Onkur Sen

"The way to be is to do." Confucius

Kashmir Journal: December 15-21, 2012

December 15: Delhi, Srinagar, and Pahalgam, oh my!

  • I spent the entire previous day/night doing grad school apps. Finally got around to packing at 12am; had to put everything in suitcase because carry on bags aren’t allowed into Srinagar (later found out this wasn’t true, but I guess it forced us to pack light anyways). We also had to get different SIM cards because prepaid phones don’t work in Kashmir; had to get postpaid plans instead.
  • Woke up at 4:15am; left with taxi at 5am. It was interesting to see Kolkata streets relatively empty as opposed to the regular hustle and bustle. We went through the inside roads (as opposed to the bypass on the way into Kolkata); passed by maniktala, where grandmother grew up, and then took VIP road straight to dum dum, Kolkata airport
  • We stopped in Delhi. The airport is nice. Really nice. Nicer than most American airports. Went outside and met Dipyaman Kaku, dad’s former student, for 10 mins. It was good to see him after more than 6 years. Afterwards, we got lychee juice and brunch: chicken tikka paratha from “Dilli Streat Food” (yum!)
  • Admittedly, upon landing in Srinagar, I began to feel a bit uneasy seeing military bases, cars, etc. first time seeing something like this “up close”
  • Met Wasim, who took us to our driver Sajid. We talked with him about Kashmir, which seems to be pretty stable right now
  • Stopped in Avantipur for temple ruins which were 1200 years old but looked like a park. We had a guide and for the first time, saw a kangri, which is basically a woven basket with coal and powder inside to provide really intense dry heat. Kashmiris keep them inside their phirans (which are like overcoats) so you can’t actually see them unless they take their hands out.
  • We passed by a town with cricket bat factories! They dry the wood in a formation like jenga blocks, which was really cool to see.
  • It’s amazing how much advertising there is for mobile phones. All of shops have some brand (Vodafone, reliance, airtel, etc) on their shutters for when they close. Access is completely universal and ridiculously cheap here. It helps that a lot of the industry is government-subsidized.
  • We got to Pahalgam and checked into Hotel Heevan; we were offered to take horse ride to pahalgam city, but it was way too expensive. The hotel room is really nice; bed with electric blanket, flat screen TV, good central heating, excellent room service, friendly people, and of course, a breathtaking view outside.
  • I’ll give a special shoutout to the food by Mohd. Maqbool Malik and Atiqullah Khan, which was absolutely excellent. The staff are so friendly, encouraging conversation and feeding us really well. The Kashmiri halwa in particular had ghee and was super creamy.
  • We went outside to take pictures and found out that Ranbir Kapoor and Nargis Fakhri stayed in this hotel during the filming of Rockstar! The trees around here seemed familiar; turns out the filming for “Phir Se Ud Chala” done here.
  • Snow and rain has been pouring constantly over here. As a result, the Internet is out. Oh well, we’re watching TV so no worries.
  • Let’s talk cricket (4th test, Day 3). Last test between India and England, and England is up 2-1 in the series, so this match is crucial. Kohli and Dhoni played superbly throughout the whole day. They were extremely patient on a pitch and outfield that just did not give much to the batsmen. Then once Kohli fell, everything went to shambles. Dhoni was run out on 99 (only because he had to run around Anderson), and Chawla was bowled by a good ball from Swann.

December 16: Lazing in Pahalgam

  • We were planning a day trip out today, but we got snowed in! No worries though; we got to enjoy the breathtaking view and watch cricket all day =).
  • Today was a very lazy day: just eating and sleeping. I woke up from each nap (yes, there were multiple) with a soreness that felt like I was finally decompressing from stress. We did go out a couple of times though to take some pictures which was nice.
  • Breakfast and lunch were both great as usual. The restaurant itself is a bit colder than the rooms (as soon as you exit the room, the air condenses from your breath), but there’s a centralized gas-powered heat lamp that keeps the entire room warm. It’s cool to see!
  • Dinner was particularly memorable as we got to have famed Kashmiri mutton rogan josh. In addition, I found out that the main way that the hotel attracts business (and indeed, how we found out about it) is through TripAdvisor! I told them about how I interned there and showed them my cap, and they were delighted. I promised them I’d give great reviews when I got back.
  • Malik also told us about an insider’s secret to Kashmir: once we get to Srinagar, we need to try a meal called “harissa” from naan-walas! Apparently it’s only available from December through February, so we made perfect timing! More updates on that later.
  • Let’s talk cricket (4th test, Day 4). Aligned with the views of others, I don’t really understand what the point of Ashwin/Ojha batting for the first hour was since they only put on around 30 runs. It would have made much more sense to declare straight away (although declaring in a first innings seems really unusual) and focus on knocking England out quickly. Regardless, we couldn’t even do that; Bell and Trott just plodded along.

