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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

How I Went To Kashmir

Disclaimer: I went to Kashmir 2 years ago, for the first time as a tour guide. This is a prelude to the series of Kashmir stories I shall be sharing on my blog.

It was in the summer of 2012 when I led my first group tour to Kashmir. With me was a family of 25 people of all shapes and sizes, but mostly large and extra large. They had come to Delhi from the interiors of Tamil Nadu and not very comfortable with either English or Hindi, they wanted a guide to show them around Kashmir. On 24 June, as they animatedly chattered away on the flight to Srinagar, all I could think was how in the devil’s name was I going to make them like me, when I couldn’t even speak their language. This story is, however, about a lot more than that.

Let’s commence at the beginning. The tale of Kashmir will always start with that cold breeze that hits your face as soon as you get down at Srinagar airport and stays with you faithfully till the end. The story will, as it must, talk of the beauty of the land – of the omnipresence of the Himalayas in every frame, and the streams that always ran parallel to our tempo travellers throughout the trip. It will talk of the apple orchards and the saffron fields you read about in your Lonely Planet Guide, but it must not forget the chinars – those magnificent trees with trunks so large that you could not help wonder if this is what Enid Blyton had described as the faraway tree.

What the guide books never tell you, for they are written only to glorify, is of a shadow that shrouds the land.  Of the barbed wired check posts that you start seeing right from when you leave the airport, of the soldiers standing in the farms, of the uniformed man watching you from his makeshift asbestos cabin near the Dal.

When we read of Kashmir on travel websites, they tell us of the pretty houseboats on the Dal, Gulmarg’s cable car (the highest in the world) and skiing track, and Sonamarg’s  popularity as a snowboarding and horse riding destination.  Visit Kashmir, they tell us, to spend your honeymoon, to live in the land of the Gods, to ski, to paint, to love. A tourist’s heaven, they say excitedly.

It’s a state that desperately depends on tourism to make daily ends meet.  It is the story of the handsome Firdaus, a 17 old History Hons student, sitting in his pheran (local Kashmiri male robe) in a dingy shop just outside Gulmarg, renting out snow jackets and shoes to tourists eager to ride up the highest cable car in the world. It is also the story of Pervez, that young lad from Sonamarg, whose job is to seat tourists on underfed, overworked ponies and then guide them uphill over 6 kilometers of grass, slush and rocks to those snow-white hills where we ski and sled so joyfully. Everywhere in Kashmir there are hundreds of young men like Firdaus and Pervez, and that includes the courteous bell boys at the Adhoos hotel where we were staying – them with graduate educational backgrounds but no jobs that these degrees should have rightfully procured. 

It’s also about Fayaz and Farooq who drove us around the beautiful state for six days, and became my friends. One evening, I slipped out of the hotel and went over to Farooq’s to spend the night with his family. As I saw the lean man, hunching over his food, the wrinkles and grey hair shining in the lamp’s beam, I figured he must be around fifty. “Thirty two,” he replied when I asked him. “Twenty five,” quipped Fayaz. It is the tale of a state whose political misfortune and stress has caused an entire generation and the next to age quicker.

And that is why the internet needs more travel writers. A content writer has only the freedom to look at a place for its lush verdant valleys or sun kissed beaches. Kashmir, of course, has oodles of the former. But a travel writer has the power to smell the air, to peer inside a house, and most importantly the power to bring out a story, hopefully with compassion and life.
In Kashmir, you shall see handsome young men, with their stubbled beards and hair parted in the middle. The women are light eyed, and their heads are covered with scarves. It is a race that is naturally beautiful – apple cheeks and glowing skin.
Kashmir has had a torrid past, but conditions are now improving. The last 4-5 years have seen tourists come in thousands, the most in the last 20 years.  And that’s how we came in too, to ride the shikaras on the Dal, to tramp through the Mughal Gardens, buy original saffron and dry fruits, to run up pretty white mountains and click a dozen pictures in all these places.
But that day as we first sat in the flight from Delhi to Srinagar, I was absolutely unaware about how this journey through the beautiful land would completely overwhelm me. As my tour party chattering animatedly with each other in the tempo traveller that drove us from the airport to the hotel, all I could think of was how in the devil’s name was I going to make them like me, when I couldn’t even speak their language.  The breeze kept blowing merrily though.

---------   The End ----------

More stories on the Kashmir trip coming next week

Now Read:

1) Couchsurfing in Goa : The House near Toff Toff's
2) The Road Trip Adventures: A Prologue
3) The good men of India: A story at 17000 feet


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