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So we ended up in Srinagar...

INDIA | Monday, 11 May 2009 | Views [1175]

Stepping off the plane Andrew says, " I didnt realize we were going so close to Islamabad." "What?!" I exclaimed. He then tells me he was looking at the in-flight map, I had been engrossed in my book and ipod, and that on the map he saw we were flying up into Kashmir. Walking into the airport there is a strong Indian military presence. All uniformed men with guns in hand. My heart immediately starts pounding and I hear my mom's voice before I left, "I do not want you going anywhere near the border of Pakistan." Well greeaatttt and it just so happens today is Mother's Day. We are the only foreigners there and immediately are ushered over to the counter to declare whether we have any symptoms of the swine flu. Ans whispers that he has had a cough to me. I tell him he better not say a word or else we may end up in some cell. One man working at the airport comes up to us and before we even say anything starts assuring us we are safe in Srinagar. Really? Why do I feel so unsafe? And I have not even left the airport. I see our packs on the conveyor belt and hastily walk over there ready to find our airport pick up and be swept away to the mountains where I would feel at ease.
Naz, from Centre Tour and Travels, quickly approaches us as we exit the airport with all the others. We stand out so much we might as well be wearing oversized sombreros on our heads. I start the interrogation..."so are there other tourists currently here? are there people staying on the houseboat with us? is it actually safe here?" Naz assures me over and over how safe Kashmir now is and there are TONS of tourists. I later learn he is so full of BS. As we drive through the town part of me is tempted to duck down in the car so no one sees me through the windows. I know Ans probably thinks I am overreacting, but he is not a blonde freckled girl who does not own a burqa to cover herself. Driving through Srinagar there is military everywhere I look. All men and women are completely covered. Unlike Delhi the town appears monochrome- grey, brown, black. Except for the bright blue sky and snow capped mountains adding some cheer way off in the distance. After driving for about twenty minutes the car abruptly pulls off the road down to a small little lake with some dodgy old houseboats. They are reminiscent of trailors on water. "We're here!" Naz informs. "Uhhhh we are????"  Please tell me this is not for real. I am on a mosquito infested lake covered in algae. There is one small mountain which is close to the lake where a fort is perched. Other than that, the other tall mountains are too far off in the distance to see with the cloudy skies. There are also a bunch of pigeons. I could get this in NYC. I didnt fly all the way over to India to get some Kashmiri pigeons.Some other smaller birds are perched on lily pads which add charm to the lake. Unfortunately, when we look closer down at the water we see the floor of the lake is covered in trash.  Youseff, who we are told is our cook, brings us out Kashmiri tea and biscuits. The tea is delicious- similar to a black tea and naturally sweet. We sit out on the lake for a little to take it all on in and it is interesting watching the men in their boats pulling weeds from the lake for compost. Afterwards, we go check out our room (one of two) on the house boat we are also sharing with Mark from Ireland. The place has never seen a duster let alone a good vacuum, but that is the least of it (I later get electrocuted while taking a shower holding the detachable shower head). Looks like another night sleeping in the silk sleep sheet- such a great investment. We are also told that we can't leave the houseboat without an escort. So basically we are stuck on this boat until we leave for a trek. We go sit down with Naz on the other boat where Ron (from Quebec/Nevada) and 3 other Irish girls are staying. Naz then tells us the only way to leave is a 10 hour drive through the mountains to Dharamsala. I basically want to leave ASAP but Naz proposes we go on a trek. Ans and I decide to purchase this tour package through India from him just so we can be assured we get out of there since he is the one who arranges the jeep out of Srinagar to Dharamsala. That night we have dinner with Mark who is a young guy and has been traveling for 3 months throughout the Middle East. He tells us he was also misled into coming to Kashmir and he went on a trek because there was nothing else to do being stuck up in Kashmir. He is scheduled to share a jeep with the 3 Irish girls leaving the next morning at 7am. All I could think was- is there room for me on this lifeboat? After dinner we go over to the other houseboat and drink some Kingfishers with the Irish girls, Ron, a Canadian lady, and Rami who is Kashmiri and one of the guides for trekking. Ans is so exhausted he literally is sleeping on my shoulder. We head off to bed early planning to catch the sunrise and see about getting in the 7am car.
