While India has given me a plethora of interesting travel experiences in these brief 8 months, nothing has quite compared to the intensity of my trip to Jammu and Srinagar, during the month of March. When my friend Nicole invited me to accompany her and her visiting friend, Lily, to Kashmir, I readily agreed. I had always wanted to travel to this area of the country and dreamed of snow-capped mountains, houseboats on Dal Lake, and steaming cups of Kashmiri tea spiced with saffron and served with shaved almonds.
The adventure began on my overnight bus ride to Delhi to meet Nicole and Lily for the first leg of our journey. I arrived at sunrise and made my way through the city to a sleepy Maressa McCall, who then promptly took me to an “American-style” brunch, which left me feeling appropriately stuffed and ready for the next bus ride. I met Nicole and Lily at their hotel and we soon realized, as often happens when catching a bus in India (at least for me), that it would not be an easy procedure. After waiting for 5 hours under a freeway underpass outside a Metro station and being cheated of our tickets by a crooked travel agent, we were deposited onto a different bus to Jammu, where the men in the berth next to us proceeded to become uproarisly drunk. While half-empty whiskey bottles rolled up and down the bus aisle, stumbling, intoxicated males stepped on our feet and stared lecherously, and a “party” occurred in the driver’s cockpit, the bus reeled it’s way to Jammu. Finally, after 15 hours of road time, we arrived.
As we stepped off the vehicle, on solid ground at last, we looked to our phones to give Nicole’s Srinagar-based friend a call, notifying her we were in the State. Much to our surprise, we had no service and an amused businessman informed us that due to the conflict in the area, all phones with pre-paid SIM cards (our phones) were disabled by the government. Deciding to worry about this later, we set off to find a jeep – the mode of transportation on the precarious road from Jammu to Srinagar. After we negotiated the price and boarded the jeep with 4 other passengers, our driver set off – at the most insane and frightening speed and style that I have ever encountered. I was later informed that this is relatively typical of these jeep drivers, but as he was playing chicken with goods carriers on the wrong side of the road, around blind turns with sheer drops off the side of a mountain, all I could think about was how much I wanted to keep on living. The ride we misguidedly thought to be only 3 to 4 hours became a 12 hour journey, through Himalayan mountain passes – eye to eye with snowy peaks, rock faces, and cascading waterfalls of melted snow, as well as the all-too-frequent munitions shops, military outposts, and the just-occurred avalanche. The gravesites dotting the 2-lane road and many signs begging for prudent driving were not reassuring, but we surprisingly and gratefully arrived with all body parts intact in Srinagar.
Our next challenge was locating Nicole’s friend at 9pm in a city where our phones did not function and most everything shuts down early in a place used to frequent, government-mandated curfews. We managed to find an open Internet café and by some miracle, the owner knew the woman we were searching for. In no time at all, we had located her and were eating copious amounts of food. That night, our sleep was quick, deep, and uninterrupted, despite a howling wind outside the windows. Little did we know that howling wind was a cyclone, which blew thru Srinagar and upturned several houseboats. A shopkeeper told us there had also been a mild earthquake simultaneously. In spite of these natural disasters, we set off the next day to explore the city.
Srinagar, despite it’s extremely rocky history of conflict that is still tangibly, visibly present today, was gorgeous and welcoming – although confused by three American women traveling together who were of Northern European (me), African (Nicole), and East-Asian (Lily) descent. Of our many exciting activities there, our trip to a nearby hill station was one of the best. There, we rented small, muddy ponies who trotted and trekked their way up a mountain, keeping their footing despite the fact that the snow was melting into a river of slush and unpredictable drifts. As we climbed higher and higher, the ponies seemed to be occasionally walking vertically up a wall, although they were relatively unperturbed. Up and down the mountain we went, ending the excursion while my pony – Raj – picked his way daintily down an extremely steep hill and through a stony river.
Our last two days were our best – spent on one of the houseboats Srinagar is famous for. It was comfortable and warm, with a dinner of home-cooked Kashmiri food every night. While here, we took a Shikara ride around Dal Lake and visited a small island with four Chinar trees – the national tree of Kashmir – which used to house prisoners. We saw several Mughal gardens and drank from the mountain spring from which Nehru had his water shipped from to his prime-minister seat in Delhi. We explored the Old City, which houses ancient buildings that often had imminent and precarious leans to them. We ate Kashmiri sweets and wondered to each other why all the food we ate in the city seemed to taste better than any other food (mountain air?).
Our trip back was less eventful, but not completely without excitement. As yet another travel agency in Jammu tried to cheat us of our tickets, an Indian woman who was traveling with her son told us sadly, “Your first mistake was traveling without a gentleman”. Despite this supposed handicap, we made it home no worse for the wear, just in need of some serious rest after our “holiday”.