The Veil of Kashmir

Srinagar – 23rd May 2013

A hellish bus journey as usual. I got to Dharamsala bus station at 8.30am, and found that the bus to Jammu wasn’t due until 9.45. It arrived more or less on time, and was a standard Himachal local bus that rattled like an old tin bath. Its bare metal sides proved a drawback in the increasing heat – they heated up like a stovetop in the sun, which shone on my side of the bus for the whole six hour journey. By the time we reached Pathankot the outside temperature was 45 degrees C and the wind through the open windows was like the blast of an oven. Fortunately I had put on my scarf that morning – the natty green and purple one I bought on Chicken Street in Kabul – and I draped it over my head like a shemagh. Many people in the streets were similarly attired; I saw people wearing towels, old shirts and various other items of material on their heads to shield themselves from the broiling sun, including three lads on a bridge carrying a length of material hoisted aloft between them like a giant sunshade. I tried to calculate the right balance between drinking enough water – by now decidedly hot in its bottle – to keep myself sweating but without needing to pee. In this I was fairly successful, in that I sweated continuously, but didn’t pee for the next 14 hours.

Jammu was an inferno – like being trapped inside a casserole dish on gas mark 6. I had met some other travellers on the bus and we set off in search of onward transport to Srinagar; staying over in Jammu, which was hot, noisy, crowded and fetid, seemed increasingly unappealing. We found a vegetarian restaurant with aircon and fans and settled in for the afternoon – it was 6pm and the bus to Srinagar wasn’t until 10pm. I downed a litre of water and a nimbu pani lime water as a chaser; normally I ask for sweet, but they also do a mixed sweet and salty, which I thought might help replenish some minerals I had sweated out. Bowl of Szechuan noodles for dinner followed by chocolate ice cream. On the TV Sikhs sang interminable songs, interspersed with occasional shots of the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

Eventually it was time to board the bus, which had sleeper compartments on one side and seats on the other. I was in a seat, and took my place for the next 13 hours, dripping in the heat. Eventually we moved off and the relief from the heat was immediate – just a breath of cool air through the open window. But we weren’t going far – just a few hundred yards to the petrol station. There was already a queue of coaches filling up, each with their bonnets raised to cool the engine. Filling up took another half an hour, and I resigned myself to a long, hot and uncomfortable night. It was. We joined a queue of trucks heading out of Jammu, and then turned off the main road, grinding our way up hairpin after hairpin on some deserted mountain road, and tentatively crossing bridges just wider than the bus which clanked alarmingly. I must have dozed because when I woke it was after midnight; my shirt was soaking wet, I was sticking to my seat and the passenger in the seat next to me was resting his head on my shoulder. I pushed him off and tried to sleep again. Only another seven hours to go.

I awoke soon after dawn and blinked at the landscape: we were driving along the edge of a mountain valley that plummeted thousands of feet below us. Patches of dirty snow lay on the high peaks opposite, and the valley floor had a river snaking through it. Up at the front I saw the six heads of the driving crew, and the driver himself played a carol on the air horn every time we passed a truck. Off to the right I saw the first army base – a line of razor wire and Indian soldiers standing guard – they sported helmets decorated with bits of foliage and carried SLR rifles, last seen in the UK during the Falklands War of 1982. We swooped around tight bends passing through small villages that were deserted in the grey half-light of dawn. Emerging from a long tunnel we saw another group of soldiers mustering along the roadside for a patrol; they filed off into the trees and down the mountainside. Some carried mine detectors, and I saw several later in the day with sniffer dogs. Speaking later to an American in Srinagar he commented how the thing that struck him about Kashmir compared to the rest of India was that there were many more guns on the streets and far fewer girls. I had to tell him that I hadn’t really noticed it here, but that in Kabul I’d seen the same thing. This is still a conflict zone, although at the moment it’s more of a post-conflict stage – Kabul is still very much mired in a present conflict.

We rolled into Srinagar bus station at 7.30am after a rough night on the road. But the ordeal was far from over – we were still 8km from Srinagar itself. Descending the steps of the bus immediately the touts began to circle, led by one individual in a check shirt. “You want houseboat?” he enquired.
“I give you good price. Guesthouse, houseboat, hotel.”
“I have a reservation already. Hotel Swiss.” (This was a lie, but is a good ploy.)
“Hotel Swiss is closed,” he replied.
“Well you astonish me. I expect it burned down, didn’t it. They always seem to at times like this.”
“Yes, is closed. I have good houseboat for you.”
“Don’t want a houseboat, thank you. I get seasick.”
“You give me one cigarette.”
“No I do not. Go away.”

