Sunday, July 06, 2008

Missing Kashmir, a travelogue on Srinagar and Kashmir

Why what when how who where

dal lake, kashmir
photo by Bhaswaran
When I was going to Srinagar this month (March 2004), I found information on travel to Kashmir to be very scarce. Opinions on how safe it was to go there were divided.

In Kashmir, I discovered stunning scenery and wonderful people. I thought how unfair it is that so few tourists go there. I thought that, once more information about travel to Kashmir becomes available, travellers would be able to make decisions based not on security concerns alone but also on other things that would make them put the security concerns aside.

I am no writer and this shows (beach, how would you like to be commissioned to make a writing trip to Kashmir?). I remember RTodor said she was lacking words to describe how beautiful she found Kashmir to be. I suspect she, too, fell a victim of that sickness: missing Kashmir.

Missing Kashmir

High above the Himalaya Range
photo by maree
On my last day in Delhi, I went to the Dilli Haat for some last minute shopping. I was passing the inevitable carpet salesmen and cut their sales pitch short by saying "I have just got back from Srinagar".

"Come, come, just to talk", I heard back.

So we talked. About Kashmir. About when they were in Kashmir last time (three months ago). About Kashmiri spring and how it is time for them to go back not to miss it. About my stay in Srinagar. About Indian winter games in Gulmarg and how much snow is there right now. About the (very few) books about Kashmir that I found in Delhi (I showed them my book of Kashmiri Pundit cuisine illustrated with family portraits from early 20th centuries). And, of course, about my plans for the next trip to Kashmir.

We were all sharing this sickness: "missing Kashmir".

Give yourself a chance to pick it up, too.

Arrival in Srinagar

Arrival in Srinagar and settling in a hotel or a houseboat (HB) in a low season, with tourist to hosts ratio of around 1 to 30, was an experience not easily forgotten. My fight for independence lasted three hours (from landing to boarding the houseboat) and included:

  • being "rescued" from the airport madness by an angel in the form of a Jeep owner who sweetly whispered in my ear "I will take you to the Dal Lake for Rs 100"
  • a free tour around the Dal Lake and a sight of Nageen Lake where my angel taxi-driver-turned-houseboat-owner (the fallen angel) had his houseboat. Once his deceit was discovered we turned back to the Dal Lake
  • a stop over at InterContinental Hotel Srinagar ("see what prices they charge to compare with my prices"
  • an escape from Mr Fallen Angel and hiring a shikara to see several houseboats on my own
  • a battle of wills on the water between my shikara and some HB-owned boats that were trying to divert us from our course

A tip: a bus transfer between the airport and Srinagar city cost Rs 30 and the bus leaves within 30 min of the arrival of the plane.

Moving around

Along for the ride, 1970
photo by Wanderer22
Once the HB host has you as his hostage (sorry, guest), he will try to offer you different "packages" to see local sights. My advice is to go straight to the Tourist Reception Centre and take all the information, including prices, from there. The TRC is a pathetic site but with extremely helpful people (they have to stay there, no matter what, from 9 am to 6 pm Mon to Sat even if they don’t get any visitors). Some trips are better made by car, some - by autorickshaw and some, such as the trip to the old city, are OK to make by bus (I noted a regular and plentiful bus service in Srinagar).

You can get by a rickshaw even to the airport (but not from) although for the last 2 km between the checkpoint and the terminals you will have to find a lift – I found the people going your way are more than happy to give you a lift, for free.

Beware of hosts offering "package" stays and always check prices with the TRC or tourist taxi stand before agreeing a deal with your host. Once he realises that you are able to obtain information independently he will start quoting realistic prices.

What to do in Srinagar

Information on Srinagar available to tourists dates back to 1985. Since then, no new maps have been printed; however, new Kashmir tourism brochures were printed in 2003. The Tourist Reception Centre has ALL the relevant information and more; you can buy "vintage" (1985) maps there for Rs 3. Little has changed since then.

(My only information source on Srinagar before visiting the Tourist Reception Centre was a set of postcards printed 1985; I was amazed with how the place looked EXACTLY as I imagined it from those postcards.)

