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Village Shop, Aru, Jammu & Kashmir.

I’m back in New Delhi after a short trip up north to the state of Jammu & Kashmir. Jammu & Kashmir is India’s most northern state, which borders with Pakistan (west), China (north) and Tibet (east). Except for Ladakh, which is the Buddhist part in the east of Jammu & Kashmir, the state is not a common tourist destination for Westerners, although Hindus from the rest of India do travel here for pilgrimages (most importantly the Armanath Yatra). Indeed, because of dispute over part of the territory of the state with Pakistan, many governments advise “against all travel to rural areas of Jammu and Kashmir other than Ladakh; all travel in the immediate vicinity of the border with Pakistan, other than Wagah; and all travel in Manipur” and “all but essential travel to Srinagar and Imphal” (in the words of the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office).1

I don’t suppose I would have ignored this travel advisory if it were not for the fact that my father has been working on a tunnel for the Jammu Udhampur Srinagar Baramulla Railway Link for the past eight years – a project that will essentially see a rail link through much of the state, running some 345km/214mi north to south. Although my father’s office is based in New Delhi (working for a European company – such civil engineering projects are always very international), he has been going up to rural Kashmir about once every month or two for all the years he has been in India, while some of his colleagues are on site all the time. It is, I think, fairly safe to go to Kashmir – unless there is a political unrest or some other situation out-of-the-ordinary – and even more so for a foreigner (I would pretty much agree with this recent Guardian article). There is, of course, Indian military everywhere, there are plenty of no-go areas and, particularly in regions that are close to the border with Pakistan (L.O.C = Line of Control), one military check follows another.

House boat on Dal Lake (picture from 2008).

In my case, it was my third trip to Kashmir, the first being in 2008, when my Mom came along as well, and we stayed a few days on a houseboat on Dal Lake in Srinagar (the summer capital of Jammu & Kashmir, the winter capital is Jammu). The houseboats are a remnant of the colonial times, when the British came to the state to escape hot Delhi summers. As only Kashmiri people can own land and built houses (this still holds true today), the colonisers circumvented this role by living on houses in the water. The tradition of house boats remains, although now they are mostly for tourists. We stayed at Butt’s Clermont Houseboats, which, unlike most, are on the far side of the lake near the old town of Srinagar – but it’s a secluded and peaceful area and Mr. Butt is such a character. Plus, George Harrison stayed in one of his house boats in the ’60s (it has rotted more or less away, but you can still see his boat), and plenty of other well-known people, including Michael Palin of Monty Python fame, who mentions them in his Himalaya book. Mr. Butt also has a fascinating photograph gallery of all his famous guests.

From Srinagar we then travelled with a driver to Leh, Ladakh, a 2-day journey over some of the highest roads in the world – you reach up to 4,108 m/13,479 ft at Fotula. If you don’t mind heights and sharing mostly unsecured pebble roads with huge trucks, I can only recommend this trip – the scenery is gorgeous and it’s fascinating to see landscape and people slowly change from Islamic mosques and North Indian faces to Buddhist lands of stupas, prayer flags and Sino-Tibetan facial features. The highest point during the trip, by the way, was 5,602 m/18,380 ft at Khardung La. (All the photos above were taken by my Dad – click to enlarge.)

Last year I came to India by myself (I had a friend’s wedding to attend in nearby Nepal, so it made sense to stop by) and accompanied my Dad to his construction site in Banihal about three hours south of Srinagar – yes, deep in those not-advised rural areas – for a few days. When my Dad and I hang out we both work, work, work, but if my Mom’s around we do a proper holiday. However, we did try to squeeze in a bit sight-seeing even with just to the two of us, going hiking for a couple of days in Gulmarg:

Gulmarg in the summertime (2011).

Gulmarg was a hill station in former British colonial times and is known for its pristine ski slopes even internationally. We walked up the mountain, passing some local dwellings, and also took the cable car, which is Asia’s highest and longest (going up to 3,747m/12,293 ft). The photograph below is probably my favourite from last year’s trip, although I can’t make any claim for it – my Dad took it (though I did the cropping and post-editing). Do click to view a larger version – it’s worth it.

This year, we again spent a few days at the construction site in Banihal and went on a day-trip to Pahalgam, hiking from the village of Aru up the mountain. We took the wrong path at first, which just seemed to lead to villages further in, encountering many locals.

