Srinagar; All change please

(James) The cool night was something of a shock to us (we’ve become far too used to 30+ nights), but was obviously conducive to good sleep as we woke late on our first morning in Srinagar. Sitting down by the nursery having our breakfast we were able to enjoy the fresh, clean air (something of a novelty in India) while we decided what sights we wanted to see during our time here. But before our sightseeing, we had to locate an internet café as we were due to get a report from Donato and Stefano on the state of the Leh-Manali road further north in the Ladakh Valley. The news, however, was not good. Once again, the particularly heavy monsoon, which had travelled much further north this year than usual and which had caused so much of the devastation we had already witnessed on the KKH, had also had a similar effect up in Ladakh. The guys had made it (albeit a fortnight ahead of us) and reported horrendous roads, much of which had been washed away, and which had resulted in extensive damage to both bikes. We also read that the first snows of the winter had now fallen and this would only add to the problems we would face. Our plan had been to ride north to Leh and attempt to cross the Khardung-La pass which, at 5600m, is the highest road in the world. The road’s altitude meant that this, of course, would be the first road to become inaccessible, and with the already poor roads and Em’s leaking fork seal (which I’d noticed upon our arrival), the prospect of making it up to Leh only to have either a mechanical problem or winter set in was not an enticing one, least of all as we’d probably be stuck there until the roads reopened sometime in late July! With this in mind we knew that it might be a tad foolhardy to attempt it and so sadly decided that we should head south again and follow the retreating monsoon towards Rajasthan and the Great Thar desert. I won’t deny that I was particularly disappointed as I’d really wanted to ‘do’ Khardung-La but I knew we were making the right decision, and let’s face it, we’ve already had more than our fair share of mountain challenges!

With the decision made, we were free to enjoy our time in Srinagar. However, any hopes we had of seeing the town and visiting museums, gardens, restaurants and shops (for Em you understand!) were dashed as everything, without exception, was closed, even the schools and other government buildings. The reason, it turns out, was an enforced curfew and strikes that had been going on for almost five months as part of the age old campaign to make Kashmir an independent state. As a result there had been increasing conflict between the Kashmiris and the much hated Indian army which had seen over three hundred people killed in the last few months. What now existed was essentially an occupation by Indian troops who here, just as all along the road from Amritsar, stood on every corner in full riot gear, armed to the teeth and invariably next to some sort of armoured vehicle. It’s hard to get a sense of exactly how many soldiers are in Kashmir at the moment but to give an idea, the news that morning spoke of 200,000 soldiers (presumably just a fraction of the total presence in the region) being moved to a particular town in the area in anticipation of escalating unrest as a result of a legal decision over a land dispute between Muslims and Hindus. (Em: The decision was being made at 3pm on our first day in Srinagar and I was literally waiting for it to all kick off that afternoon… Luckily, we read in the news the next day that, for the moment at least, all remained peaceful.)

With our options severely restricted, we chose to spend our time in Srinagar relaxing and so were limited to walks along the ‘Boulevard’ besides the serene and beautiful Dal lake, but even here it felt like we were walking in a ghost town; the only people out for business (other than the military) being those who worked on the lake either selling vegetables or those offering rides on shikaras (small gondola like lake boats) at rates miles below those advertised – clearly the complete disappearance of all tourists in the region had all but destroyed tourist dependant Srinigar. We had two hopes (‘no’ and ‘bob’) of finding somewhere open to eat in the evenings so as night began to fall we, like the locals, headed ‘home’ and ate what our host family ate.

