This is my Shri Amarnath Cave pilgrimage narrative. It took place in Kashmir, India. I provide details that include maps, costs, logistical requirements and facts as well as links to additional details, photos and videos on the associated pilgrimage post. This is a self-guided adventure on a shoestring.
My Pilgrimage, My Story
My start on the pilgrimage actually took a few days to get under way. I had taken the night train from Delhi and gotten off at Jammu on August 15th, India’s Independence Day (the worst possible day to visit the disputed state of Jammu & Kashmir). I exited the train in a downpour and found the tourist office and bus kiosks closed. After walking around in the rain for a while I returned to the Taxi stand outside the station for shelter. When the rains subsided various hawkers started yelling destinations in the parking lot. One found me and asked where I wished to go. I told him Srinagar (the capital of Kashmir) and he took me to a jeep and asked me to wait. In time other passengers were ushered to my jeep and I determined that the state bus was not running that day (due to the holiday) and that the price of the shared jeep to Srinagar was 400rs.
I had no option but to hop in with the other wet passengers when we departed around 8am. The road (highway) to Srinagar is an understatement in every respect. We crossed the town of Jammu and then spent two hours at an army roadblock. We then raced the other jeeps and buses around hairpin turns for the rest of the day, with roadblocks and landslides for variety. In all we had to wait for bulldozers to clear the road five times. The entire route also contained countless military checkpoints and was constantly under observation from sentries on hilltops and within bunkers along the road. The fact that it was Independence Day didn’t help matters. The previous year a number of terrorist explosives had been set off in Srinagar and security on this day was heightened and tense.
In Srinagar I was unceremoniously dumped outside the Taxi stand at 6:30pm and then attacked by a school of sharks pushing their houseboat accommodation. It was a well-deserved feeding frenzy. Over the next five days that I stayed in Srinagar I only saw two other western tourists. The media and the over-bearing military presence made Srinagar (a once popular tourist destination) a tourist ghost town and accommodation owners desperate.
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Click to watch Video
I finally settled on a friendly fellow who had both a houseboat and a Guest House. I spent the first night at the houseboat to make him happy and then moved to his empty Guest House (see associated pilgrimage post for details). I spent the next few days getting accurate information about the Amarnath Cave pilgrimage. The best source was the J&K Tourist Office (next to the Taxi stand and state bus park, and a block from the Zero bridge where I was staying). The first thing I discovered was that I had overshot my target of Pahalgam (the official starting point) by three hours. Unperturbed I visited the state bus park next door and found that I could take a morning bus back the way I had come for 150rs each morning at 8:30am. However, the bus would only leave if it had 15 or more passengers.
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I spent the next few days checking out of the Guest House (but leaving the bulk of my stuff there in storage), waiting at the bus park, and then checking back into the Guest House. Finally on my fifth day in Srinagar I caught the bus to Pahalgam. That was my official first day of the Amarnath Cave Pilgrimage. The bus had exactly 15 passengers on board.
We reached Pahalgam at 12:30 and were gently accosted by good natured and easy going sharks pushing accommodation, treks, country lodges, Kashmir shawls, and knick-knacks. I visited the tourist office around the corner from the bus park and was given an accurate map of the trail to the cave and information about accommodation along the way. They also told me that the 16km trail to the first town (Chandanwara) was now paved and that I could easily catch a shared jeep if I didn’t want to walk along the road.
I waked around the town, had lunch and then watched the sky as dark clouds and a few raindrops tentatively bounced off my boonie hat. I was trying to make up my mind about walking the first 16km leg or spending the night in Pahalgam when a van pulled up next to me and a friendly proprietor I had met earlier, asked me if I wanted to stay at his expensive and lovely resort or at his brother’s mountain cabin. I agreed to take a look at the cabin. He drove me across the river and up the hill to a small cabin with the large name of the “Freedom Palace”. It was a two- room cabin with dinner of Dahl Bat (rice and vegetables) for 150rs a night. I agreed and settled in for a lazy afternoon nap, reading, dinner, and finally an outdoor evening fire. It was an extremely pleasant way to start a pilgrimage.
