To get to Srinagar, you first have to go through Jammu. From here, travel in a jeep that, breaking the basic and universal laws of time and traffic, will take you a solid ten hours down a road through the mountains. The scenery is incredible and the chances of it being the last thing you see in life are very high. The drivers have used a common method to launch at full speed. They are based on the principle that three cars fit on a two-lane road. It is enough to warn other drivers with incessant honking that you’re about to overtake them.
Srinagar is part of the state of Kachemir, immersed in an eternal struggle for independence. Therefore, it is not uncommon for the visitor to meet the shops closed by order of the Indian army, under any official pretext, but whose objective is to keep the citizenry under control. Almost the entire population. The lake is part of the life of these citizens. On the banks are the gardens of the Mongol kings, built by them to spend summers here amid all kinds of luxuries. The ‘house-boats’ are rented to the tourists who can thus experience the city amongst the locals.
In some respects, the stay becomes a kind of kidnapping. The owner provides a wide range of amenities and distractions, but meanwhile, the tenants can not move freely. “It’s dangerous,” they warn. Another part of the town is located on land. In both cases, the neighbors are Muslims. There is, however, a Buddhist temple situated on top of a mountain. Yet another proof of the variety, wealth and sometimes contradictions of this country called India, whose imperial character is most clearly appreciated the more one departs from the epicenter.
Leh, the capital of Buddhism
One of the spiritual capitals of northern India is Leh, a village almost as small as its name. Well not so much. The road between Srinagar and Leh runs for at least 15 hours in case you opt for the jeep. Two days if you go by bus. Half an hour by plane. But if you choose this last means of transport, you will have missed the opportunity to enjoy some of the most spectacular landscapes on the planet through which hundreds of trucks are carrying food to feed the people within this small city.
This town is a kind of capital of Buddhism. Its inhabitants are the living proof of the goodness of this religion and of the vegetarian diet. It is impossible to find an outbreak of stress or depression among neighbors. The perennial smile and the unconcern are the main characteristics of its character. Leh and its surroundings are full of Buddhist temples. Backpackers have made the village their own. Along its streets you can find countless stalls selling all kinds of Buddhist and Hindu objects with the consequent wide range of Indian gods. To get out of Leh you have to go through the safest airport in the world. At least three security controls must be crossed and met with innumerable requirements. But I digress.
Going to Varanassi or Benares is not a bad option, of course. The city is located right next to the river Ganges or Ganga, as the Indians call it. This fact is of great importance. According to the Buddhist religion, the one who dies next to the river will go directly to the Nirvarna. That is why it is not uncommon for citizens from all over India to be burned to this point. Death is absolutely natural. The corpses are burned amidst large wooden pyres accompanied by the male relatives of the deceased wearing white. It is a spectacle that Westerners contemplate with insane curiosity.
But adding a further contradiction to this country saturated with contradictions, Varanassi turns out to be a city full of life. As in other corners of India, the cows rush through the streets, filling them with excrement, without anyone daring to disturb them. Varanassi is a city that attracts you from the beginning and you’ll always want to return. Even if it’s to die. Another possibility is to go through Jaipur. But be forewarned, it’s a city set up as a Hollywood stage made of cardboard.
And back to Delhi. The capital of India is no example of an interesting city. Rather the opposite. The heat is absolutely suffocating, the traffic is chaos, the streets are dusty when you walk and the houses are falling apart. But its strategic location makes it mandatory to return.
The city enchants and repels equally. We will most likely opt for a repeat backpacking experience at the Main Bazaar. The offer of lodging and food has no comparison with any other point of the city. An added value is the security that is always offered to tourists, however adventurous we may be.