We take off early with the same truck and we still have to cross the last pass Zonji La. The road is terrible and on one side of it there is a dangerous looking abyss. It takes us a lot of time to reach the pass. After it is the Kashmir Valley. The scenery here changes dramatically. There are pine trees everywhere around us now and all is green with many fruit tree gardens. We stop at a small snack bar for the truck drivers. There are many people bathing at the backyard. We eat omelet with Kashmiri bread and tea.
Panzi La Pass
We pass the last 80 km in no time and we finally reach Srinagar. The shock is great. After Amritsar we haven’t been in any city. The driver leaves us at the in circumference. By the way this driver made it up for all the other drivers. All the time he treated us to tea and even bought us boiled corn.
We catch a bus to the central part of the city – thousands of streets, buildings, people and it’s hot – we are flabbergasted. There is an armed military patrol every 100 meters. I don’t know why this is, but obviously the situation in Kashmir is still quite delicate.
We take another bus to Dal Lake where the tourist part is. We walk around like crazy trying to find a place for our tent but we can’t. When we ask some hotel owners to sleep at their yard they negate or ask us a lot of money. It is afternoon now, we are exhausted and we haven’t eaten our breakfast yet.
There are two things we can do: catch a bus to go out of the city and sleep outside of it – the problem here is that like this we won’t be able to rest well and use Internet, or sleep at a hotel and rest for two-three days. We choose the second alternative.
Venice of India
Around and inside the lake there is a whole neighborhood with pile dwellings and home-boats. This is the Venice of India, but with wooden and sheet-iron houses. The canals among them smell of garbage and swamp but otherwise it is charming. We find a bungalow in the swamp and manage to negotiate a price of 250 rupees per night (around 4 euro).
Everywhere we go in India hotels and guest houses ask for 200 rupees per night minimum. This is strange to me because in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Laos, Cambodia and China one can sleep for 1,50-2 euro per night, even 0,75 euro. Obviously prices in India went up recently.
So we decide to stay in our first lodging since we are in India which is two months now. The place is calm with hens and cocks running around and all is in canals, bridges and small wooden gondolas called shikara.
The main tourist attraction in Srinagar is to sleep in a boat-house inside the lake and take a tour with a shikara. We manage to withdraw money and use Internet – big extras which we were always short of for the last 20 days.
Shikaras – wooden gondolas
We eat our breakfast consisting of bread, cheese and tomatoes and then we sit on the terrace and speak with the bungalow owners. They are three brothers, don’t speak to their parents and are Pink Floyd admirers. They like to talk nostalgically about their past. One of them remembers of his life in Australia where he had been married and the other one speaks about his reiki studio in Southern India and the time he had spent in France and Switzerland.
Breakfast at the porch
In the bungalow there is a library with many books, all in bad shape because of the flood here last year which devastated Srinagar. Both brothers speak English very well and we have many interesting conversations with them. Most of the time they smoke and curse Kashmir.
We spent six hours at an Internet café, but we couldn’t finish all the work with the texts and photos. Upon exiting the café we see a very strange man wearing traditional Muslim white clothes, Muslim cap and with a huge beard.
Our communicative friend (on the left)
When he sees us he starts talking in an excited, pompous manner, asking us if we wanted to be his friends. He starts telling us how nice and noble people we are and that he sincerely hopes that we will stay in touch. He is walking next to us but then suddenly leaves. We head to the local market and we see him again on our way back. He gets embarrassed when he sees us, then comes to us and gives us a big bag of bananas and literally says: “this is a gift from the bottom of my heart”. The guy is a little bit overweight, with blue eyes and doesn’t look like a bad person.
Strange, surreal days at Srinagar. In the morning the same guy appears again in front of our bungalow. This time he blesses us and gives each a pear, then we agree to speak to him again in the evening and he disappears. We never see him again. There are many strange people in this world.
Today we plan to walk around the old part of the city. The architecture is interesting – huge old houses, mostly wooden, that look like British factories from the dawn of the industrial revolution. The atmosphere is unique and very appealing. Every few hundred meters there is a mosque. Mosques here are very old and remind us of the khanqhas in Baluchistan, Paksitan – wooden, without a dome, looking more like some strange four-cornered pagodas.
Inside they are all very beautiful with thousands of paintings of flowers and with a big metal disk above the door which people hit before entering. Women are not allowed anywhere, but have their own room where they can pray and it is usually full.
Inside the mosque
Most of the people here are Sunnites which is strange because Shah Hamadani from Skardu, who was the first to bring Islam here, is Shia. The old mosque Shah Hamadani and the central one called Jamia Masjid are the most impressive.
