Srinagar. 11th September 2020.
Srinagar is the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir state. Its elevation of 1,600 metres makes it cooler than Jammu and at least some of the government administration decamps there to escape the heat lower down – a very common activity in India. But it’s cold in the winter for the same reason, so at some point they return south. It was very pleasant while I was there, especially so for walking around. But it’s a troubled place and one of the notable things is the number of troops stationed there. These members of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) are to be found at every junction and outside all important buildings. Why?
A few words on Kashmir and why it’s needs the CPRF. Essentially it began with Partition, which was part of India’s independence process, creating the separate countries we now have. Pakistan claimed Kashmir as part of its territory, even though it was then ruled by a Hindu Prince. When Pakistani militants invaded the Indian part the ruler aligned himself with India, effectively ceding the territory to the Indian government. India went to war with Pakistan, ending in an agreement as to where the Kashmiri border between the two countries was to be. There were three wars in total and there have been many skirmishes and much civil unrest. Militants, allegedly funded by Pakistan, still cross the border and attack India’s security forces. Most people in Kashmir would like the original, pre-partition area to exist as a separate country. There is a long Wikipedia article here that explains it all. It’s the job of the CRPF to keep things calm and allow normal life to go on. I wasn’t sure whether to feel feel nervous or assured by their presence. After a while they just became part of the street scene.
During the 18th and 19th centuries many people from Afghanistan moved into Kashmir and I noticed how similar a lot of the people looked to those seen on the TV when Afghanistan is in the news. Fortunately these folk didn’t carry the AK47s that their neighbours do. But there were several occasions when I saw herds of goats and pack horses, so at least some of the Afghan culture was still around. About 96% of the people here are Muslim so I wasn’t very surprised at the friendliness with which I was treated.
The city has several lakes and wetlands and during my first morning I went for a walk along the banks of Lake Dal. It’s big! Many people live in houseboats moored at the shore. Many more people have Shikaras, boats for tourists, which are moored next to the road that goes round the lake. The boats were colourful and the mooring points all had numbers. As I walked along I was often offered a ride on the lake or to rent a room in one of the houseboats. Needless to say, the Covid lockdown had severely affected the people here, who rely heavily on the tourist trade. So a European walking past must have seemed like a golden opportunity. Unfortunately for them I wasn’t interested in either a ride or a room.
Pretty much as expected, a guy latched on to me, who spoke very good English. We chatted about this and that as we walked along. I was waiting for the hard sell, but it didn’t come. I saw a café and said goodbye to my companion. I left after enjoying coffee and cake and in less than a minute, my shadow was with me again. This time he asked me if I’d like to visit a houseboat, just for a look around. Ah, it was accommodation he was selling. I declined his offer and he left. Later on a younger guy also spoke to me about renting a room, and was still trying to persuade me even after I told him I was booked into a hotel. He wanted me to move out. I was quite intrigued by the floating post office, installed in a boat. I wasn’t sure whether it ever left its mooring to visit the residents in their houseboats, but I rather hoped that it did. It would add a whole new meaning to the term “watermarked”.
Further along I saw a sign for Shankaracharya temple, up a side road. The guard at the bottom told me it was a six kilometre walk up to it. Fortunately a car came in just then and the guard asked the driver if he’d take me up there. He agreed to do so after asking me if I had any Covid symptoms. We talked about Kashmir and he said that most people would like to see it become an independent country. I was already aware of that feeling.
Two hundred and forty four steps took me up to the the temple. It’s built of stone. One of its best features is the stunning view over the town and the lakes. It was much easier to get an idea of he size of the lake from that height. It looked very attractive in the sunshine, with the rows of houseboats over on the far side, and the wooden shikaras criss-crossing the water. It was worth the climb.
Back at the bottom of the steps one of the female guards offered me a cup of tea. For some reason they wanted to know about British money. I had a five pound note tucked away in my wallet and they were fascinated by it. They liked the picture of the Queen and the note’s general appearance. I think it earned me my tea. On the long walk back down the hill I stopped to scatter the seeds, given to me by the Green Pistons Club, on the side of the hill. That ticked the ecology box.
