Travel Diary: I for India, K for Kashmir
Is India your dream destination to visit? For many people it sounds like an extreme country where only experienced travelers or hippies go. I also wanted to go to India, but I had no prior experience as a solo traveler. However, I liked the fact that The Beatles visited India in late 60’s and composed many good songs. But still it was not a good reason enough to go there, my reason was much more simple: I wanted to go there, because I knew very little about India.
This is my story about how I survived my first days in New Delhi and five days in Kashmir without having a clue how things work in India.
The following text includes original text from a diary that I wrote while visiting Kashmir (India) in 2010.
Before going to India I read many articles which warned me about touts selling drugs, offering cheap accommodation or taking advantage of you in many other ways.
My first worry upon my arrival to New Delhi was reaching the hostel where I was supposed to stay. I already knew that in India there are a lot of taxi scams, so I made a research to find a safest way to reach my hostel. My choice was a pre-booked taxi which everyone on the internet recommended to use. So, with a lot of confidence, the first thing I did, once I got there, was to book a taxi at the airport.
The driver seemed to be a nice person, who shared some insights on India, but the ride did not go as I expected. I ended up at a fake tourist registration office. Why? Nobody told me that I should do anything like that.
The driver explained to me that it is very important to register myself in order not to get in trouble. I had no other choice but to trust him, but it was a really bad decision. While I was waiting for a person to come with a registration paper, the driver left without saying a word to me!
Fortunately, before leaving the cab I took my backpack with me. After noticing that the driver left me, I left the office (of course without signing anything) and started to look for a new ride. The guy in a green/yellow tuk-tuk approached me and asked if I was looking for a ride.
The driver’s name was Happy, who, of course, was always happy. He didn’t speak good English, but he knew some Russian. I could also say some words in Russian, so we tried to communicate in “Russinglish”. He seemed to be a nice guy. When we arrived to the hostel, I asked him how much should I pay him. He said “Pay me as much as it is worth”. I knew that I had already paid a lot for a pre-paid cab from the airport, but had no idea how much I should pay a tuk-tuk driver. I gave him a 100 rupee and he was very happy with that, I even got his number to contact him if I’d need a ride the next morning.
After taking a shower and changing clothes, I had to go to the train station to buy a ticket to my next destination – Varanasi. I had a Lonely Planet guide, where it said that the ticket office for foreigners is located on the second floor of the train station building. There was both a new and an old train station, I had to go to the latter one. However, it was tricky enough – where is the second floor?! I spent almost an hour trying to find the place refusing anyone’s help, with no luck at all.
Finally, I met this drunk guy with a turban riding in a tuk-tuk vehicle. I thought he was just a friendly local who was willing to help me to find a ticket sale office. I got into the tuk-tuk and was dropped outside some building 5min. away from the train station.
Was Lonely Planet not doing their job well or was it me? Whatever it was, I paid 10 rupees for a ride and was led to the second floor of the building (there was actually no first floor). Two, not so friendly, guys approached me walking up the stairs and asked me to enter their office. It didn’t seem to be a regular office, more like an empty room with a big office table. They didn’t offer me a seat, so I kept standing there with my heavy bag on a door threshold.
When I started to explain my travel plans, the guy sitting beside the table started to draw lines. I asked myself – “What the hell is he doing?!” After being left out by a taxi driver, I could not sustain my frustration any longer.
Me: I do not trust you; you’re not selling tickets here!
The guy: Fuck you, if you don’t trust us!
It was clear, that it was time for me to get the hell out of there.
After some more false offers from people to help me, I was getting ashamed of myself and felt hopeless, but at some point, one guy approached me and told me that I have a beautiful scarf. He seemed to be a very generous person and I was almost sure that this guy is not going to try to rip me off.
Anyway, he was one of those guys who took me to the next ticket office which was not on a second floor, but still I felt more confident with his recommendation. Was it because the place looked more like a real ticket office? Who knows, but the salesman totally hacked my brain – in a positive way.
Me: I want to buy a train ticket to Varanasi.
Salesmen: Do you want some chai?
