Cash Me In Kashmir Feeling Murree As Ever!

Cash Me In Kashmir Feeling Murree As Ever!

 

For our last day in Pakistan, we decided to head up into Kashmir for Imran’s (our friend and guide who has been showing us around the past week in Pakistan) hometown and the resort village of Murree

 

 

Starting with a drive from the Rawalpindi/Islamabad area at noon, we reached Kashmir at around 2pm. You’ll know you’re in Kashmir once you see all the military posts and artillery off the side of the road.

 

 

Once we got out into the center of Murree, it was like a literal breath of fresh air 2291m (7500ft) above sea level.

 

 

This area is completely closed off to traffic, so this pedestrian-only environment was a welcome tonic after a week of constant driving through the urban sprawls of Islamabad and Lahore.

 

 

After we passed the town’s center, we walked along the hills and took in the off juxtaposition of heavy military presence among otherwise a serene natural backdrop.

 

 

You can take a cable car/ski lift here to other parts of Murree:

 

 

After walking nearly the entire length of the Murree area, we sat down for tea and small bites with Imran’s first cousin Tahir and his friend.

 

 

Afterwards we hailed a trolley to take us back to the village center.

 

 

From there we walked over 5 minutes to Tahir’s house.

 

 

After treated to more tea and a small lunch, we debated over politics and religion which to some surprise, didn’t turn out to be very contentious at all (one of us proclaimed her atheism – eeek – which some of us thought would rattle folks a bit).

 

 

We were then invited up to Tahir’s rooftop for gorgeous panoramic reviews of the Kashmiri valleys:

 

 

And to finish off our evening, Tahir gleefully read fortunes from our palms to pretty accurate findings.

 

 

By 8pm we began to head back to Islamabad.

 

 

And right before leaving, we helped Evan haggle down some pashmina shawls to take home.

 

 

After settling back at Jungle Barracks, we then packed our stuff and had a leisurely dinner before I headed to Ali’s sister’s house for some last minute shisha and post-wedding gossip with the newlyweds (photos would get some people in trouble)! And after a lovely hour with them, we headed back to Jungle Barracks, drove off to the airport, then drove back to pick up my backpack that I had left behind in my room (ugh rookie mistakes still!), and still made it in time for my 6:30am flight out!

 

 

Istanbul

With 85,000 United Airlines miles, I was able to snag a Turkish Airlines Business Class flight out at 6:25am for Istanbul where I got in a few hours of sleep (I already have reviewed the Turkish Airlines business class product in another post).

And right before Turkish Airlines moves all their flights to their new international airport next month, I had one last chance to experience one of my favorite business class lounges in the world, which I reviewed more in depth last June. You can now feel the evident wear and tear in a lounge ready to be abandoned within the month.

 

 

Amsterdam

From there I boarded an afternoon flight out to Amsterdam where I reunited with 2 longtime friends and monsooners (at this point I can’t count how many run-ins around the world I’ve had with them), Anthony and Rik, as well as Selma, whom we befriended 2 summers ago in Kosovo

 

 

And just to make it complete with yet another monsoon serendipity: A random message on one of my Instagram stories last week would lead to someone I met 3 years ago at an ECAASU conference, Yan, to join our group in Amsterdam as she also just so happens to be in the area! In fact it would be her random message that steered me to pick Amsterdam as my layover in the first place. Don’t say I don’t follow the signs…

 

 

After a night out with outdoor drinks at Hannekes Boom and shisha at Wonder Bar Two, I turned in at Anthony’s place for a few hours of sleep before heading back out again early morning for my 9:25am flight back home to Newark Airport on the United Polaris Class 2-1-2 configuration.

Last time I took this flight a year ago, I flew out on its cramped 2-1-2 configuration on the aisle seat. What a difference moving one seat over to the middle column could make. So much more comfortable.

 

 

Although I’ve been away for a week, Ali’s gracious invitation to his wedding after a chance run-in 5 years ago made me feel it was more than just another week away, but rather a years-long course towards destiny.

Serendipities rarely have a profoundly lasting effect when you stretch them over a long enough period of time, but this one definitely did.

 

 

 

- At time of posting in Murree, Pakistan, it was 7 °C - Humidity: 70% | Wind Speed: 10km/hr | Cloud Cover: overcast

 

“The Most Beautiful Drive In The World”

“The Most Beautiful Drive In The World”

 

I guess not everything is that peachy in the region at the moment. At least Pakistan isn’t blaming India.

