Thursday, September 13, 2007

Killer Postcards

Roadside market

After picking up some tasty pastries at a local bakery, we walk to the post office. It’s behind a small local park. We walk towards the building, with large signs advertising the Indian Post. Round the large loops of barbed wire barriers. Towards the door, with the army dug out next to it. I’m walking slowly until I notice the guy in the dugout has turned his machine gun and trained it on me, holding his other hand up in the classic stop symbol.

“What do you want?”

“To send some postcards?”

“Go round the back!”

I would love to show you some photos of this moment, dear readers, but I would not have lived to upload them, so you'll have to imagine.

So yes it turns out there is another entrance at the back, not signposted, but the place we’re supposed to be. Walking round there, I see a guard tower above us. A gun gets poked out through the wire and swivelled to face down.

At the back, facing the water is another entrance, with another soldier with gun aimed at me. He says the post office is closed Sunday. Of course, it’s Sunday!

The less-fortified “tourist” entrance

We arranged to meet Sonu here, but there’s no sign of him. I walk over to Mughal Darbar to use a phone. Sonu is apparently at home. Another half an hour wait, then someone else seems to pick up his phone. Eventually we give up and head to Shalimar Bagh, Thuzar now rather stressed and hungry. Turns out later that it was a mobile phone (Sonu had obviously misunderstood the question and said he didn’t have one – furthermore this means when I rang and “someone else” answered, it must have been him!).

Hop in a auto-rick round to Nathu Restaurant for lunch, then continue by bus to Shalimar Bagh. The bus is 6 rupees each, and follows Dal Lake round much further than I thought. These beautiful gardens were built for Nur Jahan (Light of the World) by her husband Jehangir, and sit at the edge of the lake with a mountain stream running down through the middle of them.

The bus terminates in front of the garden. I later read in the newspaper that a bus was attacked a couple of weeks before in this very spot and several tourists shot! Garden entry fee a reasonable 10r each.

There are lots of families out, it’s Sunday and everyone’s enjoying the flowers and water features. Sonu is there waiting for us.

We walk around together, there’s lots of water.

It’s beautiful with the mountains as a backdrop, and stream flowing down. We paddle in the cold refreshing water. Refreshingly there is some barbed wire between the flowers, but no visible troops. Perhaps Sonu is doubling up as an agent. We find a spot in the shade and enjoy a small picnic with the cakes I bought from the bakery earlier.

Not far away there is a spot where local tourists try on traditional Kashmiri dress and take photos, using the garden as a backdrop.

After busing back towards town, we hop off at the beginning of Boulevard, and haggle over the price of a shikara, the gondola-like boats which ply Dal Lake.

Eventually I get 350 down to 150 for an hour of being paddled about. The décor of the boats is somewhat floral and kitsch, but as soon as you get away from the road it is very peaceful.

Given lack of sewage system, would I swim? Err, no.

Tat even out here

Charming-looking hotel, unfortunately taken over by the army

We head towards the area where the houseboats are moored in blocks, with waterways like roads between them. It is beautiful, the lake is flat and the only noise is of the boat man paddling and our conversation.

We stop at a corner-shop, and I jump up and get some teas and coffees.

Amazingly the chap has a really expresso-maker!

A chap talking to the shop-keeper is so happy when I take his photo and show him the result.

This applies to most locals I meet in India – they don’t want money if you snap them, just to see their face on the lcd screen brings such happiness. Unlike South America where kids demand you take their photo then tell you the “charge”!

There’s lots of wildlife on the lake, all sorts of birds, large birds of prey, fish, though given the way the toilets work on the houseboats I’m not sure how much I’d like to eat lake fish.


Several large birds of prey about

We paddle along narrow watery alleys passing between vegetable gardens growing beans, tomatoes, watermelons, aubergines and cucumbers.

Tending the veg

There are also large fields of beautiful lilies with large pink flowers.

One nice aspect of the lake is the local life – it’s not just a tourist spot. Kids go to school on little boats, mothers ferry their purchases from the markets back to their boats.

Our hour almost up, we head back to the road, and I give the driver 200 for the lack of hassle – the drivers frequently insist on taking you to shops where they get commission.

It’s too early to climb to Shankaracharya temple, as in mid-afternoon, and still roasting hot. So we head back to Nathu, our favourite restaurant, and show Sonu its delights. He doesn’t eat sweets though, and so misses the best part of it.

He does, however, have some nice chat, small bit-sized pastry pockets that one fills with condiments before munching.

Filled up, we decide to attempt the hill. We walk along to the Nehru Park area, past the amusing Save Dal sign – I assumed this meant don’t eat so much of the lentil soup that is so popular in local cuisine, forgetting the name of the lake is also Dal. Doh!

We have to register our names and passport number in a log book, then we start the climb up the tarmac road.

It’s actually fairly cool as the road is mostly in the shade. We are the only people walking up. Indian tourists – as per Sonam’s suggestions, all taxi it up. A few walk down. We meet an Army checkpoint half way up, Sonu jokes with them, and they take great interest in my longji.

They think we’re mad to walk up. Shortly afterwards, they pass us in a car going further up.

The cars heading up all beep loudly as they approach us. Do Indians assume everyone is almost stone deaf? Do they not realise that their horrible old polluting vehicles are very easy to hear from miles away? One guy beeps so loudly and offensively that I vow to let his tyres down when I find him at the top. We get there, and of course there’s a big army checkpoint. We’re told that no cameras are allowed! How ridiculous!! This is the best viewpoint of the whole city, and we’ve come up for sunset, and we’re told no cameras allowed? If I had realised I could have tucked it away in my longji, but it’s too late, we’re asked to leave our bag with all electronics before continuing.

Fuming, we enter the Hindu temple, and climb the last few (not that few, mind!) steps to the top.

There are some Sikh army guys at the top that Sonu chats with, before we enter the temple. Inside a chap gives us all a splodge of red on the forehead (tikka?). He teaches us to all chant “Om nam shiva”, apparently a good thing, then gives us each a handful of holy “hygienic” rice crispies to eat. The birds enjoy mine outside.

As we leave, one person is complaining to an army guy about photos not being allowed. The army guy tells him in all seriousness that it’s for “security purposes”.

Don’t ask pertinent questions, Sir

How dare you take photos of a hill view, tourist

Have these people never heard of Google Earth? All this ridiculous rule does is annoy tourists, it’s never going to affect any spies or military reconnaissance by foreign powers. Anyway, we leave taking an unmarked shortcut down, and a minute later enjoy a marvellous view over the town, exactly the view they don’t want you to photo from just above! Madness!

It’s steep down, and Sonu wants to run down as if it’s a military exercise. A chap we meet tells us a certain route is a shortcut, he’s going the long way for a walk, but with the speed we drop too as it gets steeper, he of course walks past below us having taken the long route!

Eventually we all reach the bottom, and send off Sonu to his barracks, before going for dinner at Shamyana, which incredibly again doesn’t stock beer! Their enchiladas are pretty awful too, but the chicken curry is very tasty. In general I’ve found that the western food is pretty terrible. Stick to Indian and you won’t go wrong. Afterwards I ask for a tea, only to be told that tea is not available at the moment. What does that mean?! No hot water?

There is no beer anywhere in Srinagar, it’s a dry town. There is a 30% tax on alcohol, but no restaurants have it anyway, and we haven’t seen it in the shops. I hear rumours that it is possible to procure it somewhere, but given the short time we have here, it’s too much hassle. I suppose in a place with this with so many troops everywhere, you don’t really want alcohol involved in the mix!

Bedtime, as tomorrow is the beginning of the two day bus to Leh!

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