Me: Yeah, why not.
(not really, just wanted to be polite)
Salesmen: Are you sure that you want to go to Varanasi?
Me: Yes, I am sure.
(Why the hell is he asking this question?)
Salesmen: I think I know what you would like to do.
Me: What do you mean?
Salesmen: You like the countryside, the nature and spending time with locals.
(I didn’t say a word but it was true! It’s exactly what I’d like to do!)
Salesmen: I can offer you a trip to Kashmir. You could stay in a houseboat or at a guesthouse with a family.
(Kashmir? Isn’t it this dangerous state, which Lonely Planet recommended to avoid? But that offer sounded so good, so I had to give it a try.)
Me: Well, I am not really interested in a houseboat, but the accommodation at the guesthouse with a local family sounds pretty nice.
Salesmen: No problem, I have a really nice guesthouse which is run by a Kashmiri family. The driver will come to pick you up tomorrow morning at 7:30am and he will take you to the airport.
I was not sure where it would lead me and if it will ever happen at all. That night, I had a really bad rest. Two of five guys in the room were snoring and I had some concerns about the driver’s arrival. What if I spent my money for nothing? I woke up early to have my first Indian breakfast and still had hope that I am really going to Kashmir. While eating delicious food, the receptionist entered the hall and asked me if I was staying in the room 206. I felt relieved, the driver was here and I was on my way to Kashmir! That day was foggy, so the plane had one hour delay to take off. Around noontime, I arrived safely to Kashmir.
On the arrival to Srinagar, from the first seconds I did notice that there were militants everywhere. It made me feel a bit uncomfortable, but the guesthouse owner was already waiting for me, with a thick black jacket and sun glasses of the same color, even though it was not a sunny day.
What a tough guy, I thought. Once I got into his old automobile, I realized that he was for sure. He was driving like crazy, so putting on a safety belt would have made me look like a total loser. To block my worries, I started to ask questions about Kashmir, but the discussion enrolled to details about his guesthouse.
He was the owner of the guesthouse and also lived in it with his wife and a daughter. The house from outside looked like a dream house, but inside of it was not so great. Besides the heated up blanket my room was not the place where I would like to spend the rest of my trip.
The tough owner of the guesthouse also lived in it with his wife and a daughter. The house from outside looked like a dream-house, but inside of it was not so great. Besides the heated up blanket, my room was not the place where I would’ve liked to spend the rest of my trip.
That evening, we were sitting in a living room on the floor, dressed with pheran and a kangri pot between our feet to make us warm. It was a really nice solution on a cold winter night. Khaleel’s (not his real name) wife prepared me vegetarian paneer dish.
Learn more about kanri:
Women were not present in the living room, so we started a discussion about what to see and do in Srinagar and its surroundings. Every time I tried to ask about different sights, he came back to the topic about hiking in the mountains.
I really had no interest in spending my traveling by going for a hike which I could easily do back home, but at some point he started to get frustrated and could not hold his temper:
“If you come all the way to Kashmir and you have no interest to go to the mountains than there is nothing for you to see or do here”
He wanted my money so badly, but I resisted to give in. We ended up debating for the next 2 hours about the cost of the trip to the mountains until the price seemed to be fair for me. Since I had no touristic information about Srinagar and I didn’t feel safe enough to wander around by myself, I decided to go for it. It might have been a worst decision in my life, but maybe it wasn’t.
After a bad night back in Delhi I couldn’t get out of the bed until 11am, but as I got up I was surprised (obviously it was included in the price) to find outside, in the garden, a delicious Kashmiri breakfast prepared just for me. I received an omelette, Kashmiri flat bread, jam and butter. It was a simple but delicious breakfast.
That day I was taken to five different parks in Srinagar city. Three of the parks were grey and uninspiring but the latter two had at least some flowers and buildings were nice works of architecture.
On the way to the last park, we stopped at a street shop to get some snacks. Khaleel bought us two boiled eggs in salty water with some chili powder to put on it. One for him and other for me, but I was not in the mood to try something weird, so I treated myself with roasted peanuts and tea instead.
