Tourists are trickling back to Kashmir despite its reputation. Ed Douglas finds it scarred but safe — and heartbreakingly beautiful

In Kashmir, the vultures are gathering. In a tree near where I’m sitting, a Himalayan griffon has just settled, shoulders hunched. Another is soaring past towards its nest on the huge cliff behind. Some people don’t like vultures. I think they’re great. They perform useful services. And the grand sweep of these mountains deserves a bird of their size. Indian vultures are, sadly, in rapid decline and could be extinct in 10 years. An anti-inflammatory drug called Diclofenac, used on livestock the birds feed on, is wrecking vulture kidneys.

I’m feeling like an endangered species myself. Tourists, especially western tourists, are equally thin on the ground in these hills. It’s understandable. Kashmir is largely peaceful now, but it’s not so long since thousands died in the bitter, on-going conflict over sovereignty. In the mid-90s tourists were being abducted and killed. The UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office still advises against all but essential travel to Kashmir’s capital, Srinagar, and none at all to rural districts.

As it happens, the group I’m joining, mostly middle-aged Brits, couldn’t be characterised as even remotely reckless — beyond a shot of brandy in their morning porridge. The reason they’ve come is simple: Kashmir is an absolute jewel, even by Indian standards. The Mogul emperor Jahangir Khan, quoting a Persian proverb, declared that “If there is a paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this.” After trekking for a few days in the hills that are the setting for this jewel, I’m inclined to agree. Most of us think of crystalline blue skies and soaring white peaks when the Himalayas are mentioned. Kashmir isn’t like that; it’s more like the Lake District. If you want mountain bragging rights, go to Everest. If you want to see how people really live in the Himalayas, come to Kashmir. We seemed to have the mountains to ourselves, except for the shepherds, or pohol, who manage and shear the sheep that provide Kashmir’s famous wool. I felt wholly at peace.

Still, if you are heading for Kashmir, you’d be a mug not to travel with a company that knows the score. Some travel agents can be blase about the risks. Adventure specialist Wild Frontiers frequently runs trips to the world’s more interesting corners, and is savvy enough to inspire confidence.

When I first met group leader Johnny Paterson, he was patching up the fetlock of one of the ponies that were to carry our bags. This was reassuring. If this man can fix a horse, I figured, all should be well. We arrived in Srinagar, ironically enough, on India’s Independence Day. Not the brightest date in Kashmir’s calendar you’d think, but with a few days off, and Ramadan a week away, Kashmir was en fete. Outside Srinagar, the countryside was lush, with apple orchards and fields of saffron, a key ingredient in Kashmiri tea. Beyond Avantipur, 20 miles to the south, we passed stands of willow, and small workshops with stacks of cricket bats piled high.

As we reached the beautiful hill town of Pahalgam and the start of our trek, the roads were clogged with holidaymakers, so we gave up with the jeep and started walking. Pahalgam is the starting point for Hindu pilgrims visiting the cave at Amarnath with its sacred ice lingam, a stalagmite worshipped as a symbol of Shiva. Tens of thousands come each summer, but the pilgrimage was already over. Now it was the turn of the locals to party.

Every few yards people would stop us for a chat about what a spectacular place Kashmir is, how much fun they were having and to remind us, as one young man put it, that: “Just to be clear, you’re in Pakistan.” After a mile or so, the jeeps caught us up and whisked us away to our first night’s camp, in the hamlet of Aru. By the banks of the trout-rich Lidder river, we found our tents already pitched, and a cup of tea on the go.

Our guide was Yaseen Khan, resident of Gulmarg, the hill station-turned-powder-skiing-nirvana, and something of a local celebrity. Yaseen claims to be the owner of the world’s smallest ski shop (the 1.1 sq metre Kashmir Alpine Ski Shop in Gulmarg). Lying on a grassy hillside above Aru next day, he explained his plan for surviving the recession: “If you have big business, lots of workers, then you worry. Me, I have little business and just take three months off and relax.’ Yaseen led a team that seemed to outnumber the clients, and they were all dedicated to making the wilds feel less wild.

Each morning, the early start would be cushioned by a knock on the tent pole and a steaming mug of sweet milky tea. Our cook, Gulman, hovered over his primus stoves in the kitchen tent, bashing out a sequence of delicious meals, culminating in a cake to celebrate the conclusion of our trek.