Shikaras Dall Lake
photo by ajay7
The main attraction of Srinagar is the Dal Lake, and the life in and around the lakes. Hire a shikara (boat) for an hour, five hours or the whole day (Dal Lake is enormous and is connected to other lakes through canals) and you will see how the Dal Lake residents have lived since many centuries ago: growing vegetables on the plots of land on the lake, running errands on boats, going to school by boats, buying and selling from boats – in fact, the only "boat" that I found lacking was a chai boat.

I got addicted to the shikara trips – laying on pillows, watching boats passing by and enjoying the spring sun. Just tell your boatmen to keep away from salesboats, they can spoil the paradise ("would you like to see some saffron, Madame?".

The old city Srinagar is old. Period. Old and badly maintained. But if you can see through the broken glass, worm-eaten wooden panels and uninhabited, empty and window-less top floors of the 600+ year old houses you will enjoy the sight of a (once) majestic city. My most memorable building in Srinagar was a wooden mosque decorated, inside and outside, with papier-mache. I am told I can only find these in Kashmir and Mongolia.

To visit the old city, hire a guide (the good old TRC again). I paid some Rs 100 for a three hour tour. Not all of them know where Jesus Christ’s tomb is located (that is, if you believe in Jesus Christ, and in that he lived and especially that he lived in Kashmir after resurrection and died there). The building housing the tomb is now permanently closed; the story (as told by my guide) is that the US government wanted to build a bigger and newer building, destroying the whole living and shopping area around the tomb, and leaving its residents homeless. The J&K government responded by simply closing the site.

Mogul gardens are frequently cited as the main attraction of Srinagar but… see a picture before and decide for yourself whether you are interested to go there. I got my curiosity satisfied by visiting just one of the four gardens.

My most favourite pastime in Srinagar was being around people and talking to people.

Srinagar Tips

  1. Don’t book a houseboat (HB) before arrival, especially via Delhi tourist agents; I heard stories of people being ripped off and you don’t have any negotiating power being away and not seeing whether the place seems to be busy or quiet.
  2. Do take your passport when you go there, you may need it for foreigners registration.
  3. Do check in your camera/other batteries if you fly, doesn’t happen always but sometimes they do not allow them in your carry on luggage.
  4. Don’t be discouraged by all the hassle you will get on arrival; after you have settled in an accommodation the life gets much easier.
  5. In the airport you will need to fill in a foreigners registration form which asks your address in Srinagar. I didn’t have one and explained to them that I do not book accom without seeing it first. They insisted on my putting an address and – surprise surprise – there was a HB owner right beside the registration desk. I finally told them one name of a HB I heard before and told them I would look at this one and if I change address I would call them. I took their phone number. Two hours later while I was looking at houseboats that guys from the HB I mentioned found me on the lake and insisted that I go see his boat! (I didn’t).
  6. You will fill another registration form at your hotel/HB and you don’t need to contact the police dept yourself, your host will take care of it.
  7. Do take public bus from the airport to the Tourist Reception Centre (TCR) for Rs 30 thus avoiding being hassled by taxi drivers and HB owners. Distance from the airport to town: 15 km.
  8. From TCR you can take an autorickshaw for Rs 15 to the Dalgate/beginning of Boulevard.
  9. Boulevard of the Dal Lake is the most “central” location for a HB stay, with easy access to Market Road, TCR, tourist taxi stands, restaurants. Boulevard is quite long and don’t agree to a HB without seeing it first and where it is on the Boulevard.
  10. Nageen Lake is quieter and further away from Srinagar city life, and is popular with foreigners for that reason (why???).
  11. Ignore prices in the presentation book of the HB Owner Association (which has an office in the airport and opposite TCR), these are quoted from when they had mass tourism pouring in.
  12. HB owner will offer you help with travel/sightseeing programme. Most likely he will quote a fixed package based on your ability to pay (by his judgement) and not on what it costs him to arrange. Do not agree until you see the TCR people (open 9 to 18 hrs every day) and ask them about real prices and work out real costs. My host offered me a USD fixed package which was more than twice what I subsequently spent.
  13. After you’ve found out real prices your HB will be more than happy to arrange your taxis for you as he wouldn’t want to lose on kickbacks from the taxi drivers… but you won’t pay more than you would have paid if you got yourself transportation from the taxi stand. In fact, he may find travel companions to share costs.
  14. If you are going on a leisurely shikara trip around lakes warn your boatman that you want to keep away from any salesmen otherwise you will be followed all along the Boulevard.
  15. Do expect to be lied to by people in the service business (I like to think that this does not apply to the TCR people).My rule of thumb when bargaining is always get their offer first and then suggest half of it as a starting point; but I am a lazy bargainer and always got the worst marks in my Negotiation class so I am no authority here
  16. Be aware of planned blackouts on Mondays between the sunset and 9:30 pm
  17. Don’t go to the old city without a local accompanying you (my host explained it this way: “if you need to run for cover at least you will know where to run”)
  18. Do wear a headcover if a woman, it is essentially Muslim place
  19. Some prices that seem to apply to Indian tourists as well – OFF SEASON (March):
  • Pony trek with a guide in Pahalgam 3 hr - Rs 300
  • J&K and Sriganar tourist map from TCR - Rs 3
  • Postcards (very old) from a sales boat - Rs 10 each
  • Autorickshaw Dalgate to airport – Rs 70
  • Autorickshaw Dalgate to the old city – Rs 40
  • Bus ride, Dalgate to the old city – Rs 7
  • Tour guide, old city, 3 hrs – Rs 100 (maybe overpaid here)
  • Dinner, an upscale restaurant on Boulevard - Rs 150 average
  • Saffron, 1 gr – Rs 50
  • Kashmiri chillies, dry, a handful from the market – Rs 5
  • HB with breakfast per night – Rs 300
  • Internet, at a shop near Dalgate, 1 hr – Rs 50, 30 min – Rs 30
  • Shikara per hr – Rs 40
  • Tourist taxi prices – see my photo gallery

