“More beautiful than the heaven.” So wrote Sanskrit poet Kalidasa of the Kashmir Valley.
It is a beauty with spectacular mountain vistas (when the clouds disappear), sparkling lakes, surging streams, gorgeous gardens and dense forests.
Sadly political violence has scarred this wonderland for many years, keeping tourists away from what was once a popular destination. For the most part, calm has returned and travelers are trickling back.
I was among them in April with a tour group from Germany. I am a mountain person and had longed to see the grandiose Himalayan peaks which are said to outclass the Alps. But, weather was not on our side. While visiting Kashmir we had some rain and mainly very cloudy skies and not many glorious views of towering, snow capped peaks.
What I missed in mountain scenery I gained in people experiences. We had a tight schedule on this 16-day visit to northern India with almost no time on our own – except in Kashmir where I was able to leave the group and explore.
A hike was scheduled on the slopes above the town of Pahalgam, a mountain resort and trekking base. The group was slow. Many decided to ride horses rather than walk. I left them behind and forged ahead. My solitary walk was not that solitary. Other hikers (Indian tourists) approached and started conversations: a 70-year old from Calcutta, a young woman who had just returned from four years in upstate New York where she pursued bio-tech research, a family with several children in tow. Many wanted their picture taken with me – not too many tall blondes in northern India. It was fun and delightful.
So too was my solo hike from our hotel outside of the town – until the CRASH. We had a free afternoon. I set off down the main road, narrow and nasty, then crossed a foot bridge over the Lidder River. A gentleman approached, Jeelani, an English-speaking Kashmiri with a group who were having a picnic nearby. He invited me to join his friends. I figured if I did, I would be obliged to eat. My stomach was not in great shape, so I politely declined.
Jeelani wanted to show me a tiny temple/mosque nearby where, he said, people had been worshiping for 400 years. (Kashmir is mainly Muslim.) We chatted. I took photos — of the mosque, the scenery, the picnickers — then continued back. After crossing the bridge, I tripped over a fat cable and came down hard on the pavement, my face smashing against the cement. Blood. Pain. Two men ahead heard the collision and came to my assistance. I was more worried about my precious camera than my face. Fortunately the camera still worked. Praise be Canon!. I am a klutz and have fallen too many times with this camera. (My husband calls me “Crash.”) Miraculously the trusty Canon survives.
My face fared less well. The nice rescuers offered me a ride to my hotel, to a hospital. I opted to hike back. At the hotel, I asked for ice. I must have frightened the desk clerk who also suggested I go to the hospital… I could not imagine a hospital in the boondocks of Kashmir.
I was lucky. We had a doctor in our tour group. He said he did not think my nose was broken. My teeth were probably OK. Best treatment: ice and pain medication.
It was not that painful, but I was a sight with a lip that turned purple and looked worse than those fat lips you can buy for Halloween. Makeup helped cover up the marks on the battered and also swollen nose, but nothing could help the deformed lip. I got used to stares during the rest of the journey.
Nonetheless, it was a rewarding experience. In Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir on Dal Lake, I took off shopping on my own. I made several purchases at the Kashmir Gift Store where I had a fascinating conversation with shop owner, Nazir.
First, a bit of background. India’s northernmost state, Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), is bordered by Pakistan and China. Until the early 19th century it was a collection of distinct regions under Sikh rule. The British defeated the Sikhs in 1846, and in ensuing years the region chose to join India. An India-Pakistan conflict has simmered and boiled since 1947.
Today the region is divided amongst three countries (Pakistan, China and India) and entangled in a territorial dispute. The major conflict is between India and Pakistan, each believing that it should control the entire region. A great number of Kashmiris, however, want independence.
In 1989, following rigged elections, militant groups took up arms to free Kashmir from India. Since then, some 30,000 have died in the fighting. Violence in the region has subsided and the once thriving tourist industry is on the rebound. However, during our visit security was tight following an incident in which Indian soldiers shot four Kashmiris who protested the alleged rape of a Kashmiri girl by the solders. We were stopped at road blocks. Armed soldiers were seen along the roads and in Srinagar. There was a three-day strike when all shops and businesses were closed in protest.
The inhabitants of J&K belong to three religions, with Kashmir being mainly Muslim, Jammu mainly Hindu, and the Ladakhis in the east divided almost equally between Buddhists and Muslims. Although Indians will tell you they are not prejudiced against Muslims or Kashmiris, I sensed the opposite. Most of the Kashmiris I spoke to want independence.
“We want our freedom,” said a young man working on the houseboat/hotel where we stayed in Srinagar. “We are proud of Kashmir,” Jeelani announced. “We want our independence. We have water resources. India uses our resources for its power.”
Nazir, the shop keeper, has a different, perhaps more realistic, view. “Kashmir is surrounded by three nuclear powers. It is impossible for us to be independent,” he said. “We need the protection of India… Yet people should be given the right to decide.”
As Lonely Planet states, “the issue of Kashmir remains intractable…it needs brave souls to resolve this issue.”
Nazir told me the Muslims in Kashmir practice Sufism. They are not fundamentalists, nor violent. “This is a beautiful place. We want Kashmir to be the Switzerland of Asia. We don’t want bloodshed. No one should be killed in my land…The military should be on the borders, not in the cities.”
Almost as rewarding as my encounters with Kashmiris were the visits and sights in this place “more beautiful than the heaven.” … Fewer clouds would have made it even better.
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