When we returned home, the dinner was already prepared. It was the same dish, paneer with some green leaved vegetable, but I really liked the taste of it. Just like first meal on the day of arrival. Only me and Khaleel spent the dinner together, while his wife and daughter were in another room busy doing other things.
After yesterday’s city sightseeing I was already excited to do something different. Today was the day! We were going to the mountains. Before leaving the city, Khaleel wanted to make a quick check if everything is fine with his car’s tires. At the car service place they found a tiny hole in one of the tires, but it didn’t seem a big issue to fix. Service guy brought a material, the size of a cigarette, and glued the hole with it, in five minutes we were on the road again.
Because of Khaleel’s fast driving and “authentically” fixed tire, I was bit scared that we will end up off the road before reaching the destination. It didn’t seem like much was going on that day, the mountain road was quite empty. We made 120km distance in around two hours.
In the deepest part of the valley stood a little village, which seemed to be frozen in time. I realized that it was the place where I was going to spend my next two days. I liked the atmosphere and the surroundings with forested mountains, it felt much more spiritual than Srinagar city.
It seemed that Khaleel has already established a good relationship with local people. We stayed at the guesthouse owned by another local family, but for some reason I had to share one big bed with Khaleel.
On our arrival we were offered a light lunch and then I was asked by the house owner to leave the house. No, not because he was kicking me out, there was a horse and I was going to ride it! I knew that I will go to the mountains, but had no idea that I would need to ride a horse.
Some seconds later, Taliaz, the son of the family went outside, since he was chosen to be my personal guide. I had only been on the horse once in my life time, so at first I was bit worried, but I tried to enjoy my ride up the steep mountain as much as possible. To be precise, I really had to lean forward so I would not fall of the saddle, it was that steep!
On the top of the mountain we got off the horses to sit down on the grass and enjoy the view. In front of us stood great mountains, not as big as Himalayas, but still – inspiring. In the back side, there was a house of the Bakarwal nomads, who, according to Khaleel, live up in the mountains throughout the summer with their buffalos and goats, but leave for a warmer climate in the wintertime. But what I was most surprised about was the skinned horse with its tail hanged on the tree. I really wanted to know the reason of it, but Taliaz didn’t speak any English.
That evening was pretty cold in the village, but Khaleel brought with him thick blankets for us to cover up while sleeping. It was weird to sleep with him in the same bed, but at least we were sleeping under separate blankets.
Today me and Khaleel had to go together for a longer hike/horse ride, but he didn’t feel well that day, so Taliaz was asked to go with me again. I didn’t mind so much who was accompanying me as long as the person knew where to go and how to return back home safe. This time we were geared up with lunch-boxes. It was a sign that we will be on a much longer trip than a day before, and I was excited about it!
Taliaz took an axe with him in case of bears, wolfs and leopards which are common animals in the surrounding mountain range. I was not sure if I should be scared or stay calm, but just like yesterday, I tried to keep worries away from my head and tried to enjoy the ride, while poor Taliaz had to walk all the way up the mountain path which was even steeper than the one we took yesterday.
On the way my companion whistled from time to time to frighten the animals. I was very pessimistic about having a chance to see a tiger, even if I really wanted (and at the same time I did not). Horse riding path was narrow and the slope was very close by, but my brown pony-like-horse was well trained and did a good job.
When we reached the cliff, the horse was awarded with a full bag of grains. We also started to unpack our lunch-boxes to have lunch. Only then I realized, that I am not at the tourist-oriented guesthouse anymore, but with a real local who eats food in his traditional way. Of course, he did not bring a fork and knife for me, so I had to eat his way. I knew that the left hand is the dirty one (used to clean your butt), while the right one is for eating food.
The food was oily and wet, but we had the chapathi bread to scoop the stew from the steel bowl. Since I am left handed, I had to be more cautious about my eating habits. I did not want to be the typical tourist that the local makes fun of. However, my brain did not accept new behavior rules and of course at some point my left hand touched the food, but my guide was not making a big deal about it.
