Aru Valley: A bit of Heavenly Tranquility amid Scintillating Peaks
By Geeta Vaishnavi
Pahalgam, a small but vibrant town situated in the Anantnag district of Jammu and Kashmir, is a popular hub for tourists who visit Kashmir to experience its enchanting natural beauty. It is a central connecting point between places like the Betaab Valley, the Baisaran Hills, the Lidder River and Shikargarh which are all well-known globally for their captivating natural glory; the Mamaleshwar temple and the Avantipora temple which bear testament to the ancient heritage of Kashmir; the Pahalgam Golf course which is perfect for the climate of the region and Chandanwari, which serves as the starting point for the immensely revered pilgrimage called the Amarnath Yatra. Given the global renown of Pahalgam and the popularity of the destinations that surround it like a garland, it is surprising to note how few people know about Aru valley which is at a distance of just twelve kilometers from there and how still fewer people visit the place. Surrounded by snowcapped mountain-peaks blazing in the sun and featuring rolling grassy meadows that people would mistake for the scene of a Bollywood movie being shot at Switzerland, the Aru valley, nestled beside the Aru River and home to the Aru village, is a hidden gem of serene splendor.
The 54 kilometer journey from Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir, to Pahalgam is generally made through shared cab service, while another cab takes the tourists from Pahalgam to the Aru valley, although there is the option of hiring a private car for a more comfortable yet expensive commute. The road from Pahalgam to Aru is accompanied by pine and other coniferous trees. Once an individual enters the valley, they are treated with the sights so delightful that they, according to one observer, might be taken as a ‘fairyland.’ The grassy plain supports herds of sheep and goats owned and managed by local shepherds and some nomadic groups that inhabit the slopes surrounding the valley. One is also treated to the scene of the Aru River which is a tributary of the Lidder River and played a large part in the creation of the valley itself. Horses can be seen grazing and alpine trees dot the landscape.
A few homestays and hotels can be found in the village which provide boarding and lodging for the tourists. There is also a Tourist Bungalow here owned and managed by the JKTDC. Although there are a few restaurants, the hotels and homestays themselves are furnished with kitchens and usually provide the boarders with food thrice a day. Visitors can choose from an array of delectable local delicacies ranging from Rogan Josh and Modur Pulao to Kashmiri Aloo Dum, Kashmiri Muji Gaad, Aab Gosht, Goshtaaba Yoghurt Lamb Curry, among others.
Thanks to the unprecedented spread of mobile technology and internet services, travelers and tourists today cannot truly find complete disconnection from other aspects of their lives to find a few days of well-earned solitude. In the Aru valley, however, internet services are wholly unavailable and the only mobile services that can be accessed belong to BSNL. One has to travel all the way to Pahalgam to access the internet or avail mobile services other than BSNL. Hence, the valley remains to be one of the very few places where people tired of their daily lives can truly afford to create some space between them and their quotidian struggles and realities.
The Aru valley, in spite of its relative anonymity, acts as the center for numerous exciting activities that tourists can participate in. While one can simply roam the tranquil meadows and soak in the bountiful nature by sitting at the J&K Tourism Park, there is also the option to avail even better views by attempting at the numerous trekking programs that are undertaken from the valley. Perhaps the most popular one-day-trek from Aru valley is the Green Top trek. It takes about a day for an individual or a team of trekkers to teach the green patch that constitutes the summit of a range and gives the peak its name and come back. The trek gets a bit difficult towards the end as the path becomes quite steep. The elevation of 350 meters that the trek provides, however, gives those who make it to the top a magnificent view of the surrounding valley. Another one-day trek is the one to the ‘Base Camp,’ an area in the middle of the mountains so named because it literally serves as the base for large groups to organize the longer trekking ventures. The trek takes the participants through roads that the locals use to travel to Pahalgam for supplies during weekends or other holidays. There are a few tenthouses along the way which serve the trekkers with refreshments and snacks. Lidderwat, eight kilometers from the Aru valley, takes a full day to reach. After spending the night there, the trekkers return to the valley the next day. The tourists are generally advised to take guides for this two-day-trek. There are also longer treks that take multiple days to complete. The Kolahoi glacier situated above the Lidder River is a hanging glacier. It takes 3-4 days to a week depending on multiple factors to complete a trek to this glacier. The trek is challenging and inexperienced trekkers are advised against undertaking this challenge, but once the destination is reached, the view is said to be breathtaking. The trek to the Tarsar and Marsar lakes, two Oligotrophic lakes also known as the ‘twin sisters,’ is said to be ‘fairly easy,’ although hiring local guides is advised. Both lakes can be viewed from a peak when the destination is reached. The Tarsar is an almond-shaped lake which is 2 km long and 0.8 km wide and, if viewed across its length, changes color throughout the day from turquoise to green and grey. The Marsar lake, blue in color, is mysterious In nature and is dubbed the ‘killer lake’ by the locals who advise against camping next to it. Given the diverse and exciting array of choices a person can pick from when going for a trek from the Aru valley, it is obvious that this valley can be seen as a trekker’s paradise.
Horse-riding is another option for travelers to enjoy while at the Aru valley. While novices can hire a horse for a few hours, expert riders can do so for an entire day. While hikers and horse- riders come to visit the Aru valley during summer months, the rest of the year the valley witnesses snowfalls to various degrees. In winter, the whole valley is covered in snow and is a sight to behold. During winter months, Aru becomes a site for tourists to engage in skiing and heli-skiing. Appropriate training for the same is also provided. Photography and sightseeing are, obviously, activities that can be carried out all year round.
The Aru valley is also home to wonderful people. The little village in the valley houses people who are generally amiable and helpful to outsiders and sometimes even go out of their way to enthrall travelers with their hospitality. The hills that surround the Aru valley are home to numerous nomadic groups. ELISHA (2021) who has shared her personal experience in visiting the Aru valley in the blog Beyond Wild Places, observes that the nomadic people who inhabit the slopes around the valley are a ‘visibly tough people,’ with piercing green eyes and olive skin. They stay in their mud huts near the Aru valley during the summer and migrate to the warmer climate of Jammu during winter with their animals. The nomadic population can be encountered during the Base Camp trek, but in ELISHA’s experience, they generally keep to themselves. Even so, encountering and interacting with human beings from different corners of the world with different lifestyles and beliefs is a privilege only travelers can enjoy.
A green bowl of life and hope set against the backdrop of snowcapped peaks, numerous lakes, glaciers and rivers, the Aru valley shines in resplendent glory that can be hardly compared. Disconnected from the rest of the world, people who come here find moments of solace and blissful pause amid the breakneck race that modern life has become. Walking amidst welcoming people in a slow, relaxing pace, one can enjoy the variety of rare flora and fauna that only Aru can offer. A trekker’s paradise, the Aru valley is the starting point of numerous diverse treks, challenging those who attempt them to various degrees but all promising immaterial rewards at the end. Enjoying moments of horse-riding, skiing or even fishing, the modern human being in the age of fast-paced relationships, social media and mounting mental health crises can find a true appreciation for life, one that is hard to come by. If Jammu and Kashmir is truly the ‘crown’ of India, the Aru valley is a gem that deserves more attention that it gets.