Salaam alaykum Kashmir!

The "Shakira"We decided that perhaps heading north to Kashmir might be the perfect way for Robby to relax after the hectic table tennis test event (it was worse than it sounds, because I know you’re thinking “table tennis?”) but we assumed too much. For those who read the first blog, you will remember that rule number one in India is to never assume anything. Now while Kashmir has been the point of much political upheaval over the past few years we were reassured that it is truly “God’s country” and worth a visit. Bear in mind that we were told this information by the locals mostly and only a handful of foreigners. Nevertheless, being of adventurous spirit and determined to make the most of our time in India, we headed north for 8 days. The itinerary? Srinagar, Gulmarg and Pahalgam. The attraction? Fishing (naturally) as well as peace and quiet and some quality time together.

We should have realised the tone the week would take when our flight to Srinagar was delayed by an hour and a half! Regardless we maintained high spirits because who is not excited about getting on an airplane and heading somewhere new? We expected issues in The windswept, broken "Shakira"Srinagar but were so pleasantly surprised by the friendly and VERY helpful airport staff. Our organised driver was ready and waiting so we assumed (!!!) that things were looking up… not so.

The hotel we booked in Srinagar was in a word – kak. Which translates as old, moth-eaten & stained linen (stained with what I did not want to know!), water damaged walls, dirty & mouldy carpets and stinky “bathrooms”! Naturally we were ripped off in terms of value for money! What’s worse is that the power cuts were more frequent and annoying than in Delhi. So when the 3rd one in 30 minutes occurred we decided that was the definite cue to get out and explore a bit.

We toured Dal Lake in a Shikara (we affectionately named her Shakira) which basically a wide canoe with a roof. This has to have been a highlight. We sat back on this boat while our dude punted us around the lake looking at things. One of the big attractions in Srinagar is the houseboats. But given that we were still in India and our understanding of “lakes” are rotting, infested pools of dirty water needless-to-say we chose not Passenger shed??? to stay on one but were happy to view them from our little Shakira – wakka wakka!

When we pulled into the central canal, the action started to happen. Apart from the storm that was brewing, we were accosted (in Indian fashion) by boats selling anything from beer to jewellery to food. You’ll be surprised to hear that we accepted the advances of the bar boat. So 1 kingfisher down we were punted to one of the little shops/boats and spent some cash on Pashmina’s – I blame the beer, Robby blames me – Ha! C’mon – can’t go to Kashmir and NOT get one… or two 😉

Day 2 took us to Gulmarg, eventually. We were collected by our arranged driver and his two brothers. We initially thought this was weird but when our driver told us that he has to be in court that day (!), his brothers would be driving us the 300km to Gulmarg. So trusting Robby’s instinct (which is 98% fool proof, thank goodness!) we fired the dude on the spot due to the dodgy nature of this situation in a tense environment. This is not, however, as simple as it sounds as ClassicIndians, even Kashmiri’s are relentless in nature, thus after about an hour of arguing the initial dude (known to a colleague) took us up to Gulmarg. Naturally his job additionally comprised of trying to annoy us as much as possible, hence the Hindi music being blared at a deafening decibel!

Arriving safely at Hotel Hilltop, we paid the dude and he turned on his heel and virtually ran out of there – good riddance! So we checked in and were then showed to our room, where we stayed for about a minute before roaring downstairs to the reception to complain violently about the revolting state of our room: peeling paint, dirty carpets, view of the servant’s quarters etc – seems to be a Kashmiri theme. Again unperturbed, this manager said we could look at other rooms in the same (pre-paid) price range. All of which were, well again in a word – kak! Now picture the scene: after a VERY stressful morning of trying to get out the clutches of dodgy men, noisy trip up the mountain passes with a clearly pissed off driver and then this hideous room… tempers could but only flare up. The manager said we Before we went upwould by no means be given a refund but could pay an extra Rs1000/night for the “honeymoon” suite. At this point I am thinking: “who the HELL would want to stay here on honeymoon!” but we relented and found ourselves in a marginally better room with a round, yes a kitsch round bed. Grrr, we affectionately re-named it The Passion Killer!

Deciding to now stop feeling VERY sorry for ourselves, we decided to hit the “streets” of Gulmarg. It is however not the regular Indian “town/city” we had come to expect. It is basically situated in a valley. A very large valley with hotels and “markets” scattered throughout. Thus, the best ‘mode’ of transport was pony. For those who know us, we are not the biggest fans of animal riding but given the alternative of staying in The Passion Killer, we both hopped aboard two ponies with Freddy (love that, so not an Indian name) and headed up the hills for a stroll.

It was on our little trip that we came across the golf course, the entrance for the Gondola and our saving grace – the cutest hotel in Gulmarg. After not so elegantly dismounting, we strolled Poor poniesup to inspect the Hotel Highlands and were met with friendly staff and beautiful grounds. Unlike The Passion Killer, it was situated up on the hill thus far away from the masses and horse poop. Having seen the cute little, chalet-type rooms we immediately checked-in and then paid an exorbitant Rs200 (courtesy of the initial manager – dork!) to get our luggage to the new hotel from The Passion Killer,which was only a 5 min drive away!!!

