Adventures – and a CRASH — in Kashmir

kash.34“More beautiful than the heaven.” So wrote Sanskrit poet Kalidasa of the Kashmir Valley.

It is a beauty with spectacular mountain vistas (when the clouds disappear), sparkling lakes, surging streams, gorgeous gardens and dense forests.

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Srinagar, Kashmir’s summer capital, has several magnificent gardens.

Sadly political violence has scarred this wonderland for many years, keeping tourists away from what was once a popular destination. For the most part, calm has returned and travelers are trickling back.

(UPDATE:  Unfortunately violence has erupted in Kashmir this summer.  The calm we enjoyed is no more:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/21/opinion/kashmir-in-crisis.html?action=click&contentCollection=Asia%20Pacific&module=RelatedCoverage&region=EndOfArticle&pgtype=article )

I visited in April with a tour group from Germany. I am a mountain person and had longed to see the grandiose Himalayan peaks which are said to outclass the Alps. But,  weather was not on our side. While visiting Kashmir we had some rain and mainly very cloudy skies and not many glorious views of towering, snow capped peaks.

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Srinagar’s Dal Lake — and  clouds

What I missed in mountain scenery I gained in people experiences. We had a tight schedule on this 16-day visit to northern India with almost no time on our own – except in Kashmir where I was able to leave the group and explore.

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Friendly folks I met

A hike was scheduled on the slopes above the town of Pahalgam, a mountain resort and trekking base. The group was slow. Many decided to ride horses rather than walk. I left them behind and forged ahead. My solitary walk was not that solitary. Other hikers (Indian tourists) approached and started conversations: a 70-year old from Calcutta, a young woman who had just returned from four years in upstate New York where she pursued bio-tech research, a family with several children in tow. Many wanted their picture taken with me – not too many tall blondes in northern India. It was fun and delightful.

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Many Indian tourists, and many in our group, preferred to visit the mts. on horseback.  Men at left are horse owners who drive a hard bargain for a ride on one of their mounts.

So too was my solo hike from our hotel outside of the town – until the CRASH. We had a free afternoon. I set off down the main road, narrow and nasty, then crossed a foot bridge over the Lidder River. A gentleman kash.bapproached, Jeelani, an English-speaking Kashmiri with a group who were having a picnic nearby. He invited me to join his friends. I figured if I did, I would be obliged to eat. My stomach was not in great shape, so I politely declined.

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I was invited to join this picnic.
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Father and daughter at picnic.

Jeelani wanted to show me a tiny temple/mosque nearby where, he said, people had been worshiping for 400 years. (Kashmir is mainly Muslim.) We chatted. I took photos — of the mosque, the scenery, the picnickers — then continued back. After crossing the bridge, I tripped over a fat cable and came down hard on the pavement, my face smashing against the cement. Blood. Pain. Two men ahead heard the collision and came to my assistance. I was more worried about my precious camera than my face. Fortunately the camera still worked. Praise be Canon!. I am a klutz and have fallen too many times with this camera. (My husband calls me “Crash.”) Miraculously the trusty Canon survives.

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At the top of the path I crashed.

My face fared less well. The nice rescuers offered me a ride to my hotel, to a hospital. I opted to hike back. At the hotel, I asked for ice. I must have frightened the desk clerk who also suggested I go to the hospital… I could not imagine a hospital in the boondocks of Kashmir.

I was lucky. We had a doctor in our tour group. He said he did not think my nose was broken. My teeth were probably OK.   Best treatment: ice and pain medication.

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Selfie shorly after crash –much worse the next day.

It was not that painful, but I was a sight with a lip that turned purple and looked worse than those fat lips you can buy for Halloween.  Makeup helped cover up the marks on the battered and also swollen nose, but nothing could help the deformed lip. I got used to stares during the rest of the journey.

Nonetheless, it was a rewarding experience. In Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir on Dal Lake, I took off shopping on my own. I made several purchases at the Kashmir Gift Store where I had a fascinating conversation with shop owner, Nazir.

First, a bit of background. India’s northernmost state, Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), is bordered by Pakistan and China. Until the early 19th century it was a collection of distinct regions under Sikh rule. The British defeated the Sikhs in 1846, and in ensuing years the region chose to join India. An India-Pakistan conflict has simmered and boiled since 1947.

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On the road to Pahalgam

Today the region is divided amongst three countries (Pakistan, China and India) and entangled in a territorial dispute. The major conflict is between India and Pakistan, each believing that it should control the entire region. A great number of Kashmiris, however, want independence.

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Kashmir is noted for its handicrafts, especially carpets.

In 1989, following rigged elections, militant groups took up arms to free Kashmir from India. Since then, some 30,000 have died in the fighting. Violence in the region has subsided and the once thriving tourist industry is on the rebound. (See above Update — violence has returned). However, during our visit security was tight following an incident in which Indian soldiers shot four Kashmiris who protested the alleged rape of a Kashmiri girl by the solders. We were stopped at road blocks. Armed soldiers were seen along the roads and in Srinagar. There was a three-day strike when all shops and businesses were closed in protest.

