By David Rich
In 1867 a Kashmiri Brit had a brilliant idea: carve Kashmir’s most exotic woods into floating Moorish palaces, outfit them with the latest appliances from London including the new-fangled telephone, and rich tourists would flock to Dal Lake in Srinagar to enjoy “some of the world’s most beautiful scenery.”
Tourists flocked, and still do, making Srinagar and Dal Lake India’s honeymoon capitol, an exotically gorgeous setting in the furthest north of India where newlyweds repair to their own 60-meter (200-foot) long houseboat on perfectly reflecting Dal Lake and begin their marriage in grand Moorish style, like vacationing in a floating Alhambra.
I’d met Manzoor, a twenty-something Kashmiri merchant, in Pokhara, Nepal, and he’d graciously invited me to visit him in Srinagar during his June/July vacation, assuring me the media description of Kashmir as a “war zone” and “vale of tears” was only hype.
As Safe As New York
Like all locals, the Kashmiris were fed up and disgusted with what they unanimously considered media sensationalism.
Notwithstanding the bombings and terror that began in 1989 and sporadically continued with an average of six people killed daily in this Province of eight million (about the same number of daily murders as in any city of similar population, such as New York City, where vacationers never hesitate to come), Indian vacationers blanket Dal Lake while foreign tourists stay away in unison. I said I’d think about it.
My interest and curiosity were freshly piqued by a grand dame I met in Namche Bazar during a two-week trek to Everest Base Camp. I overheard her telling a companion about Srinagar and Dal Lake, about an idyllic month she’d spent there thirty years previous, of sumptuous accommodations and table-laden feasts, the beautiful lake and surrounding mountains, and I said, “Hey, that’s where I’m headed,” instantly making the decision.
She was aghast. “What do you mean? It’s too dangerous. You can’t go there now.”
“Sure you can,” I said. “I have a Kashmiri friend who’s invited me to visit and says it’s quite safe, that Indian tourists fill every houseboat and hotel room not taken by the Indian Army.”
Her eyes misted over, summoning obviously fond memories.
I spent two weeks in Srinagar, between treks, on Dal Lake as a resident of HB (houseboat) Mughal House. HB Mughal House was one of three owned by Haji Mohammad Ashraf Badyari (phone 0194-2453495), a genial proprietor who daily assured me as he bowed with folded hands, “This is your home.” And what a home it was!
My front veranda was framed with a half-dozen classic Moorish arches, fancily carved, looking onto the colorful traffic of Dal Lake.
Shikaras, four-meter pointy-double-ender-boats about the size of Venice gondolas, though infinitely more colorful, whisked passengers and goods every which way.
From my veranda vantage point I could buy anything or preferably do nothing at all but watch the infinite variety of boat traffic flawlessly reflected on the Lake’s mirrored surface. It reminded me nostalgically of Inle Lake in Myanmar, another idyllic locale of uncommon beauty and perfectly reflecting waters.
Ignoring the television set offering cable choices from HBO to BBC and CNN and the depressingly modern telephone, the living room was as sumptuous as a Moorish mansion. As all deluxe Dal-Lake-houseboats, this one was carved from brilliantly interlaid woods.
The ceiling sprouted five crystal chandeliers and four tulip lights, end mirrors doubling the apparent size of the huge entrance-living room. The floors were decked with rich oriental rugs bordered by plush couches covered in royal blue velvet next to which sat the occasional Moorish table.
Next came a large dining room dominated by a huge banquet table and chairs. The dining room was linked by a long hallway to my luxurious bedroom which accommodated a separate windowed nook for floor-to-ceiling wardrobe and sumptuous bath.
I was truly at home, all rooms ringed by floor-to-ceiling sliding windows for infinite views of the Lake. Total cost without meals, $15.50 a day, but only because I was Manzoor’s friend. Normally the Lake’s 750 deluxe houseboats charge a minimum of $22 a day per person without meals, double that with meals.
Touring by Shikara
Manzoor took me on a tour of Dal and adjacent lakes by shikara with full-length cushions perfect for lounging under a rigid canopy to protect against the sun and with pullable side curtains to protect honeymooners from prying eyes.
The typical shikara is usually bright yellow or sparkling white, painted with vividly colored stars, diamonds and flowers complemented by a rainbow of cushions, providing a lazy lithesome idyll among incomparable views of fancy houseboats.
Drowse, lounge and slouch as hundreds of other shikaras glide by with commuters or stacked with goods for sale from veggies to vases and precious stones to shawls and saffron, the world’s most valuable spice grown a mere ten miles south.
Three orange-red anthers of pure saffron grow in each purple bloom, requiring 4500 flowers to make an ounce (28 grams), the market cornered by royalty for the precious dye which was chosen by monks for their robes after the Buddha’s death. You can stock up for a pittance compared to the price back home and this saffron is fresh.
Cowboys and Indians
The next day Manzoor took me to play cowboys and Indians, to the resort town of Pahalgam 95 kilometers (59 miles) southeast of Srinagar. On arrival our jeep was chased by a dozen local cowboys hawking their horses for hire, abruptly screeching to a halt upon realization that we were a bunch of local Kashmiris (except me), not their intended marks, Indian tourists from the southern lowlands.
Pahalgam is an emerald city set on the banks of a multi-course crystalline river that has carved multiple islands perfect for Indian and Kashmiri families to picnic below the surrounding glacier-clad peaks. Every summer weekend Pahalgam is crammed with families enjoying temperatures lovingly cooler than those available elsewhere in Kashmir and India.
The resulting madhouse encouraged Manzoor and friends to escape on successive days to the high alpine meadows below the snow-clad peaks. There we shared tea and chapattis with nomadic shepherd families in their smoky tents where peace reigned compared to the chaos in lower Pahalgam.
Two weeks later this chaos increased to pandemonium as over a million Hindu tourists began their annual six week pilgrimage to Amarnath, a sacred ice-filled cave in the mountains high above Pahalgam taking six days for the round-trip trek, making logistics a nightmare we were happy to miss.
After rest and recuperation on Dal Lake we visited the other Kashmiri vacation mecca at Gulmarg 50 kilometers (31 miles) southwest of Srinagar, location of, reputedly, the world’s highest golf course, a jewel of a green that occupies a small fraction of Gulmarg’s high mountain meadow.
The golf course sits next to a gondola whose cars were fully occupied by the usual Indian tourists during our two days there. We avoided the crowds by climbing the closest mountain for stunning views.
Hawks of All Kinds
From our glaciated perch over Gulmarg we found ourselves on one of a dozen high white peaks, those to the west separating India from Pakistan. These were guarded closely by an Indian Army contingent to which we paid a surprise visit, posing for photos to their obvious delight at the instantaneousness of digital technology. The Indian Army struck me as very tame hawks.
Back on Dal Lake for a nostalgic last day before absconding to Pakistan I chatted with Haji and Manzoor, musing idly on the multiplicity of Kashmir’s hawks, from the soldiers on the streets and in the occasional shikara to the dozens circling in the sky above, chased by aggressive ravens.
Hawkers flashed wares calculated to pick our pockets in this Vale of Kashmir, a far-cry from the media’s oft-described vale of tears. Kashmir will remain forever in my heart as it has the last thirty years for the grand dame I met in Namche Bazar.
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