Houseboats after a flood

Shikaras

Shikaras

One of the reasons we’d gone anti-clockwise around the loop in the Himalayas, was that Western Kashmir had been drowning in flash floods and the road was blocked by landslides and lakes of mud. Srinagar had been affected too and the shikaras had been floating as a kind of taxi service where the streets used to be. But when we got there, the water had receded to normal levels and the streets were as sandy and dusty as any Indian city. Rubbish and gunk hanging high up in bushes and under bridges and mud caked out-of-order ATM remained to tell the tale.

Srinagar is a lake city to which the British used to retreat from the summer heat in colonial times. Not allowed to own land here, they built elaborate houseboats. Nowadays these have been converted into guest houses and a few are occupied by local families. The boats out in Dal lake, with a view of the city are quite posh and pricy, some even sporting WiFi. And most can only be reached by Shikara.

Riding around the back shore of Dal lake, we found ourselves a scruffy little family run houseboat, reachable by land so we could park the bikes nearby. Or rather Raj found us, dragging Aidan off the bike to show him the room. (His real name is Ashraf, but he wants us to call him Raj.) When I say scruffy, I mean that in a wickid, lovable way. There is electricity. But no running water, so they supply it, hot or cold as you wish, in big buckets. Takes a little getting used to, then its just fine.

Unlike most owners, Raj hasn’t bothered panting everything in that horrendous magnolia most people here use. Most of the wood was original and bare, looking all silvery and weathered and the intricacy of the original carvings and ceiling designs are visible everywhere. He’s even managed to save some of the awesome original furniture from the flood.

The family live in the boat next door and life happens on the rickety wooden jetty between the boats. The kids have their shower here and run about colourful and laughing (or screaming, as the case may be).  The women wash clothes, sheets and carpets in bowls filled with lake water and spread them on the roof and railings to dry.

They offer us Kashmiri Kahwe every time they see us. And it’s yummie! A green tea made with cinnamon bark, cardamom pods and saffron. It’s served super sweet with either lots of sugar, or almond shavings and honey. We decided to hole up here for a few days and soak up the atmosphere.

Srinagar also has a great old town where the houses are made of stone at the bottom and wood, sometimes beautifully carved, at the top.

And then there are the floating gardens. I expected some sort of flower bed islands of Dal lake, but I was pleasantly surprised. We followed another rickety wooden jetty out onto Dal Lake and found green islands, where people grow vegetables. A bunch of school kids led us on to the colourful settlements out in the lake. They were endlessly amused by us, joking about, shaking our hands, then running off. The boys turned off into the little village on the left from where people were waving. The girl was picked up by her mum in a boat. Her house was out on the lake, far beyond the jetty.

We hung about enjoying the peaceful atmosphere and a few villagers came over, striking up a curious conversation of few words and many stares and handshakes.

On our way back a couple of older guys walked with us, chatting away about what they do and what we do and life in general. Back on land one of them was off, but the other invited us round to his place for Kahwe. We were ushered into a tiny living room with just a carpet, a couple of pillows on the floor and a flat-screen TV on one wall. Priorities! He told us to rest and his wife rustled up the tea and some biscuits. They introduced us to Kashmiri bread, too. All this seemed very un-Indian and I was reminded of our Turkish experiences. Then he mentioned they are Muslim. That explains it! Eventually we said our good byes, having to find an internet cafe to let the folks know we are still alive.

We’ve had many annoying touting experiences where people would stop us under the pretence of striking up a conversation about where you’re from, then bugging you into buying something you don’t want from them. It makes you really sceptical and offish towards anyone we meet. So we almost didn’t stop, when Latif said Hello and asked if we had some time. He turned out to be one of the most interesting guys I’ve ever met.

His wooden shack along the path that separates the land shacks from the backwater houseboats contains a little travelers library of books and novels in all different kind of languages. You can borrow books or swap two of yours for one of his (so that the library increases for the community’s benefit). Sadly all of it drowned in the flood and he has been carefully washing the mud off the books, drying them out slowly on the porch, so the pages won’t fluff up. Some had lost their cover, so he wanted help writing author and title on the spine, so he could identify them easily on the shelf.

He invited us in for chai, but decided it was too late to work on the books. Instead we had a conversation about life in Kashmir compared to southern India, where he’d also lived, and how people’s culture is so different there. He talked about his dislike of people’s materialism and short-sightedness with regards to their and their children’s future. It was really interesting how his universal truths had a distinct Indian twist to them. So far I had only ever heard these concepts from a western point of view. But in India Gandhi’s words, spiritualism (though he would not bring religious debate into it) and the everyday problems of poverty,  lack of education and too many children per family have a big impact on these philosophies.