These two boys were particularly friendly and keen on making conversation. They may have been brothers, but I don’t know for sure. The older boy seemed really caring towards the little one, who was incredibly smily. I rather love this photograph – normally I try to take pictures sneakily, because when people realise they are being photographed, they start posing, which is usually bad news. In this case, I did ask and they did pose, but I think the two boys were so natural at it that it made for a lovely photograph. I rather wish I could go back and give them a copy of the shot.

When we did find the right way and finally hiked up the mountain (very steep), we met this old man and young woman, who live in a very simple hut (in the background) just a bit outside of Aru. We wondered what their relationship was, whether they were husband and wife or perhaps simply relatives – they seemed to be the only ones living in that particular hut. The girl was young (around 20 perhaps) and I thought she was rather beautiful and sort of wished I could have talked to her.

These children, also living in a collection of huts just outside of Aru, were very happy to be photographed.

The above image shows the lands in the vicinity of Banihal – the scenic view from the tunnel construction site (South portal of the Qazigund-Banihal tunnel).

Because you can’t really wander around on your own in Banihal (at least not as a female), my Dad asked one of the two cooks at the construction site to take me along into town when he went shopping for food so I could take photographs. Although the townspeople do see a few Europeans regularly since several are based at the nearby tunnel’s construction site, it was probably a rarity for them to see a Western female. I did attract a lot of stares, perhaps more so because I was flashing my camera.

When heading back to Srinagar to fly out, we took a slight detour to Verinag, where there is a spring for the Jehlum river. It’s a beautiful old site with lovely gardens, built by a Moghul emperor. The water was really that amazingly green.

Further on, I took a photograph of these washer women, which, for whatever reason, are more visible on this part on the road from Verinag – elsewhere, you will often only see men.

And two bonus pictures:

If you are a cricket fan, you might be interested to know that Kashmir has a big cricket bat production industry. There is a stretch on the road south from Srinagar (if I remember correctly, somewhere before Anantnag) where you’ll see a lot cricket shops like the one above. The photograph is not so great (it was already getting dark), but you can see neatly piled, pre-cut wood on the right, ready to be made into bats, and finished bats in the shop on the left. (You can also spot a cow in the background if you look carefully.)

This is the dried fruit & nut trader that my Dad has been buying from for years (picture from 2011). There are many little shops that sell dried fruits & nuts along the way from Srinagar to Banihal, but apparently this old man’s shop is one of the best. He sells, among other things, walnuts, figs, cashew nuts, white poppy seeds, raisins and ingredients for Kashmiri kahwa tea (Kashmir’s equivalent of chai, which uses green tea, saffron, green cardamom, chopped almonds, sometimes even raisins and plenty of sugar, and, unlike tea elsewhere in India, is served without milk). Saffron, which Kashmir is known for, is also sold – that jar you can barely see is full of saffron ($$$!). Indeed, the trader (whose name I forgot!) told us last year that he sells 1 kg of saffron wholesale per day. No photograph of the fields of saffron crocus I’m afraid, they are bare and grey now and only in bloom in November.

P.S. I will upload more photographs, including from New Delhi, on flickr/500px at some point.

P.P.S. All photos copyright by alualuna (or my Dad). Please do not use without permission!

Footnote:

1And the really scary version of the travel advisory from the US government: “The Department of State strongly recommends that you avoid travel to the state of Jammu & Kashmir (with the exception of visits to the eastern Ladakh region and its capital, Leh) because of the potential for terrorist incidents, as well as violent public unrest. U.S. government employees are prohibited from traveling to Jammu & Kashmir (except for Ladakh) without permission, which is only granted by the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi in exceptional circumstances. A number of terrorist groups operate in the state, targeting security forces in the region, particularly along the Line of Control (LOC) separating Indian and Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, and those stationed in primary tourist destinations in the Kashmir Valley: Srinagar, Gulmarg, and Pahalgam. Since 1989, as many as 60,000 people (terrorists, security forces, and civilians) have been killed in the Kashmir conflict. Foreigners are particularly visible, vulnerable, and at risk. In the past, serious communal violence left the state mostly paralyzed due to massive strikes and business shut downs, and U.S. citizens have had to be evacuated by local police.”