The indignity of having to get up at 3.30am is one thing. Then having to hunt – hunt, I ask you – for an auto-rickshaw is quite another. Where are all those cries of “Auto?” when I actually need them? In bed, presumably. As was the Chief TTE, rolled up in blankets in his stairwell when I roused him to return the key to his flea-less flea-pit.
It would be far too simple for the onward train to depart from the same station. Instead, the Delhi-Udhampur Sampark Kranti Express (yet another sub-set of the express, the role of Sampark Krantis is to provide a link from each Indian state to Delhi) calls at Pathankot Cantonment station, a dreary outpost (are ‘outposts’ ever anything other than ‘dreary’? Certainly not at 4am.) on the town’s by-pass line and, indeed, on the by-pass road. A somewhat longer than expected auto ride meant I got to the platform just as the long express was drawing in, my carriage inevitably right at the back. I got the to-be-expected disapproving looks from the New Delhi contingent in AC2 for someone ferreting around for their berth at 4.20am.
I dozed across the flat Jammu plains, brickworks chimneys built like thin ziggurats, huge dry riverbeds of bone-white rocks. There were the little signs that this was a troubled land – soldiers with semi-automatics patrolling the train corridors; my mobile losing coverage, blocked like all foreign phones, from being used in Jammu & Kashmir by the Indian authorities. Approaching Jammu Tawi, the mandirs seemed to become more frequent, larger and more dominating of the urban and rural landscapes, important symbols in this divided borderland.
Beyond Jammu Tawi, where nearly everyone got off, barring the soldiers who got on in even greater numbers, the train started to gain height above the wide dry bed of the River Tawi, hazy mountains re-appearing in the distance as we passed Jammu’s crumbling fort on the opposite bank. Once through Bajlata the line entered a stunning area of disrupted terrain, huge exposed rock faces tilted upwards in outcrops, the product of the violent and on-going slamming of the Indian sub-continent into the Asian landmass, creating a complex network of hills and gorges. The railway coursed through these on a series of spectacular modern viaducts, each with a machine-gun armed army redoubt beside it, mirrored at every tunnel, level crossing and station.
After Manwal we crossed high above the Tawi and headed north, coursing our way up an idyllic side valley. The train called, amongst the hibiscus flowers, at Ram Nagar Road, possibly the most isolated place I’ve ever seen an express train halt, before setting off on its final leg. On through the pastures, until we came to a halt at Udhampur’s long platforms, overshadowed by the foothills all around. When I planned this journey, Udhampur was the end of the line, where India’s linked-up rail network stopped. For most trains, the Sampark Kranti included, it still was, but a few months before, the long-standing and much-delayed project to link Kashmir into the network had finally extended another 35km towards its still far-distant goal from the southern end, reaching the pilgrimage town of Katra, mainly to the west of Udhampur but slightly to the north too. But Katra, while it will one day be on the railway to Srinagar, definitely isn’t on the road there, so it was at Udhampur that I abandoned the train.
For one confused moment, I thought the smart salute from the two privates waiting by my carriage door was for me. Was this the moment that I officially became a representative of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, or the precursor to being detained for having a camera somewhere in the vicinity of a railway viaduct in Jammu & Kashmir? I quickly realised, somewhat to my relief, that the salutes were actually for the man in mufti behind me (very mufti – his scruffy t-shirt and trousers made two-weeks on the rails me look dapper), who was clearly a senior enough officer to warrant a welcoming committee to carry his luggage, manbag included.