Masjid Jamia Mosque
Shah Hamadani Mosque
I don’t know why but there are no tourists in the old city. Something else that is typical for the region, as well as the Muslim world, is their obsession with green – all the buildings here are green, and another thing: there are many butcher shops as well. We have never seen so many mosques at one place.
Evening prayer at the mosque
We walk around several hours and speak with the locals. Then we head to our bungalow. Here one can witness many extraordinary things, like for example a father playing badminton with his children in the middle of a cemetery, stumbling over the graves. Or a big tree in the middle of a busy road without any lights or signs on it (imagine the surprise if you are driving here at night).
Old house at Srinagar
The next morning I went to the library and started reading an article hanging on the wall. It said that one of the brothers, Latuf, was very interested in books and gathered them for years, creating the only library in the lake’s area. The moment I said to myself “so that is why his English is so good and he knows so many sophisticated words”, I read the next line that said he is illiterate.
My jaw dropped and first I thought that there was a mistake in the article. I immediately went to ask Latuf and he said he couldn’t read a single word in Hindi, English nor any other language. He added that he asked people to retell him the books before they gave them to him. With my jaw still dropped I went out unable to wrap my head around yet another Kashmiri eccentricity.
We wash tons of clothes and we stay some more time at the Internet café. Then we head to the other coast of the lake where our newly found couchsurfing.org host lives. We spend the last two nights at Srinagar at his place. It turns out he has a hotel and he hosts his guests in it. He gives us a very nice attic room with wooden walls and green carpet that vaguely reminds us of gambling rooms in casinos. In the evening we find our host at the reception singing retro Bollywood songs, accompanied by music from his phone.
This is our last day in Srinagar so we decide to hire a boat and spend a pleasant and relaxed day in the lake. But as usually this turned out to be an extreme 10-hour rowing without a break under the hot sun. We got lost in the canal labyrinth and barely managed to go back at 9 p.m. The owner of the boat was waiting for us and looked very discontented. We had promised we would be back by 5 p.m…
Rowing for 10 hours
Lost inside the labyrinth of canals
Regardless the day was great. We explored in details the lake’s life. In fact a very big part of the lake is one floating town. On the front line are the boat-houses. Each belongs to a different person who hires it. Some are super luxurious hotels, while others are small rickety boats. There are shikaras (wooden gondolas) floating around the hundreds of canals and pile dwellings. You can find anything you need here: floating restaurants, local shops and mosques, vegetable gardens and even a police precinct.
Woman with a pile of lotus leaves
Fast food on the water 🙂
Merchants are everywhere, selling anything – boat-supermarket, boat-flower-shop, boat-jewelry, boat-fruits-and-vegetables. There is even a floating excavator in the lake that makes paths in the thick lotus fields, where it is hard to row. By the way meals with lotus root are local specialty, we tried it fried. The place is real jungle with boats, flora and houses everywhere and it is so big that we couldn’t manage to see it all. Nonetheless we are charmed by this interesting way of life.
Inside the canals in the evening
At some time during our boat trip we got down to see one of the ancient gardens left from the Moghul Empire, created in the Persian model. There are three or four gardens like this in Srinagar. The most popular are the Shalimar Garden and the Nishat Garden. They are not very big but the walk under the thick съцаморес and magnolias is quite pleasant.
We leave at noon. We take the small streets in order not to be molested by the merchants near the coast who ask you all the time if you want a rickshaw, shikara or a room to stay. We noticed that because of this most tourists who don’t go out the lake’s area have wrong image of the Kashmiri people – that they are mercantile fellows who harass the visitors. In fact if one goes out of the touristic places, one will discover that the locals are very nice people and it is pleasure talking to them.
We wanted to visit the White Mosque named Hazratbal Shrine where they store a hair from Prophet Mohammad. Sadly there is no time left to do it.
We don’t know how to exit the city so we can’t explain to the bus driver where we want to go and we don’t have a map. So we jump in the first bus that passes by randomly. We travel long time and luckily we are in the right direction. Finally we reach the last stop which is in the outskirts. We still don’t see the road to Kargil so we need to catch another bus. A boy who was travelling with us started walking with us and even took my rucksack to help me.
Suddenly in front of us we see the White Mosque – the same we wanted to visit so much. We are so happy by this coincidence that we rush inside to see it.
The White Mosque
In front of the mosque there are beggars dressed in burkas, but we suspect them to be Indian gypsies masked as Muslims. We think so because one time I saw the face of one of them and she was wearing a huge earring on her nose which Kashmiri ladies never wear. For the second time we are in India we see a surreal scene. A guy comes wearing a bag full of pieces of raw meat which he gives to the poor. When they see him everyone starts shouting and jostling around him like crazy and almost take him to the ground. This is really a strange thing to see.
