River Wissey Lovell Fuller

An invitation to a wedding

October 2009

Ann tells us about her wonderful trip to Kashmir to attend a wedding

An invite to a wedding...in Kashmir! ...of course I am going! ... But I will need a map to see where it is!

I knew I would recognise my first guide...a mop of black hair and an ear to ear grin... but where was he? Then 'Hello Anne' calls a lad with very short hair, he was in summer mode, just to fool me! Delhi first stop, for one night, after buttered naan and curried vegetables I took a rickshaw into a very hot city just to look. Then invited to Nadir's home for a special chicken meal with baked aubergines, beans and rice. Yoghurt cooled the curry down. Followed by their speciality 'Kashmiri' tea. As I sat around a table cloth on the floor, eating with my right hand, I felt so honoured to have been asked. Here families always eat together and talk. Families comprise of parents, unmarried daughters, sons, their wives and their children, there was also an office lad who showed me scars of a very expensive broken leg, an older mountain guide, who did the cooking and a lad who helped and Rita whom I met again later.

After a quick breakfast of orange juice and toast with very red jam I was escorted onto a plane for Kashmir, and served another chicken meal followed by rice pudding, then to Srinagar and the Deluxe house boat !!! "Colonial" is the best description. Large lounge with settees and coffee tables, large dining room with carved furniture and my room had two double beds and was ensuite. Second bedroom had three beds etc. The windows were insect proof mesh, with shutters for winter. My 'boy' brought me biscuits, a pot of Kashmir tea and a bone china cup and saucer. I sat on the veranda looking at the fields of lotus flowers and the birds...like living in a nature reserve!!!

I visited the kitchen (a tin hut with gas and electric hotplates, and very clean) to see how Kashmiri tea is made. Into a saucepan of cold water put cinnamon sticks, cardamom seeds, a few strands of saffron and a pinch of Aswan tea, bring to the boil and serve with sugar. If you are out that way you should try it !!!

Then went on a long walk with a guide, whom I could not shake off, and listened to his sob story (he will not be getting a tip!) I looked at the other house boats, floating shops (which all sell different things), from household, to fruit and veg. to clothes and a moored post office.

Back for tea, which my 'boy' had prepared, vegetable soup, curried chicken (I will soon start clucking) cauliflower in sauce and rice, followed by ground rice with assorted dried fruit and nuts. As I sat out on my balcony a passing Indian offered to try to get my camera mended and lent me another for a few days. I was given a lotus flower, which was put in a vase on my dressing table. Another salesman tried to sell me flowers and another jewellery. All very interesting.

Breakfast on the boat, and everywhere else was always cornflakes, with hot milk and sugar, toast and eggs boiled, fried, scrambled or omelettes. Coffee was 'do it yourself' with a jar of Nescafe, hot water and hot milk.

I now needed a shikara (a unique small covered canoe) to reach the bank, and my guide and driver for the day. My mobile had no signal, and as my boy's did not work, it had fallen into the lake, we changed sim cards and my boat was summoned. I was escorted round gardens and more gardens, the views over the lake and mountains spectacular, the roses perfumed but the best part was numerous small children, boys naked, splashing in spring water.(I tasted some from someone's cup and it was good) The guide said he would mind my shoes, and I joined them. Then the water was deeper, and the weather hot, but I said to guide if he were thinking he would mind all my clothes, forget it! He had a good English sense of humour! We stopped for a local cup of tea (this time milk, sugar and tea brought to the boil) spicy tomato crisps and two slices of bread put together, battered and fried. (very cheap and tasteless, but filling).

Back to the boat for meal of tomato soup and croutons/fried bread, grilled chicken, tomatoes, rice, potatoes and carrots, followed by banana custard. Thought I would go for a swim, but as the pool had no steps either into or out of the water, I changed my mind.

I went to the main post office to post my cards, negotiated the rolls of razor wire, the armed soldiers and was taken into a tent (as I am female) and frisked! (She kept my camera till I came out) Then I was allowed in.

