M double U

2015 Kashmir

Next morning we had to rush through breakfast as our driver was waiting for us. It turned out there was no need to rush as he was a bit late. We were not sad leaving Kargil behind us and head on To Kashmir, that gave. The inspiration for the title of this trip.

The valley was much greener now and that was not the only thing that changed. The architecture of the houses changed and the prayer flags and stupas were nowhere to be seen. We now arrived in an area where men wear beards and women are veiled…

We were at the crossover of Ladakh and Kashmir and slowly Islam became more dominant. With the valley being so much greener a lot more activity could be seen. Shepherds were herding their goats, cows and sheep. Small, temporary tents were dotted over the valley where they could stay the night whilst away from home. During summer home was where the grass was greenest so the cattle could enjoy a good feed before the harsh winter set in.

We started to ascend and passed Drass, what is known to be the 2nd coldest inhabited place in the world, and even in summer it was chilly, we were happy to have our fleeces at reach. By now it started raining, there were thick layers of fog and the landscape turned from vibrantly green to a dull grey. We reached the last pass of this journey, the Zoji-La pass, which was at a moderate height of only 3505 meters. To mark the crossing only a signpost was there and immediately we missed the colorful prayer flags. But we were moving into new territory with new beautiful things to show.

And just when we were getting used to the beautifully tarred road conditions changed dramatically as soon as we started to descend. A path, not wide enough to allow 2 vehicles next to each other, no barriers to protect us from crashing into the valley which was now hundreds of meters below us and to make things worse… The rain has turned the path into a muddy and slippery track so all ingredients were present for some more hair raising moments. We even had to stop a couple of times and patiently wait for a landslide to take its course and made the track even bumpier than it already was.

Fortunately our driver seemed to know what he was doing and we safely made it down the mountain. We had already noticed the highly increased presence of military troops and this remained to be so in the valley. With India still being in dispute with Pakistan about the Kashmir region tensions are still high. The situation however have been safe enough for a number of years for tourists to visit so we could not wait to travel to this mythical place ourselves.

As soon we passed through Sonamarg, the meadow of gold, we were now descending into the Kashmir valley. Somehow I strangely felt a kind of Swiss atmosphere. the houses looked a like and certainly did the landscape. We passed through several villages and everywhere the military was discretely, butt still clearly visible.

Srinagar, the Venice of India, as soon as we hit the streets we entered a bustling world full traffic chaos, so typical for a modern Indian city. Fortunately we were to leave that behind us as we were going to stay on a houseboat at Dal lake. Our driver dropped us at a point where several gondolas were moored and very soon we could enjoy a short trip to our houseboat. Several boats were pretty close to the city but the more we floated through the channels the more quieter it became, we could only hear the peddling of the boatsman.

The arrival at the New Crystal Palace, as our houseboat was called could not have been more grand. The front of the boat was beautifully carved and a butler was waiting to welcome us. inside it indeed looked like a palace. Heavy wooden furniture, thick carpets on the floor and Crystal chandeliers. A Living room, dining room and a long corridor where at the end our suite was located. more Crystal chandeliers, a comfortable  double bed, a settee, and on suite bathroom, all luxury and lush decorated in a style that remembered to the colonial years.

We zipped some Kashmiri tea and biscuits at the veranda overlooking the lake and enjoyed the different world we had just entered. The contrast with Ladakh could not have been bigger. We were now ready to immerse ourselves in a new adventure.

Mr. Din Sultani, our Buttler had interesting stories to tell about the region, he also told us a couple of people would come by showing their products. Well, with the intention of course to sell. The first one to show up was a local with two suitcases filled with jewelry which must have been worth a fortune. Pretty soon the table in front of us was filled with diamonds, rubies, Safire, and a large selection of semi-precious stones. Bracelets, necklaces, rings and other types of jewelry blinded us by their beauty. Not all was to our liking as most of it was to richly decorated. Paul found an attractive silver neckless while my eye was caught by a neckless with 135 carat worth of small safires, something totally different and beautiful in its simplicity. After we were able to haggle the price down each of us ended up with a nice memory of our trip to Kashmir.

