The last thing I expected was Guantanamera. I expected the azaan to ring out clearly over the strangely hushed and misspelled Cafea Arabica, but not Celia Cruz. Indeed La Guarachera de Cuba would have been banned here just ten years ago, her beats too haram in that time of curfews. The café, rumored to be one of the places-to-be-seen in Srinagar, is itself a window into this battered and evolving region. At the table to my right sat two young men, their thick black hair sculpted neat and shiny several inches high as if they were waiting for a lady friend or important meeting. They were there to impress, I’m sure of it, as no other logic could possibly explain why they both wore tight-fitting jeans and brand name jackets not nearly warm enough to protect from the toothed cold that latches on to and does not let go of all visitors and residents of the Valley. Behind the pair sat a time-warped image of the same youth, of a Kashmir still steeped in tradition avoiding the onslaught of Western dress that has stolen the hearts of many young men with the same haste as the militants of a decade past. Wrinkled prematurely by war and work, this second pair of men, age unknowable—perhaps late thirties, perhaps sixties—trapped in what little body heat they could under their taupe pherans. The pheran is essentially a floor-length tunic and it remains the formless and austere uniform of the Valley as it has been for generations of winters. The older men sipped tea, while the younger pair sipped lattes. A 8.5” by 11” poster of the movie 50 First Dates was hanging behind my head. It was all a bit strange, a mish-mash of the hip, the hipster, the slightly out-of-date, and the traditional Kashmiri.
Perhaps my juxtaposition is too much a generalization, as many among the youngest generations here still pledge allegiance to tradition, to the pheran and kahwa chai—a green tea mixed with saffron and shaved almonds, brilliantly yellow in color but mild in taste, said to alleviate both the shivers and a sore throat. Like many traditions, the pheran and kahwa chai have been born from necessity and remain the most suitable ways to survive the Kashmiri winter. No amount of my imported and reputable NorthFace gear seems to keep me as warm enough, or as warm as those under the draped pheran. In those mid-winter weeks of exceptional cold—those weeks when a windless chill accompanied by a thin mist works its way to the deepest parts of your body and keeps you shivering so continuously that it becomes as unconscious as breathing—men in Srinagar carry their kangri with them at all times, often held against their abdomen with arms tucked into their sleeves, giving them a bit of a pregnant and bulky appearance. The kangri is a wicker basket, simple and plain in appearance about the size of candlepin bowling ball, filled with hot embers that sit in an iron bowl that heats up the sides of the basket and provides such soothing but carcinogenic warmth against your hands and your upper body. Those with the pheran keep it tucked away under their potato-sack outfit, hiding a smoky personal oven that helps them forget that they could otherwise not feel their fingers at all; those without a pheran just cradle the kangri gently between their hands, at times in addition to gloves, as if cautiously carrying a treasured present as they walk down old city alleys.
“It has not been this cold for twenty years,” the manager of the guesthouse told me as I waddled up the creaky stairs, bundled in layers upon layers of ineffective synthetic materials, still without my tweed pheran that I later bought from Mr. Salama’s tailor shop on Polo View Rd. “It just started a few days ago after the snow, and even our diesel is frozen now.” Even he, a resident of Kashmir, seemed surprised. Seeing that I was smiling amused but slightly concerned, he went on “But Mister Mike, the hot water will work fine…unless the pipes have frozen, too.” He smiled and chuckled a bit, his breath condensing as it left his mouth. It was almost comical engaging in the subsequent conversation, him sitting at the reception desk taking calls in his winter parka and ski gloves, and me still shivering uncontrollably wondering when, if ever, I would feel my nose again or breathe without an accompanying shiver. We debated briefly how much time I should give myself to make it to the airport safely before my flight on the day of my check out, as I had heard the exit process was a bit overwhelming. My friend Justine described the experience as “a test in human restraint,” though I initially thought her to be exaggerating. Four pat-downs, six baggage x-rays, and one surprise “no hand baggage” rule later, I did eventually make it out of Srinagar, though just a few hours before another devastating snowfall which has left the region again without electricity, frozen in the world of clouds.
Just to see the Srinagar airport is worth the price of a ticket from Delhi, as it is one of the only remaining civilian airports in the world that operates in an active military base. Moreover, the landing process is nothing short of epic, as the plane descends quickly between summits snowier and more jagged than anything you have ever seen. The runway is lined with cammo-colored bunkers and radio towers, with satellite dishes and a few humvees surrounding the terminal area. All foreigners are required to register upon arrival in what is a painless but formal procedure, and soldiers lurk in virtually every corner of the arrivals and departures hall, testament to the fragility and recent nightmares of the region that even through 2010 has been a tinderbox with materials supplied by competing licit and illicit interests, all of which have brought violence to what was once India’s top tourist destination.