Having had a walking day, the next morning was for a riding. I met Imran and we rode out of town, both on our Himalayans, at the early hour of 8am. Oddly, despite being OK yesterday, Google maps wouldn’t work. Imran reckoned access is security restricted at various times. Our route was the road that led to the Guarez Dam. We stopped for breakfast and met another guy named Danish. He was on a Bullet. I tried to pay for the food but the owner just ignored me. Imran laughed.
Once clear of the urban sprawl Danish led us off up a lesser road and we climbed up into the mountains. A nice, twisty but well surfaced road. My bike was in its element. It was like riding Doris again, in many ways. While we were stopped at a roadside café for chai and cake, we watched one of the nomadic tribes, the Dird, coming down a steep slope. Imran said they were heading to lower pastures for the winter. The hill tribes go down to Srinagar, with some going as far as Jammu. They were driving their goats and pack horses in front of them. They use roads and cross country tracks, and Imran said they have to pay a small fee for road usage. They’re encouraged to travel at night and would take three to four days to get to Srinagar. Some of the women were carrying packs on their heads. I mentioned the woman I’d seen in Yangoon, carrying her pots and pans. Danish reckoned they’ve got a gymbal in their necks. The people were ethnically very different to most Kashmiris, but similar to other hill tribes I’d seen elsewhere in South East Asia.
We had to stop before we got to the dam because foreigners aren’t allowed up there. Danish said that’s because there was something a bit dodgy about the land ownership. It’s quite close to Pakistan. By now we were pretty close to the border and there were military all around. I wondered how they managed in winter. Imran said they live underground. There were some great views from up there, one of which was of Wular Lake, reckoned to be the largest in Asia. It looked impressive enough. Plenty of mountains were visible too, with snow on the tops.
On the way back down we stopped at the same café, for chicken and chai this time. We talked a bit of politics and the desire of many Kashmiris for independence. They don’t like Prime Minister Modi. Not just because of Kashmiri issues, but also because they don’t think he does a good job for India generally, especially not for all of her people.
Back down below we called in to Danish’s house for some tea, then had a dark and dusty ride back into the city to finish off the day. It had been good to have been taken out and shown some interesting places. I could see that being allowed to pay for anything was going to be a challenge when I was with Imran. But I’ll keep trying.
Next day was for sightseeing. I took the bike for a much needed wash first. I’ve become very lazy in that respect, because it’s so cheap to get done. They gave it what’s called a ‘diesel wash’ where diesel is used as a cleaning agent. It gets the bike really clean although I do wonder about the drains.
Next stop was the older part of town, to visit Khandgali Sha -I – Hemdan mosque. It’s named after a travelling Persian preacher, who visited the area three times and helped to introduce Islam to Kashmir. He’s reckoned to have rescued it from the ravishes of Hinduism, described as inequality, the caste system and poverty, and brought equality and the rule of law. I’ve come across this viewpoint in other places. The same was said of Melaka, down in Malaysia. Today, with most of us living in democracies, that idea would seem very strange. But, as is often said, the past was a different country.
The mosque is a beautiful building, dating from the late 14th century. It’s built with wooden beams, about a metre long, laid in the same pattern as bricks. Unusually for a mosque, it’s very decorative and has beautiful carved and lacquered wooden panels, mostly with plant based patterns on them. It has no minarets, something I’ve noticed about other mosques in this area. Once I’d washed my hands and feet I was allowed to step just inside the door and so could take photos of the interior, especially the wonderful chandeliers. Back outside I had a conversation with a young guy who seemed unable to accept that I, and many people, have no religion. When he described the Persian teacher as a saint, I queried this with him. He assured me that Islam does have saints who come about pretty much in the same way that Christian ones do. Very interesting. It was a place well worth seeing and I was happy to make a contribution towards its upkeep when I left.
I took a walk around the local streets, fascinated by the buildings, mostly 150 to 200 years old. They had a style I’ve never seen before, as can be seen in the photos. Some were showing their age a bit and were being repaired in a way that retained the original features. I even saw some new ones being built, in the same style as the originals. That had been an educational place to explore.
With Google maps now working properly, I’d spotted a hilltop fort that I fancied seeing. But despite trying several different routes towards it, I couldn’t find the way to it. So I went back to Dal Lake and rode around the perimeter. I’d seen a causeway that crossed the lake but it was closed off, presumably for security. But I got a real sense of the size of the lake, which has some amusement places next to it and some places to stop and relax by the water. Kashmiris are no different to anyone else in that they clearly enjoy the benefits of where they live when they have leisure time.
