Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Mission Kashmir

Toward the end of a week in Kashmir, as we wound our way downhill from a hike, we paused behind hundreds and hundreds of sheep crossing a bridge to get home. Then, from the other side, a half-dozen soldiers began squeezing past as they, too, tried to reach makeshift homes up in the hills. Picture dark, mustachioed men with rifles sidestepping countless fluffy balls of bleating and defecating mammals. Gives you just a taste of the enchanting, embattled feeling of this place.

Sheep crossing the bridge in the village of Drung near Gulmarg. The Army men had to wait until all of them got across, though you can barely see one attempting to come over from the other side.

A victory for the soldier who made it across the bridge, braving the sheep.

The brochures call it "Paradise on Earth." My social studies books termed it a "disputed territory." In mid-May, itching for a cheap, quick and different kind of holiday, we booked five days in Kashmir. We also wanted coolness factor—both in temperature and in the stories we could impart upon return. The first was attained successfully, degrees ranging in the twenties most days. The latter, well, you be the judge… My husband, younger brother, daughter and I arrived on a Monday afternoon to Butt's Clermont Houseboats in Srinagar. We knew little of the legendary proprietor, Gulam Butt, and were wondering just where we were going when the driver passed the dozens of houseboats anchored to the bottom of the polluted yet picturesque Dal Lake—and kept going. We slowed down near a dome we would later discover houses a single hair of the Prophet Muhammed, and turned into a driveway to an awaiting Mr.
Butt. That's what he called himself as he pumped our hands heartily, saying "Hello ji, welcome welcome welcome" in a style that was part-game show host, part-uncleji, part-authentic, hospitable Kashmiri.

The legendary Mr. Butt welcomes us to Srinagar and his houseboats.

After leading us through a mini-museum of pictures and letters of US ambassadors and a few Beatles, Mr. Butt led us to our houseboat, creaky wood planks for a floor, elaborate carvings as ceiling. The long three-bedroom dwelling boasted Kashmiri carpets, furniture and window treatments, Victorian-style place settings (don't miss the April Cornell cloth napkins), and bedrooms reminiscent of rustic Americana.

Naya on the hand carved porch of our floating dwelling.

Mr. Butt made himself right at home, sinking into his embroidered couch and taking pleasure in our positive reaction. He made a big show of leafing through all the good press he's received. National Geographic. Michael Palin's book on the Himalayas. And then out came two tattered and worn guestbooks that he encouraged us to leaf through (we did and were surprised to see some of our friends' names). He called out for Sultan, the young man who would tend to our every whim. In a flash, a tray appeared—and Mr. Butt disappeared. We dipped almond cookies and cake into our first cups of qahwa, the signature Kashiri tea made milkless but full of flavour from cardamom, cinnamon and almonds. After the cook scrambled to make 2 ½ year-old Naya a lunch of rice-sabji, we washed up and headed onto the lake for a boat ride on a shikara.

The view from the living room of our houseboat.

I wish I could tell you I spent my time gazing into my husband's eyes, but our captain had much nicer ones. He was a computer science student at Gandhi Memorial College and dreamed of coming to Delhi. His father – who would be our guide for the coming days – did not give him money so the son rowed tourists like us to make some. "Ask him," my brother kept saying. "What?" I whispered. "Does he root for India or Pakistan in cricket?" "No, I am not going to ask that!" I fiercely whispered back. "You are such an American nerd." As we rowed back, a collective yell and cry came from the other end of the lake. From one shikara to another, the news eventually came to us: Two villagers had just been swept away by a drain—and drowned. Nearby, a fisherman heard the evening call to prayer from a facing mosque and began going through the motions on his boat, which rocked not at all as he did.

The handsome sexy boatman in the back.

Two fisherman stop for a chat.

An island on Dal Lake.

The mosque in the background holds a hair of the Prophet Mohammed.

On Tuesday, we were awoken by the similar sounds of a morning prayer.
I just listened, while Nitin got up to welcome the sun off our boat's
deck. A few hours later, we gobbled down a breakfast of porridge and
pancakes, omelets and toast, fresh mango and more qahwa. We jumped
into the car by 8:15 am (any later and we'd be tailing the Army
convoy) to make the two-hour journey to Sonamarg, a meadow of gold in
the Sindh Valley.
We arrived early enough for our pick of ponies and sober-looking
handlers. I likened the steep climb toward Thajiwas glacier, over
rushing streams and paths of jagged stone on horseback, to being on a
motorcycle through the mountains of Phuket, Thailand. Scary,
thrilling, experiential—and really the only way to travel.
Sonamarg, I knew as I looked down and around and up, would forever
rank one of my most favorite places on earth.
At the glacier, we sled down a hill and threw snowballs, my brother
and me not having had such a fight in at least a decade. We passed
some of the most breathtaking views of valleys, trees, meadows and
snow peaks I have experienced in India, let alone the world.
"Switzerland," our guide Lassa said.
No need for comparison, I thought silently, it's beautiful enough on
its own.

Saddling up for the ride to the glacier.

The Sonamarg landscape is purdy sweet.

The pass in the background will get you to Ladakh eventually.

Naya and Mitra take a wet shortcut coming back down from Sonamarg.

On Wednesday, we attempted to take in as much of Srinagar as possible.
We stopped at two Mughal gardens and drove through the old city. I
talked to Lassa a bit more about Kashmir, its history and future. He
had plenty of information and factoids on the former, no answers on
the latter.

Naya and Mitra in one of Srinagar's many Mughal gardens.

Flowers up against the wall.

A friendly Kashmiri gardener.

After a lunch of endless barbecue chicken skewers, we headed for
Gulmarg. Its beauty was different from the greener landscape of
Sonamarg. Emporer Jehangir's favourite haunt felt woodsier,
sportier—more popular among city dwellers. For that reason, I grew
We were put up at the Hotel Hilltop, which can best be described as in
transition. As we ate a mediocre lunch and heard Hinglish from nearby
tables, we decided to skip traditional Gulmarg. No golf or gondolas
for us.
Escape, again, came on a horse. Since dusk was falling, most tourists
were emerging from the mountains, not heading into them. And so we
found serenity over running brooks, across a grassy patch known as
Strawberry Valley, and once again sledding down snow banks. We crossed
from one hill to another via a snow bridge, my New Balance sneakers
not living up to their name as I slid all the way.

A detail of the Maharaja's palace in Gulmarg.

The next day, we toured the Maharaja's Palace and BabaReshi, a mosque
and shrine to a Muslim saint. Our fear of tourists landed us in
Drung, a just-opened quiet village in the valley where we hiked up
to ancient temple ruins. This was where the sheep and Army had their
On our last night, after purchasing shawls and saris, I stopped at the public call office to phone home when I saw a hotel worker slumped and sobbing. He heaved, punched, paced. "His baby has just died," another man whispered. "She was just 2 ½." Led away by the hotel manager, the grieving father apparently hailed from an area with a 7pm curfew. He wouldn't be able to join his wife until sunrise. "That makes it so much worse," said the man narrating to me. I nodded my head and wiped my eyes. To me, Kashmir really didn't offer escape as much as perspective, not rest as much as reflection. Amid a land and people so conflicted, I was grateful for the sweeping generosity of its beauty to momentarily take us away, offer reverie. The hills, the snow, the streams, the valley, the humanity and humility did feel like paradise—if only fora little while.

Outside Jamia Masjid in Srinagar. On the hill is the Hari Parbat Fort, built in 1808 when Kashmir was under Afghan rule, It was closed after separatists launched an insurgency against New Delhi in 1989. Authorities had feared the strategically located building overlooking Srinagar could be misused by the rebels.

An archway in the marketplace of Jamia Masjid in Srinagar.

An example of the architecture in the old section of Srinagar. Like many things here, this beautiful dwelling is poised with a tension teetering on the edge of collapse.

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