Kashmir's Paradise, Redefined
by Elizabeth Willoughby
After two weeks in pollution-choked New Delhi, I’m still determined to discover some of the beauty India has to offer. There is a reason so many say they love India, and I'm going to find out why.

020- Decaying houses in Kashmir

A friend of mine says he's on his way to Kashmir in August.

"Kashmir," I say, "isn't that a little dangerous?"

"No," he says, "I just can't go into old Srinagar. I was in Kashmir last year and it was fine."

It brings to mind my own visit over a decade ago, and I fall heavily into a daydream (cue the sitar). No, scratch the sitar – cue cold wind and other sounds of desolation. I was in India over Christmas break to attend the wedding of a friend. But after two weeks in smoggy, traffic-choked, filthy, crowded New Delhi, and after commiserating with every cow in the golden triangle, I was eager to get away.

It brings to mind my own visit over a decade ago, and I fall heavily into a daydream (cue the sitar).

No, scratch the sitar — cue cold wind and other sounds of desolation. I was in India over Christmas break '96 to attend the wedding of a friend. But after two weeks in smoggy, traffic-choked, filthy, crowded New Delhi, and after commiserating with every cow in the golden triangle, I was eager to get away.

"One doesn't stay in Delhi," says the travel agent. "One lands here and then goes somewhere else."

I buy a ticket to Kashmir, where there is a lull in the conflicts, a houseboat on Dal Lake and "Paradise on Earth." There is a reason so many say they love India, and I'm going to find out why.

Flying over the Himalayas, the plane's right wing dips and the vista is a vast brown mountain range with a thin beige trail winding through it. A wee bus down below follows the curves, heading away from my destination. I decide that this is how I'll make my return journey to Delhi — on a quaint bus ride through the mountains.

070- Bus ride in the Himalayas

Landing at the Srinagar airport, things are not exactly as the brochures describe. Maybe I should have made more out of the tourists pictured in 1970s garb. Outside the plane, guards that look like teenagers have rifles slung over their shoulders and eye me seriously — I am the only white female coming off the plane. I hope that the someone I'm supposed to meet is really here.

Inside the shack-terminal, there she is, holding up a sign with my name on it. I'm even more glad to see her because I see no English signs, and the paperwork that follows looks complicated in a make-work, bureaucratic sort of way. I stand alone on the empty side of the room and watch other passengers spread out amongst the wooden tables that are lining the opposite wall, everyone talking at once. I scan the crowd looking for my girl who has joined them, and who is carrying my passport, but have trouble remembering what she looks like. Gradually, the noise level diminishes as people complete the registration and leave the terminal, but I still don't recognize her — until she crosses the room and hands me back my passport. Then she scoots me outside into a waiting taxi — off to the houseboat I suppose. Unfortunately, she doesn't speak English either.

Paradise Lost

The December air is very cold. The last day of the year. Kashmir. I pull out the pamphlets that I took from the tourist office: "Just an hour's flight from Delhi dwells serenity in a paradise called Kashmir, a place which is sure to leave you spellbound, for each and every view seems hand painted by the Gods themselves."

I remind myself that this is wintertime; the fields are hibernating and luscious flora cannot spellbind year round. The houses we pass seem lifeless. Maybe they are. They have roofs but no walls on the upper floors, and a patchwork of wooden and corrugated steel panels with gaping holes. No smoke is coming from any chimney. All appears still.

I arrive at a houseboat and board. The first room I enter is a grand lounge. The walls are elegant wooden paneling, every inch of which is embellished with deep relief work, as is the ceiling, furniture and every piece of trim. The floors are covered with thick Kashmiri carpets and heavy drapes cloak the windows. Somehow, though the air is still cold, a warmth envelops me. My room is similarly decorated, and includes a wood stove, a full bathroom and a bed with heavy blankets. I'm ready for a tour of Dal Lake and Srinagar by shikara — a shallow, flat-bottomed boat used for transport of people and produce.

010- Lotus Root Fishing on Dal Lake

Moments after setting out we run up alongside another shikara — a floating store, filled mostly with western junk food. The lake is calm and misty — serenity with a touch of sad and lonely. I imagine it in springtime when these waterways will be lotus-filled and teaming with shikaras loaded with flowers, fruits and vegetables heading to market, according to one of my brochures. But right now, the lake is empty save the floating store, the occasional farmer pulling lotus flower roots, my houseboat's guide and me.

