An Autumn Weekend in Kashmir
Kashmir has been neglected from the major routes of travelers. I planned to visit Srinagar and see the Shalimar Garden in the autumn foliage. The climate of Srinagar at 1700 m is very pleasant at this time. It is one of the main tourist attractions of India, thanks to the floating houses of Dal Lake, the famous Mughal gardens, the historic wooden mosques and the curious tomb of Jesus Christ.
A flight takes us to reach the starting point of our journey in Srinagar, the Venice of the East. I wake up slowly when our plane begins its descent on Srinagar, less than an hour after leaving Delhi. The Pir Panjal range of the Himalayas is revealed by the porthole as I open my eyes. The peaks of snow and ice scroll gently.
Everything is calm in the cabin and we hear only the thud of the aircraft. At the same time that I let myself be rocked by this enchantment. I think back to all the difficulties that went with the beauty of these mountains when I was down by bike, on foot or rollerblading in Ladakh, Karakoram or Himachal Pradesh.
I imagine real mountaineers may be at this very moment struggling with these peaks and seeing our plane go so peacefully. The plane lands and this other facet of the decor is revealed. The airport is good for civil flights, but there are mostly military aircraft. A regiment seems to embark on a troop carrier, and a helicopter rolls on the track.
Once out of the airport, it is clear that the army and the police are ubiquitous. Armored vehicles are positioned at many intersections. The military wear helmets and bullet-proof vests. Here there are as many inhabitants as soldiers and for good reason as we are near the border with Pakistan. The line separating the Indian-controlled and Pakistan-controlled areas is not a true border but an old ceasefire line that separates the two parts of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir.
The surprise is the climate, as it is only mid-October but it is 10 degrees during the day. Delhi seems very far away. Women are few and veiled. Some are fully covered by the niqab and we even see a woman wearing the burqa who only had her eyes uncovered. We noticed that men dye their hair and have orange beard, but we do not know why. Many inscriptions are written in Urdu. There are no temples but only mosques.
After a quick taxi ride we are now in Dal Lake at the landing stage of the Sikharas. This type of flat-bottomed boat is essential to any trip in the lakeside part of this city. The British were fond of Kashmir. Thus, they decided to build huge boats called Houseboat and they served as floating palaces. The best and most luxurious are palatial with chandeliers, carved walnut panels and salons typical of the Raj.
After the departure of the English, the local inhabitants converted them into floating hotels. We will spend a night on these boats before we start our trip to Enfield. After sailing 5 minutes by the lake we arrive at the houseboat of the man, who actually has 3, one in which he lives and the others that he rents. One of the peculiarities of the lake are the heart-shaped oars with which the rowers move the shikaras.
We are a few minutes later comfortably settled in our house-boat, sipping tea with cardamom. After lunch, we take a tour in Sikhara and discover the tranquility of the lake. We walk tirelessly through the beautiful Srinagar. Away from Indian cities where disorder and accumulation of garbage prevails in the streets, the city is considerably cleaner.
Moving along the banks of the Jhelum River, which crosses the city in several directions, filling it with bridges and canals, like veins that feed the city, and dye red and orange at sunset, was our favorite pastime. We see a pair of kingfishers diving into the water in search of some fish.
Even though the locals could not believe that we were going to walk up, we went down the steep path that led to a Shiva temple located on top of a hill, from where we got a beautiful 360 degree view of Srinagar.
It is a view so surprising that it made it worth the ascent even though the temple itself did not call attention at all. At 4 we go to the pier and soon a shikara arrives that takes us back to the house boat. Back in the houseboat, we chatted and dined with the mother and daughter. The first one did not stop offering us her works in fabrics and carpets with silk and cashmere wool and cashmere pashminas for us to buy. The style is that of the Persian carpets and the touch was very good.
The second was only interested in our lives. She was lucky, as her parents let her choose what she was going to study, and maybe even her husband. When the mother understood that we are not going to buy anything, her interest for us almost disappeared. One of the greatest truths of travel is that everyone chooses the people around them. There are no impositions of society. There is no university class with people who cannot stand it. There is no work in an office surrounded by unbearable people.
When we travel, if we do not like the people that we have nearby, we simply follow our path. The owner takes us back to the land for dinner. We had dinner at a typical Kashmiri restaurant with rice, vegetables and lamb rogan josh. The owner picks us up in half an hour. After a while, the owner came with a hookah as he had promised and we smoke.
Our lodging, always surrounded by water, moved away from the noise of the main street of the city and gave a silence and a peace to the place that always makes us feel well.
