Nomadland

A beat-up van slowly makes its way along a beautiful road through a desolate landscape. There is not another vehicle in sight. The elements of nature along the road change. Everything else including Ludovico Einaudi’s score punctuating this sequence remains. This shows up a handful of times throughout the movie. There is other iconic imagery in the movie but this one is probably what will remain with me.

I have been to America a handful of times, but these short visits only ever showed me one side of America. The side that took me to super sized malls, glitzy conferences, iconic landmarks and relatively affluent neighbourhoods.

I saw glimpses of homeless folks in between the sparkling blocks of San Francisco but that was the extent to which I saw the not so shiny part of America. What I also sorely missed experiencing was anything close to an iconic American road trip.

Nomadland is not a road trip movie by any measure. It is about a way of life that few of us will ever understand. The motivations, the trials and the tribulations that make up a life choice like this.

Nomadland is a subtle movie. There is no moment that tries top another. Conversations are scarce, but the ones that make up the movie are hard hitting in their simplicity. Every sentence says so much more than what might appear on the surface.

All of this is held together by Francis Mcdormand in a wonderfully understated performance. Her eyes speak volumes as she makes her way from one town to the next, keeping her personal grief at bay while lending her ear to others. Special mention must also go to David Strathairn who is the supporting actor with the most screen time. They share a brief, but alluring chemistry.

It’s hard to describe what makes Nomadland so compelling. It’s has a dream like quality that kept me hooked until the credits rolled. I was surprised to learn that the score is all previously released material by Ludovico Einaudi. It plays such a huge part in the feel of the film.

Ultimately I won’t claim that movie gave me some extraordinary understanding of the nomadic life. It is about the feeling of belonging to a community and a window to peek into moments of their lives. These are sometimes tragic, sometimes hopeful, and everything in between. It’s a movie that stirs your heart with every frame, whether it’s a lonely drive across the extensive landscape, the travails of living pay check to pay check, the tolls this life can take on the strings that once tethered you to your family or the candid conversations with strangers who can turn into friends.

My takeaway was the only thing that is immutable, is that no place is a permanent home. You can stay as long as you like until you move on. It doesn’t matter if it’s the road that takes you to the next town or the road that takes you to the place where we will all get together again, no matter where we all began.

Lone Fox Dancing

Lone Fox Dancing

I have always loved Ruskin Bond’s stories ever since I read his very first one that had appeared in one of my school books. His love for nature always came through. At the same time I was always intrigued about what he was as person. The magic of Ruskin’s writing for me was always its simplicity, charm and ability to transport you to the very time and place he is talking about. A British man who gave up his easy chance of settling down in a first world country yet choosing to come back to India intentionally is a real revelation. Reading his autobiography felt like I was sitting across from him while he regaled me with tales of his entire life.

Of Switzerland and Contraceptives

It was the year 2008. It was my first time ever outside of my own country. There were many wonderful things that I saw and experienced in my 15 days there. However, this is one experience I have often told people about so I thought that I should put it down in words.

Window Shopping

People had warned me about how expensive Switzerland was, so I didn’t venture out of the city of Basel where I was working at. So most of my free time was spent hopping onto trams or buses and exploring the city by foot. It was during one of the walks that I stumbled upon a strange looking shop. I couldn’t at first figure out what they were selling. Looking through the shop window only showed me what appeared to be strange cylindrical shaped objects of a multitude of colours and designs. It took me a few moments to register that the shape I was seeing was that of a condom. When my eyes drifted next to the name of the shop “Condomeria” I realised that what I thought I was seeing was what I was seeing.

The me from 10 years ago was not a well-travelled person. I was just a kid in 2nd year of his career at his first company. I certainly wasn’t world wise. As the photo below shows I quickly tried snapping a picture from outside and moved on. If I had come across this today, I would have at the very least entered the shop and checked out the goods. Unfortunately, I have now learned that this shop in Basel has closed permanently. I guess it was too high concept even for the Swiss.

