Sunday, April 28, 2013

How to get to heaven and what to do there (Part 3)

Alright, let's get down to business. You are here for the snow. You've heard stories about it, you've seen it in hundreds of movies, you've always dreamt of throwing snowballs at everyone, especially at the Bangalore drivers who cut in from the left.

You hire a cab to Sonamarg, it's a ninety minute drive from Srinagar. The family starts cheering when you spot the first blob of snow on the road. It's a brownish-white muddy mess, but you stop and take a dozen pictures. Your driver points at you and laughs helplessly.

The terrain changes quickly. You see more of white, less of brown. You arrive at the foot of a snow covered hill. There are tents, small houses and hundreds of Kashmiri guides all around. 

You get out of the car and try to go with the least intimidating bunch. You do need to rent snow boots anyway. You are not sure if you need a guide though, you try walking up. You cover thirty feet and stop, legs aching, gasping for breath. 

The guides come by again, they tell you that they can take you up the hill on their sleds, they can show you parts of Sonamarg that you wouldn't be able to see on your own. The lead guide is all of seventeen years old. He says he will need to wait five hours till he gets his turn again. It's a token based system, apparently. You agree, he and his friends start pulling you and your family uphill. It's not the proudest moment of your life. 

Then again, it's probably one of the most spectacular. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

How to get to heaven and what to do there (Part 2)

The army is everywhere. In the airport, next to the baggage carousel, next to the terminal gate, the men's room, the exit, the pre-paid taxi stand. You see a soldier with a gun every fifty metres on the road. The cops are heavily armed too. They conduct frequent checks on vehicles, ask drivers for their papers. You don't think it's a move to make money on the side, though. The checks are quick, a glance at the license and registration appear to be enough. The driver takes it in his stride, he is clearly used to it.

You reach the hotel, the one right next to Nigeen Lake, which showed up prominently on Trip Advisor. It looks old school, with heavy carpeting and Mughal knick-knacks. It was probably someone's house, you remark as your bags are taken inside. You wander around the place a bit, checking out the lawn and the lake right in front. Impressive. Beautiful. Especially the free wifi.

You settle in for your first full fledged Kashmiri meal, served right at your table. The rotis are soft, the sauces delicious and the mutton well cooked. You get ready for a nap, you are on vacation after all. Your wife has different ideas, though. You are steered to the front desk, where you ask for a Shikara,  one that you can hire for a four hour ride through the Nigeen and Dal lakes, through the canals and backwaters of Srinagar.

The Shikara shows up promptly, the boatman mentions an hourly rate of Rs 600. You negotiate at length and finally beat him down to Rs 650. The kids get bundled in, you and your wife settle down on the comfortable bed inside the boat. The boatman, Shafiq Mohammed, gently eases the Shikara towards Nigeen lake and beyond.

The ride is lovely. You miss Bangalore traffic of course, especially the honking and the autos cutting in from the left, but then there are similarities. You have the occasional boat sliding along towards you, trying to sell you Kashmiri ware. Paper mache products, nuts and shawls are available. You politely decline, as you've been instructed to by friends. You do feel a pinch of sadness, though. This is their only livelihood. Tourism is the biggest industry in Kashmir. Perhaps the only one.

The Dal lake comes up ahead. You stop at a shop in the middle of the lake, have your first taste of Kashmiri Kehwa. It's very sweet, but warm and pleasant too. It's a mix of tea, saffron, almonds and a bunch of other stuff that's good for you. You raise a toast to Shammi Kapoor and hum to yourself, as your boat snakes into the sunset.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

How to get to heaven and what to do there (Part 1)

First, put your kids to bed at 8pm or earlier, as the flight's at 6 in the morning. Spend a sleepless night tossing, turning and hoping you wake up at 3. Wake up at 2:30 instead and stare at your wife, who didn't sleep anyway.

Give the cab driver directions to your house, poke the kids awake, do the regular, last minute mad scramble to pack and lock up, bundle up everyone in the cab and sleep till you reach Bangalore airport. Get on the Mumbai flight as it's cheaper, though you'll need to spend over three hours at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Airport, which is not really different from the Chhatrapati Shivaji Bus Terminal.

You've probably seen better bus bus terminals, in fact.

Wait for the boarding call for your flight to Srinagar. Plan extra time for the extra round of baggage checking just before you board. Secretly get irritated but act virtuous and nod your head saying it makes you feel safer. Control your excitement in the flight, which is fairly easy to do given that it's a two and a half hour ride and you have all sixteen members of the Joshi family for company. The eldest Joshi is busy doing a Sudoku and munching on a paneer roll, the youngest is bawling for one of the mothers Joshi, in harmony with Baby Joshi Two screaming for his dad to play Angry Birds with him and Baby Joshi Three laughing after tripping the stewardess for the second time.

You proudly look at your four year old, happy that he's quiet. Quietly puking into the barf bag, but quiet nevertheless. Your wife smiles at you, holding your son on her left hand and stroking your sleeping daughter's hair with her right. You smile back, stretch, munch on your chips and get back to your book.

Kashmir shows up quite soon, though. It takes your breath away.

You wait till the plane lands, you can't wait to get on the ground. You, your family, the sixteen Joshis and the rest of the passengers rush past the crew and set your feet on the ground. There are smiles all round. You walk towards the terminal, at peace. 

You have arrived at heaven.