In the summer of 2014, we arrived in India laden with all our belongings, emotional from packing up and leaving our beloved London and good friends behind. Such is the vagabond life.
Delhi was experiencing its annual heatwave, with temperatures hitting 48ºC (118ºF) in our first week. Setting up home in India for the year took a lot more out of us than we had anticipated. Melting and exhausted, we flew to Srinagar in Kashmir for a summer sojourn.
Kashmir has seen more than its fair share of bloody conflicts since the end of the British Raj and the India-Pakistan Partition more than half a century ago. The infamous Line of Control, which to this day is still not an official international boundary, divides Kashmir into Indian-controlled and Pakistan-controlled parts. Through the years, news of insurgencies in the region created an enduring perception of a place plagued by war, conflict and violence.
Many years ago, I picked up a book in my favourite bookstore – Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. Whilst insightful in its commentary on the political and social fabric of Kashmir and India and brutal in its portrayal of the conflict, the book evoked a Srinagar of great beauty – a land of mountains, lakes, Mughal gardens and snows. In the book, the relationship between Saleem and Shiva represents the battle between creation and destruction. Reminiscent of the conflict Kashmir faces today.
Srinagar is beautiful. Traditional wooden Kashmiri houses provide a glimpse into a bygone era. Sadly many are dilapidated though still evocative. The lakes and the Jhelum river run through the city; sadly two months after our trip, the river would flood, bringing death and destruction to the city. Accommodation of choice in Srinagar is one of the many houseboats moored on the banks of Dal and Nageen Lakes. These were popular summer residences for the British escaping the heat of the plains, and allowed them to circumvent them inconvenient law forbidding land ownership in Kashmir by foreigners. Thus these “floating palaces” were born. Whilst many have seen better days, there are a handful that are still as luxurious as they were in that era. And land ownership is still restricted only to Kashmiris today.
We spent our days in our houseboat, the Mascot, on Nageen Lake, rowing the lakes in our shikara, chatting to Sharif our boatman, who spent years working in Goa before returning to Kashmir. Mr Bulbul the flower seller rowers by occasionally, pausing for a sale and trying to persuade me that his English blue poppies would grow bountifully in my garden (non-existent, I live in an apartment block).
The waterways of Srinagar teem with life. Young men cast their fishing lines in the canals, women harvest lotus leaves to use as cattle fodder, farmers tend their floating vegetable gardens, selling the fruits of their labour at the floating vegetable market. We rowed there one morning in the pre-dawn darkness, enveloped in the blackness and the still heat of the morning, all silent but for the swish of our oars. A boat sneaked up on us, carrying a single rower and empty sacks ready to be filled with the day’s harvest. In the near distance we heard a murmur. Passing under a bridge, it crescendoed and we came upon scores of shikaras laden with vegetables and fruits: gourds, tomatoes, eggplant, beans – their captains, all men, stopped for a chat, a gossip and a gaggle. We were at the floating market, which dates back as far as Mughal times and still functions today as Srinagar’s wholesale vegetable market.
After leaving Srinagar, we spent two days driving towards Ladakh. The military is expectedly omnipresent, with army camps dotted all along the way, supply trucks plying the roads and personnel in the small layover towns that pepper the highway. The scenery is breathtakingly beautiful and the road some of the best I’ve ever been on. As we stopped along each town we are required to produce our documents at border checkpoints, giving us a chance to stretch our legs, absorb the natural beauty and ponder the juxtaposition of the real Kashmir and the Kashmir of the media.