Thursday, July 29, 2010

Shrinagar - to Leh

We spent two days in Shrinagar - I had been there previously; so I did not go for sight seeing with others. While they spent time in visiting Shanakarcharya and Hazral Bal; I took one shikara and tried meeting Houseboat owners.

Houseboats are some of the finest homestays that India has. In fact this whole idea of starting a portal of homestays had come to my mind while I went to Shrinagar 6 years back(2004) on holiday. Now a little bit about that holiday and my learnings about homestays - before we proceed further; please don't skip as this is important to understand situation in the valley...

This was the year when militancy in Kashmir has started showing signs of receding. The previous year my parents (who are retired and are vivid travellers) had visited Kashmir through organized tour operators. After coming back they were full of stories of Kashmir.

Their group was attended by one of the senior most Military Officer, Maj Gen Patankar. He personally addressed them and told that this is part of our country; we are here to fight terrorists and protect you; but we need your support. Tourist need to come to the valley to end alienation and support local economy. By getting scared and not visiting Kashmir; we are allowing enemies to achieve their objectives. This is something which deeply touched my parents along with presence of MLI (Maratha Light Infantry) in the valley.

We are Maharashtrians; who are traditionally good at guerilla warfare (since the time of King Shivaji). My parents met soldiers from their own state at every junction; they appreciated their commitment to work in extremely harsh conditions. Needless to say given their age every soldier gave them overwhelming appreciation and respect. Listening to their stories triggered spirit of patriotism. After returning they suggested everybody they met to visit Kashmir and support locals and as service to the nation.

So the next year I visited with my close friend and his family. The day before we reached Shrinagar - militants had blown a bus carrying relatives of BSF personnel. This was the first time families of the men in uniform were attacked. But obvious, situation was tense. We saw very strong military presence. On three occasions we saw villages with all doors closed and military in action with guns and rockets launches running towards forests. They were chasing militants.

Given the situation we had decided to stay at Shrinagar only and do sightseeing by leaving in the morning returning before dark. We stayed at Houseboat Bangkok in Dal Lake. It was owned by a family who had a patriarch almost 75 years old and 3 sons. The experience was superb in spite of the fact that mother of the family had expired just few days back.

We used to have a lot of time in the evening as used to return before dark and thus we spoke to the family at length. From the discussions with the family and lot many others in the valley; I understood that the generation which was 40 years and above; were interested in peace and prosperity. There only concern was future of the next generation. They did not have any feeling of alienation or rather they had appreciation of India. Their opinion about the Pak was pretty low given grim economic conditions in POK and also because they believed guns would ultimately lead to blood bath.

The younger generation had feeling of hatred towards India; partly due to political propaganda and largely due to unemployment. The main source of income i.e. tourism industry was in poor state for many years; agriculture yields had not grown in proportion to increase in population and there was no effort to bring any other industry. This had led them to disillusionment and in some cases to rebellion. But obvious role of Pak can not be ignored which fuelled this feeling. I strongly believe that in a nation ruled by military; the focus is largely on fighting enemy(real or imaginary). Firstly to glorify the rulers and secondly because that is the only job they know of.

I was very sad to see poor quality as well as availability of education; especially to girl children(as they are most threatened in such situations). On the other hand I really liked the fact that average Kasmiri is extremely honest, religious and reliable person.

The houseboat that the family owned, had a cost Rs 80 Lakhs; which means the father of the family had shown tremendous spirit of enterprise to take risk of such level. They had to repay loans and given the situation of tourism industry; they were under intense pressure. Yet the service standards were extra-ordinary. They were taking special care of the kids and made us feel at home. Fully wooden interiors with nice carvings made great ambience.

This gave me a thought that why the same model can not be replicated in entire India; why there can not be homestays presenting culture of the land and giving superior experience to hotels. This was an industry where commoners were earning on their natural spirit of being good hosts; wealth was getting shifted from Urban India to rural India thus bridging economic and cultural gap.

I then kept looking for more homestays in India - and finally took a call in 2008 to quit my job and promote them.

During my stay I met 5 homestay owners - and all of them told me only one thing - We need foreigners as guests and as such I was not welcome; to the extent one of guys told me get out and get lost. I had mixed feelings one of anger for being ill treated as Indian and second of pity. The economy is in shambles and people are getting carried away by propaganda of local leaders and enemy state. In my opinion given a choice one should stay in a poor democratic country than in a rich military state; here the situation is reverse.

I hence urge you to stay with houseboats if you ever visit Kashmir. I also urge you to support this industry across any region as this is truly a democratic form of tourism- of the people; for the people by the people.

Coming back to our Journey -We left from Shrinagar in the morning with clear purpose of enjoying journey and not doing cannon ball ride.

It was pleasant morning with slight drizzle, we kept driving through lush green fields, surrounded by huge mountains with think forest cover. After approx 2 hours of drive we had first glimpse of snow near Sonmarg

Dal Lake in the morning
Journey thru lush green fields
Gujjars ( Shepherd Tribe ) with their cattle
On the way

First glimpse of snow clad mountains

We reached Sonmarg and had breakfast of hot aloo parathas and lemon tea. We then continued to moved ahead. As we were going ahead the landscape was changing rapidly. We were getting over the other side of Himalayas where rainfall is low and as such the density of trees on the mountains was reducing rapidly and the colour of the soild was changing the sand. After crossing numerous mountains and zigzag turns, we reached Zojilla pass. It had rained previous night so the pass as full of mud. However army men were there to provide any help.


Changing landscape - Forest cover losing density

Zigzag roads on the way to Zojilla

Mighty Zojilla covered in mud

Army on guard all the timeZojilla war memorial - bitter past of partition and subsequent blood bath

Passing ahead of Zojilla

We moved on and the terrain continued to change further. It was first experience of cold desert. Extreme cold and dryness together was making life difficult along with altitude. Rivers coming from peaks are the only source of water in this terrain. We had planned our next stop at Drass and Kargil where famous battle in 1999 was fought. Enjoy pictures of the journey...

Mushko Valley - Part of Kargil war zone(1999) - Enemies were so close trying to target highway

Tiger Hill - The famous battle was fought here

Tiger Hill from other side..

We then stopped at Drass War Memorial to pay respects to the bravehearts who fought one of the toughest battles ever. Enemy had captured hills and was firing straight on the road below. (you can make out from pictures - all of them are taken from the road), They had well established supply lines and advantage of altitude. In such terrain where temperatures are low, air is rare our soldiers climbed to the tops - facing heavy casualties and yet conquered the territory.

This memorial has names of all the martyrs engraved.

Towards late afternoon we stopped at Kargil for lunch and our stay. Everybody took rest and for me trouble began. I had stomach infection and started suffering from vomiting and loos motions. The next day morning we started, my condition was not great and we decided to reach let as soon as possible. In this journey we did not take many breaks and reached leh by afternoon.

Enjoy pictures of Rough Terrain with beautiful colours.

Water - The most precious and scarce resource in Ladakh

Homes built in mountains

Dry desert with little traffic on the road

Snow in the distant mountains but hardly any rainfall in the foothills
Never ending curves and climbs.

Villages in the mountains - almost camouflaged in the sand colour.

Indus River - on the outskirts of Leh.

Finally by afternoon we reached Leh. There was joy of reaching the destination and excitement of visiting the place. During the entire journey we had a mix of feelings curiosity, fear and spirit of adventure; however the whole journey was a sheer joy to our eyes and soul. Long drives through tough terrain is a spiritual experience.


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