Day 1 Photos
I started the second day at 7:15am and was on my way down the hill, across the river, and back to town by 8:00. I stopped for breakfast at a Dhaba at the north side of the town, on a sidetrack, next to the horse stables, that lead into a park. I followed the river north thru the park, which necessitated that I jump a few fences to reach the bridge at the north side of town, where the road split (left to Aru and right towards the cave).
The 16km walk from Pahalgam to Chandanwara was mostly deserted except for the constant sentries posted at 500m intervals on the hills overlooking the road, or the occasional checkpoints in the four small villages along the way. I learned very quickly to keep my sunglasses on and my eyes diverted from the soldiers or boarder police. They all wanted to talk and constantly called out questions or asked me to stop for tea. It was tiring and made the otherwise pleasant walk a chore. Then 1.5km before Chandanwara I was subjected to a security search (shake down) by a rude soldier that ticked me off. I kept complaining as he examined my gear (including the contents of my shaving kit and Pepsi bottle). Eventually a friendly officer arrived and told me to proceed.
Chandanwara is a taxi stand, a single road of shops and stalls, tents, military areas, and nothing more. I sat in a stall and drank a Pepsi at 1:30 and contemplated my next stage. I had already covered 16km and gained 700m in altitude. I could spend the night here or push hard and cover another 13km that included Pisso Top Pass, two camps, and an additional 800m rise in altitude for a day total of 1,500m and 29km. I looked around and figured there was absolutely nothing to do in Chandanwara, so had nothing to lose by proceeding.
I cleared the Pisso Top Pass with little difficulty and then settled into a fast paced walk that kept me almost out of the grasp of the constant queries from the military sentries. In a few cases officers insisted that I sit and have tea with them. This consisted of the usual questions (country of origin, married, children, job, income, can you sponsor me, etc). Alternatively, I did stop at one of the many NGO food & shelter setups on the trail to talk with the organizers and learn about their aid programs while being fed.
Around 4:30 it started to rain and get cold, which was no surprise since the clouds had been dramatically building though out the afternoon. I picked up my pace, ignored the ever-present queries from the now wet soldiers, and reached Shashnag by 5:30. I had to clear another security inspection (but this time while chatting to good natured soldiers); I then entered the secured pilgrim tent area to obtain a floor accommodation tent for 120rs. I was then informed that I could order a meal, for a fee, or I could walk over to one of the NGO areas and obtain a free meal. I opted for a free meal.
I tossed my gear into the tent and then walked over to an NGO tent compound and was ushered to the front of the food line, taken to a table, where space was made for me and a chair vacated. I was a celebrity. I was the only westerner that had been sighted on the pilgrimage in quite a while. Everyone was curious about me and also eager that I get a good impression. I smiled a lot, took photos, filmed a little, and ate quickly, and then returned to my tent to turn in early. It was cold and damp outside and I was emotionally tired. Being the only westerner (celebrity) made it a constant challenge to remain friendly but firm in my determination to keep moving throughout the day. I simply couldn’t stop and chat with every single sentry and outpost. I quickly fell asleep to the sound of heavy raindrops on the tent canvas.
Day 2 Photos
I awoke on the morning of Day 3 to the sound of heavy rain. I poked my head outside, and saw all the mud and rain, so returned to my warm sleeping bag. By 9:30 the rain had tapered off so I crawled out of my sleeping bag to pack and start out. Once packed I went to leave the secure tent area, but was stopped by the military and told that the trail to the cave was closed due to the bad weather. I argued for a while and then determined to call it quits and return to Pahalgam. I was very frustrated with the constant military presence and involvement. I crossed the creek to the army camp side and then stopped to film the three mountains that were a backdrop to the pilgrim tent camp. These mountains (Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva) had just started to emerge from the clouds and I realized that I should at least return to the tent camp and have the military confirm that the road was closed while I filmed them for the record. I re-crossed the creek and approached a different set of officers that were milling about and started filming them while asking questions about the trail. They informed me that it was indeed closed, but would probably be open within an hour, as it appeared that blue skies were approaching from the south. I looked south and sure enough, the clouds were falling back and the skies were clearing fairly quickly.
