Mountain rivers are very private creatures. They do not allow you up close for any length of space. A walk along their bank is inviting, but soon you realise it’s near impossible. The bank gets too steep, the rocks too slippery, the undergrowth too daunting, or it gets too slushy. You feel fortunate if you can get a few paces next to the gushing water. Or so I thought till I visited Daksum. Here you get not one, not two, but three mountain rivers beside which you can take leisurely strolls for long stretches right next to the water. For a special treat, at places you can even do this in a grassy pine forest. Connoisseurs of riverside walks and pine forests will know how unusual and delightful this is. Usually, pine slopes are not that easy to walk in. These trees inundate the forest floor with their needles, make it slippery and don’t allow much greenery to flourish below. But Daksum is, again, different. There is lush grass underneath and pleasant greenery all around. River, grass, plants, trees… it all comes together beautifully in this little Kashmiri hamlet.

Exploring the narrow Mathar Valley below Dessu Village
Exploring the narrow Mathar Valley below Dessu Village

Daksum (‘d’ pronounced as in ‘day’ and ‘s’ as ‘sh’) is a village of some seventy-odd houses of Kashmiris and Gujjars. It’s the last village in the Brengi River Valley, after which the road rises 32 km to Sinthan Top, a 12,450-ft-high pass en route Kishtwar. Daksum has a solitary Tourist Bungalow perched at the top, a narrow valley around and slopes on either side dense with conifers. River Brengi adds its musical hum to it all and numerous streams join her, playful and eager.

At first glance, Daksum is very pleasant, very scenic. Then, as you settle in on the lawn at the tourist bungalow, you hear the sound of the river reaching you and something more than pleasant takes hold. But it’s when you begin to explore the surroundings (even a little walking around will do) that you really get to know Daksum’s unique blessings. You can spend a few days here just ambling around — drinking in the beauty, patting the trees, smiling at the villagers, dipping your feet in the snowmelt and generally nourishing an intense happiness within.

Daksum is rediscovering tourism after two decades of disruption. There’s just the two-room JKTDC bungalow here for stay; another three huts and a J&K Tourism office are being readied. There are no other hotels or restaurants. Before, there was better tourist infrastructure, but it suffered damage at the hands of militants and the Army. Now the locals speak of the militancy as a thing of the past and look forward to better times.

Sanjay Rawat
The last village in the Brengi River Valley
The last village in the Brengi River Valley

THINGS TO SEE AND DO

It is rare to find a place as forested as Daksum without needing a trek or a guide or a safari. Make the most of it. Find a nearby forest and plunge in ; short walks are completely safe during day time. If you want, you can ask the staff at the JKTDC Bungalow to find a local to be your guide. The staff will also organise a taxi for you.

Brengi River

Just below the JKTDC bungalow, near a bend in the road is the access point to the Brengi River. On good weather days and holidays, you’ll find a few cars, and occasionally a bus with school kids, parked here with occupants picnicking by the river. It seems that a picnic in Kashmir usually involves none of your conveniently packable snacks but an elaborate meal partaken from huge utensils and eaten on, if you please, a fullscale heavy carpet spread out on the grass! There is a bridge to walk over to the other side and an attempt at making a garden on the hillside above.

Leave all that behind and walk left along the river upstream. In a few minutes you will be on your own, except for the river music, abundant grass at your feet, pine trees giving you shade and sometimes a monkey or two.

Dessu Village

If you turn right after crossing Brengi and walk downstream, you will get to Dessu Village after a few minutes’ walk. This is a delightful walk too — the river rushing on your right, streams coming off it, the riverside village, wide-eyed children staring at you, curious villagers in the fields, small kitchen gardens, water mills, fruit trees, old wooden houses, newer brick ones…. For a different perspective, a slightly detached one, you can also walk on the road just above the village.

Sinthan Top, the 12,450-ft-high pass that connects the Kashmir Valley to Kishtwar
Sinthan Top, the 12,450-ft-high pass that connects the Kashmir Valley to Kishtwar

Mathar Nallah

Just below Dessu, a mountain stream called Mathar Nallah comes down from the southeast into the Brengi. A path goes up along the nallah, leading up to a local stone dam, which forms a charming tiny lake and fall. Paths move on from here into the pine forest. You will find some locals hanging out or collecting wood and some Bakarwals going on to Mathar, a meadow a few kilometres away which is a summertime pasture for these nomadic sheep herders.

Mathar Nallah is a nice narrow valley to explore. On the far side of the nallah are a few pretty houses with small fields. Watch out for the bridge made of just two logs close to where the nallah disappears into the Brengi.

A Sheep Breeding Farm run by the Department of Grassland is just a 5-min walk behind the JKTDC Tourist Bungalow. Go up from the bungalow and take the path off the road (next to the fencing) into the woods. Cross the small stream and follow the path onto beautiful flat grassland with enough trees to offer shade. Walk to your right where you enter a large grassy clearing with long stone huts for sheep and cottages for officers. There are more than a couple of thousand sheep here and you will see some herds grazing away busily.

