Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Jammu and Kashmir

We’re dropped at Jammu, the winter capital of Jammu and Kashmir state, on the roadside underneath a flyover. Where are we? - I thought the bus terminated at Jammu. We’re getting lots of “advice” from all sides, but I don’t believe anyone, and I’m on full guard “don’t touch me, I’m not your friend” mode. Eventually we work out where the bus station is and walk there with people coming at us like iron-filing drawn to a magnet. Ooh look boys, there’s a walking ATM, let’s go make a withdrawal!

Jammu bus station

Inside, the government bus counter is closed. A unshaven chap is sitting back in his chair at the enquiry desk, feet on the desk. When I ask him about tickets to Jammu, without saying anything he waves his hand nonchalantly towards the nearest ticket booth, which it turned out wasn’t the right one for Jammu anyway. Walking on, we find a private company with Jammu scrawled on the outside of the ticket box, where the chap assures me that there no more buses this evening due to a landslide, and that we should come back tomorrow. I probe him, trying to ask whether this is just his company or all, but whenever I’m close to finding the truth (that there are buses running), he would claim to not understand me. Weasel.

I’d just about given up, and resigned myself to staying in Jammu, by all accounts a pretty awful city (LP devotes two inch-long paragraphs to the place), when a bright orange-shirted chap who was on our bus from Amritsar comes up to us, he’s going to Srinagar too, has a ticket, and wants to know if he can help us? I’m suspicious at first but soon realise he’s genuine. Yes, thank you, our saviour! He shows us where to buy the ticket, but before buying I ask to see the bus, which turns out to be parked up miles away the other side of the station. Anyway, looks okay, and we’re going this evening – at 9:30pm (as he told us), or 9pm, as he told Sonu, our new friend.

We leave our big luggage in the boot of the bus, a slight risk but I just can’t carry it any more (plus drag Thuzar’s wheely thing too) then wander out of the station to buy some nibbles. Sonu, our new best friend, is from Batala in Punjab. He’s 21, and is in the army – that’s why he’s going to Srinagar, he’s returning to his regiment after a couple of days holiday (presumably from Independence Day. He’s already killed militants – Afghani and Pakistani! And yet he’s so gentle! He carefully folds up Thuzar’s jumper for her, and generally looks after us. He does get fed up with ambling about though, barking “why are we walking?” and turning back for the station.

We find something vaguely resembling a café and take some cold drinks – they have one bottle of coke and one Mazaa (Mango juice drink that is fairly common here). Back at the bus, given the uncertainty over departure time, we don’t board under they start the engine up. I’m slightly nervous about whether the fixed seating plan will hold as there seem to be an army of dark-skinned locals boarding, but Sonu says not to worry. Finally on board, there are a couple of guys sitting in our seats, but one quiet word from Sonu and they move! Other disputes mean our bus doesn’t leave until about 10pm – I get the impression that seats have been overbooked somewhat. Just like an international airline, eh?

Before we leave we want to buy some more mineral water. No problem says Sonu, and grabs our half-empty bottle, pours what’s left out on to the street, runs to a local café and fills it from the open water butt they have there. Err, thanks!

So we bump out of the bus terminal on to the main road, and turn to head up into mountains. Soon the bus is swinging left then right continuously, frequently slamming the brakes on as we meet trucks and buses heading the other way. The lights get switched off, and I start to doze off. Jammu is still hot even at this time, so we have the window open, but try to stay clear from it as the two in front of us keeping spitting out of theirs. Yuck.

We’ve just settled into a nice sleep when the bus jerks to a stop, it’s just after 11pm, and we’re at Anapurna (sic) Dhama restaurant. Sonu orders food for us, curries, bread, rice. It’s all tasty, but not appropriate for this time! Why can’t they stop at a sensible dinner time?!

On the bus, we try to get back to sleep, but it’s not so easy with a full stomach. Apparently after I do fall asleep, there’s some kind of fight involving the conductor! Why do I always miss these things? It’s pretty uncomfortable, but we get some sleep before morning comes.

We wake up to our bus parked up in a big queue of vehicles. Apparently we’re waiting to enter Jawarhar Tunnel which cuts through a steep mountain range leading into Kashmir proper. The tunnel is 2.4km long, and is one-way. Whilst waiting, we, as tourists, are taken to the front of the queue to the army checkpoint to register ourselves.

Tea stop

Slurp, sugary goodness

The solder takes us to a small metal hut, but can’t open it with the key he has. A second trooper joins in, but only with the third do they manage to get it open. The Indian Army, what effectiveness! We’re asked to fill out the book they have with our information, but they don’t even look at what we write. Profession: Lumberjack.

Not many foreigners doing this route – we only see 2 others. The books says you’re supposed to check the safety situation before coming this way, but, well, I haven’t. Finally it’s time to go, into the tunnel, which is roughly cut and quite bumpy. Out the other side into big green valley. Not unlike Darjeeling but lots drier. This is Kashmir proper!

Every so often we pass a bill board advertising India Army slogans. Indian Army: The Iron Fist!. Stronger than the Strongest, though that might have been a cement advert.

