The exodus to the north began. Our plan to flee to the mountains is taking shape after our trip through Calcutta and Delhi. Our first stop will be in Kashmir. This region has 2 capitals, one for winter (Jammu) and another for summer (Srinagar). The objective is clear, to enter the Himalayas and enjoy, even for a while, its low temperatures.
We had 2 options to go by plane or by land (train to Jammu and then start going on mountain roads, if they were open). As a consequence of our way of traveling, trying to cover as many places as possible, we chose the second option, taking charge of how unviable it could be. Some of the discomforts of traveling by land at some point seduces us. We did not doubt it much and we took a train ticket to Jammu, our first stop in this exodus to the north.
Day 1 - Train to Jammu
The train to Jammu left early in the morning, at about 5 hours. We wanted to give the train a second chance since the first one had not been very pleasant. We left from a station much smaller than Delhi. The chaos was not so much. It did not sound so bad, but (There is always a but in all the stories). We arrived and the train was not announced. I was late. I ended up arriving at the station two hours later.
It took us a while to find the corresponding platform, and once we did, we discovered that we did not have assigned seats. We looked at each other, and chose random seats, assuming they would get us out of there at any time. Without knowing it, we ended up choosing not just a few seats of a train. We do not know well what we chose, but those seats resignified, in a certain way, our encounter.
Finally, we escaped the heat of Rajasthan, and I say "finally" although I liked Rajasthan very much. After several days enduring as much as 42-degree temperature, the body asked for respite. Amritsar is already behind, and the heat pushes us to the mountains.
A young boy sat before us. He smiles at us but the first part of the journey is treated with a cordial and distant dialogue. Within two hours of starting, and after having made numerous stops, the train stops. They announce that it will be there for at least one hour, under the midday sun. The young man tells us to get off and take a taxi. We did not know where we are. So again we dedicate ourselves to wait.
We wait. At the time the train starts. At the next station a marriage group board the train. They look at us and tell us something in Punjabi. I smile at them as a sign of having no idea what he is saying. The lady insists and points to the free seats. We tried to start a dialogue. The young man who had gone down earlier arrives at the minute.
From that moment the young man became the translator. Above all, she was very interested in us. She asked questions, which came to us translated. We answered and the answer was translated again. Despite the difficulty of the communication the lady did not stop looking at us and smiling.
We do not know very well how in those seats that did not correspond to us, a kind of everyday life was formed to which we were not accustomed. They asked us things, but they also told us other things. The young boy showed us pictures of his family and his work. They asked that we show them our photos. It's time to introduce ourselves. Our names were as difficult as we were for theirs, except for the lady.
The lady who looked at us and smiled at us, and with whom, in a certain way, we understood ourselves beyond the language. She told us that we were nice, and hugged us. She asked us if we were married. We laughed, we did not know what to say. Of course, we are not married but here the marriage has another value. The conversation continued.
After a while, before arriving at the destination she takes out her wallet. She also tells us that she will dedicate her morning prayers for our safety.
We arrived in Jammu. We said goodbye with a hug knowing that we would never see each other again, but at least we would not forget them so easily. We want to continue in the direction of Srinagar, but the sun is already leaning on the horizon. On a car, we make it out of Jammu and are just before sunset on the highway to Udhampur, on the way to Srinagar.
In Udhampur we find accommodation with some difficulty. All hotels and guesthouses are fully booked. Only in a dark, run-down part of Udhampur, we find a hotel room.
The next morning we are again at the roadside and it does not take long. Our driver makes sure that there is not a minute of silence inside the car. It's only 230 kilometers from Udhampur to Srinagar, but we'll need a whopping 15 hours to complete the route. After just a few minutes of driving together, we are stuck in the first traffic jam. We do not move two inches from the spot for two hours.
We fall into a trance just like our driver's never-ending monologues. But at some point, all that is over. We leave the mountains and drive into Kashmir. Srinagar and the sprawling Dal Lake are in front of us.
