After a quick one hour flight, I was in Srinagar. MY houseboat father picked us up at the airport and drove us to the beautiful Dal Lake, which we were staying on. One side of the lake is lined with houseboat hotels, some of which, mine included, date back to British occupation. Initially it was fascinating living on this old houseboat with all of the ornate decorations hand carved into the boat. There was a deck overlooking the lake that provided great views with the Himalayas shooting up in the background. However, the more time we spent on the boat, the stranger it became. Our first goal was to get a guidebook so we could figure out the rest of our Indian plans, our houseboat family promised us to get one but never did (remember this). To make matters more difficult, to get off our houseboat, our family had to call a boat to come pick us up and every time we left the boat a family member accompanied us. The other guests on the boat were 2 Belgium friends who were taking an extended vacation in India. They spent a month on the houseboat because they did not want to leave, then they went to Delhi, did not enjoy it, got Delhi belly and were both in a Delhi hospital, not a good place to be, recovered enough to get out of the hospital and came back to the houseboat for 2 more months! I think these poor guys were brainwashed by the houseboat and used to lure in other tourists. 'Look these guys have been here 3 months and love it so much, you should stay here!' The festival in Delhi we were supposedly avoiding was a total joke we found out. The holiday was the end of Ramadan and Ede (or something, I am not 100% sure) but it is a Muslim holiday. Delhi is partially Muslim while Kashmir is ALL Muslim and we were in the place in India where it is celebrated the most. This was my first time being in a Muslim area and 5 times a day I could hear the prayers from the loudspeakers across the lake, I was told my shorts were unacceptable to wear and there was no alcohol to be found anywhere. A very different cultural experience. Our houseboat family had some extreme views that I did not contradict for fear of my safety, including that the Dali Lama is an embarrassment to his religion, some bad things to say about Pakistan and that Bill Clinton ruined their economy. In 2000 President Bill Clinton called the ceasefire line that divides Kashmir "the most dangerous place in the world" and I was about 20 miles away from it. They also told us of a message that Osama Bin Laden put out to the region that if anyone brought him an American, dead or alive, he would pay them $1 million. I thought about turning in Sam for the cash but they would probably just take me too and I have a hunch I could not find him.
The houseboat family was extremely nice and hospitable to us but every conversation would mention sending us on a trip into the Himalayas or other trips around India that we MUST go on. We paid for 6 days on the houseboat but after 2 knew we had to get off it and gave in to buying a trekking trip into the Himalayas for 4 days. We had a cook with us and a guide who would take us into the mountains. The trip was beautiful, seeing very rural North India was an experience but the trip was far from what we bought. Instead of hiking for 4 days into the mountains, we set up a basecamp and would only go on small day trips. We were also told we were going to hike and see the 'biggest lake in the world' I know my geography pretty well and I KNEW it was no the biggest lake in the world but held my tongue when told it, thinking it might be in the top 10 or something, so I was looking forward to seeing it. It was not the biggest in the world, it was not in the top 10 and it is not in the top 100, it was tiny. Our guide was an annoying 20 year old that neither Sam or I could stand but our cook was an interesting man, GREAT cook, cigarette addict and good friend. We bought food supplies for 4 days before the trip and he made some great meals with vegetables, rice, local spices and 2 live chickens we brought along. I even got to kill the 2nd chicken on the 3rd night. I had never killed my own dinner before and it was a twisted satisfying experience. You can probably tell I am not a PETA member.
We returned to the houseboat, ready to leave it and explore other parts of India. Our family said they would have a guidebook waiting for us, which they did not and when we saw one in their bookshelf, they refused us from looking at it and hid it from us. They also charged me $12 to do a few pieces of laundry, probably more than it would have cost in America and about 10 times what I had paid in China. $12 might not sound like much money to some of you and before this trip it was not to me either but $12 can go a very long way in Asia. The day we were supposed to leave the houseboat was Sam's birthday, which he was very secretive and embarrassed about for some reason so I had to check his passport to make sure. I told the houseboat family I would like to have a small party and they were delighted and let us stay an extra day so we could have a small party that night. Sam was totally surprised and I felt great. The part consisted of a cake and small decorations but I am sure it will be a birthday Sam will never forget and he will never have another one like it.