From our resting place I could see the path leading to the long mountain range that Khaleel showed some pictures of. He actually offered me to hike for 5 days into the range, but of course it was something that I was not prepared for at all.
At the cliff, I asked Taliaz to take several pictures of me. It was not only my wish, but also Khaleel’s, who wanted to see the picture to confirm that Taliaz had taken me to the final destination.
It was early evening when we reached the house of Taliaz family. While the mother of Taliaz was doing some kitchen work, Khaleel and the head of the family was quietly discussing some matters. After some minutes his mother brought us some masala chai tea, and while drinking it, I presented Taliaz 100 rupees as a tip for his guidance. From his facial expression I understood that it seemed too little money. Well, what could I do? I was already overpriced to get a chance to come here and then people in the village expected more? If Khaleel does not pay them well, it is not my fault.
In the early evening we packed up our things for our return to Srinagar. On our way back we got stuck in a traffic jam. It was so bad, that for some time we could barely move. It seemed that Khaleel was right about the fact that sometimes there are huge amount of cars driving this road, but I didn’t panic about it. Sometimes it is fine to get into something like this, especially because my trip was flexible.
We arrived home late, so his wife and daughter had already made dinner for us. I was very surprised that evening because the whole family was in the living room having dinner together. Was it because Khaleel missed them? Whatever the reason was, it was nice to have all of them in one place. Khaleel’s wife was quite a funny woman, but I did not try to talk to the daughter.
I woke up at 10 am to get ready for the next and final attraction of my stay, the Dal lake. The plan was to leave the house around 11am, but because some friend of Khaleel’s friend arrived unexpectedly, we had to delay our departure. I didn’t understand much (or at all) of their conversation so I decided to get back into my room to finish reading some articles in a magazine that I had brought with me, some of them I even read twice.
Almost two hours later, on the way to the lake he explained to me that his friend came to him to ask for advice. One of his friend’s brothers who used to live in Norway ran away from his wife who has three children with him, because she wanted him to pay child benefits.
Khaleel assured me that his friend is a hard-worker with a lot of savings. Now that guy is back to Kashmir and his wife’s relatives areterrorizing him to move back to live with his wife. The advice that Khaleel gave to his friend’s brother was very simple:
“Contact the police and stay calm until they finish investigation and contact you”.
It took us less than five minutes to reach the lake. Today’s attraction was to ride a boat across the lake. To do so, Khaleel arranged us a canoe which was very similar to Venetian gondolas.
When we dispatched from the shore, the first thing I noticed was the cleanliness of the water and amount of the macrophytes (type of a plant that grows in the water). When I asked Khaleel the cause of this “greenness” he answered me that 20 years ago all the sewage was dumped into the lake which caused this pollution.
At the middle of the lake, we crossed under the bridge which led us to the second part of the lake. Khaleel told me that now we are arriving to the real lake. In his opinion the first part of the lake was just a big swamp.
I didn’t see any logic in his words, because the second part of the lake was way more polluted with macrophytes. Far away across from us, we could see the building of a mosque standing on the shore. I decided not to ask too many questions, but it seemed that the mosque was our next destination.
At the bank there were some people rinsing dyed fabrics and several animals running around the place searching for food. It was like mini Varanasi 1200km away from Srinagar. There were also people selling all kinds of religious books, calendars and other types of things that I could not understand because of the language. Unfortunately, the mosque was closed for public, so we walked around it while Khaleel was telling me some stories about it.
After that, we proceeded to the market place and stopped at the bakery to buy some Kashmiri bread which was very similar to pancakes. It was not much to fill up the stomach, but it was better than nothing. Luckily, when we returned to our canoe, the owner had a lunchbox and willingly shared with us some food.
While paddling towards our next destination, flowers salesmen approached us in her canoe. She knew that I am a tourist, so instead of trying to sell me flower bouquet she showed me the album with photos of flowers that I could grow at home, by purchasing seeds from her. I still had 25 days of the trip in India and why should I take home with me some seeds which might not even grow in Europe? I tried to refuse it in polite way for many times until Khaleel stepped in and decided to buy some seeds for his own garden in the spring.
