A word about Kashmir – we found it extemely safe. We stayed on Butts Clermont houseboats located on the very quiet upper Lake Dal where they were the only houseboats after the village of Hazratbal. We walked into the village a few times and felt completely safe.
The driver we used and recommended by the Butts was well informed and if there were any troublespots he knew where and when to stay away from them but we saw no violence or agresssion by the Indian army. There were many soldiers standing around in the city and all throught the countryside. The Kashmiris feel that they would be better off without the army there and are very proud to be Kashmiri. They treat other Indians almost as coming from another country.
We ventured into the city on a couple of occasions and only encountered very friendly and helpbul Kashmiris. There were a couple of checkposts going up to the Mughal garden high on a hill and towards Sonamarg but on both occasions we didn’t have to show any paperwork and were waived through immediately. The militancy from 1990 to 2006 deterred all tourists bar some journalists and Kashmir has not recovered from the conflict with many media reports exaggerating the danger to visitors.
The whole time we were in Kashmir we only saw another western looking couple in the Shalimar gardens and a small group in in the carpet factory. The locals are really hoping for a return of foreign tourists as the tourist season is only six months of the year and constitutes their livelyhood and they otherwise struggle to make a living. There are no factories or manufacturing in Kashmir other than their textile industry. As in other parts of the world local cottage crafts are also slowly disappearing as a lot of young people do not want the labour intensive work or to work on the land or on the water. This coupled with the worst floods last September that had experienced in their lifetime had made for a disastrous time for the locals.

We overnighted in the Eaton hotel located in the domestic terminal 3 of Delhi airport after waiting fruitlessly for our last bag to appear. It had been left behind in Kuala Lumpur and we were told it would be sent to Srinagar the next day. The hotel was super and a five minute walk from the check in counters so very convenient. We flew north to Srinagar and had beautiful views of the snow capped Himalayas before we landed in Srinagar.
The houseboat was a 3/4 of an hour away from the military airport where we landed. The very loud roar of the Sukhoi and Mig jets nearly deafened us in the airport and as we left the airport.
We drove through Srinagar where there were many derelict houses and many newly constructed ones. Many old houses had very interesting wooden architecture. We were told that the heritage laws do not allow for a derelict wooden building be demolished and a modern one erected in it’s place so there are many disintegrating wooden buildings because either people cannot affort to rebuild them or the younger generation want to live out of town in a more modern house.
The flood of September severely damaged a lot of the city and water levels had been up to the second storey of many buildings.
The unusually late rains this year and melting snow had caused the water level to rise by inches every day and this causes major problems for the Butts and their houseboats.

Arriving at Butt’s Clermont houseboats was like coming home. Mr Butt senior and junior and several staff were there to welcome us and Mr Butt even gave me a big hug and showered me with petals. I think he was grateful to have guests again. For many years after the conflict of the nineties and sporadic ongoing incidents they lost most of their business and their number of houseboats had diminished from nine to four. Many celebrities and heads of state stayed on the houseboats and Mr Butt proudly showed us his memorabilia room full of framed prints of former guests from Joan Fontaine to Lord Mountbatten, George Harrison and Michael Palin. We also found number 17 guestbook with glowing reports from guests from all over the world.
Mr Butt explained to us that from 1990 when the conflict was at it’s worst for nearly sixteen years there were no tourists and the Indian army even set up camp in his “Garden of the Breezes” built by former Mughal King Akbar. They suffered greatly under the militants who would come and demand money and threaten them.
The Kashmiris we spoke to cannot understand the actions of the militants and just want to live in peace. Kashmir is part of India, Pakistan want it and a few Kashmiri militants want a separate state and a minority of Kashmiris want to join Pakistan.

The houseboats were originally owned by a British couple (the Fosters) who had them constructed because they could not buy land in India and wanted somewhere to escape the heat of Delhi in Summer. When they left India they left the houseboats and contents to the Butt family who had been textile merchants. They then changed course and ran the houseboats. It is now third generation with father and son working in the business. The houseboat was charming with beautifully carved wooden panelling, Queen Anne tables, writing desks and chairs and heavily embroidered curtains and lounge suite. It was like stepping back in time.

