Tuesday, June 3, 2008
hello from kashmir!
Now I'm gonna get one of those ALL CAPS LOCK notes from Mom...
Srinagar is swarming with military. They're stationed every ten yards along both sides of every street. It's like the clock struck midnight and the lampposts turned into soldiers.
What kind of place is this?! I think some history is in order. Obviously, history is important for all travel; I just think it's especially important for Kashmir. (Heck, as Joshua and Jeanne are sure to point out, history is required for appreciating anything. I mean, history is the story of everything that ever happened, right?) The point is, I'd like to present...
A brief and questionably accurate history of Kashmir.
(This is gonna be kinda long, since I think it's interesting and I didn't know any of it before. So, if you like, skip to "ENOUGH HISTORY")
Let's start in the 17th century, when European capitalists were making a king's ransom on subcontinental trade. I say "subcontinental" and not "Indian" because if I say "Indian," it implies some kind of monolithic entity. FAR from it! Modern-day India was, and still is, a wildly varied mosaic of cultures. Imagine if some empire conquered all of Europe and, a little while later, made it one country. Different languages, histories, foods, politics, religions, all sorts of variety. That's India.
Anyway, back to European capitalism. During the 18th century, Britain's East India Company was rolling in dough, and somehow bought their way to overwhelming political clout. By the mid-1800's, modern-day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar were all one big British colony. Here's a 1909 map:
Fast forward to the early 20th century (see, brief history), when folks like Mohandas "Mahatma" Gandhi were pushing for subcontinental independence. Long story short, a little after WWII, the UK acquiesced to growing civil unrest and announced it would grant independence. So, do you make one state? Two? Three? How do you Balkanize the subcontinent?
The decision was made to partition the subcontinent along the main religious rift: Muslims on the left, Hindus on the right. Pakistan, India.
(Small aside: Actually, there was also a Muslim chunk in the east, so Pakistan had two sections: West Pakistan and East Pakistan. The smaller, East Pakistan, like many non-contiguous states, felt ignored and pushed for sovereignty. After a war in 1971, East Pakistan became the independent state of Bangladesh, and West Pakistan dropped the "West." Also, judging by the map above, Burma-now-Myanmar must somehow play into this, but you gotta ask someone else.)
Enter Kashmir. Kashmir was one of the "princely states" that was allowed to choose, at the end of the British Raj, whether it wanted to join Pakistan or India. With a 94% Muslim majority, Pakistan was the obvious choice, but the Hindu Maharaja went with India (sorta). Big mistake.
British Raj officially ended on April 14/15, 1947. Within two months, Pakistan and India were at war over Kashmir. Ever since, India and Pakistan have gone through waves of fighting over the disputed valley, and it's become an issue of intense national pride.
Kashmiri tourism was doing spectacularly from '72 to the late '80s; rich Indian tourists would come to escape the plains' summer heat, and the English bourgeoisie would visit to relive the British Raj in decadence. But in 1989, something ignited the Kashmir conflict (again), and the '90s were real horrorshow. Lots of ultraviolence. In 1998, India flashed feathers by detonating nuclears in the desert of Rajastan, near the Paki border, and Pakistan responded in kind. By 2000, Clinton said Kashmir was the most dangerous place in the world.
Due to the region's current calm, tourists are slowly, very slowly, trickling back in. The military presence here in Srinagar is palpable -- some abandoned hotels are obviously makeshift army bases -- and when I tried to send a package home, I simply wasn't allowed. Despite all this, Indians swear Kashmir is safer than it's ever been, and as proof, Srinagar has a solid number of domestic tourists right now.
In the three days I've been wandering around Srinagar and surroundings, I've seen two other Westerners.
Alright, the road from Leh to Srinagar was pretty.
I'd have taken more photos, but I'm kinda done with taking photos from buses. Delhi to Manali was 18 hours, Manali to Leh was 20, Leh to Srinagar was 16, and my next ride back to Delhi will be a whopping 24. That's a lot of bus.
(Internet in Kashmir was too slow for photos, so I'm finishing this in Agra, where I've just arrived. The ride to Delhi was 27 hours, and of course, the air conditioning didn't work. Delhi to Agra was another 5, and again, no A/C. While I do have plenty of good things to say about India, it is most certainly a land of scams and false adjectives. New, Clean, Air-Conditioned, Next-Day? All lies.)
Maybe because I was in a bus lull, I let my guard down and made the super rookie mistake of telling one of my fellow passengers I wasn't sure where I was staying in Srinagar. Oy. See, this is a public bus -- there are no tourist buses around here -- so everyone has a houseboat or knows someone who has a houseboat. (In Srinagar, you don't stay in guesthouses, you stay in houseboats.) The entire rest of the ride, every time we'd have a bathroom stop, someone new jostled for the spot next to me. Oh, your brother has a nice boat? That's terrific.
When the bus was nearing Srinagar, it slowed, slowed!, and someone running alongside jumped on. He has a houseboat. Someone called ahead and let him know I was coming. Kashmir! Back off!
