I’d been roughed up by whitewater and mugged by the unbelievable Delhi heat, so it seemed provisionally like a good idea to try for a houseboat in Kashmir. In the past two years, despite ongoing violence, this Himalayan border state has seen a tenfold increase in tourism. Peace talks between India and Pakistan have helped ease political tensions, while recent flare-ups have been attributed alternately to the Indian Army, Pakistani troublemakers, homegrown Muslim militants and Kashmir’s very own, heavily armed police force.It's no wonder, when I arrived in the state’s ill-fated capital Srinagar, I found a city suffering from extreme schizophrenia.

The shifting Himalayan light, refracted off the surface of Dal Lake, reflected the many moods of the Vale of Kashmir – peaceful, foreboding, meditative, dangerous. I wondered: Had we escaped to a land of legendary beauty and cool climate, or a war-torn Hell?

The answer was neither here nor there. For, like so much of India, Kashmir defies easy dissection; in fact, despite 50-year-old national boundaries that say so, most residents don’t even consider themselves to be a part of India. Still, it’s the national Army that crouches in the levies on the edges of town and maintains the street-level bunkers found throughout Srinagar – and those with a sense of history rightfully note that while these Indian faces represent an occupying force, they are a force invited by Kashmir. The question of who’s to blame is one that even the locals have not sorted out.

But it was easy enough to lose sight (quite literally) of these divisional factors when on board our houseboat(s). These floating properties, numbering some 150-200 locally, represent a leftover from the British era, when non-Kashmiris were forbidden from owning property in the state. In a city constructed around a series of canal-connected lakes, the British built their domiciles on the water itself, turning the city of Srinagar into South Asia’s answer to Venice.

With elaborated, Kashmiri-style carved woodwork on the walls, ceilings and doors and thick Oriental carpets coating the floors, the places we stayed – The New Crystal Palace and New Gulistan – were close to the lap of luxury. Cheerful servants were de rigueur, arranging water taxis, providing tea and Kashmiri kawa, a local beverage brewed from cinnamon, saffron, almonds and bark. In other words, Hell for the most part seemed a long way off.

During our first and last days, we cruised the lake shore by car to see Srinagar’s famed Mughal Gardens, where the pansies and peonies were in full bloom beneath the immense branches of maple-like Chinar trees. We enjoyed shikara rides in a Kashmiri-type gondola or canoe, taking in floating gardens and out-of-season beds of lotus flowers. Bird life was abundant, including herons, a multitude of kingfishers, the prettiest flashing neon blue, grebes, parakeets and plenty of domestic ducks, rumored to be tasty but never sampled.

Our estimable host on New Gulistan, Mr. M.R. Guru, sprightly at 70, greeted us unbidden at the airport, and made sure all needs were met. “Don’t worry,” he would say. “I’ll profit, but I am straight with you. You are like Guru. You must sometimes trust.” In turn, I had to convince Guru that my stay in Kashmir would not be complete without an attempt to seek out Himalayan trout. He remained concerned about militants, which made me concerned about militants, but the strength of my desire was abundantly clear.

So, after two days of touring Srinagar we headed for Pahalgam, a small town, altitude 8,000 feet, on the pilgrimage route to the Amarnath Cave, where an ice Shiva lingam, draws Hindu faithful by the thousands each year – militancy notwithstanding. The fisheries officer met us with a big grin, and let me know that I was among the first 30 international trout “addicts” (his term) to ply the Lidder River since the season opened in April.

The rough green water swirled like a question mark around boulders, dipping into deep pools, where hefty browns of 15-plus inches and up to 2-pounds lurked. I plied the water with Coachmen and bead-head nymphs, using a dropper, and weights to reach the hungry fish. A local guide put me right on the trout, which have been aggressively reintroduced to the Lidder in the past couple of years (they’re not native, of course, having first been introduced by Europeans maybe 150 years ago) with the hope that a world-class fishery will develop. The main obstacle for the time being remains poaching, both by locals and by the Indian Army, which prefers to use hand-grenades over hook, line and sinker.

Still, even in the downpour that met me on the second day, the fishing felt a lot like Heaven as I reached my bag limit of 6 trout, releasing more than three times that amount in the end.

One’s appreciation of Heaven, however, increases directly in proportion to how close to Hell one must pass along the way there. For while Guru had warned that the trout trip might not be 100 percent safe, it was easy to forget where I was when faced with the splash of the waves, the run of the riffle and the constant tightening of the line. And so I was shocked and dismayed when we arrived back in Delhi to learn that a bridge just South of Pahalgam had been blown up just after our departure from Kashmir.

Officially, militants have been blamed, but I can imagine Guru blames the Army for its dirty tricks. This violence carries a message for the Hindu pilgrims who might think the road to Amarnath is otherwise safe. Nonetheless, what the repercussions will be in the region are yet to be seen, but as there were no fatalities, the story barely rated two column inches. There’s obviously a lesson for trout bums and footloose travelers, too.

Yet, I would be hard pressed to reconsider my choice. Kashmir may still suffer the bane of violence, but it’s as peaceful there as it’s been in a generation. And I don’t know when my next chance to visit will come.


At June 4, 2005 at 12:14 AM, Blogger Christopher Hess said...

Sorry to read that your trip is coming to an end, but glad that you had such a great and memorable time. Thanks as always for the fantastic updates. I don't know if I'll ever get to India, but it's been nice visiting vicariously through y'all.

Just missed you in Austin--had a great time down there with bro Eric et al. Let us know when you'll be venturing northwestward again--summer is a great time to leave Texas, as you know.

Take care. Best to C.


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