Not much later we ended up in an extremely interesting discussion with Aamir, a tour guide for a group of Japanese staying at the same boat as us. We deeply got into a conversation about the differences in cultures and questioned him about some aspects of Islam we have difficulties with to understand, like the lack of rights for women for instance. Guess we shocked Aamir a bit when we told him we were already married for 13 years as gay relationships are absolutely not done in this very conservative society. It was a passionate conversation with respect for views from both sides. In the end we could only agree to disagree but in the most respectful manner.

The discussion was interrupted as Mr. Din came over to announce that dinner was being served. And what a dinner it was. Sumptuous, tasty but far to much. It was a true feast meal which the both of us highly enjoyed.

The rest of the evening we relaxed at the veranda whilst enjoying the peacefulness and tranquility offered by the fact we were located on such a quiet part of the lake.

After a good but very short night of sleep we were woken by the alarm at 4:30. It was difficult to get up even before sunrise but we were going to visit the local floating vegetable and shower market. We left before dark but slowly the sun started to rise whilst we enjoyed being peddled through the narrow channels. Every now and then we saw a boat passing by, loaded with merchandise while the seller must have been hoping for a good day.

As soon as we approached the floating market we could hear the bustling cacophony of noises where sellers tried to attract potential buyers or where they were frantically were negotiating the best price.

What a place this was! We were totally intrigued by what was going on around is and totally loved the scenery. It was an amazing experience to see this ancient and still very lively tradition. We found out that this was the daily wholesale market after which the goods, obtained at a good or not so good price depending on the negotiating skills of the buyer, were transported to small market stalls for further sale to the end consumer.

Things could get quite emotional as at one point we saw a seller and buyer in a hefty discussion. The seller poked the buyer with a cucumber on his nose after which the buyer angrily threw the money in the water. It was a spectacular encounter to witness but somehow we feel this was all part of the negotiating game.

We stayed about an hour after which we slowly returned to the new Chrystal Palace where a warm shower awaited us. Feeling refreshed we returned to the veranda where we zipped some more Kashmiri tea until Mr. Din invited us to enjoy breakfast. He told us he would be free after 10 O’clock and would like to show us around Srinagar.

So just before 10 we boarded the gondola again and headed towards the mooring point in Srinagar. A driver was already waiting for us and within minutes we were absorbed by the chaotic traffic in Srinagar. Our first stop was the Jama Masjid, Kashmir’s central mosque and the pride of Srinagar city. It was an enormous complex with 4 central towers, a beautiful fountain in the center and 4 wings which in total could accommodate over 30.000 devotees at a single prater congregation, or almost 100.000 if the central courtyard was included to. In contrast to the mosques in the Middle east or Northern Africa we were allowed to enter and admire the vastness of the place. There was not much decoration inside but the carpets where the devotees took place during a prayer session were certainly an eye catcher.

Once we left the mosque we took a stroll around the Srinagar Market, the perfect place to witness Kashmiri day to day life.

Our next visit was Sarson Ke Khet, another mosque which was totally erected in Cedar wood. Beautiful paintings covered the ceilings and although they were slightly damaged by the tooth of time we still got a good impression of them. Also the entrance was beautifully decorated but this time, we were not allowed inside, as a lot of praying was going on at the moment.

Third mosque of the day was the Hazratbal mosque on the western shore of Dal Lake. The name Hazratbal means holy place and is earned by virtue of the fact that the shrine contains a holy relic, a hair of the Prophet Muhammad. The mosque is the only domed mosque in the city; the other have distinct, pagoda like roofs.

