Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Trip to Heaven and Back...May be Not!! - Day 3 - Sightseeing Srinagar

Staying at Mount Villa was the only respite in the particularly unfriendly and hostile city. Situated in the bylanes not very far from the Dal Lake, this is an ancestral house converted into a homestay for guests travelling to the city. Managed by the very enterprising Yasmin Ali and her small team, we were made to feel extremely at home from the moment we set foot here. I'd made the bookings well in advance over the internet. The house is extremely tastefully done and reminded me so much of my maternal grandparent's house in Bareilly. A working fireplace, old blue ceramic pottery, wire mesh doors with springs, beautiful front and back gardens and old wooden furniture.  The food wasn't too elaborate, but well made and tasty. They also have an extensive menu to order from. 

 Our suite at the villa

 Seating area in the suite

 View from the window

 Entryway to the garden

 Beautiful bird bath

Its our third day in the city and we decided to explore the city a little more. We were suggested the local touristy places which include half a dozen gardens and a few religious shrines. We take off to the Shankaracharya Temple, dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva, which sits on the Takht - i - Sulaiman Hill, about a thousand feet above Srinagar city. Made from stone, this temple was built where the great philosopher Adi Shankaracharya stayed during his visit to Kashmir. We alight the taxi and begin the climb to the temple. About five kilometers from the temple, we are asked to alight, barring the driver, made to walk through scanners and metal detectors. The taxi driver drops us a kilometer away from the actual temple site since the road up is extremely narrow and jammed with parked vehicles and buses of the Amarnath Yatra pilgrims. No cellphones, cameras, or any other electronic equipment are allowed into the temple so you must leave everything in your vehicle. It is imperative that you arrange for your own travel to the temple and the city, local transport is totally absent. The entrance of the temple is a huge army and police checkpost. You need to stand in separate lines and get checked thoroughly by police officers. Once thats done you begin climbing the two hundred steps to the actual shrine. It isn't as tiring as you think, we were up in about thirty minutes :) The view of the city from the temple is breathtaking, The entrance to the actual temple is narrow and small and only one person is permitted at a time, so you need to get into an unending queue. I conveniently missed that and hung around the outside admiring the view. 

View of the city from somewhere near the Shankaracharya Temple

Our second stop is Pari Mahal, which translates to a grand palace. This palace was originally a Buddhist monastery. The various gardens around the outside of the palace are what attract tourists to it. There are no guides, no history mentioned anywhere except a small board at the entrance. 

Chashme Shahi not very far away from the Pari Mahal is what we visit next. The driver explains to us that this garden boasts of a spring that flows directly to the center of the garden from the mountains behind it. The spring water is said to possess many curative properties. This was the dirtiest of all the gardens that we saw around the city. People were washing and spitting right into the spring. We grab lunch at the only restaurant here managed by the Jammu and Kashmir Tourism. The food is nothing great and we ask for some rajma (Kidney Beans) and steamed rice. The rice arrives undercooked so we know they don't get too many guests eating at the restaurant. 
We wanted to get done with the rest of the gardens in the city, so that I could go have a look at the local market for Kashmiri fabric and jewellery.
Shalimar Bagh and Nishat Bagh are like the other gardens and are a real waste of time. Siraj Bagh or the tulip garden is closed during this time of the year. 
After I insist on being taken to the local market. The driver takes us around to a few emporiums, run by the local business men, which are just dingy basements with over priced leather and woolen stuff. Every seller says he's selling pure pashmina! You will not find any women around to help you buy the Kashmiri Phiran, which comes in various fabrics and awkward sizes. The hostess at the homestay recommended Polo View Market to shop for fabrics and knick knacks, but I found nothing original and interesting. I came back from Kashmir with no fabric :(( 
Our last stop for the day is The Hazratbal Shrine. This shrine houses the a strand of hair of Prophet Mohammed. It's also well known for its beautiful dome and minaret. Sadly we got to see nothing of its grandeur as the dome was covered for renovation. Men are allowed to go inside the shrine, but women are only allowed to go all around the shrine to the back leading to a room covered with sheets all around. There's nothing to see! 
Our driver was extremely impatient and dropped us off at the Villa. He had to be home for breaking of the Roza (Fast) at sunset. 
To get the mood up, I arranged a little tea party along with the hostess, in the garden. My Ma-in-Law hadn't cut a cake for her Birthday so thats exactly what we did. The cake was ordered from one of the oldest bakeries around, Jan Bakery. I've never had such a light fluffy cake ever other than what my Ma bakes at home!  

