Trip Start Aug 12, 2009
11Trip End Jan 30, 2010
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We convinced our friends Gautham and his mother, Mataji, from New Delhi, to join us in Kashmir for 4 days. Kashmir has had a ban on foreign visitors for many years, due to the stormy custody battle between divorced parents, India and Pakistan. Though the area is now relatively peaceful, we were cognisent of the militant surroundings, evidenced by extra security checks arising at the New Delhi and Srinigar airports, hotel and road checks, and soldiers in camouflage in bushes along our routes to Gulmarg and Pahalgam. Yet this is relaxed policy, in contrast to what it was, and residual shootings tend to occur only at night, and in the old town of Srinigar.
As beautiful as Kashmir is to the first-time visitor, it is fascinating to witness it through the eyes of an 80 year old woman, who has not seen it in 50 years. Though Kashmir's development has been stunted due to the forced lack of tourism, there were new roads where Mataji had hiked through fields, hotels being constructed where the family would pitch tents. The old tongas are still used for transport around towns, just as Mataji remembered them from her last visit.
Srinigar is a picturesque city, outlined by mountains, flanked by three lakes. Dal Lake is nicknamed the Jewel of Srinigar, and it is breathtaking, with its famous landmark island of Char Chinar, or four Chinar- trees of historical and religious significance in Kashmir. The lake and encompassing wetland are surrounded by a scenic boulevard, where we stopped to snap pictures of Mughal Dynasty gardens, kingfishers, street markets, and the Hazratbal Mosque. The dome shaped shrine is reputed to house a hair of the prophet, Muhammed.
Two of the beautiful gardens we visited were of 17th Century vintage: Nishat Bagh and Chashma Shahi, with abundant brightly colored flowers, terraces and cascading water. Both gardens are built into steep hillsides, and have great views of Dal Lake and the mountains. From one of the many hawkers outside the entrance, we procured lotus seeds, a tasty new experience. We were hoping to see some lotus flowers in bloom, but the lakes only boasted the remnant stalks and leaves, from a season just expired.
Mataji's "shawl walla", Javaid, had invited us for a traditional Kashmiri dinner. As it so happened, we were visiting during the month of Ramadan, when Muslims observe a daytime fast. The women in Javaid's extended family had spent hours cooking over 14 delicious dishes without tasting a single one. The four of us were seated on the floor, as is the custom, while dish upon dish was carried by the men and placed in front of us. The food was fit for a king. I found it a bit uncomfortable to eat without having our hosts join us, but this was the expectation. I wondered if the family would partake of the meal after we left.
Early the next morning, we set out to visit Pahalgam, a small town a couple of hours north of Srinagar. On the way, we stopped for tea and Pahalgam Valley views. The rugged Lidder River flows through the valley, as do the mountainous Kashmiris, with their horses and goats. The drive to the summit rewarded us with breathtaking scenery. The town is slowly waking up from its decades-long slumber, as more hotels grow up, jockeying for prized locations.
On the return trip, we stopped at a stall, as Mataji was interested buying saffron. Saffron fields are plentiful in Kashmir. It is the most expensive spice, requiring over 225,000 hand-picked stigmas to harvest a pound. I discovered a childhood memory at the stall- Thums Up cola. My sisters and I used to beg our parents to walk to town to buy us each a bottle, and when we got back, we'd start begging all over again to go back for another one. Once a distinctive flavour, now it tasted pretty much like Coke, having been bought out by Coca Cola in the 1990's.
Gulmarg is a beautiful snow-capped town a few hours outside of Srinigar. We took a gondola 14,000 feet up into the Himalayas. Though it was early September, it was freezing and started to hail. The views were spectacular.
We will definitely be returning to go a little deeper into Kashmir- having barely scratched the surface. It is one of the most beautiful places we have seen.