Before I write about Kashmir’s Ladakh region, I have to pull the same stunt when I wrote about Varanasi and use the same video that I did then to show you what inspired me to come here in the first place. The scene where Benjamin Button/Brad Pitt rides a motorcycle along the ridge of a hill was filmed in Ladakh (0:39-043).

 

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Yes, the regions of Jammu & Kashmir used to be described by Bill Clinton as “one of the most dangerous places in the world” back in 1998. The two countries had just became nuclear (weapons-wise, obviously), and were threatening to launch their ballistic missiles across the Line of Control (the U.N. demarcated line between India and Pakistan). Despite U.N.-mediated ceasefires, violence continued until September 2008, although tensions are still palpable. Nevertheless, you can’t help but feel that all this background context still portrays an inaccurate picture of the instinctive feeling of peace and tranquility you get when you see it for yourself.

Yesterday we took a 17 hour jeep ride from Srinagar to Leh (1,600 rupees), driving along the line of control, saying hi to Pakistan, and passing by some remnants of old (some recently defused, some still active) minefields and bombed out battlefields from violent clashes 10 years ago. I’ll tell you, a former (or still active, depending how you want to see it) war zone has never been so pretty.

 

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A small little riot at an early checkpoint before hitting the road to Leh.

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If you're curious what a glacier looks like...

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One of the towns hard hit by the many border clashes between India and Pakistan

Just past these hills is the official “Line of Control” that separates India and Pakistan:

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The highest point on the road btw Srinagar and Leh just got served at 14,000 feet above sea level.

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It has been the most beautiful scenic drive I’ve ever taken. There’s a reason why this is considered one of the 100 most beautiful places in the world.

 

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- At time of posting in Leh, it was 15 °C - Humidity: 56% | Wind Speed: 10km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear

 

A Wedding In Srinagar, Day 2 Of 2

A Wedding In Srinagar, Day 2 Of 2

 

More scenes from our unplanned gueststay at a Kashmiri wedding in nowhere else but Kashmir.

 

Pre-wedding:

Getting henna done:

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As the groom arrives, the balcony and street are flooded with onlookers.

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The girls are all together off on one side...

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...and the men crowd the walkway.

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The groom arrives...

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...on a horse.

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A room where the feasting takes place, for the men only. The girls only eat at lunchtime (to my friends' dismay later on).

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The groom and Najia's grandfather, whom I call Uncle-ji especially after all that he's done for us in Srinagar.

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After eating, the groom is led to the house of the bride.

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And to end the night, the newlyweds leave by car to the groom’s house.

 

- At time of posting in Srinagar, it was 18 °C - Humidity: 77% | Wind Speed: 1km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy

 

Kashmir Misunderstood

Kashmir Misunderstood

 

“In the last 3 days it seems like we’ve been the only international tourists in Srinagar.”

“That’s because your media always paints the wrong picture of Kashmir.”

He was right. Although Srinagar boasts more security checkpoints than the rest of India, it otherwise presents itself as an idyllic, peaceful city with its fair healthy share of touts and honking rickshaws — just like any other city you’d find in India (but prettier than most). Although some people of Kashmir mostly yearn to become an autonomous (dare I say, independent even) state maintaining a core of peaceful relations with Pakistan, India, and China, they would prefer peace over aggressive secession. And for others, it’s all about putting food on the table, politics be damned.

Unfortunately, Western media only reports India and Pakistani border clashes in Kashmir. They only report on violence, conflict, and the idea that bombs go off every couple of hours. Even friends from back home, including Indian Americans, warned me about coming here. I got an e-mail from someone who was already in India (and whom I’ll possibly be meeting up with in Jodhpur in a week), who wrote: “Kashmir seems a little too unsafe for me to go to. Let’s meet later.”

If only we could rise above misconceptions presented to us by complete strangers and actually take a willing first step into the unknown and figure it out for ourselves. So let’s get to the point: Kashmir is safe. And beautiful. Make it one of your top destinations if you ever find yourself in India during the summer. It’s that simple.

 

- At time of posting in Srinagar, it was 19 °C - Humidity: 70% | Wind Speed: 2km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy

 

A Wedding In Srinagar: Day 1 Of 2

A Wedding In Srinagar: Day 1 Of 2

Najia’s Classmate Calvin Sun will arrive in Srinagar soon.
Arrives in Srinagar 1st or 2nd July to attend Neelu’s wedding.
He will call your Mom/Dad. Give him a place to stay and feed him to fatten him with wazwan.
– Najia’s uncle in an email CC’ed to me

As mentioned yesterday, Najia Dar is my good friend from medical school. I remember when we first met on the first day of orientation 9 months ago, talking about Kashmir as one of my top travel destinations. I remember when Najia told me she had family there and that quipped how I should stay with them whenever I find myself there. And I remember thinking: “Hah, me in Kashmir? That’ll be the day.”

