Kashmir & surrounds Tuesday 18 - Thursday 27 August 2009
We actually left Dharamsala at 7am as planned - though we ruined it slightly by having to doubleback to collect our phone which we had left behind! It was a pretty drive as we started to climb around narrow mountain roads past beautiful green meadows. The main thing we noticed after crossing the border into the state of Jammu & Kashmir was an ever increasing police presence. We passed numerous army trucks - all loaded with soldiers all touting weapons.
We had heard that Jammu wasn't somewhere to linger - it is on the edge of the plains so still uncomfortably hot in the summer and predominantly Hindu rather than Muslim like the rest of the state and has had a history of unrest. We had to swing in to use the internet to transfer some money. This was easier said than done as the guy wanted "security clearance" before letting us use it. Obviously we didn't have it - and eventually he let us use it anyway - but it was another sign of how things here are different! We also found out that for security reasons our pre paid phone doesn't work in Kashmir - so no phone calls for a while!
We headed on climbing mountain roads and decided to camp at the small hill top town of Patnitop - which was very chilly indeed - and we woke to find the car literally swathed in fog! The road on was very scenic but a bit scary - it weaves around climbing up and down steep mountains which on the plus side affords gorgeous views - waterfalls green hills rivers - but on the down side you keep thinking you are about to be in a head-on as trucks approach you at speed and you have to pull into narrow laybys - without even a railing between you and the sheer drop below. We saw quite a few trucks smashed at the bottom which didn't make us feel any better!!
There must be an entire department in India which sits thinking up road signs advising caution on the roads -though no one seems to take a blind bit of notice of them of course!! One of our favourites is "Whisky is risky when driving!"
Finally we arrived at Kashmir's capital town of Srinagar. The army presence was truly in your face by now. Driving along you literally couldn't count to 10 without passing an army guy - they were everywhere! At some stages we got buried in the midst of army convoys.
We headed straight to the large Tourist Reception Centre - but not before we'd been pulled over a couple of times by houseboat salesmen!! We have written before about the nature of the Kashmir sales people who have infiltrated all around India so we were geared up for this but it was still pretty intense. We have a very old Lonely Planet on the region - a bit out of date at times (the troubles were obviously a bit quiet at the time they don't even rate a mention!) - and it quotes an even older travel guide written by an Englishman Frederick Drew in 1865. Not one to mince his words Fred describes the Kashmir people as "excessively greedy, never being satisfied as long as they think there is the least chance of getting more" though he does also allow that "they have much of good spirits and of humour and in energy and versatility they are behind none of their nation."
Perhaps old Fred is a bit harsh - but it's definitely true that their sales techniques are far from gentle!! Anyway we are obviously a bit of a pushover as we were approached by 2 boatmen and agreed to stay a couple of nights in each of their boats! In our defence we had already been planning to do this though as we thought a houseboat was an essential Kashmir experience - and so we booked one on the river (quiet and relaxing) and one on Dal lake (full on but scenic ) to get a taste of both worlds. As tourists aren't plentiful it's a buyer's market so prices are reasonable.
In the late 19th century the British enjoyed visiting Kashmir to escape the heat but the ruling Maharajah wouldn't allow them to own property. Thus the houseboats - large permanently stationed boats - were born. They are deceptively large inside with elaborate somewhat chintzy décor - all carved wood and cushion covers -but actually very comfortable. The river location was much quieter less scenic but also more peaceful. As I type we are on the luxury houseboat on Dal lake -which is gorgeous - and I'd set myself up to sit quietly doing my update- but within 2 minutes I was inundated with people wanting to sell me jewelry, scarves, flowers, seeds and anything else you can think of all arriving by boat - so I have been forced to retreat to my cabin!!! We are enjoying the experience of living on the water for a few days though. Considering what goes in it (everything from the toilets!) the lake looks amazingly clean and the lotus flowers at this time of year are very lovely. It was a worry in view of the above though that many of the boats have showers which draw water straight from the Lake!! We made sure ours didn't!! There were numerous lovely boats on the lake - we were sad we didn't stay on one of the Australian named ones but ours (the Lucky Peacock) was very nice!!
As mentioned the army presence is pretty full on here but other than that you can forget there is any trouble going on - in Srinagar anyway. So off we went for a bit of sightseeing - but the first stop was the carpet show room!!!!! Actually we would of resisted this but (don't tell the salesmen!) we are actually interested in buying. We have to be fairly frugal on our trip and we haven't really brought much in the way of handicrafts - but we were both keen to get a handmade Kashmir carpet.
