I had almost forgotten to finish this travelogue just like my previous one. Which reminds me that I should work on that one too once this is finished. No other excuse other than just being lazy and a bit too much of work. Previous post of this series.

Anyhow, my plan was to stay in campsite for 2-3 days and trek to Suraj Taal from there. But Jamaica was unable to arrange a guide which he had agreed to earlier. It really poured cold water on my plans and I was not really sure about what to do if not that. Apparently there were some seasonal nallahs on the way which were flooded unexpectedly and the guide who was supposed to go with me was forbidden by his wife to go anywhere. But we eventually convinced a local shepherd camping in a dera (shepherd shelter made of stones) nearby to work as my guide. He was the same Kashmir Singh Rana who I had met during my first visit to Chandrataal. It was not easy convincing him and he agreed only after I promised a pretty hefty payment. According to him and his co-worker shepherd who was camping with him, trekkers usually start from Suraj Taal (4883 m) and hike down to Chandrataal (4250 m) in about 4-5 days. But since he was needed at dera, he’d try to do it in 3. I was not really confident of being capable of doing that myself. But he said that he’d carry most of my camping stuff leaving me with carrying only my camera gear, some water, snacks and some emergency supplies which in total weighed only about 7-9 kgs.

Some new visitors at the lake

Some new visitors at the lake


Before we left, I had spent 3 days around the campsite walking around the area and exploring. I tried to locate the round stone I had noticed during my first visit but couldn’t find it. It probably rolled away to some other place. While wandering around, I followed yet another goat trail and ended up at the river bed. There I noticed the source of differently coloured water in the river bed. There was some clear water bubbling through the sandy river bed which gave it a different colour from sediment filled water of the river. I put my hand in to the sand from where it was coming out but found only more sand and pebbles. It was ice cold too. I still don’t know what exactly I was expecting.

Temporary

Temporary “Lake” near Chandrataal

The trek started on morning of 16th August, I had arrived on 13th. Rana carried my rucksack and some of his own stuff and we set off on a brisk pace. My start was not that great. After walking for about 20 minutes, I noticed that one half of one of two brand new hiking stick shad slid off. I retraced my steps almost back to starting point and then gave up. I didn’t want to throw the rest of it as trash, specially after seeing how the camp owners and tourists were already trashing the place. So I ended up carrying it for all of my trek and eventually back home. I just tied it to a loop on my bag and let it hang from there. Rana said that he’ll give it to Jamaica if he ever found it. I suppose, he was joking. At first we were walking almost side by side, but eventually I trailed off behind him by quite a distance. He had 20-25 years on me, was quite skinny and was carrying almost twice the weight I was. But he was still much faster than me for all of the trek.

A beautiful, windy and cloudy evening

A beautiful, windy and cloudy evening

After about 3 hours of walking, we came across our first obstacle. It was a flooded nallah which was one of the reasons why my original guide had chickened out. There were 3 like this and this one was called Kala nallah, another pagal nallah and one other I don’t remember. There was a lot of almost black mud all over where it had flooded over pushing up a lot of big and small rocks all over. Rana said that it was due to flood anytime soon as the sun became stronger and snow melted. The current was very swift and the stones were shifting due to it. Rana was just wearing simple plastic (?) shoes and he just rolled up him pajama and crossed easily using his walking stick. Since I was doubtful of crossing the stream without tripping, he carried my camera too. I had to take off my shoes, socks and throw them over. The shoes were a moderately water resistant, but certainly couldn’t have avoided that kind of water flow. My first two three steps went fine. But then the cold hit and I started to feel it all over. Then there was the issue of nearly black muddy water which didn’t allow any of the moving rocks to be seen. I had to be really careful checking my each step carefully so as to not step on a sharp rock or an unstable one. The current was very strong as mentioned earlier and it made standing difficult even though the water was barely up to my knees. I managed to cross over eventually without tripping which didn’t seem to be a big deal in the beginning.

