Travelling in Kashmir
Originally published in the Jakarta Globe, 01/06/09
The passenger jeep emerges from the dripping darkness of the Jawar Tunnel in a blaze of sunlight. “Welcome to Kashmir Valley” says a sign at the roadside; “Heaven on Earth”. Green mountains soar on all sides, but in front of the sign is a tangle of razor-wire and a pair of Indian soldiers with machineguns. As we bowl away downhill an expanse of land, filled with slender poplar trees, opens below. In the distance is a ridge of snowy peaks. And then we run into a grinding traffic jam behind a huge military convoy. Welcome to Kashmir indeed.
Kashmir is perhaps the Indian Subcontinent’s oldest tourist destination. The Mughal Emperors dreamed of its lakes and gardens and 19th Century British colonialists came in their droves for the climate and the scenery. Even as late as the 1980s honeymooners hid away in houseboats and trekkers earned their blisters on the high passes.
But despite Kashmir’s centuries-old status as a holiday hotspot, today it is better known for political violence. Although it has an ancient history as an independent kingdom, Kashmir has long been ruled by outsiders. The state of Jammu and Kashmir – which also included Gilgit-Baltistan and Ladakh – was created after the collapse of the Sikh empire in 1846 when the British sold the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley to the Hindu Raja of neighboring Jammu. After independence from Britain in 1947, India and Pakistan went straight to war over Kashmir. An uneasy ceasefire left the territory split between the two countries with a tense face-off over the dividing line. Kashmir Valley itself is on the Indian side of the so-called Line of Control. Despite a further two wars it was only in the late 80s, when a bloody anti-India insurgency erupted in the Valley, that Kashmir dropped off the tourism map, gaining dubious renown instead as South Asia’s nuclear flashpoint.
Hardly a place for a holiday then, but I have always wanted to visit Kashmir, and with rumors of easing tension and a mass return of domestic Indian tourists, now finally seems like the time to go. Military traffic jams aside, as I arrive in the capital Srinagar at dusk it seems that the only danger now is the hotel touts who throng the bus station...
Despite its troubled past Srinagar is a charming city. The River Jhelum forms its backbone, but another body of water, Dal Lake, is its heart. It was the lake that attracted the original holidaymakers, and it is till the focus of the Kashmiri tourist industry today. Out on the waters are moored hundreds of houseboats, Srinagar’s most idiosyncratic attraction. Originating during the colonial era, the charmingly old-fashioned houseboats are still a fine alternative to a hotel.
As I stroll along the Boulevard in the sunshine of the next morning all seems well. Hundreds of Indian trippers are milling around taking snapshots or haggling over the price of a boat ride. Following their example I hire a shikara – the brightly-painted Kashmiri answer to a Venetian gondola – for an hour’s tour of the lake. The shikara is paddled by a man named Ghulam. As we drift through rafts of lotus plants he tells me of the hard years of the troubles. With the mountains reflecting in the water, and shikaras busily plying back and forth it seems hard to believe that just a few years ago Srinagar was virtually a warzone, and Ghulam and thousands of other Kashmiri tourism workers spent more than a decade with virtually no income.
“But things are better now,” he says with a smile, slipping the shikara paddle into the green waters of the lake.
Another Srinagar resident I meet later, an urbane man named Firdous Ahmad with a finger in just about every tourist industry pie, confirms this. “Sometimes when I think back on what we have experienced here I can hardly believe that it was real,” he says. But things are definitely improving – and as if to prove it our conversation is interrupted as Firdous takes a call from a party of Indian visitors whose trip he is organizing.
The next morning I set off to explore an earthier side of Srinagar – the old city. Usually known as Downtown, it is renowned as a hotbed of resistance to Indian rule, but today all I find is hospitality and a wealth of unusual Islamic architecture hidden down narrow side-streets overhung by wooden balconies. I am surprised to see a similarity to traditional Indonesian mosques – here too there are triangular three-tiered roofs rather than domes and minarets.
