Friday, September 9, 2011


Kashmir and Dalhousie

It’s off to Kashmir.  As I refuse to ride on the Leh to Srinagar road, which is a two day trip and somewhat hazardous, I am flying to Delhi.  Upon my arrival, three hours later, I board a plane to Srinagar, the summer capital of Kashmir.  This area is referred to as the Switzerland of India.  It’s a place I have always wanted to go but because of the unrest, I have avoided. I admit, as I’ve gotten older, I have become a ‘chicken livered’ traveler.  Self-preservation has become a high priority.

 The Leh –Srinagar road is just great for the young and even travelers my age if they have lots of stamina and a great immune system.  But even though I am very healthy those are my two weakness health areas.  If I could afford private transportation that would allow me to stop whenever I wished, I would be inclined to travel many of the mountain roads I unfortunately miss.  But for one person it is pricey, and on a bus or in a four-wheel drive, in which the suspension is gone to shreds, these trips can be highly uncomfortable, and personally, I need a week to recover.  That’s why – and I’ll put my ad in here now – if you are young and have the travel gene, go!  If I had come to India when I was 25.  I’m sure my life would have been entirely different (not that I’m complaining).  Even if your urge is not India  - wherever it is, go!  Travel is never a mistake. 

But I digress.  It has been my experience that the Leh and Srinagar airports are the most heavily secured in the whole of India.  As these areas of the northwest of India are bordered by China, which is constantly trying to encroach on Ladakh’s borders, and Pakistan with continuous big and small eruptions either by the incursions of Pakistani Islamic terrorists groups crossing the border, or small independent movements within Kashmir, one can be in the wrong place at the wrong time and the Indian government because of this, takes strong steps to ensure the safety of all travelers, visitors and locals.

Upon leaving Leh, there are three luggage checks, one x-ray machine check upon entering the airport.  Then another x-ray of your bags is done by the individual airlines on which you are traveling.  A traveler may have only a purse and or a computer and camera as carry ons. Every other piece of carry on type luggage is placed in cargo with the rest of the bags.   When my standard carry on backpack was to be shunted off to baggage, I said,  
     “But it has no locks.”
      “We have locks,’ they stated and they did.  So with every zipper locked up with plastic locks, my backpack went off to cargo.  But before any luggage was placed in the hold, there is a third check.  Each owner is charged with pointing out his or her individual luggage at a loading point.  An official then marks the tags and then it is loaded on the flight. One’s personal effects as well as body checks are done three times and at three different locations, the last just prior to boarding the plane. This process is exactly the same when leaving Srinagar, Kashmir. There are lots of military and they are vigilant. The government at these airports is taking no chances.

Viewing Srinagar from the air, it appears to be a pastoral ‘Leggoland’ paradise of small precise hamlets surrounded by trees, gardens, green valleys and hills; a countryside encapsulated by verdant piedmonts and pine covered mountains.   The airport is about ten miles from Kashmir’s s summer capital, Srinagar, which wraps around Dal Lake.  The main road runs along the lakefront and for about a mile and a half it is riddled with shops, hotels, and a military base on the landside. While on the other is a long sidewalk along the lakefront.  On the opposite shore of the lake is an enormously long ghetto of elongated stationary houseboats with their stern porches pointing out toward the street shore.  Small boats hug the sidewalk shoreline ready to take passengers from the tourist-trap shoreline back to the boat on which they are staying, or for a cruise around the lake.  Travelers can rent an individual room on a houseboat or a whole boat. 