Contraceptive Charity

The Swiss Tropical institute with whom I was working had set me up with a small desk within somebody else’s office. When I came to work every day, I noticed these things under my desk. Various flavour names were mentioned on the packing to it. I initially figured them out to be confectioneries. It’s not that they didn’t look suspiciously like a packet of condoms. I just never thought someone would simply have scores of them lying around under a desk.

A few days later I finally had a talk with my co-worker about this. He had a good laugh when I told him about what I had thought they were. He explained to me that the Swiss Tropical Institute worked with women in Africa to help produce these condoms. The proceeds of the sale would contribute to their livelihood while also promoting their use in a continent with of the highest prevalence of AIDS in the world. These were to be sold at the local university festival that was being held a couple of days later.

These things made me realise how open a culture could be about their attitudes towards sex and safety. It has gotten better in India over the years no doubt but there is still a stigma associated with it.

This Is Us

A scripted family drama was not something I thought I would ever find myself watching. I began watching This is Us somewhere towards the end of the year. One episode in and I was hooked. What makes it so special is the incredible writing, the complex characters and the stellar cast who plays them. Add to this the brilliant music score and the selection of songs used throughout the episodes and it all adds up to an extremely well-produced show. That’s not where the superlatives end.

Each character is not just interesting on their own, the chemistry between all of the leads is incredible. There was a point when the lead characters Jack and Rebecca played by fairly well known actors Milo Ventimiglia(Of Heroes and Gilmore Girls fame) and Mandy Moore (the singer) became just the characters of Jack and Rebecca. It began to feel like I was watching real life documentary of a family. Every other cast member that comprises the family in the show is great in their own right. The other part about it is how many surprises it manages to throw your way on a regular basis.

There are times when This is Us will bring you to tears. But it earns those tears through genuine, intense and raw moments that could happen in anyone’s life. The dialogs are also stellar. They leave you hanging onto every word and make you wish you could express your most complex thoughts with such impact and clarity.

This Is Us is currently midway through its second season and it remains as fresh and engaging as it was in its first season. It’s also one of the highest watched dramas on television right now. Which bodes well for its future. As it currently stands I could watch the lives of these characters for a long time to come.

A weekend in Mumbai

It had been almost a decade since I went to Mumbai for anything other than taking a flight out of the international airport. I probably avoided actively going there because of it’s difficult weather and the overcrowding. My wife however had been wanting to go visit for a while. So an invitation from her friend took us there on a weekend where the summer was just ending and monsoon had not yet begun.

Dhobhi Ghat

This was the first of Mumbai’s iconic locations we came across. While I didn’t dare descend into the chaos below I stood there for a few moments trying to comprehend the scale of the activity that happened here.

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I noticed this beautiful clock tower while walking around called the Jijamata Udyan Clocktower

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Ballard Estate

Driving through this area felt like I was in a secret area of Europe. Only the presence of big Indian brands and some Indian folks gave it away. It was a stunnning place and it being a Sunday let us appreciate it a lot more.

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Elphinestone College, Kalaghoda

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A stunning mural somewhere near the Kala Ghoda area

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Artisan’s Gallery, Kalaghoda

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Gateway of India

The Gateway I visited several years ago, was the one untainted by one of India’s worst terrorist attacks. While the place was even more crowded than it was back then it felt a lot more restricted with a security check before entering and a lot more barricades all around.

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The Taj Hotel

I’ve always wondered how magnificent the Taj would be on the inside. We weren’t really dressed for it so we thought we would try and make an entry into it and hoping no one would question us once we entered. We quickly went through without lingering too much at one particular place. The swimming pool was stunning with nary an Indian to be seen besides the housekeeping staff. We kept walking through until we reached the Hotel bakery where we had some expensive pastry. It was worth it though, just to be able to see the hotel on the inside. We exited through another gate and I noticed someone else trying to convince the guard to let them go inside. The guard flatly refused them. I guess we got lucky.