Day 2 - Arrival in Srinagar
We arrived in Srinagar tired and are eager to start seeing a little more in the places we visited. So many kilometers and so many means of transport in a few days exhaust enough. The first thing that catches our attention is the prevailing security. Although it does not bother me as nothing seems to suggest that the situation is currently unstable.
We get off the bus and start walking looking for a group that brings us closer to the city. We get on with some in the car without knowing where we are going. The first thing that caught our attention was the lake. The landscape that appeared before us did not correspond to what we were seeing and knowing about India. Dal lake is accompanied by mountains and snowy peaks.
We stopped at Dal Lake and climbed to a shikara, a typical boat like the Venetian gondola, which is used for transport, both of goods and people. A boat that circulates around the lake takes us from the mainland to the houseboats. In the period between the 1960s and 70s, the houseboats of Srinagar experienced a moment of great fame when George Harrison (one of the Beatles) met Ravi Shankar to play the sitar.
We arrive at one that is quite good and the bargaining begins. Finally, after the uncertainty and haggling, we book for 3 nights with lunch, dinner, and excursions. It was the last days of Ramadan and the mosque next door would compulsively sound the prayers at a disproportionate volume for one hour each night, from 3 to 4 in the morning. The houseboat has several rooms. There is a large double room at one end.
There are other spacious rooms along with a corridor and a dining room and a living room at the other end. It goes to the terrace of the boat that overlooks the lake. Here I had a cup of tea in the Kashmiri style (terribly addictive) with almonds and cardamom and some bread.
From Srinagar, there is a kind of boulevard with shops on one side and a lakeside walk on the other side from where the shikaras are taken to go to the houseboats. From our houseboat, we take a ride in the shikara. During the boat ride, we see its old canals, the houses of the people. An imposing fortress, the Hari Parbat, completely dominates the city from the top of a nearby hill.
Srinagar lends itself to be walked, and we did it, knowing in passing the attractions of the place. The cold felt good, for the first time we had used a diver, and also a jacket! Srinagar is a city full of mosques like Jama Masjid with posters in Urdu. We walk through the old city to the green mosque, which is under construction because it was burned down two years ago.
Among all the mosques, Hazratbal stands out not for its charm but for its importance, as there is a relic of the hair of the beard of the prophet Muhammad. My visit was merely anecdotal: the classic "I was here and I took my picture", to continue with what I really like. It is to get lost in the city and converse with its inhabitants who, by the way, are of a hospitality that disarms.
We no longer saw temples or Sikhs walking down the street. The women and the different types of veils do not stop calling our attention. There are some who are all covered in the burka, where we cannot see their eyes. There are others whose eyes can be seen. There are still others who just cover their mouth and some more daring just cover their hair. Another new culture presented itself to us.
We approach the tomb of Jesus Christ. Yes, the tomb of Christ or his "alternative" grave, to be totally accurate. I had read several times about this legend of Rozabal. Not only did I find it locked with a padlock every time I went, but they also did not let me take any photographs of the building. At least I can say that the windows are open. They are large enough to see perfectly inside, where the coffin is located and where the body of Christ supposedly rests.
From there we go to Nageen Lake, which is spectacular. Water lilies are hunted by the winter. Their flowers completely bloomed are withering. The stems and the lotus leaves, stylized as in an Art Nouveau decoration, emerge from the mist, with tendrils laden with pink flowers like the sunset. Another thin shikara with canopy appears in the distance, then disappears and reappears like a ghost.
It passes beside us silently, occupied by a figure lying wearily on a sofa. This watery paradise evokes the Victorian romanticism. The haze thins out, revealing a sumptuous backdrop of mountains. There is the Pir Panjal. The guide takes us to a demonstration of making carpets even though I asked him not to do it. The gentleman tells me that if I do not want carpets, maybe I want pashmina shawl, sweaters or handkerchiefs.