We glide along Jhelum River, under bridges that the military patrol and bridges in such disrepair that only nimble pedestrians attempt to cross. We pass crumbling houses about to collapse with a last, exhausted breath into the water, dilapidated old houses whose only evidence of life are chickens in the yard pecking at the frozen dirt and snow, and decaying houses that must have been magnificent at a time in the not-too-distant past.

We pass stores with entrances for waterway traffic and a carrousel at the water's edge where stairs lead into the river — it's the first semblance of normal daily existence that I've seen: children playing in a playground. My guide has his duties; onward we coast to a Kashmiri rug store where every rug is unrolled at my feet even through protest — "Please, don't trouble yourself, I will not be buying." I do not allow guilt to get the better of me, but mostly because I can't afford to buy a rug. Then on to papier macheé and souvenir stores where I do not resist so well.

Back at the houseboat, I'm introduced to the owner, Hamid. He lives with his family on the boat next door. While his wife serves us tea, Hamid explains a bit about Srinagar of today. It's in a four-way tug-of-war between India, Pakistan, China and Kashmiris seeking independence. India's attempt to crush the Freedom Movement has had dire effects on Kashmiris and on tourism. Kashmir really was a paradise at one time. Hamid's wife does not speak to me.

After a hearty mutton and turnip dinner in the common lounge, I find the wood stove burning in my chilly room. I can stay toasty warm if I stand next to it. Toasty warm is not what I am expecting between the bed's white cotton sheets, so I linger at the stove. Eventually though, vertical becomes dreary so I rush across the room and dive under the bedcovers only to find hot water bottles warming things up for me. Under the hill of duvets, I am bound to spend the night in comfort.

030- Carousel in old Shrinegar

Old Srinagar

No "lyrical calls of nightingales" wake me at dawn, nor do I see any "kingfishers dart about as the first rays of the sun set aglow the pink-white and blue-tinged lotus flower", but that's probably because I am still sleeping and it's winter. I decide that today I should address a condition that has recently developed: everyone is warm but me. Kashmiris wear woolen ponchos under which they carry ceramic pots filled with hot embers. The embers give off heat and the capes keep the heat in. I need this.

First comes breakfast — scrambled eggs with herbs, breads, jams and tea. Then, I stroll through old Srinagar's maze of narrow lanes. I buy a pot wrapped in wicker for my woodstove embers, and I order a custom-made, baggy poncho which will be ready in a few hours. A little girl is staring up at me, smiling. She has no shoes. The streets are lined with shops stuffed with merchandise: copperware, baskets, vegetables, desserts and breads, vermillion, orange and yellow, sacks of herbs and spices. The redolence of cardamon and saffron hangs in the air, then cloves and cinnamon, and I pause to breathe deeply. I wander more, past clusters of weathered old men nibbling on small, round tsot and tsachuoru breads topped with poppy and sesame seeds, sipping salt tea and smoking long, silver huqqa pipes etched in elaborate detail. Wafts of smoke drift up and dance around the voices of bartering shop keepers. It feels ancient here.

At evening tea, Hamid talks me into a trip tomorrow morning into the Himalayas by horseback to a point where K2 (the highest mountain in the area) can be seen, then staying in a gypsy house overnight. I like the idea of both horseback in the mountains and staying with a local family. I like the idea until the next morning when five minutes after the taxi leaves the houseboat, I have to go. Three hours later, past frozen fields checkered with little plots outlined by rocks, past barren terrain and low lying fog, I still have to go. We stop at a check point where my driver has difficulty convincing the authorities to let us continue on the journey. The guard and his rifle walk the driver to a small cabin and close the door. I wait, wonder and clench my teeth. Then we're allowed to proceed, I don't know why.

We arrive at the outskirts of a small village. Fourteen boys, aged five to fifteen, run out to meet the taxi. One brings his horse. The boys surround the car, talking, yelling, laughing, excited. They walk the taxi into the village until we park. The village appears to be a half dozen two-story houses lining the dirt road and other squat buildings built into the hills with roofs only slightly higher than ground level. The driver says something to the oldest boy and gestures for me to follow him.

