Jammu & Kashmir – Srinagar (A city under siege!)


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July 16th 2013
Published: July 16th 2013
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Delhi



We are back from Gangtok to a relatively dry Delhi for 3 nights, back to Namaskar India to their main room (203). Functional, clean, cool and cheap at Rs 1000 per night. It’s a lot cooler for the first day and we decide to go shopping to Connaught Place. After a quick bite at Khan Cha Cha (we are now regulars), we check out Fab India for some stuff for the family then to the Central Indian Emporium in Janpath for a few gifts and finally The Shop which is a “chic boutique” according to LP. We get some good gear for Louise, Sarah & Little B.

As we are in Janpath we venture into The Imperial Hotel (mainly to use the posh loos for free). However, on a whim we decide to have a treat and go for Tea. Its Darjeeling first blush @Rs 275 a cup + taxes – wow. But hey let’s do it anyway and get some mango topped cake/tarts as well. Not bad but what was a surprise was that the waiters kept bringing us more tea and a complementary tray of biscuits. Then again more tea – all complementary. Awesome. The Tea room is pretty comfortable and we spend a good two hours or so here relaxing in A/C from the heat and being treated like royalty. So all in all we end up having a sort of high tea for about Rs 1000 – a lot cheaper than The Ritz and probably a lot nicer!

We wander through the place – it’s pretty regal, very elegant and typically Colonial and nicely luxurious. So much so that C decides that we should treat ourselves further and book in for our last 2 nights here. M resists but after much nagging compromises on one day – so it’s online and a Heritage room is booked for the 11th July’13 (Rs 11,500) – the day before we fly back to London to surprise Louise for her Birthday. They also offer us a pick up from the airport for Rs 3,500 + taxes – bloody nerve for a trip that costs Rs 400 max in a cab!!

We go to Reliance Offices the next day to get our trekking gear and meet Tony for a while who has just got back from NY and London. We agree to meet up on the 10th for a final thank you dinner with him & Parul. Shankar as usual is brilliant and gets us a car back to the Hotel with the luggage. It’s got hotter on our last 2 days & this is very much appreciated.

We have dinner at Roshan di Kulfi one night, the Punjab Sweet Corner another where the Rabri for Rs 40 is about the best we have had in India since Haridwar – definitely recommended especially combined with their Kulfi, and one night Karims. The guys at the Hotel arrange cold Kingfishers each day for Rs 150 each as pre dinner drinks. We seem to be the only guests by the end.

Then once again we head to the Domestic airport for our Spicejet flight to Srinagar. We try an Indian Costa Coffee – ok-ish and pop into Fab India again where C goes crazy with some stuff – so she’s a happy bunny. We get something for Romi too which is great – just the blokes to go now; M, John, Ben & Satish.

Srinagar

The flight to Srinagar is only 1 hr 15 mins – the views of the Himalaya snow covered coming into Srinagar is impressive as are the huge valleys dotted with loads of villages. We have come here as the British Foreign office has lifted its long standing ban/advice on not coming here. So we’ve added this to our plans and hope all will go well.

We are booked into the Golden Hopes Houseboat Group (Rs 2300 per night including meals, tea, Shikara to and from the Boulevard) and we scan for the promised pick up – no joy. Our pay as you go SIM (Indian or Foreign) will not work here for security reasons; if you have a contract fine – at least that way you are traceable! C’s just about to have a hissy fit when the Tourist Police pick us out (we’re the only non-Indians) and say that the guys are delayed by 15 mins. The scene outside is pretty chaotic which we are amazed by as this is a very big army base and the place is sensitive politically.

Tariq (whose family own the Houseboat) arrives in a jeep and we are whisked off to the Houseboat. All along the way there is a police/army presence with guns at the ready and riot gear on. M has been here before and is not expecting much as he feels the troubles may have taken their toll on the place. That was 29 years ago when Sarah was only 18 months. However, it looks cleaner than most Indian towns & cities, less noisy other than the call from the Mosques as its Friday and the main traffic drag by passing the main stretch of Houseboats (called The Boulevard), no dogs, no cows, and less car horns tooting.

