India, Kashmir,Srinagar


When the opportunity arose to take Jennie with me to experience beautiful Kashmir, I jumped at the chance.  As we entered the airport I saw a T shirt which said, ‘I am in Kashmir, Heaven will have to wait’. I was glad to be back. But, I really should have taken more notice of the old adage – “don’t go back, you’ll be disappointed!” – for disappointed I was.

I certainly haven’t had the same good feeling about Srinagar this time as I had when I was last here in 1980.  Back then, it was a very attractive place full of half-timbered houses with orangey-red brick infill and thatched roofs. The Jhelum River, which meanders through the city, the large Dal Lake with its myriad timber houseboats and a couple of other minor lakes which lie in the shelter of the mountains, made this a truly idyllic place  – “Paradise on Earth”.

So why was I here in Srinagar way back in 1980?  I was here for work, if visiting a place like this could ever be called WORK.  At the time I was working in Nepal on the Nepal-Australia Forestry Project.  My driver and I drove across from Kathmandu in a 4 ton truck to collect 2 tons of apple seed and some walnuts – as you do!  Why?  Once safely back in Nepal, these seeds were to be dispersed among various community nurseries which our Project was supporting. We were attempting to introduce a new activity and potential cash crop for the villagers concerned.  It took us 5 days of driving each way but it was well worth it for the experience, the scenery and, of course,  the seed.  Although I didn’t actually drive the truck at all, I “drove” every inch of the way.  It was a nerve-wracking experience travelling that ‘Grand Trunk Road’ with cars, trucks, buses, push carts and the odd camel or two, not to mention people and animals, all coming at you from every direction, at any and every speed and often on the wrong side of the road.

 In Srinagar, today, gone are the half- timbered houses, except for a few derelict ones. The lovely old houses have been replaced with concrete buildings covered in ceramic tiles and the thatch roofs are now corrugated iron.  Although the locals are still friendly, there is something of a disturbing, unsettling ‘air’ about the place.  Of course, this city is not very far from the disputed Pakistan border, so India maintains a huge military presence here to maintain its position in this section of Kashmir. And why do they do that?  Water is the answer – water from the Himalaya – water that is such an important life force for both countries.

For example, the Jhelum River, which flows through Srinagar in the Indian administered part of Kashmir, meanders on along the Kashmir Valley north west to Wular Lake. It then cuts through a gorge 2,100 meters deep with almost perpendicular sides to find itself entering the Pakistan controlled area of Kashmir.  Later it becomes the border between the two countries. And this is an important river fed by waters arising in the Indian controlled part of Kashmir. So even back in 1980 the border with Pakistan was disputed as a result of the division of the subcontinent into the countries of India and Pakistan.  And also as a result of that division, the mix of Muslim and Hindu residents hasn’t always been a happy one.  But it’s much worse now that many Kashmiris want to be separate and have their own country.

As a result of these pressures, in Srinagar today, thousands of police and military personnel stand around virtually close enough to hold hands. They could, except for the fact that they are all carrying heavy weaponry of one kind or another. There are also sand-bagged en-placements on many corners and camouflage netting, razor wire, road blocks, sentry boxes and military vehicles are everywhere. It’s not good. In just the last few days (September 2011), there have been several incidents.  In one skirmish, five ‘separatist insurgents’ (those wanting Kashmir to be a free independent country) were killed in a gun battle with Indian police and army personnel in a forest up near the Pakistani border. Two army officers were also killed as well as two police officers.  Thankfully all is quiet here in the city at present.

These days Srinagar is a dirty, dusty place and Dal Lake is highly polluted from the hundreds of house boats which discharge effluent straight into it.  This has resulted in a huge weed problem that has to be tackled by giant floating weed cutters as well as individuals who cut the weed for their own purposes such as feeding to their animals.  The saturation of the place by military and local police certainly doesn’t help the ambience either.  So, unfortunately Srinagar is not the wonderful place I remember it being back in 1980.  Others I know who visited the place back then, and those who did the ‘overlander’ London-Kathmandu adventure, would, I think, also be disappointed.

Some things have not changed, like the markets with the fresh fruits and vegetables, much of it grown in the valley.

Farmers still come to town in their horse drawn drays.

 Public road transport is colourfully decorated buses.

But there are also some things that have changed for the better – especially the Moghul Gardens.  (Photos in a future blog.) These gardens were difficult to find on my first visit. They are now on city maps, and sign-posted! They’ve also been renovated. This is particularly for the benefit of the domestic tourist trade which is growing at a very fast rate due to the rising affluence of India.  Few foreign tourists visit Srinagar nowadays as most Western governments have travel advisories suggesting that you don’t visit the area! Mind you, I didn’t feel unsafe at any time even though I spent three days out in the countryside where I didn’t see another westerner – so the advisories must be working for most people.

So that’s my impression of Srinagar now.

DY  for “jtdytravels”

Photography  ©  DY of ‘jtdytravels’

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