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Leh - Jammu - Srinagar

♪♫♫♪♫ I'm jammin' in Jammu, I hope you like jammin' too ♪♫♫♪♫

sunny 34 °C
View Mountains, monasteries and much more - Lakakh and Kashmir 2013 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Not a very good photos to writing ratio in today's blog I'm afraid, as most of the day was spent travelling.

Another early start this morning, leaving the hotel at 06:00 for the five minute drive to the airport. Really today was a day full of Indian bureaucracy – starting with the driver's paper being checked in order for us to even enter the compound of the airport, which is where the driver and the agent left us.

In order to enter the building, our papers were checked and again before all the luggage had to be x-rayed where David and I had to go through separate entrances (women get taken into a curtained cubicle for a pat-down, whereas the men are frisked in public). We were then able to check in at the Air India counter for our flight. For security reasons we were unable to check in all the way to Srinagar, despite the flight from Jammu also being Air India. Next came another security check, again with men and women having separate entrances, where all the carry-on luggage was x-rayed. Despite large notices stating that NO hand luggage was allowed on the plane, we were given the green light to take not just the camera bag as I expected, but also the large rucksacks. Of course, our passports and boarding cards were checked at this stage too. After another pat-down, all the luggage labels on the carry-n plus the boarding card were stamped and little squiggles added.

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We were now through to the departure area, where we had to go outside on to the tarmac to identify our checked in luggage against the luggage tags given at check in. Before we were even able to join the queue at the gate our boarding cards were checked, and at the gate the bag labels were again checked to ensure they'd been stamped, and the labels and the boarding cards were stamped once more. Ten yards later, we went through the same procedure again, with yet another stamp on the labels and boarding card. It was now time to board the sardine bus for the 50 metres to the aircraft.

I was asleep before the plane took of, woke up to take a few photos of the mountains we flew over, then was once again asleep when we landed. I woke up briefly on touch down but went straight back to sleep until it was time to de-plane.

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Collecting the luggage and leaving Jammu airport was painless, but it was when we tried to get back in to the departure lounge to check in for our next flight, that the problems started. It was now 09:00 and we were told we couldn't go in until 10:00. At this stage I really needed the toilet, so I tried to get back into the arrivals lounge, but no chance. Eventually, after a lot of pleading with the army official with the AK47, a very nice man took pity on me and showed us to some sort of VIP lounge where there were nice seats, a fan, a toilet and a snack bar.

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At 10:30 we went back to departures but were told we had to wait another ten minutes. By 10:50 they took pity on us and let us in, checking our tickets and passports of course. Again we went in separately, and I was asked to open my camera bag. A body scan followed and a pat-down. In order to enter the building, and all the luggage had to go through an x-ray. At this stage we were told to put any loose batteries in the check in, but I was told my big rucksack was fine for carry-on. When David's case came through, it was leaking a brown liquid – turns out a can of Diet Coke had burst. The checked in cases were wrapped with a sealing tape around the belly.

No check-in until 11:15 apparently, but when we were finally able to, it was very fast and efficient, almost casual. At this stage we were unable to carry on through security yet, as the notice board only stated “check in”. So we hung around for over half an hour until the board changed to “security check”. Men and woman separate of course, and the carry-on bags as well as my hat had to go through the x-ray. Another body scan and pat down. I was asked to open my rucksack as they found a couple of AA batteries in a little fan I had with me. They were confiscated. The insect bite cream (which I was told was “not permitted”) however, was placed back into the rucksack, buried deep in other stuff, with a huge grin. At this stage there was no sign of David, so I assumed he'd been sent back to check in with a bag or something that wasn't permitted as carry on (we did see several people being turned away with bags much smaller than ours. It was definitely a case of 'if your face fits'). Eventually he turned up, having been delayed by the number of men in the queue before him. Next came the luggage identification. My boarding card was checked as I left the building, the tags were checked against the luggage on the tarmac (and squiggles added – it seems they do a brisk trade of squiggles in the Indian airports), and my boarding card was re-checked by the same official before I was allowed back into the building.