The four houseboats were located on their own in Naseem Bagh on upper Lake Dal alongside the embankment with a spectacular view over the lake to the snow capped mountains behind. This was unlike the other part of Lake Dahl where we passed hundreds of houseboats all jammed together. We had our very efficient and wonderful butler Ramzan who had been working there for 43 years. We just needed to press a button and he would come and see to anything we wanted. He spoke excellent English told us that tourists, especially Indian ones were starting to come back to Srinagar. We were served a two course tasty lunch and kava tea (green tea made with crushed almonds, cardamon and cinammon) then went for a walk to the village about ten minutes away. The stalls there were an interesting array of fruit, vegetables, meats and fruit and breads. Kashmiris eat a lot of meat and Mr Butt was disappointed that we only wanted vegetarian food. We went past the local mosque and went into a small shop selling Kashmiri shawls and hand embroidered bags and coats.
The shop owner “Raja” was a lovely man who was not pushy but showed us all his wares. We didn’t buy anything but that didn’t seem to bother him in the slightest which was very refreshing. We walked back to the houseboat for afternoon tea which was brought on a tray with fine bone china cups and saucers, tea pot and included some pastries.
The evening meal brought from the kitchen on the bank opposite our houseboat consisted of soup followed by rice and paneer, potatoes and capsicums in delicious spicy sauces and chappatis and a creme caramel for dessert.
We did try telling Ramzan that we never ate so much especially at night and didn’t want any dessert and asked if we could just have some soup and chappatis in the evening but the following night we were served just as much food minus the dessert.
Mr Butt did say that he wanted us to just forget watching what we ate and just enjoy the food. It was all delicious but a hearty breakfast, morning tea with pastries, three course lunch, afternoon tea with biscuits, a three course dinner and “Kava” or Kashmiri tea of almonds, cardamon and cinammon many times a day was just too much so they finally acquiesed to our wishes.

The temperature when we arrived was 19degrees, sunny an warm, in sharp contrast to the 35degrees and humidity of Cambodia. It dropped considerably at night so that the staff brought us hot water bottles and put them in the bed.
We could stipulate when we wanted each meal and what time we wanted to bathe. The bath water was heated by a chip heater located just outside the boat so we had to give prior notice to have hot water. The staff were muslim and were up early for morning prayers so the fire was lit early.

We were hoping that Maurice’s bag would be delivered the following day but it was not put on a flight from Kuala Lumpur until the next day and then it would come to Srinagar a day later so we ventured to the local market and bought him some underwear and a set of thermals. The locals wanted to know from where we came and when we said Australia they all mentioned the world cup and what a good cricket team we had. We saw many cricket games being played the day we arrived and it seems the Kashmiris are as enthusiastic about cricket as the rest of India.

It drizzled most of the day so we went to a recommended carpet wholesaler and after being shown a large number of carpets while sipping kava we decided on two woollen carpets featuring a tribal design. The workshop was full of workers hand weaving beautiful silk carpets and the owner was lamenting the fact that it was a dying craft because he could get young people as workers. His team were all older men. We got the driver to drop us back at the market where we went back to Raja and bought a couple of embroidered cloth bags and walked back to the houseboat. Mr Butt had lent us typical Kashmiri robes and me a shawl and a beanie to keep warm which amused the locals at the market to see us wearing them.
At 5pm the local masseur and barber arrived to give Maurice a massage.

There was always something to see on the lake. The fishermen or boatmen and a lot of wildlife. A lovely little bulbul bird came to the window several times a day and a vibrantly coloured kingfisher perched on a pole outside as well as several kites swooping and diving on the lake in front of us as well as ducks and other birds. The atmosphere was one of complete peace and serenity once we were back on the houseboat. There was no TV, radio or phone. The WIFI was by no means reliable so it did make for enforced relaxation and we read, chatted to Mr Butt or the staff or simply stared at the lake.

It rained all that night and into the morning so our driver took us into Lol Chowk to do some shopping. Maurice’s trusty Keene’s boots had finally died so he bought some new ones and gave his old ones to Shakeel the driver who was very pleased with them. We stopped off at the local market and bought a few bits and pieces and then retreated back to the very warm houseboat. Ramzan our butler had rigged up a chip heater in the loungeroom which warmed the room in minutes. The rain continued and into the next night but in the morning the clouds were higher and we saw the sun again so we set off to see the various mosques and the old town. Srinagar has seven bridges crossing the river which is very fast flowing at the moment. The poor people here have had awful flooding in September last year some of which reached to the second storey of some buildings. Then the unseasonal heavy and continued rain caused major drainage problems and flooding in March so they have had a really hard time of it. Even at the houseboat of which there are now four, the staff have been putting in extra stakes to secure the houseboats. The lake is much higher than usual for this time of year and the larger two and three bedroom boats are about a metre and a half higher making it more difficult to get on board.

Shakeel our driver took us to their largest mosque which was unlike any we had seen with square turrets and filled with pine columns which were about 20 metres high. Over 30,000 can fit inside the mosque. We drove to another part of Srinagar town and we parked the car and walked to see other places of worship where in one place there was a mosque with a hindu temple and sikh temple nearby. We were the only non Indians on the whole of our walk and the object of much talk and chatter. Many young and older Kashmiris were interested from where we came and an old man crossing me in the middle of a bridge asked where I was from, what I did for a living,what was my name and was I enjoying Kashmir. The sun stayed out for the rest of the day and we were grateful to be warm again.