It had been a very good day. I was constantly impressed by how much English was spoken and the amount of times I was greeted in the street, and mostly by ordinary people rather than tourist touts. I enjoyed pizza for my dinner before having an early night. Imran had suggested we take a dawn boat ride out on the lake. He would collect me at 5am!
It wasn’t too warm at that time of day. We went down to meet our boatman, a young guy with good English and strong arms for rowing. We went across the like to where the houseboats were moored and wandered down watery laneways in between them. It was very much like the streets of a village. We passed areas of cultivation, where the weeds had been drawn together to act as a base for planting. This was the same as I’d seen on the lake in Myanmar. We went further into the back alleys, heading for the early morning vegetable market. People would come there in their boats, with produce to sell. There were up to a dozen small skiffs, with various vegetables on board. But ultimately it was a disappointment because there wasn’t really all that much on sale. It was very small beer compared to what I’d seen down in Vietnam, in the Mekong Delta. Imran bought a couple of plants, which I believe were lotus. The big heads were cut in half, revealing the seeds. These we plucked out, peeled and ate, rather like nuts. Not a great flavour, I have to say.
It was now light so as we went back out I could get a much better view of the amazing houseboats. They’re built on the lake, with the main body being of pine and the fancy parts made from walnut. They’re about twelve metres long, with six rooms, and I counted ten windows along the side of one of them. As we rowed back across the lake they made a lovely sight in the early morning sun. There were small islands dotted about, close to the shore. I could see shops selling tourists goods, obviously the main destination for the trippers. I smelt commission in the air.
Imran came round again later and took me for a meal. We had non-veg Thali, mostly mutton but with one piece of chicken. Thali describes the way the food is presented. A round platter, of various sizes dependant on numbers of people, is placed on the table. There will be small dishes on it containing dal, vegetables and, in our case the meat. There would also be rice and some roti. The food was excellent. We talked about my planned ride. When I said I’d been to Ladakh already, he asked why I wanted to go again. “Don’t go back,” he said. “Go somewhere new.” Prescient? I was adamant that I wanted to revisit some of the places I’d seen before, so he didn’t argue. Once again, he didn’t let me pay for the food.
Having had to get a Covid test when I came north, I presumed I’d need one when I went south again. They’re normally only valid for a few days, although that’s a matter for the local officials to decide. To that end I went to the local hospital. This time I had to pay. Rs100 to register and Rs800 to see a doctor, and get a chitty and have the test. While I waited for the results I walked down to a place we’d seen the other day called Zero Bridge. It crossed the city’s main waterway, the Jhelum River. It had looked interesting so visiting it seemed a good time killer.
It’s a stylish, wooden affair, built in the 1950s but closed to traffic in the 1980s because of a weakening structure. There’s a couple of kiosks on it, and several seating areas for resting pedestrians. The river had houseboats moored along its banks and the whole scene looked calm and peaceful. But I knew that the city was keen to revitalise transport on the river, which is always a good idea. This is one of nine old bridges that link the two halves of the city. Its name comes from the fact that it’s downstream of the city’s first bridge.
Imran had said he’d take me up to the fort but that we might need permission because it was being used as a quarantine centre. We went down to the Tourist Department and managed to see the deputy director of tourism. He was very helpful and rang somebody up to check we could go there. Then his assistant copied our ID because security at the fort would want it. He asked me how I liked the town and did I have any suggestions, so I gave him a couple. We managed to find the entrance, after a bit of driving around, and went up the steep track to the top. Lots of steps to get up to the gate, then quite a lot more inside. It was hard work!
The Durrani Fort was originally intended to be a new capital and was started in 1590 by a Mughal emperor, who didn’t see it through. The present fort was built in 1808. It’s an important place for several religions, there being a temple, a gurudwara and a some Muslim shrines in or near it. We walked around the extensive walls and explored some of the accessible buildings. It’s a big place, on three levels. It’s undergoing some refurbishment and upgrading, including an area that will be used for sound and light shows. Imran wasn’t very happy about this, saying it would spoil the heritage. But it’s only in a small area and will likely boost visitor numbers.