What are the Kashmiris like?

kashmiri old man
photo by Bhaswaran
To the rest of the world, Kashmiri people are shrewd, calculating, not to be trusted. But do you know what it is to live through a winter, with temperatures below zero for months, in absence of central heating and hot water supply? Survival is your life goal. I find Kashmiris more mature and less "naïve" than other Indians that I met. If try to understand rather than judge, you will see how warm, open, welcoming and witty they are. It’s the attitude, stupid!

Where else do you hear "Thank you. Welcome to Kashmir" from passers-by on the street, people who don’t have a motive to please you except to show their appreciation of your being there? Or is it something to do with the fact that many of them see a foreign tourist only once every few months? A whole new generation of Kashmiris has grown up that missed the days when Kashmir was a popular tourist resort.

When I walked down the street, younger men would talk to me and tell me that they enjoyed speaking English after a several years’ break. Women would simply smile, lacking English ability (it is still common for women NOT to attend school); some of them would invite me to their homes. The smile most precious was received from older men, who were supposed to symbolize retrograde views and fundamentalist traditions – but they didn’t. They, too, were happy to see me.

(The only people who frowned at me, occasionally, were the military: for them I probably represented a public hazard. But even they warmed up when I was making my way back to the airport – they were relieved that the hazard was leaving )

Kashmiri store owners
photo by Sama
I feel more comfortable in places where I don’t stand out; where I can blend in and feel part of the environment rather than to be an outside observer. I also find that this partly depends on the local people: whether they accept me as part of their life or treat me as a short term visitor. What probably made me feel at home in Kashmir was that people didn’t create a barrier between me and them; they were happy to take me "in" as one of theirs and kept asking me how I would like to live in Srinagar and what kind of work I could do there.

Tourists in Srinagar are nowadays mainly Indian; on my HB, apart from me, there was a couple from Hyderabad visiting Kashmir on their honeymoon. Every day (except when I went with them to Pahalgan) they were visiting one or another Hindu temple – how they managed to find so many in an essentially Muslim place (Srinagar is mostly Muslim, Jammu – mostly Hindu)…

BTW prepare to be woken up at 5:20 am by a "Allah-u-Akbar!" - "God is great!" – morning prayer. Eventually I developed some kind of weird morning ritual, waking up with the prayers, reading a book until 7 am when it gets quiet and then going back to sleep.

Touts and beggars

What? Not in our Kashmir. The beggars I saw were very few and in usual places where you will find them all over the world – near religious sites. Not a single child has ever asked me for money, only for a hello or a handshake (sad but true – was a refreshing change from Delhi or Rajastan kids). Touts – I have met a few, not too many, and other people were pushing them away from me, in their effort not to annoy the rare foreign tourist. They were quite protective, actually

Things to do around Srinagar

relaxing at Gulmarg
photo by sunilg
Gulmarg, Pahalgan and Sonemarg are the most popular trekking/sightseeing destinations. All of them can be made as one day trips; you can also stay in these places but if you travel off-season accommodation is scarce.

