The name Kashmir has long conjured visuals of racial, religious, ethnic, or territorial disputes. A region that has been immortalized by decades of negative media coverage (or to some a Led Zeppelin song) has a heavy lead weight attached to the idea of a visit; is it even a good idea? People are often urged not to go, to beware of politically charged violence, and to maintain as low a profile as possible. But like so many other places I’ve visited now with such a tag, Kashmir is quite the opposite; warm, inviting, and among the friendliest areas I’ve ever been.
Kashmir, without too much explanation, has been a place I’ve wanted to see for a long time. The gently bobbing boats of Srinagar and Dal Lake had caught my attention from a travel show long gone, and spending hours as a dorky teen getting lost in the deep valleys and high peaks of the Kashmiri interior on Google Earth piqued my interest to see it all in person.
Our transport into Srinagar, the summer capitol of Kashmir was yet another nightmare affair. If only one driver/transporter could be honest about duration. Five hour journeys are eight, eight are ten. We were told it would take us 10-12 hours to get from Dharamshala to Srinagar. It took us 16 hours. In the back seat of a car the size of a ford explorer carrying 8 people. By the time we arrived in Srinagar- 1pm after leaving at 9pm the night before- everything below my waist was numb. I couldn’t feel a thing. That’s one thing I will not miss in the slightest about India. Transportation (at least when not by train, and/or in the Himalayas) has almost always been horrific and at least a little dishonest.
We arrived in Srinagar to hawkers and rikshaw drivers pining for our attention. It was nice being in a city with very few western tourists… I’d just forgotten that minimal western tourists means more attention directed at the few that do come. Amanda and I checked into a small hotel that really acted as little more than a bed and place to drop our stuff while we figured out best how to get a houseboat on Dal Lake.
We spent a few hours walking the roads following the lake shore, doing our best to understand how the town and the boating business functioned. Hawkers continued to hassle us for rides on their boats, this much hour, that much. We stopped briefly to have tea and enjoy the view of the lake before trying again. Our body language was deliberately closed-off, but we were listening to anything that approached what we thought was a reasonable price. A young man approached us, and after I initially dismissed his first offer he countered back with one that I thought was fine. Amanda agreed and we had ourselves a ride on a Shikara.
Shikara’s are the dominant mode of transport on Lake Dal. The Gondola shaped boats cruise slowly over the placid waters, the purpose being a comfortable and enjoyable ride rather than a quick one. Our driver, Dean, looked about my age. He was thin and wiry, his body used to years of paddling back and forth on the channels and canals of Lake Dal. He took us past different markets on the lake; sometimes floating boats, sometimes buildings that still had sturdy foundations in the relatively (maybe 10-15ft deep) shallow lake.
Dean took us through the markets and some of the canals so that we could see ourselves how locals really lived on the lake, and start to understand the tradition of houseboats on Lake Dal and their origins. He proved to be just as good a history teacher as guide, relaying the origins of the boating culture in Srinagar from the old kingdom of Kashmir and its eventual annexation by the British Empire, to more modern elements…
‘Law 375’ as he told us, is a centuries old law in Kashmir, still in existence today, that prohibits any non-Kashmiri from owning land in the state. As a result and to some degree out of respect, the British honored the law by constructing house boats to provide for permanent living, give a level of personal ownership, and still reside within the guidelines of the law. The tradition has continued for over a century and a half. Even with the partition of India and Pakistan, and Jammu & Kashmir’s loss of majority autonomy under Indian authority.
After our brief tour through the wetlands of Lake Dal we visited several houseboats and compared prices, eventually settling on a boat that we didn’t even step inside. We had run out of time, as blustering winds swept over the lake and threatened a downpour. Dean called a friend with a houseboat only two down from the last one we visited, and compromised using the restrictions Amanda and I set resulting in a deal that we were comfortable with. All we had to do was show up at 10am the following morning at Gate 14 on the shores of Lake Dal.
A short paddle ride later we were at our boat, the Shoda Palace. Amanda and I both struggled to understand how we’d gotten such a deal… a beautiful decadent boat all to ourselves. The owner, a young man named Nasir no older than me, showed us around, thanked us for staying, and let us know that anything we needed he would be glad to supply.
We took a little time to check out the boat and drop our things off and then re-embarked with Dean to see more of the sprawling lake.
Only a short distance beyond our houseboat the lake opened immensely, the crowded channels of houseboats and ordered vegetables making way for sprawling water in all directions. There were few obstacles in the open water, the car horns and yelling onshore that panged around the houseboats offshore disappeared as there was no longer anything to catch and trap the sound. Only the gentle lapping of the Shikara paddles.
After visiting a small island known as four maples (for the four maple trees lying in adjacent corners) we made a long loop back to our boat, and then rested for the afternoon.
Dinner was a salad made of local produce sold at one of the still freestanding market.
Nasir joined us again for dinner, bringing tea and making small talk at first. He provided us both with a little more background on himself and his family. He had been studying Biology at the University of Kashmir only a few years prior when his father had suffered a fatal heart attack. With little other choice he dropped out of school to continue his family’s houseboat business as no one else was in a position to provide for the rest.
Our conversation slowly strayed from pleasantries and simple things to religion, politics, and world belief. Amanda and I both know it’s best not to direct conversations in that direction when in a foreign land, but when someone else leads the conversation there we both gladly follow, eager to hear a different approach, or a local’s honest, unpolished view.
Nasir, like Dean, didn’t hesitate to express his, and really all Kashmiri’s frustrations with Indian rule. Kashmiris, like so many populations inhabiting the expanses and extensions of the Himalayan mountains, are unique in their collection of culture. They are an Islamic people with a language akin to Urdu and are one of the many distinctly independent ethnic groups in India.
Nasir stressed upon us how Kashmir’s autonomy has slowly been stripped away, how violent conflicts have been over-reported and that the region is now home to over a million permanently stationed Indian soldiers. Even on Dal Lake the military presence was unmistakable. A large Victorian era hotel, the “Leeward Hotel” had once been a popular destination for well-off travelers to the lake but had decades ago been shut down and repurposed as an army base. The sign “Hotel Leeward” still beams as if beckoning guests inward but sits shrouded behind chicken wire and cloth mesh making it abundantly clear that any non-uniformed personnel are not welcome.
Locals paddle around in their elegant shikaras, careful not to disturb the balance of low level agriculture in the wetlands and the placid demeanor of the lake. All the while soldiers on patrol cruise by on motorboats, polluting the life sustaining lake and erasing the beauty of Dal Lake’s soundlessness.