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Victoria Terminus

Off all the places I remebered from my last visit to Mumbai Victoria Terminus really was the most vivid. The architecture is absolutely stunning and timeless and it continues to to wow me even today.

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Stalled Constructions

When you move across Mumbai one notices buildings in progress at a massive scale. However there are several of them that have also stalled progress due to various legal issues. This one was one of them.

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Bombay High Court

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Monorail Joy Ride

The monorail service in Mumbai covers a very small area currently. We decided to board it anyway for a joy ride from the Wadala station and back. The tickets are very cheap and it’s a fun experience if you’ve never ridden one. The stations were clean, rail compartments were air-conditioned and there were very few people around.

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Sea Link

I had heard so much about the Sea Link and was absolutely looking forward to driving on it this time. All I can say is that is certainly a magnificent modern structure the likes of which I have never seeen in India.

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Other odds and ends

While driving around our friend also pointed out to the the infamous billion dollar building Antilia that is the home of Mukesh Ambani. It was absolutely horrendous. I have never seen such an ill concieved billion dollar home.

Traffic in Mumbai is bad as any other major city in India in terms of volume. Discipline wise compared to Pune at least it was so much better. It was refreshing to see traffic rules being followed in most places. I’m not really sure if it was a cultural thing or a result of a stricter police force.

We ended the weekend with dinner at the Prithvi Theatre cafe. It was time to go back to Pune the next morning. Our bus was to leave by 6.30 a.m and we were dripping with sweat while walking back to the bus. On the ride back I was talking with my wife if her desire to stay in Mumbai was any greater. She said it’s nice for a weekend but she could never stay here.

Exiting Mumbai

My personal take on things were that Mumbai is a fascinating city without doubt. It has incredible architecture and offers a lot for the curious. The weather is one of the most serious considerations for anyone planning to stay there. It was a wonderful weekend trip. There was so much that was left to see and do there. The people of Mumbai are certainly full of verve. To eke out an existence in big city like Mumbai with it’s overcrowded streets and expensive real estate is a miracle. Given everything that I experienced in a couple of days while wondrous, wasn’t enough to convince me to stay. I simply couldn’t get past the weather, crowds and the vast distances one needs to cover. Perhaps a few more trips or an extended stay might finally make me understand what it is that makes Mumbai the city that Mumbaikers can never leave.

Exiting Kashmir

The last day of your vacation is always the toughest. After 7 incredible days here and lifetime of memories to take back, our driver said there were a couple more places he wanted to take us to before heading back to the airport.

Zeshta Devi Mandir

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The first was a little known temple close by to the The Lalit Grand Palace in Srinagar, the Zeshta Devi Mandir. I am typically averse to most temples because of the huge crowds that throng most temples. This one was something our particular driver liked to take his guests. It was up a few winding roads and there was absoultely no one there besides us. It was a simple structure but nestled between some beautiful mountains.

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The Lalit Grand Palace Srinagar

As I had mentioned while there are a ton of options for accomodation, for tourists on a budget there are also options for the rich and famous. Our driver very confidently told the security at the hotel gate that we were here for lunch when asked if we were guests going to check in to the hotel.

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After getting through with confidence we got off to take a stroll inside the hotel grounds. While I can imagine that the inside of the hotel were suitably lavish being a 5 star hotel the best part of the hotel was it’s spectacular location. With huge open grounds in the front and incredible mountains behind it felt like a place that you would want to one day want to stay at. DSCN2171.JPG

We took a small horse buggy ride offered here before heading out.

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Don’t miss out on Kashmir

In today’s age of Whatsapp and Twitter news has become more accessible and dangerous. It is as fast to spread misinformation as it is to to benefit from these modern technologies. On the day that we had arrived the internet had been shutdown for 2 days to prevent this very problem. Our driver told us that despite the inconvenience it was a good thing.

