Amid guns and roses, Kashmir is wrapped in a rainbow
It is always with mixed emotions that you leave the Valley.
- Total Shares
Even as we set out for the airport after a stunningly beautiful vacation (no one will argue about the beauty of the place), complete shutdown is being observed across Kashmir on Saturday, May 21, 2016.
Srinagar is silent, with traffic off the roads and business establishments closed. It is with mixed emotions we off-load and get ready for multiple baggage scanning and security checks.
The week-long trip has been hallmarked with two images. Roses: Deep blood red, massive, gorgeous, growing free and wild everywhere. Guns: AK-47 totting uniformed men, not everywhere… but, very much there.
This piece is not about the politics of Kashmir, and I am no political commentator or even remotely equipped to be one.
I am a traveller and three years ago when I had gone to Gulmarg, after many decades, invited to review a beautiful new boutique hotel called Khyber, my taxi driver told me:
"Ma'am Kashmir to India aur Pakistan dono ki paan ki dukan hai. Isko band kardenge to who khaiyenge kya"… he seemed convinced there will never be any solution to the situation.
As I see a child pick up a stone and chuck it at a passing BSF jawan in Baramulla, where we have gone visiting an Army friend of ours on the current trip, my mind rewinds to his statement.
Our landing in Srinagar is beautiful as the plane skims snow-clad Himalayas on a gloriously sunny day with deep blue skies. We have fixed a local to come collect us.
We opt to stay one night on a houseboat, the quintessential Srinagar experience. Wherever we go we are swarmed by guides, shawl sellers and hawkers.There is something about the grandeur of nature. It overwhelms every other emotion. Kashmir knows this well.
Our local contact drives us to a restaurant for lunch promising amazing food. Café Sunshine turns out pretty bad on the food front and the kids who have been dreaming of luscious Kashmiri rogan josh and dum aloo are angry and disappointed.
They continue to stay angry and disappointed with the food almost throughout the trip. Dhabas and restaurants across the state have "Punjabified" themselves to please the palate of lakhs of Indian tourists that flock in summers.
We can't blame them maybe, they are the mainstay of the local economy. Badly assembled Muttar-Mushroom, Shahi Paneer, Black Dal and Chicken Curry and the ubiquitous Maggi, follow us everywhere.
In a desperate attempt to shake them off we make the mistake of ordering Chinese one day at the Hotel Heevan in Pahalgam, beautifully located on Lidder River.
We go scrambling back to dal-roti the next day.
Amazing natural gorgeousness and terrible, terrible roads travel with us as we rattle our way from Srinagar to Gulmarg, Gulmarg to Pahalgam, and Baramulla.
We have to return to Srinagar each time in order to get to another destination and the traffic jams are horrible.
The road to Pahalgam is lined with quarried mountains and every village is coated in layers of thick dust as various manners of construction are apparently going on.
We feel as if we are in the bowels of Uttar Pradesh and not in a stunning mountain valley as our vehicle fights for road space with umpteen trucks and we gasp for breath in all the dust flying around.
Our Srinagar vehicle is not allowed to ferry in other locations. All the locals are hand in glove. So while we are paying through our nose for the car to stay with us throughout the trip, the driver deposits us at the hotel and scoots back to base.
We are forced to hire "local" cars to take us around in Gulmarg and Pahalgam.
Gulmarg is carpeted with green meadows peppered with yellow and white wild daisies all wrapped in an embrace by the Pir Panjal Range of the Himalayas.
It would have been awesome if it were not for the irritating horse poop, squabbling guides and crazy chaotic queues for the cable car. But we do manage to forgive it all when the gondola, world's second highest operating cable car deposits us at amazing heights of 14000ft.
The feeling is stupendous. There is something about the grandeur of nature. It overwhelms every other emotion. Kashmir knows this well.
In and around Pahalgam, river Lidder cuts deep pine lined valleys. Waterfalls from glaciers merge into it at various points. Herds of sheep and goats cause road jams.
Walnut, apple and pear orchards line the mountain slopes. As we trek, buy jamewar shawls from weavers who walk the rugged terrains and take confusing lessons from them on what is "real" pashmina we lose all sense of time and place.
After the devastation wreaked by the floods of September, 2014, the tourism sector in Kashmir, badly hit by the calamity, is coming back to life with more than 75,000 tourists visiting the Valley in January this year. Tourist arrivals in 2012 had seen 1,27,4674 Indian travellers as against 37,166 foreigners.
In Baramulla, as we sit with our friend in the Army, a shepherd wanders in with his herd. When politely told by the Jawans to clear the area as it is restricted, he starts shouting and abusing. The kids feel bad.
They are also worried. "Don't worry, they will never say or do anything to a tourist," we are told.
This turns out true. The locals may be ready to fleece you, ask you if you come from "Hindustan" but, they are never impolite or aggressive. I could not fulfil my desire to walk Old Srinagar and have a Noon Chai (salty tea) and choat bread because it is a Friday when I want to venture out.
"Not advisable to walk around Jama Masjid after Friday prayers," our local car driver, who has harassed us in many other ways, politely but firmly warns us.
I am told Kashmir is witnessing a surge in winter sports with Gulmarg becoming a big attraction, along with European skiers Tina and Anil Ambani headed to Gulmarg to ski with their kids.
I am also told J&K is the least poor state in the country with massive fund flow from the Centre to the state.
And, I am told time is not right for the Army to be pulled out as more than a 1,000 terrorists, trained in 17 training camps across Pakistan, have been attempting to cross over into India through the border here.
It is always with mixed emotions that you leave Kashmir. Vignettes of saffron fields and taste of saffron laced kehwa wrap my senses as I finally clear, what I think must have been the fourth body scan, and board the return flight to Delhi.
I am carrying back boxfuls of walnut fudge, bagful of juicy cherries, crunchy almonds, gorgeous woollen weaves… and certain images that refuse to go away. Of guns. And roses.
- Give me a whisper
- And give me a sigh
- Give me a kiss before you
- tell me goodbye
- Don't you take it so hard now
- And please don't take it so bad
- I'll still be thinkin' of you
- And the times we had...
(Don't Cry by Guns N' Roses)