December 17: Down to the Valley and Up the Hill to Gulmarg

  • Today we woke up early to catch the early sunlight hitting the mountains around the hotel. I also noticed that the small puddles off the road froze over. Well, duh; what was especially cool was that if you lightly grazed your foot over the puddle, you could form small cracks, and with just a little force, you could break through.
  • After having the great morning breakfast, I said bye to Malik and Atiqullah. We checked out of the hotel and headed deeper into Pahalgam towards Bettab Valley, where Phir Se Ud Chala was filmed. We took a guided tour with a few Kashmiri guys. First, we changed into some snow boots. Then we rode sleds down from the road into the valley. We walked around a bit and experienced some “artificial snowfall” (aka them throwing snow at us) and finished with taking a lot of pictures. Unfortunately, in the midst of all of this, I lost my cell phone I had brought to Kashmir. It wasn’t particularly expensive, but it was still personally frustrating that I let these careless things happen.
  • Next we headed out of Pahalgam and drove towards Mattan (also spelled as Marthand), where we stopped at the ruins of a 1300-odd-year-old temple dedicated to Surya, the sun god. It was actually a bit out of the way and up a windy road, but the view was definitely worth it. This temple, although similar in architecture and construction style to the Avantiswain temple, was much more grand.
  • After visiting Marthand, we went back on the path which we had travelled from Srinagar to Pahalgam (including passing by the cricket bat factories!). On the way, we passed by some army trucks; I was both intimidated and excited at the same time.
  • We reached Tangmarg, a small town below Gulmarg (which is much higher in the mountains), and had to switch to a car with 4-wheel drive that could handle the snow-filled windy road ahead. We also “had” to rent some snow boots that would have good traction on the snow-filled road (even though none of the locals were wearing them). That was a little annoying.
  • We switched cars and took a 45-min car ride up to Gulmarg and got to our hotel, another Heevan Retreat. On the way, we passed by India’s highest golf course, which was now covered in snow.
  • We checked into our hotel, settled into our room, and headed into the restaurant for a snack. My dad and I had a local hot specialty beverage called “kahwa”, which was like a tea with almonds and honey. It was subtly sweet and very tasty. We also munched on some French fries.
  • Here also the Internet isn’t working albeit for a different reason: the hotel hasn’t paid its bill on time (the staff claims they paid today and that the Internet should be operational in a few hours, but so far no results). After snacking we went down to the fireplace to warm ourselves up and noticed there was a pool table! Unfortunately we couldn’t find the cues or the balls, and we soon found out that they charged Rs. 350 per game. Nope.
  • After getting back to our room, we noticed that there was a strong smoky smell (presumably from the fireplace), so we switched rooms. This new room is a little bit smaller but quite quaint.
  • There’s not much good tv going on except for one gem of a program called “Turban Tadka” on the “Food Food” (yes, two foods) channel, where this Punjabi guy demonstrates simple recipes for tasty snacks. His signature lines are great though, including (and I promise this is not a joke):
    • Ahahaha, Ohohoho, (etc for all vowel sounds)
    • Kya baat hain (he congratulates himself on his cooking)
    • My personal favorite: (To the tune of dhadak dhadak from “Bunty Aur Babli”) Namak shamak, Namak shamak, Daal dete hainnnnnnn He sings the last one while adding salt (always to taste).
  • Let’s talk cricket (4th Test, Day 5); I got to watch the match later at night. Let me just say, what was that. Terrible display of bowling and fielding. However, contrary to what Geoffrey Boycott thinks, Trott was not playing in the spirit in the game (particularly the boundary off the no ball), and I don’t respect his hundred.