Watching the lake from the houseboat, at night, is a marvel. Through the wide open windows, we can admire Dal Lake, and the full moon over the mountains that frame the wonderful view of the water, beyond which lies the region of Ladakh. The only noise that is heard comes from the splashing of the shikaras that cross the river. Srinagar was also the first place where we could sleep well, without so much heat.
Day 3 - Srinagar - Pahalgam
Although it was not the chaos of Delhi and for the first time we woke up listening to birds and not horns, it is still the capital of a region. A question that pushed us to continue with our exodus to the north that has a purpose to enter the imposing Himalayas.
The man with whom I had made the trip the day before was waiting for me at the door at five o'clock. At that time the sun was barely beginning to peek out from behind the mountains. There was no sound but that of the birds. It seemed that in the city no one is alive more than those animals, me and the Kashmiri who accompanied me.
Also, it was cold. Luckily the boatman was ready for everything and soon he offered me a thick blanket in which I wrapped like a silkworm. While to myself I thought it was better that the floating market was not one of those tourist shows where souvenirs are displayed. I confess to being a person of slow and difficult awakenings.
As the sikhara began to travel the empty channels, my attitude changed completely. It was due to the silence, the solitude, the magic of that scenario. That was a luxury, and I soon admitted that I did not care where they took me. If I did not like it, I would not repeat it but the mere fact of having enjoyed the sunrise in Srinagar in that way had been worth the lost hours of sleep.
Finally, we arrived at the famous floating market. At the junction between two channels, six or seven men, no more, chatted as they drank tea and smoked in their wooden boats. The total absence of women led me to think that we had arrived too early, which was partly true.
As the minutes passed, more and more men arrived, each on board their own sikhara. They talk loudly, negotiate and exchange fruits for vegetables, vegetables for fruits, or sacks of mysterious content. But there was no woman among them, except some tourist accompanied by her husband who, like me, watched the scene from his sikhara.
I do not know how long we stayed there, but I estimate that it was not less than an hour and a half. It was fascinating and embarrassing at the same time. Embarrassing because, in order not to lose anything, my boatman did not hesitate to break through the vendors. He stood in the very center of the swarm, and the feeling of being a tourist did not leave me. Despite this, the experience was authentic and genuine. I was so happy that I found myself unable to erase the stupid smile on my face until we left.
We returned following those same merchants who, with their duty, returned home to breakfast with their families. The channels, once empty, began to be populated by boats with women on the way to the market. We take a shikara to be at 10 on land and go to Pahalgam. We arrived at about 12. It is a mountain station with extraordinary landscapes.
We decided to climb in a pony, and thank goodness, because the climb is rigorous and the road is treacherous in some sections. We are accompanied by two kids, one for each horse. As the upper lake cannot be accessed and we do not want to spend five hours on horseback, we take the short route. There are very nice places and we end up in a fantastic meadow full of tourists. On the way, we find people who take photos with bunnies, sheep, etc.
We trek through the surrounding mountains, among gypsies and Kashmiri shepherds. We also visit a small hamlet of farmers, in the house where our guide lived with his family. They gave us a room, where we sit in a large carpet that covered the floor. We spend the afternoon with the children of the family, teaching them card games and learning their own. We tasted the tasty cuisine prepared by the lady of the house.
We then go on our way back to Srinagar on the banks of the Jhelum. We take a little walk around there and we go to look at small shops before retiring with the shikara to the houseboat. Above the shore of the lake, the sun goes down and we enjoy Kahwa from a colonial-looking porcelain cup. Our feet dangle over the water and with them our deeply relaxed souls. It was another great night with magnificent views and the beers provided by the landlord, upon request.
Day 4 - Srinagar - Gulmarg
Today we start at 9:30 with the driver to go to the ski resort of Gulmarg. The shikara makes the journey in 5-10 minutes. The road to Gulmarg is meandering. We catch the tail of a warm weather and snowstorm when we arrived in Gulmarg. Soaked to the skin by the rain and, as a result of which our car could not continue, we trek the last 100 meters uphill. At the entrance to the resort, it is mandatory to take a guide. We decide on moving on a gondola. And after going up, of course to the top of Apharwat Peak, it was worth it. The landscapes looked like the Alps.
