Kashmir: Trapped in Conflict
India , Pakistan , and Kashmiri separatists continue their increasingly dangerous struggle over Himalayan territory that once delighted residents and travelers alike.
This article was written about Kashmir in the Sept 1999 issue of National Geographic. The story is a good introduction to Kashmir itself and to its relationship with India and Pakistan. Check out page 16. It mentions Butts Clermont Houseboat where we stayed.
GUEST POST BY HERB LEVENTON
I love Islamic Srinagar. I love how early in the morning the flower seller will pull up to my houseboat in his shikara over and sell me fresh cut flowers. I love the 200 year old wood and brick three and four story mud brick structures that all seem to be leaning over at twenty degrees. I love the smiles on the 10 year old girls and how the hijabs they wear make them look so regal. I love the silver stubble on the mens faces. I love the waffle like bread and how the ridges are made from the bakers finger tips. I love the voices of the Sufi singers. I love how in a darkened storefront a man sits all day in the same chair that his grandfather sat in and sells rosewater. I love how our guide Lassa speaks in a near whisper and shares tales of his city. I love the earth tones, the bridges that span the city, the calmness…
…Srinagar is a special place.
GUEST POST BY HERB LEVENTON OF EPIC PHOTO TOURS
It is five o'clock in the morning and the group is rubbing the sleep out of their eyes. Coffee and tea is ready in the dining room. We are on the way to Tiksey Monastery for an early morning photo shoot. The high altitude doesn't deter the mellow group of 11 and super photo leaders Jeremy Woodhouse and John Isaac…
As we walk the ramp leading to the the prayer room we hear the trumpets and can feel the air change. In we go, all get in the lotus position and scan the somewhat darkened room which has a sweet smell of juniper. Children as young as six and men as old as eighty are chanting, the bugles blow, the drums get banged. The little novice monks fill small bowls with rice in front of these serene praying Buddhist men. Straining to carry the big bowl we watch him fulfill his daily task. As soon as that is done he walks with a heavy copper pitcher carefully pouring warm milk into into each bowl.
The chanting continues, all prayers are for peace. The group is mesmerized, some scenes need to be permanently recorded, this is one of them. This is Ladakh at 11,560 feet and we are the only foreigners here. We are blessed to have at the opportunity to experience this. Definitely an Epic Photo Tour moment. The group is smiling, we are feeling peace.
GUEST POST BY HERB LEVENTON OF EPIC PHOTO TOURS
Dal Lake in Srinagar is at 6,000 feet altitude and I think that height has possibly impacted the functioning of the houseboat owners where we are staying. In the 60's the Beatles stayed at Butts Clermont and smoked great ganja, sang and laughed and felt peaceful. Their houseboat is still there but sunken in mud, with peeling paint, totally dilapidated, lacking windows and really looks like a wound and not a relic. This sunken houseboat isn't a national treasure or an ancient ruin but an eyesore in a magnificent location. The houseboats are furnished in old carpets and the couches seem to be from my dead grandmothers apartment in Brooklyn. Bob and Ann, two extremely nice fellow travelers and photographers are staying at another one of the houseboats that is half on land and half in mud. When I asked Bob about his houseboat he said to him it was a plywood shack in mud and he was fearful that Ann who was in the next room would slip while taking a shower and wind up sitting on the toilet because of how the boat was lilting in the water.
The owners are a group of brothers who all love their inheritance dearly but aren't sure in what direction to take the houseboat complex. So it remains stuck in mud. As a tribute to their departed father they keep it untouched, an interesting business strategy for sure.
This place is in a time warp to the extent that they don't have a refrigerator. I asked how they are keeping the food cold and they said they shopped daily. Definitely from market to mouth while staying here. One of the toilets didn't work and after asking numerous times to have it fixed and offering to call my plumber in New York for technical support it was fixed which they proudly announced and became a source of animated discussion. I just wish that Peggy, who is shooting video, could have captured that scene. They spoke about the plumber for two days and how proud of the new toilet they were – I am sure John Lennon could have written a song about it. When I mentioned that the walkway should reach one of the far houseboats so that people shouldn't always be stepping in the mud/yuck they nodded excitedly and said "inshallah" (God willing) Gabe from Boston, who received this trip as a gift from his parents as a graduation treat, seems to have this yuck as permanent attachment to his feet.
