Tuesday, 19 July 2011
Monday, 18 July 2011
Monday, 11 July 2011
I decided to go by road from Srinagar to Jammu (no train at Srinagar) because the road through the mountains is beautiful. There are buses but the guidebooks advised share jeeps which leave early in the morning from outside the Tourist Centre.
I had had dinner with Hamid and Zahid (who had taken me to see all the weavers) and their family on Friday night which was such a lovely evening – they are the most hospitable and gorgeous people. They had told me I should not go for a Somu (Tata), but try try to get a Tavera (Chevrolet ) – I went in a Toyota. It was fine. There was much discussion (in Kashmiri) and the upshot of it was that I should not eat anything except black tea and perhaps a biscuit. "Oh, it's that winding..?" "It's 300km, half very winding, half not quite so winding." Ok.
I got in to my Toyota Qualis just before 6am and eventually we had a carful (8 passengers) and the luggage strapped on the roof and left at 6.35 in torrential rain. I had been advised to sit in the front – certainly not in the side-facing seats in the back – but it felt very snug while we were waiting, with nice Sikh telecoms engineer who was in front too, so I decided to move behind. That turned out to be a good decision as the 2nd passenger seat in the front was the hardest to sell and the telecoms engineer was very tired and noddy and fell asleep on the man who took the place. I had two slim men in the middle row and there were three more in the sideways seats in the back, one of whom had a terrible cold, or nasal troubles, and made a hideous noise all the time he was awake but was quiet when he slept. Out of 8 passengers, three were Sikh, one was foreign and one was a woman...
I am glad I wasn't in the front. The driver was brilliant (he got us to Jammu unscathed) but there is SO much traffic on the route – convoys of army trucks, jeeps, lorries – you just have to pass where you can. We stopped for breakfast after an hour (none for me thanks) and I looked at the shops – selling mainly nuts, dried fruit, shawls (mainly acrylic as far as I could see) and cricket bats. Kashmir is famous for its willow, and cricket bats.
The army convoy we had passed on the way up from Srinagar didn't stop for breakfast and, as we were getting back into the car they drove by... So we had to pick them off again, one or two at a time. It's disconcerting when your driver rocks backwards and forwards as he passes a lorry going up hill, blind corner approaching - plainly wishing he had another gear. After 4 hours we stopped for lunch (no, still not hungry) and the loo and eventually got to Jammu after 8.5 hours.
I thought Jammu was a hellhole – but that is probably because I decided first to go and get my train ticket for Haridwar (I was told it left at 10pm so I had 8 hours to spare) and then go and find an internet cafe and something to eat... Why did I not book the ticket in Srinagar? I don't know, but suffice to say I spent two hours going from one ticket counter to another – Haridwar train completely full – and pleading with the Station Master and nearly coming over funny in his office (still nothing to eat). I ended up getting a ticket on the Delhi train to go to Saharampur (arr 6.30am) and from there I could get a bus to Haridwar and a taxi to Rishikesh. Lesson learned..
I had spring rolls – so oily I have probably blocked half my arteries, but rather delicious - and 2 lime sodas in a beastly hotel near the station. I got a rickshaw from the hotel and found a porter. The head porter said 300rps – I said WHAT? I have never paid more than 120rps before and though it isn't a lot of money, sometimes you just get fed up with always having to pay 3x what everyone else pays because you are foreign. .. (You can tell I wasn't in the best mood..) He said the chap would take my case for 100rps but wouldn't wait and put it on the train. OK, deal.
I was early anyway and the train wasn't due for 25 minutes.. so this adorable boy coiled his cloth on his head and put my case on top and I followed him up three flights of stairs, a ramp, and down stairs to platform 3 to where my carriage would stop. I thanked him and gave him 20rps extra... Quite a miserable wait... dark, tired, rats everywhere, stink of pee, such poor people waiting. They seemed happy enough..
Eventually the train drew in and we made for the doors (those with reservations in sleeper class), but the doors didn't open. Suddenly from nowhere my porter reappeared - to help me get my case on the train. How lovely of him. He couldn't open the door either, so he removed part of the window and climbed in and unlocked the door from the inside. It was pitch dark, no lights. So he got his mobile out and shone the torch bit until we found my berth. I could've kissed him.
What can I say about the Kashmir Valley? Other than you must go. It is a beautiful place, the Lakes are fascinating and the people are delightful. The crafts they produce are breathtaking – shawls, carpets, embroidery, papier mache, carving.. Most importantly it is only 1.25 hr from Delhi by plane – easy. It is completely different to anywhere I have been before - it is mountainous, Muslim, cool, the food is different too – lots of meat, quite spicy. Very little alcohol, so get your own.
The war between India and Pakistan, which have had such a catastrophic effect on this lovely region, is quiet now and, Inshalla, peace will reign. But of course militant attacks can happen at any time – around political anniversaries or if a politician makes a provoking speech... there are websites to look at, www.kashmirtimes.com is one, or the BBC. Then, if all looks calm and you happen to be in Delhi, or Rajasthan, pop up there for a few days.. They so badly depend on tourism.