December 18: Gondola in Gulmarg and Return to Srinagar

  • Today we woke up, ate breakfast, and headed close by outside the hotel to a gondola (cable car) ride up to a skiing area with the “help” of a guide who really knew nothing. Once up at the top, we took pictures of the surrounding landscapes and headed back down.
  • After entering the hotel, I was delighted to find that the Internet was working! It’s been 79 hours clean, but I immediately had some grad school work to do.
  • We finished up lunch, packed, and went back down the mountain to tangmurg. After retuning the shoes and paying an exorbitant price for the guide, we drove to Srinagar. Before coming to the hotel, we stopped at a government arts emporium and bought and clothes and souvenirs.
  • The Dar-e-Salam hotel is really nice. Incredibly beautiful facilities with exquisite decorations, reliable Internet, great food, and nice common rooms to relax in. We have a lake-facing room which is great too.
  • We were relaxing in the common room and met Nishith and Pooja, a couple from Bombay. Talked with them for a few hours and decided to go to Sonamarg together tomorrow! Then we had dinner and retired early. Or, my parents did. I’ve been staying up writing and talking to friends haha.

December 19: Sonamarg and the Shikara

  • Today we had breakfast and took a day trip to Sonamarg. However, once we reached the foot of the mountains, we found out that we could only proceed by riding ponies, a decidedly unattractive option. To top it off, my mom was developing a fever on the drive over, so we decided to take some photos and head back towards Srinagar.
  • Here I’ll pause to note something negative overall about our experience in Kashmir. Wherever we go to explore that’s a relatively popular tourist attraction, we’re flocked by locals who want to provide us with services or have us buy things that it diminishes the effect of the breathtaking scenery that surrounds us. My dad said this is a phenomenon that is primarily localized to northern India. In part, it seems to be due to a lack of sustainable jobs and skilled labor in these areas that causes so many people to vie for attention in the tourism sector.
  • Anyways, when we got back to Srinagar, we headed to Dal Lake to take a ride on a “shikara”, which is a covered boat with nice cushioned seats. Our rowers took us around the lake, showed us the different views, and brought us to the “floating market” where a lot of local wares and clothes were sold. Along the way, we were visited by boats that met up with us and people wanted to sell us things along our journey. It was a very different and interesting experience. Also halfway into the trip, we had a stop at a “mobile cafe” where I had kahwa, a Kashmiri drink like tea that has almonds and honey. Absolutely blissful (and quite cheap!). We also got a preview of what the houseboats looked like; we’re staying in one tomorrow night! In particular, we saw one houseboat where “Mission Kashmir” was filmed.
  • After the shikara ride, we visited a street food vendor upon the recommendation of our driver Sajid (who is from Srinagar himself) that made a fish fry from freshly caught dish thinly dipped in batter. As Bengalis are notorious for eating fish, my mom seemed like an authoritative source for judging the quality of this meal, and she loved it! It was tender, minimalist, and flavorful. It actually turns out that Bengalis and Kashmiris have a similar taste in the essence of cuisine: rice and fish.
  • We got back to the hotel and caught up on the outside world on our iPhones before heading to another scrumptious dinner in the company of Nishith and Pooja, who took a day trip to Pahalgam. We talked more about travel and going to different locations. I watched a bit of old T20 cricket (being shown in anticipation for the T20 match tomorrow!) before heading to sleep.
  • One last thing: before parting with Sajid at the hotel, we gave him some money to get us “harissa” for breakfast tomorrow. I’m excited to see what it tastes like!

