out of amritsar getting first to jammu in the foothills of the karakorum/himalayas and then on over the first range of mountain passes into the kashmir valley we chose to travel by public transport. a decision we were advised against because of the hassel, the heat, the sheer amount of people etc. etc. in the end it turned out to be a great experiaence and as far as I can see we will go on that way. the train was slow, without air conditioning (we only got tickets for the second cheapest of several classes) but the people were okay and it took us to jammu where we spent the night in a windowless room at a hindi pilgrims hotel. early in the morning we climbed onto a half empty state run bus and rode for nearly 12 hours across the mountain passes into the vale of kashmir. the offer of a single cigarette (refused) turned the bus driver into my friend and I spent a great part of the trip in the front seat with him including prime seating for the spectacular panoramic views. (for photos see stephans blog at nikoundstephan.wordpress.com)
kashmir is incredibly beautiful, srinagar seems like a mix between venice (built on little islands in the lake, with lots of canals and boats inbetween), an old fashioned swiss alpine town (they actually build their houses in some sort of alpine fachwerk-style) and a remote afghan village (the local fashion including burka wearing women and men in shalwar kameezes a.k.a. nightshirts and trousers). and the mountain scenery looks like austria on a bigger scale.
there are nearly no fellow tourists here. most of the houseboats are empty as well as the restaurants etc. people have been scared off by ongoing low scale kashmir conflict, which is too complex to be thoroughly explained here.
but one incident we are currently witnessing is worth describing: the german embassy to india organised a big concert (zubin mehta conducting the bavarian state orchestra) in the mogul garden in srinagar (one of the towns major sights). the tickets went to indian and international VIPs, diplomats, Bollywood stars etc., the local people were invited to watch the concert on TV (it will be televised globaly in 58 TV stations and as some say, broadcast the picture of kashmir the central indian governement would like to transport). the concert is a widely discussed topic here (headline material) and security is really tight (in a country that some allready describe as a garrison in its regular state of affairs). it does not help, that zubin mehta is giving interviews saying things like ‘I did not choose kashmir, kashmir chose me.’ and otherwise refused to comment on the political issues, as the local paper ‘rising kashmir’ quotes him: ‘I don’t have anything to say to them (separatists and those opposing the concert). We are playing our music’
in the meanwhile all the shops in town are closed, mayor streets around the concert venue are blocked and even the traffic on the lake is restricted within a certain distance of the concert location.
local activists have decided to stage another concert for the kashmiri people in a municipal park on the other end of town as a form of peaceful protest, which was granted by the local authorities. wandering around in the area I found the main entrance to the park blocked by the military. however around the block I at the parks little back entrance I meet Hilal Ahmad Nemdoo from the kashmiri trade federation, a middle aged man, who invites me to the manifestation and concert, complains about the international neglect of the situation, which he himself (as most other kashmiris we talked to) simply calls ‘the occupation’. what reamins to be said is, that most of the soldiers I see look rather timid and unhappy themselves.
there is talk about escalation and some mention the often implemented curfew but for the tourists and foreigners there are no real issues. if escalation and curfew will not hinder us and the state busses go on running, we will head to kargil tomorow – a moslem kashmiri town on the boarder to ladakh, several mountain passes and another 12 hours away. once out of here I am going to miss the incredible beauty of this valley, but at the same time, I am looking forward to the calm buddhist mountain area we are heading to.