The views from the walls were marvellous. We could see Dal Lake, plus some of the smaller ones. There are many areas of water that are used as floating fields, where vegetables and other produce is grown. Imran pointed out the almond groves, a very big industry in Kashmir. This valley is clearly a very fertile place, with cultivation all around the city.
On the way back down the steps we bumped into our friend from the tourist office. Because he’d asked me for suggestions earlier, I gave him another one, which was that when the refurbishment was finished they should put up some information boards. I find it very frustrating to visit these very interesting places but not have a proper understanding of their history. Info boards, with words, dates and diagrams would enhance these visits. English Heritage is probably one of the best exemplars of this approach that I can think of.
The last visit of our mini tour was to Jamia Masjid (mosque), a very large place in the old city. It was also undergoing some refurbishment, while Covid was restricting activities. There’s a large central area, with gardens and fountains. This is surrounded by the buildings used for worship. There’s four gateways, linked by corridors, where the worship takes place. In one of them I saw a sign board with all the prayer times on it. It had the date in both modern and Muslim calendars, plus the times, which vary according to the sunrise. I imagine that the whole complex would house thousands of people.
It was a great shame that the road between Srinagar and Leh was closed to tourists. It meant I had to go back south, then east, before I could go north. On the subject of routes, I really didn’t fancy going back the same way and suffering that dreadful road. Imran mentioned a different route, the Moghul Road, which went round about, further west and closer to the Pakistan border. As far as he knew it was open and in good condition. I decided to give it a try. Anything was better than the stony, truck ridden hell I’d experienced on the way north.
An early start, for me, leaving at 8am. Imran met me on his bike and led me through the city to the main road. We said our goodbyes. He is truly a nice man, generous humble and kind. It had been a great pleasure to have spent time with him.
There were lots of military on the road south but I turned off, with the route going through towns and fields. As it started to climb into the hills the police stopped all the traffic on the edge of one of them. I chatted to a couple of guys, also on a Himalayan, who said it was because a VIP was coming through. Then we got stopped at a police check at the entrance to a national park. They were saying that because of the VIPs we couldn’t go any further. The father of the guy on the back of the bike was high up in the J&K traffic police and after a few phone calls we were allowed to proceed. They told me there were only army checkpoints from here on and to tell them I was heading for Peer-Ki-Gali, then I’d be OK. I just followed them anyway and we didn’t get stopped.
Peer-Ki-Gali turned out to be the top of a pass with a good viewpoint, a small mosque and, best of all, a café. As we all know, views always look better while enjoying chai and cake. I was intrigued to see vultures perched on the roadside barrier – a warning to take care! The other guys turned back, I carried on down into the valley. I got stopped at two army checkpoints. At one of them a soldier gave me some apples so I gave him half a bag of almonds. It seemed a fair exchange. It’s tempting to wonder how seriously the authorities regard all the information they take. The phone call I received later on confirmed they’re very serious. They’d taken the details of my visa but had looked at the old one. The phone call was to ask for a copy of the correct one, a photo of which I was happy to send. These guys are invariably friendly and relaxed, and keen to engage with a rare foreigner. But I never allowed that to get in the way of giving them all the co-operation they needed.
I stayed the night in a nondescript town called Rajouri. But the ride down to it was excellent. The terrain was of steep, rocky slopes covered in short grass.I saw plenty of hill tribe people too, with their herds of buffaloes, goats, sheep etc. When I went through some of the villages I saw some very beautiful women, smartly robed and with sexy red lipstick. They looked very much out of place and I couldn’t quite understand their appearance. Deep in my memory I remember reading about such women but can’t remember why they were notable. Priestesses maybe?
I was now heading back to Jammu and had a very enjoyable ride. The road was great, with lovely bends, where I could scrape my footrests and boots on the way through. At one one point I was dicing with a young guy in a car. We passed and re-passed each other for a while, but in a non competitve way. At the top of a hill I spotted a chai stall and pulled up. He pulled up too but suggested a better place a bit further along. There we had a great chat and some delicious paneer pukara, which is deep fried cubes of cottage cheese. Abishek works for Adobe in India and is well travelled, including around Europe. A very pleasant young guy. I love these chance meetings with people.