The next day, when we were supposed to leave, the family REALLY tried to sell us a trip around Rajastan, a state in India which we were told to visit. The father in the family explained to us more than 20 times the travel problems with Rajastan is that it is a triangle state and difficult to travel between each city unless one had a personal driver. His proposed tour, which was the budget price with a student discount included a car and driver that would take us around, lodging at all places and about 8 cities in 2 weeks but no food, no entrance fees to sights, no drinks and essentially no freedom if we wanted to stay in a place longer. All for about $900. Sam and I thought about it but decided against it mainly because that is not how we wanted to travel, we wanted to be on our own going on massive adventures. We also thought we could probably do it a little cheaper on our own. So we turned down their trip and our welcomeness was immediately turned down too. We were essentially kicked out the next morning at 6am put on our promised transportation back to Delhi. Our promised flight, which we would have gotten on the trip too, turned into a 8 hour ride in the back of a jeep that would take us to a train station where we could take a 12 hour train back to Delhi. So not what we were promised at all.
Our 8 hour trip to Jammu in a jeep was dramatically slowed by traffic jams, which were caused by shepherds bringing their goats and sheep down from grazing in the markets to be sold to butchers and sometimes the herds (whatever it is for goats and sheep, not flocks, not packs, etc) would take up more than half of the tiny roads. The Jammu train station was our first shocking views of India that people tell you about. The train platforms were just like anyplace but there were families sleeping on it, not many shoes, many children without pants (I do not fully understand, I know they are poor but if I was to pick between a shirt and pants I would go with pants) and there was someone I will NEVER forget that has become a standout moment on my trip. This group of men were dressed in bright orange cloth diapers, nothing else, no shoes, orange and white paint on their faces and all of them carrying spears with about 10 inch medal spikes at the end. AWESOMELY CRAZY and of course they got on the same train as us.
If you read my Tibet train story, you know my luck. If not, do not worry because general admission in Indian trains is more crazy than Chinese trains. We finally find someone at the ticket counter who speaks English well enough to tell us there are no more tickets on our train to Jaipur except for standing room. Looking around Jammu, Sam and I agreed to get out of there and would take our chances with another train adventure. If you have seen the Wes Anderson movie, Darjeeling Limited, it was nothing like that but there are sleeper cars which we were not on.
Chinese trains have seat numbers on the tickets, Indian trains are first come, first serve but move over because your seat, which is more like a bench is going to fit more people than you are comfortable with. Sam and I had heard horror stories about Indian trains, from other travelers and were even warned by our housebaot family, watch your bags, be careful of thieves and do not accept food/drinks from strangers because they will drug you then take your bags. The train arrives and it is like a department store opening with huge sales in the holiday season, CHAOS. Sam and I run to a car where it is not a riot to get on and then were sort of like deer in the headlights, not able to move, just starring at a bad situation and every moment we did not move, the situation got worst. The train setup is benches facing each other (which I thought 3 people would sit on), luggage racks above them then an single seat separated by an aisle. I am prod of myself because I finally made the first move to put my bag on the luggage rack above the single seat and snap it down. Thank Gandhi (ha ha get it, thank god) a nice man came to us in the chaos and said come sit with his family. What he meant was come sit in the luggage racks above my family but whatever we had a place to sit and were out of the head lights. Sam and my luggage racks quickly were not just ours as 2 other Indians joined us both. The train was FULL, the bench below us had 6 or 7 people on it, the luggage racks were 3 or 4, the single seats were sometimes doubles and the floor space quickly disappeared. My luggage rack mates were the most obnoxious people in the car, making tons of noise, listening to music on their phones at full volume, wrestling each other, flicking the lights on and off and overall being 'that guy'.
I could explain the ride more but the strange reality was that it did not faze me too much after my Tibet train and after a few other horror travel stories. I turned down many drinks that were definitely drugged. At most stops the best way to get in or off the train was through the windows because there were so many people on the floor. It took Sam about 10 minutes to walk 30 feet to the bathroom and he said he stepped on many people. Sam also was not as smart as me (ha ha ha) and hugged his bag for the entire voyage because luggage space disappeared quicker than floor space. Chinese trains run on time, have signs posted when it will arrive at each station and even have electronic signs to tell you what the stop is. Not in India. In Jammu the board said Jaipur was 15 hours, turns out it was 19. Finding someone that knew our stop was tough too and when we finally trusted someone and got off, we were ready for the worst and to be in a place other than Jaipur. However, we were given good info, got off in Jaipur and were on our own adventure, away from the houseboat, away from the ripoffs and ready to take on India