A drive to Gulmarg, through rice and wheat fields, with mountains all around. Lunched on mushroom soup, bread and mutton meat balls. I walked 1km up hill to the gondola station, but there was a strike, so no ride to 4,000m, but instead, a 2 hour horse ride over fields full of flowers. (tall daisies, forget-me-nots, and yellow bells). Driving down the mountains there was hay drying on trees and 1ft high bee hives. We stopped at a mosque where there were rooms to stay, food shops and communal cooking and dining facilities. One family brought a sheep, who didn't realise he would not be returning! We stopped off at a cafe for crisps and apple Fanta with ice cream on top! We met another friend of the driver's who gave us water and tea to celebrate a land deal. I saw buses full to the top and sides with people. They never said no more room on top! The day finished with a lamb casserole, rice and onions and, as yesterday I said I liked it, banana custard. I have now hired a camera (repairing mine has them beaten) and been lent a battery charger.

Today off to the Lidder valley and Phalagam, stopping on the way to see fields full of saffron, (a little like a crocus) but it had all been harvested, so bare land. We stopped to see Kashmiri tea being made with saffron, chopped nuts and sultanas added to mix. Tasted good. and I bought ingredients to take home. Stone masons were chipping rocks by hand (no thoughts of damaging their joints, as no work, no food and no future.) Stopped to look at thousands of cricket bats being made. Labels for all the top makes. Lunch of stewed cheese and naan followed by another horse ride, (the rain had stopped), up steep narrow mountain tracks. I had to tell myself that the horse had survived 15 years doing this, and it would be unfortunate if today were the day for slipping over the edge.

I noticed the buildings had thick walls and tin roofs (the snow would slide off easily) as I had my first cup of milky tea with a spoonful of salt added, a bit of a shock! Also sweet seeded bread rolls. There were many children here on school outings. I did not see a bear, only deer. We stopped at a trout farm/temple as the road wound its way back. Boat at 9pm, but my boy still cooked me tea, another portion of cheese curry with green beans, rice etc and banana custard again!

Up early to watch birds from my veranda and after breakfast bought cakes and sweets for my hosts at the wedding. I arrived in time to see the 37 sheep and 100 chickens being prepared in the traditional way, and cooked outside, in very large pots. Unseen by me, the bride was asked by an official and family if she wanted to marry and she signed the certificate, the same for the groom at his home. Ladies and children were separated from the men for the feast (the groom was doing the same thing 10 miles away). We sat, on carpet, (no chairs) in facing circles in a marquee for the first meal, giblets and minor parts of the animals and birds, 4 shared a plate of rice, onto which 4 portions of a meat course were placed, (no cutlery, only right hands for eating) then more courses.

Later in the day a feast of five courses the last being a large round lamb sausage, known as a full stop. Drink was water from my bottle. I was given a pottery drum and asked to sing something in English!!!! Could only think of "If you are happy and you know it" and, when it came to 'stamp your feet' I knew it was a foolish choice, as every one was sitting cross legged! A professional singer had been hired to lead the singing which continued late into the night.

The bride had her hands, arms and feet painted with henna patterns, and while it dried her friends fed her wedding cake. She spent most of the day being prepared.

The next day, after a family breakfast of sweet tea into which one dunked round flat bead rolls, I watched large amounts of salad being chopped (all the work was done by men) I visited the bride in her room with my gift and was told she had 70 new outfits to take to her new home, but would not take her personal photos etc..

The big feast took place for the ladies in both a marquee and a large room, (about 500 guests) men waited on us and ate later. We were given doggy bags to start with, and then water was brought round to wash our hands. No seats or cutlery, and the bride was conspicuous by her absence. Seven courses this time and salad, once again sharing a plate etc. The doggy bags were full and we washed our hands and the singing started.

The other guests wanted me to take their photos, and asked me questions on life in England. "How did I manage to go to work and keep house with no boy to help?" and my white legs were shown off to almost everyone. Did I mention that when indoors feet were bare? I had a henna tattoo on one hand and was asked what my brown age spots were! If they have them no one can tell. Also what are the moles on my face made of? And can they touch them? I learnt that the reason their hair remains black is they use henna dye, and they do not have freezers or ovens, bread and cakes bought at the bakers, and food fried or boiled.

