is welcome to to taste it.
Rolling green hills on way to Shillong from Tura

Rolling green hills on way to Shillong from Tura

We spent another day there and but didn’t like the Shillong city that much. If anything, parts of it like Police Bazar looked more like Mumbai rather than a charming hill city. It’s expanding too much, hills are being dug out, trees vanishing and ugly concrete buildings and shacks popping up everywhere, Traffic is as bad as any other big city but the drivers there don’t overtake in a jam or slow traffic as impatient idiots in rest of India do. It’s mostly because the roads are only double laned and overtaking in jam is a sure way of making thee situation even worse. So people actually follow the rules and don’t make it worse. Unfortunately rest of India lacks this basic common sense.
One interesting thing about the traffic in Shillong is the local taxis. These are mostly small cars like Maruti-800, Zen, Alto type and ply inside city limits. Normally 5 adults can sit in such a car in an uncomfortable cramped way. But these taxis regularly carry 10-12 people. Even the drivers seat has a passenger sharing it and 2-3 on the other one. Back seat will have 4-7 passengers more. How more people don’t die in such an arrangement and cars don’t breakdown in middle of street will remain a mystery. They’re pretty cheap though. Rs 10 -30 (maybe) for most local journeys per person and Rs 100 if you want the whole for yourself. We paid 100 whenever we needed it. Only one taxi driver tried to charge more during our stay there.
Laitlum Canyons

Laitlum Canyons

Next day, we visited Laitlum Canyons, a few km outside Shillong city limits and an interesting place which reminded me of Silent Hill. Once we passed the parking, everything was covered in fog with visibility of 4-5 meters at best. The place was essentially just a grass covered hill with fog everywhere. A slight drizzle and strong wind could do nothing to increase visibility.  A paved path went downwards but we didn’t feel like taking it at the time with rain and low visibility. There are pictures on internet which show the place without any fog and mist, but we liked it better this way. Some locals were gathering grass and digging up earth to presumably to plant something.
On the way back there by a old wood and grass building which was the residence of a local king. Driver asked if we wanted to see it but we drove to the Air Force museum. It was a smaller museum than Goa’s Naval Aviation Museum with the usual Hunter, Mig-21 and some other planes like trainers, transports in one section. Other section had an old Mi-4 helicopter, SAM and scale models of various planes on display. The indoor section had some stuff about history of the place, wars, local war heroes and the usual bombs, missiles etc. But the most impressive thing was a fully armed Jaguar on display on the main road outside air force station.
Iskra Trainer, Air Force Museum Shillong

Iskra Trainer, Air Force Museum Shillong

 In evening, we were searching again for some place to eat and entered one Maniupri restaurant in top floor of an old house. It was owned and operated by an artist family. At that time, they had a very limited menu. So i asked for some salad and one more dish which looked like a yellow, dry barfi but was spicy and salty. The salad was mostly cabbage along with some other veggies, spices but had something really with a strong smell and flavour., so I asked them what was in it. They said it was dried fish. Normally wifey will always take 1-39 bites out of whatever vegetarian stuff I’m eating but luckily for her, that time she had not. Previous night, she had ordered a vegetarian chop-suey in a Chinese place. After a long wait, waiter brought the bowl with a a huge omelet on  top which she didn’t like at all. Perks of being a vegetarian in a non-vegetarian place. :)
Our next stop was Cherrapunji and we were most interested in visiting  living root bridges. We searched for hotels and in finalised one in Laitkynsew. Upon asking, they shared phone number of a local guide and reserved a room for us. We called the guide but wifey did most of the talking as I couldn’t understand much of what he said. He lived nearby hotel and we fixed up a meeting point on the way.
More in next post.
More in next post.