You know how if someone's too eager for a date, you wonder what's wrong and it's kinda irrationally unattractive? Srinagar is desperate for tourists.
Due to Kashmir's... uh, wanting reputation for safety, Western tourists are few and far between. You know when you look at someone, and they immediately look away, but it's obvious they were looking at you? Constant. Some don't even bother looking away. One guy asked to take my picture. I let him.
I'm the only not-Sunni-Muslim on any given bus. (Sunni is like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and part of Iraq. Shia is Iran style.) I won't lie about my nationality or religion, but I'm still a little nervous when someone asks me. Turns out they really like America here. About Jews, they don't say much.
So being a Martian is neat.
Anyway, a million no-thank-you's later, I wound up on the New Zeenith (sic), a "deluxe" class houseboat on Lake Nageen.
Dad would LOVE it. It's so, so interesting. Imagine taking a fancy British B&B, but letting it sit derelict for 20 years. That's what all these houseboats are. The insides are phantoms of days gone by, when British sophistos would summer here:
But now, all the sconces are leaning off the walls, the carpets all faded and stained, and the paint struggling to keep its hold on the desiccated wood. It's just fascinating. One entire side of the boat's leaning slightly aft.
I have the entire boat to myself. Mohammad and his son Javeed are happy to have me. The official government-set rate for a deluxe-class houseboat is 3000 rupees a night. I'm paying 1000. Now that's a splurge for me, but I'm currently well under-budget, and that price ($25 a night) includes breakfast, afternoon tea, and dinner.
Javeed sits there all dinner and makes sure "Everything is alright, Sir?" It's wonderfully awkward. "Would you like some more tea, Sir?" Thank you.
Dad would just love this. He'd love it more than anyone. (Except the scams and lies would bug him even more than me.)
You know, I kept thinking how much Dad would love the houseboat (if they redid the bathrooms...), so I wrote him a card and went off to find a post office. And I'm so happy I did! Lemme tell you: you've never sent a post 'til you've sent one from Kashmir!
See those guards? And the one manning the gun turret on the armored van? And the barbed wire wall behind them? That's the post office. What a trip. By the time I get in, I was stripped of my backpack, camera, jacket -- everything but my clothes and my two lonely postcards (also sent one to Shedd) -- and I got a thorough patting-down. Then I had to walk through one of those stupid snake-y line thingies, even though nobody's there, but instead of red velvet rope, it's more barbed wire. But the posts were sent. So maybe they'll get to Chicago, or maybe they'll be detonated somewhere near the Paki border :)
After the post office, let's wander around Srinagar. Now, part of the reason I came here is that Srinagar is the jewel of the Kashmir valley, and all this turmoil over a little valley, so much opulence here in the past; what jewel here is worth such investment and strife?
Um... I have no idea. Srinagar is an altogether unattractive place. Maybe it's the competitively-priced medical supplies?
Okay, okay, I kinda lied. As you might have deduced from the houseboat thing, the draw of Srinagar is water. Obviously, I'm an aquaphile, and I could spend hours rowing around Nageen Lake in this shikara. And I do.
(I know, blatant vanity shot. But damnit, I think that photo came out well! My left arm's apparently five feet long.)
What a surface!
Though you know how Srinagar is teeming with touts and folks desperate for tourists? Every now and then, even as you paddle, a vendor in a boat will race up to yours and, despite your protests, dock you like a damn pirate. I have to say, it's just so forward and obnoxious, it's fascinating. This man is showing me his paper mache boxes.
But even that doesn't dissuade me from taking the shikara out every day. I mean, have you ever wanted to just walk into a Monet and paddle around in a gondola? I did.
Adding to the romance of paddling around a quiet, reflective lake, this whole place is permeated with a sense of dying opulence, just fraught with ghosts of magnificence past. It's really fascinating.
The graveyard sense is juxtaposed, maybe accentuated, with all the waterbirds and jumping fish give hope and a sense of spring. Here's one of the long-necked long-beaked type.
I wish I could get a photo of the smaller birds -- blues and whites and blacks, and such fluttering wings! -- but I can't get close enough for a decent shot.
I'm truly sorry Man's dominion
Has broken nature's social union
And justifies that ill-opinion
That makes thee startle at me...
(10 points for naming the poet!)
Also, splurged to rent a fancy shikara all day and be rowed around the old city.
Total disappointment, really: supposed to see 3 gardens and such, but instead saw one garden and then stopped, against my very vocal wishes, at commission-paying souvenir shops. Unfortunately, this is common here in India (only Leh seemed... honest), and there's no recourse to get your money back. BUT, the old city was like half-Venice, half-What Dreams May Come.
Those derelict boats and fancy buildings in disrepair? So interesting. Like much of India so far, neither fun nor comfortable, but damn interesting.
Though the lake sure was pretty.
So, so pretty.
And on a totally unrelated note: tomorrow's my BIRFDAY!