Did you know that, apparently, Kashmir is the must-visit location on your trip to India? And did you know that, even though the beauty of the location should suggest otherwise, it is one of the least visited places by tourists in India? (Oh, and did you know that, according to all Indians, the most beautiful men and women are Kashmiri?!)
Me: If there is one place in India that I absolutely have to see in India, where would you send me?
Indian friends: Kashmir. You have to go to Kashmir. It is the most beautiful place in India.
I think I had this conversation with at least nine of my Indian friends, each with separate interests and personalities. Yet they all said the same thing. So I passed the message on to my father. We were going to the North of India, to Kashmir.
On the day I am writing this story, another five people died in the eternal battle for Kashmir. India and Pakistan keep claiming the territory as their own, while Kashmir wants nothing more than to be free and independent. According to the Guardian, 68,000 people have already died since the rebels started resisting against the Indian regime in 1989.
Now, I already knew that Kashmir was called “undisputed land,” but no one had told me it could be very unsafe to go there! I had only seen the pictures of beautiful landscapes and heard stories relating amazing memories, so I was just really excited to go see for myself. An “off the beaten track” location in India!
But the problems started already when booking flights to Srinagar from Jaipur. For some reason the connecting flights had to be booked separately. That meant we had to pick up our luggage in Delhi and pay the overweight again. (I explained before that for domestic flights on 15kg of check-in luggage is allowed.) We experienced more issues during the journey, which I will not bother you with.
The flight to Srinager itself was totally worth it. We flew over the bright yellow mustard flower fields and the snowy mountain tops of the Himalayas. It was a promising preview of what was yet to come.
At the airport, the excited and peaceful feeling that had grown within me quickly vanished. The safe and secure feeling I have had everywhere in India disappeared in a few heartbeats.
Soldiers and military people everywhere. Barbed wire and tanks all around. We had to show our passport several times, had to keep repeating what our plans were, who would be our guide, give the addresses of all the places we would be visiting… At that moment, I couldn’t believe that this was the beautiful Srinagar that I was promised.
The driver was waiting for us outside the airport. He was the guide of one of my batch mates once and had become a good friend. We could trust him to show us around. One of the first things I asked him was whether he was able to provide me with a sim card, because in Kashmir you can only use a Kashmiri sim. That is one of the consequences of being in a civil war for almost thirty years. After some unnecessary difficulties and necessary Indian complexities, I succeeded in obtaining a sim. Frankly speaking, contact with the outside world does give me some peace of mind!
The driver took us through bushy roads covered by grey, ominous clouds to Dal Lake. We passed by more army posts, tanks and armed soldiers who were stationed on the side of the roads, in front of grizzled, wooden houses.
The first two nights we would spent on the lake according to the original plan. But the driver quickly suggested to go to Gulmarg the next day, where you can take a chairlift to the top of a mountain. Nevertheless, as soon as we arrived on our houseboat, my dad had made up his mind: he wanted to leave right away.
But if there is one thing I’ve learned during my stay in India, it is that you should give everything not two, but multiple chances to really learn to appreciate it. So we made a deal: we would discover Srinagar with the driver today, go somewhere else tomorrow and then decide to stay or leave. I suggested to go to Pahalgam the next day instead.
Many Indians like to compare Kashmir with Switzerland. To us, Europeans, this comparison seems a bit superficial, but I can see where the idea comes from. It is cold here, really cold, it rains, it’s cloudy, it’s green and mountainous, you can see snow on the mountain tops and the views are spectacular. But the “chalets” in Kashmir and the military presence could never be found in neutral, peaceful Switzerland.
I only had my summer clothes with me. In Bhubaneswar, where the temperature never went below 25°C (77°F), I didn’t need sweaters and scarfs. In Kashmir, the temperature at night goes close to the freezing point and during the day it feels like a typical autumn day in Belgium. I wasn’t dressed for this!
Dal Lake was really beautiful though. The boat ride in the shikara to the houseboat was worth it every time, despite the cold and rain. We also visited several parks with mesmerizing views. I was most pleasantly surprised by the hidden tulip fields in the middle of the mountains! Even in Holland I have never seen a tulip field.
We spent the night under our electric blankets on the boat.
The next day didn’t start on a positive note. The boat owners tried to make us pay more than we agreed on, the “driver” of the shikara took us to the floating market against our will, and when we arrived on mainland, we had to wait almost an hour in the rain before we heard anything from the driver. In the meantime, they tried to hook us for a boat ride for three times the normal price and we had already said several times that we didn’t want to go for a boat ride in the pouring rain.
After a few hours of discussing, we could finally start the journey to Pahalgam. In a smooth pace, we drove by the mustard flower fields I had seen from the plane, and enjoyed the jaw-dropping views of the Himalayas. We tasted kawa at a roadside shop. Kawa is a fluorescent yellow, warm drink based on saffron. By the way, did you know that most of the world’s saffron is coming from Kashmir? (Just like they also export cricket bats!)
We arrived in Pahalgam. It felt even colder here. First, we went looking for a hotel, in the pouring rain. I don’t know if it is because Pahalgam is a relatively popular destination within Kashmir, or if it’s because we are clearly Europeans, but everything seemed outrageously expensive. The only reason I wanted to go to Pahalgam in the first place, is because I wanted to do the main activity here: horseback riding in the mountains. But in this weather, we would only get sick (or more sick in my dad’s case).
After a few hours in the hotel, my dad and I decided that Kashmir wasn’t the right fit for us. We could understand why my Indian friends would send us here – we would sure feel good in the climate we are most used to right?
It wasn’t easy telling the driver that we would be flying off the next day, canceling the trip then and there. He was not happy, to say the least, even though I tried to explain to him it wasn’t his fault. We just couldn’t be happy in “the Switzerland of India”.
Leaving Srinagar also wasn’t that easy. While just nearing the airport, we already had to run our luggage through a metal detector/scanner while the car was being thoroughly searched. I think our hand luggage, passport and plane tickets were checked at least seven times (that I can remember). We even had to go on the tarmac to point out our luggage and prove it was ours.
While I was waiting until my dad’s electronic devices where checked by the safety personal to see if they weren’t bombs in disguise, I had an interesting conversation with a typical handsome Kashmiri boy. At least I got to see one of those!
By the way, did you know that you are only allowed to live in Kashmir if you are born there or marry into one of the families there? This way, the beauty of the population remains mostly a trait of this region. The easiest way to recognize a Kashmiri person is by their bright blue eyes. The pretty women I heard so much about I hadn’t seen, though. They are basically hiding underneath their bourkas. After all, Kashmir is represented by 90% muslims.
I know this isn’t the most positive blog post I have ever written, but I try to be honest about my experiences. So I have mentioned both the positive and negative aspects of this Indian State. Nevertheless, I was secretly really relieved to leave and head for sunnier territory… 30 degrees warmer to be exact.
Goa here we come!