I woke up to blue skies and white snow cascading down an endless range of mountains. I couldn’t figure out where one snow cap began, and another ended. They overlapped one another so symmetrically that it looked like a neatly painted work of art. I already knew my travels in Srinagar, India were going to be unforgettable.
DAY 1: Houseboats and Shikharas
When we landed into the three degree cold temperature, Srinagar seemed like a city that had profound beauty hidden under every layer of snow. I was going to be staying in a houseboat on Dal Lake. But when I stepped out of the tempo, I was certain that the row of wooden structures that lined the blue water were not merely houseboats. Each one so different from the other. Their intricate detailing, the way the stairs wound up, their ancient British names, the colourful paint that adorned each nook and corner of this magnificent creation, made me feel like I wasn’t doing justice by calling it a houseboat.
I stepped into the “houseboat” slowly, almost expecting it to bounce. It didn’t budge an inch. I was staring at the huge chandelier that hung from the ceiling, as I walked through the hall into the tiny dining room. Further on, I discovered 4 huge rooms with spacious bathrooms, a changing room with a tall mirror and most importantly a heater. I was in love!
The plan for today was to lay back and experience a shikhara (small colourful boat) ride across the Dal Lake. As we serenaded across the blue water, I sipped on kahwah, which is the traditional tea made in Srinagar. Here, shopping has a twist to it. The consumer doesn’t go from shop to shop, but people selling ancient artefacts, jewellery, tea and photographic designs approach the tourist filled shikhara’s to earn their daily wage.
A knock on the door of your houseboat meant only one thing. Men trying to sell shawls and souvenirs. When we made a stop at one of the floating veg. fast food joints for hot tea and pakodas, I lay at the pointed edge of the shikhara, staring upwards at the clear sky. Eagles soaring above me, made me wonder whether my view was better or theirs.
Day 2: Exploring the City
After enjoying a hot breakfast of aloo parathas and milk tea, made by our helper Farooq Bhai, we headed towards the city. Buses in Srinagar were colourful, filled with beautiful designs and had ornaments hanging from its side. We caught a bus to Mughal Gardens.
An adorable young girl, with rosy cheeks and skin as white as snow, lent me her seat. She was travelling back home with her father. I rubbed my hands together to feel some warmth in this cold weather when the girl’s father laughed at the sight of my shivering hands and told me that I would get used to it.
The bus dropped us off near the other end of the lake and we walked uphill towards the two view points: Chasmeshahi and Pari Mahal. Chashmeshahi is a beautiful garden influenced by Irani art and architecture. The view from there was stunning. Pari Mahal is a seven terraced garden built by Dara Shikoh, the son of Shah Jahan in the 16th century. It gives you a breathtaking view of the entire city.
For lunch, we feasted on Kashmiri wazwan. It is a traditional meal made up of three dishes: Seekh kebab, Rista and Rogan josh. The owner of the restaurant chatted with us till our food arrived. He said, Kashmir is a place where if you leave your wallet behind, it will find its way to you. Because that’s how kind people here are.
This is Kashmir. The hearts of its people are as fair as the snow that falls here. Their intentions are as kind as their smiles, and there’s no back story.
It’s plain, simple and out front. It is a city filled with hope, wonder, kindness and beauty, and all this is reflected in every one of its residents.
Day 3: Going up Gulmarg
The drive to Gulmarg was beautiful. Round and round we went. Snow clad mountains and tall, green trees were our hosts for the next hour. The sun shone brightly today, and more than once I felt like I was in a movie. The Kishore kumar tunes that played in the car, the winding road which on every turn seemed to produce more snow than before.
On arrival, we were given woollen jackets and gumboots for the journey uphill. As we started walking, many shed drivers approached us, but I said no to each one of them. Climbing this mountain was like walking the moon to me; I had to make sure that every stop forward was all me.
I want my footprint to be left in the white blanket that stretched for miles and miles. I walked up the slope, then down the slope, I walked through narrow slippery paths, and through ice that made my feet drop 6 feet down. We went up on the gondola rides to Phase 1 of Gulmarg. Our guide, Aslam Bhai, told us that beyond phase 2 lay Pakistan. We were so close, and I felt not an ounce of terror. And why should I? I’ve been in Srinagar for 3 days, and I have met compassionate, kind-hearted people. I’ve watched innocence of the children that run in the safe streets of this city.
When we returned to Dal Lake, the sun was bidding adieu. I saw the orange hue that adorned the sky, and I wanted life to be this beautiful forever. When we sat in the shikhara, I saw the crimson sky bouncing in the water. I wasn’t floating on blue water anymore, but on a blanket of lava. I was freezing by now, and when I climbed into the houseboat, I was happy to see Farooq Bhai turning the heater on.
Day 4: Learning life lessons in Pahalgam
On our last day in Srinagar, we decided to cover the 88km to Pahalgam. On the drive to Pehelgaum, I saw shutters of shops spray painted with ‘India, go back.’ And I realised that this beautiful city has such a tainted past, and its people have suffered so much. There is a tug of war between India and Pakistan, and at its centre is Kashmir. Not ours, not theirs. We may think that the people here are backward – but I see courage in the girls that walk the streets after 8 pm, I see ambition in the young boys as they walk to school, I see wisdom in the old shikhara drivers who tell us that the media is destroying them.
We reached Pehelgaum and my ride for the day was Sultan. When I asked our guide, Riyaaz Bhai, why the horse was named Sultan he simply said “because he leads the way.” And damn right.
On our trip down, my dad fell off his horse and I shrieked in fear. ‘Darna nahi hain’ (We must not fear) spoke Riyaaz bhai, ‘Darr kea age jeet hain’ (Conquering fear leads you to victory). And that was what I told myself as Sultan and I made the journey downhill.
Words cannot describe how caring and thoughtful the people here are. I think the best part of my trip was the fact that I had 5 days of no internet and pure bliss to myself. It was refreshing and peaceful to tune out reality and enjoy the wonders and unexpected peace of Srinagar, Jammu-Kashmir.