Our 7 days spent were some of the best. Media and politics has absolutely destroyed the livelihood of so many locals that rely on tourism. The warmth we felt here from the locals was genuine. They want nothing more than peace for their state. The acts of a few nefarious elements have unfortunately come to represent the nature of all it’s people. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In a tourist driven economy they want nothing more than to make tourists feel safe. That anyone would willingly do something to jeopardise this is unthinkable.

Kashmir was absolutely breathtaking. It’s no wonder everyone fights over it. Despite everything you may hear on TV or the internet it’s a place every Indian must visit once in their lives. I advised everyone who has asked me since about travelling to Kashmir if it was safe. I told them in the 7 days I spent there this is what I felt.

I am more likely to lose my life in a road accident in Pune because of it’s unruly traffic, than I am from anything that could happen in Kashmir

Gulmarg

Apprehension

We were only 2 days away from returning back to Pune. We were pretty excited about going to Gulmarg. When we got ready to head out, our driver told us there was a situation in the general area that we were headed to. After 5 days of unworried vacationing this was our first whiff of the other side Kashmir. The ugly side that the media and people tend to hype up. As it happened there was an altercation between military forces and some students that had lead to the death of a student.

You only live once

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Our driver left the decision up to us. Gulmarg is the crown jewel of Kashmir and after coming all the way here I just didn’t feel like going back without seeing it. So despite my wife’s reservations we decided to go. I’m glad we did. The city of Srinagar was shutdown for the day. Besides some areas that were cordoned of on our route and an increased military presence we made our way to Gulmarg without incident.

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We finally reached Gulmarg after making our way up desolate winding roads. Once we reached the top we were saw that it was the most the most crowded of all the spots we visited on our entire trip.

Gondola Ride

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Gulmarg has some stunning places to stay at the top and it has been the location for several Bollywood movies. Once you reach the base you go further up via a Gondola ride that costs you Rs 600 per person. While it is expensive, it is run by the government so you can be assured that it is safe and you aren’t being fleeced by anyone. Also it offers incredible views and the gentle pace at which you move up the mountain is an experience of it’s own.

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One thing to keep in mind is that while food and accommodation is relatively expensive in Kashmir, the activities that you can do when you reach the famous spots, can burn a decent sized hole in your pocket. However since it was our last real day in Kashmir we decided to go all in and it turned out to be the most expensive day for activities. We were so out of cash that we had to borrow cash from our driver on the way back.

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Once the Gondola drops you off at the first base point, you can stay there and enjoy the various activities like skiing, sledging or the snow motorcycle rides. Or if you chose to spend another Rs 900 you can take the next phase of the Gondola ride that goes right up to the top of the mountain. Some guides told us it wasn’t worth it but we chose to go anyway.

End of the World

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I was so glad we did. While there is nothing to do in terms of activities at the top when we alighted the Gondola we simply felt like we had reached the end of the country. The only signs of life besides a few tourists around us was an army bunker camouflaged with the snow in the distance.

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We couldn’t spend much time here as the Gondola was close to shutting down for the day. The ride back down down a steep slope was an equally amazing experience.

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Once we made it back to the first base we spent a lot of time just soaking in the views. For those us who have never experienced a snow filled landscape like this one it was hard to think of leaving that view behind. We spent a lot of time clicking pictures here and finally decided to come down via snow sledges that are sometimes dragged and sometimes driven by the downward slopes of the mountain.

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Safe and Sound

On the way back there was no traffic on the roads owing to the strike. Another driver joined us on the way back because the family he had taken to Gulmarg decided to stay back for the night due to his fear of the incident. We didn’t see much traffic on the way back but we did see a local public transport bus. They told us if a public bus is on the road it means that things are ok and we could travel further on without worry.

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It was a long day that started with a little nervousness but we were glad to be back safely with some incredible memories to bring back for the day.

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Gardens of Kashmir

It was the day that we were finally visiting the gardens of Kashmir. After having some poha that was spelled as puha in our hotel menu we headed out early. While I love gardens of all kinds, my wife is not a big fan. Since we were to spend the entire day exclusively visiting gardens she wasn’t the most excited as we headed out.

