Srinagar! We arrived on a hazy, warm Friday afternoon to seriously heavy traffic, armed police and soldiers everywhere, and … bad directions to our homestay. Seriously bad directions.
Everywhere we stopped to ask for directions, after reaching the docks at Dal Lake, would send us in a different direction. Without a working cell phone to call the owner, we were going in circles. Thankfully, the owner figured out what was happening and came out to the end of his neighbourhood to wave us down. Thank God for him because we might otherwise still be searching for our rooms.
The guest house was right at the bottom of the mountains you see in the pictures. The whole area is mainly tourist guest houses and is very secure. It is also one of the only areas that escaped the massive flooding in Kashmir and Punjab that occurred in October. So while much of the city is under repair or renovation at the time we visited, this area – Veekel Colony – was untouched, quiet at night, and quite beautiful.
At the heart of Srinagar is Dal Lake – to one side the older city, to another the gardens and the newer city and at a point – a strip of hotels for the tourists facing the docks out to the crowded islands lined with aging houseboats that look nothing like their pictures.
The lake has a series of fountains at intervals which were working except for the odd spout. They add a nice touch to the lake and are generally a gathering point for the hundreds of ducks that were hanging out there fishing. Eagles soared about the ducks, following them to where the fishing was best. The owner of the guest house told us that the ducks were just about ready to make the long migration back over the Himalayas for the year. He was surprised they were still there for our visit.
After dropping our bags off at the guest house, we toured a few of the gardens and then went for a boat ride on the lake. It was getting cool by then, overnight it would drop to -5 or -6C, but the sunset on the lake just screamed to be photographed. How beautiful a view this was coming out of Nishat Bagh to see the sun setting behind cloud hidden Himalayan mountains in the distance.
From the shores of the lake, you can see the Shankaracharya Hill and Temple as well as Hari Parbat Hill and Fort. More steep stair climbing that would be on the menu for the following day – our only full day in Srinagar (or so we thought at that moment).
Everything shuts down in Srinagar after dark falls. Soldiers, with their automatic rifles line the roadways and conduct seemingly random check stops, looking for permits, papers, and searching vehicles. Their rifles are not strung over their backs, like many other soldiers in other part of India that I’ve seen but instead, they are held in front of them, at the ready.
This really made Jagdeep nervous, so I was on alert as well. What could be going on in Srinagar that required this sort of heightened presence? The answer is complicated and much too involved for a short blog post but it has a lot to do with the tensions that exist here – the independence movement on one hand, the dispute with Pakistan on the other. I was amazed at the human resilience of the people who live like this, at gunpoint, all day and all night, every single day, and just go on with their normal lives. They walk past the soldiers as if they are not there, just a normal part of the backdrop. But this is far removed from normal.
Talking to most people I met in Srinagar, they see the presence of the army as the problem – the soldiers as the danger. They just want to live, take care of their families and be peaceful, like everyone else on the planet. They are not interested in separation, independence, the dispute between the two countries that too often erupts into gunfire. They just want to be left to live in peace and to keep their families secure. It’s not any different than what we all want, all over the planet. I hope that they find a way to achieve that soon, to stop being pawns in the game between governments and to finally live peaceful lives in this beautiful, beautiful land.
In the meantime, for the near future at least, they will continue to live with the heavily armed soldiers lining their streets, occupying the forts, searching for bombs in the early morning and stopping vehicles in the afternoon.
I’m not slamming the soldiers either. They are here to keep the security of the place the best they can. It’s their job, sent here by their government to enforce India’s claim to the region. Though well and visibly armed, they did not seem to harass the people or cause more problems that their presence, perhaps, solves. Still and all though, finding a peaceful solution to the disputes here would mean most of these men could go home to their families and the people of Kashmir could go about their day other than at gunpoint.
In the next post, we’ll visit Pari Mahal, at the top of a mountain overlooking the beautiful Mughal gardens below. Until then,