Paradise lost

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It’s every traveler’s dread – packing your bags and heading to a place that was sold as a paradise, but ends up being a dump.  Unfortunately Kashmir’s famed tourist attraction, Dal Lake is in the process of becoming just that.

The lake, in Kashmir’s capital Srinigar appears on old postcards as an otherworldly dream. But now green algae has invaded the lake’s bed, garbage floats idly on the surface and the city’s 15 major drains are reportedly flowing into the lake.

And while once the houseboats numbered in the small hundreds, now more than 1000 pine hulls lie, shoulder to shoulder, crowding the surface. Some are still majestic, with pale polished pine bodies and chandeliers hanging inside. But most are derelict and sagging – with grand names that seem like an ironic joke, like India’s Pride with its lopsided steps reaching into the water. Other boats show where owners are trying to keep leaks at bay with heavy duty plastic bags.

It’s a far cry from the place it once was according to our hotel owner at Dal Lake. During the 1980s, the Kashmiri, who was born and raised in Srinigar, made his living paddling people around the lake on a shakira, a water taxi.

Back then he told me he would lunch on the lake’s surface and happily drink the water it was so clean. But as house boats became a major tourist attraction, the number of hotels and boats on and around the lake shot up. Homes are also popping up everywhere on the lake’s surface, with sewage pumping straight into the water.

The government, he said, does little to remedy the situation. They say no more development is allowed to be built on the lake, but when offered bribes they are happy to look the other way. Consequently the lake has reportedly shrunk in size from about 35 square kilometres to 25.

He said he felt a great cynicism, disappointment and anger, which has slowly turned to despair at the feeling of a paradise lost.

A similar feeling overpowered me at Srinigar for the first two days. I tried to devise plans to get myself out of there – looking up plane and bus tickets, and thinking of spending exorbitant amounts to flee.

The curse of being a whitey in India – the sales pitch – was at its worst here. ‘Yes Maam, excuse me Ma’am, you want hash, you want shakira, you want Kashmiri shawl’. One boy even tried to sell himself for $10 saying, ‘cheap, cheap’. Since the conflict in Kashmir started, tourism has dived, so understandably  some locals seem desperate for any sort of business.

But after two days of railing against the place and almost crying into a lassi, the city and I finally connected.

One morning we got up before the sun and headed out onto the lake on a shakira. We discovered that just before and after sunrise a window opens into what the lake would have been like in its full glory.

At this hour the lake’s surface is a mirror – creating reflection of water birds, crippled wooden boats, floating gardens and fisherman. Locals paddle across its surface, collecting the morning’s bread and milk or heading to work.

Before sunrise the floating markets are in full swing, as locals haggle over vegetables, flowers, saffron and clothes. After an hour or so, as sellers’ boats become lighter, the sales rabble quietens and people settle in for a bit of a chat before heading home through one of the weedy water canals.

After seeing this I can only hope that the Government’s education campaign for keeping the lake clean is somewhat effective.


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