On Dal Lake, a lone shakara rower rides across the open water, meandering between reeds and creatively named houseboats ‘Movie Land’, ‘Winston’ ‘Pleasure Palace’ and ‘Miss England’. His heart shaped paddle moves through the water, dipping a lake peppered with Lilly pads and old Mountain Dew bottles. The Dal Lake clean up initiative is posted on the wooden slats of the waterways and inlets as you travel, reminders to keep litter inside the boat. Stretching over twenty two kilometers, the lake moves between intense crowds in summer, tourists taking boat rides through the days and evenings, to being deserted and entirely residential in the off season, when snow and ice take hold and families shelter under heavy blankets and heaters.
Shakara owners work overtime, extra hours when the days are warm, pulling travellers out of sleep at four to reach the famous floating vegetable market at first light and working late, until the night has closed, house boats have settled, set candles to rest and the water has lost its business, stilling to calm again.
At the 5am vegetable market, ‘Mr Wonderful Flower Man’ paddles by, boxes full of Kashmir Jasmine and lotus seeds, photo album ready to show his customers. He rips off a stem of pink and throws it from his shakara to our visiting one. We are one of just two tourist boats waiting to watch the trade exchange, where produce is the only guest. Carrots lie supine on the boat floors, the darkest aubergines brimming with night purple nestle alongside cabbage ears. Cucumbers the size of a half meter rule stack up like limbs.
As rain falls, sellers huddle underneath black umbrellas, others shelter with cushion seats overhead, drawing their boat noses closer as a pack of dolphins coming towards shore. One man shovels water from his sinking shakara. The saffron seller barters over two grams of threads. At the source, we hope to play less. The market is all over within the half hour, shakaras moving away with their new wares, money made and vegetables swapping hands before day break.
Floating across the unassuming lake, one might not believe Srinagar is a military strong hold, almost. Jammu and Kashmir state, most wanted, most fought over by Chinese and Pakistan forces, the local neighbours keen to call this barren, altitude based, often snow covered outpost their own.
It’s easy to see why. The saying goes that G-d made India, and then he made Leh, Jammu and Kashmir, the redeeming feature. Northern India above Himachal Pradesh and the much visited hill station areas holds a charm of its own and is a haven from cluttered, hazy Indian cities over wrung with dense population and a lack of space. Inaccessible bounds, lustrous green, and space define the Jammu and Kashmir region. Space like that which Gulmarg, home to the two stage high cable car offers in abundance.
We also ventured to the stunning Palace of Fairies, Pari Mahal, the five kilometer ride up hill from the lake brings you to a wide open seven terraced garden located at the top of Zabarwan mountain range gazing ornately over Srinagar town and the lake.
Physically, the people are different, blue eyes seen with dark features. The dominant religion in Kashmir goes between Buddhism and Islam. The latter here as the soothing nuances of call to prayer fill the air and the sight of burkhas worn on the main streets fill our eyes.
The Rising Kashmir daily newspaper reports protests and shootings often, police line the streets, barricaded between shops, and houses, side alleys, and nestled into the hillside. Holding sniper guns, the men in green do not stop watching. Speeding through the Srinagar lanes, we pass Royal Springs Golf Course, meet the top professional golfer for Jammu and Kashmir, and get a free driving range lesson. Later, we replenish our energy in Cafe Coffee Day. CCD is everywhere, even in an area of heightened security. Shots of espresso, green tea, and masala chai propel us back onto the streets.
Disjointed with the lack of vegetarian eateries, in Srinigar with my two travelling companions for support, I break a year of vegetarianism with a mouthful of tandoori chicken. It seems that travelling beyond your comfort zones in location brings about other changes too..