Parimahal

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Our first stop was a ride to Parimahal a terraced garden that offered spectacular views of Dal Lake as well as the city. Situated on a hillock we had a great time walking across it’s multiple levels each offering different views of Srinagar. The crowds were moderate and a gentle breeze accompanied us everywhere.

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While I had initially imagined Kashmir to be a conservative place with couples not tending to show their affection in public this place completely surprised me. There were young couples everywhere and it seemed like this was one of those places where they were truly free to just be themselves and enjoy each other’s company.

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While there are lovers names scratched into the walls at some places thankfully it wasn’t so much that it became an eye sore.

Chasmeshahi

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Chasmeshahi falls on the way to Parimahal at the top but we chose to go here on the way back from Parimahal.

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It has a point of fresh water whose source is not known. Our driver told us that Nehru’s water came from here. While it’s upto you if choose to believe in this I think a story whether true or made up always adds to the charm of any place you may visit.

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Nishat Baug

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Next up was Nishat Baug a 12 step terrace garden built in 1634 A.D. Overlooking the Dal lake from the first terrace onwards and extending to a great distance upto the uppermost terrace it’s a vast garden lined with fountains water channels and chinnar trees.

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Once we went upto the last terrace we stopped midway to just lie down in the grass and listen to some soft music. With the perfect weather that day it was a sublime experience.

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Shalimar

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Built by Emperor Jahangir for his wife Noor Jahan this was the last of the mughal style gardens we saw before heading to the Tulip Gardens

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Tulip Garden

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The Tulip Garden is open only for 1 – 1.5 months in the year when the tulips are in full bloom so were lucky to see them. Late evening is the best time to see them as the afternoon sun makes it hard to see them for a longer stretch of time.

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Botanical Gardens

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We still had some time to to spare after visiting the Tulip Gardens so we ended the day with a silent peaceful pedal boat ride at the neighbouring botanical garden. Most people tend to give it a skip but I highly reccomend it.

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Betab Valley & Chandanwari

The first part of this series can be found here.

The second part of this series can be found here.

The third part of this series can be found here.

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After waking up a little early to this amazing view, we checked out of the hotel and headed into town for our trip into Betab valley. We couldn’t take our private car here so we needed to hire a local car from the stand to take us there. You pay them based on the number of points you wish to see.

Betab Valley

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Betab valley got it’s name from the movie Betaab starring Sunny Deol, that was released in 1983. It had several scenes shot here and subsequently it has regularly been used as a location for movies. The day that we were here, filming for a Tollywood movie was in progress.

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Our Little Guide

While we don’t usually hire guides, there was an enthusiastic little guy who offered to guide us for a small fee. He told us that he was studying in Std 8th. With so few tourists around, it really looked like he could do with some money so we let him accompany us.

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No one but us

Betab for me was a place of desolate beauty. Besides us there were just 5 -6 tourists walking about. While that is a sad thing for the locals it really let us appreciate it’s beauty with nothing else to distract us.

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Chandanwari

After spending about an hour at Betaab Valley we headed towards the Chandanwari glacier.  These are a few photos taken while were driving towards it.

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Once you reach Chandanwari you can do a small trek up. Most people don’t go right up to the top as it can be a little strenous. But we chose to go up higher than most.

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It was a fun climb upto the top. The view from up there was worth it. Our boots would often sink into the snow right upto our knees. Having snow get into your boots can be quite an unpleasant experience and I had to stop a couple of times so our guide pull out my shoes and empty it of the snow. Neverthless slipping and sliding down the glacier was a fun experience.

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Avantipura

While we were on our way back to Srinagar we stopped at the Avantipura ruins. It was most recently where the song Bismil from the movie Haider was shot.