The railway line to Kashmir – originally slated for completion in the early years of the twenty-first century and now, even at the most optimistic estimate, expected to be completed in the 2018-20 window – was being built from both ends at once. The easy stretch through the Kashmir valley had opened in 2008 and had seen the first big engineering obstacle finally overcome in 2013, when a seven-mile tunnel was opened under the first of the great Himalayan ridges to the obscure town of Banihal. This still left a 78-mile gap between the railheads which I needed to bridge. None of the easy ribbing of Indian Railways et al for the massive time over-runs of the project should distract from the astonishing difficulties and ambition of the scheme – forcing a railway line through the Himalaya, involving blasting their way through some of the world’s oldest, hardest rock. Though the political significance of the project, which no doubt helped to overcome budgetary concerns, cannot be ignored – this is as much a political Himalayan railway as the Chinese line to Lhasa. Tying the Kashmir valley, the heart of the state most tenuously tied to the union, to the rest of India by twisting mountain roads was one thing, linking it with a continuous ribbon of steel was quite another. Just as the British had used railways to tie together the Raj and move its troops and sepoys swiftly to crush uprisings, so their successors on the Rajpath were picking up where they left off and where the messy partitioning of a sub-continent had left the most fragile settlement. When the first Srinagar Shatabdi pulls out of New Delhi in c2022, there will certainly be those in the Ministry of Railways and elsewhere who will see themselves as having finally out-shone the British engineers who got the trains to Shimla and Ooty.
Having expected to have to convince a Srinagar-bound shared jeep to take me only as far as Banihal, I was pleasantly surprised to have “Banihal!” yelled at me by the first tout in Udhampur station’s taxi stand. Clearly in the year since the line extended south, hopping straight to the next railhead had become a well-established route. I grabbed the first seat in a newly arrived jeep, which was followed by much haggling and disagreement as the driver and tout tried to fill the remaining seven seats. In order of desirability (and price), they went front row, middle row, back row, with the middle seat of the back row being least desirable of all. One elderly couple claimed they been sold the back row under false pretences that the middle seat would remain empty, when a third person was squeezed in to their row. This led to a walk-out, a chase by the tout, much haggling, a hefty 100 rupees off their fare and a return.
Luggage strapped securely to the roof, we set off at 8.30a onto the Srinagar highway. ‘Be Gentle On My Curves’, and ‘If Married, Divorce Your Speed’, said the ubiquitous safety signs on this notoriously deadly road. For a while, I thought all the cautionary signs commenced with a hip ‘Bro’ to better appeal to the youth male speeding market, until I realised it simply stood for Border Roads Organisation. The road was so full of lorries, buses, army trucks and animal herds that speed was pretty tricky anyway. Our driver undertook a complex overtaking manoeuvre involving five cars, tree jeeps, a truckload of turkeys, a herd of goats and two blind bends, only to pull in for diesel immediately afterwards, We got to pass them all again, on a different set of blind bends, ten minutes later.
The road climbed slowly up a river valley, besides rapids and waterfalls, between high wooded slopes. Occasional patches of crops gleamed on the narrow flat patches on the valley floor. Around this point, a full-and-frank political discussion between the jeep’s front row, which as far as my limited Hinglish could tell, was pro-BJP and the middle row, which was anti, broke out. The rear row, wisely perhaps, kept its counsel. After Chenani, the hairpin ascent of the steep mountainside began properly. Just ahead of us, an army truck overheated on the ascent, its cargo of soldiers immediately jumping down and fanning out to form a defensive cordon. (‘After Whisky, Driving Risky’.) We paused in the town of Kud, where traffic stopping to buy its famous, but sickly, Prem de Hati sweets caused as much congestion as the goat herds lower down. Mouths full of congealed ghee at least curtailed the political argument somewhat.
Eventually cresting the pass, we began a similar set of hairpins down through pine forests, where macaques wandered across the dusty highway, into a decent approximation of a mountain fastness. Seemingly impenetrable mountains rose on every side, snow on their peaks, small villages and towns nestling in the lush, terraced farmlands. Every route into Kashmir involves crossing several passes like this, thus creating an historic isolation and separation from any and all of its surrounding modern nation states, that is as much at root of its disputed status as religion. For as long as I’ve known, one of two adjectives has always been attached to Kashmir – either ‘war-torn’, and although currently experiencing a period of relative peace (there had only been ‘sporadic killings’ of village elders during the election run-up), it was also the patch of land that had brought the world closest to post-Cold War nuclear conflict. The other adjective – perhaps less an adjective than an imperative – was ‘Free’, as ‘Free Kashmir’ had appeared on walls all over the Pakistani-diaspora populated areas of Leeds. To which some local wag normally added the words ‘With every pack of Persil.’
