With Kargil fading in the distance behind us as cooked fatty intestines melted down into our stomachs, Kashmir beckoned. Ducking into a rocky field, we (David, Evelyn and I) hid being behind the low hills, and began preparing dinner of?… you guessed it, my now famous mashed potatoes, salad and vegetable stew. Gods love that tiny pressure cooker Evelyn had been hauling around since Kyrgyzstan.
The road was smooth until the fun gravel sections leading up to Zoji La (3528m). Located just outside beautiful Sonamarg, it is nicknamed as the “door to Ladakh” from the west, and lies on the Srinagar – Kargil road. During the winter months, Zoji La, like most of the Himalayan passes, closes due to the heavy snowfall.
Disappearing under first gravel, and then grimy layers of goopy mud, the condition of the pass road would fluctuate consistently. Waterfalls formed by glaciers and snow melt ran across sand and stone, however nothing like what we had experienced in Spiti or the Zanskar mountains. Soon thereafter on the western side of the pass, we noticed thousands of colourful tents, buses, helicopters and jeeps. It seemed the Amarnath Cave pilgrimage was now in full swing.
Amarnath Cave is a hindu shrine where an ice staglamite forms – believed to represent Lord Shiva. As it is only open a few months of the year, as Amarnath is held in such high regard, I got to understand as to why there were thousands of tents surrounding the valley entrance accessing Amarnath cave. This may have explained why there were heavily armed Indian troops stationed every 50 metres all the way into the beating heart of Kashmir – Srinagar.
With an easy glide, a golden eagle surveyed the bustling hub of Kashmiris on Srinagar streets below. While wind brushed through broad golden wings, I sweated in the hot seat of the small white Suzuki Maruti, vainly trying to escape a seat buckle burn. The wine and beer shop seemed so far away in the overbearing humidity hugging the lakes surrounding Srinagar.
One could say that we achieved much and others could say we achieved nothing the following week – but I believe that wasted time enjoyed is time not wasted… A luxurious houseboat for pennies (a mere $3 each a night), a serene lake bustling with wildlife and our friends Romanov and JK (courtesy of the Jammu brewery).
Golden eagles soared overhead, screeching loudly as they scannned the flat lake waters for food. Claws out, with a dash and a splash, a huge wingspan shot out from the blue sky into the calm lake water. However, these great eagles did not have the green waters for themselves.
Blue kingfishers floated above the faint green water, diving in amongst water lillies to catch their dinner for the day. A few boats down, geese barked loudly at any intruders on their tiny spat of grass next to a sunken houseboat. Tiny white cranes hid amongst water lilies, hunting for the small silver fish that called Nageen home.
Amongst this hive of activity, the fish themselves occasionally jumped out for a snack of juicy fly. When they weren’t searching for lively snacks, a piece of potato would do, which would lead them right into the catch bucket on a local fishermans boat. What a place it was to see life go by. Not only was it a thriving lake for local wildlife, it was also a prime spot for uninterrupted relaxation – something we’d all been looking forward quietly for a while.
Cold kingfisher premiums reigned supreme amongst games of Durak, Knachtsen and Schnappsen, while David invented songs on his tiny eukelele. Birds constantly chattered, making it so easy to lean agaisnt rustic timber carvings on the balcony and watch the eagles seek out dinner. We were in a happy place.
There was still some due bits of business to attend to, and mine was to find engine oil. The 8000km old oil had turned into a greyish coffee colour with some fancy cappucino bubbles on top (which was probably due to dropping the bike in the river in Zanskar). My cam chain rattled like a skeleton in the wind and the crash bars were now resting on the engine casing – again *sigh*.
Among other things like phone and various camera repairs, visits to the tailor for clothing and pannier repairs had to be completed. Dropping by the plumber for replacement clamps for assorted items was also on the list, as was phone and laptop repairs. The last two months hadn’t been so easy on our electronics, let alone the last year!
The most errand running both David and I achieved that week after the important stuff was… walking down to the bakery and buying huge bags of chocolate and coconut balls, which aside from mutton kebabs and Evelyn’s pressure cooked vegetable masterpieces, were our main source of food for the week. Every morning without fail, a plate of those chocolate coconut balls would circulate, and a new trip would be made to the Kashmiri bakery just down the road.