Tea party in the garden

 The mouthwatering cake

All smiles at the tea party

The day was long and tiring and we get to bed early. Oh I must mention, at three in the morning we are woken by the loud sound of drums beating at the window. Both the Mister and I are startled and jump out of bed to the door only to be told that this is a ritual for the month of Ramadaan! 
Early next morning, we have another surprise in store for us that ruins our visit to the glaciers at Gulmarg :(( Thats in my next post. 
Hope you're having fun reading :))


Monday, July 14, 2014

Trip to Heaven and Back...May be Not! - Day 2 - Pahalgam

Our second day in the valley begins with the drive to the grassland you see in the picture. We are up early the next morning and leave at 9 am since we are told by the driver that the Amarnath Yatris (Pilgrims travelling to the Amarnath Cave) cause major traffic snarls. We obediently listen to the cabbie and without a fuss carry all our luggage with us instead of dropping it at the homestay we are booked at. 
All seems great at first. The drive is beautiful except now we seem to notice armed gunmen at intervals of five minutes! I've read about this in books by various journalists and people who've fled Kashmir during the turmoil in the 1990s, but I wasn't quite expecting them to be this close for comfort. Its still raining and as we moved further, the number of gunmen increase and they seem to have different uniforms as well. Our taxi is flagged down at various places and we are quizzed and asked about our whereabouts. The taxi driver on the other hand is asked no questions and is least bothered. After two such checks, I am intrigued and ask the driver how often do such things happen. He cooly explains saying when "You Indians come over to the valley, you need to be checked thoroughly, because we never know what you are up to!!" Hold on, did he just say "You Indians??" We are in our own country aren't we? Okay so lets face it, the local Kashmiris donot seem to be very happy with us comimg up here. I have never felt so unwanted in my own country as I did when the driver uttered those words. 
We all fall silent in the cab and wish to not provoke the hot headed driver. So now we are about past the half way mark to Pahalgam and have been driving for close to 2 hours when we hit a major army check post. We are made to get off with all our luggage and belongings and walk towards scanners lined up ahead. The driver cooly asks us to get off and drives the car ahead to where we would alight after we are frisked thoroughly.  There are lady officers to frisk us and they speak amongst themselves in the local language and scorn at you if you ask them anything! Their frisking procedure is embarrassing and very uncomfortable. Meanwhile the Mister and I are summoned by an officer asking us to deposit our bottles of liquor at the counter. No rule anywhere states that we aren't allowed to carry alcohol with us. We mean to ask why but the officers pay no heed, they happily take away our sealed premium scotch bottles from us. No amount of requesting helped, infact they are so rude and brash that they ripped my suitcase apart to get the bottle out! And like most officers in uniform in our country, they have no regard and respect for a woman, they do not even acknowledge your presence forget looking you in the eye and talking to you! This was by far the most unsettling of experiences. We get all our stuff together and we get back to the taxi, only to find the driver in a scuffle with an urchin and another group of drivers! 
Everyone's upset now, and we want to get to Pahalgam as soon as we can. There are no places you can stop on the way, no clean restrooms, restaurants, nothing whatsoever. We drive for another 45 minutes and get to Pahalgam.
We are greeted by dozens of horses, and their owners in a dirty, dung strewn parking lot. The car goes no further than this spot and to get to the actual grassland we have to get on to a pony. I am not to thrilled with the idea, but have no choice. Each pony costs 1500 Rupees each for a distance of 5 kilometers up the grassland. We are five of us and they get us up on each pony, promising to show us "3 points". We proceed in a line up the parking lot and then begins the climb. It has rained all night, the mud is sticky and the ponies look tired and over worked. I am not enjoying this at all. The saddles on them are hard and uncomfortable and there's nothing to hold on to. I make a noise and get off, not wanting to go ahead at all. As I walk back to the parking lot, the pony master comes running after me saying it was a pity I was missing the gorgeous view of "Mini Switzerland" after driving this far from Srinagar city. I give it a thought and did he just say "Switzerland?" and I'm missing it? Well fine them, I get back onto the pony and agree to give it a try. The first fifteen minutes is flat land so fine, we get by smoothly. Then begins the climb! Its steep as hell and slippery. There are dozens of ponies coming down the same way and I must admit, I saw not a single person relaxed and enjoying. I am stuck now and cannot go back, so I request the pony fellow to get me off and I climb the rest. We cross streams and rocky edges, it was terrifying. I have no pictures of sitting atop the horse or the way up because I was petrified and forgot to take pictures :(( Its drizzling all along and I'm feeling sorry for putting my In-Laws atop the ponies, how uncomfortable they must be...but wait, my Ma-in-Law was enjoying the most!! I have no idea how she got past this. We climb for another hour and are shown two silly places on the way - Valley Point - where you can see the parking lot you left below and Hunter's Point - a flat slab of cement where some Kashmiri Maharaja once hunted down a wild boar. 
                                                                          Valley Point
Okay that was all!! We get to the top where we are told, we've reached Mini Switzerland!! This place has four dirty shacks selling milky overcooked chai and maggi noodles!! I am soooo disappointed, my feet are sore, my backside bruised from the hard saddle and arms aching and all we get to do is eat noodles and a tiny grass patch, they're calling Switzerland??? 

