The serene waters of Dal Lake are at great odds to our introduction to Kashmir.
We had originally wanted to go to Leh, but were talked in to visiting Srinigar instead by the travel agent we spoke with in Delhi.
We booked our trip and then I read the guidebook , it had one line on one page – “If you value your life, do not go.” So of course we went.
I began to get cold feet when we arrived at the airport in Delhi and after going through all the usual security checks – which were already far more than we were used to – we were shepherded into a separate room which we weren’t allowed to leave. We were all called outside to check our bags and then had to go through a second – or was it third? – security screening on the tarmac before getting on the plane.
But that was all mild compared to our landing in Srinigar. The airport in the Kashmir capital doubles as a military base and it felt somewhat like we were landing on the set of MASH (indeed when we were getting ready to depart the city our plane was delayed as we waited for fighter jets to take off).
The airport itself was only half finished, and what was there was half under camouflage mesh.
As we drove out to our houseboat – home for the next few days – I couldn’t help but notice the army officers stationed outside every second or third shop. They may have been police officers, but were all dressed in khaki and were carrying machine guns.
Things may have calmed down in Kashmir but the military presence was a constant reminder that trouble is never too far away.
It’s no wonder then that on my first night on the houseboat I lay shaking under the doona listening to what I was sure was gunshots all night. At one point Adrian woke up as the bed was vibrating so much and asked what was wrong. “We’re leaving tomorrow, first thing,” I said. “I can’t stay here, listen to those guns.”
The next morning Adrian asked what all the noise was during the night, we found out it was wedding season and what I was so sure was gunfire was actually fireworks.
After that first night, our experience on Dal Lake was completely tranquil.
We were the only guests on the boat and as such had the cook, who doubled as our guide, all to ourselves. We also had the living room, the balcony and the entire boat to ourselves. The houseboat didn’t actually move, it was stationary on the edge of Dal Lake, and our jetty onto the boat had definitely seen better days. But the houseboat itself was beautiful – timber panelled, antique furniture, it looked like something from a bygone era.
Our guide/cook/protector, Mohammed, took us on a cruise through the floating markets, pointing out the man-made veggie patches in the middle of the lake and explaining the different architecture to us. He took us on a walking tour through the city where we visited the clay makers, the markets and watched as thousands of dishes were prepared for a wedding.
Floating through the rivers was somewhat like traversing the canals of Venice – though the architecture was quite different!
Somewhere along the way we met the owner of the houseboat, who arranged a trip into the mountains for us, but first an outing with he and his granddaughter to the Botanical Gardens and dinner at his house with all his family.
It’s rather a surreal feeling watching an Indian wedding of two people you have never met in a house in India with a family you are meeting for the first time.