In the morning we get up early to see the floating market. The first night in our house boat has been good. The only thing that the rooster of our neighbors has given us good morning too soon for our taste. Apart from that the truth is that we have not got up early. Our breakfast consisted of boiled eggs and Kashmiri bread which is very thin bread toasted and with butter on top.
It has not yet dawned and the tranquility in the lake is total. It is necessary to arrive there early to be able to benefit from the atmosphere without other tourists! Flat boats, loaded with vegetables move in a curious carousel, each selling or exchanging other products.
Our Sikhara pilot explains that all the merchants here, then resell what they buy here in various shops in the city. We then plan to visit a national park located about twenty kms away. We see a beautiful preserved nature and some black bears from the Himalayas but not much else! After a stroll in the national park we get back on the Dal Lake.
During the tour in Sikhara in the canals, we discover the life of these people who live on the water. It is only in the afternoon that we finally take possession of our Enfield 500. We take a little ride in the saddle, to get used to the local driving. We reach the Pir Dastgeer Sahib, an extravagant Sufi sanctuary in green and white, with a tower topped by a needle and the outside covered by wooden filigree.
Inside, the floor was full of carpets and there were men on their knees praying. From here we continue walking along a narrow street until we reach the Rozabal, a place we were very curious to see. Our curiosity about this place is because there is a very controversial theory according to which the crypt of the sanctuary houses the tomb of Jesus Christ.
Supposedly, there is a sarcophagus in which some feet with the half-moon marks of the crucifixion were engraved. The sepulchral chamber is hidden under a black canopy with sequins. There is a sign that says it is strictly prohibited to take photos. We can only look through a small window to see the sarcophagus.
When we arrived there was a Muslim woman looking out the window and praying because for the Muslims, Jesus was a prophet and they present him in the Qur'an. We have read in some places that the Catholic Church is totally against this theory and does not want it to be disseminated. We have looked out and seen the sarcophagus. If you are more interested in this topic there are several books that talk about it.
We went through a site that was placing a lot of Christmas ribbons and of course, we asked and guess what, they were preparing a wedding. The guy who organized it told us that it started around 5 in the afternoon and that we could see it. We say goodbye to him with an almost sure see you this afternoon. We follow our path to the next mosque and we see a very old building, and think that it was the mosque for inside.
A man told us to enter without problems, but while we were watching we realized that it was not a mosque but a private house. The family was great, as the daughter insisted that we stay to eat, but since it was early we thank them and apologized for entering their house. They were very happy to receive a visit. We went our way and we reached the Khanqah Mosque of Shah-i-Hamadan.
It is the most beautiful historic building in Srinagar built in the 1730s. It is characterized by the needle that crowns it. The facade and the interior are covered by carved and colorful wood, very elaborate, and reliefs on mache paper. Visitors who are not Muslim can take a look through the door but not enter.
The interior was quite cool and outside there was also an enclosure for Muslim women to pray, since women are prohibited from entering inside. I take pictures for a while and a very nice guy explain to us that it is the largest Sufi Mosque and the only one in Kashmir. It was founded by Muslims from Persia.
We have gone for a walk with the guide to get lost in the center and we have walked without control, moving away more and more. This has allowed us to walk through streets with super nice buildings. At the entrance to the center there was a lot of police and military presence but in the rest almost nothing.
We have been observing different aspects of daily life, of butchers with the pieces of meat hanging in the sun and many Asian wasps. We have finally seen them. We see a store of wedding dresses,and many shoe stores. In this area there are almost no places to eat, but only street stalls.
After a while we took the guide and wandered to our next destination, the Shalimar Bagh. Mughal Gardens, or Nishat Bagh is a magnificent Park built in the sixteenth century by a Mughal emperor. We continue through the beautiful expanse of grass, flowers and gigantic chinar trees with orange leaves, all in a stepped succession overlooking the lake, and crossed by an impressive water structure.
While sitting on the grass, an old man approached us and sat down to chat with us. He turned out to be the gardener and told us the story of the gardens, which was almost 400 years old, that was the age of the trees that gave such a generous shade. He had been working there for 40 years, taking care of the plants.
The pride that the man felt for his work gave us an instant affection for the place to which he put so much effort to maintain. We go to see another garden, the botanical garden at Cheshmashahi.
The last place we visited was the most important mosque in Srinagar. The Jama Masjid is built of wood, carpeted, the columns ascend until they are lost in the impressive height of the ceiling. The several hundred years of its construction have not taken away its beauty.
The columns that support the roof say they were made from a single cedar from the Himalayas. The mosque is as closed in a square surrounded by houses and with arches, all around is a market and several shops. A square water fountain is located in the center of the courtyard. Three quarters of the complex is dedicated to men and women pray in the remaining part. The mosque is full of faithful. Some read the sacred books, others engage in debates, while many sleep and many more sit in contemplative silence.