The grounds are magnificent and the flower garden something to envy. The food is excellent and the kabobs far better than any I have ever tasted. The waiter is a wonderful man who has been there for 30 years and I feel honored to have shared his water pipe. The two chefs are constantly smiling and when I went in the kitchen to thank them for another meal they beamed – you could feel that Dal Lake love. Abdullah, the on-site barber, masseuse, and tailor has a work bag that mentions his numerous skills. For 200 rupees ($3) he gave me a scalp and shoulder massage which left my skull red and a memory for a lifetime.
The Beatles are no longer but Clermont Butts remains. When I travel I want a totally authentic experience and the Epic Photo Tours group is surely getting one. Everyone is smiling, in the trip zone, getting exceptional photographs and they all know that this is as good as it gets. I think I will fill out an employment application here at the Butts, but first they will have to find a pen that works…yes, I will return again…I love this place!
GUEST POST BY HERB LEVENTON
In Srinagar if you want to get the shots you need to get up while it is still dark and get on the lake. So, eleven hardy folk were up at 4AM floating three people per shikara towards the floating market. Dark and cold we floated for an half and half in silence with the boatmen rowing away.
Passing the mosque, the shore line dotted with three-story, two-hundred-year-old wooden houses in different states of disrepair, we all knew that we were very far from home. As we got closer, out of the darkness came small wooden boats loaded with tomatoes, eggplants, cabbage, cauliflower and some vegetables I have never seen before and with names I could never pronounce.
The small channels led to a big opening which was filling with grizzled men with grey beards that were weighing their vegetables on scales that probably were worth lots more that their lot. Lots of bargaining, yelling back and forth, rupees passing hands, handshakes, sealing the deal.
Joining this disorganized chaos were seed sellers and a really cool shikara painted with a sign that screamed "Delicious Man", who rowed up to our group of 5 boats, and in perfect English, tried to make a hard sale – the cookies, baked just an hour before, tasted of cinnamon, and were way to good to pass up. The seed man had packets to sell which many in the group bought in the hope that they will grow, bloom and have them dreaming of this morning on Dal Lake long after they will have returned home.
A GUEST POST BY HERB LEVENTON
Image © Jeremy Woodhouse. The friendly face of Kashmir – a local leaving the floating vegetable market after buying his supplies
All I could think of was how when you have a camera you have a passport to the world
Hailing from Canada, California, Connecticut, Caracas and points in between, 11 photography enthusiasts with a passion for travel met in Delhi and took the first flight out to Srinagar. Not known to most, this city in the far north of India straddling the border with Pakistan is Islamic, located on mirror like Dal Lake, and just re-emerging as a tourist destination to those in the know. With former chief of UN photography services John Isaac and intrepid photographer Jeremy Woodhouse leading, the group was immediately engaged and in the thick of it.
If you are a curious photographer and want to get an immediate jolt, the best places to start is the market. The group walked the narrow streets of the market shooting the men with henna beards, the old wooden storefronts, the baker, the butcher and the life of a city very alien to us. Some girls were shy and hard to engage but if you want to get to know people you need to join them and a few of us jumped on a school bus loaded with girls in green uniforms and had an immediate interchange. These kids all pulled out their cheap Nokia phones and as we shot them they giggled and photographed us. All I could think of was how when you have a camera you have a passport to the world.
After just a day and a half this Kashmir trip has been be fantastic, the people are friendly, the house boat we are staying on is full of ambiance (and a few spider webs), the muazzin's call to prayer is our clock, and the beauty of Dal Lake puts you immediately at peace. Srinagar feels serene, not sure whether it is because the people have been through so much hardship and are all depressed or they are a spiritual people whose goodness comes from their belief system.
Image © Jeremy Woodhouse. Beautiful Dal Lake
Jeremy Woodhouse is a professional photographer and traveller. He leads photography trips to all corners of the globe