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Himalaya

Day 40: Srinagar, Kashmir

Dal Lake, India 
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Flower sellers give me the once-over on Dal Lake.
Michael Palin - Himalaya
In 1949 a ceasefire came into force, one of whose conditions was that a plebiscite should be held for the inhabitants of all Kashmir to decide on their future. It's never happened. Instead, this spectacularly lovely land has become the arena in which all the fear and loathing between Pakistan and India has come to a head. Thousands of soldiers face one another across a Line of Control. By the late 1990s the potential of the Kashmir dispute escalated from destructive to catastrophic as the Pakistanis confirmed that, like India, they now had the power to wage a nuclear conflict.

The houseboats that can still be found clinging to the shores of the lake are symbols of the days when Kashmir was not the problem, but a hideaway from all the problems elsewhere. If you can forget the roadblocks and the army patrols, the magic spell remains.

Among reasons to be thankful for being on Dal Lake this morning is the ban on outboard motors, which keeps the mood of the place as reflective as its still waters. There's time to take in the passing scene, admire majestic chinnar trees on the shoreline, the white walls and domes of an impressive waterside mosque and, alongside it, a run of multi-windowed three- or four-storey wood and brick houses that would not be out of place in a Baltic seaport.

For hundreds of years the lake has been farmed by the Mihrbari people, market gardeners living on islands only accessible by boat. Thirty-five thousand of them still live on the water, farming lotus beds for food, cattle feed and the famed Kashmiri honey that comes from their pink flowers. Willow and poplar trees on the islands are cut for thatching and building materials, vegetables are cultivated in hydroponic gardens set among compressed bulrushes and all commerce is conducted from boat to boat in a floating market that starts at daybreak every morning. Suppliers from the city bring their barges down and bargain for turnips, potatoes, spinach, pumpkins, shallots, big fat radishes, aubergines, mint and okra.

We're here within an hour of dawn and the market is in full swing. Several boatloads of flower sellers, pushing through the jam make a beeline for us (we are, apart from an Israeli couple, the only people resembling tourists here today). It doesn't stop at buying flowers. This merely spurs them on to sell you seeds as well. The more you resist the more they like it.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Himalaya
  • Chapter: Day 40: Srinagar, Kashmir
  • Country/sea: India
  • Place: Srinagar
  • Book page no: 89

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