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!


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