December 20: The blitz in Srinagar

  • Today’s the day we finally got to try harissa for breakfast. It turned out to be basically something resembling goat pate along with some thick, round bread. Quite tasty and definitely unconventional.
  • We hit all of the attractions in Srinagar today. After shopping at a clothing store across the street, we headed to Hazratban, a famous mosque where the hair of Muhammad is said to be kept. A grand marble gate stood tall as we entered, and there was a half-covered, half-open patio in front of the mosque itself. On the roof of the covered portion was one of the highest concentration of pigeons I’ve ever seen (it rivaled that of a Venician plaza that I visited around 2002). When we entered the mosque itself, we first passed through a foyer before donning topis (hats) to enter the prayer room itself briefly. We then exited the mosque and enjoyed the gardens around the building. I then found out that the steeple of the mosque was made of pure gold, and it is said that the first Hindu was born here. On a bitter note, this was the site where hostages were held famous terrorist attacks in 1995 (which threw this region into disarray).
  • Next, we headed to Shalimar Bagh (garden), which the Mughal emperor Jahangir built for Nur Jahan, his wife. The fountains weren’t on at the time, so we didn’t get to see the garden in its full splendor. However, one thing that caught my eye was that the gardeners had cut out Urdu phrases on the shrub-like trees. They also made the soil around the trees into various patterns, like chinar (Kashmiri maple) leaves, stars, and half-moons.
  • Next up was Nishat Gardens, which was built by Shah Jahan (Jahangir’s son). This garden was much cleaner, grander, and better maintained. Here my mom and I decided to get our pictures taken in traditional Kashmiri garb which was pretty fun.
  • We then headed to Pari Mahal, which was an astronomy building built by Dara Shikoh, Shah Jahan’s oldest son and the older brother of Aurangzeb, the last Mughal emperor. It had a very rugged feel but overlooked all of Srinagar and Dal Lake. At the top, I saw a soldier standing outside a small hut. I went around the hut to see the view and saw a machine gun pointing out from inside; the soldier could use the hut as shelter while sniping enemies (remember, Kashmir and especially Srinagar is potentially a warzone). That was an interesting experience. Everyone seems a bit relaxed nowadays though.
  • Down the hill from Pari Mahal was Chashme Shahi, which was another garden (this time with working fountains!). Our stay here was pretty short; the building itself wasn’t very expansive.
  • Our last attraction for the day was the Shankaracharya temple, which is a fertility temple dedicated to Shiva, one of the gods in the Trimurti (a trinity of sorts, the other two being Brahma and Vishnu). This was a very sacred location, so security was high. An armed soldier accompanied us in our car up a 5km hill, and we weren’t allowed to bring phones or cameras in. We also had to go through a security check and climb over 200 stairs before reaching the small temple, which essentially consisted of water dripping from a bell onto a stone phallus (representing fertility). The trek down was much easier, as one can imagine.
  • We headed towards our accommodation for the night, the New Manhattan Deluxe houseboat, a type of stay well-known in Srinagar. We actually had to take a (very short) shikara ride from across the street to get there. The inside was quite well-furnished albeit very cold. We unpacked and had dinner before hitting the shops along the boulevard.
  • We ended up buying a ton of shawls as well as some antique items before heading home and watching the first T20 between India and England (yes, the houseboat had tv, although power went out for half an hour between innings).
  • With that in mind, let’s talk cricket. With England batting first, Hales was looking good before Yuvraj brought us back into the game. Ashwin started off well, but his last over was just way too costly. I thought using Kohli as a bowler was interesting although it turned out to not be too bad. In terms of batting, Yuvraj and Kohli energized the effort, and Dhoni and Raina brought it home. I thought it was interesting that Gambhir, Rakhane, and Yuvraj all got out to similar shots. Also props to Kohli for playing a very mature innings in terms of deferring to Yuvraj when he was going berserk, especially since Kohli is generally the explosive player. I think the Test series has shaped him up for the better.
  • The houseboat was FREEZING. As power was expected to go out at some point during the night, we donned many layers before scrambling underneath the electric blankets.

December 21: Return to Kolkata during the End of the World (?)

  • Woke up early in the morning because my stomach was a litle upset, but got over it in a few hours and went back to bed.
  • The morning was a crazed rush of packing and repacking (due to the obscene volume of purchases from last night). We had a very cold breakfast and did another Kashmiri photoshoot before heading out of the houseboat towards the Srinagar airport.
  • And so the security checks and the frisking began. Of course, security is tight around Srinagar because it’s a defense airport, but this was insnae. Here’s a breakdown, incident by incident:
    • The first one was at a gated stop where we had to send our baggage through X-rays and do a simple frisking.
    • Next, upon entering the airport, we passed our baggage through another X-ray machine for Air India specifically and then had our checked luggage wrapped in those bands so that we couldn’t open the suitcase anymore.
    • Next, we went through standard hand luggage security and frisking to get to our gate.
    • Finally, before boarding our flight (which was late by half an hour), we went through one last frisking.
  • Our flight to Delhi was pretty uneventful; Air India had a pretty limited in-flight entertainment selection, so I watched Monte Carlo, a good old Amitabh Bachchan movie, and some Hindi song videos to pass the time.
  • We again entered the exquisite Delhi airport and made sure to grab some lychee juice again. However, our flight was delayed by a little more than an hour, so we watched the news about the recent Delhi gangrape incident. I heard a lot about it in Kashmir, but I’m just now hearing the details. It’s truly a tragic and shocking incident, and I think the protests are rightly motivated in that India needs to have a more effective police force on duty to ensure the safety of women in Delhi and indeed in the country itself.
  • We finally reached Kolkata around 8:30, went through the usual switcheroos in baggage claim, and left the airport around 9:30. We reached home around 10:15 and collapsed.

It’s been quite an eventful week, and I’m really glad I got to see this side of the country. Thanks so much for reading my journal; hope you enjoyed it!

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