We get to Dal Lakeside in about an hour, we then get onto a Shikara (the main mode of transport on the lake) and are guided gently to our Houseboat tucked in behind the main ones in a quieter corner. There’s a guy called Ed from Luton here (who works for GKN in Pune but will be going home soon) and a nice travelling couple from London next door , Chloe and Aurelien(she’s Mauritian & he’s French) who were fun – they are travelling on from here to Nepal & want to do the NE Indian states but we have warned them about Monsoon there. There’s also Sophie (a really friendly Ozzie doing some voluntary work in Dharamsala) & her travel companion Sarah from the USA (also from Dharamsala but less convivial). They are all going onto Leh and we arrange to meet Chloe and Aurelian in Leh for dinner one night as we overlap with them for a few days and they seem to be good fun and pretty adventurous. There are also a couple of nights when Indian visitors come and stay but we hardly get a chance to meet them - most Indian tourists come here for a day or two only rushing off during the day to visit Gulmarg, Sonamarg, Pahalgam and then go back home.

It’s a pretty hot day here (temperatures range from 29 to 36 degrees during our stay) and we stay in after a lovely vegetarian lunch cooked by the family. We try and cool off and enjoy the views outside the Houseboat – plenty of water lily fields, green vegetable patches, birds of all variety living on the lake and in the evening just the sound of the frogs after a lovely sunset over the Fort (which is currently closed and under renovation after the Indian Army moved out after circa 10 years of using it as a base).

The Houseboat is pretty typical of the place – an all wooden structure with ornate carvings on the frontage where there is a “patio” with seats. There is a large lounge with fan & TV (Tariq’s brother Ray or Riaz spends most of his time here just watching crap Indian movies of yesteryear and getting bored). John (apparently Tariq’s cousin twice removed) is the Travel guy who gives a rundown of options for day trips and then a price of R’s 15000 for 3 things – which we think is pretty outlandish especially as 2 of them are ½ day trips – this includes a discount apparently but we also have to add a 12% VAT charge. We decide to go into town and check things out for ourselves, particularly after Ed gives us an update on what he’s done and at a much lower cost. It appears John has quoted us a “discounted rate” 300% above the going rate for the trips!! What a fuck wit – we advise Tariq of this later and he is embarrassed. It’s pretty obvious to us that despite coming across as quite helpful and friendly, John is nothing more than a rip off merchant (a crook) and we would recommend all travellers to check the going rate published by the J & K Tourism offices – displayed everywhere on The Boulevard before making any commitment to take a trip from your “friendly” Houseboat owner.

What we also learn from the other guests is that Tariq negotiates the rates with individuals separately – which varied markedly. So we feel that had we gone for the standard rate we might have got a slightly smaller room and perhaps no free Shikara transfer to the Ghats and tea on tap –but we’d have saved an extra Rs 500 or so per night. Our mistake and we’ll learn from this but warn others on Trip Advisor.

Dinner the first night is nothing spectacular and disappointing as we had asked specifically for traditional Kashmiri food. Unfortunately, while the food did become more Kashmiri, the amounts for the people on board seemed ridiculously small – the same amount for three or five! This continued and when we had the Rogan Josh – it was more bone than lamb and only one piece each at that. Pretty pathetic. Breakfast was generally ok – but could arrive at 8, 9 or 10 am at their whim despite being told it would take 10 minutes?! And regardless of what time you had booked it for.

Tariq seemed to be the only one who you could have some confidence in. It’s his business after all - though even then, when we agreed breakfast with him at 8 am for the last day by 9 no one was up at all! The service definitely went downhill over the last few days with the place looking pretty unkempt, with empty plastic water bottles lying around and discarded fag packets (mainly Riaz’s) on the front deck – hardly a place that is proud of its appearance! We would not recommend people coming here unless you are clear about what you get for your money up front and negotiate hard – they all seem so desperate for business they will all reduce their asking prices or vary the offer. We are surprised that the place has such a high rating on Trip Advisor – unless people’s expectations are very low of Houseboats in Srinagar.

The local folk are pretty enterprising selling biscuits, sweets and beers from their small small Shikaras – but all at a mark up – even when the prices are shown on the goods! They wanted Rs 150 for a 500ml can of Kingfisher which we think is too steep especially as there is a beer & wine shop on the Boulevard selling the stuff for half that price! (In all the LP maps, J&K is the only section that shows where the Wine Shop is – wonder why? But we are grateful).

Our impression is that Srinagar is like any tourist place trying to screw the tourist for what they can. Disappointing really. Not sure why but we felt that Srinagar might be a bit different; perhaps it’s some of the Kashmiris we have met in the past who seemed quite genuine, honest and friendly. Ah well.

