Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Passage to India XIII

27 September

Our business done in Dha, we continued northwards to Kargil. It was not necessary to backtrack to Khalsi as there was a little road from the Indus valley to the highway. Slowly the Buddhist settlements disappeared and passing through Muslim villages, more and more posters of a stern-faced Khomeini appeared on the shop windows.
I remember that evening in Hundar when the wine powder bunch went to sleep and I sat on the stairs smoking one cigarette after the other, thinking OMG Kashmir, I never wanted to go there, it's Afghanistan light with people who'll chop my head off if I photograph women and a war zone and like that. It was impossible to get reliable situation about the conditions there, but in any case I was sure that it will be camera-shy people. How wrong I was. The Muslims we met on the was to Kargil were warm-hearted and genuinly friendly. To be accurate: the Shia around Kargil are not like the Sunni in Kashmir, but after all my fears proved groundless there too.

We had a very important issue to discuss with Mr Soni. Who was the prettiest woman we met? Soni voted for Dolma (who, by the way, played the "I-get-intimately-close-to-you-but-do-as-if-I-wouldn't-know" on grandmaster level). I didn't really know - tourist women were not allowed to take part in this competition - but eventually the Bollywood starlet came to my mind, who played Princess Sita in Manali:

Usha came third. But as a matter of fact, the starlet being a different category, I think the most beautiful girl was the one I saw in Kalpa - unfortunately only from far:

We crossed a pass before reaching the highway, spectacular as always and covered in such a dust we haven't seen anywhere before. Lights were far from ideal and instead of taking better photographs I made this alibi video.

On we drove and soon we said good-bye to the last gompa.

It was a long drive and even Kargil, otherwise justly described as "nothing to write home about", seemed like heaven. In any case, getting out of the car after 13 hours of driving definitely was a heavenly experience.

Hotel Siachen was much nicer than it looks on the photographs...

...and I had a room in which I felt like inside a bottle cork. For all my sins, God punished me by showing "Balls of fury" on HBO and I was tired enough to like it. But there was hot water and the hotel was impeccably clean...

...with a nice balcony where I realized that I mistreated a wound on my finger and the disinfection fluid was eating away my skin like acid.

28 September

After a good night's sleep and taking a few shots on the main street...

...we continued. Shortly after Drass, I took a few portait shots of this gentleman...

...and rewarded him with a polaroid. The same happened a few klicks later:

People were wonderfully open and friendly, but I told that already.

On the road, we tried to entertain ourselves with pointless conversations. This video is very characteristic for the whole trip: the scenery, the drive, the fun and of course me stopping the car. It went like this for 28 days.

Upwards to Zodji pass, the gateway to real Kashmir, we met these road builders. Only the most junior team member worked, the rest busily watched her enthusiasm.

Zodji pass was spectacular and dusty.

Having arrived at Sonamarg, the first Kashmiri village, Soni could at last have his first Punjabi thali in a Punjabi dhaba run by a Sikh family acting as dhaba-wallahs while I had chicken tikka masala with naan and chowmein. We re-baptised the place into Sonimarg, in recognition of Soni's valiant efforts to keep us alive on the Himalayan roads.

And there it was at last, the Vale of Kashmir, lush and green.

And nobody tried to harm me when I flashed into people's eyes...

...while Soni told me for the 132nd time that Kashmiri girls are the most beautiful in all India...

...and everything was peaceful like in a fairy tale...

...although I have to say: deceitfully peaceful. There were Indian soldiers in every bush, not the slow-witted, loafer-wearing guys you see elsewhere but warriors armed to the teeth. For example, once we stopped and I wanted to take a totally innocent landscape shot when a whistle sounded and out of nowhere a soldier arrived with a machine gun on his shoulder and told me that photo here no possible. A little later I admired the spire-roofed village houses and the lovely pine forests, exchanging happy greetings with a local family passing by, when I realised that just ten meters away a squad of troopers is conducting a nervous house-to-house search. I hid behind the corner quickly and dared to take only this one.

Srinagar was crowded and hot. We picked Ahdoo's Hotel, which had rooms of more than generous size...

...and was the only hotel that remained open throughout all the troubled times in the '90s. The manager, Mr Abdulwahab (if I recall his name right) asked me why I take his photograph. I told him, I consider him a real hero. He smiled and said, "I was just doing my job." Whatever - here's a hero of the hotel industry:

The Jhelum river was just behind the building and I went down there to photograph some houseboats. They were looking abandoned, slowly rotting away in the dirty river, one of them called "Pink Floyd" - probably a leftover from happier hippy times with plenty of mojo.

A lady appeared, who in almost impeccable English invited me to see their houseboat. The invitation was smelling of a brother/cousin who has a carpet/shawl/souvenir shop but I was brave and entered the lion's den.

I was offered delicious Kashmiri tea while they showed me around; they actually owned two boats, one where they lived in...

...and another one, a hotel boat. It was a bit difficult to find my jaw on the floor when I saw in awe the luxury. A piece of peace, of the Raj, of anything that's romantic on Earth and for a moment I was seriously considering to move here from Ahdoo's. But only for a moment.

29 September

What to do in Srinagar? Seeing the Mughal gardens of course. Next day we went to see the legendary Shalimar Bagh, where my last doubts about Kashmiri women's camera-shyness were shattered.