After about an hour of breathless walking, with lungs and legs burning, we arrived at a broad, intact and north-face that allowed us to carve, cut and crawl through 20-30cm of fresh snow. From there we ski through extensive open powder snowfields, agricultural villages and with perfectly spaced tree tracks, to the dirt track that leads to one of the several military bases that disperse the area.
The breathtaking landscape, without words, reminded me at certain moments to the alpine landscape of Switzerland, but at the same time, everything is very different. After arriving at the top of everything, at an altitude of 4,300 meters, we could hardly breathe. There was little to walk and the only thing was to see those breathtaking views of the mountains. After descending again by the cable car, and having a coffee, it was almost three thirty in the afternoon.
We return to take ponies. The road is very beautiful with rivers, and meadows. Once up it starts to rain and it's cold so we take a few soups and take the opportunity to eat lamb, finally! When it stops raining, we start the descent, faster, in which yes the guide accompanies us. The trip back to Srinagar is 1 hour and when we arrive we visit the Mughal gardens.
I visited the Cheshmashahi, Nishat and Shalimar, each with its own history and even esoteric meaning. Nishat Bagh, is very beautiful, with several terraces of gardens facing the lake. It leads me to think that if Kashmir has earned the title of "Paradise on Earth" it is largely because of them. However, Sishara, is small and simple. It was not worth much.
In the evening we go shopping in the city. At night while returning back the light went off, and I cannot tell how I felt at that moment. When the light went off they lit torches in all the street stalls. It gives a sensation of being in the middle ages, with the insecurity of the territory where we were. To me, however, I loved the feeling.
We arrived at the houseboat that had prepared a typical Kashmiri dinner with fish curry and saffron pilaf rice that was delicious. We went to sleep after chatting a bit in the living room. We turned on the heaters and the electric blankets on the beds so that we were warm.
Day 5 - Sonamarg
On the fourth day, we started the retreat. Our next goal was Leh, and the road by land would take us two lucky days. The distance was not much, about 500 km, but the road was winding. We decided to do it step by step.
Our first stop was in Sonamarg, about 100 km away. It is a small town between mountains that is characterized by having a glacier and lots of snow with postcard landscapes. We went there, walked to the glacier and slipped in the snow. Sonamarg is not just snow or fun. We were struck by the large military base that counts (it was neither the first nor the last we saw).
Day 6 - Kargil
The next day we left for Kargil. It is the second and last stop on our way to Leh. We waited all morning for a bus that never arrived. We ended up sharing a taxi with other people. The trip should have last about 5 hours, but it ends up being much more. After we left Sonamarg, a landslide stopped us. It forced us to stand while the machines are working. People took advantage to take pictures in the middle of so much snow landscape. The military ordered the wait. After an hour, and already tired of waiting, we continue our trip.
A few kilometers later we encountered another problem. A large amount of snow had collapsed on the road blocking the way. Our feeling was of concern, for having to keep waiting. But the feeling of the others was different. They got off happily from the cars to go to take pictures of the snow. There we realized how different our conceptions are. We were in a hurry to get to the side while others, in the same situation, saw the glass as half full.
Something that surprised us was the number of local tourists. Yes, many but many who spent their summer holidays here. There are women with saree with their snow boots. We wait for the machines, together with the game of snow and photos. The trip to Kargil continued normally. The only thing is we arrived late. We got a place to sleep. We ate something and went to bed thinking that the next day, at 4:30 am, we continue our trip to Leh.
I think back to Kashmir as a dream from which we would not want to wake up. It will perhaps be for the enchanted atmosphere of the lakes of Srinagar, in which the clear blue profiles of the snow-capped mountains are reflected. Staying in a houseboat in the Dal Lake, which in spring is covered with floating mats of water lily, was a unique experience. In my memory, it is still linked to fresh, resinous scent of wood cedar of the Himalayas, the essence of where these romantic floating houses are made.