Finding Calm in Kashmir

Hello from Srinagar!

Our journey to get here began early last Friday. We roused from our sleep at 7am and made our way, groggily to Mumbai airport.

It’s never fun to be at the domestic airport in the mornings. It’s busy and chaotic, with long lines for check in and security that are made worse by confused seniors and first time flyers. But it makes for some great people watching and my favourites were

1) Two old Sikh women and an elderly gentlemen trying to enter the secure departure area and catch a flight without proper IDs. Only one amongst them has any ID and that too is a laminated photopcopy of a black and white printout of her Aadhar card. Other two have nothing but confusion to offer, and she insists it’s enough and strangely, after what felt like eternity, all 3 are allowed through.

2) Lady in the security check area blocking the men’s line. Despite numerous protests by male passengers, airport staff and X-ray machine operators to join the women’s line and allow the men to keep moving, she insists “ main kuch aur kaam ke liye khadi hu” and holds her ground adamantly. Eventually to everyone’s relief, her work, whatever it was, is done and she unblocks the X-ray machine and lets the men through.

3) With the plane speeding down the runway, tilted at 45 degrees with its nose up and despite numerous verbal warnings and pleadings by the air hostess to sit down, the mother and son seated behind us decided to execute a mid-takeoff seat switch. Both jumping over the middle passenger at the same time and they even ask the air hostess to be quiet so they can complete their acrobatics. Hilarious.

The rest of the flight was uneventful, and we arrived in Srinagar, to blue skies and sunny weather. The fresh air and mountain views greet you right from your first steps off the plane. Srinagar airport is small and highly militarised, there’s guns and security forces everywhere you look and that continued for kilometres outside the airport, but slowly the army faded away as we made our way further into the city.

It seemed unsafe at first, only because your mind begins to wonder why they’re armed to the teeth, and what’s going to happen, but soon we got as used to it, and now I can completely ignore their presence.

Srinagar is the capital and the busiest city. It’s where a lot of the politics of Kashmir is conducted and there’s a large army presence all over the city, with large concentrations around the sensitive spots.

The city itself is small and charming, with large trees and big roads that lead to lots of narrow winding lanes also dotted with trees. It has many water bodies and parks and there’s plenty to gaze at while you wander about.

You could say it’s underdeveloped in parts and construction is visible everywhere. Many roads and houses are in need of repair. I think it might have to do with the monstrous floods that engulfed the city a few years ago. But they’ve done a great job of rebuilding what broke and I’m surprised at how little water damage is visible on the outside. Kudos Kashmir!

We made our way to Nageen lake, a smaller quieter lake than the much busier Daal Lake. Here we left our car and hopped aboard a small paddle boat, known as a ‘shikara’ with our luggage and a sweet old boatman slowly paddled us across the lake to our houseboat, waiting on the other side.

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View of Nageen Lake from the deck of our houseboat

Kritika works with these houseboats and the staff gave us a royal welcome at arrival. When Kritika had said houseboat I imagined sleeping on a rickety old fishing boat and had been dreading the cold wet experience. I’m glad to say I was completely wrong about the houseboats. They are magnificent, and larger than most family homes in Mumbai.

Ours was a beautiful 5 bedroom boat, that we had all to ourselves. Centrally heated and fully furnished it was better equipped and decorated than our home in pune, and we would spent the next few days pampered in luxury that’s usually reserved for royalty. Proof of which was the photos of Mick Jagger and other celebrities who had also been guests of this houseboat.

Our caretaker on the houseboat, called the Captain, was a cheerful young man named Jaaved, who wouldn’t stop smiling, even in his sleep. And with his help we quickly settled into the houseboat.

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The Royal Life, courtesy Captain Jaaved

After a lovely lunch we decided to venture into town and meet up with our friend Hashim, who was also in Srinagar at the same time visiting his parents who live here.

Thanks to Hashim we got to meet many local people and learn about the joys and challenges of living in Srinagar. It’s a dynamic town that’s equal parts of gorgeous and glum.

He introduced us to a sweet bookshop cafe in Srinagar and anybody who knows us, can fill in the rest of the story. We’ve been camped at this lovely cafe day and night, it’s a great place to meet locals and get an idea of what young people in the city are up to. It’s a lot more vibrant and casual than the news would let you believe and young people here are like young people everywhere, laughing, smiling and drinking coffee.

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Enjoying a Peri Peri Chicken Burger and Cold Coffee at Books & Bricks Cafe, Srinagar

Life in Kashmir seems quite normal. I can’t even imagine how it might have been last year when there was protests and retaliations.

I’m surprised to see the large Sikh population and initially assumed that they were the families of army officers. But I was quickly corrected and informed that this state was ruled by a Sikh king before independence and the Sikhs have been here for generations, and are as local here as any other Kashmiri.

The different communities here seem very respectful of each other and there isn’t much communal tension to be seen on the surface. Most of the people’s anger seems to be directed towards the police, army and government, but not each other.

I’ve seen lots of graffiti here, not the artistic type. Mostly political with “Indian dogs go back” being the key message. But people on the street are all smiles and nobody spoke politics to us or made us feel unwelcome ever. I should say the men are all smiles, i haven’t tried smiling at the women, out of respect and also because they seem shy and more reserved than women elsewhere in India.

