fivetospare

Cheng Chin Yuen

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Kashing In (1st May to 9th May)

Luck and Karen found us a private taxi to Srinagar when we reached Jammu after all local transports have left early in the morning for the 7 hour journey that covered 274 kilometres. Paying just less than double the market rate for a shared jeep, we found ourselves on plastic seat wrappings in a brand new Marauti. The car had to be sent to Srinagar that day and we clocked enough karma to chance upon the delivery guy.

Before we could enjoy the mountain landscape, a long series of army camps with their façade of sandbag bunkers, barbed wire-fences, road-blockages, machine gun posts, bullet-proof vested patrols and large vehicle parks reminded us of the instability that is entwined with the dramatic landscape. Beer bottles coupled on the barbed wire provided the alarm for the guards at the watch towers and the ‘dragon’s teeth’ lying in wait by the roadside checkpoints would shred tyres with a tug from a rope. Oil drums placed in the middle of the lanes forced drivers to decelerate and zig-zag their way up to the check point. As tourists unfamiliar to the strong military presence and heavy fortifications, we felt a little uneasy, intimidated and above all pity for the poor dude who has to stand alone in the sandbag bunkers baking under the zinc-roofing imprisoned behind the veil of grenade nets. We have never seen so many army camps in one area.

As our tiny Marauti wove along the mountain roads, the rural goodness of the countryside soon returned. The ranges in this initial phase of the ride were really crowded in such that the distant view was a magnificent gridlocked layers of fading peaks and ridges. The thin vegetation also exposed the slanted, bent and gnarled grand strata in this maze of rock. It was for me to date the most scenic ride in India. For Karen the winding road soon took its groggy toll. Still even in this remote region, nature is not left alone to her wonders and someone had decided to add a huge dam and a gigantic advertising mural (at least 70m X 100m) painted onto what would be an impressive escarpment.

The journey out of Jammu was in some parts stalled by huge convoys of mutton taking their stroll to the feeding pastures. The stream of 300 or so sheep and goat, all unpleasantly head-marked with a spray of red paint, would part as they approached our car devouring all edible greens by the roadside. The goats have corkscrew horns and a long draping coat. One billy was walking on two legs, humping the female in front of him. Only 2 or 3 shepherds (and their dog) controlled the entire highway horde. In the car, we could smell the fragrant mutton walking outside and it smelled exactly like the curry mutton chops we had for lunch at a roadside dhaba a little later at 4 o’clock.

All tourist vehicles (whether they have it or not) will plaster an ‘All India Tourist Permit’ in the sun-shade portion of the windscreen. It was obvious that we weren’t in one but on all three occasions when we were stopped to have our passport checked, the soldiers greeted our driver like their long lost brother and waved us on even though we couldn’t answer the ‘What was your Calcutta flight number?’ question. (Eh brother, 3 months is a long time to remember 2 letters and 3 digits!) Well, to his credit, our driver was a nice fellow who didn’t blast us with the Hindi Top Ten and who gave lifts to other soldiers and an old lady and her daughter. He also helped us to find a cheapo place in the rain. He warned us that all houseboat owners were ‘cheatermans!’ He was also Hindu like the soldiers in Kashmir. Kashmir is 95% Muslim and the security force trying to contain and control them is predominantly Hindu. ‘They do not trust us. They think that we are all terrorists,’ one university undergrad told me later. Most of the Hindus that once lived in Srinagar (Kashmir’s main city) were relocated to Jammu.

After finally leaving Jammu at the other end of a 2574m tunnel, we emerge on the other side of the mountain overlooking the Kashmir Valley. A billboard quickly welcomes us to ‘Paradise on Earth’. After emerging from the darkness to the expansive views of the long lush valley enclosed by snow peaks on all sides, the effect was cinematic and for a moment, you are too mesmerised to remember that you are in a region rattled since 1947 (and reaching its peak in 1989). Since 1989, it is estimated that 60,000 people have lost their lives in this ‘Paradise’. The longer we stayed in Kashmir, it seems that ‘Paradise Lost’ would be a more appropriate welcome. But for those precious initial minutes as the car descended into the massive misty valley, it did feel quite close to paradise.