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Gulmarg is India’s premier ski resort.  Not many skiers in April, but lots of mt. visitors at this Kashmiri playground.

The inhabitants of J&K belong to three religions, with Kashmir being mainly Muslim, Jammu mainly Hindu, and the Ladakhis in the east divided almost equally between Buddhists and Muslims. Although Indians will tell you they are not prejudiced against Muslims or Kashmiris, I sensed the opposite. Most of the Kashmiris I spoke to want independence.

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Dal Lake with its numerous channels is often called the Venice of the East.

“We want our freedom,” said a young man working on the houseboat/hotel where we stayed in Srinagar. “We are proud of Kashmir,” Jeelani announced. “We want our independence. We have water resources. India uses our resources for its power.”

Nazir, the shop keeper, has a different, perhaps more realistic, view. “Kashmir is surrounded by three nuclear powers. It is impossible for us to be independent,” he said. “We need the protection of India… Yet people should be given the right to decide.”

As Lonely Planet states, “the issue of Kashmir remains intractable…it needs brave souls to resolve this issue.”

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“We want Kashmir to be the Switzerland of Asia.We don’t want bloodshed,” says shop owner Nazir.

Nazir told me the Muslims in Kashmir practice Sufism. They are not fundamentalists, nor violent. “This is a beautiful place. We want Kashmir to be the Switzerland of Asia. We don’t want bloodshed. No one should be killed in my land…The military should be on the borders, not in the cities.”

Almost as rewarding as my encounters with Kashmiris were the visits and sights in this place “more beautiful than the heaven.” … Fewer clouds would have made it even better.

Scroll down for more photos.

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Touring Dal Lake in style aboard a shikara, the gondola-like craft which ply the waters.

 

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Houseboats on Dal Lake. Kashmir’s rulers forbid the British to own land in this vacation paradise, so they built houseboats which now serve as hotels.
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Boats laden with souvenirs/food come by, offering convenient shopping.
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Gardeners are kept hard at work.
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On the road to Srinagar, visit to the ruins of a Hindu temple dating from the ninth century.
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Not much business for these toboggan renters on the Gulmarg slopes.

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makereadNo time for a new recipe this time, but see column at right for a list of many tasty concoctions. New recipe coming soon.

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Intriguing India

 

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In April I joined my friend Wilma and 11 other German tourists for a 15-day tour of northern India and Kashmir. The advertising campaign touts the country as “Incredible India.” It is – as well as intriguing. Following are some aspects I found incredibly intriguing during my travels.cow.2

PEOPLE: My favorite part of India. They are the friendliest, kindest, gentlest, most open and talkative folk. Indians often approach and start a conversation. Where are you from? Do you like India? They ask to have their photo taken with you, and they eagerly pose for photos.   On a train, they share their food. In Kashmir, I was invited to join a picnic. When I had a nasty crash during one of my solitary escapades in the boondocks of Kashmir (details in future post) two young men came to my aid, offered comfort and a ride.

My seat mates on our train ride to Agra were delightful: A retired gentleman and a recently-married young woman, Shruti. We chatted non-stop.   I learned a lot about India.

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Train companions

Poverty in the country is overwhelming. There are beggars. At the tourist sites, the souvenir sales crew do pester. But, if you reply with a firm NO, they usually back off. Many have mastered salesmanship. “You look like a movie star,” a crafty fellow at the

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Khajuraho temple known for its erotic sculptures told me. My hair was a disaster. I was hot, sweaty, tired and felt like an ancient hag. He won. I bought the bronze bowl with the sexy etchings which I really did not want, but now I am glad I have this bizarre treasure which brings back fun memories.

Despite the body-to-body throngs in many places, I felt safe in India. I was careful and cautious with my purse and camera, but never felt that someone would accost me and grab my valuables.

Many of my German travel companions were on their fourth or fifth trip to India. “People” is one of the major reasons they keep returning to India, they said. “The people are so friendly. They have so little but they seem satisfied. They have lebensfreude (joie de vivre, zest for life). It fascinates me,” observed Sepp.

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Celebrants at a country wedding.

MARRIAGE: Some seventy percent of marriages in India are arranged. Shruti, 27, showed me pictures on her phone of her December wedding with 1,000 guests in attendance. She had spent a mere 10-minutes with her husband-to-be before the wedding. They asked each other questions about what kind of life they wanted, what they wanted in a mate. His answers matched her desires. She is obviously happy with her new life and man, and glowed when talking about him.   She said some of her friends had married for “love,” but she preferred to honor her parents’ wishes and let them find her a husband. For India, she married late, but “I told my father not to find me a husband until I finished school,” she explained.

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The bridal couple

As is the custom in India, she now lives with her husband and his mother. Once married, daughters live with their husband and in-laws. This is old age insurance for the parents, assuring that they will always be taken care of. However, problems between daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law are legendary and the brunt of numerous jokes.