Eventually we found a local bus to take us into town, after repeatedly refusing offers of taxi drivers to charge us 700 rupees for the privilege (the bus cost ten). But as soon as we got off the bus in the town centre, more touts descended. Houseboat, guesthouse, guided tour, etc., etc. I was trying to find Dal Gate, or anywhere to have a coffee, but cafes seemed in short supply. A smartly dressed middle aged man pointed me in the right direction, saying he was going to Dal Gate himself. We walked together, chatting about Srinagar. “These touts are third rate people,” he said. “Not trustworthy. Always thinking how to cheat you.” I agreed with him. After walking for a while together, he casually enquired whether I had a hotel reserved already. “Hotel Swiss,” I replied.
“Oh, very expensive. But I have a guesthouse myself, much cheaper.”
“Frankly you amaze me. Really? You have a guesthouse? Thank you so much and goodbye.”

The reality is that this sort of a thing is always a drag in India. It puts a lot of people off. To be dropped after 24 hours on a bus 8km from a town, to fend off endless touts just trying to get into the town, and then more when you are trying to find a hotel… it’s all a little wearing. It varies from state to state – the north is much worse than the south. Kashmiris have, frankly, an awful reputation for scamming visitors, and it’s not without foundation. This is a shame. If Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Department are serious about trying to encourage visitors, they need to do the one thing that makes the whole experience so irritating: crack down on the touts. It worked in Morocco – their visitor numbers had plummeted because the country developed a reputation for hassle, so the government started rounding up touts and encouraging only licenced guides. I know people who deliberately decided to stay in Himachal rather than come here for precisely the reason that it is so tiresome. It is a shame, as once you get away from the main hotspots of tout activity, everyone else is very friendly.

Hotel Swiss itself wasn’t listed in the Rough Guide, but had a mention in the Lonely Planet – “a pleasant lawn, free tea and wifi, and decent rooms offering excellent value.” In reality the only part of this that applied was the lawn. The room, which was distinctly average, was 1250 rupees a night – a laughable amount. And the tea, which came in thermoses, was charged by the cup at 30 rupees each, but only in retrospect: they wait until you check out to hit you with an extra charge for it. I left the next morning and made for the Chachoo Palace, out towards Khon Khan. This had a recommended stamp in the Rough Guide, and was basically a family house at the water’s edge, surrounded by houseboats. It was less than half the price of Hotel Swizz, with a nicer room and far more pleasant surroundings. Rough Guide 1, Lonely Planet nil – and not for the first time. “The Book of Lie”, as we have dubbed it.

1.30pm on a Friday afternoon in Srinagar. The call to prayer begins. Then another one, from a rival mosque. They sound as if they are competing against each other. Then a third begins, drowning out the other two. It is total discord – a chaos of amplification. One mullah begins preaching, getting more and more strident. He sounds furious. This goes on for almost an hour, and at the end he is literally screaming into the microphone. Graham emerges from the room above onto the balcony, tilts his head in the direction of the din and says: “bloody hell, he sounds a bit cross.” We later meet another couple on a motorbike who had been stopped just as the mosques emptied. They said soldiers had blocked off the roads and there was a heavy military presence. Given the inflammatory sound of the sermon, even without understanding the words, it’s easy to see that the army would want to be prepared for trouble. It sounded far angrier than any mosque I heard in Kabul. In Kashmir, where the only outlet for the frustrations of military occupation are in religion, the mosques become a focal point for resistance. The mood all over Srinagar was tense. It wasn’t just the perpetual hassle from touts – there was something else. One British friend had abuse screamed at him in the street by a couple of men who thought he was Israeli. Women we met complained of persistent harassment. And the Kashmiris I spoke to hated the Indians, who are arriving in hordes, strolling along the boulevard and getting ripped off on boat trips on Dal Lake. Someone pointed out to me that it was a bit like an English family going on holiday to Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles. A large section of the population really don’t want them to be there. I decided I didn’t much want to be there myself, and next morning got a jeep to Kargil: north by north-east. Destination Ladakh.