Friday, June 25, 2010

Srinagar to Pahalgam (June 21-22)

The day after the wedding, I woke up feeling awful. Don’t think I will ever figure out what the cause was, but I vomited, and actually fainted in the house. I was in very good hands, a doctor was called, and I had a 101 degree fever. I slept almost the whole day with just a few minutes of wakefulness. Turns out the whole day was a strike in the city.

Kashmir has been plagued with strikes and curfews consistently since 1989. Just in this past week that I have been here, Monday, Tuesday, and now it has been announced that Friday will also be a full strike. What this means – banks, offices, shops, and schools are closed. Public transport is shut down. Newspapers casually write that when people come out of their homes, if it is a curfew that has been imposed by the Indian government, the police are waiting there to beat them.

So by Monday evening I was feeling much better, and geared up to continue my Kashmir exploration on Tuesday. But then it was announced that it would be a strike on Tuesday…hrmph. I woke up on Tuesday, wondering if there was some way I could get to either Pahalgam or Gulmarg, and was told no. The Khan family has been and is incredibly gracious with me – we spoke about how over the past 20 years people have learned to keep rations in their house to survive for extended periods of time in the event of long curfews or strikes. Currently, this household could survive for 2-3 months without setting foot outside of the gate. Obviously, this kind of lifestyle is unthinkable for me. They tell me with sad smiles that I am stuck with them another day, and we settle into the day…and then we find out that Wahid, one of Raja’s cousins, is headed to Pahalgam with his friends. Turns out that if you’ve got your own vehicle, you can move around and there is relatively little security risk. So Raja asks if I can go with them and they say they are going in a truck – no open roof or anything – what you call in India a ‘Goods Carrier’ – but if I am ok with that, I am welcome to join. So I rush to pack my bag and get all ready to go…and then the whole plan changes.

Within minutes of heated discussion, it is decided that Raja, Roma, Ruhi, Jana, and probably all sorts of other relatives will also go for a daytrip to Pahalgam. There is something pleasant and exciting about this, but it is bittersweet – that they are able to do this on a Tuesday when in reality they probably wish they could be at their jobs, and not live in this volatile uncertainty that is Kashmir.

But we put all that aside for the time being – somehow I have woken up thinking I wouldn’t leave the house gate, and all of a sudden we’re on a family road trip! We go to the wedding house to get the newlyweds and off we go! The ride is supremely gorgeous – I am in the car with the newlyweds and Wahid (a different Wahid) – my favorite of Raja’s cousins…and we pass ricefields, saffron fields (season for this is in October), and finally we come to the gushing Lidder River near Anantnag. Powerful explosive green water is coming straight down from the snow-capped mountains…majestic. We stop to stock up on junk food goodies which they never have in their homes and we continue on.

Pahalgam is given the slogan heaven on earth. I have travelled in dozens of countries and been to places that claim to be the most beautiful this, the most impressive that, the most blah blah blah. To me, Pahalgam lives up to this claim. Every possible shade of green that you can imagine is there. The meadows and fields are neatly manicured by the rotating livestock – mostly sheep and some cows – and are so bright you could almost call it neon. Willows with their pale muted silvery green, all different deciduous trees with all the spectrum of their bright greens, move further up and you’ve got deep dark green conifers, and then – black granite mountains with glaciers galore, and peaks that never lose their snowy icing. It is breathtaking and overpowering.

We have a great lunch at a fancy hotel, and continue to Betab Valley, named as such since a film of the same name was filmed there. More dramatic beautiful mountain scenery. It is packed with tourists and locals alike – but I don’t see a single other foreigner. After this, Raja and the family are ready to head home but I decide to stay the night in the village with Wahid (the first Wahid who originally decided to go to Pahalgam with his friends). So I wander around the village, we head to dinner; they are wanting to have their mutton so I head to a pure vegetarian dhaba run by Sikhs (Kashmir has a small population of Sikhs, still – most of the Hindus left after the political instability began) – and I am so content to have my palak paneer and chapatti.

I head to bed early that night…

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