                                                                Pahalgam Grasslands

Tired family waiting for chai and maggi

The Mister and I :))
We spend some time trying to snap some pictures and we head back in half an hour's time because the pony guys must get back to base. This time the Mister and I both make it back down on foot. It takes us an hour to get to the parking lot and now its pouring crazy. There's no place whatsoever to take cover and we frantically try calling the driver. Bad idea, because the phones have no metwork! We bump into the driver who's being beaten up by other drivers for the scuffle he had this morning. Gosh! I was in tears, now we were eager to get back to the city at the earliest. Oh and I must add, there are NO restrooms!!
Its 4 pm when we begin to drive back to the city. We cross buses and cars stuffed with Amarnath Yatris, who get off and urinate and litter just about anywhere. 
We insist on stopping for lunch and the driver halts at a restaurant. Its strange how we never enjoyed the food anywhere. Good Kashmiri food is hard to come by and yellow lentils and kidney bean curry (Rajma) was all we found to eat. 
We finally reach the Mount View Villa at 7 in the evening and it was like coming home after exile :)) Its pouring and we are greeted by warm staff and hot cups of chai, what a relief!!
Day 3 in my next post! Hope you're enjoying the detailed series :))
Thanks so much for reading!


Friday, July 11, 2014

A Trip to Heaven and Back...May be Not!

Hey Y' farewell post before the holiday got lost and stuck in the machine and I struggled with posting it from various locations, but in vain. I did however manage to take Maccie to the doc last evening and he fixed it alright :) 
The much planned and awaited trip to Kashmir went off quite well with a few glitches here and there. I must warn you, that this post shall be the longest I've written so far and I have lots of family pictures to share too. Will try and break it up for you into parts, but you must be patient eh :))

Well lets start with day one: 

