Trecking in the Himalaya's
28.06.2009 - 13.07.2009 35 °C
Kashmir is a land of great contrast. The striking natural beauty of its valleys and mountains contrast with the ugliness of its military, amassed at every corner, weapons polished and menacing. Throughout history war and beauty have shared a strange affinity, from the poppy fields of World War 1 to the mushroom cloud of the atomic bomb, and nowhere is this more evident than in Kashmir. As the bus winds through jaw dropping valleys and ravines, the first image i recall was a recruitment advert for the Indian army, depicting a huge rocket recoiling from its discharge and the caption 'artillery - the gods of war.'
The army is everywhere you turn, every streetcorner, outside every bank and business. As you travel the only route up to the capital Srinagar, the bus passes vast military barracks, checkpoints and snaking convoys of HGV's headed to restock the north with supplies. The military presence is equally enthralling and alarming at first, however, it's attraction soon wanes and most soldiers appear almost indescribably bored, cooked in the sun and desperate for some entertainment.
Indian independence in 1949 marked a decisive stage in the history of Kashmir when it was divided in two between Pakistan and India. This decision was wholeheartedly against the wishes of Mahatma Gandhi, who insisted that Kashmir must remain part of a unified India. The result has been over half a century of violent conflict, committed, in the main, by terrorist organizations committed to realizing a unified and autonomous Kashmiri state. What has struck me is that there is an atmosphere of fear and intimidation that permeates Kashmiri society. Nowhere is this more evident than in the relationship between the police and the local population. Only yesterday, 5 minutes from my houseboat, there were riots between the locals and the police, whom they accuse of kidnapping and murdering one of their own, a boy of 17.
In Srinagar, shopping can be difficult, as people appear to be forever on strike, using direct action to try to exert pressure on the police. 6 months ago a woman from NZ was raped by two Kashmiri's from outside the area, and the locals believe the police know who and where they are, but are choosing to protect them. The locals regularly strike as a protest against this police corruption, in favour of justice for the woman and to try to soften the blow that such an outrage has against the crucial tourist trade. I certainly noted this as quite a statement concerning the morals of indigenous Kashmiri's, that they sacrifice their interests in an attempt to bring about justice.
Kashmir is no easy place for certain people to travel. For Israeli Jews it is certainly a challenge because prejudice, on the part of Muslims, appears to be widespread, due mainly to the tensions between Israel and the behemoth of Islam, Iran. Some restaurants and shops will not serve an Israeli because of this nonsensical clash of religion. You do not see many Israeli's in Kashmir and for good reason, but those you do, and there are a few, have to adopt a tough but reasonable attitude; they have no trouble with Kashmiri's so why should the Kashmiri's have trouble with them?
Tourism is the big Kashmiri industry after war. The capital Srinagar is home to the serene Dal Lake, an achingly beautiful stretch of water, full of elegant houseboats left over from the collapse of the British raj. These houseboats are the star attraction here and range in quality and price from the super deluxe to the downright decrepit. Some have drawing rooms, mahogany dining tables and four poster beds, others toilets that stink, showers that don't work and owners who wouldn't look out of place in the mafia. There is an entire community who live on the lake and depend on it for their livelihood. They include an army of shikara boatmen, a shikara being a floating taxi with colourful reclining cushions,which make for very a welcome alternative to the humble Indian rickshaw. Everyone travels by shikara, children headed for school, servants off to market and families headed into town for a party. There are floating markets, vegetable gardens, vast swathes of pink lotus flowers and white waterlilies. Overhead eagles circle and swirl in the breeze, scanning the water for signs of fish. In the background the brooding Kashmiri mountain range is set, throwing a protective arm out around the capital.
Life on the lake idles by softly and peacefully most of the time. Kashmiri people know that they live in the lap of luxury when it comes to natural beauty.Throughout India, when you mention Kashmir, they call it the 'paradise' of the land, tarnished by war, but not broken.The Kashmiri people are what remained after the British went away, the sweet secret of the Indian summer, the jewel of the Raj. People would come here from all over India to paddle down the soft backwaters and escape the searing heat of the south. British colonial families could enjoy the decadence of the houseboats, drink tea from Darjeeling and play bridge on the deck. Servants would be on hand to refill gentlemen with their favorite scotch whisky and, the ladies of leisure, with their gin and tonic. Life here must have been heavenly for some British, a paradise within the blistering chaos of the Indian subcontinent.
Nowhere is the natural beauty of Kashmir more evident than when trekking up in the mountains and valleys. We arranged our trek through Hamid, a typical Kashmiri businessman, likeable but shady, the son of the houseboat owner with whom we were staying. As you emerge from the five hour uphill journey through the forest, you are greeted by snowy mountain peaks on all sides, lush grassy meadows and beautiful calm lakes, shimmering in the heat. The landscape is deserted but for a few gypsy families who make their living farming sheep and horses, as they have done for generations. Each day is spent walking amongst the hills, fishing in the lakes and collecting firewood to keep warm in the cold evenings. Springs of pure, fresh mountain water stream by through impressive forests of conifers and pines, a landscape not dissimilar to that of some parts of the British Isles. The altitude is such that on an overcast day you can be enveloped by cloud, and on a beautiful clear day the sun beats down with a relentless ferocity. Five days in this paradise is a breathtaking experience and you can't help but feel envious of those Kashmiri's who live and breathe this life, away from the relative madness of urban dwelling. They are poor but they survive, year in and year out, using skills in horsemanship and mountain survival passed down from their fathers. It is undoubtedly a tough life for any Westerner to endure, and a five day snap shot, amongst the dreamlike setting, was just about perfect.
I am very glad that i took the decision to see Kashmir, as i have learnt so many things about the nature of its people and experienced the joyous surroundings in which they live. War and conflict are ever present, but for the people life moves on,and i do not feel this should put people off, except perhaps for the Israeli's, at least until Jews and Muslims patch things up (fat chance!) It is undoubtedly different to anywhere i have been so far in India and for that reason alone it will long stay in my memory.