Kashmir…. The word synonymous with paradise on Earth. If not earth, India – at least!
In heydays of 1960 to 1990’s Kashmir was a popular tourist destination among the domestic and International tourists alike. And darling of Bollywood too. It’s difficult to list the number of movies shot in Kashmir till date. You can spot Kashmir connection in at least all popular songs of Bollywood movies shot between 1960’s to late 1980’s.
Early 1990’s brought in militancy in Kashmir along with exodus & killing of Kashmiri Pandits. Tourism in Kashmir became dead. It was only in 2005 that tourist numbers of 1980’s could be restored. From then on number of tourists visiting Kashmir went up year on year.
I visited Kashmir 2 years ago even though it was never on my list for many reasons at the behest of close people. I have experienced and seen similar vistas on locations elsewhere in the Himalayas though these are not easily accessible except through arduous climbs; I never had yearning for Kashmir in same way like everyone else because of this. The problems associated with planning for Kashmir trip has different variables altogether as compared to any other place in Himalayas. Some one might argue that Kashmir is much more than picture perfect postcard views. Yes, I will agree but being a person who loves nature more than anything, other aspects takes a back seat. Kashmir is synonymous with stunning vistas or “Paradise on Earth” tag.
Even though militancy situation improved drastically over the years, troubles keep springing up now and then. Just before my visit to Kashmir, there was a major attack on an army camp on Jammu-Srinagar highway and on Bemina CRPF camp in Srinagar. Afzal Guru hanging compounded problems in Kashmir valley with curfew in many towns. Militants were primarily targeting army and CRPF, but one can still land up in the adverse situation. The militants changed their stance as targeting tourist would adversely affect support from locals Kashmiri people whose lives are dependent on tourists. Getting caught in stone pelting by locals was a serious problem than a curfew.These uncertainties are part of Kashmir trip which are beyond anyone’s control. With presence of paramilitary forces in Kashmir, you could either be scared or relieved depending on how you view things. We deliberately avoided our travel with any military movements, looking at increasing number of militant attacks on forces.
Fleecing of tourist is rampant across popular tourist circuits in Kashmir with Sonmarg topping the list followed by Gulmarg. I came across “thug” pony owners in Pahalgam, who agreed to take me to Baisaran (popular tourist places in Pahalgam, Kashmir) but decided to make extra money by cutting short in between. He pointed out some obscure point on way as Baisaran; he wanted to return midway to cut his trip time and thereby use it to ferry another tourist. It was only when I accused him of cheating along with support of other pony owners, he gave in. I told him upfront that I have seen many pictures of Baisaran and this wan’t one.I had to pressurize fellow pony owners to correct him as he was bringing bad name to his state & such instances will scare tourists in future.
Another trick or tourist scam in Kashmir is that guides and pony owners will promise you to show 3/5/7 points. In reality there is only one or two places to see rest all points or places are created to add value to the deal and have no meaning. We were promised ‘Kashmir point’, which was nothing but some mountain without any name! It was probably creation of tourist guides and touts of Pahalgam!
Similarly, tourists gets fleeced with gum boot and jacket rentals in Gulmarg and Sonmarg. Taxi operators stop much before Gulmarg and create circumstances for tourist to hire boots and jackets even though one might not need them.
The tourist is unable to assess the situation as he is yet to reach Gulmarg, he buys the story. Similarly, at Gondola level 2 of Afarwat peak in Gulmarg, skier guides trap the gullible tourists by selling a story that they will take them little further on ski and show them points and views which otherwise they cannot on their own.They are majorly selling LOC- India Pakistan border. He then asks them to step on the ski. He takes them around some 100 meters and points to some point in distance passing it off as LOC point. While selling their services they talk about showing 3/4 points which are nothing worth talking about. Sonmarg is quite infamous for fleecing by pony owners. One can check online forums like Tripadvisor and Indiamike on relevant threads to confirm this.
In Pahalgam, you need to hire a local taxi to visit tourists spots like Aru, Betaab valley and Chandanwari. You cannot use your pre-hired taxi to visit these places! This is due to tourist taxi racket of Pahalgam. The taxi union of Pahalgam dictates the charges for visiting these three locations. The time allotted for tourist at each site is pre-fixed, if someone exceeds the allotted time – you need pay extra!
There are very high chances that you’ll be approached by a Kashmiri shawl or suit seller across Kashmir – in houseboats during your stay in both Nagin and Dal lake, while you are enjoying Shikara ride in Dal lake, in public parks in Pahalgam. These salesman are quite skilled. They are persistent and quite deft in using emotional dialogues to make a sale. There are very high chances that women will fall into their sales trap. One comes across similar tourist traps in Agra and Jaipur as well, but Kashmir steals the show!
The hotels in Kashmir are quite expensive as compared to hotels elsewhere in India given similar level of service and quality of property. One of the major reason is hardly any new hotels have come up in last few years in tourist sectors in Kashmir, creating scarcity of rooms. While I don’t advocate building of new hotels or rooms because of its ecological impact, I seriously think that either the room rate must be realistic or at least hotels be upgraded to the levels of price charged.
I never felt scared at any moment nor was I troubled by any one in Kashmir, but it’s just not same as elsewhere say in Himachal Pradesh or uttarkhand. I was well advised to stay away from certain places specially the isolated ones. There are many places where troubles brew up at the slightest instance. Some villages are popular for stone pelting on way to Gulmarg and Sonmarg. It was surprising that town of Anantnag is called Islamabad by Kashmiris! Locals in Kashmir would refer to non Kashmiri as “Hindustani” which shows the state of mental divide.
I had many conversations with locals in Kashmir. There are pains of past – tough years. I spoke with a Kashmiri manager of a hotel owned by a Punjabi; he was grateful that owners paid salary through the long tough years out of his pockets as tourist arrival dropped to zero during militancy years.They have pain of not being able to get permission from local authorities to get the hotel renovated. Similarly, a taxi owner commented that he would want both Pakistani and “Hindustani” to visit Kashmir so they could make more money! I met a guide in Gulmarg who helped us out in difficult situation without asking for extra money which he could have. Similarly, we had a bad shikara experience because the care taker was quite cold in his behavior. It’s unexpected in Kashmir as Kashmiris are known for their hospitality.
As I said, I did not have any trouble but it was not really a wow experience. The tourist racket is certainly pain in the neck. If someone would like to object that it does exists at other places in India too…Yes, it does but still the overall experience is not the same. One cannot head anywhere, anytime in Kashmir like Uttarakhand!! The tourists rackets are everywhere but when you mix it with unique political situation out here, it becomes different. I decided to drive through the Jammu-Srinagar highway and not fly in directly to Srinagar to get a better sense of things. There is a “better Kashmir” with typical Kashmiri hospitality. But it doesn’t exist at touristy places like Sonmarg or Gulmarg…or Srinagar!
In the end, I would like to narrate an experience I had at Boulevard road, Srinagar while shopping in the late evening around dusk. An old Kashmiri man aged 60-65 years stopped me by holding my arm and gave me a look in my eyes of a familiar person. He asked me very politely if I would like to take a Shikara ride in Dal lake. I found it very difficult to refuse but since it was already dark and I had other plans I had to tell him that I would love to but not today. He understood and told me which Dal lake gate number I can find him the following day. This can happen only in Kashmir!