Sheep and goats grazing on a nearby mountain

Sheep and goats grazing on a nearby mountain

A few minutes later we noticed some sheep and goats grazing just across the river and two shepherds in their dera which Rana knew. They welcomed us with some of their chai which had enough goat ghee and sugar to give any non-Gaddi person diabetes in a few weeks. But these people stay skinny and healthy due to all the work they do. They were in process of preparing lunch when we arrived and served some for us. It was again ghee served with some rice and daal. There was some dessert too but I remember it only vaguely. They get a lot of milk from goats and sheep which they can’t store. So it is usually turned in to ghee and consumed liberally. I was finding it a bit difficult just to breathe properly at this altitude but Rana kept smoking one bidi after another. The dera had one old hukkah which he prepared and smoked as shown in this video.

They had harvested a prickly herb which has many uses in Indian medicine and were drying it in sun. I cannot remember it’s name right now . Just touching it put quite a few prickly spines in the skin.I requested to take a few pictures but both of them wanted to wear something on their heads. One of them could not find his, so I lent him mine. We left a few minutes later after thanking them for the hospitality.

They had told Rana about another dera a few hours hike from theirs and he was keen to reach there before it got dark. But I was getting tired and was walking almost 200-300 meters behind him. At this time, I saw what seemed to be a large bird sitting on a ledge. With sun in front it was only an outline and I got excited thinking that I finally found a Himalayan Griffon perching at such a close distance. Eventually it turned out to be Rana partially hidden behind a rock smoking another one of his bidis. It was a bit of disappointment as I didn’t see any other wild bird or animal during rest of trek, even though there were footmarks and burrows every now and then. We managed to reach another dera before sunset. It had 3 shepherds who were in the process of gathering their flock and preparing dinner. I wanted to have a taste of my own MRE, but they insisted I eat with them. I sat in their dera as they cooked their food on a stone chulha (stove). It was simple daal roti, but a lot of it. I was surprised to see skinny people like them eating so much. When I requested them to pose for pictures, 2 of them got their better caps out.

A shepherd dog

A shepherd dog

For a change, I managed to setup my tent quite easily. But it was on a surface full of rocks and it took some time for me to get comfortable enough to sleep. There was not much plain enough space and it was getting too dark for me to find a better spot.

We started early next morning and noticed a few caves not far from river bank. A lot of them were collapsed or full of rubble and looked quite unsafe to take shelter unless one had no other option. These were marked on the map I was carrying and apparently some trekkers had used them in past. Walking for about 1 hour brought us to our 2nd water crossing. We climbed down a steep slope with loose gravel and I slipped a couple of times. The stream was wider and less fast than the last one, but it was supposed to have more water with sun getting higher. There were marks of more flow from previous day all over. The water there was deeper for most part, sometimes reaching up to well above my knees but we crossed it without much difficulty. As with the previous one, Rana crossed first with my camera and I followed once he got to other side.

Quite a lot of Unnamed mountain peaks and glaciers

Quite a lot of Unnamed mountain peaks and glaciers

We walked for about 4 hours more came across another stream. This one was much faster and Rana decided to stop there for the day even though it was just around 1 pm. The stream was 7-8 feet wide at it’s narrowest point but very fast. We saw the glacier where it was coming from next morning. A large piece of it had broken off and melting much faster. We were getting water sprayed on us even when we were 2-3 feet away and could hear rocks grinding against each other below the water. Rana was disappointed because his plan of finishing the trek in 3 days was affected and I had mixed feelings. It had been a hard hike through some really tough terrain and I was quite tired. But then he said that we had to cross only one other stream and we’d have reached a much better camping spot by evening. I don’t think I’d have liked to do that specially after covering that part next morning. The place where we had stopped was very rocky and we were stuck between the fast stream at front, a steep and unstable cliff face on right and main river body on left. It looked like someone long before us had stopped there. There was a big rock with rocks cleared around it providing a bit of shelter from direct sun and wind.