We were offered tea in many shops whether we bought anything or not and there was no pushiness on the sellers part. The wifi on the houseboat was not great but there was a good little internet cafe five minutes away.
The pink peach blossom in the park not far from us was absolutely beatiful. The little Bulbul flew into our houseboat when the door was left open and would go straight to the grapes on the table.
Mr Ramzan was a gem, very courteous and friendly and gave us a wealth of information about the lake and the history of the houseboats and the whole region.

There are many very old and large Chinar trees on the property and dotted all around Lake Dal. The leaves look similar to maple leaves and their design is used extensively from wood carving to material and even the shape of flower beds in the Shalimar Garden on the opposite side of the lake to our houseboat. The gardens were built by Shah Jahan who constructed the Taj Mahal and are well laid out and there were a lot of peach trees in blossom and spring flowers everywhere.
There were stepping stones in the water features and Shakeel tested them before I stepped on them but I stepped a bit soon and ran into him and we both nearly ended up in the water. How we didn’t I don’t know but the water was very cold so I was very glad we didn’t. We headed off just as the Indian tourists started arriving.

We left the gardens and went on to the Indira Ghandi Tulip Gardens a little further on. It was 28kilometres to circle around the lake. These gardens were very extensive with water features dotted about and a few gardeners tending the beds. Entrance to the local attractions was only 50rupees or $1.
We then drove a little way up the mountain, through the army checkpoint and Shakeel parked the car so we proceeded for 2-3 kilometres on foot up the road to “Pari Mahal” a terraced arched garden built into the side of a mountain by Shah Jahan’s eldest son in the mid seventeen century. It was a pleasure to go for a long walk after all the sitting and eating.
There was also an army lookout on one corner of the building. The army were dotted all over Srinagar and the surrounding area but all were very friendly even if they looked a bit fierce with their guns slung over their shoulders and many wearing flak jackets. The seem to be near every bridge, mosque and major intersection. The fort high above the town is out of bounds for tourists and locals alike.
We had wonderful views from the garden there across the lake to Srinagar and Hazratbal where the houseboats were mooored.
Butts Clermont houseboats were the only ones on upper Lake Dal so it was very peaceful except for the call to prayers by the sufi mosques in the area where prayers were sang over the loudspeakers for up to 2hours in the mornings. Unlike the other mosques we have heard, the congregation answer singing their prayers which is sometimes pleasant to listen to but not necessarily at 5-6am.

The following day we set off with our driver Shakeel and Mr Ramzan for the two hour drive to Sonamarg, a mountain retreat for winter excursions and Summer vacations for many Indian tourists. The road there had only been open for a week so we were lucky to make the trip there. We passed many new houses or old houses with new shiny corrugated iron rooves.
There were normally pony rides up to the glacier in Sonamarg however because of unseasonal heavy snowfalls the pony rides were replaced by toboggan rides. We instead walked up to near the glacier after the snow plough had cleared a small path and then it was easier walking on the softer snow. It was a beautiful sunny day and not really cold. We both had a bit of a headache and were sleepy because of the high altitude of about 8,500ft. We stopped on the way back near the river to have a picnic which Mr Ramazan had prepared with fried chicken, cheese sandwiches and boiled eggs.

Like most of India there were no road rules and the cars and buses honk their horns incessantly and some of the old auto rickshaws very sturdy buses belched out black smoke.

We decided to use the boatman Lasser with his “Happy Journey” shikara to do a two hour leisurely trip around some of the lake where he gave us a lot of information about the vegetable farmers who grow bullrushes for three years and then when they are firm they can walk on them them and grow vegetables in root blocks from the lakebed. They use the sludge from the lake as fertilizer and therefore grow pesticide free, organic vegetables. Most of the farmers could not plant anything because the floods had caused very high water and most of the gardens were under water. We saw clumps of tall branches tied together and these were used to cultivate marrows. They hope that the lake water recedes enough in May to enable them to replant.
Lasser took us through the wetlands on the lake where where there were a great variety of birds and he had excellent knowledge of each bird species.

There were hundreds of people in Hazratbal for their Friday market and prayer at the mosque holding the most people in Srinagar. The market was set up on the outskirts and in the centre of town so we walked there and spent an hour looking around the market with so much fresh produce. We went back to “Raja” the friendly shop owner who sold me a beautiful sheepskin and fox fur trim coat for the extremely reasonable price of $62 which I will use in Ireland and the UK and in Roccamandolfi if it is still cold when we go to get the van.

We left Srinagar on the 25th April a day before our Indian visas expired. We had an eight hour transit in Delhi before flying to Abu Dhabi to meet up with our friend Tina.

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