When the flight finally departed (we were delayed 45 minutes), the boarding cards and luggage labels were checked and stamped at the gate, and just outside we went through another body scan and pat down and check/stamp of the boarding card – men and women separate of course. The boarding cards were again checked at the bottom of the steps to the plane. By the time we actually sat down in the plane, my boarding card had been checked 7 times, the hand luggage had been x-rayed 4 times and I'd been through 4 body scans and pat downs. To be sure to be sure.

When I got to my seat I discovered someone already sitting in my seat (I had the window seat) but as it made no difference to me, I let him sit there. He was the same chap that had tried to jump the queue at check in and been sent to the end of the line by another angry passenger. I got my own back though - as soon as we landed in Srinagar he started to get up well before the plane had even stopped, let alone the seatbelt sign switched off; and he was so keen to get out of his seat before anyone had even started to move along the aisle. I deliberately stayed in my seat until the very last minute when everyone else had left the plane. By this time I could see him getting more and more impatient. Revenge is so sweet.

On entering the arrivals hall, we were immediately given a foreigner registration form – they weren't doing a brisk trade in the forms, we were the only westerners on the flight so I suppose we did stick out like sore thumbs. When handing in the form near the exit of the hall, we were told we'd filled it in wrong – it seems despite being part of Jammu and Kashmir state, Ladakh is not really considered Kashmir. Oh well.

Outside the hall we saw a man with a sign saying “Mr David” and we wondered if that might be us, until we saw another sign with “Mr Grete”. That was definitely us. We were led to a mini-bus which was quite hard to get in to, especially as I seem to have injured my wrist at some stage today, not being able to put any weight on it. The large bags were just placed on top of the vehicle – not secured down in any way - and we were off through the awful traffic in Srinagar. Every few hundred yards, were armed police or soldiers with AK47s. I thought there was a lot of police and army presence in Ladakh, but it was nothing compared with here. Srinagar has a totally different feel to Leh, the people are not as open or immediately friendly, but we didn't experience any hostility either. It's a very Muslim town and there were lots of women with the full veil on the streets.

Srinagar
Srinagar, famous for its gardens, is the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir state. The history of Srinagar is said to date back some 2000 years, but it has 'only' been the capital of Kashmir for just over 1000 years. The city is very proud of its nine old bridges spanning the Jhelum River, connecting the two parts of the city. The name Srinagar literally means 'the city of wealth & abundance' in Sanskrit.

Unfortunately, for a number of years, this predominantly Muslim area has been in conflict and as a result, Kashmir featured on the Foreign Office's “Don’t go there” list, meaning it was out of bounds for tourists (at least if you wanted to be sensible and for the insurance to cover you. To this day it is only Ladakh, Srinagar and Jammu within the Kashmir region that is considered “safe” by the FCO). Although Sinagar city has become a safer destination in the last few years, the streets are still lined with armed soldiers. Any valued building is protected by a sandbag bunker and razor wire. In February, three people were killed and over 50 others (including 23 policemen), were injured in clashes between protesters and law enforcing agencies in the wake of the hanging of Afzal Guru who was convicted of the 2001 Parliament attack . I suppose the rape and murder of the young British girl on a houseboat on Dal Lake in the city in April this year, did nothing for the reputation of Srinagar as a safe destination.

Srinagar is at an altitude of only 1600 m above sea level, and it is a bit of a relief to be able to breath easily again.

At one of the many ghats (docks) on the side of the lake, we were greeted by Mahmoud, who is to be our 'butler' for the next few days. Mahmoud was sweet natured, extremely helpful and kind, and he assisted us in transferring us and the luggage to a little paddle boat (a little like the gondolas in Venice) called shikara for the transfer to our houseboat.

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The transfer was reasonably quick - our houseboat appeared to be moored on a little island just off shore, the opposite side to the ghat. We got our first glimpse of life on the lake - people, birds and boats.