Easier part of the trekking trail

Easier part of the trekking trail

I took out my stove to heat up some MREs and found out that my trusty water bottle had finally developed a crack after yet another fall on the rocks. We had seen a small spring on our way and Rana went there to get some drinking water while I heated the MREs. Again, I didn’t want to throw the bottle in wilderness. The crack was at bottom, so I put some tape on it carried it upside down for rest of the trip. I had another filter bottle, but it’s capacity was not even 1 liter. I noticed a scrape on my camera body where some paint had chipped off after my fall just before the previous water crossing. There was no other damage though it could have been bad.

We wanted to start as early as possible next morning, so I set up my tent immediately after lunch. I tried to clear a small area of rocks, but there were just more rocks underneath. So I gave up moving rocks and just pitched it after removing a few pointy ones. Somehow I managed to sleep through the almost deafening roar of water and the wind throughout the night.

All water gone next morning

All water gone next morning


We started our hike next morning at around 5:30. That mad Paagal nallah was just a small trickle of water at that time, nothing like the loud cascade of water and stones crashing through the mountainside. We crossed in 1-2 hops and resumed our march, The terrain progressively got more difficult from this point onward for various reasons. After walking for 80-90 minutes we climbed down another steep slope to cross another stream, more like a small river. There was supposed to be an ice bridge but it had melted and we had to cross it the old fashioned way. I was a little curious about seeing that ice bridge and was disappointed. I did find a goat (?) skull on the river bank though.

I just placed this skull on this rock to take the picture.

I just placed this skull on this rock to take the picture.

We walked upstream for about a kilometer looking for a suitable place to cross. The water there was comparatively calmer and deeper. Since it was still early morning and the glacier was not that far, the water was just above freezing temperature. I legs were numb within a few seconds of getting in to water and took 2-3 minutes of exercises to get the feeling back after crossing. A few minutes later, we climbed back up on the next mountain using a steep goat trail which actually got me sweating.

View from mountain after crossing

View from mountain after crossing

After this, the terrain was flat for a while which was a relief. We found another dera after about a kilometer which had another gaddi and his assistant. Rana didn’t knew him but that didn’t prevent him from inviting us for a cup of chai and something to eat. He then showed me a an Olympus camera lens still in it’s carry case and asked me what it is. He said that he found it near his shelter a few years back. My excitement was short lived as it was in pretty bad condition.He explained that  his dogs “played” with it and he was curious why it didn’t have a glowing light like it had when he found it. I had no idea what he meant by this. He was happy enough to just give it away, but I gave him a little cash I had for it. All these shepherds told me that there were a lot of foreigner trekkers on the route a few years back but not so much anymore. I had seen one group in 2011 and mentioned it in the blog. I still have that lens and intend to open it up to see the inner mechanism.

Another cup of chai with ghee and lots of sugar and milk

Another cup of chai with ghee and lots of sugar and milk

From there, we walked for 5 hours more and crossed two more streams which had only a few cm of water. After we crossed the first one he told a story in which one of the trekker or maybe it was a porter had been swept away by the current few years back.  After this , we walked through a very large flat area which was mostly swamp like with lots of water channels, large rocks and strange plants growing everywhere. Just before that, there was yet another stream in which the water was flowing under the rocks with only a little on top.  We could see the pass and vehicles on road from some distance. It took one more hour of walking to reach Bara Lacha pass and a few minutes of downhill walk to reach Suraj Taal. After 3 days of hard work it was a rewarding, yet a bit of underwhelming sight. I knew that it was small but it was even smaller than I expected. Then there was rubble from road just above it which had covered almost half of it’s bank. But it was still a beautiful place. We walked till it’s bank and rested for a while. Rana helped me setup the tent and we had a lunch of of  MREs. Rana and I shook hands and he took his leave to go back to his dera. He said that he’d reach back in 2 or 3 days .

