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Kashmir (October 2007)

    A travel experience,
    By Sam Oppenheim

"Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything that is beautiful; for beauty is god's handwriting- a wayside sacrament. Welcome it in every fair face, in every fair sky, in every fair flower, and thank God for it as a cup of blessing" - Ralph W. Emerson

In late October Shekhar arranged some sick leave to accompany me on a weeklong excursion to Kashmir. We traveled by train to Delhi and then via air to Kashmir. Landing amid military buildings and seeing the presence of heavy security made me nervous, but, after awhile, I got used to it. Kashmir itself was pleasant. The people were laid back. No one hassled us, and I never felt uncomfortable as a tourist.

Everyone who visits Kashmir is supposed to stay in a houseboat. We avoided touts and guidebooks and chose to use a boat in amore remote place that a friend had recommended. We had to take a taxi out of the city center to Nagin Lake, the quieter, more distant of two lakes in Srinagar. There were two ways to our boat: via the labyrinthine alleys of an old Kashmiri neighborhood and then across a plank, or directly onto our porch via a shikara, the small single-oar boats that ply the local shallow lakeways.

Our house boat was huge, with a gorgeously furnished living and dining room, TV included, and two bedrooms, each with attached bathrooms. The floating 100-foot long handcrafted hotels are masterpieces of architecture. The most ornate ones are unlike anything else in the world.

Kashmir's lakes are beautiful from sunrise to midnight (okay maybe also before sunrise, but I was asleep). One unique sight is the dawn floating vegetable market. Unfortunately, once you walk ashore, Srinagar is another crowded hustling city. So, after two days obligatory tourism nearby, we decided to explore the countryside. Our first excursion was to Pampore - India's only saffron cultivation area.

Hopping down from a crowded grimy local bus, Shekhar and I blinked our eyes in the late morning sunshine. We marveled at the glorious golden-hued landscape full of fall foliage. The maples and other deciduous trees and the rolling landscape reminded me of beautiful parts of the American Midwest, and Shekhar claimed he had never seen this season except on the television. His hometown, Malkapur, now my home as well, goes from mild summer to unbearable summer without any stops for spring, fall, or winter.

We then began to walk around along a side road that ran toward a stream in the distance, looking for the promised fields of purple-violet saffron flowers. At first we saw only undulating furrows of plowed dirt, but these seemingly barren fields actually contained the season's early bloomers. Upon closer inspection we found some poking out of the soil and picked a few, tasting the red saffron stamens and appreciating the flower's beauty. Later we learned from the farmers that saffron is a bulb-plant and blooms without re-planting for 3-8 years depending on conditions, with each bulb shooting up between 1 and 5 flowers per season. Why saffron blooms in October-November instead of spring, however, I never did discover.

Below this ridgeline, we followed the road to a small village. Invited inside a household by a nice family, we watched grandma process saffron by hand - the only way to get the fragile more-valuable-by-weight-than-gold red stamens from the flower. Shekhar gave an impromptu English lesson and I took a family portrait (Which I posted to them later) before having Kashmiri tea and buying some saffron. Walking uphill, the sons showed us their fields, and here we did see a larger concentration of the pastel-indigo petals. Then, before finding a ride back, the boys went up to a stopped trucker and returned to give us a handful of the freshest Himalayan apples. They were so crisp, so flavorful, so satisfying, they truly were a piece of manna from heaven.

Srinagar was apparently once a beautiful gem of a city immortalized and idealized for good reason. Today, however, only a few portions retain this splendor. The Mughal gardens are a local favorite. Although I have seen nicer botanical gardens abroad, it's hard not to be smitten with the Mughal gardens when you see how happy every Indian visitor becomes in the presence of manicured nature. Shekhar was no exception. The families picnicking and honeymooners galore wandering hand in hand, just make the flowers, artificial waterfalls, and maple trees glow brighter.

Our final sight of beauty topped all the other destinations. We took a daytrip to Sonmarg. Here our hired car drove us into the higher mountain valleys after passing through quaint villages. The beautiful kind people here look like Afghans, Greeks, and Gypsies dressed in Kashmiri Knee-length wool shirts. Their homes are covered and surrounded by autumnal amber leaves, while the rivers and lakes glow like pure turquoise and cobalt.

We came to tour a local glacier, but by October most of the winter snow was completely melted. Nonetheless we joined other tourists on the trail and ascended. We splurged on the completely unnecessary horses, and breathed pleasant fresh mountain air whenever our horses stopped passing gas. When we arrived at the so-called glacier, however, it was just an avalanche remnant. The "glacier" was a giant clump of ice covered in giggling Indians, a few chai vendors, and enterprising people operating a 50-foot guided sled ride. There were, however, glaciated peaks above us, and once we left the ice block behind on a 2 hour walk toward the peaks, beauty reigned in the sublime peace.

Leaving Kashmir, Shekhar was talking about coming back with his family and declaring his love for the region. I am more reserved, however. Considering other options in the Himalayas, I think it ranks pretty low. I loved it, and it provides a unique experience, but for visiting the Himalayas I prefer Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Ladakh & Leh, and Uttaranchal's Char Dham.

"Go for a walk, if it is not too dark.
Get some fresh air, try to smile.
Say something kind
To a safe-looking stranger, if one happens by.

Always exercise your heart's knowing.

You might as well attempt something real
Along this path:

Take your spouse or lover into your arms
The way you did when you first met.
Let tenderness pour from your eyes
The way the Sun gazes warmly on the earth.

Play a game with some children.
Extend yourself to a friend.
Sing a few ribald songs to your pets and plants-
Why not let them get drunk and wild!

Let's toast
Every rung we've climbed on evolution's ladder.
Whisper, "I love you! I love you!"
To the whole mad world.

Let's stop reading about God-
We will never understand Him.

Jump to your feet, wave your fists,
Threaten and warn the whole Universe

That your heart can no longer live
Without real love!"
-Hafiz, rendered by Daniel Ladinsky in 'I heard God laughing'