We lost our hearts in Kashmir, then it got complicated

Lush green mountain valleys, snow capped peaks, slopes that descend into dense pine forest as far as the eye can see. This is Kashmir. Without question, one of the most naturally beautiful places I have seen, our journey there taking in what is surely one of the most spectacular roads on this earth.

After three weeks of high altitude desert in Ladakh the greenery of Kashmir offered a much appreciated change of scenery to the barren landscapes across the eastern side of the Leh-Srinagar highway.

Arriving to Srinagar late at night, we arrived to our accommodation – a rustic, yet charming little houseboat that didn’t appear to have changed all too much since the days of the British Empire. Houseboats are the place to stay in Srinagar, and are a novel experience. Possessing an abundance of character, history and charm, once you were on board you felt as though you had stepped back in time to a different age. Our hosts, a local family, had been running a boat here since 1820. Their great-great-great grandfather (or something of the like) had started out in the trade back then, the business blooming in the area as foreigners were forbidden from staying on land. In place of colonial officials and British Generals seeking solace from inhospitable Indian summers who would stay for weeks and months on end, predominantly Indian tourists and a few intrepid westerners make the trip nowadays for a few nights at most.

Srinagar is famed for it’s local gardens, despite gardening not being high up on my list of interests, it’s one of the ‘the things to do’ around the city, and the gardens did not disappoint. Likewise for the nearby Dal Lake, we had a thoroughly enjoyable day boating around relaxing on the lake. We quite liked the idea of heading out into Kashmir, but the areas outside of Srinagar had been badly affected by landslides, unseasonal rains (for the area) and the FCO advised against all travel outside of Srinagar.

People we spoke to were all jovial, friendly, always asking us what we thought about Kashmir, and generally made us feel very welcome. We were loving Kashmir and Srinagar at this point.

Things took a minor turn on day two, when our houseboat hosts advised us to change our plans to visit the old part of town in the morning, because of a general strike that had been called for the day. We laughed, as there had been a general strike in Ladakh about three days earlier, that had wrought havoc on everybodys plans. The comparisons end there. In Ladakh the strike was supposedly in protest at the damage Indian tourists were doing to the local environment, dropping litter, behaving irresponsibly – it was actually quite nice to see a region and local people defending their environment and seeking sustainable tourism. In Srinagar, a quick google search revealed that the strike, and anticipated trouble were in response to the burning of the ISIS flag by Hindu nationalists somewhere in Srinagar two days previously. The ISIS flag contains holy scriptures, apparently the strike was called to protest the burning of the scriptures on the flag, not the actual flag itself. It was all very complicated.

The same google search revealed that ISIS flags had since been hoisted outside the very mosque we were supposed to be visiting that day, barely 24 hours previously, and that grenades had been thrown into local shops less than 2km from where we were staying as well. Suddenly our newfound love of Kashmir was becoming slightly tainted.

Later on that day, another grenade attack was reported on a police checkpoint outside the city. This time a local vendor was killed. Still, we had seen nothing to feel threatened or in any danger, all our experiences and interactions were positive. Srinagar was the most militarised city either of us have ever been in, but it felt calm and safe – we were told it’s much better now than it has been for a long time, and having since read about the recent past, during which tens of thousands were killed, few could argue with that assertion.

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On our third day, we went out to the lake and ate lunch in a posh five-star hotel. In the afternoon, we retired to our houseboat, and chilled out reading books. At about 5pm, we heard multiple loud explosions, very close to us. Nobody else batted an eyelid, and life continued as normal, so we didn’t think about it too much. Later, we found out that there had been a protest about 400 metres from where we were, directed at local police, who were being accused of the extra-judicial killing of a 16 year old school boy whose throat had been cut, and body had been pulled from the river we were staying on, barely 200 metres down from us, that same afternoon. Local people were angry, the explosions were actually tear gas being fired to disperse the protestors when things started to turn nasty. We weren’t feeling quite so in love with Srinagar by now.