Later the bride appeared and received her presents of gold and money, (I had given a tea cloth!) we all ate cake, a sponge with creamy icing. At ten pm the groom arrived, with his guests and another feast took place. I went to bed (mattress on the floor in a communal bed room) and to sleep. I could not be roused at two in the morning to see them off (to his family home)

Back to my boat, calling at the slowest internet cafe ever. My boy made me a fried egg sandwich and I asked to borrow the small canoe, for a paddle. I am getting the hang of steering and managed not to run into the police launch. I saw many birds very close up.

Then I took 3 of my hosts (average age 22) out for an evening meal. Sweet corn with salt and lemon at a roadside stop and then a meal by the lakeside. 3 different dishes of vegetarian curry and 13 buttered roti and bottled water. I paid the bill, left a tip, and had change from £3.00!

A northerly circuit today to Yusmarg, to see the meadows of flowers surrounded by mountains. It is so green here compared to summer around Delhi. Flowers, meadows, shepherd's huts (one room for the family and a spare for the sheep) no furniture, just mats on the floor. Kebabs and meatballs for lunch before visiting a shrine, and stopping for a snack of tea and three different sorts of cakes. We went into old Srinagar climbing 101 steep stairs, handing over one passport to allow us all to see the outside of the fort. Then with Rita from Denmark and two French athletes, had supper of mushroom soup, lamb, potatoes rice and many vegetables and dried fruit in semolina. A very interesting evening. I praised the soup and asked how he made it "I open a tin" was the reply.

After I mended my loo, my boy mopped up the water, Rita and I took a boat and tuktuk into town to see the museum, guarded by barbed wire and soldiers, a guide took us round to see very dead stuffed animals and birds of the area. A whole wall of bird's eggs was labelled 'eggs of various sizes'!! We used the floating post office, no guards, just very steep, uneven, wooden steps down from the pavement. The staff chatted and lent Rita glue. Picola for lunch (sliced battered potatoes deep fried and served with tomato sauce dip

Last chance to take out canoe, so paddled around nature reserve for nearly two hours, stopping to buy a drink and have a chat with the locals and saw a large colourful kingfisher.

Delicious crispy chicken in tomato and onion sauce, with rice, potatoes, cauliflower and curd. And, guess what, banana custard. This house boat is 32 years old. Next door's is 100, and it is a listed building, needing government permission for any repairs. I was canoed to a carved walnut wood factory, had I needed furniture, I could have spent loads, I drank their tea and spent very little, and they still canoed me back.

Off up into the Himalayas, first given my mobile back, it now has ring tones to die for! And a present of a 'do it yourself' Kashmiri tea kit. After stopping for tea and cakes we continued the steep winding drive to Sonmarg. Tree clad snow topped peaks either side of the road with some glaciers. Lunch a three tiered tomato and cucumber sandwich (no crusts), and then a long horse ride up into the hills. There should have been snow, but global warming is here as well. Ready for a meal of chicken and sweet corn soup, rice, chipates, chicken, cheese and curd, washed down with mango juice, I then slept on a hard, damp bed with my clothes on, as the rain lashed down. I thought we were camping so four walls, a bed and an en suite were a bonus. Well worth it to be here!!

Two bowls of hot sugared cornflakes and ready for early start, but, the rains have caused a large mud slide over the road (only one road to choose from) so we took the off road route for many miles. The real road was bumpy, very narrow and had a sheer drop on one side. We met many lorries, mostly taking liquid gas (for heating and cooking) to Leh. Passing places had to be found. A recovery truck was hauling bits of a lorry back onto the road. The hills were now bare. Five and a half hours and not yet out of third gear. We lunched at Drass, the second coldest inhabited place on earth. I wore my jumper, today it was hot! Curry stuffed pancakes and omelette. Army check points took car, visa and passport numbers about every hour. There are one million soldiers in Kashmir, all armed. No wonder there is no trouble. Crossed Zojila pass, 3527m. before reaching Kargil, where there were trees at the road side (lots of them apricots).