There is definitely a deforestation problem in Kashmir. Willows are felled in the name of India’s cultural unifier to make thousands of baseball bats that are stacked up in square pillars by the road to dry. Some of these bats unsurprisingly find their way into the spurts of violence here.

Srinagar finally appears after the last 15 kilometres in the valley that is getting more hazy as we approach its tourist heart - Dal Lake. Darkness fell with the rain and we paid the driver and thanked him for his patience in finding a guesthouse that was in our budget range. ‘Houseboat is cheaterman,’ he issues his final warning as he took the money. It was the word of a Kashmiri against the recommendation of our guidebook. Of course we went with the Lonely Planet.

The next morning, the touts were already waiting for us. Two guys waited patiently for us to finish our cookies and buns at a breakfast stand before approaching us. In all normal circumstances, we would have gone on our own and we did. But Kashmiri touts aren’t your normal touts. One of them decided to get on our tuk tuk to ‘help’ us find a houseboat on Dal Lake. We had no obligations and he would pay for the Shikara (local gondola) ride. Dal Lake is huge and there are more than 400 houseboats on it. So we decided to make an exception and allowed ourselves to be touted to take advantage of a free boat-ride which would otherwise cost 100Rs an hour. Interestingly the LP doesn’t have any houseboat recommendations.

The Shikara ride was pleasant and we did find a suitable houseboat after 3 or 4 stops. The offer was 3000Rs per day full board. The room would cost 1500 without the meals which we naturally went without knowing that there was no way we could spend more than 1000Rs in town even if we pigged out at every meal. It took more than 10 minutes of resistance to get the room-only deal! Kashmiri pushiness was getting to me. Just when you thought the dust had settled, Mr Tout asked me to pay the boatman. I gave the tout a lashing despite his seniority in age, reminding him of this ‘offer’ barely an hour ago. This is one of the trials of travelling in India. Sometimes, talking ‘nicely’ just doesn’t work…or takes way too long to work. The boatman did a great deal of paddling and the soft-hearted tourist would pay. But after 3 months in India, we had drawn our own lines and stuck by them most of the time.

I told Mr Tout to pay the boatman from the commission he would receive from the houseboat owner.

‘I earn no money. We brothers.’

That’s the gift of India. With the right attitude, for every incident that pisses you off, there are more than enough that will make you chuckle or burst out in laughter.

The three nights on the houseboat was peaceful except for the occasional trekking or boat-trip sell. I guess 1500Rs was a good deal for the huge ‘Deluxe Class A’ houseboat all to ourselves. The carvings on the wood panelling were nice and the room was the biggest and most comfortable we ever had. There was even a full sized bath tub in the toilet! Most of all the isolated spot where the houseboat was moored gave us the silence after the hectic town excursions. The mostly misty mornings gave us a window of only 15 minutes to admire the calm lake in its mountain amphitheatre before the horizon was clouded. This we witnessed from the roof of the houseboat. As promised, shuttles to and from the pier was free, hassle free, soothing and brought back memories of our beloved Inle Lake in Myanmar. (btw Inle still wins hands down!) Still it was not possible to spend an entire day rotting on a luxury floating home.

According to the houseboat owner’s hippy son, Dal Lake four months ago had giant pines in them. They were sucking up too much water so the government ordered them to be chopped down to the stumps. Paradise Lost would definitely be it.

Despite the dense concentration of houseboats, the water in the lake is remarkably clean and clear. Littering is uncommon and human waste are contained and subsequently collected in a mesh bag beneath the boats to be disposed off later.