Next morning, we asked our houseboat hosts if it was safe for us to take a little walk, as we didn’t want to spend all day sat on the boat, doing nothing. They said town was calm now, and that we should walk up along the river, as it’s a nice little walk. So we did. A couple of hundred metres up, we found an entire area with shopfronts and buildings daubed, chillingly, and simply, with ‘ISIS’. It appeared to have been written by the same individual(s), but what surprised me (perhaps naively, I don’t know), was that no effort was being made to clean peoples shopfronts and houses of this graffiti. I know if somebody graffitis something unsavoury on property in the UK, or China, for that matter, efforts are made to clean it up. That wasn’t happening here.

Anyway, we carried on walking. Suddenly a military helicopter whizzed overhead, and I saw at least a dozen, maybe twenty, (I didn’t count, it happened so quickly) heavily armed soldiers, running towards us in formation, guns at the ready, less than fifty metres away. My heart raced, partly in excitement, the little boy in me felt like I was an extra in a Hollywood movie. I’ve always been attracted to the idea of being a soldier or policeman. Then the mature adult within me, took stock of reality and thought, “Shit, this is well dodgy”. I glanced around hurriedly, there was no imminent threat around us, there was a main road, barely five metres away, with armed police standing guard. The group of soldiers turned away from us, and stormed down an alleyway. We promptly climbed up a short block of stairs and made it to the road.

“Excuse us officer, is it safe for us to be here? Where is it safe for us to go?”

“Sorry Sir and Madam, this area is now under strict curfew. If you walk that way (down the main road) it is much safer and there should not be any problems.”

Naturally, we followed his instructions and encountered no problems. Despite obvious hostilities between locals and the authorities, nobody gave us any problems and people continued to be warm and welcoming to us. Both police and locals, I lost count of how many hands I ended up shaking. All were at pains to express that people had no problem with foreign tourists.

We made it back to our houseboat safely, and relaxed there for the afternoon. We have no idea if anything else happened that day, we saw or heard no more, but we had seen enough to know that this was probably the dodgiest place we have been to, during five years in Asia. It wasn’t that we felt under threat, or in any danger, it was more the risk of getting caught up in something nasty, which given events of the previous days, was more than plausible.

Srinagar is a place that has had huge issues, and is doing well to start getting back on to its feet again after a brutal and long insurgency. We knew before going that it could be prone to unrest. Tourists are starting to arrive in numbers, and there is ‘relative’ hope on the horizon for a better future. However, stumbling across areas where ISIS graffiti is daubed so brazenly, seemingly so close to the heart of the city, was enough to make us want to leave. This is a new phenomenon, and hasn’t been seen before in Kashmir.

Despite most people seeming friendly, there remained a lot of stares. Staring is part and parcel of being a white person walking the streets of smaller Asian cities, but sometimes here it felt different.

I cannot (and do not want to) imagine that any of the local people we interacted with here would support an organisation such as ISIS, regardless of how oppressed they may or may not have felt under Indian rule. On the other hand, most the businesses did go on strike, because an ISIS flag was burned, so one does wonder…

But the people we met were just like us, merely wanting to get on with their lives, better themselves, and make an honest living.

Seeing the sign of an organisation that vows to exterminate all non Sunni Muslims, intent on dragging the world back to the Dark Ages, who operate with a barbarity of which would make many Nazi’s squirm, would be enough to cause concern among most tourists, and rational local people as well.

Did we enjoy our time in Srinagar?

Yes and no.

Would we advise foreigners visit?

Probably not, unless you are switched on, well informed and keep up to date on the security situation as it is very fluid and effectively a tinderbox that could go up at any time. Some would say ignorance is bliss, but somewhere like Srinagar, I would suggest that ignorance is stupidity and dangerous.

To the people of Srinagar, if any of you read this, I am confident you recognise that support for ISIS is bad for business and that you also are appalled that any good Muslim could support them, and that you will actively challenge such sympathies if or when you learn of them.

One day we would like to return and do Kashmir’s Great Lakes Trek. It looks incredible. Sadly, I can’t imagine that will be anytime soon.

Note – We were in Srinagar from July 23rd to 28th, 2015.

The UK Foreign Office says travel to Srinagar is okay, but not the areas around it in surrounding Kashmir. See the latest advice, here.

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