Saturday, June 28, 2014

Kashmir Log 2

For Kashmir Log 1, click here.

We are on our way to Srinagar from Pahalgam. It is going to be a long day. Big buses such as ours are not allowed to enter the city during daytime. So, at a convenient point, we split into groups and get into the smaller vehicles that are waiting for us. It is a Monday morning and the traffic in the city is heavy. Reaching the hotel takes much longer than expected. After dropping off our bags at the hotel, we head towards Dal Lake for a shikara ride to the Char Chinar island. Traffic crawls at a snail's pace. It is almost midday and very warm. Never thought it could get so hot here!

It is only after I settle in my shikara that I get a respite from the heat. The cool breeze and the gentle blue waters of the lake soothe me. But before I could begin to appreciate this, our shikara is approached by intruders. It is the hawkers again! They attach their shikaras to yours and start negotiating. They go some distance with you, but leave you alone after a while. The lake is unbelievably huge. At places, there are lotus patches with hundreds of lotuses blooming. Some light yellow, some pink/red. It is wonderful floating gently in these shikaras. There's an old world charm to it.

After about 30 minutes, the island of Char Chinar appears at a distance. It is a small isle, with four Chinar trees, one in each corner. But sadly, only two of them are in good shape. Two have dried up, with almost no leaves. The Chinar is a majestic tree, tall and elegant. It is an integral part of Kashmiri culture. One can only imagine how magnificent it must be looking in autumn when its leaves change their colour. The leaves are pretty with a distinct angular shape.

We spend some time at Char Chinar and get back into our shikaras. On our way back, we pass by some floating gardens where vegetables are being grown on layers of weeds that have been collected from the lake. There is a floating market too, housed in boats. We give it a miss as it is getting late. It is interesting to see locals using simple shikaras for their errands. School kids are being taken home in one, while an old couple is going some place in the other. There is a floating post office in a bigger houseboat.

Some time after a latish lunch at our hotel, we visit the Shalimar Bagh. And then the Nishat Bagh. These are exquisitely landscaped Mughal gardens that were laid out in the 17th century. Everything about them is superlatively splendid. The fountains, the lawns, the trees and the flowers. Ah, the flowers! There must be something special about the soil and air in Kashmir. The flowers look very healthy and full of life. And they are huge and abundant. It is a treat to see so many roses in so many different colours, all at one place.

It has been a long and leisurely evening. At dinnertime, we are briefed about the visit to Gulmarg that is coming up tomorrow. It is going to be the "highlight" of this whole trip. Full of anticipation and excitement, I hit the bed. We have to gather in the breakfast area at six in the morning!


All of us are ready for breakfast at six. Those who don't want to eat that early get some stuff packed to eat later. We get going at 6:30. It is a nice day. For the first 43 kilometres, the drive takes us on a road that is pretty much flat. We take a break in Tangmarg. Local men here sport long beards and flowing phirans. They look hardy and robust, a quality they acquire because of living in difficult geographical terrain. The next 13 kilometres will take us uphill on a winding road. After a tea break, our leaders advise us to rent gumboots and warm coats from a neighbouring shop. "One never knows what the weather will be like up there", they say. It has started drizzling, lending a dreamy look to the scenery.  Armed with boots and coats, we get into the bus that starts winding its way towards Gulmarg. The drive is scenic, with very tall pine and fir trees growing densely in the forest. They are numerous, standing so close to one another as if they were jostling for place, their needles encroaching into each other's space.

Gulmarg is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Kashmir and large crowds are expected here. Our buses drop us in the parking lot. From here, one has to walk or ride a pony for about two kilometres to reach the cable car station. Most of us decide to walk. Fortunately, the drizzle has stopped. The crowds seem to be swelling. Our leaders have done online booking for the group. That saves us some time. We get into the queue for the first phase of the cable car ride that will take us to Kongdori, at a height of 10,500 feet. It is a short ride that takes eight to nine minutes. Small huts, sheep, people, grassy slopes...all look magical down there when you are seated inside the small cabin of a cable car, called gondola here. We get out and enjoy  the fascinating views that this location offers.

The second phase takes you to Afarwat, 13,500 feet high. I hear that the Line of Control is only a few kilometres away from there. But sadly, the cable cars in that phase are not operating because of bad weather at the top, an announcement informs us. Hoping that the service will resume, we decide to wait for some time. They run some test cars and start operations after 90 minutes or so. What follows after that is mayhem. Impatient crowds, people pushing one another, angry arguments and fights lead to almost stampede-like conditions. What could have been a rendezvous with Nature at its magnificent best, is marred by crass human behaviour and incompetent handling of the situation by the management. Those of us who do wish to go for the second phase, have to stand in the queue for two hours or more with a hostile crowd. Anyway, I am happy that nothing untoward happened and all are well.

By the time we are back in Tangmarg for "lunch", it is six in the evening! We have one more engagement scheduled for the evening. A visit to the Art and Craft Bazaar on the outskirts of Srinagar. It is a government-run outlet selling authentic Kashmiri stuff at fixed prices. Moreover, a carpet-making demonstration is on the cards. Our group is ushered into the huge hall on the first floor where the walls are lined with plush sofas. As we take our seats, we are welcomed by the genial Mr. Rafiq. He explains the intricacies of carpet-making in very sweet Hindi, tinged with Urdu. He is very polite, suave and knowledgeable. We listen to him spellbound as he holds forth on this art mastered by his illustrious forefathers. "Yeh hunar aapko virasat mein milta hai" (you inherit this skill from your ancestors), he says. As he shows how a carpet is woven knot by knot, we are full of admiration for the tremendous amount of work that goes into its making. The price and quality of a carpet depends on the number of knots per square inch. He unfurls several gorgeous carpets in different sizes to cries of "oohs" and "aahs" from us.

The art of carpet-making came to Kashmir from Persia. Carpets are not made in factories. Skilled craftspersons make them in their own homes. It may take months to make a single piece. A carpet maker has to follow a distinct pattern of knots and colours laid down by an expert, just like a musician follows notations while playing a piece. The final outcome is not known to him until he has completed making it. The designs are mostly floral and include cultural motifs like paisley and Chinar leaf.

"A carpet is for a lifetime", Mr. Rafiq tells us. The silkworm feeds on the leaves of apple trees. The silk yarn is obtained from the saliva it deposits on the surface of the leaves. The speciality of this silk is that the worm does not get killed in the process. Since only natural dyes (extracted from rose petals in this case) are used, the carpets do not get stained even if something spills on them. Once a thread is dyed in a natural dye, it cannot take on any other colour. Any spillage can be washed off at home easily. They do not absorb dust and are fire-resistant. Mr. Rafiq sets fire to a piece of paper and throws it on a carpet. The piece burns completely but does not leave any mark on the carpet. Our host simply dusts off the ash. Even heavy furniture does not make a dent in these carpets. And lastly, he demonstrates the amazing change in the colours of a carpet when it is flipped. This session has been very interesting and enriching. It ends with cups of delicious kahwa served to us on the house.

We return to the hotel, have dinner and retire. Of course, not before listening to the itinerary for tomorrow. We are going to Sonamarg tomorrow!

To be continued.

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