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.

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