Conflict and Disinformation in Wintery Kashmir

January 14, 2018

Image: Military stationed at an intersection

Taking a bus into Kashmir you pass several military convoys, men with machine guns on the road side every few minutes and numerous parked armored vehicles with men manning guns in the turrets. It is clear the Kashmir and Jammu (J&K) region of India is still a conflict region when I heard an IED killed four police officers in Sopore, 25 miles NW of the main city of Srinagar the day we arrived.

Image: A passing military convoy of several dozen trucks

How Much Conflict is in Kashmir

The history of Kashmir is that it was its own nation state for one hundred years until the atrocity that is The Partition leaked into the Kashmiri Kingdom. The ruling Hindu minority over the majority Muslims asked India to invade in exchange for annexation to fend off Pakistani support of its people. The UN eventually got involved and set up a Line of Control (border) and still has a huge base / office here. So currently, Pakistan, Kashmiris, India and even China claim part or all of the J&K region as their own.

Like most places in the NW of India, The Partition drained Kashmir of their heterogeneity and every person I met gladly tells me how the population is 95% Muslim (previously 20% Hindu). While some people seem more tolerant (at least towards fellow Abrahamic religions), others prefer religious law be enacted here. In fact it is the first place I’ve been where the Call To Prayer transforms into an hour long broadcast sermon because only one mosque allows women.

The people universally feel the military responsible for problems here. They make problems and they get a reaction the feeling goes. Possibly because of this oppression, the people here seem hard. Not the mustachioed, joking, smiling Indians I am familiar with but stern faces of suspicion. In my travels I’ve found India to be a land where women seem invisible. The people on the streets are 90% male. These two aspects unite in Kashmir as going through a town of hundreds of men all looking upset, wearing their long overcoats. These loose overcoats typically conceals a hand holding the whicker basket containing a clay dish of coals they use to keep warm. But could easily be concealing anything. Maybe this is just my mind polluted with western images, but this was much different than I felt in the Middle East.

Image: The coals basket used for personal warmth

The military and government do seem an easy target for difficulties considering they restrict the number of propane canisters (used for heating, cooking, etc) that can be purchased a year to 12 and the frequent two hour brown outs that are predictably situated everyday at sunset and sunrise, if not other times. The only light in our house boat typically was typically powered by a gas generator. Strange regulations also exist that prevent Kashmiris from cutting or even tapping for syrup the Maple and other trees that exist here. Finally, like other oppressed areas such as Tibet, the people feel their natural resources being striped away. Their forests logged and their mountains mined with the wealth exported as well as the material.

To my casual observance however, the military seems much more interested in keeping their supply lines open and their bases safe than pacifying the populous. Outside the main highways and intersections you find the armored, machine gun squads much less frequent and absent entirely in the tourist towns of Naranag and Pahalgam. Still, on the roads you see MANY military personnel and vehicles which is certain to have an effect. This actually felt equal or greater to the military presence in Israel.

Many buildings can be seen around Srinagar with high fences, barbed wire and their own pillboxes but these unmanned structures seem only left over as civilian protections from the great conflict here in the 90s. A time when our house boat host traveled to Delhi to convince tourists he met at restaurants and hotels to come visit his boat amid the active, violent conflict.

In complete honesty the area feels as though India culture was foreignly injected into Kashmir to support the tastes of Indian tourism. The people, food and culture all seem more similar to Pakistan or their own than Indian. Chapatis are replaced with bread, vegetarian food becomes harder to find, chai gives way to kashmir green tea with honey and cows can rarely be found on the street. The land looks like Minnesotan forests and Apple orchards in the Kashmir Valley and Canada or Alaska in the mountains. Even my Indian SIM didn’t work here, another one of these Indian security measures that seems more effective at blocking tourism than terrorism. In the true definition of a nation-state, this should be its own state just as it was before Partition.

The Impossibility of Information

I met many people over the five weeks in North India who were from Kashmir. Most said it was too cold and snowy to visit, not a problem for us I would insist. Only one taxi driver insisted Kashmir was full of terrorists and unsafe. Surprise to me when I show up to Srinagar to feel the expected cold but see zero snow.

Image: Frozen rice fields in Kashmiri winter haze

This was nothing compared to the disinformation we received upon arriving to Srinagar, Kashmir’s summer capital. In January, the coldest month and just before the big snows of February, tourism is at an all time low. Everyone is eager for work. Every gate for the boat taxis to the 3000+ ornate house boats tourists stay in on Dal Lake had over a dozen men standing around and half a dozen Shikaras (boat taxis) floating inactive. Everyone is a driver, boat taxi, house boat owner and guide. Either through blatant dishonesty or self serving ignorance everyone gives a reason to discredit the last person you talked to, thwart some prior plan of yours and propose a new one through themselves. All in the interest in “helping” you, of course brother.

