Thursday, January 12, 2012

India - Kashmir

even fabrics are sold on a shikara

From the dry Tibetan Plateau we moved to the Muslim green mountains of Kashmir. Srinagar is situated on a huge lake – the Dahl Lake and a smaller Nadine Lake on 1730 m altitude surrounded by lush mountains. Half of the city is literally in the lakes with floating houses, hotels and shops. It looked like India's Venice, but with far fewer tourists and a lot cheaper and picturesque. Instead of gondolas local boats are called shikaras and they float around the lake, selling all sorts of things or offering a romantic boat-ride. Inland there are old wooden mosques and the famous Mughal gardens dating back from the Mughal era.

One of the gardens of Srinagar

Gena and Marek in another garden in Srinagar with the Dahl Lake is in the back
Srinagar girls

This is heaven on earth – that’s what we heard over and over again from the locals. But it was hard to feel in paradise with all the negativity that flows here. The hustling started on the bus with people offering us house-boat before we even arrived and became unbearable as soon as we reached the bus station. We were surrounded and chased by people offering their boats with such an aggression that their eyes were sparkling with ferocity. No matter how tempting their offers  were, we decided that we do not want to stay with these people. We were warned that locals here often promise one thing and then do another, we heard many stories from travelers cheated with hundreds of euros, some even held hostage in a boat until they pay. Although Eli and I covered our hair like local women do, men didn’t stop staring at us with bloodshot eyes like hungry wolves ready to attack. They constantly came to Gena  and Marek and asked them whether we are married and looked at us as though we are for sale. Apparently there prohibitions here lead to even stronger desires.

in one of the mosques

Srinagar fashion

The tension in Kashmir is not from yesterday. This region is torn by conflicts for years, thousands of people have died here and the problems still continue. There are almost no foreigners, and perhaps this explains the struggle for every tourist. People don’t miss an opportunity to speak against their neighbor and all together never stop swearing against the Indians. People here don’t consider themselves Indians and are fighting for an independent Kashmir state. Most Hindu Indians are forced to leave this place of conflict. On every corner there are armed soldiers with machine guns. The problem seems very deep and unsolvable. Indians want Kashmir to be an Indian, Pakistanis think it is Pakistani and Kashmiri don’t want to be neither in India nor in Pakistan and no one would ever give up this "paradise".

After a few hours of searching we found a good man, who promised for 1,50 euro per person the whole house-boat and a free shikara. We had a lovely veranda overlooking the lake, living-room with TV and private bathroom and toilet, which was poured directly under the boat. The lake is obviously not good for swimming, but we could at least go around with the shikara. We walked to the numerous gardens, scattered in different parts of the city, we needed some transportat to go around so we hitch-hiked in the city. Although we were four people with Eli and Marek, we got a ride immediately in the first car with two Srinagari boys. We all tuck in the back seat. They seemed very friendly and for the first time here we were talking normally with someone who does not want to sell us anything or to marry us. They left us in one of the gardens and then we hitched for another 5 km up to another garden on the hill. Again two local guys, again super friendly, they began to offer us to go together to Gulmarg, the mountains around with their car. They said that they didn’t have many friends here and were searching for travel buddies. On the way back once again we were picked up by the first two boys and they drove us down to our house-boat and promised to come the next day and show us around Srinagar. The next day, because of some protests the public transport was not working and this was a perfect proposal for us. They came with two motor-bikes and we had to ride three on a bike. We already did this in Africa, but here it was much more extreme experience. They drove like crazy, taking sharp turns аnd I was even screaming at the beginning of fear and pleasure. They showed us many different mosques, in one of which they say that Jesus was buried. There is a theory that Jesus spent much of his life in India, particularly in Kashmir and his body was kept in the mosque Rozabal, but of course visitors were not allowed to see it. Otherwise, you can go inside the mosques without problems, something which in most Muslim countries is forbidden for non-Muslims. We went up to one of the few Hindu temples perched on a hill above the lake. It was so strongly protected by the military that no cameras or bags were allowed. I could not even take a picture of the view from the top, but at least we had puja and enjoyed the beautiful sunrise.

the son of our family in Srinagar

the old town from above

Part of the Dal Lake
the "streets" of the Dal Lake
it’s full of urban eagles around lakes
in front of our house-boat, this green meadow is actually water


After several days on the boat we headed to Aru, a village in the mountains nearby. The clean and green landscape reminded us of Switzerland. Beautiful and happy horses roamed around the meadows. People are again Muslims, baking delicious bread and smoking shisha constantly. Everything is far more relaxed and the problems of the political conflicts seemed far away. The second day they offered us horses so hard that we could not resist the cheap price, and because Evgeni didn’t have shoes it would be difficult to trek on the muddy slopes with his broken sandals. We took the horses to 3€ per person per day and we went up to the "Green Top" riding. The man with the horses was so nice, we stopped for tea in some local houses on the way and he promised that his wife will cook dinner for us so we gladly accepted. His whole family was waiting for us, and the oldest daughter showed us Kashmiri dance. We even tried to learn some new moves. The youngest daughter is charming and has a beautiful name – Beautiful. In short they call her Beauty. They had two more sons. They were all so friendly with us that the next day we took horses again and we had dinner in their house again.

In front of the shop in Aru. Here is common for the men to dye their hair or beard in orange (with kettle) both for Muslim and Hindu people
Around Aru

Children from the dugouts in the mountains

the guy with the horses smoking his hookah constantly
Gena and Marek

The older daughter dancing beautifully

Santa Claus?

Eli and Marek had to leave. We said goodbye to them realizing that they were our longest co-travellers until now. We had unforgettable days in the Himalayas with them and we will definitely miss them.
After a few quiet days in Aru, we started hitch-hiking to the south - to Dharamsala. We had to be there in three days for a ten-day meditation retreat - Vipassana.
The hitch-hiking in Kashmir was difficult and paid. Finally for a small amount of money a Kashmiri mini-bus took us to Udaipur from where we could hitch-hike the train. The general class in the trains was free and faster than hitch-hiking. The last wagon was only for women and was not very full. I sat there with the backpacks and Gena went into the general ward, where he had to fight all the Indian Army for some space. In the women ward it was more civilized. Despite of the misery and jam in the trains all the women were dressed in their finest saris, clean and tidy. I even felt uncomfortable in my most dirty and torn clothes. However they all greeted me enthusiastically and two young girls made me sit between them and began to ask me questions. They spoke good English and it was real pleasure to chat with them. They told me how their father is very generous and open-minded person and gave them the opportunity to study in college before they got married. However, only their parents can choose their spouse from a suitable family and of the same religion. They were Sikhs. Arranged weddings are common practice for all religions in India and usually the bride must pay a specified amount of money for the groom. For Muslims, however, it is exactly the opposite - the groom's family must pay for the bride. At first glance, it sounds terrible that you should marry someone who you don’t even know, but actually arranged marriages prove to be quite successful and happy. They say marriages for love often break down. The girls also told me that they liked "European" clothes, but their mother allows them to wear only traditional clothes. I assured them that their clothes are much more beautiful than my torn T-shirt and trousers. Soon they got off the train and no one else spoke English. The other women remained staring at me, grinning and speaking Hindi. The journey of Evgeni was far less enjoyable. He just was squashed in the wagon full of military who didn’t want to allow anyone else to enter. However, we arrived safely in MacLeod Ganj, in the mountains again.