The ladies invited me for lunch, but I refused because I can't eat lamb chops with a thick sticky gravy sauce with my hands as gracefully as the Kashmiris can, and tried to take some portraits but without much success. It was the shadow of the tree we were sitting under, and the scorching sunlight outside it. Anyway, the park was full of tourists and one lucky Indian managed to get a good snapshot of a sweating foreigner.

Shalimar was a little disappointing. Probably I felt so because instead of enjoying the flowers and fountains I tried to take photographs, but apart from the gardener below - no success.

This was mostly because of the damned 24-105. Business as usual - I see a nice scene, do all I can, and the autofocus refuses to co-operate.

What I didn't want to miss though was the Emperor's pavilion. It was guarded by a fence but I made my way around it, only to see that the once glorious walls were everywhere defaced with graffitti. Anyway, this is the hall from where India was ruled each summer for over 250 years, until the British took over the Moghul Empire's job.

On the way out, Soni refused to give me a hand. Instead he cruelly made an advantage of my miserable situation. Being behind bars in India is not a nice thing. But at least I can say that I was the Moghul Emperor's last prisoner.

Soni also told me that he likes Srinagar very much, but seeing Shalimar with all the happy families walking around made him sad and missing his family. Later in the evening, after I had a couple of beers in Hotel Broadway (a place as luxurious as it gets in Srinagar), I tried to comfort him by bringing him a plate of take-away food, because I thought that poor Soni is sleeping in the car (he insisted), has no food and no television. Turned out that the hotel gave him food for free and he could even watch television in the staff room. But I made him eat half of the chicken seekh kebab anyway. I couldn't eat the full plate because I had my invitation for a full Kashmiri dinner on the houseboat.

Surprise surpise - I barely finished my first tea when the head of the family, the lady's cousin serving me with delicious basmati rice in the photo, started the I-have-a-friend-who-owns-a-shawl-factory mantra. It was his lucky day though because I needed to buy presents anyway. So after dinner we walked for about one hour to a shop where I got five kilograms of Kashmiri shawls - tourism still recovering, the prices were acceptable even if the fat bastard (who wasn't my host's friend for sure because he treated him like shit) refused to bargain. Too bad - I was looking forward to a funny and theatralistic bargaining experience. Loaded like a caravan mule with shawls and more beer from the Broadway, I made it back to Ahdoo's.

30 September

After Shalimar, Nishat Bagh was the next target. I gave Soni a day of rest and went alone. First impression: rikshas are all the same, even in Kashmir. Well, maybe a little more posh...

Second impression: Srinagar without traffic, how nice would that be.

Nishat Bagh was more impressive than Shalimar. There were more trees and less crowd.

Perfect place to relax...

...photograph flowers....

...Kashmiri couples...

...children from a good family...

...children without a family...

...and when one is totally out of ideas and bored, do some experimental photography.

Nishat Bagh is such a wonderful place that even soldiers shoot with cameras, not guns. There should be more places like Nishat Bagh.

Just one thing bothered me: everybody asked me what's my religion and if I want to become a Muslim. The girls who offered me mutton, the grandfather of that magnificent girl, the husband from the couple, and some guys who came up to me when I was laying in the grass hoping for a moment of quiet. The guys were nice so I was also nice and told them, "definitely not". When they asked about my religion, I told them I was a believer of a god called Canon but recently my faith was put to a test and I miserably failed. They couldn't quite understand but ensured me that Islam is the best religion, because many Europeans adopt it, so why wouldn't I? I explained them a few things (including that I not only read the Koran but in the translation of Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, which means nothing but always impresses them), after which they looked at me with different eyes, and probably at renegade Europeans as well. I told them that it's not about Christians becoming Muslims but children of a continent which has lost all its moral guidance and moral spine looking for some authority they are not allowed to question, after they parents did everything to question and kill every moral and religious authority; a form of revolting, and of course the call of the exotic Orient with camels and oases and palm-trees and handsome desert warriors with flashing white teeth like they've seen in the movies. I also told them that yes, I have been to many many Muslim countries and once in Turkey almost became a Muslim myself - at this point their eyes were shining - only to very, very much abandon the idea for good when some young and extremely fundamental Muslims explained that Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the greatest singer of all times and greatest Muslim mystic of the century will go to hell because music is against Islam (and they were not from Kabul or Peshawar but from Liverpool). At this point their eyes were not shining anymore. I told them too that Allah is very very great but only a polaroid can stop the time and made a few shots of them to remember me, this afternoon and of course to make their eyes shine again.

I also wanted to tell them (but didn't) that one should always adopt to the way of the country he's living in, and Muslims are not very keen to do that in Europe, but I was a European in Kashmir and to get a full Kashmiri experience I rented a shikara boat for the trip back to town. At last I could bargain. The trip was worth every rupee (350 for one hour, starting price: 1000) and probably my most splendid time during the whole trip.

I wanted to enjoy this, listening only to the sound of the paddle breaking the water which was as glassy like a well-polished emerald, drifting with the sunset to the west and the rising moon to the east, but the shikara-wallah pestered me with stories about his Russian girlfriend and his jewelry shop in Goa, and since shutting him up would have been culturally insensitive and the water too shallow for him to drown, I suffered quietly and played along.

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