Friday, May 25, 2012


executive summary by darmansjah

Defensive driving aline of Sinagar-bound trucks negotiating the narrow, vertigo-including Zoji La, a high mountain pass that connects the kashmir valley with drass and ladakh.

The Last Valley

Long marred by separatist violence, the kashmir vallery is finally enjoying a relative peace. With tourist numbers higher than they have been for years but will it enough to return the beautiful himalayan vale to ther ranks of India’s most legendary destination?

Original text by Shoba Narayan

Take your best shot, a polo tournament in Drass. Complete with customed dancers brings a hopeful sign of peace to the once war-torn Kashmir town

At 3,528 meters above sea level, Zoji La is among the highest-and most hair-rasing-mountain passes in the world. It constitutes a narrow, preciptious spur of India’s National Highway 1, which connects to serene Kashmir Valley with Ladakh. I’m en route there now, risking muddy switchbacks and plunging ravines just to see a polo tournament in the remote Himalayan town of Drass. And right when I think things can’t get any more unnerying, the convoy of tourist vechiles I’m traveling in screeches to a stop. There’s landslide ahead.

Thanfully, a patrol of rifle-toting soldiers is on hand to clear away enouth of the debris to allow a single lane of traffic to pass. Their being here is not merely fortuitous: the Indian Army has maintained a heavy presence in the area since the Indo-Pakistani War of 1947, the first of three border wars fought over Kashmir. One of our drivers tells me in a soft Kashmiri accent that there’s a high-altitude army training center nearby.

While we wait for the way to be cleared, the group of journalists  I’m traveling with loiters by the gravely roadside. Some of us take pictrures, or blow cigarette smoke into the thin mountain air, dazed by the raw beauty all around. The snow-capped Lower Himalayas rise on the horizon like frozen tidal waves. Far beow, in the grassy plains wgere the River Sindh rushes headlong toward its confluence with the Baltal, Hindu pilgrims en routeto the holy cave of Amarnath have populated a massive campsite. Their turquoise and yellow tents look like candy wrappers from where we stand.

On the road, a public bus en route to the Kashmir Valley.

Finally, we’re ready to move on toward Drass, which in winter is said to be one of coldest inhabited places on earth. It’s also the closest Indian town to the Line of Control, along which a tenuous cease-fire exuts betweeb India and Pakistan. Only this morning, that all sounded like a terrific adventure. Now, I’m not so sure. As our vehicle edges around the rubble, its wheels perilusly close to the drop-off, I’m wishing I were back in my bed in Srinagar.

 The well-groomed rounds of Sinaragar’s Lalit Grand Palace Hotel

“Five thousand Years ago, at the time of the great Mahabharata War, we Kashmiris did not participate in the battles, saying that we were saints and not fighters,” says Yousuf Chapri, the owner of Discovery Tours, one of the oldest rekking operations in the Kashmir valley. “Just look at us now.”

Vendors selling halwa sweets and parathas outside the Muslim shrine of Hazratbal

We are sitting in his office right across from Dal lake in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir. It’s a mild, sunny day and the shikaras-canopied gondolas-are out on the water in force, carrying boatloads of tourists across the lake’s mirrored expanse.

A sitting room at the Lalit.

Over cups of masala chai, Chapri recounts kashmir’s long, turbulent, tragic history-how it was once a major cneter of Sanskrit scholars, or pandits; how Budhism came to the Kashmir Valley during the third century, followed later by Sufi sages and Muslim invaders from Tukestan; and how it was eventually absorbed into the Mughal Empire during the reign of Akbar the Great, whose heir, Jahangir, was so besotted with the valley’s beauty that he penned this famous Persian couplet: “Gar firdaus, ruhe zamin ast, hamin asto, hamin asto, hamin asto” (“If there is a heaven on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here”).

Alas, everyone wanted a piece of heaven. By the 19th centruy, control over the valley had passed from the Mughals to the Durrani shahs of Afghinistan and thence to the Sikh kindom of Ranjit Singh. In 1846, as an upshot of the First Anglo-Sikh War, it was lost to the British, who, in turn, sold it to Maharajah Gulab Singh Dogra as part of the semiautonomous princely state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Then came Indian independence, and Partition. Pakistan claimed predominantly Muslim Kashmir for its own, kicking off a series of wars and military standoffs between the nuclear-armed neighbors. The area became a tinderbox. In 1987, seperatist insurgents, trained and armed across the border, launched a campaign of terrorism that, together with brutal crckdowns of lives. Not for nothing did US. President Bill clinton, in 2000, call Kashmir “the most dangerous place in the world.”