The main problem with this is that India is a place where you have to rely on people for information. The un-Indian pastime of an active lifestyle has yielded little or no local organizations for trekking, climbing or mountaineering. Possibly due to the complexity of the country, there is little do-it-yourself information on such activities left by other foreign adventurers online. There exists a number of websites which offer outfitter services as a package for 100x the true cost but only 10% of these actually responded to my inquiries for winter treks in the Kashmir Valley and Leh. None would partial outfit me with just a single guide or information. Hotels similarly break with the worldwide duty of being information hubs for travelers and only really supply information if it relates to a package paid through themselves.

I was able to find three articles with titles like 5 reasons to visit Kashmir in the winter. However, I can now decode them as paid advertising from the tourism board since their propaganda was mostly wrong. Most blatantly, their pictures must be from the summer because a haze settles in the valley in the winter from the wood heating fires. You cannot even see the mountains in this foothill of the Himalaya.

Pervasive Disinformation

Nearly everyone we talked to said that it was too snowy to do any trekking and it was dangerous because of avalanches even though I could see no snow in Srinagar. Then I found some people who said they could guide day hikes. Then when after some effort I found one outfitter online for a multi day trek but my host said he was lying and you would return to the village everyday. However, now my host would recommend a guide out of their base village for day trekking, something he said was impossible before.

Image: “too much snow” in Pahalgam

In the worst example I was to meet up with a guide to get more information and negotiate price in person for trekking at the gate closest to my house boat. Walking to the gate at our appointed time I announced “I’m looking for someone with Kashmir Treks” to one group of the 15 men standing around. “Brice?” said one of the men in response. I confirmed, you are with Kashmiri Treks? “Yes, yes. Go to the houseboat and I will meet you on it to discuss. Go here on this boat-taxi. I will meet you in just 15 minutes.” We get in a boat and after twenty minutes a guy wanting to sell us jewelry shows up but not our guide. In response, I send a semi snarky message to our outfitter that apparently he isn’t going to show up after an hour. Many hours later I get a message back from the guide that he saw someone like me get into a boat quickly at the gate but he waited there for an hour.

Apparently, the whole exchange I had at the gate was a sham by the boatmen to impersonate this guide to either get me to pay for a boat taxi I didn’t need and/or make it so I only pay for services through them. We finally got things sorted out on the phone and eventually had to set a meeting point in town away from the lake to avoid such things happening again.

Then there is the time a driver brought us to a restaurant in the middle of nowhere for breakfast where his “friend” helped the owners charge us 180 rs for 3 paratha. 2-3x the actual price! A particular blow because restaurants are only place where we have been safe from negotiation and price gouging through fixed menus in India. Here our driver helped us get taken advantage of. Even after I called them out on this they wouldn’t adjust the price.

In a third example we asked our hosts for advice on where to go trekking. A day trip to Pahalgam is arranged two hours away. We arrive to an army of ponies being touted to ride up a trail. This trail is “too muddy and snowy to walk” according to them. Actually the trail is a one hour walk on a gravel road which leads to a fenced area they charge admission into and the mountains are barley visible. No other trails can be accessed by our car because the taxi union in this town doesn’t allow outside cars up the two further valley roads. Transport to here from Srinagar was expensive and this was not at all what we described as wanting. I was very upset.

The many experiences like this in Kashmir has made me hate the place. Never have I been to a place with so much dishonesty and lack of humanity for a traveler. I’ve been in India five weeks, so it’s not like I’m new to negotiation and manipulation tactics. However, in Kashmir it was EVERY person who treated me this way while in India many people seemed to genuinely care for me. After three of my ten days in Kashmir (and the onset of travelers sickness) I became so disheartened, frustrated and angered I wanted to leave. The only thing that really kept me here was that I would loose $180 in flights if I rescheduled.

So is Kashmir a place to visit?

I’m sure Kashmir is beautiful in the summer when you can actually see the mountains and they open up for great trekking. The trails are probably so well tracked with pony poop that self guiding is easy if you can figure out something portable for a stove. Maybe people are less difficult because there is more business.

However, I can’t really desire ever to come back here given how I was treated. There are mountains many places, even inside of India. Additionally, people expect you to spend hundreds of USD on jewelry, saffron, rugs and kashmir scarves. They act offended when a “rich foreigner” like me doesn’t. Elsewhere in India expensive means 10-20 USD.

In spite of all these feelings the trip wasn’t a complete bust though. I did get to stay in an ornate house boat, spend two nights in a mountain goat hut keeping warm by a wood fire and a couple days in Gulmarg with “some” snow. However, I was waiting to leave Kashmir all along the way.