Boatmen of Srinagar
The garbageman paddled by every day on his skinny timber boat, where his organised pile grew ever larger. He readily flashed across cheeky grins between puffs of a dubious looking ‘cigarette’ as he slowly paddled towards his next pickup. Vendors would occasionally stop by, offering hand made jewellery, colourful scarves and boat rides with whom we’d joke from our shady balcony out of the searing summer sun.
As late afternoon struck, the odd boat with a pair of fishermen would come to a halt in front of our houseboat balcony. Handmade chopstick floats were cast out, and fish seemingly leapt on board as freely as the glowing oranges that screamed off the flat surface of Nageen Lake. Most afternoons over sunset, the water came alight in the sleepy suns rays.
Nageen and it’s boatmen were as picturesque and as memorable as it gets. Every afternoon was spent having a cheeky chat off the back of our houseboat with friends new or old. As the breeze played with the curtains shading us from the sun, sooner or later we’d have get on the move again. On our 8th morning we left, not for a minute thinking about the time as wasted – but wasted time throughly enjoyed.
The military has no sense of humour – goodbye Srinagar!
The monsoon season was upon us. Our morning had moodily deduced a downpour equivalent to Noah’s flood which set us back into the late hours of the morning. With the setback came the relentless crush of traffic, and some very confused army privates who didn’t know which way they wanted me to turn.
This ended in a sprained ankle, my bike in the mud and a swift exchange between the private, Evelyn and myself. David had squirted away, just keeping it together on the slippery mud. I supposed it could have all been avoided if I’d just ignored the wave happy private, but I was trying rather hard to be polite.
Military in Kashmir controlled the roads rather aggressively, or so I thought. One private took offence to a simple lazy shrug a few hundred metres down the road at a traffic stop however. A stick toting soldier stormed towards me, shouting and gesticulating wildly. Being me, I couldn’t help myself and so returned the gestures in an interpretive dance, aiming for a humorous result. Apparently my sense of humour is on a contrasting level to the military – that, or I’m just terrible at gesticulating.
In turn, this drew a revved up Evelyn into an animated ‘discussion’ with the irate private swinging his long stick around like an almighty phallic symbol. I kicked back and watched the energetic show, laughing inside my helmet watching Evelyn and the private gesture at one another, one shouting in Hindi, the other in English.
That said, this wasn’t the first time we’d come to a head with the military or with jumpy authority for that matter. Prior to entering Srinagar we’d had a raging argument with military officials at a roadblock who got a little too ‘hands on’ for our liking (which was probably due to the whole security fiasco around Amarnath). The aggression of the Indian military in Kashmir towards us felt on the whole, unwarranted and arrogant and nothing like I’d experienced anywhere else in other, more “dangerous” parts of the world.
I did wonder once or twice how we would have gotten by if we hadn’t been foreigners – because that was always the ticket we resorted to last, which worked every time we had some grief with authority in Kashmir.
Closing in on Punjab
Grinding our way out of the mountains we entered the Chenani Nashri Tunnel, which led us away from yet another twisting pass. As we canoodled on, David pick up a hitchhiker in the form of nail clippers on his rear tire. Conviently located just below us was the tire walla, so we made tracks on down and paid a grand 50 cents for the gentlemans flawless services.
Over lime ice blocks in the somewhat overwhelming heat, we told our tale to some curious policeman. They’d had a tire blowout and had gotten curious about the three dirty foreigners on bikes. We managed to befriend them, who so very kindly let us climb into their police van and gawk at their gadgets.
The further south we rode, the heavier the traffic became. Light began to sink over dust clouds launched by the hunydreds of trucks traversing north. As traffic packed together on the two lane highway, we breathed in the delicious diesel that everything diesel in India loved to churn out.
While Evelyn completed a rolling business transaction in traffic with two young Indians on a scooter (100 rupees for a bottle of whiskey), I glanced upon a cute little stony spot by the Tawi river below us. We had found our home for the night.