Just when we were afraid that this tour would turn into an overdose of religious places we headed  to Shalimar gardens, the abode of love. It is the largest and most famous of the Mughal gardens and was initially created in 1603. It contains 4 different terraces from where water flows downstream. the planting was wonderful with great grass fields in between where families picnicked, couples had a romantic encounters and school kids were taught about the history of the place. It was a fantastic site to visit.

There are multiple Mughal gardens in Srinagar and the second one we visited was the Nishat Bagh, garden of joy.  This garden has a total of 12 terraces and waterfalls. As we could see it was tremendously popular with the locals enjoying a bit of serenity to be far away of the chaotic streets of Srinagar. The both of us thought this garden was even more beautiful than the previous one we visited, maybe because of the abundance of flowers, the architecture of the 12 terraces and the views over Dal lake.

It is unavoidable as it seems but every sightseeing tour seems to have a mandatory visit to a local handicrafts emporium in order to see how carpets are made. Oh no, not again please, no more bloody carpets. After having seen a demo of the knotting process, impressive indeed, we were offered some tea and shown a variety of carpets. We patiently and politely admired the craftsmanship, having difficulties suppressing a yawn or two, and after the question which size or quality of carpet we were interested in told the seller they were oh so nice but would totally misfit in our modern house. Thankfully he did not push us to buy so it was an easy escape. Instead we ended up in an interesting discussion.

It was time to return to the new Chrystal Palace. Once again we found ourselves at the veranda relaxing before we boarded the gondola again for a relaxing tour over Dal Lake. In the beginning we floated through massive lotus plants with what must have been thousands of flowers, a very impressive sight indeed.

Then we entered the channels from where we could witness the day to day life on the waterside of Srinagar from the comfort of our seat. And yes there was again the to be expected visit to a papier mache factory, or better call it a showroom. The pieces were beautiful and would fit in our house as perfectly as the carpets we saw earlier so we left empty handed leaving a couple of disappointed salesmen behind us. The same almost was true for a visit of a cedar wood carving place. The majority of pieces, although extremely craft full, would most certainly find a place at home. But then there was a simple and beautiful wooden pestle and mortar in soft shades of grey and in a moment of being very supportive we bought it, in the sake of good luck for the salesman.

Back at our houseboat we enjoyed the atmosphere over viewing the lake after which, what must have been the best meal of this trip, was served to us in the dining room. Another beer or two at the veranda after we called it an end to what had been a wonderful day in Kashmir.

Next morning we had a bit of a sleep in. Packed our cases, enjoyed a truly lush breakfast after which it was time to say goodbye to Mr. Din as we were ready to travel to our next destination, the hill station of Gulmarg.

Traffic in Srinagar was horrendous and chaotic so it took us over an hour to get out of the city premises. This time it really struck us how dirty the city was, especially compared to the cities in Ladakh there was an abundance of dirt around the roads. Cows were feeding themselves on the garbage, sheep and goats on the side of the road and sometimes even in the middle of the road. There was quite a bit of graffiti calling out for an independent Kashmir. Go India, go back. From the comfort of our car it was still an amusing experience though.

We were glad to leave Srinagar behind is and now our driver was catching up speed. The landscape was gorgeous, crops were grown, cattle was feeding from the rich fields and it was an extremely pleasant surrounding to watch whilst driving through.

About 15 kilometers before reaching Gulmarg we made a tea stop and immediately we were hassled by someone offering us his services as a guide. I cannot remember how often we said no but finally he got the message and headed off so,we could enjoy our tea. Before we left he approached us again so we just decided to ignore him.

At the car there was another extremely qualified guide who got the same deal of ignorance and then we were on the road. We were now ascending to Gulmarg and were surrounded by beautiful pine forests. It was a lush landscape and we could understand why Gulmarg used to be one of the favorite hill stations of the British in the colonial times. We arrived at an altitude of 2650 meters and almost felt like being in an alpine landscape. It was an extremely beautiful environment which we immediately loved. We drove around worlds highest green golf course over the world and made our way to Khaheel Palace, which was at walking distance from the Gondola.