After touring the market, clothes and utensils we find the main door. It has 4 huge doors, one in each cardinal point, it is free and we have to pay 10 rupees for the camera. Giant wooden columns hold a ceiling with some reliefs. All full of equal carpets that gives the feeling of being one. It is huge, and in the center a large patio with a fountain in the middle. We walked through it without problems.
I advance as usual in this kind of places, in an almost exaggerated reverential state, walking without making a noise, trying not to disturb the peace of any of the faithful, trying to pass unnoticed. Of course the latter is not always easy for me being the only outsider in the entire mosque. A group of men invited us to sit with them and there we went, because we have not stopped for more than 4 hours.
They told us about Islam, and they told us about Kashmir. Srinagar was a look at a complicated reality, a people that in adversity is united by their traditions and their hospitality. The sun set over Dal Lake dyeing everything in orange, bringing beauty to a city that lives its days always in tension, waiting to be interrupted again the fragile peace that they enjoy and they so long to keep.
It was 4 in the afternoon, and we look for a place to eat something. As we do not find any restaurant, we stand in front of a food stall to eat street food. We asked for a kind of dumplings and the gentleman from the very friendly booth invited us to enter and that behind the curtain was a couple of tables with chairs.
So we eat a couple of samosas. After this we asked for pakoda, which was stuffed with onion. From here with a new bottle of water we went to a Sikh temple marked in the guide, passing to reach the city walls, to the sanctuary of Makhdoom Sahib and the ruins of a mosque. A little further up the mountain is the Hari Parbat.
We go through a door in the wall and in front of us we have the Sikh temple. Strolling we arrived after 20 minutes to the place of the wedding. Upon arriving at once we see the guy we had talked with in the morning and tells us to go inside. We get through the door of a very old house and climb a wooden staircase to the top floor.
We see many women sitting on the floor and at the back of the room are women and a boy with a video camera. We take off our shoes and when we enter we are the center of attention. Many women were singing and do not stop doing it. Going down the stairs followed the greetings and questions of where we were from.
The next place they take us is where they are making food. Several containers are placed on the fire with biryani, pulao, rice, kabab, ribs of lamb and a kind of meatballs. An older man explains everything we are seeing. From here we go to the place where they are eating. There are only men and the funny thing is that they eat on the floor in groups of 4 and put a tray with everything said above and eat everything with their hands.
When one group ends, another one sits down and so on until the whole male world eats. Women eat but at different times. It is a Muslim wedding typical of Kashmir. Everyone insists that we sit down to eat but we tell them that we have just done it and that we are not hungry. In the end they give a little dum aloo for us to taste, which we do with pleasure.
Once satisfied our curiosity and a thousand thanks to everyone for the moment we left there and we slowly return to the shikara and went to the house boat. After the shower we get inside the lounge. In short, it was an intense and interesting day after everything we have seen and experienced. And as we could not miss on a trip of ours, we have witnessed a wedding.
The alarm clock sounds at 6:00 am, with sleep in the eyes and the already blunted sun. Yesterday we slept with the chants from all the mosques through the speakers. We closed the backpacks, taking care not to leave anything. Downstairs the door was closed and we have to wake up some guys who were sleeping at the reception.
After an excellent breakfast finally around 8 am we set course to the parking of motorcycles in a small shikara with everything. It will take half an hour to prepare for this first stage of 210 km that will lead us to Kargil. While we were waiting to leave, a shikara came with tourists who had just landed in Srinagar from Amritsar.
We first go along Dal Lake for a little while then we arrive in a large valley that we will go back to Sonamarg. Leaving Srinagar, the traffic is sometimes chaotic. We then follow beautiful, and completely fluid sections. In fact, the road from Srinagar to Leh is a kind of highway between the Chinese border and western Kashmir. It is precisely on this road to Leh through the National Highway 1, that we are heading towards Gagangir.
I was looking forward to this moment because I read a lot of stories about bikers. The famous road goes up the river Indus. Our first destination is 80 km away, but it takes three hours to drive to Gagangir. This is where the road ends between 6 and 8 months a year because of the snow.
At 9 o'clock we stopped for breakfast in Sonamarg. In Sonamarg, the atmosphere becomes frankly alpine with high glacial peaks in sight, and pine forests. In this city is where the most famous ski resort in India is located. After taking some photos, I see the people here have other different features. While we were coming, we had the feeling of being in Afghanistan, and the traits of the shepherds are the same.