India’s drivers live by the horn.  I was recently in a taxi in Delhi in which the driver ran a red light by just using his horn.  In Srinagar car horns are king creating an unbelievable din. Between that and the noise of the hawkers who line the waterfront, the idea of staying on a houseboat was abhorrent to me.  One traveler told me that being on the houseboat immersed them in the local life; a boat stuck in the mud without the rhythm of the water, and constant horns and shouts? No thank you.  I chose the quiet of the Swiss Cottage Inn on the back street, recommended by a well-known travel website as well as a tourist guidebook’s best budget pick. Although I was given a mildewy room with hot water and TV for 800 rupees, it wasn’t too bad.  If I wanted a nicer room in the main building the price increased to 1500, although a lovely Indian lady was given one of the nicer rooms for 1250. One brother had told her he would discount the room to 1250 and the other later quoted her 850; she was charged the 1250 – 44rp to the dollar - rate when she left.  I watched as the owners sized up the guests as they arrived, and then decided the price. (This is standard procedure in many of the guesthouse through out India).  Swiss Cottage Inn certainly didn’t seem a great value, but I didn’t price other guesthouses in the area, although there were many.  I also felt an under current by the older brother, that I, as a western woman traveling alone, who because I talked to the men as well as women guests, must be of ill repute. The younger brother was the much more kind and friendly of the two.  Keeping in mind this is a strict Moslem community, I ignored the insinuation.  But if I had stayed longer, I might have considered a more desirable environment in which to stay. But I was only there four nights because of my foot foible (see Oops, I did it again: Ladakh, and Hospitals), so I didn’t move.

(Note: In McLeod Ganj I met a lovely Italian Lady who had the same feeling about the male Kashmiri hospitality toward single western women travelers.  She visited a lovely lake resort north of Srinagar – one I had hoped to visit – and she told me that in the evening, she was not allowed to go out unless the manger went with her.  She too was treated unkindly, with the same behavior extended to her by the Kashmiri men that I had I received at Swiss Cottage Inn, but on a much more unpleasant scale. After three nights she left, vowing never to return to Kashmir.  A dear friend had much the same attitude bestowed upon her during her one visit to Kashmir a number of years ago. All three of us adhere to the local dress codes; modest clothing and headscarves if necessary, and we are all over 55 years of age.  The only way any of us care to return to Kashmir is with a male companion, so we can be treated with dignity, which is certainly a sad commentary on this lovely travel venue.

May I add, that all Kahmiri men do not behave in this way.  Some are very decent fellows.   If that were not the case, I might still be standing in a drain hole in Leh.  I am highly indebted to those two Kishmiri gentlemen who pulled me out.

While in Sringar, two tourist ventures I indulged in were a city tour by auto rickshaw and a cruise around Dal Lake with four other companions.  Once we cruised off the main part of the lake, where the houseboats are lined up cheek to jowl and the shore noise wraps around your head like a torpedo blast.  As we cruised along, we passed a bevy of houseboats anchored together in a center of the lake.  It was after that, that we began cruising through beautiful little arteries of this body of water lined with a watery shopping mall of interesting shops full of clothes, antiques, artifacts and rugs.  Boatmen docked at whichever store appealed to their passengers and waited while they browsed among the various lovely items and junquey for sale in these different venues.  Whereas Srinagar’s main waterfront street full of horns and hostelries along the lake has a rather trashy feel, the shop-lined waterways are the real and charming tourist shopping areas for the city.

 Further along these magical avenues of water, there are private homes, some simple shacks and others upscale to almost elegant. The five of us cruised along in the dusky cool.  As the evening came upon us, our boatman was guided by the sparkle of lights of the private houses and small local businesses along the shore.  Occasionally a boat full of fresh produce passed on the way to the main market.  The farmer traveled to the market with his goods in the late evening, and docked his boat into its little produce market slot, where he slept in his boat until 5 am, when the fruit and vegetable market opened and he could sell his produce to the early morning shoppers.  There were also fishermen, who with the help of family members were preparing their nets for a night of fishing in the lake.  The entire boat ride was a mystical event that changed my whole attitude about the area.  Off the ‘main drag’, as with so many tourist venues, there is a vibrant community just waiting to be explored.

