We breakfast at 8.15 am but can’t leave for Srinagar straight away because of the need to sort out payment via a Delhi bank, so John, Helen and I walk along to the market. John keeps us on task – we each buy a top, I buy a shawl and Helen a lovely bag and we are back and ready to leave by 11 am, as planned. We feel sorry for the traders here who have no custom at all at the moment.
The road to Srinagar follows the Sindh river much of the way and is much prettier and less dramatic than those we’ve been on. There are many more terraced fields, climbing high up the south-facing side of the valley, particularly. To start with, the fields contain mostly stubble from harvested maize crops. The straw is draped up in the trees to dry, presumably to avoid livestock getting hold of it prematurely. The sound of cicadas gradually becomes more pervasive, reminding us we really are in a tropical country. The air thickens too – the crisp, clear air of Ladakh is replaced by a gentle haze, which obscures the hills. If it wasn’t for the temperature, we could be in Scotland!
After a while, rice becomes the major crop and we see it being harvested, stacked to dry and threshed by hand as we move further down the valley.
As we drive into Srinagar itself, Tahir points out some of the areas which flooded earlier in the month. One side of the road is blocked off and the poor people whose houses nearby were flooded have erected temporary shelters along it. There are black kites everywhere and we watch them swooping to catch frogs in a fuller-than-normal waterway from their perches on the telegraph wires above.
We arrive at the Golden Bees hotel in Harvan, high enough to have escaped the floods, only to discover we have been relocated to the Jamal Resorts Complex because their local substation is down and they have no power. This is fine – the rooms are comfortable rooms and the garden lovely.
We have lunch in the restaurant with Tashi and Tahir and afterwards Mr Manzarul Haq, our lichenologist contact at Kashmir University, comes to meet us. His speciality turns out to be lichens growing on trees rather than on rocks but he has a quick look at our photos and suggests someone who may be able to help with their identification. He confirms our theory that the predominance of orange and red lichens at high altitudes is to do with protection from UV light but says it is not anthocyanins that are responsible, so that is something to follow up.
Afterwards, Tahir suggests a trip to Bahazara where there are some standing stones and where very ancient cave dwellings have been excavated. John has a headache so Helen and I go with him and Tashi. The standing stones are not so spectacular but the location is lovely and well worth a visit. Unnervingly English in appearance, it is a grassy green plateau on the edge of town with sheep and cattle grazing and children playing cricket and flying kites.
Actually, it reminds me a bit of the location of Castlerigg stone circle near Keswick and, as is so often the case with standing stones in the UK, the stones used are not local to the area so this raises lots of interesting questions about how and why they were placed there. Some children call out something and Tahir laughs that they say I am naked. I’m wearing a longer than knee length skirt and T-shirt which covers my shoulders, so will clearly need to think again about clothing for tomorrow! I just felt far too hot in my long top and leggings earlier.
We bump into a friend of Tahir’s who, after a spell playing county cricket in England, has returned to Srinagar with his English wife and daughter. The wife has been here for just a year and is clearly finding life quite a challenge. She was very keen to talk to Helen and I and tell us about what it was like for her, her daughter in school here and how her sister-in-law was being looked after after the birth of her baby. Quite a culture shock for her, I think.
We are dropped back at the hotel about 6.30 pm and will be picked up again tomorrow morning. We crash for a bit then go down to the restaurant for dinner, which turns out to be another Marie Celeste experience. As at Sonamarg, what is on the menu turns out to bear no resemblance to what’s actually available but the food, when it arrives, is tasty. We don’t linger long in the deserted restaurant but head to John and Helen’s room for the now-habitual game of Scrabble. We all feel a bit uneasy being here when so many people are struggling with the after effects of the floods but at least we are putting a little money into the local economy now and next year’s trip should also play a small part in the recovery of the tourism industry here.