The heart of Kashmir, Srinagar is a city of its own rite. Once, a very rich province, torn apart by the surge for independent autonomy, apart from India, the place has seen a lot of bloodshed-and still sees; if you were in Canada, within these kinds of rocky pillars, you would only feel peace and calm, but in the paradoxical world of India, everything exists side by side. Calm and peace and luxury, side by side with riots, mayhem, chaos and poverty.
A city that is very unique indeed, a city where there is plenty of opportunity to chill, relax, meditate, stretch, hit the yoga mate and take in the beautiful mountain contours. On a house-boat, hosted by a nice local -or not so local- family; on Dal Lake enjoying all the ammenities of a bed and breakfast but on a hand-crafted boat. You can find a little house-boat in the smaller, quieter part of the region -with the Israeli crews-, Nigeen Lake and get away from the heavy traffic of the main strip and all the Indian tourists (which make up the most of the local tourism).
If you are like me, uninterested in spending a shovel load to stay on a house-boat, being served by others, and enjoying what most couples would likely find a romantic getaway, you might find an alternative measure or two.
Firstly, arriving to Srinagar : I took a 35-hour sleeper class train from Veranasi to Jammu (and the Golden temple 4 hours away) then a 12-hour bus to Dal Lake.
Alternatively, you can come from Dharamshala or Leh on long buses as well. Maybe, now, there is a flight, I have no clue about this. In any event, my train-bus ride of 47 hours consisted of 2 opium brownies -bought in Veranasi- and a lot of very civil banter with the middle-class of India. It was a great journey, hella long, but great. The train journies of India are some of my fondest memories for real -opium brownies or not- especially the general class train-carts.
Accommodation : In Srinagar, right away I was let in to the know. House-boats are ‘the thing’ to do (I had no idea). Therefore, they are quite steep in price. For local tourists they are more expensive, but for the foreigner, the average -when I was there- was about 15 bucks. I didn’t want to spend more than 5! Toutes make everything, everything very hard to do on a shoe-string here. Especially, tours into the Himalaya. Getting a map I couldn’t do, and they won’t go anywhere without a horse or two.
The first night I slept in a closet for 5 bucks, part of a community of little rooms, and next to a house-boat and then in the morning hit the main street, lined with big hotels. I was discouraged, but not beaten! Down the side roads I found a small, and very simple single room for 3 bucks!
Around the city:
- Visit the Fort Which they wouldn’t allow me to visit, so I climbed up and snuck in. A beautiful view; it took some tenacity to get up the walls and inside. And around a corner, to the front end, a bunker with two men inside sat waiting for local discern. I turned around immediately, and just as I did, two dogs noticed me and took chase. It was a very quick decision but I climbed up and over the big walls and down to a stern slope and almost fell, rolling, down thirty meters or so. Good times!
- Rent a boat for Dal Lake -or get one from your host Or, if you are like me, meet a couple locals, smoke some of their great Menali hash, buy them a beer and cruise around the lake talking shit. The lake reveals more and more every time you take flight in one of those boats.
- Have a local cocktail There is one shop that sold us alcohol -through a metal gate- at the time, and two very seedy and dark little bars. Buying a couple tall Kingfishers and kicking it on the lakeside, and its little brick wall, people watching, was a very regular activity.
- Visit the stupa It’s a nice walk up the hill, to a little stupa sitting overtop of Srinagar. There were guards everywhere, and barbed wire fences, so walking up any of the high mountain summits was slightly irregular and dangerous to catch fire. The stupa was the safest of these decisions.
Something worth tasting: There are really a lot of great eats around the area to accomodate the Indian tourists from the south. Something I had, unique to the area, was the grilled mutton skewers on the side roads (I recommend avoiding meat in India, but I bent for this and survived). So, so, so incredible -and cheap. Also, Kashmiri tea. Not the salt tea of high altitude Central Asia, but the saffron based (I think) aromatic, beautifully colored and tasting tea.