Less than 9 months later, I’m here, hanging out with her entire extended family in Kashmir (and attending her cousin’s wedding no less!) and staying at their place under the care of their incredible hospitality. I had completely rearranged my itinerary to get here: Dharamsala would be moved, and a day in Jaisalmer would be cut, and the change would be worth it. Insh’allah!

 

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Exploiting baby pictures of Najia!

 

After being picked up from the Butterfly houseboat, we were received like family by the Dars. We were first sent off to tour a school of which one of Najia’s uncles is campus director. 

We came upon an amazing educational institution where students from 2 to 20 years old take practical vocational classes such as pharmacology, dentistry, and physiology. Seeing over 10,000 books in their 2 libraries (2!) we were overwhelmed with the quality of education that these 1,500 young adults were receiving. Where in the United States will you get classes like physiology before the age of 20?

 

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Nurse training as early as high school!

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Dentistry training in high school!

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Afterwards, we toured a Kashmiri silk factory of which Najia’s uncle is also director. Having owned both Mysore and Banares silk from India, I put Kashmiri silk to the test. Unlike the hardness sheen of Mysore silk, Kashmiri is incredibly soft to the touch. I wanted one for myself immediately after feeling a few. And it was so kind of Najia’s uncle to take some samples back with us.

 

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We then headed to Gulmarg, which is India’s top ski-centre during the winter and golf course during the summer. These are the sweeping hills that people speak of when they describe Kashmir’s unparalleled beauty, from which you can get views of peaks like K2 (the 2nd highest peak in the world).

Gulmarg is about 50-60km outside of Srinagar, and costs 50 rupees to enter. Despite being accosted by multiple touts for pony rides or guides, we went off on our own to take the gondola up to the top (300 rupees). And the views can speak for themselves.

 

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From the gondola!

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We had fans following us all the way!

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They all wanted to take pictures of us.

 

Afterwards, we arrived back at the family home. The rest was mayhem (in a good way).

Here are some scenes from a Kashmiri wedding. Try to compare this with that of a Christian wedding in the U.S.:

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Everything is cooked fresh.

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He takes a quick break by taking my picture.

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Time to EAT!

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I guess this is the nap room.

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No wedding is complete in India without girls getting henna.

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Stephanie attempts some henna on herself, by herself. Not bad for her first time.

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I spent the last 24 hours in the incredible hospitality of the Dar family.

 

- At time of posting in Srinagar, it was 18 °C - Humidity: 71% | Wind Speed: 8km/hr | Cloud Cover: cloudy

 

Kya India?! 24 hr. Car Rides, Scams, And Kashmir

Kya India?! 24 hr. Car Rides, Scams, And Kashmir

 

The last 36 hours have been no less than a harrowing series of events and run-ins. For our last hours in Kathmandu, I got to head over to the suburbs of Chisablani to meet with a family that hosted my cousin when he was in Nepal last year. 

This was the same Sherpa family who helped Sir Edmund Hilary and other famous climbers summit Mount Everest. They have a fantastic trekking agency: USSherpa.com, which I recommend for anyone who’s interested in an unforgettable Nepalese trekking experience with one of the most reputable Sherpa families in the country.

 

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After having tea and sharing stories, we then met with Stephanie’s friend (the one whom she ran into earlier in Kathmandu), Max Friedman, for dinner. Max also brought over a few Stanford Law friends who were studying abroad with him in Nepal. 

All I can say is that after getting to know Max a little better and hearing of his travel stories, I may have found my brother in traveling style and preferences: Fast, with a good balance of touristy and off the beaten path.

 

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The next morning we took an early flight direct to Delhi, India. Last summer, I wrote “oh India, how I missed you so.” And this year, the feeling is now “Oh India, how I feel right at home again.”

 

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Land of Limca, Slice, Mazaa, and Frootis. Land of TATAs, deconstructed lemon sodas, and unlimited thalis. Land where everything random seems to happen for a reason.

 

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On that last note, I had been worried that I would be disappointed this summer given last year’s series of seemingly wildly unrepeatable serendipities. But even before the plane took off for Delhi, I overheard American accents. That’s when I walked up to 2 girls from U.C. Berkeley and found out that they had no set itinerary for their 3 weeks in India. 