You are better off taking a motor-rickshaw down the long boulevard fringing Dal Lake into town. If the exhaust doesn’t kill you, you will probably end up spending a long time in jail anyway after you kill some of the Shikara touts. The pavement across from the touts is breeched by several dozen slip roads and set at a height designed to destroy your knee caps. When the tourist flow (Indian tourists far outnumber foreign ones.) is heavy, we took our chances with the tout route.

Tout 1 : ‘HELLO! YOU WANT SHIKARA??’

Me : ‘no’

Tout 1 : ‘YES?? We go now?’

Me : ‘Which part of NO do you not understand?’

Tout 2 : ‘Where is your good country?’

Me : ‘Singapore’

Tout 2 : ‘You sure??’

Me : ‘You are asking me if I’m sure of which country I’m from??’

Such is the exasperation.

Facing the lake is also a series of hotels-turned-fortresses. What once were prime tourist lodging are now depressing homes to the various regiments which looked really out of sync with the serenity of the area. Just a couple of weeks before, a grenade attack injured around 20 people, many of them local tourists. Later, when we were in Delhi, there was another attack which left 7 foreigners wounded. Kashmir relies mainly on tourism and some extremist group is trying their best to undermine that.

The Old City with its tangle of wood-and-brick anti-earthquake houses has the most character. These relics usually go up to 3 or 4 floors up, testimony to the ingenuity of the architects of the past. We visited the Khanqah-e-Molla mosque, one of the oldest in Kashmir, made using similar materials without the onion domes and minarets we are used to. The carpeted interior is covered with shiny Arabic inlays and marble and it would be nice if non-Muslims could go in and have a peep. Even Muslim women were forbidden entry and had to pray by the main door or in a separate chamber round the back. There is a huge gold medallion hung above the doorway and the men grab onto the supporting chains as they emerge from the prayer hall. Two doormen asked me for donations. I might have left a token if we were permitted inside.

The Jama Masjid was one we could enter after a brief frisk from the guards. This giant with its high walls looks more like a maximum security prison and can accommodate 30,000 people. The forest of pillars here are most impressive feature in the otherwise plain mosque. At the main altar, I was approached by an old man and his younger friend who were so appalled that I did not believe in any God that they took it upon themselves to sit us down and try to get me to embrace Islam. Soon, the usual arguments became circular, they were getting more agitated and I was getting nowhere. Some dudes are in too deep they forget how to listen. Eventually, the bearded old man tried to use his age as leverage but I told him, much to his suppressed displeasure, that sometimes he needed to listen to the young. I snuffed out the conversation as diplomatically as I could and got away from there before more fanatics decide to have a go at determining my religion. People here are a little hardcore for my liking. The touts by the lake should come here more often.

The Old City also has the largest concentration of women in sinister burkhas. Even their eyes are behind a black mesh lattice shaped like two large teardrops. Barred from employment, they are primarily housekeepers who walk a little behind their hubbies like docile wives should…so it seems. A widely publicised sex scandal involving some high officials, policemen and some Muslim women was uncovered just after we left Kashmir and these housewives became more than desperate. They became violent, took to the streets in protest, threw rocks at the police, razed the mama-san’s house to the ground and burnt her things. It was weird to watch these women let it all out on national TV. During the saga, there was a 3 day strike and all shopkeepers were advised to ‘shutter up’. The burkha contingent then banded into the ‘Moral Brigade’ and went around town ‘advising’ couples on appropriate behaviour. I think when four black shrouds come up to you, stop your tea session and start scolding, you do keep deathly still and take the tirade in stride.

We realised we had enough when the guy we stopped for directions asked us in return if we had read the Koran. ‘You have not read the Koran?’ He almost cried. ‘You should read the Koran. It is a very good book!’