The image of the mountain idyll was briefly disrupted when we came across vast works for the Srinagar railway, the mouth of a tunnel and the very first beginning of a viaduct complete, plus a sea of mud and dust that cloaked the road for miles beyond. The highway made its way through a narrow gorge (‘This Is a Highway Not A Runway. Don’t Take Off’) under dramatic conversion to a hydro-electric project. Passing through villages now it was clear – as much from the sudden appearance of butcher’s shops as anything else – that we were now in a majority Muslim area, although wine shops (or ‘English Wine and Beer Shops’ as they are invariably confusingly called) were almost as common along the road. The route rose again, to dizzying heights above the valley, the retaining walls painted with messages from the Department of Rural Development that wages should be paid every fifteen days and equally to men and women, or reminders to use ‘a sanitary latrine’. ‘From Kanniyakumari to Kashmir, India is One’, proclaimed one very large Notice, appropriately enough for me. I could only presume that the near constant passage of the army on the road in front of it prevents it from being defaced.
Unusually, when heading for a railway station, we kept on climbing, passing through the bloated mountain village of Banihal and continuing for another three kilometers to the equally bloated, but shiny new rail terminus. We arrived in its jeep park after four bone-shaking hours from Udhampur, far faster than I expected, in perfect time for the 12.55 diesel multiple unit to Srinagar, which inevitably was thirty minutes late.
All the more time to admire this weird, end-of-the-world location, a bleak hollow below the scree and snow-covered slopes, its imposing station building surrounded only by a railway colony under rapid construction, all green iron roofs amid the stone and snow. The long platforms stretched away towards the mountains, the gleaming red signals at their end the only things that weren’t grey or green. It all felt too clinically cold and avowedly man-over-nature for the India I had come to know – it was a scene more at home, perhaps, on the Tibetan plateau.
A good crowd had assembled on the platforms, many of the men wearing – as they do throughout Kashmir – the ankle lengt woolen smocks, in browns or greys more associated with Afghan or Pakistani shepherds, or presidents. Up here it was almost still winter, or at the very best early spring. Every would-be passenger was subject to a pretty cursory pat-down by the armed police before accessing the platform, which seemed more a case of going-through-the-motions than actually stopping any would-be terrorists, despite the political potency of the line as a target, its important symbolism shown by the fact that Prime Minister Singh himself had helicoptered up to isolated Banihal to open seven miles of railway.
The train eventually pulled in, a long red and blue Indian approximation of a streamlined unit, of which there are dramatic pictures of its coaches somehow being transported over the hairpin passes by low-loader before this cut-off line opened. By force of habit, more than anything else, there was an almighty scrum for the doors, there being more than enough seats to go around for the Banihal passengers, though the train seriously filled up further down the line. We were swiftly turned round and set off, briefly crossing a landscape of low dry-stone walls in the hollow, before plunging into the long tunnel that had made the Banihal opening possible. For ten minutes we hurried through this very modern, un-Indian tunnel under the southern wall of the Kashmir Valley, all green LED exit signs and fire refugees.
We emerged into the Valley – or rather we emerged into a long series of cuttings, then much later into the Valley – which unlike Banihal seemed very springlike in its green lushness, mosques nestling amid the distinctive plane and willow trees, wide-eaved, prosperous-looking alpine houses in brick and iron. Only the barbed wire entanglements at every station rather spoiled this rural scene.
While more advanced than in Banihal, the seasons here in the Kashmir fruit bowl were clearly still behind those in the south-facing Himalaya. Apple trees that in Naggar would have been in full blossom were only just coming into flower here, though patches of yellow mustard flowers cut up the overall greenness of the scene. Much of the system of agriculture was paddy field-like, flooding during winter and spring, many remaining underwater, farmers in shorts wading in them in sharp contrast to their well-wrapped up counterparts on dry land. Raised paths between the fields provided dry routes from field to crops, as well as marking field boundaries, creating a patchwork of water and dried earth. On all sides, high mountains rose from the pancake-flat valley, though today partly hidden by a grey-orange, almost stormy light.