Catching up on my reading on the plane 

Our 2.5 hour flight from Bombay lands late at the Srinagar International Airport on Tuesday afternoon, the airlines citing "Security Reasons". This is a term we were made to hear at least 15 times a day while travelling through Srinagar and the places around. The In-laws however have miraculously reached earlier than scheduled and made to wait inside the airport because all the electronic indicators displayed wrong timings, so they couldn't figure whether we'd reached or not. Luckily for the Mister and I have postpaid mobile phone numbers and managed to get our phones up and working on very weak signals...again jammers are installed at the airport for "Security Reasons". The poor In-Laws couldn't get their phones working because they both had prepaid card connections which are not permitted in the valley again "Security Issues". We some how manage to locate the driver assigned to us for our entire 5 day trip through a travel agent. Our young, local, hot headed Kashmiri boy warns us that it is the Holy month of Ramadaan so he will not be available after 7 pm as he needs to be home with the family after sunset. He does not observe the fasting ritual, but his family does. Secondly he makes it very clear that he will not take us around the places where the pilgrims of the Amarnath Yatra pass by, which by the way passes through the heart of Srinagar and most of the touristy places around, says they are a nuisance and unwanted in the city. We're now on our way out of the airport in the cab to a houseboat booked for the night. This is a luxury houseboat booked for us on the Dal Lake. We manoeuver through heavy traffic and dirt roads towards the city. The only respite is the beautiful weather. Its drizzling and cloudy and I'm so happy we leave the hot, humid climate of Bombay far behind.
The driver suggests we get some lunch first and drops us off at Mughal Darbar in the heart of the city. He says its well known for its authentic Kashmiri food. We are welcomed into a dirty, shabby looking place, with flies zipping everywhere. Fine, we give it a try and order Wazwan, their recommendation and a vegetable along side some lentils and flat breads. The food was terrible! The meat stinky and bland and we get past somehow. The driver gets an earful from me for getting us here, but we notice that every taxi from the airport drops off tourists at the same place, suggesting a good understanding between the two parties. 

Kashmiri Wazwan - Accompaniments 

Kashmiri Wazwan - Main Course

We finally get to the banks of the lake called the "ghats" in the local language. A horde of shikara (wooden boat) boatmen rush to us and yell at each other arguing as to who'd take us across to our houseboats. One tall, huge guy shouting the loudest gets all us five adults to huddle on to a single boat with 7 pieces of luggage piled on to us. I lose my shirt and they finally realize that they need to get us on to two boats and not one! 

 Dal Lake on a Cloudy Afternoon

 Shikaras of Various Sizes

 Muck Floating in the Dal Lake

Excited In - laws 

Our Maiden Shikara Ride

We reach the other end and offload at our houseboat for the night. These houseboats just float on the surface and do not sail. An extremely old, toothless gentleman, the caretaker of Shera Palace Houseboats, Mr. Ali, greets us at the entrance. We enter this old mildewed, dingy sitting room, packed with old stained carpets and heavy upholstery. We are made to shift our baggage into two rooms which we are to share amongst the five of us. I quickly get the larger of the two rooms to be shared by my In-Laws and the younger brother-in-law and settle the Mister and myself in the other. I promptly make a quick inspection of the attached washrooms. So the larger room has one at the end of the boat while we have ours attached to the common wall between the two rooms. So practically I bathe and wash right next to where my In-Laws rest their heads to sleep in the next room...Ugh!! The walls are made of paper thin plywood, pasted with cheap wall paper that is peeling off from every corner. There's running water alright, but no warm water since its evening and warm water's available only in the mornings. Fair enough, we're on a boat, what do you expect Runa! But hold on....we're on a Luxury Boat!!! I cannot believe I've paid so much to live here. The washrooms are filthy and dirty like they've just been used before we got in. Anyway, I tell myself its only a night. 