The mosque itself is new and with beautiful architecture. The relic (Mohammad’s hair) is brought here from another place. Sadly they keep it in storage and visitors can see it only 10 days each year. I enter the women’s section but there is nothing interesting to see here. The door to the central room is open and a guy waves me to come in. I made a few steps inside and in this moment a military guy shouts at me with firm tone: “go out”. My mouth goes dry. I know it is unthinkable for a woman to go in, but luckily I got off cheap rapidly.
After the walk the boy accompanies us to some small bus stop and we catch a bus to the first village. There are many houses and fields and no suitable places for our tent in sight. It is getting dark but we decide to hitchhike. The second car that passes by stops. Inside it there are three boys going to Kangan which is 20 km. away. When we arrive at it is totally dark and the boys ask us where we plan to sleep. We tell them we will look for a place in the forest and one of them proposes to camp at his house.
The house is big. The boy’s family welcomes us warmly and we finally visit a house of the Kashmir people. They insist we sleep inside and cook us a wonderful dinner so we even have the chance to try authentic Kashmir cuisine. The boy has two sisters who kidnap me immediately in their room and start arranging my hair and putting make-up on my face. At the end they give me a bracelet as a present. It’s been a long time since the last Muslims we visited and we really enjoyed their hospitability.
Inside the house of the hospitable Kashmiri people
In the morning the father says he has something to do at Sonmarg, which is right before Zonji La pass, and he takes us there. Our hitchhiker’s luck works full force. We start waiting on the road just outside the village, but still there are no cars passing by. The trucks are waiting for the traffic coming from the opposite direction to cease, so that they can continue travelling. After a while a car stops by. We open the door and we see… the son-in-law of the good Muslim old man who let us sleep on his glade for free. This is truly unbelievable. Are these just coincidences or is there something more?!
The lucky reunion
We are happy to see him as he is happy to see us. Like this, together we go to Kargil. Around 2 km. before the town we have to stop because there is a long queue of cars and trucks. It turns out there is a strike in Leh and the road is blocked. The reason is that there was a big fight between the Ladakhi and the Kashmiri taxi drivers and there were some people arrested. Their fellow citizens wanted them to be released to unblock the road.
The blocked road
Thank God the situation calmed down and 3 hours later the road is open. Our friend invites us to stay at a house he had bought here. It is 5 p.m. so we decide to stay. We spend the night wonderfully. We cook him traditional Bulgarian cuisine and he tells us magical stories about Zansakar.
In the morning we leave on foot and head to the town’s exit. We lift out thumbs and a car full of Harayans (from the state Harayana) stops by. They say they are going to Leh and agree to take us to Alchi where we plan to visit the local monastery and stay for the night. The road is OK but there are many hair-pin bends that make me sick.
Soon after Kargil we enter the known Ladakh world with many stupas and naked cliffs. The car breaks down all the time – first the cooling system, then the tire, then something else, and we have to stop all the time at different service stations. Like this it takes us all day to pass 160 km., but we are already accustomed to this. The people who took us left us at the fork to Alchi and we started walking towards it – 3 km.
But soon a car stops by and inside it is the headmaster of the local school. He takes us to the village and we go to see the monastery, but it is closed so we will go tomorrow. It is very small, consists only of four temples, but is very old – 11-th century. There are many apricot trees in its yard and we eat many fruits – it is a real luxury to eat fruits for free in Ladkah region.
We find a glade under the monastery and though it is obvious it belongs to someone we decide to take the risk and stay here. After a while the owner shows up, but to our amazement and joy he says we can sleep here and doesn’t ask us for money.
In the morning we go to see the monastery which is famous with its thousand years old wall writings. We leave right before the tourists start flooding the place. We walk to the main road and catch a truck. It takes us eternity to pass the next 60 km. to Leh.
In the afternoon we enter a book store and read some books, later we sit in an Internet café. In the evening we go to sleep at our secret glade. There was a fountain next to it, but we couldn’t find it. Later it turns out that it had been destroyed by the flood.
This year everyone in Ladakh witnessed the palpable climate anomalies. The region is usually extremely dry with 100 mm of rain a year, but this summer it rains and rains. People here say that they have never seen such a thing and are totally unprepared. The rivers rise and destroy all the bridges on their way and occasionally buildings and houses.
There are some regions in the mountain who are isolated because of the floods. We also heard that there were many tourists who had to be evacuated from the passes. The old monasteries also suffer from the rain because the materials they are built from do not withstand the water and humidity. Historical buildings that are here from 1000 years are being destroyed now. If there is someone who thinks that the climate is not changing I invite him to come here.
Lotus flower 🙂