Right as you exit the airport, behind a cluster of helmeted soldiers and imprisoned by messy heap of rusted barbed wires and icicles, a green sign reads “Welcome to Paradise on Earth.” The sign is perhaps the most impressive and captivating scene in all of Srinagar. An occupied paradise, a paradise lost (thanks Milton) in many ways, the Valley’s slogan has been mocked so badly by war. The war, though, has not changed the stunning stage where these many recent and bloody battles have taken place. Srinagar continues, however cold or traumatized, to sit in what has justifiably been called a paradise on earth, in a Valley carved smoothly out of the highest mountains in the world and blessed with fruit and nut trees that have for hundreds of years supplied food and poetry for the people of the plains below the Himalayas.
The Mughal Emperors were entirely in love with this paradise, as the gardens and waterfalls they built on the shores of Dal Lake remain among the top sites to see in Srinagar. Blanketed in snow this time of year, the gardens are just a ghost of their summer beauty, when flowers and fountains trickle to the shore lined with multi-colored shikaras that shuttle tourists and families to and from their houseboats and the docks closer to old town. Old town Srinagar boasts architecture that can make your camera shutter seize, with centuries-old carved wood houses reinforced with mud bricks to provide an earthquake resistant charm and unmistakably Central Asian splendor. Sullied by the stains of war and weather, the city can seem a bit run-down in winter, and much of the infrastructure has not changed for years due to overinvestment in war and underinvestment in public works. The shortcomings of modern Srinagar hardly distract from its ancient personality, though.
In the US it is not uncommon to find family portraits with everyone decked out in Old Western attire—Dad in a cowboy hat, with antique rifle in hand and a smug look across his face, and Mom in a puffy pastel dress and laced wide-brim hat, chuckling to herself and nearly unable to breathe in a recycled corset. I remember taking such a photo with my family when I was about six years old, and I clearly recall taking it quite seriously, though not nearly as much as my brother whose absolutely menacing look remains the subject of conversation when we look at that sepia portrait that still hangs in our living room. These memories flooded back and took my by surprise as I observed the portrait-photographers in the Mughal Gardens, standing behind a rack full of Kashmiri wedding costumes and beside a pile of fluorescent turbans and embroidered skull caps. Knowing that I would be coerced into slipping on one of the regal-looking robes for an absurd photo shoot in the snow, I tried to remember how I felt sixteen years ago in Colorado. Vasundhara, my friend and one of my hosts here in Srinagar, insisted that I get a few photos taken, and I obliged, hoping that the printouts would at least provide some comic visuals for the story I would inevitably tell back home. Suited in a purple and gold embroidered pheran, I look ridiculous in the photos, though the snowy mountains in the background do give a perfect sense of place to memento.
While surely the moniker “paradise on earth” was inspired by the natural surroundings of the Kashmir Valley, I would venture to guess that the name stems also from the fact that Kashmiris are said to be among the continent’s most beautiful. “All of the Kashmiri girls I know have hair that feels like silk,” one friend told me, though for the visitor to Srinagar today, the hair of local women remains a veiled mystery, unknowable in this era of a more conservative Islam. “They’re all gorgeous,” another friend added. Based on the few women I met, even the harshest skeptic would likely be swayed. That said, the beauty of the Valley’s women remains a sensitive issue, as in the era of conflict many of the region’s young girls fell victim to brutal attacks. Though mostly hidden and tucked inside their pherans, Kashmir’s men share the reputation of their women, boasting blue-gray eyes that immediately capture attention. It is little wonder, then, why Europeans were long enamored by the Valley and its people, and why it, for many years, remained an escape for foreign officials stationed in the steamy plains towards Delhi.
The “Venice of the Orient” is a second name lavishly bestowed on Srinagar, and even in wintertime brilliantly painted shikaras float in all of the muddied, icy canals surrounding Dal and Nagin Lakes. Houseboats, now sad-looking trimmed with icicles, still receive some tourists in the depths of winter, be they journalists or the winter-sport elite who frequently heli-ski down the Himalayan slopes nearby and through villages that have rarely, if ever, have met a Westerner. After more than two decades of conflict, tourism is indeed increasing, and many think Kashmir is slowly reemerging from its hibernation to again become one of the subcontinent’s most visited places. Like Helen of Troy, Kashmir has been a story whose veracity is uncertain but whose beauty has given birth to myth and to conflict. It is easy to romanticize a place where conflict and beauty coexist, and I’m afraid I have done just that, but I still consider myself lucky for having been able to just sample what is one of the most culturally rich and politically complicated places on earth. Two days was but a harsh introduction that left me entirely captivated by the sheer extent of the unexpected.