But the real attraction here presides under the mountain face that you see to the northwest, and if you pay attention you can hear the lovely sound that yet another of Daksum’s water bodies makes as it tumbles down a hilly path. You can easily walk down to this delightful stream called Rajparian Nallah or Mahawar Nallah — an amazingly beautiful tract with forest on either side of the animated water. Once in a while, a herd of sheep from the farm, with a couple of herders, passes you by. You can walk upstream for some time; there’s no fear of losing your way as you are walking next to the stream. Officially, you will be walking in a protected forest — the Rajparian Wildlife Sanctuary.

TIP Technically, the gate to the wildlife sanctuary and the sheep farm (which lies within it) is downstream, where this nallah joins the Brengi. But it’s generally closed and the staff, who are still getting used to tourists visiting Daksum, might stop you from walking in. J&K Tourism is trying to ensure that tourists are welcomed by the forest department!

Drive to Goran Village

This 16-km drive takes you into another valley — a relatively densely populated, but green and gorgeous, countryside. You will cross village after village, house after house with their gardens and fields and orchards all under the shadow of hills and escorted by streams. A taxi will charge ₹600 for the trip. The road after Goran is not too good, but locals recommend it for its sublime beauty.

Sinthan Top

Sinthan Top is the 12,450-ft-high pass that connects the Kashmir Valley and the Kishtwar region. The 32 km drive to the pass, on the relatively new NH1B is smooth and utterly beautiful. The road goes along the Brengi River through pine forest with snow getting closer all the time. Sinthan Top has snow from November till early July. It is gradually emerging on the tourist map. You can play in the snowfields here, ogle at the views — high mountains, snow at your feet, wooded valleys below — and have hot tea and equally steaming Maggi from two small shops.

The pass is open for traffic from April till the snow begins to fall in November/ December. A taxi from Daksum to Sinthan Top costs around ₹1,000 for a return trip. Shared taxis run from Vailoo (10 km below Daksum) to Kishtwar (83 km from Sinthan) and take about 4-5 hours for the journey. The taxis stop at the top and people pay obeisance to the glacial beauty.

If you are interested in trekking, about 10 km from Daksum on the way to Sinthan, a 3-km-long trail goes off the road along the Brengi stream to the Girsar Spring, whose waters also feed the Brengi. The beginning of the trail is signposted. Aarshan is a tempting meadow right on the roadside, 21 km from Daksum towards Sinthan as you go above pine country, after which only grass and the white-barked bhojpatra trees give you company.

WHERE TO STAY AND EAT

JKTDC Tourist Bungalow (Mobile: 09469515050, 09596369601; Tariff: ₹1,000) is the only tourist accommodation in Daksum. It’s a pleasant cottage set on a flat patch of lawn next to the road at the top of the village. The bungalow has been functioning for about a year now and has two comfortable double rooms with attached bath. There are no heating arrangements. Three JKTDC huts will soon become functional. Reservations are best made online. If a room is available, they entertain walk-ins. You can also call a day in advance and book by phone.

This is also your solitary eating option here. The cook dishes out a few nice, freshly made dishes (dal, sabzi, egg, chicken, mutton and fish). Discuss in advance what you want cooked, for they need to organise provisions. Expect eggs, toast and parantha for breakfast. A couple of shops across the road sell biscuits, namkeen, chips, and crucially, Maggi.

AROUND DAKSUM

Kokernag (12 km)

FAST FACTS

When to go April to September. Snow begins in December, but the Tourist Bungalow isn’t adequately heated

Tourist Office

J&K Tourism, Next to JKTDC Tourist Bungalow, Daksum; Mob: 09906815898, Website: jktourism.org, STD code 01932

  GETTING THERE

Location At 8,046 ft, just upstream of the confluence of Brengi River and Rajparian Nallah in Anantnag District, in a narrow valley overlooked by Sinthan Top, beyond which is Kishtwar

Distances 99 km SE of Srinagar, 42 km SE of Anantnag JOURNEY TIME By Road 2½-3 hours from Srinagar

Route from Srinagar NH1A to Khanabal Point via Pandrethan, Pampore, Barsoo and Avantipora; NH1B to Daksum via Anantnag, Achabal, Kokernag and Vailoo

Air Nearest airport: Sheikh-ul-Alam Airport, Srinagar (106 km/3 hrs/ Tel: 0194- 2303000), connected to Delhi, Mumbai, Leh and Jammu by Air India, SpiceJet, Indigo and Go Air. Pre-paid taxis charge ₹2,500 to Daksum, one-way

Rail Nearest railhead: Jammu (287 km/ 8 hrs). Taxi charges approx ₹3,500 to Daksum

Road From Srinagar, follow the Srinagar- Jammu NH1A past Pampore, Avantipora and over the Sangam Bridge where the Jhelum receives its Vishav tributary, till Khanabal. A short way into Khanabal is the Degree College on your left. Here, NH1A turns right to Jammu; continue straight on NH1B. A kilometre ahead and just across Khanabal Bridge is Khanabal Point, where NH1B too turns right. The road going straight goes to Pahalgam via northern Anantnag City; you must take the right and follow NH1B through southern Anantnag City to Daksum via Achabal, Kokernag and Vailoo. Shared Sumos from Anantnag charge ₹50

TIP Many important roads converge at Khanabal-Anantnag, so if in doubt, ask and double check you are on the road towards Achabal. Anantnag is locally called Islamabad