The standard fare for a Shikara tour of the Dal Lake is Rs 400 per hour – by about 11 am they are offering the trip for about Rs 200. We even heard of an offer of Rs150 – however, this will involve taking you to a Handicraft place where they will get a commission – so beware and be firm if you don’t wish to waste your time in these places. There are apparently over 30,000 Shikara guys here – no wonder the competition is so fierce for rides – the supply definitely outweighs the demand.

We decide to take the Shikara ride for 4 hours or so but in 2 instalments; early to see the veg market and then the rest of the trip after breakfast. There is a daily fruit and veg market that operates from about 4.30 am to 6.30 am on the lake which we go to see. It’s really interesting watching guys barter on small boats about the price of the latest vegetable on offer. And as it’s so early we also get to observe the community come to life and go about their daily chores. The Lake is pretty big and has a central area called the Floating Gardens – which like Inle Lake in Myanmar – are literally that. Grass, fields of vegetables, tomatoes, fruit (watermelon) etc grow on earth that floats of the surface and is cultivated for local consumption.

M soon notices that what has changed is that the water seems dirtier than all those years ago. The Shikara guy has been here all his life (and been plying his trade here for 32 years) and bemoans the fate of the lake – blaming the locals for not caring enough and the government for not doing enough to keep it clean despite getting huge grants from Europe. Many old facilities have shut as tourism suffered during the 10 – 15 years strife here and for travellers certain areas are generally off limits.

The lake has many “islands” where the locals live in their own “villages”. There are many mosques around in old buildings with spired tops and loud speakers to call the faithful to prayer. Some have pictures of the Ayatollas of Iran including the controversial ex-President – so an Iranian bias in some quarter of the community definitely on display. Schools and rows of shops trade on the lake - like a small high street and always you cans see views of the Fort that oversees all around it in Srinagar.

Floating along is quite a peaceful and enjoyable way to spend some time here – at the right price.

There is also a strong army presence here too – they have motor boats to travel fast and various sentry points. The old summer palace has been taken over and is a command centre for the army – surrounded by water lilies of various colours.

There are a few new top end Houseboats around – the latest, apparently owned by an Englishman, is for rich tourists only – it’s like a 5 star place with Chef on the top deck and motor boats with a big brolly up to take folks to and from the Boulevard– no Shikara for these guys. This has been here for a year only. The boat – very opulent and grand – took about 4 to 5 years to make – all hand crafted and each section has its own specialist tradesmen. They put the cost at circa £250K.

Other things worthy of a mention are the ‘Swimming Boats’ – larger “Houseboats” anchored in the middle which are for folk to come and rest and swim, go on motor boats, water ski etc. Some of them also cater for weddings and concerts etc.

We eventually get to Hazaratbal, where there is the “White Mosque” – the dome currently covered by scaffold. It is claimed to have a hair of the beard of Mohammed housed here which goes on display 4 times a year, the last time was last week. There is a high street and local market nearby. There are plenty of food stalls. The most popular street food seems to be what they call “Paratha” (which looks like the worlds largest Battura) together with suji halwa (sweet). They sell this in a combo by weight (Rs 80 a kg!). It’s the big draw all along the way, as are water lily roots cut up and fried like a pakora. We tasted it and its ok – not one to recommend we feel. We are taken to a small local eatery doing Kashmiri fare so we try some and its ok – not brilliant - with their own style of Naan (Tandoor cooked bread). We take one back to share with the folk back at the HB together with some barfi we had bought from Nathu Sweets along The Boulevard.

We had planned to do the “City Tour” but changed our minds – a couple of hours being taken around 2 Mosques where you can’t enter or take pictures and 2 gardens + a “drive” through the old and new city – where you are advised not to stop as some Muslims resent the presence of any foreigners!! M notices something of this when we stop for lunch and a few guys come in sit down and when they notice C (not only a foreigner but also a woman!! they get up and make some remarks and leave.) Boy isn’t the world full of fucked up people.

We definitely get a sense that folk feel they are Kashmiri first and foremost – not Indian. However we don’t detect any particular allegiance to Pakistan either. It’s more a sense that they are different with a separate culture, heritage and religion than the rest of India. Also there are some radical Muslims in parts of the old city who dislike anything and everybody who is from the outside – foreign or not. The politics of the area are complex with all shades far right to left. The great explosive cocktail of Politics and Religion!!

