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. A darling of Bollywood. It’s difficult to list the number of Bollywood movies shot in Kashmir till date. You can spot the Kashmir connection in all popular Bollywood movies shot between 1960’s to 1980’s.
Early 1990’s brought militancy in Kashmir along with the exodus & killing of Kashmiri Pandits. Tourism in Kashmir became dead. It was only in 2005 that tourist numbers of 1980’s were restored. From then on the number of tourists visiting Kashmir went up year on year.
I visited Kashmir in 2013 even thoit was was never on my list at the behest of family & friends. I have experienced similar landscape elsewhere in the Himalayas. It is another thing that these are not easily accessible to people unlss someone is willing to hike. I never yearned for Kashmir because of this reason. The problems associated with planning for a Kashmir trip had different variables altogether as compared to other places inthe Himalayas. Some one might argue that Kashmir is much more than picture perfect postcard views. Yes, I agree but being a person who loves nature more than anything, other aspects takes a back seat. Kashmir is synonymous with the stunning vistas and the tag of “Paradise on Earth”.
Even though militancy situation improved drastically over the years, trouble keeps springing every 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 the curfew in many towns. Militants were primarily targeting army and CRPF, but one can still land up in an adverse situation. The militants changed their stance over the years because targeting tourists adversely affected the support from Kashmiri people whose lives are dependent on tourists. Getting caught in a stone pelting by the locals is 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 can be scared or relieved depending on how you view situation. 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 it short in between. He pointed out some obscure point on way as Baisaran as he wanted to return midway to cut his trip time and ferry another tourist. It was only when I accused him of cheating with tourists along with the 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 a bad name to his state & such instances will scare the tourists.
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 worth visiting rest all points or places are “created” to add value to the deal. They are spoofs. We were promised ‘Kashmir point’ which was nothing but some obscure mountain without any name! It was probably creation of the tourist guides and touts of Pahalgam!
Similarly, tourists gets fleeced with gum boot and jacket rentals in Gulmarg and Sonmarg. Taxi drivers & operators stop much before Gulmarg and create “situations” for tourist to hire boots and jackets even though one might not need them altogether!
The tourist is unable to assess the situation as he is yet to reach Gulmarg, he buys the story and gets fleeced. 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 the ski and show them points and views which otherwise they cannot on their own. They are majorly selling view of LOC- India Pakistan border. Guides take gullible tourist 100 meters ahead and point out a place 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 the Boulevard road in Srinagar while shopping in late evening around dusk. An old Kashmiri man aged 60-65 years stopped me by holding my arm and gave me a deep look. As if we knew each other for years! 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 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 the Dal lake gate number where he can be found the following day. This can happen only in Kashmir! Kashimiri people understands the language of emotions.