to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“Everyone suffers from post traumatic stress
disorder in Kashmir,” I was told Day One.
For a few hours the famous chowk, that has
often featured on newspaper front pages for
decades, was deserted, unfriendly, manned
by soldiers and police waving machine guns.
Then it was back to business again.
Back to the same delightful Kashmir I had
arrived in, two days before… The Kashmir
where I absentmindedly, and horrific-ly, left
a bag with a passport, an iPod, a dictaphone,
cash, a portable wi-fi device, an air ticket, in
the middle of a busy Srinagar bazaar for 25
minutes and it was still there on my return.
Kashmir is delightful. Unforgettable.
Your first ride on a shikara, on Dal Lake,
will prove that. In a world where everything,
these days, is powered by noisy, putrid
engines, there is something romantic, ethereal, about gliding dreamily — no sound except
the soft slap of oars against the water —
across a still lake, so still it seems like glass.
A journey, pre-dawn, by shikara, away
from the ghats of main Srinagar — past the
line of colorfully-named houseboats (Queen
Elizabeth, Helen of Troy, The New Texas,
Montana, Savoy, New Manhattan, White
House, Sans Souci, New Manila, Royal
Dandoo Palace; do have a peek inside some
of them — they are plush), past the photo
studio shikaras, the moored floating post
office to the sleepy settlements on other
shores of the lake, will linger in your mind
That haunting, poignant, falling-off-the-map feeling.
The Char Chinars (right) magically popping out of the middle of the lake. The
Zabarwan Hills — snow-flecked and more
majestic in other seasons — perfectly mirrored in the serene waters.
Tiny villages, many with charming old
wood-and-stone houses, cling to wisps of
misty marshland, between lotus ponds and
canals. Traditional wooden boats are the only
way to get around. Women paddle to the
market. Goat herders ferry grass. The kebab
boat, smoke curling from it, comes calling.
Hawkers float by peddling chappals, flowers,
kurta sets etc.
Many villages have a clutch of craft workshops producing an astonishing variety of
delicate shawls, carpets, pherans (kurtas),
papier-mache and walnut wood curios.
Cute/crazy names abound — Persian
Dowery, Hotel Bi-Zone, Butt’s Clinic,
Mango-Bango). A little papier-mache factory,
located along one of the canals, was a paradise of papier mache artistry, worth millions
of rupees and thousands of man hours.
On the flight from Mumbai, a Kashmiri
coming home, for the holidays, from Muscat,
said to me. “In Kashmir everyone has a
house. Everybody has to live in a house.”
That did not prepare me for the size and
beauty of the houses.
Most Kashmiris — by the way their language is very sweet and has a strongly central
Asian sound to it — continue to have plenty
of landed wealth. Their homes are sometimes three-storey high, wooden and stone,
with elegantly carved trimmings.
Public building, gardens and mosques also
have a lovely historic grandeur.
You are not going to see too much of those
ugly, standard-issue cement-block structures.
And the landscape is uncluttered by unsightly signs and commercialism.
Inshallah, it stay that way.
Cool, alpine Gulmarg, 32 miles from
Srinagar, in eastern Baramulla district, in the
Pir Panjal range, and very close to the Line of
Control between India and Pakistan, is a
town best visited out of the tourist season.
Even off-season, the pony-wallahs lasso
you within an inch of your life, hoping
valiantly to capture your business. Given that
there are apparently some 7,000 of them, it
is a tough dodge. Cars are not allowed
beyond a point and it is obligatory to jump
onto a pony (but Rs 50, that is less than a
dollar, goes a long way in solving that).
The main idea for visiting misty/snowy
Gulmarg (or the Meadow of Flowers) with its
huddle of green-roofed hotels and cottages, if
you are not a skier, is to take a cable car ride
(Rs 1,000 or $16 per head across 3 miles) to
the Afarwat peak, at nearly 14,000 feet,
where not much lives or grows, except some
fluorescent lichens and the army.
It is the second highest cable car in the
world and was built with French collaboration. Two army camps perch on top of the
peak; the closest is Sarsu where 10 soldiers
live. On foot, up and down the peaks, the
LoC is two hours away, from the top — so
standing on the peak of Mt Afarwat you are
looking across at Pakistan… And at two of
the world’s eight-thousanders.
The 26,660-foot-high aloof Nanga Parbat
is the ninth highest mountain in the world
and one of two mountains (the other is K2)
that has never been conquered in the winter.
So starkly ridged, it is mostly naked of snow;
hence its name.
On a rare day apparently the fierce-looking
K2, the second highest mountain (28,251 ft)
in the world, is also visible. Both are located
in Gilgit-Baltistan area that Pakistan consid-ers its territory.
The K2 incidentally got its strange name
for a reason. It was named K2 according to
the international mountain-naming convention. Though a local name gets priority, the
only Balti name found for K2 was Chogori or
Big Mountain, which mountaineers/explor-ers suspected was just a vague answer by a
local to a question about the mountain’s
name, according to an article in Pakistan’s
Express Tribune. K2 stuck.
The ride up to the first stop, Kongdoori
Station, in the noiseless bright yellow gondolas, whose windows could certainly be cleaner, takes you past tented camps of the
nomadic pony-wallahs along the lower
slopes. In the higher, sparsely-treed slopes,
you are passing endless herds of sheep (not
the pashmina variety) and their Bakarwal
minders (dog and man). The police and soldiers seem to use the gondolas too to come
up and down the mountain as well.
A tiny, hard-to-discover British cemetery,
with a few forlorn, grassed-over graves, a golf
club (the highest green in the world, that has
been around since 1911) and a church are the
only evidence that Gulmarg, was a much-favored destination during colonial times,
after the Mughals (emperor Jehangir was
said to have visited).
Once a little paradise for homesick
Britishers, all varieties of adventurers, royalty, explorers, lords/ladies arrived in this salubrious town for holiday sojourns.
Just a little off the Silk Route, and close to
the Himalayan kingdoms of Hunza, Nagar,
Gilgit, Kashmir did not escape the intrigue
surrounding the Great Game that was
unfolding in Central Asia.
Adventurer and key player in the Great
Game, Sir Francis Younghusband, eventually
came to live in Kashmir — he was the British
representative and wrote a book called
Kashmir in 1909 with evocative illustrations
of the era.
Lord Curzon visited as viceroy, with his
The town’s most well-known hotel, the picturesque Nedou’s (since 1888), facing the
cemetery, was started up by a Dubrovnik
man named Michael Nedou, who was in
India to construct palaces for maharajas.
In the windswept, lonely graveyard, one of
the most legible tombstones belongs to an
Alfred William Stratton. I wondered who he
was and how he died here at just 38.
Left, Chhatti Padshahi Gurdwara in Srinagar — where
the sixth Sikh guru is said to have stopped when
he came as part of Mughal emperor Jehangir’s
Right, a church,more than 100 years old, nestled in
rolling meadows in Gulmarg.