It was August, and Kashmir was catching the fag end of the monsoon, so the weather was mixed, much like an English summer. An umbrella proved handy. At night the mountains boomed with thunder and an impromptu sufi music jam round the campfire was curtailed by a hailstorm. But there were plenty of bright spells in which to admire the mountains, and the ground was carpeted with flowers: gentians, asphodel and pretty yellow phlomis. There were plenty of birds too, apart from vultures, including humbug—headed rock buntings and colourful redstarts.

Our journey took us up the Lidder valley for four days, through pine forests to open mountainsides, each night camping by the river, until we reached the Sonomus pass. Crossing between craggy summits that soared to 3,900m, we dropped down to the Sind river. On the last morning, we plunged back into deep forest, slipping down a track turned greasy by the night’s rain.

Cannabis plants were everywhere — and we listened to a short lecture on hashish production from Yaseen. We contented ourselves with picking mint for tea. Reaching the village of Sumbal, Yaseen looked west along the valley to the orchards and fields where Kashmiri rice was ripening in the sun. “Good water,” he said, gesturing to the complex system of irrigation we were looking over. Just below, a group of men were building a new cow barn, piling earth onto a roof of pine branches.

I had been in the hills for just a few days, but I’d grown used to the quieter pace of life, and mourned the reappearance of motor traffic. Our jeep drivers had parked up by the road, waiting to ferry us back to Srinagar, a two—hour drive. Reaching the edge of Dal Lake, on Srinagar’s eastern side, we were decanted into shikaras, the narrow, flat—bottomed canoes that ferry tourists around the lake’s famous housesboat hotels.

In the idiom of modern India, shikaras these days are plastered with advertising — ours was promoting something called “innerwear”. But the plush cushions and gentle motion on the water are deeply relaxing. Kashmir’s infamous waterborne touts were soon alongside, dangling trinkets in front of us, but they didn’t seem too upset when we turned them away.

One boat carried piles of green boxes emblazoned with the words Mr Delicious. Mr Delicious, we soon discovered, sells the best macaroons in the world. We sat on the porch of our houseboat munching these and sipping kehvi, green tea flavoured with cardamom, cinnamon and a pinch of saffron. I watched kingfishers plopping into the water around us, while the sun eased west behind the hills.

A friend claims that his mum ran into Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull here in the 60s, but these days the stories are less about boho glamour than neglect and rotting boats and pollution. The “situation”, as the locals call the recent war, has left its mark. The Hotel Leeward, where VS Naipaul stayed for four months in 1962 while writing An Area of Darkness, is now a police post.

Nevertheless, the trickle of returning tourists has prompted a sprucing up of Srinagar’s houseboats. (Building them was a British ruse for getting round a prohibition on owning property in semi-autonomous Kashmir during the Raj.) And after a few days roughing it in tents, our houseboat, all carved cedar interiors and lamb rogan josh, was a blissful base from which to explore Srinagar. If the British left their mark with some pukka floating accommodation, it’s onshore you find the real roots of Kashmir’s enduring appeal — and its turmoil. The Mogul empire (which held sway from the 16th to the mid-19th century) was a defining influence. The Indian army now occupies the fort built in the 1500s by all-conquering Shah Akbar, so you’ll have to content yourself with relaxing in the Shalimar Gardens overlooking Dal Lake, considered to be the high point of Mogul horticulture.

But it was the centre of town that really fired my imagination. The narrow streets are scruffy, but the Khanqah of Shah-Hamdan is gorgeous, prettier than any mosque I’ve seen in India. Drenched in coloured glass and papier-mache, it was the first mosque in Kashmir, dedicated to the memory of Mir Sayed Ali Hamadni, the Persian saint and traveller who brought not just Islam to the valley, but a cohort of artists and artisans that give Kashmiri culture its central-Asian slant.

That evening, we stopped by The Lalit Grand Hotel for a gin and tonic on the lawn. It was the perfect spot to watch the sun disappear behind the lake and Akbar’s fort. Nailed to a huge chinar tree is a sign claiming this as the spot where, in 1947, Mahatma Gandhi met the vacillating Kashmiri ruler Hari Singh, who formally joined Kashmir to the Indian union. It felt like the scene of a terrible accident. But for now, the paradise that is Kashmir seems to be on the road to recovery. — © Guardian News & Media 2010

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