The ski-slopes and picnic grounds of Gulmarg was our brief reprieve from the heavy pollution, touting and religious zealots of Srinagar. The tourist bus soon found itself in the good company of pine trees and mountains that were crested with a generous blob of snow. Through the episodic breaks in the vegetation, we could see the immense valley fading into the late morning mist. The only flaws in the landscape were the glares from fresh zinc rooftops. At the halfway break, we were hijacked by a tout who offered to help us find accommodation at our rock-bottom prices. It was once again a ‘no obligations’ kind of thing.

Geography presents Gulmarg really well. Emerging from a pass through the dividing ridge, you leave the Kashmir Valley behind you and are smacked with the panorama of a gigantic snow covered ridge that runs along the entire valley. A golf course bordered by a buffer of pine trees, occupies most of the valley floor and the dark green grass goes really well with the backdrop of white. All the hotels look expensive so we decide to go with our tout. That was how we landed ourselves in Hotel Cityview which was a steal at 250Rs. Straddling the dividing ridge, we could have breakfast in the open with the Kashmir Valley on our left and Gulmarg on our right. Our room was illuminated by a single bulb and the toilet window was actually a sizable hole in the wall that threatened our private moments and let the freezing winds in. It couldn’t be shuttered so we improvised with a table cloth. Our room was clean, comfortable and best of all away from the noisy areas.

True to his word, our hotel tout didn’t demand a commission and did find us a decent place for a very reasonable price. But his helpfulness soon evolved into a hard sell for his guiding services, promising us wonderful treks, visits to his house and isolated picnic spots away from the tourist areas. It took too many ‘no thank yous’ and ‘I will call you if I need your services’ to rid ourselves of him. I refused to give him anything when he finally gave up and asked for his tip. ‘You give me something if you are happy?’ The thing is 10 eternal minutes ago I was happy. It was probably a good way to teach past and present tense since the emotive involvement was so great. So I gave him a little scolding. The owners of Hotel Cityview however, provided excellent hassle-free service. Hassled service in its numerous forms is one of India’s finest ironies.

On one of our morning walks, we stumbled upon what we thought was a regular cake of black cow dung. As we approached the lump, the fat black pixels came to life and took to the sky, buzzing in angry at the disruption to their breakfast feast. Those brave ones that remained behind became the chips of the gigantic chocolate chip cookie. It was strangely exciting to watch the brown cookie turn dark after we had passed.

There are dozens of horses in Gulmarg and these ferry hundreds of fat local tourists too lazy to walk the flat 1.5 km stretch from the car park to the gondola station. Here, if you are come after 11am, you will queue ages for a ticket and then eons for to finally get into the gondola (cable car equivalent) that will take you up to the ski-fields on the shoulder of the massive ridge that flanks Gulmarg Valley. It is an exciting ten minute ride. In true Singaporean spirit, we were one of the first ten in line for the tickets. The ticket office opened at 10am as stipulated but started to leisurely issue tickets only at 10.30am so being in the top ten meant that I got my ticket at 11am…only one hour after opening time. Not a problem. At least they had a security guy at the front to put the queue jumpers back at their rightful end. The long wait must have made the ride up more memorable.

The glare of the huge ski-field was painful so we looked mainly at the ground or the sky to avoid snow-blindness. We had 30 minutes of peace before the main bulk of the tourists arrived to fill the tea houses. To prevent overcrowding, there was a two hour limit to our ticket failing which we had to either pay a fine or walk back down. Sleds-men earned a living by pulling tourists up the snow slopes, setting them off, running after them and hauling the deadweight up again. Old men were bent backed dragging fat Mumbai ladies on their sleds. It is a pride-swallowing job, but there was money in it.

Most of the local tourists were dressed for the sub-zeroes, overkilled with thick coats, gloves, scarves, beanies and rubber boots. Soon they were sweating beneath all those layers.

The queue was ridiculously long when we got back down and I felt sorry for them. Many of them were just here for the day and did not have the option of an early queue. It was a long punishing wait in the sun. There was also a VIP who bypassed everyone and had four armed guards to carry his picnic baskets.