“If the dispute between India and Pakistan had been settled during Partition, we would not have had to suffer so many decades of terrorism,” says Chapri with a sight. “Now, we hav lost our infrastructure, our education, our youth. Politics can be settled overnight at a table. But if we lose Dal lake, the chinar trees, and these mountains, then what do you have left to fight over?”

Kashmiris are given to such poetic turns of phrase, partly out of nostalgia, and partly out of a sense of what could have been, had the politics of independence taken a different turn. “Disillusionment is a cottage industry in Kashmir,” a Srinagar cab driver tells me.

And yet the valley’s tourism amenities remain largely intact, including Dal Lake’s famed houseboats, vestiges of the colonial days that still bear fanciful English names such as Jewel of the Thames and Queen Victoria. As for hotels, there’s the historic Lalit Grand palace, which was first built as a residence for Maharaja Pratap Singh in 1910. it’s almost perfectly situated, with the snowy peaks of the Zabarwan mountains as a backdrop and Dal Lake in front. Perfectly symmeterical chinar trees (a member of the maple family) tower above sprawling lawans where tables heave set up for tea.

After checking in to my wood-paneled room in the hotel’s old wing, I head down for lunch and run into Daisy Nedou, whose family owns hotels in Srinagar and the ski resort of Gulmarg, 56 kilometers to the southwest. Taking a table together, we talk about Kashmir’s famous cuisine, both the vegetarian fare of the pandits and the meat-based, 36 course wazwan feasts, where guests are seated around a common plate called the traami, and share dishes such as rogan josh (an aromatic lamb curry), minced-beef kebabs, mutton kurmas, and yougurt-based yakhni stews. Nedou invites me to go skiing in Gulmarg (home to the world’s highest cable car) during the season, which begins in December.

Lunch last almost three hours, and by the end, we are sated by both the food and the view. “Where else can you find this?” Nedou asks rhetorically. “You look up and see the pine forests; you look down and see the lake. This beauty..” Her voice trails off.

That evening, I go downtown to the shopping district near the narrow Jhelum River. Almost everyone directs me to a handicraft store called suffering moses. There, I’m shown a rare khani shawl, seen these days only in museums. Mohammed Sadiq, the shop’s second-generation owner, then show me the design for a lacquer tray that he’s workingo n with local crfatspeople.

“The Bristish did us a huge favor,” he says. “They taught us to incorpoerate a certain utilitariansim in our arts and crafts so that we could create lampshades, cigar boxes, biscuit thins, and other household items instead of mere objects of beauty.” Only in Kashmir is beauty taken for granted.

Nearbay at Asia Craft, owner Afzal Abdulla walks me throught two floors of high-quality carpets, lacquered papier-mache boxes, pasmin shawls, and carved wlanut furniture. The higlight is a reproduction of the oldest known hand-knotted Persian rug, the Pazyrk Carpet, unearthed from a Scythian burial mound in the Alatai Mountains in the 1940s and now exhibited at St. Peterburg’s Hermitage Museum. Abdulla’s copy is no knockoff: he tells me it took 18 months to make, and has moer thant 600 nots per square inch. The price? US$10,000.

“Most of the Kashmiri crafts came to us from Persia, brought over by the 14th-century Sufi mystic Shan Hamadhan,” he says. “Unfortunately, 20 years of terrorism has taken its toll. Manya of our artisans have left the valley.”

Kashmir still bears the scars of those decades, but in the last couple of years, a degrree of normalcy has returned. The once deserted streets of Srinagar are now full of traffic. Along the banks of the Jhelum, families sit peacefully on the lawns eating corn: women in headscarves peel oranges; boyes play ball; girls in pink frocks hold up matching cotton candy; white-capped men talk softly about politics and the state of affairs.

“Kashimir today is as safe as anya other part of the country, or anya part of the world, for that matter,: hte area’s top cop, Inspector General S.M.Sahai, tells me during an interview at his Srinagar headquarters. “We are in control of the situation. While there are still some incidents, violence is at its lowerst levels, ever.”

Tourist primarily from elsewhere in India, have responded in kind. As of July, more than 500,000 people had visited the Kashmir Valley in 2011, the highest numbers seen in years. And that doesn’t  include tht hundreds of thousands of Hindu pilgrims that have come to Kashmir for the annual yatra (“sacred journey”) to the holy cave of Amarnath, which has been worshiped as a Shivaist shrine fo five millennia. Theirs were the candy-wrap-per tents that I saw from the heights of Zoji la, en route to a polo game in Drass.