The train raced along at speeds that many Indian expresses I’d been on would envy – this isolated line was clearly built with its future role as a mainline in mind. Loops, sidings and extra platforms were all sliding under the grass and rust from having been built too soon. Once more, soldiers patrolled the train and now stood sentry every half mile along the line, blowing whistles as the train passed.
Before long we were drawing into Srinagar’s generously proportioned station, already overflowing with passengers, with a fine new Kashmiri wood-carved roof over the entrance portico. If I was a purist, I’d remain on the train as it headed up the Kashmir Valley for another hour to Sopore, India’s true most northerly station. But there was nothing to see in Sopore, I’d win no prizes for going there, I’d have to come back again, it was drizzling, and I was ready to stop moving. Srinagar, 2,850 miles from Kanniyakumari, would do very nicely indeed. End, sort of, of the line.
Except I couldn’t stop moving quite yet. Srinagar station (or ‘Srinagar Kashmir’ station to give its full name and distinguish it from a Srinagar no-one’s ever heard of in Rajasthan) reminds me of the remote Yorkshire Dales station which prompted a visitor to ask why it had been built so far from the village, eliciting the reply from a local that “Happen, that was were the railway was.” Except in Srinagar’s case, it isn’t where the railway was, as its a brand new line, built in a wide valley with few topographical constraints. The only reason I can think of for building the line’s main traffic-generating station eight kilometers from the city it serves is heavy lobbying from the taxi and auto-rickshaw unions, wary of losing revenue if the through line leads to a shift from air. I was saved a long auto ride by one of those “You are booked into my brother/cousin’s [completely interchangable terms in India] houseboat” stories actually being true and a lift into town that was genuinely free, squeezed into the back of a minivan with a French traveller and his full-size harp.
It was hard to link the three kilometers of army encampments, gun emplacements and transit camp that lead to Srinagar’s city centre with the sheer beauty of Dal Lake and its waterways that lie just beyond. Almost completely ringed by mountains, with the town’s old hill fort filling the gap in the ring, it is as placid and beautiful as reputed, undisturbed by motor boats, with almost the sole form of transport, whether for tourists going to one of the hundreds of housboats that line some of the waterways’ banks, or for residents ferrying supplies to and fro, is the shikara, a narrow, flat-bottomed boat, not un-gondola like, with a canopy on the tourist versions, paddled from the rear with a leaf-shaped oar.
I was met at the shikara quay by the proprietor of my houseboat – the Chicago – and we were slowly and silently rowed along canals lined with fantiastically carved wooden houseboats, all following a Raj-era design from when Srinagar was an alternative to the hill stations for the British ruling classes to escape the Delhi heat – those not required in Shimla to run the country, of course. Soon I was comfortably ensconced in my carved wood panelled houseboat cabin and sitting on the front porch, watching the huge numbers of fishing eagles duel, tumble and dive just above, while swallows raced around, barely above water level, scooping up insects. At a truly magical moment, the sky, previously overcast since exiting the Banihal tunnel, cleared, the sun bathing the water, mountains and remaining wisps of cloud in ethereal pinks and oranges, silhouetting the shikaras as the paddled along the canal. Almost at the same moment, the call to prayer rang out from tens of mosques in town, the first time I had heard it en masse in India, echoing across the water and, I think, off the distant mountains.
The houseboat’s chef put together a superb dinner which included, amusingly (to me – and I hope to L who texted me the joke pre-emptively days before) dahl, served on Dal Lake, though for the first time in India surprise was expressed at my vegetarianism. As the sun set, a wind whipped up over the lake, ruffling the water and dropping the temperature. I walked back down the gentle dip of the houseboat’s corridor, resembling a plush sleeper carriage, to my large room at the stern and fell fast asleep, possessor, I think, of the only comfortable mattress in India.
Life began early on the lake. By 7am the water was already filled with silently moving shikaras ferrying tourists heading for the airport or delivering supplies to houseboats. Amongst them, open shikaras sat mid-channel, their owners scooping into the water with nets to bring up dollops of dark green weed to add to the huge piles onboard. This was destined for the floating gardens and fields – ‘the worlds best fertiliser’, claimed my houseboat’s proprietor.