A good hotel, with two duvets and a fleece on the king size bed. I went into town to buy 10p worth of apricots (as many as could be wrapped in an A4 piece of newspaper). Potatoes, salad, chicken, beans and mixed veg. and no rice followed by stewed apricots for tea.

Next day we learnt that a taxi driver had been shot on the next stretch of road, and taxis in Leh were on strike. No mobiles work here, so found the phone shop, and paid to tell relatives that it was not us. Shopped for a birthday card, could only find Happy New Year! That will do nicely. Were given lunch, a salad sandwich with tomato sauce, and allowed to leave on the longest part of the journey. Big hills, some were deserts, Pakistan just over that one. Fotula Pass, 13,749ft, nearly half as high as Everest, Top gear only once, Glad I was not driving in this stunning scenery. "Mal de mer" so I could only manage potato soup and a few garlic chips. No problem as I was in Leh, capital of Ladak, also known as 'Little Tibet', having crossed some of the Himalayas!

Next morning apricot jam on toast. No imported food here, just local fruit and veg. sold on the pavements by the women who grow it. I looked round shops and stalls, buying a wool shawl and some stones and had a cup of tea with a jeweller. Lunch at the hotel, clear mixed veg. soup, then they opened the windows? The next course was chicken, ginger, hard boiled egg, cauliflower, beans and carrots on a cabbage leaf, served on a hot wooden plate which was covered with rum, and set alight! (or as the waiter said "then we light the bonfire") followed by chopped watermelon and bananas, eaten with a toothpick. Then we were escorted around the markets, which were jewellery and knitwear (made when they are snowed-in). But several traders were from the south returning to their families in the winter. Later we ate Ladies Fingers in batter and chicken again, followed by a whole fried banana in batter.

A guide took us to three local monasteries, all containing many Buddhas. It was hot, dusty and tiring, as they were all perched as near to the heavens as possible, and on several floors, and I lost count of the stairs and uneven steps. The scenery was brilliant. I was ready for garlic bread, tomato pasta with a little cheese, fried potato slices and fruit. I needed antihistamine cream, so found a chemist, who shook her head and said antibiotics! And sold me some for 40p.!! I spoke to a soldier with 15 medals, (guarding a bank), he said he was not brave, just lucky, and it would not be appropriate to take his photo. Some birds, redstart, magpie, pigeon, sparrow, and red legged partridge were in the town. Though we had many eggs to eat, I only saw live chickens at the butchers. Returned for tea on the lawn, and the local lads wanted pictures of me with them on their mobile phones, so I was shot and had my head mounted as a trophy!

Tonight we ate Chinese (China just the other side of mountain) and I drank sea buckthorn juice.

On the way to Thiksey monastery, we passed the house where the Dalai Lama stays, and the King's Palace (dwarfed by a tall red and white radio mast). After a few more Buddhas we had a packed lunch, which included a chocolate wafer, hard not to eat this first, as last two weeks have been too hot for chocolate, sandwiches, egg, banana and a doughnut ring too big even for me to finish. I was pleased that all the untouched food was given to the driver.

Next morning it was Leh airport (used by the army, and they did not have to wait!). There were lots of security checks, I had to roll up my jeans to show scar of metal knee and was about to strip off to show my hip, when the guard became embarrassed and apologised and waved me through! I sat next to a Radio 4 playwright, so a fascinating flight. Back in Delhi, did I want to stay in the cool of my hotel room for the rest of day? No. I used the car and driver to visit Jain Mandir Dada Bari, an 800 year old sanadhi (place of highest state of meditation) and the tallest tower in the city. I was not allowed inside, to climb to the top, as some children had done this and one pushed another and they fell down like a pack of cards. Then to the Humayun tomb, 1570, the first garden tomb, which was the inspiration for the Taj Mahal.

As it was "Sister's Day" the driver was anxious to see his sister, with a small present (he had been given a ribbon bracelet) so I opted for my last meal, including salad and ice cream.

Next morning an interesting talk with an important Briton, who had been assisting India with money to solve their water shortage, while waiting for my plane back home.

Definitely a holiday to remember...how could I forget?

Ann Brown

Copyright remains with independent content providers where specified, including but not limited to Village Pump contributors. All rights reserved.