Checking in at our hotel we noticed it was a bit dark and tired (which is the polite way of expressing our impressions), the room was huge but not long after we checked in we discovered some issues with the shower which was only the beginning of a sequence of unfortunate events.  Fortunately this was only for one night but we would have loved to return to our houseboat. (and if you insist to read our complete experience at this ehh… hovel have fun reading my review I left at Tripadvisor)

We left the room and walked towards the gondola where we got two tickets for phase one of the ride. Going up was a great ride through the pine forests watching what was gliding away below us. People hiking up and down, horses and some small villages only used during summer time. After 2,5 kilometers we arrived the middle station where we had to buy two more tickets for the second part of the trip.

Once again the right left us through beautiful,scenery, that was until we were covered in a thick layer of clouds and we could only guess where we were going. Not much later we broke the clouds again and now watched out over the clouds, gasping at some mountain peaks at the horizon. The 2nd gondola station was not far now and now we found ourselves once again over 4000 meters. In winter time Gulmarg is the prime Indian skiing resort and everything was catering for this. A bit further of the summit were the remains of a melting glacier and from the buzz what was going on there hundreds of Indians were esthetically enjoying their first experience of snow. It was a scene not to be missed!

Unfortunately we had forgotten to put on our hiking boots which made the ascend over the rocky surface a bit more tricky but we managed anyway. The sheer joy and fun of the Indians who had been traveling long way to enjoy some fun in the snow was truly infective. Paul and I thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and kept laughing about the funny activities. Booted ladies, dressed in their colorful saris tried to make their way up to the snow, some more successful than others. The unlikely combination of a Sikh in the snow brought a smile on our faces. tthe way how people sat on a sledge and were dragged by two ‘ski-instructors’ to the summit, in order to came down in a clumsy way was simply hilarious. Skis were placed in such a way that photos could be made of the  people standing behind them, giving the impression to be actually skiing, which without doubt would cause jaw dropping impressions once back home (the photographers were even carrying bags with printers so the result could be seen immediately). And yes, there was even some real attempts for skiing going on. As said, the whole scene was too hilarious to be true and we stayed for over an hour watching what was going on, something that could have come directly out of a slapstick movie.

It was hard to leave which we did anyway as both of us were getting a bit hungry. We returned to the first gondola station where some simple restaurants (or should I say food stalls) where located. Still we enjoyed a tasty lunch after which we returned to the valley.

Dinner at our hotel was better than expected but as there was not a lot of entertainment we went for an early night.

Next morning our driver was waiting for us and we asked him to get us away from her as fast as possible, that was a bit difficult as the road was blocked and we had to take a detour. Not much later we had fantastic views over the valley and when we looked up n the sky we could see eagles and black crows fighting for a spot and each of the species attacking each other. We backtracked the same route to Srinagar and enjoyed the natural beauty surrounding us. It was simply magnificent.

As soon as we arrived in Srinagar we were quickly absorbed again by the chaotic travel. It took us at least an hour and a half to get through and then the landscape changed dramatically. Dense pine forests at both side of the valley and in the middle a silver green river meandering its way downstream. It was lush and beautiful.

We stopped for lunch and enjoyed a very good vegetarian meal, a vegetable biryani (fried rice) and a mushroom massala, it just proved that even in the simplest of places a decent meal could be prepared.

There was still a long way to go but the scenery was worth it. We passed little farming villages, some tented settlements for the not so happy few and lots of agriculture on the way.

And yes, the military presence was stronger than ever. At one point we even had to take our suitcases out of the car and had them checked by x-ray. We could hardly believe it when told to do so but then this is still a highly volatile area.

By now we had entered the Kashmir valley and somehow things did look a lot friendlier than in Gunmar. Arriving at the hotel neither of us could suppress a sound of relieve seeing what it looked like. Only by seeing it from the outside we felt this was going to be much better and we were right. after having filled in numerous forms at the reception we were guided to our room which was much better indeed than the previous night. A quick check was done whether the water was running and also that was the case. One again we were happy travelers.