 Ma-in-Law gets out the eats for her sons 

 Houseboat Corridor

  Sitting Room in the Houseboat

 Me Listening to the Family catching up

 Dining Area 

 Old Paper Mache Lamp 

 Ornate Embroidered Curtains

 Porcelain Chandelier

 Kashmiri Khatamband Ceiling

 Handwoven Carpet

This is the eve of my Ma-in-Law's 60th Birthday. I'd planned all this for her and wanted her to have a good time. We order in some tea and sit around the deck outside and then in the sitting room for a while. We get all chatty and since we're the only guests on the boat, we take the liberty of asking Mr. Ali for some more cups of hot tea. Ahhaaaa....Mr. Ali coolly says, sorry he could only serve us a cup each as its Ramadaan, the women in the kitchen are tired, they will make dinner for us on an empty stomach, sleep only a few hours, so no extra work. This is now seeming to be a mistake. We've come to the city at the wrong time! Oh noooh, my tea loving In-Laws are upset but yet give in because they were just so happy that the family was together. I make one last effort, request Mr. Ali to be kind enough to get us some tea. He does reluctantly and gets us some Kashmiri Kahwah, which I must admit was yum! Sitting at the deck we are constantly flooded with sellers that will insist we buy everything from carpets to flowers. You must be weary of them because they fleece big time, so says Mr. Ali. No one tells you what you what to expect in Srinagar. Every other thing is a surprise. The whole evening Mr. Ali is chanting loudly in his small room. By 7 in the evening loudspeakers go on and chanting from the mosques get louder and louder. We can hardly hear each other. Dinner is simple and served to us at 9. The plates are stained and smelly but we are grateful for a hot meal.

 Our host Mr. Ali and his endless tales of good old Srinagar 

I must admit that the houseboat had some really beautiful detailing like the ornate Walnut wood panelling, the gorgeous paper mache products, which aren't made anymore, the pretty Kashidakari curtains, old porcelain ware that was up for display and the Khatambandh ceilings. Such detailing is rare to find and needs utmost care and maintenance. The houseboat owners cash in on the old heritage but put in very little into the upkeepment of these boats.
Coming back to our evening on the houseboat, the chanting goes on way past midnight. Ma-in-Law's Birthday is brought in at midnight we pop some champagne, get the presents out and click loads of pictures. She is sooo tired but happy and I tell myself all's going well :))

 Proud Ma-in-Law with her two boys

Popping the Champagne

Happy Ma-in-Law with her Birthday gift - an ornate watch 

 The Happy Agarwal Clan

 Me and the In-Laws

We huddle in to our beds late at night amidst all the noise cause we must be up early next morning to take a ride on the shikara, which is a part of the "package" with the houseboat. The electricity goes off in a hours time, but we are too tired to complain. I tossed and turned all night because the room got very stuffy with closed windows. The windows must be kept closed to avoid mosquito attacks.

 Our Room for the Night

Traditional Carved Walnut Wood Panels

The next morning is cloudy but pleasant. We get breakfast and chai by 8 and we are all packed and ready to check out. Bathing was out of question with all the water constraints  and the stinky towels. 


 The Main Houseboat Exterior and the Kitchen on the left

Kids crossing the lake early morning to get to school

Early morning selfie  

 Ornate Walnut Wood Panelling 

Neighbouring Houseboats

Our Shikara chap arrives and again tries huddling all of us on to a single boat till we agree to pay extra for another. We later find out we were overcharged whereas we were not to be charged at all in the first place. The moment I and the Mister set foot on one boat, the owner arrives and asks us to pay for the tea and bottled water, which we do immediately. As soon as we take off waiting for the rest to get on to the boat, the owner informs my Father-in-Law that we must pay for the dinner as well. I refuse as it was clearly mentioned in the houseboat package that dinner and breakfast is all paid for. However we do because we had no choice. The Shikara guys give us a short ride of the Dal Lake, which is mucky and dirty and looks like any other lake in the country except that we are sitting on a differently shaped boat. I'm thinking to myself this place is supposed to be "Heaven on Earth". Well may be day two will get better.
We get to the other side and get all the baggage loaded on to the taxi. The driver insists that we set off to Pahalgam (A 2.5 hour drive from Srinagar) first without getting to the homestay I'd arranged as we'd get stuck in traffic jams on the outskirts of the city. He blames the Amarnath Yatris (Pilgrims) and speeds off to Pahalgam. We realize later that the homestay was only a 5 minute drive from the lake and we should've dumped the luggage first. There's more adventure awaiting us on the second day!
So thats day one of our stay in "Heaven". I'm leaving the rest for the other posts to come. Don't say I didn't warn ya'll hahahaha. Hope you have fun looking at all the pictures. See you on the other side. Thankyou for reading through my almost unending post :) Bye for now!