By Oliver Uhrig
A trip to beautiful Kashmir, so it is said, is incomplete without the visit to one of Srinagar’s houseboats. When I came to the Valley for the first time, 20 years ago, I had no idea, that this journey was about to change my life.
After a lengthy journey I was greeted at the Tourist Reception Centre by a man who had turned up together with a driver and another boy, the latter transferring my luggage into the waiting cab. The man’s name was Majid and he was to be my host for the coming days. A couple of minutes later, we reached a Ghat near Nehru Park where a Shikara (water taxi) waited, ready to take me to a new experience of luxury and hospitality. “Relax,” Majid encouraged me, while we were setting out to cross the lake. “You are almost at home. Everything is going to be fine.” And that was just what I felt, being smoothly taken across the water, while the noise of the city slowly faded in the distance.
Everything was alright, and I could actually feel the stress of a long journey reducing with every stroke of the boatman’s paddle.
We reached our destination, situated across the open lake behind Nehru Park. With a big smile he jumped ashore and invited me with a “Welcome sir,” to step ashore as well. My first impression, while being shown around the boat was: “Wow, is all that true?” There was a distinct aroma of deodar wood in the air; the floor being completely covered with oriental carpets. “This is your living room,” Majid explained on entering a room big enough to play soccer in. A crystal cantilever was hanging from the ceiling of the room; the wall was decorated with beautiful Mughal-style paintings. “Just feel like at home, we are at your service”, he added. I thought about throwing myself onto a big sofa, which looked as if it belonged to the Queen of England, but Majid had different plans. “Let’s first have a look at the other rooms and your veranda,” he insisted.
He showed me the dining room, which was located behind the living room. A huge refrigerator stood in one corner to ensure that guests are always provided with cold juices and mineral water. A richly decorated table stood at the centre of the room, inviting the weary traveller to come sit, dine and wine. “The boy here will see that everything is done according to your choice. Come and see your rooms,” Majid suggested. Rooms? How many rooms? I had requested for one room. Soon I understood why he had used the plural form. In the sleeping room I saw a king size bed, flanked by two small tables. Sofa chairs where standing in the corners and everything was made out of wood. Floral carvings covered every single inch of furniture and ceiling – truly a king’s worthy. A little dressing room was situated between the sleeping room and the bath, the latter being tiled nicely and with a bathtub, right besides the window so that I could lie in warm water while peeping out into nature. At that point I wondered how much an accommodation like this would probably cost in any continental hotel. I skipped the thought.
Later we sat on the veranda, at the front of the boat, where tea was served; Kehwa, with saffron and almonds. Majid told me about his family, about the long tradition of the houseboats, about the former guests – ambassadors, British officers. Sitting here and hearing all that was like history becoming alive. He enquired about my requirements, during my stay. My idea was to take the boat as a base from where to explore other places in the Valley. It turned out to be a good idea. Each morning saw me enjoying a sound breakfast, before visiting Pahalgam, the Mughal Gardens and the shrines of the Valley.
Everything was perfectly arranged by my host, from taxis to lunch packets. In the evenings I would sit on the veranda or in the little garden, enjoying a truly heavenly tea and listen to the stories of Majid, before celebrating dinner in the boat’s mess. The last morning saw me a little bit sad, because it was time to leave. My taxi was waiting, my onward ticket was arranged. Finally, when I got on my bus to Jammu, I felt a great thankfulness; thankful for having been able to experience a hospitality and paradise-like landscape, that is hard to match.
It is true what people say: A visit to the Kashmir Valley is incomplete without having stayed on a houseboat. And for me? I have been returning to the Valley approximately 15 times, since my first visit; a visit that changed my life a bit.
(Oliver Uhrig is a book author and freelance journalist. He works for several dailies and magazines. The piece has been exclusively written for Discover Kashmir)