Kritika had been trying to make eye contact with the women and smile at them, and although she struggled at first, once she got going, she got smiles back instantly.

To Gulmarg and Beyond.

Gulmarg is only an hour’s drive away from Srinagar but because of its altitude, it offers spectacular snow capped mountain views. Even now in March, it is covered in a thick blanket of glimmering snow, making it an ideal spot for winter sports like skiing, snowboarding and sledding. Which the locals hilariously refer to as ‘sledging’.

Mesmerised by the idea of charming villages covered in snow, and ski slopes that run for many kilometres, we decided we should go and check it out. The snow had already begun to melt but we still had a chance to experience a lot of it, so we made our journey from Srinagar to Gulmarg by cab.

An Innova was arranged for just the two of us that would pick us up at our houseboat and drive us to Gulmarg in comfort. Our driver Shoqat has been ferrying Kritika’s guests for almost three years now and even though they have a tight working relationship on the phone, it was her first time meeting him in person.

And what a person he turned out to be. Full of lively chatter and highly opinionated, he schooled us throughout our trip on everything from running a business and the dangers of brainwashing, to his hatred of Arnab Goswami and why women should not have data on their phones. I could write a whole novel on his hilarious opinions, dedicating an entire chapter to why he thinks Thai women wont love you and how South Indian girls like to give him their number.

He also loved posing for pictures of himself and stopped us at multiple scenic spots, where he insisted we take his picture, on our fancy ‘DHLR’ camera as he termed it.

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Meet Shoqat

Despite his highly opinionated and comical nature, he turned to be a very safe and courteous driver, who never drove fast, respected road rules and also threw in vital tidbits about local culture and history that really helped me learn a lot more about the places we went and the sights we saw.

Our drive kept getting more scenic as we drove away from the city, and soon everyone, including the chatty driver were completely silent and lost in awe as we made our way up the zig zag slopes covered the snow.

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Gulmarg is spectacular. Photos don’t do it justice. I’ve never seen this much snow in my life. There must have been a minimum of 5 feet of snow covering everything in its path. Entire houses were buried under it and all you could see of them were pointed green roofs and chimneys. There was a tranquillity and beauty there that you would only expect to find in desktop wallpapers of Switzerland.

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If there is a country that’s short on guides, agents and touts they can import some from Gulmarg. They outnumber the tourists 10 to 1 and like everywhere else, each agent claims that the rest are cheats, so it’s best to go with him, because it will get more expensive the higher up you go. Which of course, It doesn’t.

Like all other tourist places you could get fleeced here, but luckily there’s a huge signboard with official rates for all gear and activities. Everything from renting a shoe to flying a helicopter is clearly mentioned with its hourly rates and all additional charges.

Oddly it only seems to have been put there as a joke because whenever you point at the rates listed there, the locals just laugh, and continue to charge you as they please.

Thankfully we did not deal with them for too long, because they can be persistent and it gets annoying. Not to mention the multiple Mafia style rules that govern which agent gets your business. A car coming from Srinagar cannot take you around Gulmarg. Only a local cab can, and even those can only drop and pick you up from places that don’t have horses, or else the horse people get first preference. This can be confusing for tourists, but fortunately the agents usually have most of these arguments between themselves, in Kashmiri, and seem to sort it quickly.

Our hotel in Gulmarg was a very famous mountain lodge, that had been around for ages and was a part of tourism history in the state. Unfortunately, like many similar heritage places in India, it’s glory days seemed well behind it. The decor was dated, most of the staff was lost and many facilities seemed to be in a state of disorder or just not maintained up to standard you find elsewhere. Beautiful wooden passageways and ornate woodwork had been ruined by patchwork wiring and makeshift fixes that did not do justice to the grand hotel it once was.

The manager there had been stuck to his chair by Fevicol and for the entire duration of our trip he remained stuck behind his desk, not even getting up to stretch his legs. He seemed content to watch videos on his computer and other staff would come join him and only occasionally peer over the screen at us.

We carried our own bags, had to find our room without directions, and were even tempted to chop our own firewood to start a fire for heat because no help could be found to do it for us.

Usually I’d complain about it but I can imagine that it’s tough to maintain a mountain resort and keep it well staffed, especially one that gets so much snow and ice that repairs can only be done at certain times of the year and there are many hoops to jump through for heritage buildings who want to do upgrades. Plus their kitchen was top-notch, everything we ate was delicious.

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Kashmiri people overall have been very kind to us here and most stays have been very hospitable, so I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend coming to Kashmir on vacation, and I think this lodge was just an anomaly. Other properties in the area were much better maintained and we quickly found better places to recommend, with lively staff and more comfortable rooms.

We spent the rest of the trip exploring the area around Gulmarg but decided to skip the skiing lessons for our next trip when we are better prepared for the cold. Instead we went with a local guide to see a river and villages around Gulmarg that were free of tourists but still charming.

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From our mini hike to the river at BabaRishi

For the views and intimate mountain experience it offers, I think Gulmarg is amazing and there are some more destinations coming up for people who want to be in the snow, but away from the crowds.

We are back in Srinagar now, enjoying the cold rain and the warmth of good friends. More updates to follow…..

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