A writer, journalist, and events producer for the British Library, Bee Rowlatt lived in India from 2015 to 2018 and is a regular on the panels of the Jaipur Literature Festival. Within UK’s sealed borders, she and her family often leaned on their travel memories of India for comfort. By Bee Rowlatt
Keeping the family distracted in lockdown had its challenges. Along with watching box sets and arguing, a favourite pass-time was the “if you could travel anywhere” conversation. Obviously, it’s always India (we lived there the formative years of our kids’ lives) but where? Which would be the dream destination, once travel possibilities began to reopen? We debated the merits of Jaipur’s sun-lit walls, Tamil Nadu’s rolling coasts, the deodar pines of Mussoorie, beach breakfasts in Goa.
In my dreams I (Bee Rowlatt) revisit my old neighbourhood in New Delhi. If I could go anywhere right now, I would walk past the flower stall, under the amaltas, neem and silk cotton trees, via the paratha-wallah on my way to the Delhi Ridge Forest. I’d come back via the gardens behind the Nehru Planetarium to spot peacocks roosting. And I would give just about anything to see the friends I miss with all my heart.
But this is a travel piece and I have to choose a tourist destination. Perhaps the most unforgettable of all, and the most frequent winner in our lockdown squabbles, is Kashmir. Kashmir was a love-at-first-sight thing. Our first foray began in neighbouring Ladakh, where we joined families sledging in the snow, and rode mountain bikes down from Khardung La, the world’s highest motorable pass. How could the next part of our trip possibly measure up?
But it did. Heading over the breathtaking peaks of Zoji La , we drove on mountain-clinging roads that peered down the dizzying drop. It was like leaning out of the open door of an aeroplane in flight. Layer by layer the most extraordinary landscape opened before our eyes. As we rolled down into the valley, the inspiration for the legend of Shangri-La, our love affair with Kashmir began.
We stayed in Rah Villas Sonamarg in the meadow of gold, named for the yellow crocuses that cover the valley in spring. Its owner, Nazir Rah, has just opened the stunning new hotel, Rah Bagh Srinagar, that we are all still waiting to visit. Each day was filled with hiking, pony riding, bonfires, and river dips. Everywhere we went, people talked to us, shared with us, joked with our children, and taught us Kashmiri words.
Kashmir gets under your skin, and after that first trip, we went back for repeat visits, summer hikes in Sonamarg, and winter skiing in Gulmarg. We were addicted to kahwa, and I became obsessed with the genius of the kangri—a clay pot filled with hot embers and carried under a big woollen robe called phiran. It’s your very own personal heating system.
Perhaps the most memorable place we stayed was Butt’s Clermont Houseboats, on Dal Lake. The boats are lined with carved cedarwood and draped with elegant crewel embroidery. The windows on one side look into a field of towering pink hollyhocks, and on the other, straight onto the peaceful lake waters to the snowy peaks beyond.
Staying in Butt’s Clermont Houseboats is like visiting the home of a venerable relative. Mr Butt took over from his father, and the pride he takes in the establishment is well deserved. The guestbook lists decades of famous visitors from all walks of life, all equally touched by the historic sense of the place. When he brought over a large antique dish loaded with red and yellow cherries, it felt like we were on holiday in an oil painting.
My passion for Indian trees went into overdrive at the sight of the towering chinar trees, arching way above us. We woke early to ride in a shikara to the floating vegetable market. We revelled in the mind- bending symmetry of the nearby Mughal Garden. And on, and on. The image of my kids playing on the boat with a fishing rod is my laptop screen saver, and it is the memory that kept me going through many days of lockdown frustration.
I often think about the people we met. Tourists have a duty to look beyond the shimmering surfaces and into the lives of local people. For Kashmiris, pandemic isolation followed on the heels of lengthy internet blackouts. The Kashmiri poet Naseem Shafaie has said of the region’s conflict, “Something has to be done to make the Valley green again.”
Travelling to this heart-stoppingly beautiful part of the world and supporting its local economy is just a start.
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Editor’s Note: Keeping the current situation of the pandemic in mind, T+L India recommends every reader to stay safe, and take all government-regulated precautions in case travel at this time is absolutely necessary. Please follow our stories on COVID-19 for all the latest travel guidelines.