Note: Pictures and some new text have been added. Tyler and I realized after the initial post that we were both in foul moods when we wrote these entries, and it showed.
This was literally on a billboard we saw leaving the airport on our way into Srinagar proper. Tyler pointed it out and we both laughed, as we were both in a bit of disbelief that we were, in fact, in Kashmir.
More than any other leg except for South America, we had scoped out our route here, with plans to hit some of the major tourist stops (Taj Mahal, the Ganges in Varanasi, Darjeeling tea plantations) while staying in the north since our itinerary brought us to India at one of the hottest and wettest times of year. But one of the best things about travelling so far has been throwing our plans out the window and doing something new and wonderful we couldn't have anticipated. We ended up here after talking to a travel agent about getting a train to Dharamsala (the home of the exiled Tibetan government and the Dalai Lama). They countered by suggesting a loop trip of Srinigar, the Ladakh province, then down to Manali and Dharamsala. So we're in Kashmir.
Srinigar is a small town (though the largest in the Jammu & Kashmir, or J&K region) set on Dal Lake. On the lake are tons of houseboats which are rented out as lodging for tourists. This area is hugely popular with local Indian tourists. Families from Delhi, Mumbai and other hotter parts of the country come here to sightsee and relax on the water--and escape the heat of their hometowns.
On one of the brightly decorated shikaras for a tour around Dal Lake
View of the lake from the shikara
View of Srinigar and Dal Lake from one of the Mughal-era gardens in the mountains
You can't deny a strong military presence here. Flying into the region involved lots of security (twice being scanned personally, after passing through a traditional metal detector, and our bags x-rayed and hand-searched) and touching down at an airport that seemed built more for the military (bunkers covering planes, soldiers with guns) than for tourism. The ride into the city mostly showed us lots of soldiers, lots of buses, and lots of mosques. Somehow, the presence of lots of security always tends to make me feel less secure. Though I wonder if Kashmiris would feel the opposite. However, the presence of many Indian families and the attitudes of the local people helped allay any lingering concerns we might have had. We felt safe and secure the entire time.
Typical Kashmiri bus, very colorful and a bit beat-up looking
Typical back of a Kashmiri bus, though I didn't get any photos when there were passengers hanging off the ladders and out the doors!
Lonely Planet had warned against committing to a houseboat before seeing them since the quality can vary widely--which is exactly what we did--so it was with some trepidation that we rode the shikara, or rowboat, to the Savoy, where we'd be spending the next five nights. Fortunately, our Delhi travel agents came through as we were welcomed by Rasrul (I think) into very nice accomodations with lots of Kashmiri embroidered fabrics and carved wooden features.
Houseboats on Dal Lake; we stayed in the Savoy
For the most part, staying on the houseboat has been what we wanted--relaxation for a few days in a pleasant climate. The scenery was fantastic--on a large, clear lake, surrounded by mountains, with many birds. What looked like hawks were referred to as "golden eagles," and it was amazing to see them careening around the sky in groups of up to 30 at a time.
We've had a few excursions, including taking a shikara ride around the lake and through the floating gardens on the water where much of the local produce is grown, visiting four local Mughal gardens, seeing some handicrafts like Kashmiri rugs and papier mache laquer products being made, and a day trip into the mountains for a bit of trekking. Leaving the town and heading to the mountains was interesting, especially to see the nomadic tribal people that live in the area. We saw many families herding sheep and long-haired goats, or leading a group of small horses loaded down with packs along the way.
Women in their colorful saris at a Mughal garden
Mughal gardens weren't that exciting as "gardens," but their terraces and locations were interesting and beautiful
Local tribal people with horses and packs
Person herding goats down the road. Note the goat he's carrying on this back!
The mountains we trekked up a long, steep, muddy track to see. Unfortunately, the weather didn't cooperate and obscured what should have been pretty great views.
The downside has been nearly constant attempts to sell us something, anything, which has been wearing on us since it's been the case since we got into India. Kashmiri rugs, papier mache lacquer, walnut wood furniture, Kashmiri pashmina shawls, fabrics, jewelry, saffron, what have you. With persistence. On the water or when sitting on the porch of the boat, there are merchant boats with items for sale. On tours they want to take you to see how handicrafts are made where it is then hard to extricate yourself without purchasing.
We did, though, buy two Kashmiri rugs. After hearing for days about the quality and workmanship of the local rugs, we visited a cooperative selling rugs made by families in the region. Though the price was initially a concern (and we don't even have a home to put them in at the moment), we decided we'd rather support the local craftspeople now than buy something from Pottery Barn in a year. (Unfortunately, you can see the design but not the colors of the rugs in the photos; the lighting in the showroom made all my photos turn out very yellow.)
Demonstration of how rugs are handmade locally
Our wool 4x6 rug; the colors are actually more blues and olives than this shows.
Our silk 6x9 rug
Probably the best part of staying on the houseboat has been Rasrul, the houseman, for lack of a better term. Though the clear evidence of the caste system here is discomfiting, he's a bright presence in our day as we enjoy our fourth serving of Kashmiri tea (tea brewed with cardamon, cinnamon and cloves) or eating omelets and Kashmiri bread for breakfast. Unfortunately, I don't have a photo of him.
We were almost always served our Kashmiri tea in these cups; we were always amused by the strange translation and picture!
Probably the strangest part of being here is the feeling that we have constant 'minders' with us. Even now, going to the internet cafe, we were sent off with one of the many young men who seem to work for Gopa, the owner, who accompany us everywhere we go. I think we're starting to feel a little bit captive, between being on the water and escorted everywhere. We'll be happy to get on the bus tomorrow, cross mountain passes, and enter the Ladakh region.
As a quick after-the-fact aside, we've been somewhat comforted to hear from other travellers that Delhi and Srinigar were tough for eveyone we've talked to, and that the first week is usually the hardest. Things have been looking up!
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