Kashmir's majestic allure


HimalayasI feel that I’ve landed in a different country. At Srinagar’s time-warp airport I’m apprehended by a rifle-wielding soldier and told to fill in a foreigners’ form. I grope about in my bag for a pen, pin the officious form against a peeling concrete wall and spill my foreign details onto it. My Indian tourist visa, securely pasted into my passport, is of no use here in Kashmir, it seems. My lone bag goes round and round and round the baggage conveyor. My fellow passengers – dark-skinned and therefore spared this inconvenience – have collected theirs and are draining out of the suffocating terminal and into northern India’s thin and rarefied air.

It should come as no surprise that this place swarms with armed soldiers, but still it’s unsettling. Emerging from the terminal, I encounter a wall of indistinguishable Kashmir men, but I’m able to separate them out from my guide by the instant recognition he himself registers at the sight of the white woman dragging her bag behind her into the weak afternoon sunlight. He peels his lanky frame from the fence on which he’s been leaning and lopes towards me, hand outstretched.

‘Welcome to paradise', he says.

Paradise though this place is, I’m nonetheless a rare sight for the men crowding about the airport’s entrance: for many decades western tourists have shunned this place, and my presence is a sign that something has shifted, that things might just be returning to normal.    

My guide’s name is Younis; he’s in his twenties and he wears a stylised jacket and a pair of vivid yellow moccasins. He has olive skin and sleek black hair and grey-blue eyes which are a surprise at first in this land of dark stares but which will become a soothing familiarity in the days to come.

Lest I’ve arrived in India’s most northerly state of Jammu and Kashmir with ill-formed ideas, young Younis swiftly apprises me of the virtues of his homeland: ‘Pakistan wants Kashmir, China wants Kashmir, India wants Kashmir. It is a very beautiful place and here we have [so much]: electricity grids, land, fruits.’

He pauses, then says, ‘But nobody likes Kashmiris.’

This place is the product of a divisive and bloody political history, one too complex for the casual observer such as myself to fully comprehend. Kashmiris are certainly a people who bristle at their proximity to potentially hostile states – ‘Pakistan is 175 kilometres away, China is 470 kilometres away', Younis says – the fracturing of their once-princely state into three pieces in 1947, and the inception of one of those pieces, the state now known as Jammu and Kashmir, into the ‘colonising’ nation of India (the two others are administered by Pakistan and China respectively).

Younis was born in 1991, he tells me, at a time when 200 to 300 Kashmiris were perishing each day in conflict between the Indian military and Kashmiri separatists.

‘Oh, that time was terrible', he recalls. ‘My father told me [that] when I was seven months old the army came into our house and beat everyone – ladies, gents, everyone. My father told me, “I grabbed you and ran”.’

Peace has come to Kashmir, but it’s a tentative, fragile peace, one that is occasionally shattered by incursions in the border regions and riots right here in the city of Srinagar. Most recently, the state has been struck by a natural cruelty – the worst floods to hit the region in 50 years. More than 200 people are dead or missing, houses have been sucked into the Jhelum River, and tourist attractions have been cut off by floodwaters. Even this event has triggered contempt among largely Muslim Kashmiris for their Hindu overlords, with accusations that the government’s rescue and aid response has targeted foreign tourists and high-level delegates ahead of local residents.

But despite his disdain for India, Younis is savvy enough to count the blessings that are returning to his state, in the form of Indian tourists, in the form of curious foreigners who had long sworn off this terrifyingly beautiful, dangerous parcel of land wedged into the Himalayas. Though I see just four other westerners during my stay – all of them taking in the sights of Gulmarg alongside the late-summer visitors from Gujarat and Maharashtra – I’m told that there aren’t enough hotel beds to accommodate the tourist trickle that is rapidly developing into its own, human, flood.

Besides the majestic scenery, there is much to recommend Kashmir: the high summer meadows that transform into ski slopes during winter; the black and brown bears, snow leopards, musk deer and wolves that stalk the Himalayan foothills; the endless fields of pomegranate and saffron, walnuts and almonds, apples and pears; and the dishes peculiar to these parts: lotus stems cooked Kashmiri style, rice studded with dried fruits, a traditional chicken broth called murgh zafrani shorba which is gently dusted with saffron.

There are the shopkeepers whose eyes light up when they spy foreign visitors, like Ali Bhatzahoor, who says, ‘It used to be very violent here, but now, thank God, we are safe. We are the wounded people and [India] must heal us.’

And back at the little airport, after I’ve sent my bag through no fewer than four separate x-ray scanners and am about to be searched myself one final time in a cubicle set up beside the tarmac, there are yet more inducements to return. Kashmiris on their way to business meetings in Delhi strike up happy conversation with me, swap business cards and LinkedIn addresses, and implore me to come back with my family to their beautiful land.

Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a journalist and travel writer. She travelled to Kashmir as a guest of India Tourism and The Classic Safari Company. Her travel feature on Kashmir will appear in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Traveller

Topic tags: Travel



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Existing comments

Thanks Catherine. I regularly pray for peoples who don't have a country of their own and the Kashmiris are one of the five names I always mention and the ones I know least about.The others are Kurds, Tibetans, Uygurs and West Papuans.

Gavan | 19 September 2014  

Ah, Kashmir, that garden of paradise and much beloved holiday place of sahibs and memsahibs in the Great Days of the Raj. The invention and introduction of the houseboat - the only place to stay - is part of that state's beautiful, sad, whimsical and terrible (all rolled into one) history. Given the political situation I think Kashmir will remain Indian. Given the current chaotic situation in Pakistan I think the majority Muslim community would prefer that option. India needs to take a fresh approach. Perhaps it will.

Edward Fido | 25 September 2014  

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