Polo has benn played in Drass for generations, but today’s tournament is special. Organized by the Lalit Suri Hospitality Group, its’s part of the centenary celebrations of the Lalit Grand Palace. It’s also meant to show that the winds of peace have swept over Drass as well, with various government bigwigs on hand to press the point. Midway through a match pitting a Delhi-based team against the local club, the youtful chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abullah, arrives by helicopter and takes his place in the VIP tent. I see him tapping away on his BlackBerry between chukkas.

The entire town has gathered to see their men compete. Folk music played on oboe-like surnas and daman drums cheers the players on. The Delhiites are in smart red shirts, the locals in white. Horses run, swirling up dest. “The horses of Drass are samller, but generaous,” notes the commentator enthusiastically. But no generous enought-the Delhi team trounces the defenders. After the final, there’s a filling lunch by the banks of the raging Drass River, and then I’m on the road again for the five-hour, hair-rising trip back to the Srinagar.

The next day, I wake early to take a shikara to the morning vegetable market in the middle of Dal Lake. I quickly learn that Dal isn’t a just lake; it’s a community. There are hundreds of families living on the water in floating villages, complete with schools, vegetable gardens, and lotus ponds. The market itself comprises a knot of about two dozen vegetable-filed canoes. Men haggle with each other and lift sacks of tomatoes, melons, cucumbers, and marrows from one boat to another. As the sun rises, the market diperses, and the produce is carried to bazaars all over Srinagar.

That evening, a group of us drive half an hour to the Muslim shine of Hazratbal, where the Meraj-ulalam festival is taking place. Thousands of devotees stand on the lawns facing the mosque and pray. The women wear hijabs, but are not dressed in balck. Instead, they hold aloft colorful dupattas (scarves), as if to catch a blessing. At hte appointed hour, an imam appears on the balcony, carrying a holy relic that is displayed only 10 times a year. Called Moi-e-Muqaddas, it is thought to contain a lock of Mohammed’s hair. Upon seeing it, women break out into tears and chant Koranic verses. It’s all over in a few minutes. The imam ambles back inside, and families return to picnicking on the lawns.

The roads outside are packed. Lines of stalls sell giant fried paratha flatbreads served with sweet yellow halwa. I sample a piece-it tastes like a Latin American churro, without the dusting of sugar. On the way back around the lake, we spot the brand-new Vivanta by Taj hotel, yet another hopeful sign for the valley’s tourism industry.

The Mughal gardens of Srinagar are best enjoyed alone. For this, you have to go early in the morning, which I do, the following day. The Pari Mahal is set amid the ruins of a palace built high above Dal Lake in the mid-17th century by the eldest son of Shan Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal. It’s world the hike for the views alone. And next to it is the Chashma shahi, a modest garden with pools and fountains arranged over three terraces. The spring here is said to be source of medicinal water.

Later, I spend a solitary hour at the Sri Pratap Singh Museum, which has a fine collection of textiles, weaponry, and relics. While I’m pondering Kashimir’s rich past, my phone rings. It’s Yousuf Chapri, telling me that I forgot my notebook in his office.

Chapri is waiting fro me when I arrive. He hands me my book and some brochures about the successful travel company that his sons are running in Delhi. They have a great life there, he says. So why hasn’t Chapri joined them?

The old man pauses. “I love Kashmir,” he says finally. “I love its lakes and mountains and the valleys that nestle between them. I pray to Allah to give me paradise after death. But in the meantime, I can ask for no better place to be than here.

Getting There

Srinagar’s recently upgraded Sheikhul Alam Airport is connected to Delhi by rnumerous daily flights (90 minuetes).

When To Go

The Kashmir Valley is at itsm ost pleasant during the summer months of June through August. Gulmarg’s ski season typically kicks off in mid-December and runs until mid-April.

Where To Stay

Lait Grand Palace Srinagar, Gupkar Rd; 91-194/250-1001;; doubles from US$210

Vivanta Taj-Dal View, Kraisangri, Brein, Srinagar; 91-194/246-111;; doubles from US$294

House Boats Owner Association (91-194/245-0326; to learn more.

Where To Eat

Shamyana, this elegant Srinagar dining room specializes in top-notch Mughlai cuisine. Boulevard Rd; Dalgate’ 91-194/245-3360

Getting There

Sri Pratap Singh Museum, Hazuri Bagh; 91-194/213-2859;

Pari Mahal, located five kilometers west of downtwon Srinagar.

What To Do

Discovery Journeys in business since 1870. this operation arranges custom tours and trekas throughout Kashmir, Boulevard Rd, Nehru Park, Srinagar; 91-194/250-0337;

1 comment:

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