The centre we went to actually helps support the poor families who make the various handicrafts. These people live in remote hill areas and are very poor. Now that they work in this sort of cooperative set up they are given advances on carpets to be made and attempts are made to fund education for their children etc. We still think it'd be a hard life! The man in our picture told us he was 35 and he'd been working making carpets since he was 8 (supposedly young children no longer work n the industry.) It was amazing to watch them work - the value of the carpets depends on the number of knots per square inch - their fingers are on fire knotting away. Each family has their own secret code - like a computer language - by which they weave the carpet. Depending on how busy they are each carpet can take up to a year for 2 or 3 family members to work on.
Anyway we bravely went into 2 or 3 different show rooms and drank tea and looked at the carpets taking notes so we've now got a good idea of what we want - and amazingly despite some sledge hammer sales techniques we've not bought yet - update to follow when we do !!!
We next took in the Mughal gardens. The summer weather here is gorgeous - with clear blue skies all day and cool nights making the climate very comfortable. This was perfect for enjoying these stunning gardens. Built from the 16th Century by the Mughal emperors these gardens actually stretch from Tehran to Agra - but the most stunning examples exist in Kashmir. We visited the 3 main ones Nishat Bagh, Shalimer Bagh and Chasma Shahi. The gardens enjoy stunning surroundings of the lake on one side and the mountains on the other making them truly spectacular. They all follow the same format -a series of terraces with a water channel flowing down the middle through a few pools. The surrounding flowers were glorious.
As elsewhere the army/police presence was very strong (though as the sign reminds them they can't sneak in without paying their 10 rupees!!) and we had the car searched by Mr. Singh a very interesting security man at the entrance to one. He was very keen on moving to Australia and kept asking us if we could employ him there. When we said we'd be in England for the next few years at least he changed tack and asked if we could find him an Australian wife. He kept saying that a "kitchen girl only" would do!
He apparently has a property in Kashmir (with both apple and walnut trees!) and one in Delhi - this is all on the table for any Aussie Cinderella who fancies marrying him so he gets an Aussie passport!! If anyone is keen I'll forward on letters!
After the gardens we continued a drive around Dal Lake - very scenic - with its thousands of Shikara (little decorated boats) drivers battling for business!
We had a look at the White Mosque or Hazratbal - very important to Muslims as it is said to house a hair of the Prophet. It was an impressive building on the outside though Andrew and I had to separate and from the pictures his bit looked a lot nicer than my (ladies) bit on the inside!
We then drove to the Old City and first saw the Shah Hamdan Mosque. This wooden mosque is one of the oldest (1395) in the City and is made interesting by the gorgeous brightly coloured papier-mâché work on the walls and ceiling. This is a popular local craft technique but we'd never seen it in a Mosque before. Non Muslims couldn't go in but we were allowed to take pictures through the doorway. The old city especially is quite conservative here and I was told off for not covering my head. Like in Malaysia and Indonesia I'll have to start carrying my head scarf at all times.
We also saw the Jami Masjid or wooden mosque. This was really interesting having over 300 soaring pillars each made from a single tree. There was a lovely central courtyard full of flowers in the centre of the mosque which has a capacity for 33, 333 devotes at one time! It affords a great view of the 18th century fort as well - though this has been taken over by the army now so that's as near as we're likely to get to it!!!
Whilst in the old city we had another shrine to track down though this proved far from easy. I had read an article which I was keen to follow up stating the view of some scholars that Jesus lived and died in Kashmir. Jesus (or Yus Asaf his Muslim name as he was also a Muslim prophet) according to this version didn't die on the cross but escaped with Mary his mother (she died in what is now Pakistan) and doubting Thomas his apostle who as faithful readers of my ramblings know was buried in Chennai.
Jesus allegedly married a local girl and lived in a town about 60km out of Srinagar called Yusmarg - or Jesus' meadow. He was buried in the old city and his shrine attracts Muslim pilgrims. It was a hard slog to find and a lot of people didn't have a clue what we were on about but eventually we found the shrine! No pictures allowed but we took one of the sign and saw the coffin - who knows - supposedly Mose also ended up in Kashmir though they've yet to locate his suspected remains.
The Kashmir people are very different looking to many other Indians- one theory is that they were a lost tribe of Israel and many of them do indeed look quite Jewish. They are often quite striking looking being pale and having quite blue or green eyes. In a crowd one or 2 faces stick out as looking quite Western.