5:30 am- wake up. Actually have been awake on and off all night because of the ominous sounding calls of prayer which happened throughout the evening. Despite the initial unnerving feeling the prayer delivered, it was interesting to hear an entire city praying in unison. As Ans said, "It was like everyone was casting a magic spell- an aura that rose above the city and seemed palpable." Ans and I then climb to the roof of the houseboat where we are clearly intruding on all the pigeons who are in the middle of carrying on with their morning routine. There is no sunrise, we are surrounded by clouds, very overcast. We go back downstairs and go to the door leading to the sitting room to get out but it is locked. Why are we locked in? Ans opens one of the windows and we see we can crawl out. Mark then wakes up and we tell him we are locked in. We then discover after climbing out the window that Rami is passed out on the floor in the sitting room. He sleeps soundly while we have breakfast and talk. When he wakes up we tell him he locked us in and we could not get out. He says he was really drunk so must have locked us in and he is now suffering from a raging hangover. I soon discover there is no room for us in the jeep and we cant leave until the next morning. Ans and I then walk over to the neighboring houseboat and Ron tells us he is driving to a mountain to see K2 and that Lucy who has been staying at Naz's house is also going. I jump at the opportunity to drive away from Srinagar and be with other travelers.
Well I was wrong about this drive taking me out of Srinagar. Instead it consisted of driving through all of Srinagar and Gulmarg for around 3 hours, each way. Throughout the drive everyone had nervous laughter especially at military check points. I ask about halfway through "So which way are we headed to see K2?" Ron says, "Towards the border of Pakistan!" It's then decided among everyone in the car- Ron, Lucy, Rami (way in the back still with a hangover), and Kashmiri driver that Ans and I from now on should say we are from Canada. Need- cocktail- now. Need- any sort of anti anxiety pill- now. As we approach the mountain another man missing all teeth but one hops in the car because he is the only one who is permitted to show us the mountain, neither one of our two Kashmiri guides. Driving through the hill I can spy army men in their fatigues perched in the trees either sitting or standing holding their guns. As we pull up into the little mountain community a huge group of men are gathered and yelling and we can barely drive the car through. We are told they are going on strike which is a pretty regular occurrence. Once we purchase our tickets (of course they cost double the price bc we are foreigners) we all pile into a gondola. During the gondola ride up we can look down on sporadic gypsy communities whose homes constructed of wood and mud clutch onto the mountain's side. Once we arrive to the top it is much colder and there is a good amount of people. Lot's of Indians from the South make the visit to this mountain to see snow for the first time. All of the Indians are jumping onto wooden sleds but the snow is icy and brown from all the dirt. We unfortunately cannot see K2 because it is still overcast so we all plod back to the jeep ready to return to the houseboat.
On the way back Ron wants to stop in Srinagar to see where Jesus is rumored to have been buried. We turn down a little alley and all get out of the car with Rami. There is a commotion with two Muslim men who are very angry he had brought tourists. Rami told us they would have fought him and broken our car if he has insisted on us visiting the site and has not left immediately. He informs us he cannot stand up to them because he is Kashmiri and he does not want to start trouble with these men. Once we arrive at the houseboat Lucy and I confirm with eachother we are getting a car to leave at 7am the next morning. She has been in Kashmir for 10 days and is really ready to leave. She also does not feel safe. That evening we all have dinner together with 2 British girls who had just arrived after a 26 hour bus ride. We share some good laughs as we all were tricked into heading up to Kashmir (except for the Brits). Heading to bed I feel relieved to be leaving in the morning. However, I am not completely at ease as Rami told us the town is going on strike the next day so roads will be shut down. If we do not get on the road early enough we might have to stay longer in Srinagar. Well here's to another sleepless night...

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