The canoe owner kept on rowing until we reached a part of the lake which I thought only existed in Vietnam. While in Vietnam the rice fields are manmade swamps for rice to grow, here they had a naturally occurring lakeside which supported the growth of several types of vegetables and lotus plants. It was really amazing to see how wisely and practically people were living here.
Before the arrival to the shore we stopped at not a very attractive Char Chinar island which was basically square shaped island with Chinar tree on each corner. Khaleel wanted to show it to me because long time ago there was a scene shot in here for a Bollywood film. Really? It was supposed to be a very beautiful place in the film, but for me there was nothing special to see or do there.
It was the last place visited on canoe. Right after the return to the shore, we went to the dusty center of Srinagar where we bought some fruits from a local vendor. It was five o’clock in the evening when we reached the guesthouse, but I felt really tired so I decided to have a rest before the dinner.
At the dinner time I was asked to write a review about my experience at the guesthouse. I felt uncomfortable to do so while Khaleel and his family was almost staring at every word I put. Of course, I wrote an overly positive review just like other guests did before me. Actually it was a fairly good decision, because I had to read my review out loud. Khaleel was extremely happy, but I felt like a typical people pleaser.
Tomorrow I was leaving Srinagar. First destination would be Jammu city from where I will be able to catch a bus to Dharamshala.
I woke up at 6:30am, put the last things to my backpack and got downstairs to see if anyone was awake. The mother was already preparing breakfast and her daughter was already awake as well, but Khaleel was still sleeping.
Shortly after, the daughter went to change her clothes, because she had an appointment to see the doctor, because of the pain in the hand. When she came out of her room, she was dressed in a dark blue sari. She looked much more beautiful, than dressed in pheran as I have seen her since my arrival.
Today I received, as usually, milk tea, bread, butter and some jam, but not an omelet. My Kashmiri mom stated that it is not healthy to eat it before traveling a long distance. Instead of the omelet I got some porridge. No matter what, it was delicious breakfast as always.
After I finished eating, she explained to me in her extremely broken English how to prepare Kashmiri tea from the products I have recently purchased from her. If I remember correctly there was: cardamom, cinnamon and some type of green leaves that I had to boil together in water and add some milk in the end.
That morning she also told me a nice thing:
“Other people came and left, it was just business, but you are more like a son for Khaleel”.
Of course that wasn’t exactly the words she used, but she was good in explaining things using body language.
When Khaleel came out of his room he seemed to be angry, but more likely because he didn’t rest well. We dressed up quickly and left the house. First we dropped the women to the hospital and then drove to the station. I am not sure if it is possible to call it a station. There were 10 jeeps in the street waiting for passengers to jump in and the drivers were basically fighting to get more passengers.
Khaleel went to make a deal with a random driver and few minutes later I was sitting in the front seat of one of those jeeps, while 5 other passengers with a little child were sitting in the back. I left Srinagar at ten o’clock in the morning. It was a long way to drive of 300km trough dangerous mountain roads. I only arrived to Jammu eight hours later.
It was already dark, so I had to be quick to find my way to the hotel I was thinking of staying at. The price of the hotel was pretty high, but with my empty stomach I didn’t want to spend another hour searching for a cheaper hotel room. The one I chose was in the city center, so it was perfect.
It was not hard to notice that Jammu was more Indian than Kashmiri city. Most of the people on the streets and the cuisine in the restaurants were mainly of Indian background. There I had the first opportunity to taste my first Indian dinner. It consisted of potatoes with ginger and rice. It was very simple dish, but very, very tasty. Maybe because I was extremely hungry.
The first day in Delhi and five days in Kashmir was my first big experience as a solo traveler. It was the time when I had a chance to learn about what does it mean to stand up for myself and why it is important to build a strong personality to be able to enjoy the trip as a solo traveler. Many things I had to learn the hard way, but I am not ashamed to share it with you. I actually hope that my own experience could help some of you to understand how things work in India/Kashmir who go there for the first time.