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Black bellied tern
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Little Egret

Houseboats
Our main reason (actually, our only reason if I am honest) for travelling to Srinagar, was to stay on one of the elegant houseboats which the city is famous for. I remember seeing pictures of these ornate floating hotels in brochures back in the 1980s and hoping one day to have the pleasure to stay in one. Many of the intricately carved houseboats were built in the early 1900s for the Raj as summer retreats from the heat of the Indian plains. Others later became home to these people after they were denied land grants in the state. An idea that started from constructing small boats was later revolutionised with transforming these boats into spacious modern styled floating hotels. Houseboats are all made of the finest cedar wood with intricate walnut wood carvings, panelled walls and tiled baths. The houseboats do not actually float free around the lake, but are anchored off-shore, and are accessible either by road, or by a short "Shikara" boat ride (gondola-like taxi boats). The whole shoreline of the lake (15.5km / 8.6 miles) is lined with decorated houseboats.

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Our boat has two bedrooms, and we debated long and hard before booking if we should pay a small additional sum and book the whole boat to ourselves. Sharing – mostly likely to be an Indian family as domestic tourists far outnumber foreign visitors – could be fun and educational if our cohabitants spoke English and were the social, friendly types, but could equally be highly embarrassing as has been the case in the past with Indian tourists staring, giggling and wanting their photo taken with you every five minutes. In the end we settled for a bit of privacy, especially as today is David's birthday. We also decided we may very well be feeling totally antisocial ourselves by this stage, or in need of total relaxation after a week at high altitude.

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The boat was a little bit of luxury at the end of the trip, as not only did we have two bedrooms to ourselves, there was also a fine dining area and a lounge cum sitting room, a large front seated balcony, and a small kitchenette. The boat also had a 24 hour power back up (albeit at reduced power, not always enough to work the fan), modern plumbing and clean water supply, plus of course Mahmoud and his two helpers who would cook and take care of us during your entire stay. There was also a small shikara (paddle boat) that was “placed under our command” to take us out into the open lake or across to the mainland.

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When we arrived, Mahmoud brought coffee and home made cakes. I have become really hooked on the Indian milky coffee, which is really unlike me as I am not keen on milk in anything usually. It must be the sweetness of it - I am sure it has tons of sugar in it!

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We spent the afternoon lazing on the balcony at the front of the boat, watching life go by on the lake, with shikaras ferrying tourists around, traders with their wares and locals going about their daily business.

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From the balcony we could see a wide variety of birds passing by, including the magnificent Brahmany Kite and even a Kingfisher stopped by.

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Later we opened a small bottle of champagne I'd brought with me from Bristol to celebrate David's birthday. Imagine our horror when we realised that the champagne had actually gone off and tasted like vinegar. That is just so typical, as I'd managed to secretly carry it all the way from home and then having to pour it into the lake.

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As the champagne was off we moved on to the Duty Free Morgan's Spiced. We were one Diet Coke short (as it had split open on the first flight this morning), but not to worry - there are lots of shops floating by, you just have to signal and they'll bring you their wares to your houseboat. Also, as soon as he realised we wanted Diet Cokes, Mahmoud managed to get us some more to put in the fridge for tomorrow.

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We were just relaxing nicely when a young Australian couple turned up, back from their day trip, and walking on to our boat. As I thought we had the houseboat to ourselves, I was rather surprised to find there were actually THREE rooms on the boat and the Australians were in the one right at the back. They were no trouble at all though, in fact they were really sweet and kept themselves to themselves even more than we did.

We stayed outside on the deck until after the sun had gone down.

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Mahmoud arranged dinner at a time to suit us, and we had complete carte blanche as to what we wanted to eat, making it very difficult to choose. In the end we settled for a most delicious spicy roast chicken (probably the best roast chicken I have ever had), with some roast potatoes, mutton in curry sauce, vegetable curry and rice (with a bit of prompting from Mahmoud); followed by a chocolate birthday cake complete with candles!

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After dinner we went back out on the balcony for some time after dark, just watching the lights on all the houseboats reflecting in the lake.

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Posted by Grete Howard 03:34 Archived in India

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Comments

An amazing experience, although maybe not for the feint-hearted. Dal lake was a lovely place to unwind after the altitude test at Leh and surrounds. I would certainly recommend the Chicago group of houseboats as nothing is too much trouble during your stay!
Thank you to GRETE for arranging an a wonderful holiday, culminating in a fabulous and memorable birthday! xx

by David

Greg is wondering if you can arrange this for his birthday as well :o)

by Helen

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