It was a chance meeting. My husband and I had been strolling around Srinagar on a cold morning, and were looking for a cup of tea.
When we couldn’t spot a tea stall anywhere, we enquired at a grocery store. “Jao andar,” (‘go inside’) the lady who ran the shop said briskly, pointing to her own house ahead. She just wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. We felt partly awkward, but we also wanted to go in, so we stepped into her home.
In fact, we felt at home from the moment we landed at Srinagar airport. Words such as militancy and azadi, which are generally associated with Kashmir, simply didn’t find place during the few days we were in Kashmir.
Greeted by unexpected warmth and love from the woman at the store and her lovely Kashmiri family, we sat and chatted over namkeen chai (called noon chai), typical Kashmiri salted tea, and round bread. The children — two boys and two girls — were curious to know what life was like outside Srinagar. And they were surprised to hear that other States too faced problems of corruption and power cuts.
“The private sector not being here significantly, barring Airtel and Aircel, is a big let-down for the Kashmiri youth,” says Mushtaq, who is doing his Bachelor’s in computer applications. “Yahan unemployment bahut hai” (‘unemployment is high’), he says.
Interestingly, Rahul Gandhi recently took a team of industrial bigwigs, including Ratan Tata, in a bid to revive the economy, attract investment and generate employment.
One of Mushtaq’s sisters, Ishrat, is studying to be a teacher; Shahista, the younger one, is in class nine and wants to be a gynaecologist. Contrary to what we thought, not all girls here get married early. “Our parents will get us married to boys only when they are settled well in their jobs,” says Ishrat shyly.
After an hour’s chat, the mother had to intervene. She twinkled at us lovingly even as she chided her children for getting late for school and college. We promised to come again later.
Shakeelbhai, the taxi driver, drove us from the Srinagar valley uphill to Gulmarg resort, which is two hours away. Gulmarg is as beautiful as the name sounds. From here, we took a cable car.
The Gulmarg gondola is Asia’s highest and longest cable car ride. In the first stage, the cable car moves from the Gulmarg resort to Kongdoori station, in the bowl-like Kongdoori valley, at a height of 8,530 feet.
The project is a joint venture between the J&K government and French company Pomagalski. It is less than a half-hour’s ride, giving you a panoramic view of the beautiful hills and lovely streams.
As we went in September, which marks the end of summer, the snow had not yet set in. In winter, snow engulfs the entire valley, providing a different experience altogether.
The second stage takes people up to a height of 12,293 feet on the Kongdoori Mountain. Once here, a short trek takes you to the glaciers (we didn’t do this ride due to time constraints).
The weather in Gulmarg is unpredictable — shining sun one minute, cold and gloomy the next. Our flimsy jackets reminded us never to take a chance with the Kashmiri weather, even if it wasn’t winter already.
Like most tourist places, Gulmarg teems with guides promising to show “seven spots for just Rs 1,000”. “Gulmarg… better than Switzerland. Let me show you,” is the constant refrain. And there are hundreds of pony owners eager to show you “rare” scenic spots. We finally chose Bulbul and Heera, who took us on a gentle ride over the rocky terrain interspersed with beautiful streams and lush-green meadows.
With several hotels and so-called resorts dotting the landscape, Gulmarg is fighting hard to strike a balance between commercialisation and untouched natural beauty. As indeed is the rest of Kashmir.
The previous day, we had visited Pahalgam, an equally alluring place, but chose to stay away from the humdrum of the famous “spots”. Under the mild sun we were quite content spending over two hours on the banks of the Lidder river, which runs through Pahalgam. The waters were icy-cold and our toes curled on impact. Thankfully, the zone was polythene-free.
The road from Srinagar to Pahalgam is a shopper’s delight. First came the basket-weaving workshops (my husband controlled my urge to shop as we were running late). Then we were greeted by sprawling saffron fields and tiny shops selling the precious commodity. We stopped to buy some. A gram cost Rs 200! But Kashmiris happily add saffron to virtually every dish they make. Make sure you try the sweet kahwa chai — a traditional Kashmiri drink flavoured with nuts and saffron.
On the way back to Srinagar from Pahalgam, we peeked into the small shacks that were busy making cricket bats to be despatched all over the country. A poster of former Pakistan cricket captain Imran Khan kissing the World Cup hung on the wall of one such willow-wood shop.
Dal Lake in Srinagar wasn’t as enchanting as expected. But it is not hard to imagine that the lake was once truly beautiful. The boatman ferried us slowly in a shikara around the lake, which is full of weeds. Once the pride of Dal Lake, the houseboats, some with interesting names such as Neil Armstrong and Texas, are today mostly reduced to squalid touristy places.
The lake is also home to persistent hawkers gliding past in shikaras, peddling papier-mache boxes painted in gaudy colours. Sadly, the emporia and shops in Srinagar too mostly stocked stuff lacking in finesse and finish.
Until you find Suffering Moses. This shop with the oddly Jewish name is a must-visit for the discerning art lover. The painted paper boxes sold here were from an era gone by - as was evident from their painstaking intricacy. Their walnut wood furniture and knick-knacks were also one of a kind.
In the course of a conversation, Shakeelbhai said, “There were riots and teargas shelling till as recent as 2010. Even now there is the occasional incident, especially at the politically charged Lal Chowk, but we lead fairly peaceful lives these days, inshallah. But Srinagar closes by 6 p.m. as we Kashmiris love to rest!” It was clear from his voice that there was more than a hint of pride and love for his land and his people in the way that he said ‘Kashmir’.
Even with the unemployment, “we Kashmiris are self-sufficient,” said Shakeelbhai. “In the off-season when there aren’t enough tourists to drive around, I work in the family-owned fields.”
Most Kashmiris have their own homes; the concept of rented houses does not exist here, he added. “Outsiders cannot buy land or houses here. Not like in Bangalore,” he said with a guffaw.
On the final day, we stopped by to say goodbye to our chai-lady and her family. They urged us to stay longer. Mushtaq pulled out his phone to add us on Facebook. His sisters, however, are not allowed to access the Internet.
“You won’t delete my name afterwards right, like the Kashmiri girls…?” Mushtaq asked me innocently as we left.