Now. It was a day like any other, I’d been back from the mountains one day, and was in my regular shop for a Dosa -one of my favorite things next to Pho Bo. A man walked in and looked like no one else I had seen. He was Asiatic, but not Indian. I was almost sure he was Japanese, but with the turban and the loincloth it was hard to tell.
‘Please sit man, plenty of space!’
‘Ok. Thanks very much.’
‘Have a Dosa, they are very cheap -about 75 cents- and they are so good, especially here.’
‘Oh, great. That sounds good, I like cheap.’
I guess you do, I thought. He seemed very simple and very charasmatic. And he would ensue, after our incredible Dosas, to tell me about his journey to Srinigar.
He was a ‘Japanese Baba’ walking his way around India for nearly 18 months. He would work in an Ashram for a while, meditate, learn, stretch and then bugger off to the next step by foot. He had just walked in fifteen days what I had done on a bus, from Jammu, in 12 hours.
He was the only person I had met that wasn’t one part of a couple here. I had met a few other travelers, -trying to organize an affordable mutli-day hike into the mountains- but they were all man-woman pairs here for a love boat.
Finally, I had met a solo traveler, and a pilgrim as well! What luck. I’d just arrived back from Aru, in the lower mountains; a very nice area with a dug in trail for two days walk, to a seminal, less than impressive ‘glacier’. But the area, and the journey was fantastic. I met a couple teachers from Mumbai and they were back in Srinagar with us. Two others that came along to Pehelgem -shortly before Aru- were also back and we all met on one of the house boats. I brought along the ‘Baba’.
The night before, a perfectly clear night, I was looking at a quadrillian stars and what people said was the ‘milky way’; and staying at a guesthouse where the man was unbearable -and an extortionist. If you end up in Aru -the cheapest (local jeep to Pehelgem then local bus to Aru) and easiest journey I could find into the mountains without guide for a few days mapless- I recommend staying at the Milky Way Hotel. The trip to the ‘glacier’ is great (even if the glacier itself is meh) but don’t take a guide, there is a path all the way, and gypsy goat hearders everywhere. ENJOY IT! Soak in and get lost -but bring some food!
We enjoyed gypsy music with sitar, and ceramic pots as drums; a foot controlled accordian and high-speed melodies, that were told to be love songs -never ending love songs. Unfortunately, we were not told about the mandatory fee that came with their arrival as ‘friends’ of the guesthouse owner.
We were back in the city, and I was on my way to Leh -waiting on a lift in a jeep, for two weeks- and this Japanese Baba was on his way to the Amarnath Cave by foot. Before that, we would celebrate on the lake and sing and clap hands and embark on a little journey helped by a pharmacist back in Veranasi. The canals of Dal Lake have their little shops and tuck-ins, with plenty of chance to see a few Kingfishers. The night it beams with life, from above and all around. Its beautiful really -even without the trans-dimensional help of Old Munk and liquid sunshine. This man from Japan, was a sensationally kind soul, and the trip that I spent with him for a couple of days was a remarkable one.
*The toutes in Srinigar work in Delhi on the local off-season and then come back up to Srinigar to cash in. They make it hard to enjoy the city, constantly pulling at your sleeves, and asking if you want a boat, or whatever else. I had a few ‘friends’ in the area after a couple weeks. Had stayed with a couple, as guest on their boats. Later I learned that they used me to meet guys like this kind, and genuine Japanese Baba, to sell them trinkets and whatnot. It’s a hard spot when everything, everything comes with a price. Realise, accept and move forward is the lesson that I needed to learn.
This Japanese Baba shined, on a promise to himself, for a life different than that he was told to live back in Tokyo, and he was certainly doing it. I’d been waiting many days for a couple from Brazil to get a jeep for us to drive to Leh; I was glad that it broke down and we had to wait a few more days so I could meet this man. It’s sad though, that I lost contact with him. I hope you are still smiling just as brightly good man. You were the first pilgrim I ever met. And you took my mind in a different direction, for real! Thank you brother. Thank you, you handsome, Japanese Baba!