On one very pleasant walk to an isolated valley, we saw an American lady posing with two soldiers. A third was taking the photograph. She was wearing one of their helmets and brandishing one of their AK47s. It’s possible in India, not possible in Singapore. On the way back a man gave us a lift into town and offered to give us a ride back to Srinagar the next morning. We politely refused as we weren’t quite sure what we wanted to do the next morning but it is moments like these that moderate our judgements on the local folks.

At a fraction of the tourist price, we caught the local bus back to Srinagar. It took three change of buses and almost 2 hours longer but got us more in touch with the local scene. The first step up the second bus was about a metre off the ground without any side railings but the old folks were fit enough to pull themselves onboard. Men offered their seats to ladies especially to those in a burkha. A blind man and his wife got up and seats were instantaneously vacated. We were driving though a blizzard of kapok during the last hour and that made the journey really special. Nearing the end, the ride took us past slum encampments that brought back memories of Kolkata’s street dwellings. Rag-tent colonies and shack archipelagos floating on a swamp of fetid sewerage always ring the bell of reality. Go read Shantaram for a glorious insight into slum community.

At the recommendation of Edel and Willie, our German friends we met on the ride to Gulmarg, we checked into Hotel Heavenly Canal. Despite its somewhat unappealing name, the view of the houseboats from the long waterfront veranda is excellent. As Willie puts it ‘You feel like you are on a houseboat’ without spending 1500Rs. If only the management would wind down on the selling of Kashmiri shawls, carpets and boat tours when we just want to enjoy the view, the stay would be perfect. They even slapped us with a 10% service charge on our final bill even after ripping a hole in Edel’s trekking pants!

A 5.00am Shikara ride to the floating market is worth the wake. Being wholesalers, these feisty men in their vege-laden boats are not interested in tourists like us who tried in vain to buy two tomatoes. In the disorganised flotilla of a hundred or so wooden canoes, I saw only one woman. For one intense emotional hour, the skull-capped men haggle, argue, shout, exaggerate, snatch loose vegetables, snatch back lost turnips, weigh their produce, transfer their load and count their money. Before sunrise, the drama is over and the boats disperse into the marsh mazes.

Much to Karen’s delight, the treacherous mountain road to Leh was snow-blocked and impassable for an indeterminable number of days. So we had to fly, shortening 2 days of exciting perilous driving over some amazing landscape into a 35 minute plane-ride. It was our first internal flight and cost me 87 USD each. It was worth it for two reasons.

The first was a chance to see the Srinagar airport which could be well-mistaken for a military airbase. Before we could even see the main terminal, we had all our baggage X-rayed and ourselves frisked. It wasn’t a ‘go-through-the-motion’ kind of frisk. There were always enough AK47s around to fill us with bullets if there was a ‘problem’. We then got back into our taxi and drove on to the main building where we were quarantined till the armed security personnel checked our passports and tickets. Then came the second round of X-raying and frisking. Batteries were not allowed in out hand-luggage. By now the plane was scheduled to fly in half an hour. No one seemed to be worried. We were finally checked in and issued our boarding pass with which we could claim some food and coffee from a snack counter. One final series of X-raying and frisking made that number three in this stronghold of concrete and barbed wire. Karen lost her AAA mp3 player battery to the authorities here. It could find its way into a pilot’s eye I guess. We finally learnt that the flight was delayed due to poor weather conditions. I have never felt so safe before a flight.

The Leh landing gives you the feeling that you are crashing into the mountains. Through the airplane windows, white peaks were rapidly ascending. We were so close to the mountains that you could see the rock faces, talus slopes and at times the plane’s shadow clearly. When we finally got out of the plane, it was into a brown basin of desert with mountains all around us. Security levels weren’t astronomical and we were not antagonised by roguish taxi drivers. If fact no one bugged us at all. We knew that Leh would be our favourite place in India.

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