Not having our fill of long & uncomfortable car rides, Wendy & embarked on another 14 hour bumpy ride through the mountains from Leh to Srinigar. The road was slightly better but the company was not. Our drivers companion (why he needed a companion was anybody’s guess… oh, wait, I know. The dude wanted a free ride from Leh to Srinigar) Along the way he began proselytizing about Islam and tried,unsuccessfully, to convert me to Islam. Those of you who know me can only imagine how well THAT went over. Then he started in with the “why are you Americans always killing innocent people?” and my favorite “9-11 was an inside job. by americans. not muslims” ok, somebody get me out of the car before I kill this jackass. It was a long and trying day.
Srinigar is situated on Dal lake in Kashmir, which has had it’s fair share of troubles and has been quite unsafe to travel in recent years. It was undisputed territory between Pakistan & India for many years & the kasmirie people really want Kashmir to be autonomous. They do not identify with Indians or Pakistanis. They will proudly tell you “I am Kasmirie!” The military presence is everywhere, men with machine guns, razor wire, and while we were there, 19 Kashmirie were killed by Indian soldiers, a fact of which we were blissfully unaware until much later.
The main reason people go to Srinigar is Dal lake. During the British Raj, foreigners were prohibited from owning land in Kashmir, so they got creative & worked around this little obstacle by building houseboats. They were known as floating palaces and many are still quite grand.
We had heard horror stories about houseboat scams and foreigners literally being held hostage until they paid excessive fees beyond what was agreed upon, so we were a bit skeptical, until we met Husam of Ambassador houseboat. Husam was genuine, kind, fair & had a lovely houseboat. His wife even bought me flowers on my birthday. Truly nice people. We spent 4 days relaxing, having the world come to our doorstep. Shikaras or small passenger boats carry people & goods around the lake. need toilet paper? a sim card? postcards? saffron? flowers? potato chips? batteries? You name it, it can be delivered to you on a shikara.
We had heard that Srinigar had a BBQ “chowk” or street and were intrigued. What we found was the shera cafeteria. The kabobs were delish!
Not being able to face another 10 hour car ride,surprising, I know, we flew from Srinigar to Jammu, a miserable & filthy town. We had a nice hotel room that we shared with about 15 cockroaches and an AC unit that blasted stale & musty air. could not leave soon enough. It was a necessary evil pit stop on our whirlwind tour, so it had to be endured.
On the train from Jammu to Amritsar we met some nice Indian men & one helped us make our hotel booking. Another, a restauranteur from bangalore on holiday with his family, starting asking us questions about our itinerary. When we told him we were going from Amritsar to Pushkar he elbowed the other man & said “yaar, they are going from Amritsar to Pushkar…… by TRAIN….. oh, only God can help you.” The other man, shook his head & nodded, “we will pray for you”. Seriously? And it was a slog. A slog that almost didn’t happen…. but I am getting ahead of myself… back to Amritsar.
Amritsar is home to the golden temple & the majority of india’s Sikhs. Sikhism believes in a casteless society and where men & women are equal. They believe in a common kitchen where anyone, beggar or king, can come & sit for a meal. While in Amritsar we spent one night at the temple in the free accommodation and ate in the communal kitchen which feeds some 30,000 people a day.
When we arrived at the “dharamsala” or travelers resting place, we weren’t sure of the program. turns out there is no program. Find an empty bed. throw your stuff on it. it’s now yours. There we met the lovely Ashton from Texas & her beau, Matt. Ashston, says with a slight texan drawl, “we heard there’s bed bugs. bad bed bugs. we saw a girl yesterday & she looked like she had the pox.” super. I have made it 9 months without bed bugs. dammit. The 4 of us decided to sleep outside. There were only about a million other people, but for foreigners it was a no no. “you have too many valuables” the sikh responsible for us, kept saying, clearly distressed that we were not staying in our foreigner bunker. so we moved. to a buggy & hot & noisy alcove. our sikh was satisfied. we, however, were not. we surrendered. back to the bunker. 4 of us in a small cell. then in came to german boys to sleep on the floor. make that 6 of us in a cell. Now the sikh was delighted. all foreigners present & accounted for. It was a bit rough, and not the most comfortable sleeps, but well worth the experience. ( and i escaped with nary a bed bug bite)
Anytime of day you can help do some prep work for the kitchen: peel & chop potatoes, cucumbers, garlic, etc. we opted for garlic detail. We sat on the floor while a beautiful lady in a sari prattled on to me in Hindi. When i said i didn’t speak Hindi, she just laughed & kept right on talking. Can you imagine that happening in the states? first, everyone would have to have a food handlers license, and we sure as hell would not have been able to peel garlic on the floor, and everyone would have to be over 18…. good lord, the list of requirements would be endless.
The dining halls are massive & we all sat on the floor in rows with our metal plates in front of us while men came by with buckets of dal mahkani, coconut rice pudding, pumpkin squash puree/curry, sambar, curd & as many chipatis as you need to scoop it all up. very satisfying but no lingering.
In the evening we watched the sun set over the magnificent golden temple, which has been plundered, bombed & rebuilt have a dozen times at least. It is one of the most spectacular places I have ever seen.
One other “not to be missed” adventure in Amritsar is to visit the border ceremony between India & Pakistan. It is a total spectacle. There are grandstands & people cheer & wave flags. The Indians go nuts. The pakistanis…. are subdued. It’s all pride & ego & it is a lot of fun.
ok, so we left for our 2 legged train slog, 12 hours one leg & 9 hours the other. we had confirmed tickets on the first portion but were waitlisted for the second. No problem we thought. well, when we arrived in Delhi (and we all know how I feel about DELHI) at 430 am with no seats, we were a bit deflated. What were we going to do in delhi? But, wendy managed to finagle chair seats for the remainder of the trip. Pushkar at last! Our hotel was charming as was Pushkar, or so I was told. I spent 2 days in bed with a nasty bought of bronchitis. Then we had a whirlwind stopover in Udaipur and now, now we are in Mumbai, this crazy wonderful city by the sea.