Portraits of Khomeini are everywhere, attesting that the place is inhabited by a fairly fanatical slice of population. After 10 minutes of stop we continue on our way. The valleys that start to open huge and beautiful. We ascend a port that is scary. We started to see some mountains with small glaciers. Suddenly, in a curve where there is a large esplanade, the military stops us and stops the vehicles that come behind us.
After asking, the driver tells us that a military convoy is going to pass, and that the military always has priority. We got off and take some photos. In total more than 120 would pass. The views of the surroundings are beautiful. There is a man who looks like a total Afghan.
Once the convoy passed we continue the ascent through a narrow road, without protections of any kind and with a lot of earth. The best thing about the stop was that we are the first ones so we do not have to go ahead. The views are very nice, and it's worth it.
We finished the ascent and arrived at Zoji La at 3,529 meters. We begin the descent towards spectacular valleys with high vertical walls. The landscape changes and it becomes a little more arid. We see tents of shepherds, and many of them with their flocks of goats on the road.
We crossed Dras, which has become famous because meteorologists here recorded an unusual temperature of 60 degrees below zero, and since then it has been touted as the second coldest place in the world after Oymyakon in Russia. At 1:00 pm we cross Kargil. We do not like much of what little we see. We count this because there is the option to spend the night here for starting the trip to Leh. It's not worth it.
From here, the landscape becomes increasingly arid. We have to go slowly behind a military convoy. From time to time we still see some snow at the top of some peak. At 3:00 pm we stop to eat at Chamba. As we had bought bread the day before, we made ourselves a sandwich. We bought something to drink.
Here is a Buddhist temple and we went to see it. It is a small shrine wrapped in a rock tooth in which there is carved an immense relief of 8 meters of the Maitreya Buddha that is 1000 years old. It costs 10 rupees to enter. While we are eating, the military convoy passes by near Mulbekh.
We continue our way through an increasingly arid landscape. We started to climb a port, this time almost all the time there is asphalt. We climbed and climbed curve after curve until reaching 3,760 meters from Namika La. Here we stop a second to take some pictures and without problems.
We again descend into the valley. Every time there is less asphalt and more land. The landscape is of sandstone mountains and little by little the road is being eaten, because the landslides are very easy to produce because they are such a soft material.
Virtually no town we pass through is asphalted. The bridges are all made of iron from the British period and then they have continued to build in that style. There is so much dust in the environment that we eat everything. From Kargil the style of the towns is more Tibetan, with the houses, the monasteries, the people.
We started to climb another port, the Fotu La 4,147 meters. We have to stop a couple of times as a machine is cleaning landslides. Already in the descent we arrive at a new traffic jam and it is that a convoy is coming and as always they have them the priority. This time the site is quite dangerous because they are curved and with a tremendous vacuum.
At 6:00 p.m. we make a brief stop. I take some pictures of the people in the market. Soon after we arrived at Lamayuru, important town for its monastery. The road is cut and we are diverted by another alternative route and with a port of infarction, I think the worst of all day. The dust that we swallow is infinite. The descent has some infarct curves but at the same time exciting.
In one of them a bus goes up. In fact we have to stop a few seconds because we see nothing. Soon after the asphalt starts and the road becomes easier. In one of them there is a tube with a large jet of water and we clean ourselves a bit.
We started to go to the side of the Indus River, the one that we have all studied in the books. Here it is still not too big although we can tell it is a great river. At about 7:30 pm we take the road that comes from Lamayuru and in half an hour we arrive at Leh, after 13 hours.
Leh is 3,520 meters above sea level in the Indus River valley. According to the Lonely Planet, there are few places in India so pleasant for travelers and, at the same time, so little boisterous. It is surrounded by mountains.
At the entrance we leave the strip and the couple asks us if we have a guest house. It's on Changspa Road. It's completely dark. It is a narrow street and we are seeing different guest houses. We also see a lot of tourists. When we arrive we ask for the price of the rooms and they tell us that they have few and they do not have internet. We decided not to stay.
After going down the street we do not see any. Wou get to the center. There are shops, restaurants, exchange offices, cyber cafes and travel agencies. In the end we stayed at a guest house that has wifi. The room is very shabby. Without knowing very well where to go, it is time to take a shower and have something as we are very hungry.
We are going to have dinner. It is full of foreigners and is a patio with flowers and outdoors full of tables. There is a large group that has a small party, who light a fire in the middle. We want something different and ask for a couple of fried eggs and a cream of mushrooms, and a fried rice with vegetables. After dinner we take a small tour but it seems that this city at 22:30 hours goes to sleep. It seems a cool place with a good atmosphere. Tomorrow we will start enjoying the place.