Kashmir Valley

Shikara on Dal Lake, Srinagar

Kashmir and the Pakistani-Indian border is a region of long lasting dispute. All the time the area remains restricted for visitors. Once in New Delhi we have to take obtain permission to enter Kashmir. We hire a jeep and our driver is supposed to take care of any problems.

Along the way I smell ubiquitous, thick smog. Other drivers may not be unfriendly, but everyone keeps using the horn at every opportunity. We pass a sign saying “horn prohibited“, this must be a joke, I thought at the time when my thoughts are drowned out by horns from all different sides.

After a few hours driving we stop at a roadside bar. It looks pretty bad and we have no choice as we are starving. Apparently the two cooks seem to be surprised to serve foreign guests. They attach great attention to performance skills put into preparing our food. A several minutes pass. On my plate is a legume dish with Indian spices, served with a local fluffy and light bread, called chapati.

Road to Kashmir

Along the way our car runs out of fuel. With a bit of luck and hand-pumping the remains of gas we are able to reach to next gas station.

The road to Kashmir is incredibly dangerous. Most of the road separating the region from the capital is a narrow track just next to a deep ravine without any protective railings or signs at all. At times I clearly see a steep rocky wall going several hundred down. Out of curiosity I ask the driver whether accidents are a common thing on this route. He replies that on the average three cars a day fall into the deep ravine. Mainly due to careless driving and tiredness.

Raja is a heavy-duty guy. Today, around noon, he has just came from Kashmir to Delhi straight and after just a two hour break he is with us on the way back. It makes in total more than 40 hours driving with no sleep. I really trust him, I have to. However, I feel an undisputed anxiety when not even a half way I see his little innocent yawn. I is a good guy, so I’m optimistic. In my case the most convenient way would be stop struggling tiredness and simply snooze through these moments of unnecessary stress.

After twenty hours we approaching the Kashmir Valley. At one point there is a sequence of parked trucks, all together the tracks form at least a dozen or so kilometers long line. The area we are about to enter is considered to be dangerous by major foreign affairs. Every few miles we have to stop at a military post. Soldiers with rifles are blended in everyday life.  Right beside there is a woman walking the bike with milk canisters overhang on the handlebar. A little further elegantly dressed girls go to school. Everything seems to be normal.

Nowadays Kashmir is a place where the restrictions on visiting tourists are imposed. We need to have special permits. If some difficulties slow us down, Raja would tell the solders we his friends and in this fashion we pass the posts one after another on the only road leading to our destination.

Meat sale on the market

In the morning we reach Srinagar. Raja invites us to his friend’s house who treats us with a saffron tea. We will sleep in a hotel run by this guy on the Dal Lake.

Srinagar despite the relatively large number of inhabitants is a calm city. Central point is a busy marketplace. On the streets I see people occupied with simple, traditional professions: tailor, shoemaker, butcher, or potter.

Let’s make use of this opportunity. On a marketplace we buy some Kashmir wool. I sketch a drawing on a piece of paper and visit a tailor one block away. Half an hour later we have two original Kashmiri sleeping bags made to order. Lightweight sleeping bags are essential, because most hotels we are about to visit have no sheets.

Muna lives in a poor part of town. We get to know him at the marina and easily make friends. A twenty-some year old Kashmiri guy invites us to his house and introduces to the reality of life prevailing in Kashmir in a very interesting way. His whole family sleeps in a single medium-sized hut. Muna, his family and neighbors live in a modest and traditional way from day to day. In the coming days we often would rely on Muna to get necessary things fixed.

Time to explore the city. A walk to the aforementioned marketplace is a good choice. I am attracted to places where you can see ordinary people at work. All the stands look like they were brought here from the nineteenth century in an untouched form. People live in a simple manner, so many problems of the developed countries basically do not concern them.  No credit ratings, or monthly performance assessments with your boss.

It is getting dark. Every stallholder gradually closes his stall, people leave the market and we go back to the hotel. We get large portions of turmeric colored rice with vegetables for dinner along with a tasty cup of tea with saffron. In the distance I hear cried out loud muezzin summons for a prayer in mosque. This are the memorable moments on our terrace.

Houseboats on Dal Lake

This Sunday we hire shikara, a long, narrow boat. Lots of such boats flow along the canals of Dal Lake. It is an extremely polluted lake, so I am surprised to see people hand washing their clothes in the lake. Luckily far from the town lake becomes a way cleaner.

There is a lot of merchants on the river doing business on their shikaras. In fact they offer nearly anything you might ever need: various food, drinks, silver jewelry, bricks of hashish and paper pulp boxes.

We visit various places, sometimes inaccessible by land. We make a stop on a deserted island, a moment to relax. Then we reach a poor part of town and board nearby Hazatbal Mosque. On the spot there is a crowd of kids eager to have a picture taken in front of the mosque. We take off our shoes and enter the temple. The mosque has a part inaccessible for women, so we are in and Ula has to wait outside.

We visit a factory producing chestnut wood handicraft. The production technology is fairly simple. First step is to sculpt the desired contour in timber and then carefully polish until surface gets glossy and shiny. Worth to mention that the products prices vary from a few to a several hundred dollars.