Before turning in we’d made arrangements with their neighbour to take us out in his shikara in the morning to see the vegetable market out on the lake. Unfortunately the vegetable market started at a very dark 5am and would be all finished by 6:30! Still, true to our word we were in the garden at 5am at the ready and, in the pitch black, stepped (rather gingerly it has to be said) into the waiting shikara where, despite the lack of any light, we made our way, tucked in under warm blankets, silently down the maze of identical looking narrow channels arriving at the market to find it already in full swing. The market is where producers sell to market traders and takes place in a clearing on Dal lake, a significant part of which consists of ‘floating’ islands and homes with vegetable plots on, carved up by narrow channels and linked by raised wooden walkways and small bridges. Both sellers and buyers arrive and deftly manoeuvre the long boats around each other to do business. These boats, like the shikaras, are flat bottomed and have flat pointed ends that rise out of the water. The design allows a single occupant to squat or stand at either end of the boat to row (which they do with a single oar with a heart shaped paddle) something we were convinced would lead to capsize, but which simply lowers the end to near water level. The flat bottomed design means that the boat’s progress through the water is unaffected, although with the other end rising high out of the water the traders had to have eyes in the back of their heads as groups of boats twisted together whilst doing business and there was no shortage and collisions and near misses. We, as the lone tourists, were left alone as even the most deluded trader realised we probably weren’t in the market for lotus roots, although we were tempted by the ridiculously cheap and fresh kashmiri saffron (finest in the world) which showed the dried out stuff sold in the west for what it is, but sadly it’s just not something we were going to carry with us for the rest of the journey. With the market finishing we too made our way, indirectly, back home to our guesthouse for a snooze.

With Dal Lake being the key (and only available) attraction, late afternoon found us back out on the water where we got to see everything at its finest, basked in the warm glow of the autumn sun and surrounded on all sides by mountains. It also gave us the chance to get a better look at some of Srinigar’s infamous houseboats, made famous when the Beatles and other such types came here as part of the hippy trail in the 60’s to smoke dope, follow a guru and find ‘enlightenment’ (cynical? moi?) There are some 2000 houseboats on the lake, ranging from downright grotty to absolutely palatial with incredibly ornate and intricate wooded carvings both on the front and throughout the inside. We had thought about staying on one for a couple of nights ourselves, certainly given the lack of tourists we could have negotiated a massive reduction, but in the end had decided against it as our place was nice, our host family was clearly in need of the income and of course, it’s difficult to secure two bikes on a houseboat or anywhere else during a military curfew! That evening we packed and loaded what we could on to the bikes to give us a better chance of getting away early, our hope being that the hellish road back south to Jammu (our intended night stop) might be a little quieter and thus reducing our chances of death, and with little else to do went to bed accompanied by the cacophony that can only occur when thousands of devout, yet tone deaf men work themselves into a frenzy at the dozen Sufi mosques that surrounded us and which I imagine is exactly what it would sound like if the dead were to rise again – needless to say in our now rested state it wasn’t conducive to sleep…

6 Responses to “Srinagar; All change please”

  1. Mama/Kate says:

    Not often that I beat everyone else to the comments page!
    As always, your narrative style is impressive but more so is your ability to create an adventure out of a pretty-much no-no situation.
    Frustrating not to experience the highest pass in the world but I appreciate your restraint, Bob. I know that our darling Em is your priority and I thank you for that.
    PS Willow managed to tub up a bit while we were in Devon but she’s back on the ‘diet’ and is becoming pretty good at the cat-flap – albeit constantly propped open!

  2. julian says:

    Brilliant pictures James. And thank you for resisiting the ambition of the travel to that high pass.

  3. Mary says:

    What a shame about the ‘armed presence’ and curfews. Stunning photos, the photographer is to be commended, especially those taken in the early morning light……………..I must try and get up a bit earlier here and see if there is a similar effect!
    Take care on the road back, sounds like you need 360 degree vision with the drivers there. France was a doddle in comparison M&M, all you had to do was pay up!!!
    Love Mary

  4. Jackson says:

    man up with your warm blanket ;-) – I was out on that lake in February, it was frozen in places!! Although we did get given little baskets with hot coals in. The locals hang them under their bog woolen cloaks at that time of year.

  5. Vincent says:

    I see you are still travelling… keep on going!
    Regards from Belgium.

  6. Esteban says:

    Not just to find enlightment, dope helps a lot to keep up with India! What a… BIG “hit” of a country.

    We are currently struggling (I mean, REALLY struggling) for the Embassy to allow us to come back (just to leave as soon as possible towards Nepal!).

    Take care!

    Esteban and Isabel (Spain)

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