Thursday, June 14, 2012

Dachigam – Bonus in Paradise

Kashmir blows you away. And then some. No matter how high your expectations, you still come back awestruck at the sheer beauty of the place and the sheer absurdity of the situation there. The latter is for the political commentators, so I will replace rhetoric with a picture of the stunning Dal lake, taken by my wife Surbhi.


And while the whole trip was a magical, eye-popping visual feast, the jewel in the crown for me was the trip to Dachigam National Park. It’s one of India’s less visited and certainly least touristy wildlife destinations. But at a mere 20 odd kms from Srinagar, it’s a must-see for any serious wildlifer. The main attraction – critically endangered Hangul (Kashmir Stag) found only here.

So, on one of our mornings in Srinagar, I set out early to Dachigam. Our hotel owner had arranged for a car and driver and he in turn had asked for ‘the best’ guide there, at least that’s what he said.But the man who met me at the entry gate was no mere guide. He was Mr. Malik, the head naturalist at Dachigam and a veteran of the park. He’d been persuaded by our driver, Javedbhai to take me for a walk into Dachigam, busy as he was with a bunch of serious trekkers.

Himalayan Bulbul at the Park entrance
In a 140 sq. km park, with 400 or so Hangul, it wouldn’t be too unreasonable to expect to see some, right? Wrong. When Javed told me he’d seen hangul 3 times in 9 years of visiting Dachigam, my hopes vanished. Then Mr. Malik looked at me with a kind (if slightly pitying) smile, and said ‘It’s only140 sq kms but the altitude goes from 5500-14000 feet! And we need to walk and you have only a couple of hours Anyways, let’s give it a shot.”
Dachigam is all about views like this
We walked on the tar road for a few kilometres, with beautiful forest all around us, with our constant companion being a gushing river, in renewed spirit and vigour thanks to the melting snows. It was absolutely stunning, with the river, the woods and all the sounds of the birds all around us, most of them endemic to this part of the world. I stopped him at many places, sometimes to watch little icicles melt, at others to admire the view and at some other places to just stand and listen to the sound of the river. At one spot he hurried me along saying “We must be careful, I got charged by a Black bear here just yesterday.” And to my disappointment we didn’t!

When winter turns to spring
The tar road soon ended at an army camp and from there, we were on narrow jungle paths, winding and climbing and at places, just as wide as a shoe and a half! The river, now a few hundred feet below, was a constant companion. At one bend, overlooking the river was a beautiful canopy, built as a lookout point for visitors. Mr. Malik told me that this spot was a favourite of Mrs. Indira Gandhi when she would visit Dachigam.

And we walked on, stopping to admire the view at times till we got to an open, grassy hillside. Mr. Malik stopped and said that there might be a chance of seeing hangul here.

And lo! Within a minute he whispered “Hangul” and there they were – two of them, in the distance, coming down the hill in a serious gallop. Two sub adult males he said – their trademark horns hadn’t yet grown to full size. We watched them, beautiful in their long striding gallop till they rounded the hill and vanished. And I found that I was trembling with excitement. It was an incredibly rare sighting and I felt truly blessed to have spent those two minutes watching these amazing deer.




Hangul - not great pics, more like record shots of my amazing (long distance) sighting

And, to my surprise, so was Mr. Malik! He was overcome with emotion! That’s when I realized how amazing this sighting was. To add to that he kept telling me (not that I needed reminding) how lucky I was! We both sat down at the edge of a cliff, next to some beautiful wild lilies, and reflected on an incredible morning.

As we descended, I did get to see my Himalayan Black bears as well, a mother and cub pair. That they were at a rescue centre (about to be released back into the wild) didn’t matter one bit as I watched this beautiful, cuddly (yet seriously fierce) creature from up close. There were also a couple of leopards in the rescue centre, for good measure.

Himalayan Black Bear
As Javed drove me back to Srinagar, that picture of the galloping hanguls kept playing in my head. I kept shaking my head in disbelief and arrived back at the hotel with a silly grin on my face, which lasted through the day. It was almost like Kashmir was giving me everything I could ask for and more. Next time, Kashmir, I’m going to ask for a whole hangul herd (with calves), brown bear, red fox and snow leopard. Not too much, is it???

Dachigam Trip Guide

Getting there
It’s barely 20 kms from Srinagar, the nearest airport. Best to stay in Srinagar and hire a car and drive upto the main gates. Post that it’s pretty much all walking.

Stay
At Srinagar, there are fantastic options, to suit pretty much any budget. We sampled two places on our trip and both were amazing. The hotel Dar-es-Salaam (www.hoteldaressalaam.com - Phone +91-194-2427803)  is a house converted into a hotel and it is awesome. It is set on the banks of the Nagin lake and the lawn slopes into the lake with no walls or fences. The staff is excellent and the food is sensational, be it Kashmiri cuisine or any other. Even simple food like their dal is so amazingly flavoured.

View from the Dar es Salaam Hotel lawns
We also spent a night at the LaLit (www.thelalit.com) It is a palace converted into a hotel, overlooking the Dal Lake. A massive property, it has lovely rooms and great food, plus all the mod cons (gym, indoor pool, spa etc) of a 5-star. But the most remarkable feature is the open space around – massive, beautifully manicured lawns that seem to go on for ever. Definitely worth a night’s stay. Also check the Taj Vivanta (www.tajhotels.com) for another luxury option.

Food
The food at both Dar-es-salaam and The Lalit were excellent, but the place for local Wazwan cuisine has to be Ahdoos (www.ahdooshotel.com Phone 91-194-2472593) in Srinagar town. More than 90 years old, it was the first restaurant in the Kashmir Valley. Outstanding food. Period.

You can also check out Krishna Vaishno dhaba for a vegetarian break from all the meaty wazwan food. Excellent veggie food, superb kheer and very reasonable. Budget for crowds at lunch time and not much parking space around.

The dapper Nazir Malik 
Safaris in Dachigam
There are no ‘jeep’ safaris so walking is the only real option. And there are many different walking choices – short walks (like the one I did) or proper multi-day treks. Mr. Nazir Malik (+91 9419732201 malik.nazir@gmail.com) is the head naturalist and is superb, not just with the sightings but is a terrific person as well.

Travel
We had an awesome driver take us around Kashmir. So, to take you to dachigam I would recommend Mr. Mukhtar Ahmed ( +91 9906723598) Not only is he a very good driver, he’s a wonderful person as well. Always careful with the 2 kids in the car and he called to check on us after we reached Delhi.
I’d taken Javed Ahmed Khan (+91 9906591912) since Mukhtar was busy with the family, and he’s very good as well, and is far more into Dachigam.

Other tips
For sighting Hangul, Sept/Oct is a good time when they’re in their rutting season and easier to spot, as are Black bears around that time.
Leopard and Red Fox are easier (relatively) to track in the snow covered ground in winter
It was freezing when I went in April, so some basic warm clothing might be a good idea even in summer