Feeling content with our discovery and even more chuffed when we worked out that we had our own “attendant” who happily scuttled off to fetch us room service, the massage man etc, we promptly ordered a bottle of red wine and sat on the grassy “veranda” with the most beautiful view of the mountain and played backgammon chatting happily about how happy we were… I know, I know – gross 😉

We slept well (thanks to the wine, I think) with a beautiful wood fire burning in the old school cast iron stove and woke the next morning planning to head up the mountain in the gondola. Freddy had returned with our ponies to give us a “lift” down the hill Queue? Who has to queue?to the ticket office. Upon dismounting we met Javed – a guide and clearly not colour blind. Being the only white couple for miles, he zoned in and made the hard sale. He said he would take us on a guided walk up the mountain to see the frozen lake as well as queue for tickets so we need not bother. We agreed to his reasonable (!?!) price and soon realised we had at last made the right decision. He was a great guide with a wealth of knowledge about Kashmir and the mountains in particular. The best part however is that we literally missed all the queues. While some might say it was because we had a guide therefore could jump all the queues, I am inclined to think that the colour of our skin might have had something to do with it… but we’ll never know.

The ride up the mountain was entertaining since the 3 of us were accompanied by 3 local ‘businessmen’: sledge operators, ski instructors etc. The amusing and mostly yuk part of the trip is when these chaps decided that being confined in a tiny cable-car-type contraption was the best place and time The Gondolato light up a ciggie! Ooooh – so not fun!

We eventually arrived on the mountain which still had patches of snow on it – amazing considering the heat in Delhi. This was also the first time that Robby had seen snow – so the first part of our hike turned into a snowball fight followed by a 45 min hike to the point where we could see the border to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir as well as the frozen lake, which was gorgeous! After a few pics, we headed down and completed our final decent on a sledge – SUCH fun! By this point, it had started to rain and while in the gondola, it started to pour. Not such an issue except we had asked Freddy to stay with our ponies to take us back to the hotel. So being people of our word, we rode the 20mins ‘home’ all the while getting soaked! It was possibly the most peaceful ride since the streets were abandoned and quiet. This was sadly disturbed by a howl coming from Robby riding ahead of me as his pony failed to side step a pothole and he bounced forward onto his saddle eventually resulting in the bruise. Fortunately neither of them were hurt but it was very funny!

Reluctantly leaving Gulmarg we headed to Palhalgam, which is reputed for its fishing. The drive up produced beautiful rivers and mountains as well as a regular Indian-style village. It would be fair to say we were more than mildly disappointed since we were expecting wide open spaces and a gushing river with few inhabitants. Sadly we only got 1 of these 3 in the form of the river. Sadly the Liddar River was inhabited and used by the locals in the village leaving little available space for fishing. Robby did nevertheless give it a bash and caught 6 small brown trout, 2 jerseys and a sock. Well done Pest!

The following day we decided to head up the mountain on the recommendation of the hotel manager, who was awesome – finally, someone who understands that one does better in the hospitality industry by showing a little kindness! He arranged a taxi for us and negotiated the price and route in Kashmiri before we left on our adventure! Despite feeling a little let down by our surroundings and the previous day’s “fishing”, we once Followed by his first fightagain decided to stop feeling sorry for ourselves and head out with a positive attitude. Sadly, this did not last long.

The first hiccup was that our driver decided that 80km/hr was the most appropriate speed at which to tackle the winding mountain passes. We repeatedly played charades with the dude telling him to slow the hell down – he was not so good at the game however! After about 20 min of passing groups of construction workers, cows, donkeys, ponies etc our driver got gatvol of waiting for these groups to move out the way, so he decided to rear end a pony in order to get it out the way. By now I had had it and totally forgot our game of charades and just sommer slapped the oke on the shoulder screaming at him! Not my finest moment (had a few of these in India, hmmm). Poor Rob tried his best to clam me down, always the rational one, realising that we were in a very tense place with a hectic history. I was so grateful to be on a plane, albeit once again delayed, back to Delhi the following day.

Poor Robby did not BRRRRR!!!have the most relaxing trip, which was the point after all, so we decided to head to Agra for a night spoiling ourselves by staying in a slightly fancier-than-normal hotel – worth every penny! Not only was the Taj Mahal spectacular, we had a fantastic few days of unwinding. Over a lavish breakfast we caught the headlines of the Hindu Times: Killings in Kashmir – 10 dead, 15 days. SO relieved we once again trusted his gut and left when we did!

All in all Kashmir is a beautiful part of the country sadly tainted by many issues yet I would never trade a day at Jozini dam, the Underberg or the south coast for a month in “God’s country” – there is just no place like home!

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