After a superbly crunchy omelette (don’t tell me omelette’s aren’t meant to be crunchy) from the houseboat’s own chickens, and a vast pile of toast, I shikara-d off to the shore to begin a tour of the gardens (to the great benefit of the Jammu & Kashmir Department of Floriculture) and town. There is a pleasant (for cheapskates like me, anyway) practice on the lake whereby houseboat staff with a guest on a purely functional journey will hail a passing shikara whose boatman they vaguely know (i.e. any of them) who is heading in the right direction and the guest will be accommodated in the cheap seats – wooden uncovered benches on the stern, out of view of the canoodling couple (not canoodling much – this is India, after all) under the canopy who have hired the boat for a romantic spin around the lake.
Sirnagar’s famous Mogul gardens are a fine set of seventeenth and eighteenth century formal pleasure gardens around the eastern and northern shores of Dal Lake, exhibiting styles that are often rather familiar to a European visitor, largely because Europeans went on to copy most of the design principles and styles over the coming centuries.
Our first stop was Panimahal, a garden high up above the lake, based around terraces and towers that an idle glance at a photograph would probably place in Tuscany. The views from this high were incredible, over the lake, the market gardens, town, fort and valley. Though the day was bright, a haze covered the lower parts of the valley’s ring of mountains, meaning that their snow-capped peaks seemed to hover above the valley floor, like clouds themselves. The superb views were appreciated by a group other then the steady stream of visitors – by the Indian Army, who had commandeered the garden as an observation post (there is a particularly good view of the palace where senior national politicians visiting Jammu & Kashmir’s summer capital stay) while allowing it to remain open. The ornamental towers had been supplemented by earth-built redoubts at the terrace corners and several flowerbeds were now barbed-wire foxholes. On the way up the hill to Panimahal, my driver was waved down at an Army checkpoint by a group of young NCOs, fingers on triggers of their semi-automatics. It turned out they wanted us to transport a couple of boxes of ice creams to their comrades at the next checkpoint up the hill. You don’t refuse a new role as Mr Whippy to men with that sort of firepower.
The next garden was lower down the hill at Cheshmashahie, another tiered garden, this time centred around the cool, clean water that flowed down the garden’s levels from a natural spring, itself now housed in an open-fronted two-storey red building with internal wooden galleries on its three remaining walls. The garden was a delightful space at the foot of the mountains, with fine trees punctuating the lush lawns. It also had a particularly fine crop of Notices, on which the Department of Floriculture was especially keen. ‘Nature Laughs in Flowers. Don’t Pluk Them’. ‘It is Forbidden to Play at Turff’.
Now almost back at lake level, the seventeenth century got a break with a visit to the decidedly un-Mogul Indra Gandhi Memorial Tulip Garden. Whether Mrs Gandhi even liked tulips is a question to which we shall, alas, never know the answer, though Srinagar seems to feel a bit of affinity for her as her choice to holiday here in the 1970s, with Rajiv and Sonia, sparked the houseboat boom for domestic tourists – the number of boats now stands at 1,200, which appears to constitute peak houseboat. The driver apologised for the extreme cost (50p) of the entry ticket for paying homage to Indra Gandhi through the medium of large-petalled flowers, explaining that by its nature as a single-species attraction, its opening period was limited to just one month – indeed, it closed in two days time.
Entering this Keukenhof-with-added-mountains, bright rows of an impressive range of colours, increased my feeling that the Kashmir Valley is what the Netherlands would be like if half the Indian Army was stationed there and the Alps were moved to the general vicinity of Eindhoven.
Three off-duty, though still khakied, members of said armed forces seemed rather un-moved by the tulip spectacle, but enraptured by a small, rather scruffy bed of pansies, photographing each other crouching in front of it in a variety of not-very-macho-poses, a sight to strike fear into the heart of any local Islamist extremist. Now I know that such things are possible, I’ve set my sights on a Memorial Pansy Garden. I hate the things, but they truly are the flower of municipal socialism.