The city tour was quite different.  It mainly included numerous gardens and mosques and barely touched on the old city. The Chaska Shahi Gardens were certainly pretty with fountains, and both tourists and locals were enjoying them. But I found the Pair Mahal Gardens much more interesting.  High on a hillside on multiple levels with high walls between each, the garden became a lookout for marvelous views of Dal Lake.  Unfortunately on each level there was a small army barricade with soldiers snuggled down in bunkers holding 156s, the automatic weapon of choice among the Indian military in both the metro and country areas, at the ready.  Some sections of these gardens were quite nicely cared for, yet they were scruffy in others.  Having experienced gardens like Tivoli outside of Rome, which is perfectly maintained and full of magic fountains, some mysteriously spouting at odd times, these partially maintained so called Mogul Gardens with their phlegmatic fountains were something of a disappointment. The Botanical Garden, although small, was somewhat more interesting in that it has a great variety of trees; an Oak, Plane trees, Willows, Maples, four or five different kinds of Pines and Bottle Brush trees, as well as bushes of Oleanders, which created for me, a short but very agreeable walk.  

In the noontime heat, after four so called Mogul gardens and the Botanical garden, I said,  ‘enough,’ and we were off to see mosques, most of which I found not only interesting but also quite beautiful.   The Hazratbal Shrine or The White Mosque, which is incredibly photogenic at a distance, is featured on postcards and pictures at every vender’s stall.  Even though it is a constructed in beautiful white marble, upon arrival I found it was the least interesting of the four mosques I visited.

 Hazratbal Shrine has a lakefront location and visitors relaxed on the grassy area along the water.  The main prayer room entrance, for men only, had a see through metal grid, which I peered through at a distance, but was not allowed to enter.  On the waterside of the building was the women’s prayer area.  To get to it, women had to of course take off their shoes, and then walk across hot tiles.  These tiles were scorching hot and my feet burned with every step.  I actually did not go the distance to the women’s enclosure, but hurriedly returned to my shoes.  The Moslem women who attend that mosque must have much tougher feet than I, or maybe they just don’t go to the mosque.

 But my only thought at the time was, ‘why must Moslem women have to suffer this way?’ Upon visiting Sikh, Buddhist and Sufi Moslem Temples, I had noted that everyone’s, men and women’s, comforts were considered in the design of their religious environments.  Why couldn’t the Moslems take women’s comfort in consideration too?  I recalled at Beijing, China’s Mosque, the women’s prayer area was a walled ‘pen’ with no roof.  What kind of discomfort must those women experience in the winter months or during inclement weather.  

At the White Temple, when I had finally put on my shoes, I leaned toward the smaller of the men’s covered and enclosed prayer rooms – I was about twenty feet away from the door – when what I would consider a radical Islamic man came rushing over and began shouting.  So I moved over toward the larger prayer room, the one enclosed by the grill and again maintained a respectful distance away from the actual entry.  The obnocuiously rude man again hurriedly moved toward me. 
      “Don’t look in there,” he said.  “That is not for you. All of us can pray anywhere.  Under a tree.  Women can pray under a tree.  Women do not need that or any building.” You can be assured I hot tailed it out of there.  After all, I was only a visitor, behaving in respectful good taste, taking an interest in this man’s culture and religion.  Fortunately, at the other mosques I visited, I was made to feel far more welcomed. 
 Jamia Masjid, built in the 15th century is located in the heart of the old city.  Its towering presence is built around a lovely courtyard with a pool in the middle.  370 magnificent wooden pillars enhance the interior prayer rooms.  These interiors were divided into four sections one on each side. The women were afforded one large section designated to them, almost exactly the same as the men’s three other prayer areas.  Here, at Jamia Masjid, young Moslem men who genuinely wanted me to see their mosque and also learn where I was from greeted me.  They seemed pleased I chose to visit Kashmir, and also their particular house of worship. 

The Khangah Mosque is the oldest in Srinagar and an architecture delight, built of all wood around the 13th century.  Situated between two bridges along a long river that flows from Afghanistan down through Kashmir, its rich dark stained edifice with peaked roofs of different levels and curly queued wooden banisters leading to different prayer sections for the women evoked in me scenes of Norwegian landscapes, ice princesses and ancient fairy tales.  Although I could not enter the men’s section of this lovely little mosque, I did circumnavigate the exterior and on the backside and on the opposite side from the women’s prayer area, I found some magnificent ceramic tile pictures, which only added to its charm. 