Shruti has no problems with her mother-in-law, but, unlike most married women in India, she is not in the kitchen cooking with her mother-in-law all day. She has a career and works in a bank. According to guide Rajesh, 70 percent of Indian women are housewives who spend six hours per day in food preparation. Indian cuisine is labor intensive.

My other train companion has two daughters, both married. He had a hard time finding a husband for one of the two as she is overweight, he said. She found a husband on her own.

COWS: Yes, they are sacred. They are everywhere — and perhaps not too bright. Now I understand the German expression: blöde Kuh (stupid cow). Hindus, 80 percent of the Indian population, are vegetarians. Cows are never slaughtered. Thanks to their milk, they are viewed as maternal figures, and are raised for dairy products, as well as plowing the fields. Cow manure is used as fertilizer and fuel.cow.1

So, what happens when a cow is too old to give milk or work the fields? The beasts are turned loose and wander freely everywhere, often in the thick of roads clogged with cars, trucks, rickshaws, motorcycles, tuk-tuks . Horns blast. Drivers shout. The gentle beasts are oblivious to all. Traffic comes to a standstill. No one wants to hit a cow. There are other places to roam, but India’s cows seem to prefer to be in the midst of the melee.

They thrive on garbage, and there is plenty in India. In Varanasi where we witnessed numerous cremations on the banks of the Ganges, cows – and dogs — munched on the debris around the places where bodies had been burned.

Some lucky cows end up in cow retirement centers, Gaushalas.   India has 3,000 of these, but, according to animal husbandry statistics: 45,150,000 cows. Most meander ubiquitously throughout the cities and countryside.cows.4

Being an animal lover, I wanted to pet the poor fellows. The guide warned: Don’t touch. If hungry, they might be mean, buck with their horns, he said. I doubt the ones I saw would have had the energy. I obeyed nonetheless. I think these crazy cows add a puzzling, calming charm to India’s  chaotic ambience.

TRAFFIC: Cows do complicate the snarling masses of all sorts of vehicles as named above, plus pedestrians often in the midst. How could anyone even think of driving in this madness? The noise is more than incredible. Every driver seems to have his hand plastered on his horn. Who is honking at whom?   No way to know. Who has the right of way, other than the bovines? Survival of the fittest. Just plunge ahead and hope for the best.

Hats off to the drivers. We each had a rickshaw for our ride from the hotel to the riverbank in Varanasi. The traffic was abominable, but my skillful rickshaw driver kept his cool, pedaled his vehicle with aplomb, weaving around cars, trucks, motorcycles, etc. There were many close calls, making the ride more thrilling than the wildest of roller coasters.cows.5

We had frequent long journeys on a comfortable, roomy bus. In India, the bus driver is in a separate glassed in compartment with his assistant sitting next to him. The assistant is de rigueur. Four eyes are needed to watch ahead and to the sides for all-too-frequent obstacles. Our bus assistant also served bottled water, and, in our case, often stopped to purchase bananas for his passengers.

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Bus driver assistant purchases bananas for passengers.

We rode on rutted roads through the countryside and small villages, and on super highways as good as any in the developed world.

Alok told us there are 2,000 traffic deaths per day in India. Many drive without a driver’s license, but a license can be purchased – no test required.dogs.2

DOGS: There may be as many homeless dogs as there are cows. These canines are not pets, never were. They all are similar in appearance: medium size, short, beige/ tan fur. They wander freely everywhere, but most seem to have enough sense to stay away from auto traffic. They, too, thrive on garbage. None I saw looked malnourished, and they were not vicious. Yet I resisted the urge to pet. Unlike the docile cows, I feared one could bite. After experiencing India’s stray dogs, I came across this article, “The World is Full of Dogs without Collars”: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/19/science/the-world-is-full-of-dogswithout-collars.html?_r=0   It’s an interesting read for animal people.

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I wanted to rescue this poor baby.

What about cats? I only saw two during the entire trip. No wonder. With all those hungry dogs, they would end up as dog food.

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Alok enjoying dinner in Kashmir.

CONTRASTS: The poverty, filth, garbage, noise and pollution are all mind-boggling. On our last day, Alok wanted us to see the new state-of-the art metro in Delhi. It, too, was mind-boggling: futuristic, spotless, sleek, quiet, fast.

Intriguing. Incredible. That’s India. More to come in future posts: Amritsar and the Sikhs, Dharamshala and Tibetan refugees, Kashmir.

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Weddings merit big celebrations. We came upon one in a small town during our travels. The groom was in costume  on horseback.

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No Indian recipe this time, but how about tasty Thai – sort of in the same neighborhood? See recipe column at right for Thai-Style Asparagus Beef Curry. Add some spice to spring asparagus. Click on above photo for recipe.people.4Holy Man.  Religion is another most intriguing aspect in India.  These “holy men” often pose near tourist sites, hoping for a donation.

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