Back with the Moguls for one final time, I headed to Shalimar Garden, set back from the lake amid paddy fields busy with wading workers. Another water-centred garden, though much of it today sadly lacking in water due to maintenance, Shalimar had at its heart a perfectly proportioned pillared pavilion set in the middle of a pool, along with a second pavilion creating a waterfall. ‘Please be Away From Flowerbeds’, cautioned a Notice. So I did.
Heading down the lakeshore brought me to Srinagar’s beautiful, lived-in old town, one of the finest urban areas I’d seen in India, nineteenth century-and-earlier wood and brick houses on twisting streets either side of the racing Jhelum River, bloated with muddy mountain meltwater. With the tall merchants’ houses, picked out with finely detailed balconies, doorways and windows, the old town would give off a sense of comfortable, quiet prosperity were it not for the frequent sight of houses burnt out or severely damaged during the Insurgency or more recent disturbances, their charred, skeletal ruins adding a jarring, chilling note of never-too-distant conflict to the townscape.
The old town sits around three stunning, unique and welcoming historic mosques, two of which seemed particularly remarkable, not least for their merging of traditional Islamic forms of architecture with style that seemed familiar from other regions entirely. The enormous Jama Masjid, begun in the thirteenth century, is built around a large grassy courtyard, full of people chatting, praying or watching their children play. Cavernous prayer halls with a capacity of thirty thousand, supported by triple rows of two-storey high pillars, form the perimeters. At the centre of each perimeter wall stands a towering gateway building, Islamic archways leading through the prayer halls into the courtyard. The remarkable juxtaposition are the wooden platforms, roofs and spires on top of these towers. Spires on a mosque seems unusual enough. The first thought on glimpsing Jama Masjid is that four English churches have been plonked down next to each other in close proximity. A closer look reveals that the entirely wooden construction (barring the metal sloping roofs) and the ornamentation of the construction resembles – not unlike the Hindu temples of Himachal Pradesh – a central European or possibly Scandinavian church. In one direction or another, these architectural designs crossed either the Himalalyan passes or the Bosphorous, crossing religious divides at the same time, merging styles that had evolved with the primary purpose of coping with severe winter weather.
A similar cross-over can be seen at the Shah-e-Hamdan mosque, a smaller fourteenth century construction. While its Persian entrance portico and stone core are clearly offspring of traditional Islamic styles, the side wings and upper, tiered levels of the building, constructed entirely of wood, show strong similarities with churches beyond the Himalaya, once again topped with a spire rather than a minaret. In the Shah-e-Hamdan’s cosy paved outer courtyard, where I waited for prayers to finish, most of Srinagar’s pigeon population pecked on a raised stone platform, amply provided for by worshippers who would buy a cup of grain for the birds and a milk-and-sultana concoction for themselves. The slightest movement in the skies – and they were frequent, being beside the river, a haunt of the ubiquitous fishing eagles – would send the entire flock of several hundred pigeons circling into the air as one, creating a violent updraft enough to make you steady yourself on your feet if stood close enough.
The afternoon was dedicated to finally becoming the front seat passenger in my own exclusive shikara, lounging on the cushions while far behind the boatman propelled us silently over the water. A boat named the Lake Fish was procured for this purpose by the houseboat staff, a better-named vessel than many of its counterparts, which like the houseboats themselves, carried some increasingly outlandish monikers, not least the ‘Facebook Deluxe’.
Sitting upfront gave an increased appreciation of how these ultra-light vessels effectively glided over the surface of the water, with a minimal draught, a vital attribute in these shallow waters. It may be utterly fanciful, but it was easy to see inspiration for the shikara’s design coming from the waterlilly pads that covered part of the lake.
Travelling up the lake’s ‘main street’, lined with the tightly packed houseboats on either side, we travelled among crowds of shikaras, tradesmen in their own boats scouting the waters for likely customers, ordering their oarsmen to pull alongside tourist shikaras to offer drinks, fruit, jewellery, papier mâché ornaments, memory cards or even money exchange. The best rates for your euros are to be found, I’m sure, via a man with a battered suitcase full of used rupees on a lake in Kashmir. As usual in these instances, I asked him his rate for converting Albanian leks, which led to a complete loss of interest. As elsewhere in Srinagar, the ‘sell’ was a little harder than elsewhere in India, though done with a smile and half an eye on giving the ‘victim’ an escape route.
