I wake up to the darkness enveloping me in the room. For a moment it is all silent around me. And then I hear the whistle again. A tad familiar and yet, I am unable to place it in this unfamiliar land. I wonder if I am dreaming. My watch gives me a sense of reality. It is 430 in the morning and I am in a wooden lodge by the River Lider in Pahalgam. And then the whistle comes again. A little faint at first and then it becomes a gentle lilting tune that echoes all across the Lider Valley.
The song is melodious and loud now, sung in full throated ease by the blue whistling thrush, probably a cousin to the Malabar whistling thrush, a bird that I have seen very often in the Western Ghats. And yet, this Himalayan variety is invisible to me right now. I can hear it loud and clear that it feels like it is sitting right outside my window, singing away to the dawn and waking up the world. I slowly open the windows and a blast of cold air blows through. The landscape is plunged in darkness. Only the gurgle of the River Lider flowing below my room can be heard. The whistling bird seems to have flown away as the song slowly fades away in the dark. I tuck myself back into bed and wait for the dawn.
Light gently tip toes on the Himalayas as the snow capped peaks merge with the mist. The Lider curls up below, quietly flowing. A pair of Himalayan bulbuls flits around in the bushes. It is cold and damp after the rains and the sun is still slumbering behind the clouds. I head out for a walk and I feel the cold breeze brushing past the cheeks .
The Himalayas look all demure cloaked in a veil of mist. Sipping a cup of tea, I hear that Bollywood director Imitiaz Ali is staying close by, scouting for locations in the valley for the next film. I wonder if there is any part of Kashmir left untouched for Bollywood as we head to the Betaab Valley, named after the film Betaab that was shot here.
Surrounded by snow clad mountains, draped by conifers , the valley is in between the Pir Panjal and Zanskar ranges, but what really catches the eye is the endless stretches of meadows. The sky is still overcast as I walk past the meandering little mountain stream that follows its own dream path in the hills. The entire valley has an unreal dream like feel to it. Groves of conifers stand out in the meadows, poking their heads out as I take walk around the woods.
A placid lake reflects the green that surrounds the banks. The birds are a bit quiet today as the sky indicates another thunderstorm. I have another cup of Kashmiri kehwa, the saffron this time tasting a little stronger as the locals take me on a little Bollywood tour. “Aapne Bobby dekha hai ?” They ask, pointing to a tourist hut that is still named after the film. And now, his son, Ranbhir has filmed his Rockstar here .An older man reminds me that Shashi Kapoor’s Jab Jab Phool Mile was shot here as well. My driver buts in saying, Amitabh Bachchan’s films, “ Silsila, Satte Pe Satta” also had Pahalgam in it. And yet, the valley looks as pristine as ever.
And then the drizzle begins. In Kashmir, when it rains, it pours. The skies look all dramatic as dark clouds merge with the snow and the mist while the valley looks greener .The rains slow down and I continue my journey towards Aru Valley and Chandanwadi. The trekking routes are full of slush and even the ponies are not willing to climb . I just walk up to Chandanwari, only to see the footprints from the muddy boots all over the snow. With both Sonamarg and Pahalgam being the base camp for the Amarnath Yatra, Chandanwari is usually the starting point . The Yatra season has not yet started but the entire landscape is sadly littered and tourists have left their mark everywhere.
The rains pour again and this leaves me with little scope to travel or trek elsewhere in Pahalgam. But then, travelling I realize is also not about moving from one place to another. Sometimes it is just about being in one place and absorbing the beauty around. I take shelter on the banks of the Lider watching it swell with pride with the rains. Later in the day, as the rains take a beating and I head back on the road, a familiar voice greets me. And sitting right in the open, in the wet grass is the elusive blue (looks almost black though) whistling thrush singing away, bidding me farewell