I then wandered about the camp area filming for the next hour while the skies continued to clear. Around 10:30 one of the officers signaled to me that the trail was open. I returned to my gear, waved goodbye, and setoff up the trail with the rest of the muddy pilgrims (yatree).
The trail wound its way steadily up for 4.5km to reach MG Top Pass at 4,511m, then dropped gradually for an additional 8km to reach Panjtarni (3,505m). My pace was casual and the weather mostly sunny, but cool that day. I reached Panjtarni, on the floor of a valley boxed in by impressive mountains by 5pm. It was a large double camp, one containing the military and the other pilgrim tents and NGO’s. I entered the pilgrim area after another security check and then found damp floor tent accommodation for 120rs. Once again I simply tossed my gear into the tent and returned to one of the NGO’s to ask some questions while being fed and pampered. I was informed that in a single day I could reach the cave and then double back to a fork in the trail that would take me north to the town of Baltal. From Baltal I could get a ride back to Srinagar. This option would save me from backtracking three days, so I determined to start out early the next day. After eating my fill it began to rain again so I quickly returned to my tent and turned in early.
Day 3 Photos
I awoke at 5am on the fourth day as dawn spread her rose red fingers in a gray sky. I geared up quickly as the sound of the NGO generators hummed in the distance. I went to the NGO that I visited the previous night and was given numerous cups of tea while waiting for the military to open the trail. At 6:30 the military deemed it safe for us to leave and I set off at a brisk pace.
The 3km to the trail split was dramatic, with steep ridgeline switchbacks, glacier crossings, mountain vistas, and scree traverses. I took my time and shot a lot of video as the sun continued its slow climb over the shear valley walls. By 8am I reached the trail split and turned off into a side valley that lead to the cave and small military/tourist village at its base. I could hear chanting and music echoing off the steep valley walls as I wound my way to the distant cave. I reached the military check post at the village entrance and was searched again and then wished a happy yatra.
I crossed quickly thru the gauntlet of stalls and hawkers selling food and religious goods and then started a slow winding ascent thru military tents, and a helicopter-landing pad. I cleared another security search and then was finally within view of the cave opening. I approached slowly and observed the rituals that the pilgrims performed. The soldiers at the entrance were delighted to see a westerner and ushered me to a chair so that I could take off my shoes and then offered me sandals to wear, and then took photos with me. I was then free to enter the cave. I was informed that I could take photos and video in the cave, but not of the actual lingam.
I then observed that there wasn’t and actual ice-lingam to take photos of anyway. I was informed that it had melted early this year (in July) as it had the previous year. I was also told that it is very inauspicious if the lingam melts before the end of the Shravan, as it had this year and the prior. I could only smile at the irony. It seemed that even Shiva was feeling the effects of Global Warming and that perhaps Pfizer pharmaceuticals should be informed of marketing opportunity (the blue football that even gods may need).
I took photos, was photographed with numerous locals and soldiers and then set out at a brisk pace. I was happy to be done and the sun was shining as an added bonus. I backtracked to the fork in the trail and then headed up a steep trail to skirt the ridgeline of a valley for an additional 11km before descending to the military village of Baltal around 12:30.
Day 4 Photos
I found a shared jeep for 150rs and then waited until 4pm for the military to arrive and escort us back to Srinagar with whistles blaring, armed soldiers with bungee mounted swinging machine guns, and AK-47 touting infantry in chase vehicles. We were Hindi pilgrims being escorted thru troubled and contested Muslim lands. It all seemed surreal.
Our jeep split from the convoy as we reached the edge of town and I split from my cramped quarters behind the driver when we reached the Zero Bridge. I was in high spirits and happy to be done with the pilgrimage and Srinagar (I would be leaving the next morning for Leh if the gods and state buses obliged).
At the end of this venture I concluded that Kashmir is simply not ready for tourists yet. It has the feeling of underlying tension and reminded me of my time walking the streets of Sarajevo after the siege years. Too many soldiers, too much tension, and too few smiles
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