The boy walks down the road through the centre of town. I follow him. Thirteen boys and a horse follow me. I turn to look back at them. They smile. Soon we turn right and walk along a stone wall, past a stone house, stepping over rocks. Our leader pushes a cow out of the way and there stands an outhouse. It is rickety, holey, missing planks and juts out over a cliff. I open the door and look back at the audience, wishing they would go away, then step in and let the door close behind me as the leading boy walks away to give me some privacy. He is older. Older boys understand such things. I look through one of the missing planks at the fourteen boys, the horse and the cow, and decide not to smile back and wave. The hole in the floor looks down the cliff wall; the blemishes surrounding the hole indicate that there is room for improvement in the field of target practice.

My entourage walks me back up the street to the house where my driver is having green tea prepared and I'm left alone to drink my tea while he negotiates a horse for the journey. Bored, I go outside. Several men quickly gather and start yelling, each vying for the business, I presume. The boys join in. I don't like it, so I go for a walk to let the driver sort things out. When I return, they are still arguing; no one is willing to give up. It's getting too late to leave, so my driver takes me back to the houseboat.

040- Tea house in the Himalayas

The Return

The next day, after a visit to the historic sites, royal gardens, mosques and temple ruins, Hamid and I discuss my return travel arrangements. At 6 a.m. I will take a twelve-hour bus ride through the Himalayas, arriving in "What town?" "Don't worry, the bus driver will tell you," where I will catch a second class sleeper train that will take me overnight into New Delhi.

Dark and early, I am on the bus with my woolen poncho and hot ember pot — a wise purchase. The bus is full and the luggage is fastened to the roof.

Twice during the trip the bus is stopped by the military — all men must exit the bus and some are searched, while the women remain in their seats and are not spoken to. The rest of the time the bus races along the mountain road faster than is comfortable. Until this point, traffic in India drove on the left side. Our driver isn't concerned about this. Sometimes he plays chicken with oncoming trucks, which becomes even more interesting when passing through the long, dark tunnels.

Since I have a window seat, I have quite a good view of the mountain range, of the road winding through the mountains and tunnels, the cliffs and valleys and little settlements we pass by. I have a perfect view of the rock barriers along the edge of the road protecting us and guiding our driver. I have the best view of the sharp curves that other busses hadn't quite made in the past, knocking out the rock barriers and bounding over the cliff edges. Sometimes I can see their carcasses down below.

Twice during the trip, the bus stops to let people out for a break. At the first break I am afraid to leave the bus in case I get left behind, and am afraid to buy anything from the shacks selling snacks and refreshments. At the second break, I get out of the bus just to stretch my legs. The sun has almost set. I ask the bus driver how much further. He doesn't speak English. I empty my oven of its now cold embers.

It is almost midnight when the bus makes its final stop. We are at the town that I don't know the name of. As the bus roof is unloaded, I ask the bus driver where the train station is. He still doesn't speak English. When the bus drives away empty, it takes the only light with it. I stand in the darkness for a few moments, wondering which way to go. A rickshaw nearly runs me over, which is my chance to ask the driver where the train station is. He sees my baggage, guesses what I want and points towards a distant set of stairs. From the top of the stairs I see the lighted train station below, and with a bit of luck I find my train.

090- Train ride back to Delhi

I grab a top bunk with a window, throw my luggage onto it and try to lie down, but at five-foot-two, I am longer than the bunk. Apparently, due to one law of physics or another, no arrangement of baggage will make me any shorter or the bunk any longer.

I watch the families pour in, select their bunks, try to get beds beside each other, arrange who shares a bunk with whom and where to put their baggage. While people are still getting organized, the train pulls out. After two hours, I hope that the ceiling fans will start operating. I wonder if the lights will stay on all night and if anyone will ever go to sleep. I am grateful when the babies stop crying and the children settle in, and eventually I find sleep.

An hour later, I awake to near silence — the only sounds are of breathing and of the train rhythmically running along the track. The sun is rising and I quietly watch the scenery go by. Once the human population gets denser, I know I'll soon be back in Delhi.

I do not like New Delhi and look forward to my return home. I didn't find paradise and did not fall in love with India. But Kashmir has stayed with me all these years and I can see why my friend keeps returning there. I might one day too, once Srinagar is accessible again, once the armies and terrorists move out, once some wealth can filter back in and the Kashmiris' long hibernation can finally end.

Images ©Elizabeth Willoughby 1996

This article was published at Global Writes 2012

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