Then it was off to the Pir Dostgir, the Sufi Mosque. Sufi Moslems are exceedingly friendly.  The exterior of welcoming green and white tiles makes one want to see what’s inside, which upon entering I found was full of life.  The main focus of the mosque was a glassed mausoleum where the body of the original Sufi leader’s son was laid to rest.  Two large prayer rooms, one for men and the other for women sided this glass encased shrine.  Sufi women sat on rugs surrounded by their children.  Men sat in their section, but some sat on the edge so they could indulge in whispered conversations with the women in their designated section.  Both milk tea and little cakes were there for every one to enjoy.  A Sufi woman brought me a small cake and a Sufi man and woman briefly chatted with me about their religion.  Sufis impressed me as a happy clan who took delight in their God, religion and each other.  (Read Nine Lives by William Darwymple – one chapter discusses how more radical Moslems in Pakistan are trying to wipe out the Sufi sect of the Moslem religion).

Down the street from the Sufi Mosque is a Christian church where Jesus Christ is reputedly buried.  A few years ago it had so many visitors, the Srinagar government closed it down.  Although it has been reopened, I did not go in.  I am not sure why.

My last excursion was to Sri Pratop Singh Kashmir’s main Museum. To get in, I had to pass along a barred wire dirt path past a military barricade with more soldiers holding those guns again, while another group staying at my guesthouse told me that when they to visited the museum on the same day, and they had to wait twenty minutes during prayer time before they could enter.

 A new museum building had been built and was sitting shiny and fresh in the distance but has not yet opened. The museum I entered was old and badly organized.  Much of the artifacts were either poorly labeled or not labeled at all. As usual, there was a room full off old guns, left over from the British and their Sepoy legions labeled ‘guns,’ and military implements.  The cloth and material section from the British Colonial Era was the most enjoyable, and I wondered where the artists were who could be making a fortune copying and selling these wonderful patterns?

Although Ladakh has many army bases and one even has to pass through some to get to different monasteries in the Ladakhi area, Kashmir was the most militarily guarded place I have ever been.  There are small barricades in the metro in Delhi (with soldiers carrying guns) and one must go through a metal detector ever time you enter, and have your bags go through a machine, but in Srinagar there were soldiers everywhere even strategically placed along the back street where my hotel was located every evening until about 11 p.m.  The place was fortified, except at the mosques and on the lovely back waterways, military was everywhere. 

After an over night train ride to Pathencot, I got on a bus to Dalhousie, a hill station that I had heard a great deal about.  Had to go!  Unlike the bus drivers in Nepal, this bus driver not lonely drove sanely, but also did not unindate his passengers with insanely loud Bollywood music. Unfortunately it was the rainy season.  I mean almost constant rain! I had booked a guesthouse which was recommended as number 3 on a highly respected website and found it had paint peeling off the walls, and it was so poorly insulated that the bedding was wet to the touch.  Also n the morning on the inside pane of the window, I wrote my name in the condensation.  Dalhousie is a lovely place for long walks and magnificent views, but not much else seemed to be happening there.  Although I did check the price of better quality guesthouses/hotels, these ranged from 70 or 100 dollars a night (I was within my budge at 600 rupees), in the monsoon season.  What must their prices be during their regular tourist season if they were too pricey for my blood during the monsoons?  So I decided to leave.  After one night, the next morning, I took an incredibly expensive four hour ride in a private car back down the beautiful mountain to Mcleod Ganj, known as the rainiest location in India, to the Pema Thang guesthouse (my favorite), which I knew was at least well sealed from the rain, at a rate I could afford with a view that would indulge my soul. 

Note:  Coming up – Dharmarsala/Mcleod, home of the Dali Lama
                                 Elora and Ajinta Caves, outside of Aurangabad, India
                                A Buddhist Ladakhi Wedding


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