First view of Surah Taal. Road is on right

First view of Surah Taal. Road is on right

After he left, I walked around the place taking pictures and enjoying sunset. The point where I had set up my tent was only about 50-60 meters down from the road, but there was no way to climb up due to huge boulders. The only reasonable path back up was about half a km of walk which I didn’t want to do carrying all my stuff. So I found a shorter and a bit more difficult way up for next morning. It was not a path, just some rocks which seemed stable enough. Even walking around at that altitude was a tough job and the fatigue was making everything including walking on a slope or even lift a small rock more difficult.

There were only a few vehicles on the road and most of them barely slowed down as they passed the lake. During my time there, I saw only 3-4 people who stopped their vehicles to take a few pictures, stare at me staring them back and move on. The traffic ceased a few hours before sunset and I had the whole place to myself. Only 2 vehicles passed through after that till the time I was awake. I wanted to do some night photography and then decided against it once I set foot outside the tent. The wind was too strong and the cold made my every exposed body part freezing cold. So I took a few pictures from within the tent and ended it for the night. It was a bit strange being truly alone in such wilderness for the first time. An exhilarating and terrifying feeling at the same time. A bit more terrifying because at times, I imagined something moving right outside my tent as I was about to fall asleep.

One last vehicle for the night with lake reflecting the lights

One last vehicle for the night with lake reflecting the lights

I woke up after sunrise and had some chocolates and dry fruit for breakfast before staring to windup the camp. Any exertion was still pretty hard and I did it slowly so as not to over exert. There was no traffic on the road at that time and started only after 8 am, I think. After all the packing was done I half carried , half dragged my luggage up to the road. Jamaica had promised that he’d send a car to pick me up from there and I waited along the roadside for it. Later I found out that the driver he asked to do it demanded too much money and he didn’t send anyone. I didn’t knew that at the time and I waited for around 90 minutes before the sky was covered by dark clouds started dropping half frozen rain. It got a extremely cold within a few minutes and I started walking down from there by the roadside. There were quite a few vehicles passing at the that time. I waved at a truck for lift and thankfully he stopped. The driver had delivered some supplies in Leh and was going back empty. He didn’t talk much and I was not in mood for idle chit chat, so most of our journey was quite peaceful. A ride in truck was never on my bucketlist, but was a fun thing to do. We stopped at 2-3 places for rest and meals in Lahaul area which is quite a beautiful place by itself. We reached Keylong in afternoon and he dropped me near the bus station.

View of the area as I waited for transport as I waited next morning, only a few minutes before everything was covered by clouds

View of the area as I waited for transport as I waited next morning, only a few minutes before everything was covered by clouds

There was one bus scheduled to leave for Manali in a hour and I waited at bus stand till it arrived and ticket counter opened. The bus ride was unremarkable and I reached Manali at around sunset time. During my last visit, me and wifey had stayed in a kind of fancy resort on the way to Old Manali. It had hot running water, fancy bathrooms and all that other expensive hotel stuff. Since she was coming to join me in 2 days, I thought that it’d be a good place to stay. But I apparently looked like a hobo, because the guy on reception desk said that the hotel was priced beyond what I could possibly afford. I had not bathed for 6 days, had almost matted hair and beard and was wearing same clothes for 4 days. But still….

After that I just walked to Old Manali and found a cheap guesthouse where people were more used to people like me. I had a hot shower, shampooed my hair, overgrown beard to get all the dust out. The water ran very gray and brown for quite some time. There isn’t much to say after this. I wandered around Manali town, discovered a few new spots, gorged myself in different restaurants till wifey arrived. Then we did more of that stuff together for 2-3 days more.

During this trek, I saw a lot of interesting things like plants, geographical features, rocks, glaciers, insects and more. Only problem is that I know almost nothing about most of them. I did take a lot of pictures and intend to find out more about them, if time permits.
For now, it’s time to end this post.

This post is just a bunch of pictures I took during a short trip to Keoldeo National Park, Bharatpur. Most people just call it Bharatpur bird sanctuary. It is not a big place but apparently it had a lot of wildlife including leopards which have disappeared from the park. British and their slave rajas did a lot to kill  too much of wildlife. There are numerous pictures with a bunch of white sahibs and brown sahibs with carcasses of thousands of birds in front of them. Local people are doing their best to carry on the unfinished work of past generations in other ways. According to some ornithologists and avid bird watchers we met, the park is steadily losing it’s population of flora and fauna. Shoddy work by park management, human interference and a lot of other factors are to blame.  I don’t know names of most birds I saw and I certainly don’t remember all the names our guide told us. So I am just looking up names on internet and making a best guess. There are quite a few pictures with no description because I can’t find exact name of the bird. I’ll update whenever I have correct information.

All of these pictures were shot using a old Tamron 200-400 mm lens on a Nikon D7100 body without any tripod.

White-breasted Waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus). These seemed to be much more used to people than most other birds. They'd commonly stroll up and take food

White-breasted Waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus). These seemed to be much more used to people than most other birds. They’d commonly stroll up and take food

White-breasted Waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus)

White-breasted Waterhen (Amaurornis phoenicurus)

Black-headed ibis (Threskiornis melanocephalus)

Black-headed ibis (Threskiornis melanocephalus)

White-thoated Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis)

White-thoated Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis)

Black bird is a migratory one from China

Black bird is a migratory one from China

 Indian pond heron (Ardeola grayii)

Indian pond heron (Ardeola grayii)

Cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis)

Cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis)

Oriental magpie-robin (Copsychus saularis), male.

Oriental magpie-robin (Copsychus saularis), male.

Oriental magpie-robin (Copsychus saularis), female

Oriental magpie-robin (Copsychus saularis), female

in flight

in flight

Same bird drying it's wings in sun. It's feathers are not water proof like most other birds which forage in water

Same bird drying it’s wings in sun. It’s feathers are not water proof like most other birds which forage in water

Pied kingfisher , C. r. leucomelanurus. This bird hovers above water to catch it's prey. One of the most interesting birds we saw.

Pied kingfisher , Pied kingfisher (Ceryle rudis). This bird hovers above water to catch it’s prey. One of the most interesting birds we saw.

Pied kingfisher (Ceryle rudis)

Pied kingfisher (Ceryle rudis)

Pied kingfisher (Ceryle rudis)

Pied kingfisher (Ceryle rudis)

Eagle ?

Eagle ?

Common myna. (Acridotheres tristis) One with yellow patch behind eye is more common

Common myna. (Acridotheres tristis) One with yellow patch behind eye is more common

Jungle Babbler. (Turdoides striata striata) They are frequently seen in Delhi too, in groups of 4 - 6 birds. Very noisy, inquisitive and active bird.

Jungle Babbler. (Turdoides striata striata) They are frequently seen in Delhi too, in groups of 4 – 6 birds. Very noisy, inquisitive and active bird.

White-eared bulbul (Pycnonotus leucotis)

White-eared bulbul (Pycnonotus leucotis)

Indian peacock (Pavo cristatus)

Indian peacock (Pavo cristatus)

A peacock resting on a tree

A peacock resting on a tree

Rose-ringed parakeet (Psittacula krameri), also known as the ring-necked parakeet

Rose-ringed parakeet (Psittacula krameri), also known as the ring-necked parakeet

Rose-ringed parakeet (Psittacula krameri), also known as the ring-necked parakeet

Rose-ringed parakeet (Psittacula krameri), also known as the ring-necked parakeet



Common kingfisher (Alcedo atthis)

Common kingfisher (Alcedo atthis)

Yellow-footed green pigeon (Treron phoenicoptera)

Yellow-footed green pigeon (Treron phoenicoptera)

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.