The old city was an interesting shopping area and we saw all sorts of things - from the usual walnuts apples apricots and carpets to copper artifacts and hookah pipes. There are also many of the traditional Kashmir homes here brick with wooden shutters. The traditional food stores and bakeries and butchers were interesting and everyone was very friendly and welcoming and happy to be in our pictures. We are always invited in and offered fragrant Kashmir tea which is nice but can slow us up as it is hard to say no!!!
Many of the people we spoke to think fondly of the glory days of tourism - the late 70s early 80s - when there were so many tourists arriving they slept in the streets as the boats were full. Jonnie Cash and the Beatles amongst others were frequent visitors - earning the place the nickname "Hashmir" certainly still lots of "weeds" growing in the streets!! We actually stayed on the same boat as Jonnie -allegedly!
So after a pleasant couple of days in Srinagar we set off for an explore before our final houseboat stay. We headed first to Manasbal Lake which was absolutely beautiful covered in lotus flowers and set in green meadows. The drive on was in turns green and lush and then arid both of which were very beautiful.
We had met the tourist information man and he had advised that we journey on to a town in the hills Gurez. Apparently this town which had a Buddhist temple had a tourist festival starting that day. This was very similar to the ones in Ladakh and it was the first time it'd been held in this area as the army had now declared the area safe. So off we drove. We hit a small town Bandipura. This was very busy and like stepping back in time everywhere there were little horse buggies. We quickly got mobbed and some children told us the road to Gurez was very rough and would take several hours.
As it was dusk we decided to stay the night there and asked a couple of people where we could camp but no one understood. So, as we often do when stuck we went to the police station. Andrew went in to ask and loads of people crowded round to speak to me - or try to! We were chatting away when suddenly a soldier jumped in the car and drove us into the compound! I was ushered in to join Andrew who was having tea with the OIC who was a 4 star General. Apparently the remote hill town of Gurez is alive with militants and very unsafe as was this whole area so we should stay the night in the police compound! We told him we'd been told to go to a tourist festival just down the road but he knew nothing of it!!
Anyway a bit shocked we ventured into town and found ourselves the recipients of a great deal of attention all of it friendly. I don't want to be political - I don't really know the fight and it's not my place - but the whole Kashmir issue is far more complex than we thought. I had understood the issue dated from the dividing of the country in 1947 but I was now told it went centuries back. Kashmir had its own prime minister until the 50s and was proud to retain independence. The majority of the Kashmir people wish to retain this separation and they feel angry that both India and Pakistan are fighting over their land and they are pawns stuck in the middle. This anger (fired up further by real or alleged atrocities by the Indian Army in occupation) leads to outbreaks of violence. Everyone we met was at pains to point out that they actively welcome any tourists and certainly we were made incredibly welcome and treated to a delicious slap up meal of Kashmiri specialties ( Gustaba -lamb meat balls in spicy sauce was really good!!) They came across as very cultured learned people - most people speak at least 3 languages and they were able to talk about Shakespeare! It was true the comment one boy made that it was a shame we didn't know any of their poets or their language!
Despite many offers of beds for the night we went back to the station where we had a slightly noisy night - though again everyone was friendly. As we left despite all the reassurances we decided to miss out on the festival and head on to Gulmarg.
We drove on - a nice drive all beautiful meadows and village life around the scenic Wular Lake - and stopped and asked directions a few times. The army guys we saw said we should go through Sopore and we got to this little town on Saturday morning. As we drove in we went past several army guys (nothing new there) but noticed they were wearing full riot gear. We drove past them into a very quiet road and we were just saying how weird when a stone hit us!! Not stopped by the army we'd driven straight into a riot and were surrounded by what looked like young kids - 15 years old at the most - carrying rocks! Apparently this was about some militant prisoners they wanted released and had been on the cards for days yet no one had told us! Amazingly the army were at both ends - (the stones were for them) and they'd just let us drive in! I appreciate we're adults and thus responsible for our own safety etc …but we had asked all the questions - you'd think they'd mention that we were about to drive into an ambush!!!
Our car number plate begins AP - same as the state of Andhra Pradesh - and all over India people have thought our car comes from there. I don't know if they thought we were Indian army but we shouted that we were Australian and just tourists and they backed off and waved us through. It was all a bit scary though and a bit close for comfort. Within seconds a friendlier mob surrounded us to ask if we wanted tea - but we decided not to linger!!!!
