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Srinagar and Dal Lake: dreams and conflict in the Kashmir Valley

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Srinagar and Dal Lake

Srinagar and Dal Lake!

We arrived very late in Srinagar, in the middle of the curfew that silenced everyone in the summer of 2016. After a full day of dizzying roads full of characters that made my dreams come true of years ago, we stopped in Sonamarg. The plan was to continue when it was fine at night, for that curfew … 

Why venture to Srinagar when things were so tense?

Because we had a flight for two days later, which left from there and would take us to Amristar. And because when you are traveling you may become more unconscious . Or you don’t want to believe what the media says. Either way, the contact we had in Srinagar ensured that we could, so we went.

As I said, we had a whole day’s journey passing through Kargil and exceeding the roads tracks with vertigo gorges that I already showed you in another post.

At a hotel in Sonamarg they let us have dinner and leave things behind. We go for a walk, we have dinner, we play cards or we read. At 11pm they tell us that we must get going. The night is very dark.

All waiting for the soldiers to give the OK

We had made almost no progress when they stopped us. There is a good line of cars that continues to be long behind us. It is very cold, the windows fog up and the little lights of the headlights and mobiles of those who get out of the cars come and go. I fall asleep. An hour and a half later, a jolt awakens me.

Suddenly everything and everyone starts moving, and as if it were a rally, we were thrown forward. There is no row that is worth, fool the last one. I giggle at the show, and my nerves …

We make the 85 kilometer journey in an hour and a half. More than a record on those roads full of holes, although to be fair it must be said that this section is quite good. At night nothing is seen, so we cannot fear the precipices that surely fall next to us. Who is not consoled …

I actually did much of the trip with clenched teeth and wide eyes , and I wasn’t the only one. I tried to clear my mind.

When we get to the streets of Srinagar they make us stop at a couple of guard posts. Soldiers are stationed at almost every corner, protected by barricades made of sacks. The city is asleep, apparently. At last, we reached the shore of Dal Lake and in a few minutes we boarded our floating hotel. Tomorrow will be another day…

Kashmir tensions

In this region there are three camps, to put it simply. Those who are in favor of belonging to India. Those who want to belong to Pakistan (country with which India disputes the territory). And those who want Kashmir to be independent.

In May or June 2016, the Indian army broke into the home of a boy who was under 30 years of age. It was the leader of the Kashmiri separatists. The official version is that things got out of hand. The fact is that they killed this kid, who in addition to being a person, was and became a symbol. A martyr.

From there protests began in the street. The people of Kashmir are fed up with living in a militarized state. No freedom of expression or movement.

Think that any day they enter your house and treat you like a terrorist because you dedicate yourself to propaganda for your ideals, they kill you. In short, things are going out there.

With the protests and demonstrations there was more violence and deaths. The government of India decreed the State of Exception and imposed a curfew. He didn’t get up until November or December 2016, according to a guy there I write to on Instagram.

The day you wake up in the middle of Dal Lake and start discovering its micro-universe

I transcribe the words from my travel diary:

“Iam at the famous lake of Srinagar, where the English used to come in colonial times fleeing the heat of the Indus plain.

This is beautiful. The lake reflects everything perfectly. The lotuses, the boats, the houseboats. We are in one of these “luxury” hotels, with furniture like that of an old house, rugs and a magnificent porch.

Now it’s raining like a storm. Around me the men fish and the boatmen relax waiting for us to go out for a walk on the lake.

Life from a houseboat

These floating hotels that keep the purest colonial style are the preferred accommodation of tourists in Srinagar. It is not for less. A poetic and charming place, although they are not in perfect condition and you have to keep an eye on the rotten boards of the catwalks. It is not difficult to imagine the Victorian ladies and gentlemen peeking from those railings.

Each “room”, which is an entire boat for four people, is assigned a service. One or more men dedicated to serving you. The one who touched us was a serious, lean guy, who made us nervous. Silent, he would appear at any time ready to offer you beer, water, or whatever (for a fee). A servility that I’m not used to, although it means a lot of jobs.

Surrounded by water and aquatic plants, from the houseboats the panorama is simply beautiful. The mountains in the background, green at this time of year. The bright colors, the barges that are hotels, but also houses, pharmacies, grocery stores, tailors, craft workshops and much more. There are birds, ducks, and vegetation everywhere in which the lotuses and water lilies stand out …

People come and go, always by boat.

They go about their chores, or they just go for a walk. Some group of young girls, families that I don’t know if they are local tourists or if they live there… In the next «corner» there is a girl washing clothes directly in the lake. A little further on, a man and his son? fishing patiently.

At night the sky clears and I take the opportunity to take some photos . There is a full moon and lots of light coming from the land, apart from our houseboat. I manage to capture the landscape and the boats that are still moving, surely on my way home.

There are two cities here: the terrestrial, of which we can see little even during the day because of the situation that I have just told you … and the aquatic, for which I am beginning to tell you.