Gulmarg is a golf resort in summer (the world’s highest golf course) and a ski resort in winter (the tourist office adviser was having hard times trying to explain me what exactly this is like – "you know, si-ki, si-ki" - only when he drew me a picture I understood it was about skis). In early March all-India Winter Games were taking place in Gulmarg. It is a valley (at an altitude of 2,730 meters) surrounded by snow capped mountains.

Pahalgan is a trekking paradise, and, for Hindus, a landmark stopover on a yatra to Amarnath, the Lord Shiva’s residential cave, which takes place each year in July and August. The trip from Pahalgan to the Siva cave takes two to three days; you can go on foot or by a pony. If you decide to visit the Kashmiri valley by pony, be careful: the guides are a little bit possessed.

Sonemarg is yet another trekking destination and is the gateway to the Thajiwas Glacier and several high-altitude Himalayan lakes.

Kashmir Weather

I was in Kashmir in early March. Spring, with its birds, blossoming almond trees, young green grass making its way up through dry brown soil, dazzling sun… in other words, the Russia’s spring having arrived one month too early.

The tourist season is from May to September.

Shopping in Srinagar and Kashmir

In the Srinagar old city, you can buy locally made copperwear, silk saris (strictly for tourists, no Muslim woman would expose her belly button in public) and tweeds (of which they make their comfy long winter coats called "ferin". In Dalgate, there are several shops on the Boulevard including my favourite Tibetan shop where the salesman kept his most valuable stuff tucked away in an old metal box and needed some initial "breaking the ground" before he opened this box for me. I had a Kashmiri embroidered jacket custom made for me in a matter of few hours and at a fraction of the Delhi price. You can pick up shawls (and everything from a pashmina shawl to a pashimina dressing gown) without leaving your houseboat – the salesmen will come to you if you don’t mind their showing up.

Kasmiri kawa tea is a sort of semi-fermented (green but not green-green) tea grown in Kashmir brewed with cinnamon sticks and cardamom seeds, and sometimes with crashed almonds. Kashmiri red chillis are particularly vicious and famous all over India. And, of course, Kashmir is one of the two places in the world where saffron is cultivated.

Shooting

While on a shikara tour of the lake I heard some distant shooting including the sound of an automatic rifle but this, of course, could have been just the Army training… I asked my boatman but he only smiled quietly and shrugged his shoulders: "dunno". Armed soldiers are seen everywhere but you see them in Ladakh in the same quantities… Indian government does not guarantee the safety of foreign tourists that go to Srinagar… but I have never relied on protection by governments… You simply must accept responsibility for your own safety.

Practical information for your Kashmir journey

  • J&K Government’s website – an excellent (and may be the only) source of information on J&K history, culture, travel. Don’t believe prices at J&K Tourism site; remember - everything is negotiable!!
  • Books are scarce and nearly all of them are "political", according to the helpful Bookworm shop owner. Most of them begin the Kashmir’s story in 1947, as if Kashmir did not exist before that.We found one which starts with early Kashmiri history: Kashmir: Behind the Vale by M J Akbar
  • Kashmiri language is called Koshur.

If you want any Srinagar addresses from my notebook please PM me, I don’t want to be seem advertising for Kashmiri shops. Happy travelling!

1 Comments:

At Saturday, 03 January, 2009, Blogger Fortune Park Hotels Ltd said...

It won’t be wrong to term Hyderabad as one of the most culturally rich places in India. Be it the legacy of the very famous Nawabs, the colorful streets, the exhilarating monuments or the mouthwatering and delicious Hyderabadi food, especially Hyderabadi Biriyani, this south Indian city has always been a hot shot tourist destination. The industrial and infrastructural development in this city in the recent years has only been the icing on the cake. Today the hotels in Hyderabad not only cater to the tourists but also to the business and corporate traveler. There are many business hotels in Hyderabad that are being dished out by the leading names of the Indian hospitality industry. Apart from the budget hotels in Hyderabad, luxury hotels are also abundant in the city. In short be it for work or an existing vacation, hotels catering to each class can be found in the city. With so much happening in this future metro, Hyderabad is actually the place to be!

 

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