Friday, July 6, 2012

Off The Beaten Track: Return to Kashmir

A California transplant now living in Denver, Mark Stephen Levy left his job as a sales executive for a major technology company to spend two years traveling through Europe, Morocco, India, Nepal, Tibet, and China and to write his first novel, Overland. The story is set in Afghanistan, but Mark's travels in India helped set the tone to enable him to write his book. He also writes for a cable TV show, Food Paradise, based in New York City. You can read more about Mark and his novel as well as his adventures in India on his web site,

When my adventure/romance novel Overland was published in India early last year, my publisher strongly suggested I come to India to promote it. They didn’t need to ask me twice. I had once toured India in the mid-’80s. I was in a state of rapture the entire time and left with life-changing impressions. I longed to return, and finally, here was my chance!

I got to spend 10 weeks touring around the country, from the Himachal Pradesh towns of Dharamsala and Manali then down the road to Rishikesh and later Kolkata. Then farther south, to Mumbai, Goa, Bangalore, and Kerala. I even gave a speech at a university, Central University Jharkhand in Ranchi. I hadn’t been to any of these places before, yet the place I wanted to visit the most was one I’d already been to on my first trip to India. That heaven on earth known as Kashmir.

Back in 1985, I’d chanced upon a houseboat called the Pala Palace. It was situated on Dal Lake, parallel to the main road in Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir. I’d stayed a week with Aziz, the owner of the houseboat, along with his family. I integrated into their lives with thought-provoking, culturally rich activities on their boat. I’d become especially good friends with Shefi, Aziz’s 14-year-old son.

Naturally upon my return to Kashmir, I thought how cool it would be to see if Aziz, Shefi, and the houseboat were still around. I arrived into Srinagar’s airport slightly travel weary. When asked by the tourist officials at the airport about my stay here in Srinagar and where my base would be, I mentioned Pala Palace, the only name I knew. A local Kashmiri man nearby overheard this exchange and approached me.

“Yes! I know Aziz and Pala Palace. It is new Pala Palace. Aziz is my cousin.”

He directed me to take a certain bus outside the terminal into town then go to a certain hotel, where Shefi would meet me and take me to the houseboat. I couldn’t believe I was going back to the same houseboat and would see Aziz after 26 years!

Now, outside the airport was another matter. I caught the right bus towards the hotel, but a local guy with a long beard intercepted me and wanted to show me to his houseboat. I turned him down and told him I’d be staying at the Pala Palace, yet we rode the bus together into town. He seemed amiable enough and who was I to say he couldn’t ride the bus?  When we got off the bus, he became insistent about my seeing his houseboat. Sometimes, these sorts of things happen and we just have to go with the flow, so … we went to his boat.

It turned out to be a really nice boat, great views and quiet. Even better, they had Internet! When I realized I wasn’t going directly to the Pala Palace, and knowing I had six nights in Kashmir, I figured that was okay. Here I was back in serene and peaceful Kashmir, after all.

I spent a quiet, familiar, and ever exotic first day, savoring the Thursday afternoon. It was a special day in celebration of the coming Islamic holiday on Friday, as prayer calls from all directions were heard bouncing off the lake. It was intoxicating and purely mystical.

Later that evening, through the channels of how things go, Shefi and another man, Aziz’s brother, showed up to this other houseboat. When I didn’t meet Shefi at the hotel, word spread all the way back to the airport and security that an “American arrived and wanted to stay at the Pala Palace but never showed up.” Somehow, they traced my steps all the way to accompanying this bearded man to the other houseboat, and voila, Shefi found me.

Aziz, 26 years later
Immediately, we embraced. He was 26 years older, but it was definitely Shefi. I asked about Aziz, and they whisked me off to go see him and the Pala Palace, leaving my bags behind. The Shakira, a small boat that’s the standard means of transportation throughout the lake, pulled alongside the Pala Palace, and there was Aziz. He was much older now, in his 70s, and looked a bit sickly, but he still had that spirit I loved when we met so long ago. He told me he’d been worrying all day about what could have happened to me, repeatedly calling me “my American friend.” His voice was more gravely than ever, his English still rudimentary, but his effort to communicate and the vibes he gave off were touching.

We went to the back of his boat with various members of his family and all talked for a bit over a few cups of tea. We caught up on the past couple decades we’d lost touch. I told him I had written a book and that he had been the inspiration for one of my main characters in Overland. The plan was for me to return the next day with my bags, which I did for two nights. Being found by Shefi this way blew my mind, and what was to follow in the coming days turned out to be the best week of my life.


  1. I've always wanted to go to Srinagar and stay on a houseboat. Is your book set in Kashmir?

  2. Me too--I've stayed on a houseboat in Kerala, which I loved, but I've always wanted to stay on one in Kashmir, especially after reading those lovely opening chapters of Salman Rushdie's Midnight Children, about the old peaceful way of life there and that gorgeous scenery you've captured in your photos, Mark. Thanks for taking us along for the ride.

  3. Hi Edith, no, my book is set in Afghanistan, at the onset of of the Soviet invasion, in 1979...but my time in Kashmir, and all of India helped set the stage and write Overland with the "flavor" needed and taken from my time in India..good question! As for wanting to go there, I HIGHLY recommend it and have the perfect houseboat recommendation! Cheers, Mark

  4. My pleasure, you incentivized me to read Midnight's Children! Thanks again for allowing me to revisit my amazing time there through this post!

  5. Such a compelling story, Mark. It's lovely that you were able to track down your old friend and still have a strong connection after all these years and across language and cultural barriers. I'm looking forward to reading your book. Did you visit Afghanistan as well on that trip around the world?

  6. Heidi, no, have never been to Afghanistan...would like to, however, now's not the time...I wrote the story partially as a history lesson to show how Afghanistan came to be how it is now. Prior to the Soviet occupation, it was a "fabled" destination along the hippie trail (also referenced in my book), as was/still is Kathmandu in Nepal.

  7. Mark, what a great story. I love that you were able to reconnect with people you'd met so long ago. And that they were able to find you! What fun!

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