[words and video © Mark Eveleigh]
I wake in the early morning chill and, freeing my feet from the tangle of five blankets and the now tepid dead-body-clamminess of the hot-water bottle, I reluctantly slide out of bed.
It’s still dark outside but I can see the glitter of heavy frost on the ground. It’s hard to believe that just yesterday I was stifling in a plane at New Delhi airport waiting for the fog to lift over far off Kashmir, in the foothills of the Himalayas. Finally we dropped down through the clouds to touch down amid the barbed-wire and Kalashnikov-packing soldiers of Srinagar airport. As the taxi took me through a chain or roadblocks guarded by Russian-built armoured vehicles I began to realise that Kashmir is still not so far from the frontier territory that Kipling described in ‘The Man who would be King’.
Lake Dal is home to almost a hundred regal colonial era houseboats. This is surely one of the most beautiful spots on earth and, sitting on the stoop of your private boat smoking a shisha in the sun, it is still easy to feel like a king.
My guide Fayas is now waiting on the slippery pontoon with the taxi-boat that will take us through the tangled labyrinth of foggy canals. I climb into the shikara (a local version of the gondolas of Venice) and sit back in the soft cushions. I warm my hands on the tin mug of coffee that Fayas hands me and tuck the heated blanket around me. It’s about five below zero on the lake but Kashmiris have a wonderful and unique invention for dealing with the cold. A hot kongi has been placed under my blanket. This terracotta pot inside a wicker basket looks like a miniature barbecue and is kept permanently loaded with hot coals. Nothing is cooked on a kongi however and instead it is carried around under the long Kashmiri robes or placed under blankets that are invariably offered for your comfort when you visit local houses.
A kongi is the Kashmiri way of feeling like a king even in the depths of winter.