Latif was on a roll and it was so much to take in, we ended up lost for words. I really regretted not having filmed it as I would have loved to rewind here and there to make sure I understood all he had to say. We agreed to visit him over the next few days to try and get them books sorted. He’s definitely the kind of person I want to surround myself with. When he’s not engaging in deep conversation, he has a lighthearted, nuts-in-a-good-way manner about him, joking about this, and laughing about that. Yet always thought-provoking. If only there were more people like him!

It seemed rude to go snapping pictures in their home, so here are some of the lake from our boat on the only non-misty evening we encountered there.

The entire family live in wooden huts around a simply beautiful little courtyard behind Latif’s hut. So waiting for him we got to meet his brother too. Another lovable hilarious nutter. Not so much the philosopher, more the clown and swearing a lot, but in a nice way and with a Geordie  accent, but claiming to have learned most his English during his time in Australia (of which he has lots of crazy stories to tell). Wickid guy!

We had a craving for real coffee (almost all of India serves Nescafe for coffee) and some peace and quiet to write our diaries, so we ended up at the posh place in town: Coffee Day. It’s pricy and basically the Indian Starbucks. We didn’t get much diary writing done, cos we met Xubair and his fiend and ended up chatting for hours. Xubair is basically a 26-year old Indian rich kid with endless money, several cars and a new bike every few weeks. The opposite of Latif, but still a nice guy to hang out with. He doesn’t care about money (well, it’s not like he has to worry about it) and pays all our bills. As he sees it, life is short, so we should all have a good time. He loves meeting travelers, travels around India on a whim himself. Having paid for our coffee, he roared off on his Enfield with a promise to meet us the next morning.

And so we brought our bikes and rode off together up the mountain to Pari Mahal (Angel Temple), formerly a castle, now a museum with beautifully kept gardens and awesome views of the lake and the city. Sadly the views were a bit misty, but it sure is a nice, calm place. Xubair loves coming up here with his mate for a stealthy beer and spliff. (Kashmir is famous for its awesome hash apparently.)

We went for some awesome lunch at a dhaba known amongst local for its yummie dal and made plans to meet up for beers on the boat tonight. In these parts of India, drinking alcohol is massively frowned upon and government strictly controls its sale through taxes, area-specific laws and minimum prices. Add to that the fact that most Kashmiris are muslim. Since we arrived, in all areas we’ve been through, drinking is illegal on the streets. People drink only at home and in Kashmir they hide it from their dad, women and children.

Xubair would not sit on the porch at the back of the boat, but insisted that we hide in the living room. Raj joined us, bringing a bottle of whiskey (cheaper than wine in these parts) and when his neice walked by, all the booze was quickly stashed behind the armchair. We had a nice little round going, but eventually Xubair was called home. Having a cigarette and a few chewing gums to hide his alcohol breath, he rushed home.

You can hire a Shikara for a tour of the lake, so one morning a guy came to pick us up with his yellow boat. Much to our dismay we had missed the floating vegetable market. It finishes at 5am! But our guy rowed us along all the posh boats in the part called the golden lake.

Annoyingly other, more nimble boats would pull alongside, trying to sell their wares (usually the same shit the last one and lots of shops on the street tried to flog). Only the ice cream seller made a fortune that day, as he was the only one. The traders ruined the relaxing trip a bit, but the day was saved by some black kites diving for fish. Apparently they are quite rare apart from in Indian cities, where these birds do quite well, scavenging.

Our Shikara man showed us pigeon island, so named, as it used to house loads of pigeons, now closed to the public as the army have taken over. Looks like a bunch of  reeds to me. But there were floating corner shops in front of it. That’s kinda cool!

We returned to a sort of floating shopping area where boats offered carpets, woolen shawls and clothes. This is where the floating vegetable market happens. Our guy stopped at a float-by chai stall, so we got a good look at the one vegetable boat still cruising about doing home deliveries. Then it was time to wriggle our way through the backwaters to our houseboat.

We could have stayed much longer in Srinagar. All Kashmiris told us we were missing so much their state has to offer and we should explore the mountains hiking. But that sounded like a lot of effort and we were getting itchy feet. It was time to head back south!

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