Outside the great Friday Mosque, I meet a young man named Taufiq. He tells me that he has just returned to Srinagar after working for several years in a call centre near Delhi.
“Kashmir is the most beautiful place on earth,” he says; “I couldn’t stay away any longer.”
But what about the political situation? “Most Kashmiris these days don’t like India or Pakistan,” he says. So what do they want? Taufiq smiles and mouths the word: “Independence.”
Such sentiments are not unusual, and despite what Taufiq says there is still some support for integration with Pakistan. The next day a strike has been called in protest against recent Indian elections. The old city is shut down under a massive military security operation.
The strike doesn’t stop me taking a taxi an hour out of town to Manasbal Lake. This is a world away from the bustle of Srinagar – no touts or houseboats; just sharp sunlight, a cooling breeze, flitting white water birds and a rising wall of mountains reflected in the clear water. A young boatman named Ashraf paddles me out across the lake. With no other tourists in sight, we head for his home village on the far shore where his mother and sisters give me tea and shyly ask to have their photos taken.
Kashmir is defined by its mountains. After several days on the valley floor I head for the hills. Pahalgam lies on one of Kashmir’s ancient Hindu pilgrimage routes. High mountains rise on either side, and in the dense pine forest there are encampments of nomadic Bakerwal people, herders who make the long journey up from the plains each summer.
From Pahalgam I walk 12 kilometers to the end of the surfaced road at the village of Aru. This is a beautiful place – a cluster of neat houses in a bowl of high mountains. The Indian day-trippers, in search of horse-rides and photo-opportunities, are here too, and there are even a handful of other foreign visitors. I spend hours climbing through the forest – watching out for the bears that are common here – for vast views over the mountains. On my last day I walk a little way above the village with Mahsud, the man who owns the simple guesthouse where I am staying. He tells me of happier years when there were sometimes as many as 1000 foreign tourists in Aru at any one time. Then he tells me of the dark days of the 1990s when he closed the guesthouse and insurgents and Indian soldiers fought in the hills.
So what do Kashmiris really want now, I ask – India, Pakistan or independence?
Mahsud smiles gently: “Kashmiris are tired now,” he says; “we just want peace.”
Though I know that all the tensions remain, for this one moment as we sit looking out over the long green sweep of the valley, the Pahalgam Ranges rising white in the distance against a blue sky, it seems like they have it.
Many foreign governments continue to warn against all travel to Kashmir, but as the Indonesian tourist industry knows to its cost these advisories usually err on the side of extreme caution. However, underlying tensions do remain, and there is a huge military presence in the Valley. Minor confrontations between insurgents and the Indian Army continue in outlying districts, and protests against the government and security forces are not uncommon in Srinagar.
Indian tourists, who are probably better informed, have returned in their thousands, and there is already a steady trickle of foreign visitors. However, it is sensible to check the situation before going. The websites of Indian, or better yet Kashmiri, newspapers are probably the best resource. Kashmir is newspaper mad and there are about 15 English dailies published in Srinagar alone!
Kashmiri travel agents, particularly those based outside the Valley in Delhi and Himachal Pradesh, have a vested interest in perpetuating the idea that you cannot visit Kashmir without a guide. While it may be nice to have someone else bear the brunt of organizing your trip, especially somewhere for which there is scant guidebook information, this is by no means essential. If you are happy to travel independently elsewhere in India then there is no reason not to do so in Kashmir.
The only international flights to Srinagar’s airport are from Dubai, but there are regular services from Delhi and other Indian cities with Jet Airways, Spice Jet, Kingfisher and others, all of which can be booked online. The main road connecting the railhead at Jammu with Srinagar is spectacular, winding up though the Himalayan foothills before eventually emerging in the Kashmir Valley through the Jawahar Tunnel. Buses and share-jeeps ply the route. The seasonal road out of the Valley to the northeast towards Ladakh is even more hair-raising.
© Tim Hannigan 2009