From here we drove on to Gulmarg. This is a major tourist centre and India's premier ski resort. In Spring it lives up to its name of "Meadow of flowers" and though we'd missed the best of the flowers it was still pretty lovely.
There are over 50 varieties of wild flowers which grow here. It was a gorgeous climb through pine forests and truly very scenic. We found a nice place to camp at one of the ski lodges - mostly empty now- and had a nice relaxing afternoon. It was incredible and felt a million miles from the near riot situation of a few hours ago!
It was a fairly chilly night so we got the sleeping bags out and into bed! The next morning we were up early for horse riding - thankfully it was bright and sunny!
The area has thousands of people offering pony rides but they are just that - tiny little ponies. The only other riding we've done on the trip (other than elephant) was in Indonesia and they were very little skinny ponies so we'd made it clear that we wanted good horses. Our guide Mr. Mir did us proud - he had insisted he'd bring us "film star horses" (Mr. Ed???) and both my Bruce (!!) and Andrew's Scotty were very good.
Gulmarg is very proud of having the highest Gondola (ski lift) in the world. This operates in 2 phases and the plan was to ride to the beginning of the second phase and get on the lift for the rest of the way up.
We rode up through stunning scenery to arrive at the 2nd level but the lift wasn't yet working. It was the first day of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan and as most people had got up at 4am to pray and were fasting all day the usual flow of Indian tourists was way down.
Thus they weren't about to start the second phase until they had enough tourists so we would have had to wait a few hours! So instead we rode up most of the way to the top - over 15,000 feet!
This was amazing and it was just as well the horses were mountain bred as some of the ride involved scrambling up rocks! From the top we had a view over Pakistan just 35 kms away and we could see the Nangaparbat the 3rd highest peak in the world - spectacular!!
We passed nomadic shepherds who spend months living in makeshift shelters - a tough life! They insisted on having a photo with me which I promised to send on to their hut via Mr. Mir!!!
At the top we saw the tail end of the glacier from last winter. The local people stay in wooden huts which end up covered in snow most of the winter. The horses move down to the lower paddocks.
Though the weather had been lovely as we rode within minutes it suddenly changed and we got pelted with pea sized pieces of hail so we had to shelter for a while. Doesn't take long to change up here even in midsummer!!! The scenery was truly spectacular and we agreed the ride was one of the most wonderful experiences on the trip to date. Our guide Mr. Mir was superb he organizes both skiing holidays in the winter and trekking or riding tours for one or several days in the summer. We explained that many people are nervous of visiting Kashmir and he is happy to pick people up from the airport and whisk them to the secure haven of the mountains if they wish. He can be contacted on +91 9906852117.
In Gulmarg and Srinagar we did see quite a few tourists. People have asked if it's safe to visit. It's hard to say - I think it's fine if you keep to the tourist areas - though I guess people have to take responsibility for this decisions themselves. We both definitely plan to return though, we thought Kashmir was amazing. If you're keen to see more have a look at the official tourism site www.jktourism.org
So, we returned to Srinagar and as at Monday 24 August I am hiding from the various Dal Lake vendors in my houseboat room and writing up this web diary whilst Andrew is off fine- tuning the car prior to the trip on to Ladakh and the highest motor able road in the world. Out with the winter woolies!!!
UPDATE: Wednesday 26 August - we found a slight problem with the car so, as mechanics on the road to Leh are apparently few and far between we decided to get it sorted out now and have lingered a further day in Srinagar. The mechanic we used Adam has been staggeringly welcoming to the extent of taking us home as guests last night to meet his family, where we had a delicious home cooked meal. Andrew is pictured in front of one of the apple trees in the garden which has lovely mountain views. Adam said to come back in December when the apples will be ready - don't tempt us we'll stay here forever if encouraged!!!
Ramadan is fully upon us now. You know this because early morning prayers begin at 4am and it is tricky to find anywhere serving food during the day which should be good for the waistline! In the morning as well as the usual call to prayer there are drummers who go around to wake everyone up and for the last few mornings we've had very early wake up calls sleeping on the boat in the middle of town. Adam's home out in the suburbs is lovely and peaceful and though the family did get up at that time we slept through and now feel very refreshed! When the car is finished we plan to do a day trip to the hill station Pahalgam - partly as a few people have recommended it and partly because it'll put the car through its paces prior to the more arduous drive to Leh.
THIS SITE IS NOW FULL!!!! Please see our new site www.drivingoz2uk2.com to see our journey continue.