To liven things up – we are informed that the Indian PM and Sonia Gandhi + local Chief Minister will be in town on our last day here, and that many, if not all shops will be closed as will the streets & parts of the Lake would be cordoned off for security reasons from Nehru Park towards the Gardens we had hoped to visit. The Road from Nehru Park to the main city and airport will be open. So we have limited options on how to spend the day. We hope that all will be fine to allow us to get to the airport on the next day early am to catch our direct flight to Leh from here – this goes only once a week so we have to get it or miss the trek in Ladakh!

We notice that the police/army folk are posted on many of the Houseboats near where we are staying and after about 8.30 am are stopping the local folks passing through one of the channels which seemed to be ok earlier. The manner in which they start the “no go” policy leaves a lot to be desired and does inconvenience the locals. This seems symptomatic of the insensitive and inept way that the police/army folk handle things here – no wonder they are not welcome. Last night we noticed a couple of guys from the security services order samosas and refuse to pay the correct amount - the poor stall seller was left pretty pissed off!!

On our final day we decide to leave early to avoid any hassle with the city “lock down”. Tariq has organised a drop off to the airport that John does so we have fingers crossed that he doesn’t mess us around. The Shikara turns up at 6 am – after some tea and paying the bill we leave. At Nehru Gate there seems to be more army personnel arriving – there is hardly a shikara around or Jeeps or any other type of transport. We are relieved to get away and John drives us pretty quickly to the airport via one security check where we have to show our flight tickets. There is also much more security presence on all the streets – all the way to the airport. It reminds us of a city under siege. At the next checkpoint we have to take our baggage and put it through security scanners. Eventually we get to the airport where the queue Q to get in is long as hell – even at 6.45 am. Someone then discovers that we should be in the Air India Q adjacent – much shorter and moves faster.

Next we go through security again with our luggage (which then gets tagged to say it is safe and has been inspected). As men and women have to go separately C has to wait with all the other women as a female security personnel is AWOL. We then go to the AI counter with another long queue, - thankfully another 2 counters open and we are checked in. Some stranger then comes along and says that as foreigners we have to register leaving Srinagar back at a counter which no one can see. We do the necessary along with most of the other foreigners who never saw the counter either – and this is supposed to be an International Airport newly built!! The signage is pretty poor at best. Next it’s more security checks - this time of the hand luggage – however, before we can pass this we are told that we have to identify our main checked in luggage before its put on the plane. So a slightly irritated M does the chore and all goes well (or so it seemed at the time). Most travellers foreign or desi (locals to you) had problems at this point. It’s then through security – hand luggage stamped and onto the upper floor to await departure. The only good thing was that the cooling system worked as it was getting pretty hot! We get some snacks for breakfast from the only food counter which is pretty expensive – captive audience and all that we guess! The announcement system like most we have experienced in India is awful. Eventually some guy from the airline comes and starts shouting that the AI flight was boarding. Next more security – again! It does make one wonder why they could not arrange this system of checking and cross checking a lot better for the traveller – it’s pretty annoying and wouldn’t take a genius to make it work smoothly for all concerned. The only word for this is total chaos.

We finally board the plane but we’re not finished yet it seems. All seated and strapped in a guy comes to us and asks initially M to escort him – while he is doing so, he suddenly realises he wants Ms C P (which is not M if he had only noticed the sexual difference in us!). She goes out to find that she now has to identify our luggage before they will put it on the plane! We still don’t know why. Then we are off half an hour earlier than scheduled for our ½ hour flight to Leh……………. A relief……….. We definitely won’t be back!!

We learn from the newspapers on the plane that 6 soldiers had been killed and 13 injured on the Monday in north Srinagar by militants – which we were quite oblivious to, but it does explain the extra truckloads of army personnel rolling into the city early when we were about to leave. And also for the reason that John drove us rather than a normal taxi?!

Final words (M’s reflections after 29 years away)………………… what a mess they have made of a beautiful place.


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19th July 2013

Oh dear...!
What a pity that the Kashmir of yesteryear is no more. I'd heard such glowing tales from friends who'd spent many happy times there in the past that, given the relaxation of travel restrictions, it was high on the list for a future visit - but, alas, is now deleted.

Tot: 2.82s; Tpl: 0.109s; cc: 15; qc: 29; dbt: 0.0332s; 2; m:saturn w:www (104.131.125.221); sld: 4; ; mem: 1.4mb