Shikara numbers thinned out as we entered the glassy smooth waters of Dal Lake itself, the mountain ranges ahead reflecting in the surface, the water itself so clear and shallow that the boat often seemed to be gliding millimetres above the tops of the forest of water weed below. It was a scene of sheer beauty, peace and tranquillity. There is a part of the human mind that is distinctly unhelpful, that seems to imagine conflict and civil strife taking place solely in bleak Flanders mud or hopeless west Belfast estates. It cannot, or simply does not want to tie violence and beauty, a disconnect I previously felt amongst the bright hills of Bosnia-Herzegovina. But a war fought out in an area of outstanding natural beauty is going to be as terrible as any other.
From our little conversation through limited shared languages, my boatman seemed to have picked up an excellent idea of what I wanted to do. After half an hour of paddling through the serenity of Dal Lake, he slowly curved the shikara to the left, heading for the reeds of the western shoreline. Here we entered a broad channel lined with tall reeds and grasses, one of a huge network of channels wide and narrow, linking the ponds and fields of the floating gardens that fill many square kilometers of rich, fertile, water-level land along the western fringes of the lake.
There were few covered shikaras here, just the open boats of local people travelling to and from their homes, to the fields or cutting the tall reeds with curved knifes from the boats themselves. The reds and water teemed with bird life, occasional flashes of bright, electric blue denoting kingfishers as they darted from the impossibly fragile grass stems on which they sat into the water to pluck for fish. On the horizon, Srinagar’s fort on its own low hill provided the yardstick for our stately progress.
The channel swing left then right, another broad watercourse joining from the south, heralding a sudden change in scene. Up this channel floated many tourist-bearing shikaras, plus many more beading locals, entering an area of great commercial activity. Shops both on boats and on water-facing buildings were briefly squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder: the usual range of tourist traps selling carved wood, carpets and papier mâché, but also numerous general stores, tailors and an Aryan Hairdresser to serve the backwater communities. One shop sold replacement shikara oars, just beyond which was a busy workshop where one boat was being repaired and the gleaming curved planks to form the skeleton of a new addition to the lake’s huge fleet were being sanded.
Within a few moments, the tourist boats had peeled off and we were threading our way through a maze of narrower and narrower channels between trees, reed and vegetable fields, some too narrow to allow two shikaras to pass, brief widenings being used to squeeze boats travelling in opposite directions by or to allow faster paddlers to overtake. People here lived in sizeable brick-built houses amid their market gardens, but these sat on individual little islands, divided by the channels, with all transportation by shikara. A few of the islands were linked together by rickety, skeletal wooden footbridges, one so low that my boatman had to scramble to the bow to remove the protruding Lake Fish sign so that we could fit under, muttering about high lake levels due to meltwater. For hours we paddled through this lush, sylvan landscape, little vignettes of backwater life playing out as we silently, slowly passed. There are many serious things to criticise the Jammu & Kashmir authorities for, but their regulatory efforts to preserve this ecologically and socio-economically important – and stunningly beautiful – area just meters from a major tourist destination must be almost unprecedentedly successful in India; commendable too is the strict limit on motor boat licenses on the lake – I counted no more than four powered boats on the entire waterway network – surely under significant pressure from outlying houseboat owners who must feel disadvantaged by the lengthy shikara transfers to and from the shore for their guests.
The contrast was underlined as – heralded by nothing more than a slowly growing hubbub of voices, we popped out of a side canal back into the main houseboat street, just upstream of the Chicago. Suddenly, we were back among hundreds of covered shikaras, across which we ploughed our course – however slow the traffic, Indian rules of the road applied on water too – take either side of the carriageway, drive blindly at your target and let the vehicle that blinks first swerve out of the way.
Lake Fish and her friendly, wheezing boatman had done me well – I had seen a side of Dal Lake few others do and delivered me home in time for another delicious dinner. Tomorrow, I began the long journey home. Tonight, I was content to sit on the houseboat’s balcony and watch another un-earthly Srinagar sunset as the fishing eagles dived water-wards for their own dinner.