29th September 2016
The hotel reception informed me that one needs to reach the airport at least 90 minutes before flight, as at times, the x-ray machine is down and physical checks of even check in luggage enforced. Paying heed to the information, reached the airport by 0545 hrs for a 0710 flight from Leh (IXL) to Srinagar (SXR) by GoAir GA-386. Time to say goodbye to Mr. Haq who drove us to the airport.
On enquiring, the check-in counter clerk told me that the flight was packed, which was very reassuring. Since the same flight then headed to Mumbai, one could not tell how many passengers would get off at Srinagar though. The flight was on time and 45 minutes later we touched down in Srinagar. Nearly 90% of the passengers got off the aircraft, and from what I could make out, the airport too was far from being deserted, inside and outside. It resembled a normal day at any Indian airport including birds flying and shit bombing passengers inside, and baggage being delivered on the wrong belt.
As promised, a man was holding up a Taj Vivanta name card with my name on it. Thankfully, it was a regular local taxi contracted by the hotel and not one with its livery. There was a huge crowd outside, I was told it was for receive pilgrims returning from Haj. As the vehicle moved out of the airport perimeter, I could tell that in just 4 years (the time of my last visit to this city), development had reached its doorsteps. While most shops were shut, general stores were open, people were going about their normal business, and sufficient vehicular (non-military or police)traffic was moving about at even 8.30am. The weather was just right and the city looked good. It was a great decision to stop over in Srinagar. It did not look like a city that was under curfew just over a week back.
The driver, Mr Younus kept informing us of landmarks that we passed, including the residences of the Chief Minister, the leader of the opposition and the leader of the separatist group, all next to each other. How very neighbourly of them to fight with each other? I avoided any political conversation, least it hurts sensibilities, knowing that Kashmiris are a very emotional lot. I did ask Younus about how the locals felt about tourists? His response was that the people loved to have guests over after all tourism has been the people's bread and butter from time eternal. The 30-minute drive to the hotel was beautiful and nostalgic.
We reached the gates of the hotel, and it looked like we were entering a high-security facility. Once in the complex, the beautiful gardens and landscaping greeted us. The 6-acre hotel complex sits atop the Kralsangri hills in the middle of what is a heavily wooded mini city forest, and the fencing around is more to keep some of the wild animals that occasionally stray in. The Front Office Manager was waiting to receive us at the entry of the Lobby block. I could have mistaken the property for a "Four Seasons" or a brand in its ilk. But, this was just the lobby block.
Seated in the tea lounge, over a much-needed cup of "Kawaha", we completed our registration formalities. The Manager briefed us on the hotel facilities, places safe to visit, the security details and finally called in the Chef to plan our celebratory Kashmiri dinner for two, to be served on the moonlit deck. It was her birthday and pampering was in order. There were just 4 guest rooms (out of the 48) occupied, which meant there would be no dearth of being pampered. Next came breakfast post which, we were taken to our room. In any other hotel, the 50sqm room would have qualified as a junior suite. Yes, it could give well have been a "Four Seasons". Since we were here just for the day and needed some rest, this room just diminished any notions of stepping out of the property.
Just as we had settled, we got a call from the front desk informing us that we may - just may - depending on the situation, need to check out a bit earlier than planned the next day. The news from the outside wasn't very good with a partial curfew having being imposed on account of some urgent security reasons. My wife switched on a news channel on TV. There was some major drama being played out of India responding to a ceasefire breach by Pakistan by shelling villages near the Line of Control (LOC). The City was calm. She got a bit worried and thought we had made a big mistake by coming here. I told her to focus on the spa treatment later that afternoon at Lalit hotel next door. A shower and short walk inspecting the property later, it was time for lunch. By the time we got back to the room to get ready to leave for her spa appointment, the news had worsened. It was not Pakistan that had attacked India, but it was Indian soldiers that had gone across the LOC for a hit on the terror camps.
On one hand, the TV news anchors changed their squeaky concerned voice of a while back to that of Tarzan, chest thumping on the brave attack like they had done it themselves, and on the other, here we were receiving calls of concern from friends and relatives like we were trapped on the other side of the LOC. As a matter of not playing "Die hard", we thought best would be to stay within the confines of the property, as it is, some rest after the four previous days was in order. It wasn't such a bad idea. Before we knew it, we were on the deck that overlooked the lake, enjoying some wine over sunset, followed by a fantastic 5-course dinner.
Morning, I was up early. With a cup of hot coffee in hand, I sat out on the balcony to enjoy the sereneness around. I could not imagine that this City was strife struck. The soft sound of prayers emanating from the many mosques just made the moment more ethereal. I wondered why I was here? Was it early signs of madness or some kind of death wish to do something silly? Then, how was I to know that the Indian forces would choose the very day of my arrival as the D-day for a strike? Or that of all the days in the week one should avoid arriving or departing from Srinagar on a Friday? In a way, it did not matter. I was just meant to be here, to enjoy these moments of heaven in a Paradise that had chosen to convert to hell.
Breakfast at 0900 hrs, the service was just wonderful. The Kashmiri lad serving us told us of how he loved Mumbai and I told him maybe we should swap places. The Manager came up to us a bit concerned. The police had started barricading streets and requested us, in the interest of safety for ourselves and the driver braving it to the airport to hurry up. He was very apologetic to rush us, but he had no choice. With an enjoyable stay and heavy heart, we left.