The watery Srinagar: a lake of merchants

From the first moment we received visits on our porch, and also during the boat trips on Dal Lake. They are merchants who try to sell us from a supposed saffron, to pashminas (we are in Kashmir!), Silver jewelery, crafts made in papier-mâché and flower seeds.

They approach with their boat and stand next to yours. They call you, appeal to your consumer sense by displaying everything they carry, and sing the four words they have learned in English and Spanish. Sometimes they relax and try to make conversation. Patients, they wait for you to soften up by “attacking” on that side, the most human. First we become friends, then you buy me something , it seems to be the strategy.

As tourism has plummeted , they insist more than ever, I guess. They don’t get tired. Half an hour saying that you don’t want to buy anything (whatever they are trying to sell you) and half an hour that they insist, until they go to another tourist boat, if there is one. You breathe, but they come back. They always come back.

The “flower guy” chased me until the last minute, and I tried to make him understand that gardening is not my thing! The one with saffron too, and the one with jewelry.

The truth is that every time I want to buy less things on trips.

I am less and less interested in that part of the trip… But here, hour after hour, I begin to feel that I should do it to contribute something to its economy that in those uncertain moments has almost literally sunk. In the end, a precious bag falls from a very friendly seller (although insistent ad nauseam like everyone else).

Not everything is souvenirs. Getting up at dawn, we go to visit the local fruit and vegetable market

It is celebrated on the water every day. One of those famous “floating markets” that is “sold” so much in tourist guides. But unlike others I’ve seen, this one is yours. Totally and absolutely yours.

We still arrive at night and there is already activity. They are all men squatting on one end of their boat until there is a sales opportunity. The day is brightening and it is looking better and better.

I watch them greet each other, chat with each other, haggle – some with gestures worthy of the theater – and joke. I love it, I would stay for hours. We stand aside and the majority ignore us. I insist, I love it.

They buy cucumbers, potatoes, pumpkins, aubergines… Almost everything is grown there, with a system of floating earth blocks similar to that of Inle Lake in Burma. Everything is heavy with Roman scales.

Customers eventually reach into the seller’s boat, picking up several more pieces, as a “tip.” Many times the seller recovers them between great fuss, hahahaha.

Taking a shy walk through the land Srinagar

I would have loved to visit the historic center, but there was no way without putting ourselves in danger.

At least we were able to visit the Hazratbal Mosque, which is situated by the lake.

Its name means “sacred place” and they say that it keeps a relic. A hair of Muhammad brought by a descendant of the prophet in 1600.

Apparently this is the only domed mosque in Srinagar. The others have pagoda-type roofs like the ones we had seen in the villages on the way to Sonamarg .

We complete this visit with a short walk along the quays adjacent to the mosque, observing the beautiful wooden and brick houses. Some people from the area greet us.

As I pass a butcher shop, I see three men sitting. Neighbors chatting. I look at them and say ‘salam aleikum’.

We wear a headscarf all the time (also at the lake), as a hijab. They respond surprised (aleikum salam) and ask me where I am from, and if I am Muslim. I tell them no, and they are even more surprised because I have used the greeting of their religion.

They allow me to take a picture of them and they smile at me. Another good woman also agrees to be photographed. Everyone appreciates that I show them the photo on the screen.

From there we go to the Mughal Gardens. They are at the top of a hill from where you can see the entire lake. The gardens will have a lot of history, but I don’t think it is a very interesting place. Then we go to a temple dedicated to Shiva and which is guarded by a Sikh, which is a different religion from the Hindu. A small taste of the spiritual mix of India.

To access the hill there is a military checkpoint that forces us to walk through, with cameras and cell phones well guarded, and that forces us to search.

At dinner time, on the second and last night at Dal Lake, I hear distant explosions that seem like fireworks to me. I’m surprised by the curfew, and I don’t see anything on the horizon either, but that’s what it seems to me. Maybe that’s what she wanted to believe.

When we leave Kashmir

After I don’t know how many checks and searches at the Srinagar airport, we learned that that night there was another confrontation in the outskirts of the city. Four dead. And we doing tourism. And I thought it was fireworks what I heard.

I don’t know how to explain in words what I felt at that moment.

Dazed, I thought that this world can’t be such a big shit. That it is very unfair that so many people who also have so little are dying that way, for those things. Also that it is horrible that I go on vacation, camping with the camera and my western gaze, in the same land where all this is happening.

However, I also know that the money that we left on that houseboat and with our purchases or the boats that they brought us and brought us was a relief for those people, who suddenly found themselves without income in the only season they have it (summer) . I know, from the guy I keep in touch with via Instagram, that for them receiving visitors from abroad is a breath of hope, or simply to feel that they are not alone. Also a sign of minimal normality.

Difficult to reconcile all these feelings. I do not know how much is an excuse and how much reality. I know it is horrible and at the same time that, in part, it is necessary.

Anyway, you have to know that Kashmir has returned to contained peace for a few months and that it may continue like this … I would not stop going again.

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