After Rajasthan I found Kashmir wonderfully cool. July is high summer, a lovely time to go there, and their high season (April - August). The autumn is lovely (ask a Kashmiri and they will tell you all the time it is beautiful!) – particularly November when the chinnar leaves are red. Chinnars, plane trees but huge, are magnificent and protected – and there are lots of other beautiful trees. It snows late in December until the end of February – and it can be very cold and the snow deep – but the shikaras continue paddling about on the Lake until it freezes over. (Gulmarg, 1.5 hours from Srinagar has very good skiing, go to Nedous Hotel.) Spring, March until April is - of course - beautiful.
There are lots of houses being built – I am talking mainly about Srinagar, but other places too – so hopefully people are confidant about the future. All houses old and new have corrugated iron roofs – I presume so the snow shoots off easily – and they don't have guttering.. because the gutters would get pulled off by the snow. It is hard for me to picture anything but the Lake glistening with summer sun..
I am in Gulmarg, up in the hills an hour and a half from Srinagar, staying at lovely Nedous Hotel. Gulmarg is really a winter resort with, I am told, some of the best off-piste skiing you could wish for. The highest cable car in the world goes from here (9000'), to 11,000' and then on to 14000'.
But now it's summertime and the focus is on the meadow (Gulmarg literally means 'Meadow of Flowers') – a huge green expanse which blooms with daffodils in March, followed by lupins and now daisies. The great-grandfather of the present owner built Nedous Hotel in 1888. He brought lupins from England and over the years the seeds have blown all over the meadow.
Tuesday, 5 July 2011
So, yesterday, Hamid, one of three brothers who run the Kashmir Loom Company with Samina, picked me up at the houseboats and we had the most amazing day. We went to see the weavers, (left top) and the ones who weave with lots of coloured wools in different needles so it looks the same front and back (bottom). The finished article is shown too!
We went to his house where his mother (seen with Hamid) showed me how to comb and spin the pashmina wool. We also went to see his uncle who makes papier mache - exquisite fine work, and more crewelwork embroidery.
Hamid and his brothers employ many outworkers to work to their designs and it seems that these incredibly talented and creative workers, after many years in the doldrums with the militancy troubles and lack of both exports and tourism, have a really thriving business again. They looms are set up in their homes... everything is done by hand. "They work how they like, not in a factory," Hamid said. "You need a good environment, some cool breezes coming in, good natural light."
"We don't stop buyers coming to see the work, people can go direct to them if they like. The weabers are committed to us for the work they agree to do, but they are free."
"Of course we could make shawls for a fraction of the price if we used machines," said Hamid, "but then what would these people do?"
So I had had tea and was ready for Mr Gani when he arrived at 8am. He sat me in a dining chair and draped a sheet over my shoulders (I was wearing a sleeveless top) and began the most vigorous rubbing.. like the most enthusiastic washer at the hairdressers, but it went on for a long time. "Good?" he said? "Very good," I said, hanging on to both sides of the chair. After more than 10 minutes he bent me forward and did my spine. He wasn't bad, but it was odd - massage through clothes with no oil. Luckily in the forward position I could brace myself and not get thrust off the chair. Then my arms were squeezed and pushed. I felt truly alive at the end of it, thankful that Ramzan had stoked the boiler for hot water, and that I had some conditioner to de-tangle my hair...
Saturday, 2 July 2011
You don't really need to speak Hindi to enjoy an indian film.. there is a fairly basic formula I think (though this is the only film I have seen all through and on the big screen) - There's a beautiful girl, a handsome man who she doesn't fancy at first but then she does, a huge baddie (perhaps several), mafia-type baddies who frown a lot and drive about in big cars with tinted windows, a goofy fall-guy who is the butt of a lot of jokes, lots of misunderstandings and lots of laughs - custartd-pie humour, and dancing. The men have to be put straight on matters of the heart by their long-suffering wives who sit together and gossip and look lovely.
I thought it was great - film-goers here like to be 'transported' by cinema. There is lots of audience participation, hollering and laughing at the good bits, a 10-minute 'Pee break' - comes up on the screen - where everyone does if they have to, and can get refreshments etc. The film finishes with a good dance routine - if I could criticise I would say there wasn't enough dancing, but maybe that was just me.
It irks me most that I should be irritated. After all, a couple of hours in Sonu's taxi only costs 350rps (five pounds). So we carry on and we have a laugh.
On a couple of occasions I have been driven by his cousin - both of them squeezed on to the driver's seat (below)- and I couldn't understand why, except Sonu said his cousin likes to practice his english. But I think it was because Sonu couldn't get his rickshaw that day. Most drivers (70%) he tells me own their rickshaws and the rest rent them. Sonu pays 175 rps (2.50) for a ten-hour shift and then hands it on to someone else, and he pays 300rps a day for diesel. On a good day he would hope to make 1000rps+ - a not so good day 600. So it seems churlish to quibble over the odd 50rps..
Yesterday I said goodbye to the children and came by train to Delhi. I knew it would be awful saying goodbye, they are such a great lot of children. It was worse than awful. When I left I was in tears and so was Smriti. Sonu put my case in his auto and took a couple of photographs of me with the children and then we set off for the station. There was none of his chirpy chatter, he didn't talk at all. He just said when we got to the station that he thought I ought to come and live in India, and I could go back and visit my family once a year..!