No-one seemed to know why the floating market on Srinagar’s Dal Lake starts before dawn, the proverbial darkest hour, a time of uneasy minds and bleak thoughts. My own first thought when the boatman came hammering at the door of our houseboat the other morning was “this is madness, leave me alone, no way! and wondered how many other potential customers regularly decided to give it a miss.
But, for me at least, there was no way back into the blankets: the Caveman was already on his feet, pointing out the importance of seizing the moment. Our youngest son held out the longest and had to be carried complete with hot water bottle and quilts to the waiting ‘shikara’ (the small rowing boats used to get around Dal Lake).
Out on the lake it was cold and dark as we huddled together under a pile of blankets. Soon, though, there was the welcome sound of tea cups and a flask being loaded: in Kashmir, you’re never more than five minutes away from a brew, either the always-welcome spicy green Kavha or the strange salty pink variety.
As the sound of thousands of morning prayers around the lake grew into a heady, hypnotic wave, it occurred to me that the floating market is perhaps timed to catch the faithful as they flood out of the mosques.
From Mr Butt’s beautiful houseboat where were staying, it took about an hour of steady rowing to reach the other side of the lake. Our quiet morning contemplations were shattered, however, when we reached the bridge at the entrance to the market and ran into a slight altercation. ‘Mr Wonderful Flower Man’, a young man for whom the word ‘groovy’ seems to cover just about every eventuality, was determined we were going to buy his wares, thrusting chrysanthemums at us and loudly seeing off all interlopers. Things only calmed down when we struck a deal for some blue rose bulbs and Himalayan poppy seeds.
We soon saw the importance of arriving early – the day’s trading is brief and brisk – in the time it took for us to sip two tiny cups of kavha, the market was over. We were the only tourists (Kashmir is slightly out of season now) so our needs – a couple of chocolate macaroons and a vase of flowers to put in the houseboat – were quickly met. The traders then bartered their modest spinach and lotus stem harvests and, as the sun started to twinkle on the water, disappeared quickly under the bridge and back to their villages.
I still don’t really know why the market has to be so early but be warned: an extra ten minutes in bed and you’ll miss it!
We saw these burqas drying in the sun as we made our back for breakfast!