I am fulfilling my long-held dream of staying on one of the gorgeous houseboats on Dal Lake. Back in colonial times, the ruling Maharajah of Kashmir refused the Brits landowning rights, leaving them no choice but to build and live in houseboats on the huge lake and today the boats are a step back to that time. The houseboat 'Moonshine', in a peaceful spot on Nagin Lake, an offshoot of the main body of water, is
everything I imagined. We sleep in artfully carved four poster beds, eat in the dining room with its cabinet of English china, and take afternoon spiced Kashmiri tea on the verandah, served by our 'coolie', and always in proper cups and saucers! With a garden of lotus blossom blooming in the water beside the boat, a cacophany of birdsong, huge eagles
soaring overhead, traders paddling out in their shikaras (gondola-like boats) to sell us flowers and provisions, 3 spicy meals a day served up with a smile, mystical sunrises and magical sunsets, I'm in thrall to the lake. It's been the perfect place to read Harry Potter (impressions and verdicts by email please, Suzanne, Fiona, Gail, and other Potter fans!).
Yesterday we took a shikara across the water for an hour to the 17th century Moghul Shalimar Gardens, a fabulous place to watch people: families picnicking beneath the shady trees, young couples taking romantic walks, schoolkids splashing one another from fountains, bright saris dazzling in the intense sunlight. Quite how much we were being watched ourselves brought home just how few tourists have visited Kashmir since the conflict began (60,000 people dead in the past 20 years): we were stared at
as if we were aliens by the locals,especially the children, though when we spoke to people they were very friendly. We were asked to pose in various photos with individuals and families and felt like a freak show! (Which, no doubt, is how the locals feel when the tourists ask them to do the same...). The last time I walked around formal landscaped gardens was when Harriet Clinton took me to Dundalk for the weekend to set me up on a blind date...but the less remembered about that the better!
The most exciting episode from the last couple of days concerned our beer purchase...Kashmir is essentially a dry state, but alchohol is permitted for foreigners and Akshar, our houseboat owner, was happy to purchase for us, so we looked forward to the delivery of a few bottles of cold Kingfisher for sundowners on our boat roof terrace. He returned empty-handed, however, reporting that he had bought 2 cases (24 bottles) although the limit was 6 bottles per foreigner...so the police had stopped him and seized the lot! Aghast at the loss, we were relieved to learn that we would be able to retrieve them easily if we turned up at the police station in person...so we did. Ushered into the office of the senior officer, we sat and waited for him to finish his business before we were
summoned to take seats in front of his desk. We sat there like bold children in the principal's office, awaiting our fate, while he explained the law at length and asked us what we thought he should do. "Give us our beer, you corrupt *@*$#*@**!" was the obvious answer but we played the game and looked terribly remorseful and after an hour of successful negotiations we were all drinking cups of chai together (in proper cups and saucers, of course...) and he was our new best friend, handing over the illicit alcohol, asking for our phone numbers, and telling us to call in for tea and a chat the next day! Well, Steve, how does that compare to the way the Met do business?!!