Srinagar left me feeling like I needed to explore Kashmir a bit more instead of going straight to Ladakh, and so I headed to Aru Valley, a place not even mentioned in my guidebook. It’s a popular place for Israeli backpackers to go and I heard about it from an Israeli couple I had been travelling with from Jammu. We left our large backpacks behind in Srinagar, thinking that we would simply spend a couple of days in Aru before returning. How wrong we were.
We had to change transport twice from Srinagar to get to a village called Aru, about 30 minutes away from the popular town of Pahalgam. It was pouring with rain when we arrived and the clouds were obscuring the view, yet I could tell that we were somewhere very green and beautiful. We found a popular guesthouse in Aru village called, Rohella Guesthouse, and the large family that ran the place instantly made us feel at home.
Upon waking the next morning, I looked out the window to clear skies and beautiful snow-capped mountains. Within minutes of stepping out of the door and through the very tiny one-street village, I found myself saying out loud, “This place is incredible, I could stay here forever.” I’d hardly seen anywhere so green in my life, and it appeared like a landscape that belonged more in Switzerland than anywhere near India.
The tiny village is situated at the end of a valley surrounded by pine tree covered hills with snow-capped peaks. The people looked more like they belonged somewhere from Central Asia, and they wandered through the hills during the day herding their flocks of sheep and goats and riding on horseback. The village was completely disconnected from phone and internet service and the dining room at the guesthouse was heated in the evenings by a wood fired stove.
The main activity in the valley is, of course, hiking and so we decided to take a local guide for a couple of day hikes around the area. We covered two of the most popular trails, known as Green Top and Base Camp.
Green Top was a steep climb up through the valley to a patch of green on the ridge of the range. Despite my calves screaming at me to stop, the view from the top was worth the effort and the sudden 800m gain in elevation. With a 360-degree view of the surrounding area, it was nothing short of incredible. We even found a friendly shepherd up the top who was watching over his 500 sheep for the day to have a chat with.
We also hiked to a place they call Base Camp, which is actually just a flat area in the middle of the mountains where multiday hiking groups usually base themselves. The view from Base Camp itself, was nothing particularly special, however, the long 20km hike there and back took us along a major path that is used by local people to connect them to town. Being Friday, many people were heading in for supplies or to attend the mosque in Aru village and so we met many of them along the way.
The people that inhabit the slopes around Aru Valley are often referred to as gypsies. They tend to live in mud huts that blend into the environment around Aru during Summer and then migrate down south to warmer areas around Jammu in Winter with their animals. They were mostly shy and almost none spoke any English, however, the children would often tentatively approach us unsure of how to greet foreign visitors. There was a real sense that the sighting of white foreigners was fairly uncommon.
The gypsies share a heritage with nomadic tribes in Pakistan and Afghanistan and their piercing green eyes and olive skin were striking. They are visibly tough people, their skin often turned to leather at a young age from prolonged exposure to the elements, and they survive the harsh seasons in Kashmir by migrating, completely abandoning their homes for months at a time.
Despite it being located around Srinagar in areas that carry a ‘high security risk’ from clashes between Kashmiri militias and Indian military, the place was easily the most peaceful place I’d been in a long time. It seems to be a pocket of serenity away from the rest of Kashmir, however, of course the local people will still happily inform you that Kashmir is occupied by a foreign force. There is no respite from politics here. One of the brothers of the family that ran the guesthouse we stayed in simply said, “We just don’t want army in the streets everywhere.” A statement I can understand having spent time in heavily militarised Srinagar. However, in Aru Valley you won’t find any police or army soldiers, except for one General who was coming to visit on holiday with his family, in a heavily guarded car, and so you’d be mistaken to think that perhaps you weren’t in Kashmir at all.
It truly was a special place and I enjoyed the incredible scenery. However, as the height of the tourist season came into swing and the guesthouse was full of Israeli backpackers, there was only so much time we could spend walking around the hills and playing cards at night by the fire.
So after a week in the village, it was time to go back to Srinagar and then onto Ladakh, for more mountain views albeit in a desert kind of landscape, far from anywhere green. I was glad that I had decided to explore more of Kashmir, outside of Srinagar, and I’m sure it won’t take long for Aru to start appearing in popular guidebooks, it’s almost offensive that it isn’t there already.
Where I stayed
We made various trips into Pahalgam town, mostly to access the internet and pick up some snacks, however, I would never stay in the town itself as the main cultural and landscape appeal lies in Aru village, just 30 minutes further.
There are around five guesthouses in Aru village itself and we checked out all of them when we were there. By far the friendliest and most homely is Rohella Guesthouse, where we stayed and I paid 400 rupees or AUD$8 for a private room with a bathroom. Prices seem to be the same across the guesthouses and are a little negotiable from the first quoted price.
The village has a couple of dhaba restaurants and snack shops, however, all the guesthouses have a kitchen that can cook all three of your meals. The food at Rohella was excellent and the two cooks worked tirelessly to prepare food for everyone all day (I even ended up in the kitchen cutting vegetables to help them!).
Rohella Guesthouse can also arrange multiday treks, horseback riding and guides. We hired a local guide through them for two day hikes and we paid 1000 rupees or AUD$20 per day for the guide, no matter how many people in the group, so you can share the cost.
How I got in
First, we took a shared taxi from Srinagar (they cluster near the petrol pump, not far from Dal Gate) to Islamabad. Two hour trip costs 100 rupees (AUD$2).
Then we took another shared taxi from Islamabad to Pahalgam. One and a half hour trip costs 80 rupees.
Finally, we took another shared taxi from Pahalgam to Aru village, they leave when full from the central taxi stand. 30 minute trip costs 30 rupees.
How I got out
From Aru, there were six of us wanting to leave back to Srinagar and so it worked out better for us to hire a whole jeep to take us instead of changing twice and waiting. So we climbed into a vehicle and got back to Srinagar at 5pm.
We ended up securing the same driver and vehicle for the trip to Leh as we all planned on heading to Ladakh the following day. So we paid 2600 rupees or AUD$52 each for the trip from Aru to Leh, over two days. The driver discovered that he’d actually quoted as a cheap price for the journey but it was too late and so we got a very good deal.