The rest of the afternoon we took some time to relax and repack our suitcases for the flight home. We went for a nice little stroll to the center of the city, crossed the river to the other side and made a beautiful walk alongs the river through pine forest and the golf club. The views were amazing, a bit like Switzerland but then with an Indian touch. We saw a small footbridge that we crossed to be back of the right side of the river and found our way through a small housing complex where the less fortunate lived. Some memories of my slum tour in Mumbai, earlier this year, came back but that was a wrong comparison as this place was much smaller and definitely much much cleaner.

Back at the hotel we sat in the garden and discussed the options for tomorrow. We could go for a guided walk with a guide, rent a driver and car to do some sight seeing in the area or go for a pony ride. Seeing the condition of the poor animals that was out of the question as we did not want to be cruel to them.

I was having second thoughts about our return journey, having to leave at six in the morning for what would be at least a four hour drive in order to catch our plane to Delhi at noon. It all felt a bit rushed for me and I was not happy with it at all. So I asked Paul what he would think to change our plans and return back to the houseboat, spend the afternoon and night over there and leave the morning after a sumptuous breakfast to head to the airport. The result was a big smile on his face. In spite of the additional expenses we would end our holiday on an absolute high ( I guess I already made clear that we absolutely loved our stay on the houseboat) and start our return journey in a relaxed way.

Both of us were extremely pleased so we toasted on this unexpected but extremely nice change in plans with a bottle of water. No beer or soft drinks were available so we were a bit limited in our choice.

Dinner was great and tasty and we did thoroughly enjoy it. We surfed the net a bit before we went for a good sleep, it had been a long day…

We thoroughly enjoyed a decent night of sleep, had a shower, did our final packing and were ready to return for some final pampering at the houseboat before returning home. Time schedules seems to have shifted a bit in this hotel, not only was dinner at a quit late time fir Indian standards, 20:30, but the same was valid for breakfast. Not that we were bothered…. Both of us felt extremely relaxed and knowing we would return once more to our favorite hotel experience during this trip made us feel happy and content.

The trip was slowly coming to a close but what a fantastic trip it had been. Memories of our hair-raising journey from Manali to Leh came back to our minds, the fantastic monasteries in Ladakh and then the incomparable natural beauty of the rugged Himalayas. Crossing the highest motor-able pass in the world was a truly breathtaking experience and both of us were extremely pleased that, besides some minor headaches, neither of us had shown more severe signs of altitude sickness. It has been a most memorable trip indeed and without doubt a very special and adventurous journey the both of us have undertaken together. We certainly took our traveling to new heights.

We enjoyed our breakfast and the drive back to Srinagar. Halfway we made a stop at the Avantisvamin Temple in Avantipur, dedicated to Vishnu. After having spent most of our time in a Buddhist and Islamic environment it was nice to finish of at a sacred place of a third of the major world religions, Hinduism. The temple was build from 853-883 A.D. and was in a bad condition, it were mainly ruins but at some place there were still traces left to be seen from the rich carvings.

In the afternoon we made it back to “our” houseboat, for one final time and indulged in the lap of luxury provided by Mr. Din at the New Chrystal Palace. Relaxing whilst enjoying the stunning views over Dal Lake, a dinner which was more like a great banquet, a good night of sleep , and finally a sumptuous breakfast. We could not have thought of a better way to finish off our trip in Kashmir than at the place we loved the best. The New Chrystal Palace at Dal Lake.

And then time was really up. Back to the airport for the flight to New Delhi. There we had a long layover of ten and a half hours before continuing to Munich and Dusseldorf. Needless to say we did not feel like hanging around at the airport for so long so we looked for something nice to do in New Delhi. Well, we found much more than that…

Finish the Journey in Delhi