Mystical fog

Elderly inhabitant of Kashmir valley

The way back in the mist at dusk is an incredible experience. Mystic fog has limited the visibility to a few meters. All I see is a dense seaweed covering water surface. In narrow channels some boatmen appear once in a while, lazily, however with a constant movement, propelling their shikaras. On the surface of Jhelum, the river running through Srinagar, is an serenity full of magic. The absolute silence is occasionally disturbed by a delicate paddle slap against the water surface. Mysterious whispers coming from a distance leave a feeling of uncertainty. There is no possibility to locate its source because of the reduced visibility. The surroundings stimulate all senses.

As I have expected, there is no hot water in our hotel. We are nearly shivering from cold after a full day on the river. In spite of everything we eventually take a three days long awaited shower. An icy one. This is not a joke. A shout loader than muezzins to alleviate the thermal shock of ice-cold water. We do not have enough warm clothes. There is no way to have the heating turned on. Fortunately, we have our Kashmiri wool sleeping bags and three spare blankets in the room.

Sonnamarg landscape at the foot of the Himalayas

We keep on getting to know surroundings. This time we hire a rickshaw for the day. We visit numerious botanic gardens, Mahal Gardens, Shalimar (the one founded over 400 years ago) and Nishat Bagh, famous for rare plane trees once imported from Persia. While talking with a group of garden employees smoking bidi pipe on a grass I found that their job is not as strenuous as it may seem to be. These folks work only 30 hrs a week and even in the working hours they often chill out on the grass.

On the way back we stop at Jamal Carped Ind, a carpet factory. Manufacturing a carpet is a laborious process. The average time needed to produce single carpet on a four-hour working day basis is as much as a whole year. Each carpet has a specific pattern that is coded by a special key and then translated into carpet-specific language. While the symbols look completely incomprehensibly strange for me, they remain perfectly clear to a professional weaving a carpet. Only by using the right thread color in an appropriate order would result in getting the proper pattern in the end.

The fabric used for carpet production is cotton, sometimes mixed with silk, which gives the carpet luster and flexibility. Sometimes cheaper artificial fabric is used. According to tradition, every family has a very narrow specialization for groups of designs and types of carpets made. Even making provisions for low labor cost in India, the hand-woven carpet is a luxury and often costly expenditure reaching as much as several thousand dollars.

The city split

In the evening we meet Muna on the banks of Dal Lake. Srinagar Lake separates the poor and the rich parts of the city. We sit on a wooden pier, staring at a calm surface of the lake and the other part of city. We sip a bottle of Old Monk rum. It is the Muslim part of India, so the rum is available only secretly. Muna says that once met Suman, a girl from the rich part of city. Because of the caste system, in order to be able to keep dating her and stay in touch he had to pretend to be someone who he really is not. They went for walks together, until one day the truth came out. Muna comes from the poor part of city. Suman felt deceived and walked away. It took him a long time to regain her trust and win her over again. They succeeded and are a happy couple. Some social barriers bring undesirable effect for cultural evolution.

At the foot of the Himalayas

Kashmiri Gypsies hanging around the plateau

Muna arranges transportation to Sonamarg, a town at the foot of the Himalayas. Along the way, in Kangan, we meet two poor girls and their older sister who came here from Rajasthan. The girls are begging and asking for food. It is a moving encounter. It makes me realize that for some people of India this kind of internal migration is identical to a popular in developed countries migration for better jobs, more money and career. This is more sort of an endless pursuit of excessive wealth, while the poor people’s only goal is to satisfy the hunger and survive yet another day.

I would not call Sonnamarg a city, nor would I call it a village. Let’s call it a place of Himalayan settlement. We walk across a vast plateau. I take pity on weak donkeys, as even a small hill seems to be a real challenge for these poor animals. On the route I admire vast prairies, high-elevation vegetation, snow-clad mountains in the background and the body of Thajiwas Glacier. Near the glacier, we find Indian gypsies. These folks rest all day and possibly their only job is to talk with rare newcomers. We have a chai together. It’s milky, very strong variety of tea. I take a deep breath of Himalayan fresh air.

Kashmiri girls

Morning sleeper bus would take us to Delhi. We have a fairly tight space stuffed above the seats in a bus. Thrilling views once again. A twenty-six hour ride on bumpy roads. Sometimes at sharp corners I look straight down the cliff to see a deep precipice. It goes like that for the whole night.

Sample prices:

India is one of the cheapest countries in the world. Daily budget can be easily as little as a dozen or so dollars. To set yourself comfortable with occasional treats aim for spending an estimated $20 per day. Indian currency is rupee denoted as INR or Rs.

1 USD buys around 45 Rs

  • roti or ciapati, light and hollow bread served straight from the oven 2 Rs
  • a double hotel room with bathroom and fan 150-300 Rs
  • dinner at a restaurant 60-120 Rs
  • sleeper bus Kashmir – Delhi 1066 Rs
  • rickshaw hire for a day 500 Rs
  • taxi Srinigar – Sonamarg (round trip) Rs 1600 (for 4 people)
  • Kashmir wool sleeping bag made to order; fabric 290 Rs, labor 100 Rs

November 2007