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Plastic

We stopped once again at the dry fruit shop from the previous day as our driver had to pick up a larger quantity of Kesar for a previous customer worth almost Rs 15000 to courier back to him. As it was the 4th day into our trip I noticed that there were signboards  proclaiming a polythene bag ban at several places. When I thought about it I realised that while Kashmir wasn’t a perfectly clean state it was much cleaner than you might expect. It may be hard to say if this can be attributed to the plastic ban or due to it’s nature as a tourist state but I hope that things continue to get better.

Pahalgam

The first part of this series can be found here.

The second part of this series can be found here.

On the way to Pahalgam we stopped at a dry fruit shop that sold almonds, walnuts and saffron. The almonds that we tried here were different from the ones we are used to. They could almost be described as juicy, oily and really fresh. We ended up buying way too many expensive and tasty dry fruits. By the time we paid up and were ready to leave the total weight of them worried me a bit. I’m the kind of guy who is always worried about his luggage getting tagged as overweight at check in. We also tried some authentic Kehwa tea that is a Kashmir specialty. It might not be to everyone’s like but don’t leave Kashmir without trying it atleast once.

Bat Factory

Though me and my wife have absolutely zero interest in cricket, another couple in a car tagging along with us wanted to buy a bat. So we made what is considered an essential stop on any trip to Kashmir. This particular road had scores of shops lined up on either side of them. The Kashmir willow tree, whose wood is used to craft these bats is what makes them special.

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To Pahalgam

The district of Anantnag that falls on the way to Pahalgam was once known as Islamabad. As with our previous ride to Sonmarg we had another river the Lidder to keep us company along the way.

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On reaching Pahalgam we checked into a small hotel with a beautiful view of the same river. While there are other better hotels available in the main town area we preferred this one one which was right inside a little village.

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Pahalgam has two different sections that you typically visit from there. The first one takes you uphill and after another negotiation for a pair of horses we set off again. This particular ride is a tough one for the horses as well as their guides. It was hard not to feel a little guilty riding these gentle creatures as they slowly and made their way up some pretty steep slopes.

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The ride consists of a few designated points along the route and we stopped here for a bit of Bhajji by the river.

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When you reach the top most point you can enjoy some truly stunning views. We took a break here to do a small photo session in traditional clothes that you can simply wear over your regular clothes.

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One of the last points is up at the top where you can find a large flat piece of land. This serves as a skiing start off point for tourists when it is covered with snow in the winter months.

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There were some points during the ride that our guide would point out locations where scenes from some famous classic Bollywood movies were shot. Me personally not being too familiar with these movies made it hard to relate.

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The entire ride can take easily take 2 -3 hours which gave us plenty of time to chat with our guide who was a fairly young guy who had just started college. We learnt that horses names were Dharam and Veer. One was a little older and always took a longer and carefully calculated route while the other one always took the shortest one possible. Descending the slopes while on your horses can seem a little scary initially. It requires that you put complete faith in the horses and their guide.

He also asked me about my profession. When I told him that I worked as a game designer he responded by telling me they love playing Teen Patti on their mobile phones to pass time during the cold winter months.

When we made our way back to the village below one of the locals casually asked us where we were from. When we mentioned Pune he immediately said Keshavnagar Mundhwa which is the exact area where we stay. He said that he loves that place and it’s people and invited us to his home for tea. We were too tired and just a little bit sceptical to accept his offer.

In a tourist driven city when a local mentions that he knows the city you came from it’s easy to assume that he is only saying that to entice you to spend some money on his wares or some other experience. However in this case we had to assume that he was telling the truth because it was highly unlikely that he could have guessed correctly the exact area that we stay at in the vast city of Pune.

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We had a nice dinner at a place called Nathus in the center of the town. There were only 3 -4 other tables occupied in an otherwise fairly vast restaurant. To truly understand how much tourism has fallen in Kashmir, Bilal our driver told us that there was a time that you had to wait an hour to get a table in this very same restaurant.

As we settled into the silence of the night the only sound that lulled us into sleep was the Lidder river.

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