8/27/2010 to 8/29/2010 | India , Jammu & Kashmir

To Srinagar: A City Under Siege

With Tam and Kip’s departure by air that left me the sole guest remaining at the Tsavo Guesthouse.  I was well looked after by Zangmo and Angchu but most of the restaurants and shops in Leh had closed early for the season due to the exodus of tourists following the flash flood.  I was waiting for a cheaper way out, Sumos (Indian made SUVs that act as taxies and small buses in the mountain areas) had started plying the road to Manali but they were taking a longer route via Tso Kar to avoid a large section of the main road that was washed awat during the rains.  With a monopoly on a ground exit form Ladakh they were charging double the normal fare.  Bus service to Manali seemed to be finished for the year.  The alternate road route was via Srinagar.  I had never taken this route down as inevitably every time I considered it, there seemed to be some flare up in the Kashmir situation.  Unfortunately now was no exception, Kashmir was in the midst of military enforced curfews in the wake of demonstrations over the shooting of demonstrators by the Indian military which in turn led to more confrontations and more shootings.  Despite the political mess, the Srinagar option was looking more appealing to me now that bus services had resumed from Leh.  The series of bridges that were washed away in the rains along the route were finally repaired.  It was a road I had wanted to take for a while, but it was probably my stubbornness at not wanting to reward the gouging Manali bound Sumo drivers that finally push me towards political upheaval in Kashmir and the J&K State run bus to Srinagar.

I bid farewell to Zangmo and Angchu and boarded the early morning bus bound for Srinagar.  The bus was supposed to arrive in Srinagar late that evening; however an ill timed extended tea break by the driver in Dass meant that we missed the window for one-way-traffic into the Kashmir valley.  As a result, we spent a chilly night on the bus at the foot of the Zaji La while we waited for the Leh bound traffic to clear the road.  I tossed and turned in my seat trying in vain to get comfortable and cursing the driver’s tea addiction, or at least wondering why he couldn’t get “to go.”

We descended into the Kashmir valley in the early hours of the morning.  I am unsure if it was a blessing or a curse to do this stretch of the road in the dark.  The darkness spared me staring down the shear cliffs that dropped off abruptly from the narrow road, but also denied me a view of the spectacular mountain scenery that was only tantalizingly hinted at in the dim moon lit morning.

After finding accommodation in a houseboat not far from the bus stand I set out to explore what I could of Srinagar despite the curfew imposed on the Kashmir valley.  The old city was a definite no-go area so I had to limit my wanderings to the area around Dal Lake and since there was no transportation, I was also limited to wherever my feet would take me.  Srinagar was a city under siege, military and police oozed from every corner and alley of the city.  Heavy caliber machine guns mounted to armored vehicles cruised along the boulevards.  I hadn’t seen such a military presence in a city since I was in Lhasa on the Dalai Lama’s birthday back in 1999.   The Kashmiris I did meet were not particularly happy with the military presence.  On one occasion a car pulled over next to me, the bearded finely dressed man who peered out of the window asked me what country I was from.  I’ve never been an American to pass myself off as another nationality (ie Canadian) so I answered truthfully.   He reached out and shook my hand thanking me for visiting Kashmir then added, “When you go back to America tell everyone the Indians are killing children in Kashmir (everyone I met in Kashmir referred to India and Indians as separate from Kashmir and Kashmiris).”  He continued “Two days ago the Indians shot a school boy.”  Then the car sped off.  I didn’t meet a large number of Kashmiris due to the deserted streets of a city under curfew, but of the ones I did meet 100% wanted Kashmir to be “free” (i.e. Independent).  They certainly didn’t want to be part of Pakistan either.  Never mind the fact that an Independent Kashmir would not be a particularly viable state or that due to Kashmir’s strategic importance to India, India was never going to let that happen. Unfortunately it seems the overly cumbersome military responses to what was at first a genuine military insurgency and currently what were essentially populous demonstrations have driven Kashmiris to the point where the divide in trust between the Kashmiris and their Indian overlords seems impossible to overcome.  Certainly both sides bare responsibility in the conflict which has left Kashmir’s tourist driven economy in shambles, a peaceful solution would benefit both Indians and Kashmiris alike.  Unfortunately, Kashmiris seem to have been driven to the point where they believe only independence will deliver them from the hated Indian army and of course India will never let Kashmir be independent.  So the impasse continues and the conflict is bound to flare up again and again, with no solution in sight.

In the afternoon I was able to meet up with Aryan, a Kashmiri kid I had met at, of all places, the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar.  The massive Hindu festival held once every 12 years in a given city is last place you would expect to a Kashmiri Muslim.  He was in Haridwar volunteering as member of the Scouts, and I had met him while I was wandering the east bank of the Ganges looking for a place to stay.  He and some of his friends defied the curfew to visit me while I was in Srinagar, driving in from his village on the outskirts of town.  The curfew limited our sightseeing opportunities, essentially to Dal Lake, but it was a pleasant afternoon and nice to have a local “guide.”

Though I would have liked to see more of Kashmir, the curfews and demonstrations made it far too difficult to get around and do any amount of sightseeing.  In addition, I had promised to meet up with my friends, Tam and Kip, and take them to my friend’s village in Nagaland.  The day after arriving in Srinagar I hopped on a bus to Jammu, and headed “back to India.”

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