We stop for breakfast in Avantipur, an area famous for the production of cricket bats, which bear (unauthorised) famous names but are made by hand locally.

Simply not..

Then I snooze my way through Pampore, the centre of India’s saffron industry, and the only place in India where the expensive spice is made. I’d quite like to buy some, though as it later turns out, it’s quite hard to find and fairly expensive even here!

Kashmiri plains

And then at last we arrive in Srinagar, not in the centre as LP implies, but in some kind of out of town bus depot. Great. Sonu gets to experience life as a tourist as he gets hassled on our behalf. We have a choice of bus to town for 5r or tuk tuk for 6, which we opt for, but somehow he ends up taking us to a damn houseboat.

The houseboats are the classic way to live in Kashmir – Srinagar town centres around a lake, much of which has houses and plots of vegetables growing on it. The boats are of various sizes, but the average one is like a house – with balcony, living room, a few bedrooms, kitchen etc. They are graded according to quality, but all the ones I saw seemed fairly run down.

I’m reluctant but Sonu hasn’t seen one before, so we go have a look. Inside they are very kitsch, quite dirty, and the owner shows us around a room with someone else’s stuff in it. No thanks. The tuk tuk then takes us where I wanted to go in the first place, to the Tourist Welcome Centre, which is where I wanted to go in the first place, but suddenly the price has become 100r!

Anyway, the Welcome Centre is nothing but a ticket booth for the local bus company. We book our tickets to go to Leh a few days later. I’m not very impressed so far. We’re getting hassled here too, and I’m quite sharp with them to lose them: “Let me explain this clearly to you. I will NEVER stay anywhere you suggest”. I’m fairly battle-hardened when it comes to fighting these games, but it’s awkward with Sonu there as they just hassle him in languages I can’t understand.

So the solution, we have lunch, then pack him off so we can fight our own battles! We walk up the street and find a touristy restaurant where we try Kashmiri tea and various Indian dishes.

Kashmiri tea

After Sonu goes, Thuzar and I walk along the Boulevard, where there are lots of hotels.



I’ve decided against the houseboats because of the hassle, and the fact that we’re only staying a couple of days.

Kids escape the heat

I should point out at this stage that there are army troops absolutely everywhere. Every twenty yards on every street there are at least a pair, if not four. At junctions, more. Every building even vaguely connected to the government or army is heavily fortified. Guns point out of machine gun posts everywhere. Why are there so many troops here, in the town centre? I’m later told that there have been calls to reduce the numbers. Certainly the locals I spoke to don’t appreciate having them about.

Walking round fighting off people who run up to give us their sales spiel, we dive into the first hotel which doesn’t hassle us, Hotel Zarbavan.

Hotel Zarbavan

Their rates are 3800r or 3500r per night for lake view or garden view respectively. I explain our budget, knowing that occupancy rates are fairly low. Eventually we get 1300, still not that cheap (my budget was 600-1000), for lake view, with a nice top floor room which is why I agreed to the extra money.

We shower for the first time in days. Heaven!!

Next, we walk up the hill behind our hotel, intending to climb to the Hindu temple, Shankaracharya, also known as the Throne of Soloman. Instead of going the long way round the other side and up the main road, we wander up through narrow alleys through a Muslim area, before finding a mosque, which turned out to be a mausoleum.

Outside, half a dozen troops are sitting in the shade chatting. It’s nice that there are all different religions represented in the troops. They’re friendly, and we chat and take photos with them. Thuzar was surprised at how heavy their guns really are.

They direct us round the hill we’re on, but we get lost (turns out we should have just headed right up the sheer face, of course!), so we head down through the forest, but at the bottom find wire all the way round, which we follow till we can crawl under into someone’s garden. Naturally I am worried about being shot by the army as we do this! Talk loudly so we don’t stumble across and surprise a machine gun post!

The muslim chap whose garden we just invaded invites us in for tea in his house. I hesitate, then think “Why not?”. The whole family turn out to be so kind, we are given tea and biscuits and looked after.

The grandfather suggests that we should stay with them. This is the hospitality of real Islam.

After we finish the tea they show us via a convoluted route that we haven’t a hope of replicating, in their maze of alleys how to go up to the temple.

Back down, we walk back and forth along the waterside for the sunset.

Shikara, more of a tout hassle than a tuk-tuk

The Queen’s house boat?

We also discover Nathu’s restaurant and sweet shop, an inviting place, possibly the best thing in Kashmir, that I’m sure we’ll be returning to!


What’s good about Nathu’s – thousands of kinds of yummy sweets

Back at our hotel, we head up to the terrace for sunset.

Mughal fort

In the evening we go to Residency street, in the other part of town, for Grand Hotel’s wazawan , a traditional Kashmiri meal featuring six mutton and one chicken dish.

Thuzar doesn’t like it, but I quite do. We wanted beer, but the waiter tells us that they do not stock it. Apparently Srinagar is almost dry due to the high duty on beer and alcohol.

Walking home, we pass troops lurking in the dark, some of whom say hello, some of whom glower and frown, leaving our hellos unanswered.

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