I didn’t plan to stay in Jammu for more than one night but I also wanted to get my bike its 5,000km service. I messaged Sumeet to see if he could help. He came up with the goods pretty quickly and once I’d got to his workshop and divested the bike of its panniers, he took me to the Enfield dealer. They had it done within an hour. I’d tried to find a cheaper hotel this time, but no joy. So I went back to the same one, in the same room and at the same price. Same routine that evening. Sumeet, Ankush and Bhum, the mechanic who’d serviced the bike, came round for beer, whiskey and food.The evening was great until Sumeet and Bhum had an argument about something. They all went outside, Bhum didn’t come back and I’ve no idea what it was all about.
In the morning Sumeet eventually arrived, bringing with him the hydration back pack he’d promised me. It can hold up to two litres of water and is great for keeping hydrated while on the move. A very generous gift. Because I was heading into Himachel Pradesh State I needed another Covid test. The queues at the hospital in Jammu were too long so I said my goodbyes to Sumeet and headed to Pathanakot, in the Punjab. I found the local hospital and they gave me a test – negative again – for free.
I headed up into the hills again, notable for the buildings dotted among the trees on the steep slopes up the side of the valley. I found my way to McLeod Ganj, a very touristy town, albeit quiet due to Covid. I walked around until I found a hotel and talked the price down from Rs1,200 per night to Rs2,000 for two nights. Every little helps. I walked the steep and narrow streets and saw lots of tourist orientated shops, including some decent places to eat. At one of them I enjoyed that good old English dish, pizza. And very tasty it was too. My memory bookmarked the fact that their extensive menu included English breakfast. The whole town had that typical tourist aura and I was looking forward to exploring it next day.
In the morning I went back to the same café, breakfast on my mind. But they didn’t open until 10am. For once, I’d come out early so I earmarked it for brunch. I set off for Bhagsunag Falls, about 2.5 kms away. I walked through a different part of he town, which was even more touristy than where I was. Tackling the path up to the falls was leaving me a bit breathless. My chest felt congested, so I didn’t go right up to the top. I admired them from below and wasn’t hugely impressed really.
Back in the town I went to Namgyal Monastry, which is part of the complex where the Dalai Lama lives. That would explain the monks I saw walking around and the surprising number of tourists of SE Asian origin. The path down to the monastery was really steep and, thinking I’d come the wrong way, I turned back. I was struggling for breath coming back up the steep slope so I was glad I didn’t go all the way down. I was puzzled by how I was feeling. The town was only at around 2,000 metres, so not all that high up. I’d been fine in Srinagar, where I’d done quite a lot of walking. Did I need to be worried? I wasn’t sure.
I had a look at the entrance to the Dalai Lama’s residence, which is also a museum focussed on the occupation of Tibet. Many Tibetans live in the town. There’s a really beautiful Buddhist style building in the main street, with a hundred or more prayer wheels around the outside. I spotted a memorial gate, dedicated to the Ghurkas that had fought for India in the 1960s. I have a friend who used to be a Captain in the UK regiment so I sent him some photos.
Back at the café I enjoyed a hearty breakfast, then chilled out for the rest of the day, just doing some research. I wasn’t sure where to go next. Friends were suggesting I visit places that were back the way I’d come or to meet people who wouldn’t be arriving for a week. Not much good to me. I needed to get to Manali so decided to take a look at Dalhousie, another place I’d been recommended, on the way. There was another town called Forsyth Ganj nearby too. It was easy to see a Scottish influence here. The names come from a British District Commissioner, from the time of the Raj.
I enjoyed another great breakfast before setting off for Dalhoussie. It was a good ride but there’s not much in that strange little town to see or do, although the route was scenic. The town seems to be split up into sections, with a few kilometres between each one. Eventually, and once I’d ridden up a rough old track, I found a town square on the top of a hill. I parked the bike and walked around and up and down, looking for a hotel. Many of them were closed but I found one in the end.
I’m not sure why I went there to be honest. It was mostly because I wanted to delay my arrival in Manali. I’d been recommended to stay in the old part of Manali and I’d heard there was a Covid outbreak there .
I walked around the town and had a look at one of the British style churches there. I was going to look at some others but they seemed to be up, or down, steep hills and I wasn’t feeling up to it. I was there a second day but spent most of it resting. I bought some decongestant for my chest and sorted out a load of files and photos on my laptop.
So far I’d wandered through some hills, but it was time to get serious. Next day I headed off, mountains on my mind.