Kashmir

 

 

I wake in the chill early morning haze and, freeing my feet from the tangle of four or five blankets and the now tepid dead-body warmth of the hot-water bottle, I reluctantly slide out of bed. I crank the gas heater up to full power – its warmth is a mixed blessing since the gas bottle leaks just enough to oblige me to keep a window cracked through the night. I dress crouched on the floor in front of the heater and then peel the curtain back and peak out. It is still dark outside but I can see the glitter of heavy frost on the ground. The entire experience reminds me of days – so long ago that I hesitate even to attempt the maths – when I would wake in the early winter mornings of northern England to dress for school. (The reluctance for school is probably the second reason that I don’t attempt the maths!). Those icy mornings are probably one of the primary reasons for why I hit the road in the first place.

Thinking back on this I muse about the strange twists of fate that have brought me to this ungodly wakening in the dark wood cabin of a forty year old houseboat on Lake Dal, high in the Kashmiri Mountains. It is all very well to drift on a wing and a prayer and place everything in the lap of the gods. It is one of the luxuries of a year on a round the world trip that I am free for once to allow myself a bit of spontaneity. But then again upon arrival in Delhi, with no further plan and with a couple of weeks to kill before my first assignment, I found that the gods had decreed that all the southbound trains would be full. They further gave me an almost irresistible rate (after heavy haggling) and an easy path to the frozen north. For an hour or so we sat on the plane in Delhi waiting for fog to lift at Srinagar, the Kashmiri ‘summer capital’ in the foothills of the Himalayas. It seemed that the gods reneged on the deal after all but eventually we touched down amid the barbed-wire, cloaked Kalashnikov packing soldiers and Russian armoured cars of Srinagar airport.

 

Now I was waking at dawn to meet my guide Fayas and take a boat through the tangled labyrinth of foggy canals to the Lake Dal vegetable market. This amounts to the Kashmiri stock-market.The floating pontoon jetty was frosted and slippery as I climbed into the shikara (a Kashmiri version of the gondolas of Venice) and sat back in the soft cushions nursing a warm cup of coffee. Kashmiris have a wonderful and unique invention for dealing with the cold: beneath their voluminous robes they carry a kongi. This is a terracotta pot inside a wicker basket and it is used as a sort of mini barbecue with hot coals inside. But nothing is cooked on a kongi (although it is also the source of fuel for recharging shisha pipes). Instead it is carried around under the robes and keeps the local people wonderfully warm on these frigid winter mornings.

 

It took about forty minutes for Fayas to paddle us through the labyrinth of houseboats and down a narrow backcountry canal to the vegetable market. At first appearance it was like any other vegetable market, apart from the serene way in which the shikaras of traders and buyers wafted elegantly around and among each other. But the serenity was shortlived. Within the course of half an hour we saw several fights and in one case the combatants actually managed to fight while jumping from one boat to another. The war might have quietened down finally in Kashmir but it seems like the Lake Dal vegetable ‘stock exchange’ is once again the main battlefield.

 

By Mark Eveleigh