Another day of riding and we discovered the most fabulous spot yet.
I don’t remember when I fell asleep the night before, but I know that I slept like a log. When I eventually woke up, it took me a while to get my bearings.
Daksum is, at best, an eerily quiet and tiny village. The absence of significant human activity was, for me, its unique selling point. I would have been happy to spend another day exploring the lush green trails around Daksum, but given how expensive it was proving to be to hang around there, it wasn’t feasible. I’m always happy to see other people travelling through the places that I land up at. But, the impact of tourism can be quite inconvenient for a traveller on a budget. Daksum is the last stop for food and refreshments on the route to Sinthan Top. Realising the unique opportunity that this offers, the locals have set up a few restaurants along the highway that serve very basic food at ridiculous prices. For the kind of budget that I was on, this meant that breakfast that morning was nothing more than a cup of tea and a slice of cake. Accommodation wasn’t cheap either. It seemed more sensible to use the money that I had to go further and see more.
The 2-hour ride to Anantnag was pleasant and comfortable for the most part. My chain issue set in once again somewhere along the way, and by the time we reached Anantnag, it was making enough noise to make heads turn as we rode by. I wanted to get it fixed at Anantnag, because it was the last big(ish) town on our route towards Pahalgam. And so, the hunt for yet another mechanic began. Everyone we asked, referred us to one Aamir, supposedly a famed “bullet” mechanic in these parts, but despite following the several iterations of the directions given to us by different people we were unable to locate this local legend. Eventually, we gave up and decided to adopt a different approach. We flagged down a local who was riding a Royal Enfield and asked him for directions to the place where he gets his bike fixed. The gentleman was really helpful. Not only did he tell us about another popular local mechanic, but he also insisted on leading us all the way to his workshop. But the saga with the chain issues wasn’t destined to end that day. We arrived to find the workshop locked, and were informed that the mechanic was himself off holidaying in Pahalgam. We could either wait a day in Anantnag, or take our chances and deal with this later (since we would need to subsequently ride back to Anantnag en route to Srinagar). Since I had by now dealt with this problem on several occasions I knew that I could continue riding so long as I could tune out the almost painful grinding noise. So, we decided to ride on towards Pahalgam.
Kashmir was clearly keen to blow my mind. Every day of riding took me to a place more beautiful than the one before. Pahalgam is a tourist hotspot, and we were making our way there on a weekend. Clearly, we had forgotten the lesson we had learnt the hard way just a few weeks ago at Dalhousie. But this was different. I didn’t mind the crazy traffic that suddenly surrounded me. I didn’t mind being stuck in a jam for almost 30 minutes as we drew closer to Pahalgam. The views of the mountains and the rivers that flowed through were so mesmerising that I used these as reasons to stop and look around instead. I wouldn’t have wanted to cover this distance quickly even if I was the only person on the road.
That having been said, upon arrival at Pahalgam, I realised that finding a place to stay there was inevitably going to be a repeat of the travails of Dalhousie. Even if we did manage to find a steal deal, it wasn’t going to be pleasant. The town was bursting at its seams with visitors and there simply wasn’t any scope for anything to go right in that scenario. Choosing to avoid another sour experience, we opted to ride further to Aru Valley instead.
Aru Valley is about 12 kilometres away from Pahalgam, on a road that I can only liken to the tracks of a rollercoaster. It curves around the mountains whilst simultaneously ascending and descending, often in quick succession. Aru too was bustling with tourists. But after speaking to a few taxi drivers and shopkeepers, I learnt that most of these people would head back to Pahalgam for the night. This meant that rooms were cheap, and we managed to find one right in the middle of the town market at INR 300 a night for two people. If we had been anywhere else, we would probably have taken it, but on our way to Aru we had spotted several open pieces of land that seemed like ideal camp sites. It had by now been a while since we had last pitched our tents, and the gorgeous landscapes of this mountainous-paradise seemed like a good place to do it again. We knew that if nothing worked out, we would be able to come back and find a room for the night.