Less than 22 hours later they’re sitting with us in a 20 hour car ride to Srinagar, heading to a Kashmiri wedding. WHAT?!A day before leaving for India, one of my good friends from medical school, Najia, told me she’d liked for me to attend her cousin’s wedding in Srinagar. Since the wedding would be a day earlier than I had planned to arrive, I rearranged my itinerary so that I could make it. After all:

  1. How can I turn down a friend’s request to attend her cousin’s wedding in her place?
  2. How can I turn down my first Indian wedding…in India…in KASHMIR?!

Once in Delhi and with our new friends from California, we took the new airport express train to Connaught Place, and then took a rickshaw to the Interstate Bus Depot. This is when things got iffy; the rickshaws instead took us to a supposed “Delhi Tourism Information Center” and I immediately got suspicious. But seeing so many tourists inside who felt confident about their purchases, made me reconsider my suspicions. 

I got to talk to the representatives there and we were presented with 3 options to Kashmir:

  1. 24 hour bus to Srinagar (cheapest at $48 USD, but the least reliable since the arrival times could have us arrive after the wedding)
  2. 1 hour morning flight to Srinagar (most expensive at $225 USD, but the most reliable and comfortable)
  3. 24 hour private car ride to Srinagar (in the middle at $98 USD, as well as being most flexible with our schedule and being reliable enough).

Since I knew that options #1 and #2 were true from prior research, I thought option #3 would also be legit. And since our priority was to make it to the wedding in time, we went with option 3. This also gave us enough time to explore Delhi and meet up with my other friends in medical school for dinner. But to top it off, we were offered a free private driver to take us around wherever we wanted to go in Delhi for the day. Sweetness? I suppose. 

So I took the girls to Jama Masjid:

 

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The Jama Masjid just got served.

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and at their request, shopped for silwar kameez in Chandni Chowk: 

 

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…and a drive along Rajput to see India Gate. Afterwards, we had dinner at the ever popular Saravana Bhavan, where we met with my other medical school friends Ankur, Andrei, and Dan. 

The last time we saw each other was 2.5 weeks ago when we were celebrating the end of our first year of medical school in NYC. 2.5 weeks later, “here we are, on the other side of the world in Delhi!”

 

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After a filling South Indian, dosa-laden dinner, we began our grueling 24 hour car ride to Kashmir, which as some of you may have heard, is still an officially active war zone. And on the way, we saw much evidence of that the moment we entered Jammu:

 

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Countless military checkpoints, military trucks armed with munitions and rockets, camoflauged “school buses” carrying children with soldiers, and nonstop questions of “where are you going?” Despite intense security, everything else felt perfectly safe. Seriously. Our media blows Kashmir way out of proportions.

 

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Jammu checkpoint

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And after 20 hours, we started to get a little restless. But this is what you pay for the price of arriving upon what is considered the most beautiful natural scenery in India.

 

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This summarizes the theme of our 24 hr. car ride.

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Driving through the Green Tunnel

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Pampore Road, where the world's best saffron grows.

 

Once we arrived at the houseboats, we found out that the company that “booked” it for us had been lying all along: they never booked our houseboats in the first place. Although the car drive was a legit purchase, they tried to add on our houseboat bookings as a way to sap extra money from us. However, luckily we had been able to bargain down these houseboat “deals” to $11 USD a night for 2 nights (from an original price of $40 USD a night), which confirmed my suspicions of how they had seemed so annoyed in the first place when we were being so stubborn against booking the boats. Suspicions confirmed. 

Anyways, the damage has been done and we learned our lessons:

  1. Don’t trust those rickshaw drivers to take you ANYWHERE but your intended destination.
  2. Don’t trust any supposed “Delhi Tourism Center” posing as the real thing except, of course, the real thing at Connaught Place on Janpath Rd.
  3. Don’t prebook any Srinagar houseboats while in Delhi until you get to Srinagar.
  4. The “Butterfly Group” of houseboats on Srinagar’s Nagin Lake, which housed us after this whole fiasco, are true lifesavers. Sympathizing with what happened to us, they’ve offered us everything: an amazing place to stay (it reminded me of the time we got put up in a palace last summer in Yogyakarta), homecooked food, music, tea, valuable advice on what to do to get our money back, and a network of connections to make sure this doesn’t happen to us again. 

 

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Inside one of our rooms at the Butterfly Houseboat

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Even though we were scammed maybe $10-$20 of our money, it’s the principle of how people can lie to your face. 

But as the people at “Butterfly Group” told me: “3 times in India, Calvin? It doesn’t matter; you really don’t know India until you’ve been ripped off!” This is true.

 

- At time of posting in Srinagar, it was 30 °C - Humidity: 50% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy