In 2009, I wanted to go to Kashmir badly. I heard so much about it – the rolling hills, beautiful lake, and it was so intriguing. I guess the potential sight of seeing armed men in guns was quite an attraction for me too. But I was below 21 at that point of time and The Father forbade it. So I went to Nepal instead, which was nice too.
After two long years, I passed the age of 21, and decided I was mature enough to make the trip. It happened that I was also in the search for snow, haven’t seen any before in my life and I heard that it was snowing in Kashmir. It must be a sign from the heavens I told myself. And with less than a week to go, I booked my tickets to India. I was supposed to take a train from Delhi to Jammu and a 10 hour bus ride to Srinagar, but I cancelled the train ticket as the highway from Jammu to Srinagar was closed at that time due to snowfall.
I purchased a flight ticket then, at the expense of my depleting bank account, and flew to Srinagar. It was a good decision as I cannot imagine huddling 10 hours in a freezing cold bus. My toes would have gone blue cos of the frostbite, and I may not survive to be writing this now.
When I arrived in Kashmir, the temperature was 4 degrees in the afternoon but I was already feeling the shivers. I struggled to pull on my brother’s thick winter coat which kept me alive during the 4 days there, but there was a numbing pain on my feet and hands cos it was so cold.
The hotel I stayed in did not have a heater, but only an electric blanket. Essentially, you had to hide under 8 cm thick blankets to keep warm. Reading a book was tough cos your hands had to peep out to flip the pages and each time they came out I would feel a biting pain. I hated bathing and brushing my teeth so much. At nights, temperatures dip to minus 2 deg, and I am thankful that there was never a power cut before at night.
Basically, I hated coming out from that nice warm nest I had made myself. Even though it means doing nothing. I could stare blankly at the TV showing a cricket match and nothing would go in. I was stoning.
Each action, even something so intuitive such as getting tissue paper to wipe my nose, drinking water and using the washroom was an immense act of will.
The TV had only one miserable English movie channel which I didnt fancy cos they showed too many ghost movies. In the end, I took to watching cricket and a Hindi MTV channel to will away the long nights. I was lonely. Thank goodness there was wifi so I could whatsapp my friends and family. But even tapping on the touchscreen was difficult. Once I took out my gloves, my fingers were so stiff and numb I kept making spelling errors.
The cold saps out your spirit. It took away my will to walk around, enjoy the sound of birds and trees and peep at uncanny corners. Each walk outside the hotel left a biting pain in my feet and hands. Sometimes the scenery was just too beautiful that I forget the pain for awhile, but it comes back after. My face starts peeling because I leave it uncovered during the night and it is cold and dry. Opening my mouth widely hurts.
But it is really beautiful I must say. The thing is, it’s already beautiful in winter, what more in the summer? On my first full day, I took a auto for RS700 and it brought me to the gardens around the Dal lake and the Old City. This emperor had gallantly constructed them for his wife, and I must say they look quite stunning – even though the water features were under maintenance during the winter. The long dry leaves hanging from the willow trees , and the snow coated green trees against the backdrop of white mountains. The Botanical gardens is even more awesome. I treaded across the snow filled ground, and had my first slip and fell. It wasn’t painful, landing on a pile of snow. It fact, it was quite comforting.
On the second day, I travelled to Gulmarg, a ski resort town three hours from Srinagar. I met a fellow traveller from Delhi who was going there to sightsee. In honest fact, I didn’t really like him cos he talked too much. There’s more snow in Gulmarg, and this guy, upon seeing snow starts tossing it in the air and playing with it. He sees that I am not playing with the snow and tells me I am “the serious type”. In my head, I was think WTH!
Then it occurred to me quite clearly, that such beautiful scenery should be enjoyed in the company of friends. The hardships too. And that left me feeling quite sorry for myself, cos I know when I go back, there’s no one I can link Kashmir to. I can link Mount Bromo to my Friend W, the pagodas of Myanmar to my Friend S, the epic train ride from Varanasi to Delhi to my Friend T, and Taiwan to my Friends W,H,K and K. But Kashmir to that iffy Indian traveller? Urgh!
Anyway, there’s a nice cable car you can take that will bring you up for RS300. For a even further height, you pay RS500. I wanted to take the further ride, but my Indian counterpart was too busy chatting with some angmohs and sipping his chai and we did not have enough time. ://
On the third day, I went to take a Shikara ride around the lake. I pay one third the advertised price, I think it’s because it’s not the peak tourist season. There were no foreign tourist in Srinagar when I was there. These floating boats then come up to you and ask you if you would like to buy jewellery, kashmiri carpets and scarves and of course they get rejected.
The lake is quite marvellous. The shikara-walla tells me in summer they grow watermelon and strawberries and it is very nice. He stops by an Kashmiri shawl emporium and ask me to go in and take a look. I refuse to budge. I think he is pissed.
I want to stay out longer after the ride, but I am shivering even with the winter coat. My feet feels pain from the frostbite despite three layers of socks and my hands stay numb. And with that, I decide to spend the rest of the day in the room, reading. At that moment, I was so tired, that I felt I needed someone to come and drag me out of bed and send me to the airport. Or I might just lie in the freezing cold forever.
In perfect honesty, there were lots of soldiers with some rifles walking around, and conducting checks and tour destinations. But that unfazes me. I am after all, a Singaporean Chinese and things pass quite easily between us. It is the cold that affects me. It saps my spirit, weakens my mind, and I longed for the sun so much.
Thank God will a significant amount of will power, I made it to the airport the day after enduring the pain in my feet and hands once again. Well, in Kashmir expect loads of security everywhere, and you have to come three hours earlier to check-in. Even at the security counter, the soldier scrutinizes my hand sanitizer and ask me what it is. That never happens at any airport before.
When I finally reached Chennai at night, I flinch and goosebumps appear when a breeze blows by. To my comfort, it is warm, comforting, and does not bite my feet and hands.
If there’s anything I learn from this episode, is that nice places become beautiful in the presence of good company. Sadly for me, I travelled out so far, only to realise that I left the most important thing behind. My friends.