So, we retraced our route until a little road that we had spotted earlier, which seemed to lead right down to the Lidder river. The road descended steeply and led to a fairly large house that had been converted into a hotel. We figured that this would make for a pretty perfect camping site and decided to try and get permission to pitch tents from the owner of the hotel. Now, what we didn’t know was that the hotel happened to be one of the most expensive in these parts (a room costs upwards of INR 4000 a night) primarily because of its location and the incredible views. The folks at the hotel weren’t thrilled about the idea of anyone enjoying these privileges without them making immense amounts of money in the process. We were turned away quite rudely.
While walking out, we saw a shepherd staring at us curiously from further down the road. On a random impulse, we struck up conversation with him and asked whether he knew of any place nearby where we could possibly pitch our tents. He responded by pointing at a large piece of land which lay beyond the point where the road ended and seemed to be fenced off. I wasn’t sure if he understood what we were asking so I asked him a few more times and received the same response each time. There was only one way to be certain. We hopped onto our bikes and started riding in the direction that he had told us to go. He walked down and opened up a fence to allow us to ride our bikes over a meadow and all the way down to the river bank. We then proceeded to unpack and set up our tents. He watched while we went through the whole process.
Given that he hadn’t raised any objections till now, I figured that he didn’t have a problem with what we were doing. Nevertheless, I asked him whether he knew who owned the land and whether they would be okay with us staying for the night. That’s when he finally began to speak. He told me that the land we were on belonged to his family (they had a house further uphill) and that it would be fine for us to stay there. I asked him if we would need to pay anything, and he laughed in response. By the time the tents were set up, Rasheed (the shepherd) had become really chatty and was regaling us with stories about his family. Unfortunately, I was unfamiliar with his accent, and I couldn’t entirely grasp most of what he said. What I did understand was that his family was originally from another part of Kashmir but moved and settled here in Aru about 50 years ago, and that he now lived in the house that his father had built, along with his mother, his wife, two children and a whole lot of livestock.
The ride day had come to an end pretty early by our standards. It was only 5:00 pm and we had already set up camp fully. I boldly set off towards the river with the hope of waddling in the water for a while. But I changed my mind quickly when I discovered that the water was spine-chillingly cold. This was going to be a bath-free evening. Not ideal, but it was a worthy trade-off.
Rasheed had gone back to his house after we had pitched our tents. He emerged once again at around 6:00 pm with a big smile on his face, carrying a tray with cups, plates and a fancy white flask. I hadn’t expected to get any tea that evening let alone anything so luxurious. As it turned out, his wife had made tea for us in their house and he had managed to borrow the crockery and flask from someone in the nearby hotel (the same one that had turned us away). He also brought along some local bread, which he told us was to be dipped in the tea and eaten. We all drank our tea and ate our bread together. We were soon joined by his daughter (Iqra) and his son (Younus). I don’t think either of them could understand what any of us were talking about, but they laughed at anything anyone said relentlessly anyway. Younus set his eyes on the bread in my plate and would only eat the bread that I handed to him, even though his father had given him his own piece. They were a delight to have around.
As darkness drew near, Rasheed helped us build a fire outside our tents. But soon after the fire was lit, it began to drizzle. We huddled closer to the fire and tried to find ways to ensure that the flame stayed alive. We used rain gear to cover ourselves and umbrellas to protect the fire. For as long as the fire burned, we had some warmth. When it died a few hours later, we dove into our tents for cover. We only ventured out once thereafter, when we went to Rasheed’s house to eat dinner with his family.
The weather turned from bad to worse that night. It was raining so hard that it felt like I had pitched my tent under a waterfall. The wind was constantly howling. Needless to say, it was severely cold. I had to use of every piece of warmth-providing material that I had with me. I was eventually saved by my new friend – exhaustion. Once my mind and body had switched off, neither the weather nor the cold could cause any bother.
Route: Daksum – Anantnag – Pahalgam – Aru