It was in Pokhara that I came across cashmere of the kind of quality that caused the word 'cashmere' to be associated with a luxury item. It was also where Mr. Ghulam gave me a really good deal on the best scarf I own, a wonderfully soft shawl, a heather grey woven cloud.
From then on, I realised that the cheap '100% pashmina' or '100% cashmere' more commonly found in stores is nowhere close to what the luxury version is like. But it was in Kashmir itself, cashmere's place of origin, that I realised its exclusivity.
The boat merchants of Dal Lake
It was some time after meeting Sumi and Mr. Ghulam in Pokhara that I had the chance to visit them in Kashmir. But before moving to their home in the old part of Srinagar, I had wanted to first stay at the famous Dal Lake, where I could see for myself the shikaras that Sumi had told us about. Specifically, I wanted to spend some days staying at one of Srinagar's famed houseboats on the lake.
It was there that I learned that the shallow Srinagar boats weren't just used for ferrying people around. The houseboats were across the water from the city, edging the islands on the lake. Similar to Venice, once you've moved into a houseboat, the main transport is by shikara. But, since the houseboats are a tourist area, merchants of the many Kashmiri crafts also glide around the lake on their mobile shop boats and call on the houseboats with their wares.
Among the crafts was, of course, cashmere.
Looking for cashmere in the houseboats
The merchant assured me that the piles of scarves on the coffee table were truly cashmere, and maybe they were. But maybe it was not cashmere from truly alpine-herded cashmere, or maybe it was woven from cashmere imported from outside of the Himalayas, or maybe it was woven of coarser cashmere.
At any rate, it was not the quality of famous cashmere. There on the front deck of the houseboat, I continued sipping my chai and reflected on how discerning I could be now, knowing the difference.
One day, I decided to simply show one of the merchants the quality of cashmere I'd be shopping for. Not that I really was shopping for cashmere. Mr. Ghulam could probably get whatever I wanted, if I were really shopping for cashmere. But I was curious. Perhaps tourists to Dal Lake are on a budget, so the merchants may simply be trying to match their price range. I happened to travel with my best cashmere scarf with me at the time, so I brought it out and asked the merchant whether he had any that were like this.
The merchant went silent.
I guessed that he did not, but as a cashmere merchant he did not want to admit it. "Well... no." He finally stammered. "This is different." Speaking more quickly, he said weakly, "This is not really cashmere, maybe. Maybe it's... it's angora." But I knew it was not angora.
Cashmere endorsement from the locals
Later in the week, as we sat chatting with our houseboat hosts in the kitchen, the subject of cashmere came up. Being in the houseboat tourism business, our hosts naturally knew their share of cashmere merchants, and the typical products sold by them. The husband asked to see the cashmere that I bought from Mr. Ghulam, curious about the quality relative to what's commonly sold.
So I popped into my room, and returned with my scarf.
Their expressions changed. I could tell the scarf was not a quality they saw often. Reaching out for a touch, my host was silent for a moment longer, gazing at the shawl with a tinge of awe.
Then he said reverently, "That's real cashmere."