From monsoon conditions in Dharamsala, the climate of the hot dry plains and Jammu city feels like a return to the ‘real’ India. Jammu is the Hindu part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir (half of Kashmir is under Pakistani control). Dirty and noisy, the only positive about the place as far as I’m concerned is that I’m only spending one night there, passing through with fellow Irish traveller and gobshite David on our way to the Kashmiri capital Srinigar.
Across the mountains and down into the green pastures of Kashmir, the Indian army can be seen everywhere. The bus hardly travels five minutes without the sight of a couple of Indian soldiers patrolling a field, a crossroads or a shop; there are around 700,000 Indian soldiers stationed in Kashmir and it shows. The green landscape of Muslim Kashmir instantly feels like a completely different country.
Srinigar feels like an oasis of calm after the plains, especially the houseboat where we stay for three nights. Every Kasmiri who we ask about the political situation expresses a desire for independence from India. It’s no surprise that the strategically important state has one of the highest concentrations of troops in the world. Occasionally Srinigar explodes into riots but during our time there, it’s difficult to imagine the place erupting; it seems so laid back. Despite the occupation, it has the appearance of a much cleaner, richer city than the other cities of the sub-continent I’ve visited. If I were to make a sweeping generalisation based on my time on the capital city, I’d say Kashmiris are pleasant but show an irritating tendency to be cannily business minded and money orientated when it comes to dealing with foreigners (similar to other parts of India but Kashmiris are more savvy about screwing you over).
After three nights in Shrinigar we get a bus north to Kargil, a mountainous outpost near the ceasefire line dividing Indian from Pakistani administered Kashmir. There’s only a handful of people on the bus including a friendly Slovenian couple – half the bus is taken up with sacks of post destined for Ladakh. Along the high-altitude way, there’s the predictable presence of the Indian army, with check points and training camps. The journey goes smoothly though, and as the bus climbs the steep dusty roads under blue skies, we’re treated to the stunning scenery of which Kashmir is famous.
Kargil is as strange a place as you’d imagine it to be. Although part of the Buddhist region of Ladakh, it’s a majority Shia-Muslim town. Pictures of the Ayatollahs of Iran adorn the walls of shops and restaurants – a bizarre thing to see outside the authoritarian context of the Islamic Republic. The local people are an unusual ethnic mix of Kashmiri, Dard and Tibetan, their good-nature a taster of what’s to be expected from the remote Himalayan realms of the Western part of Greater Tibet.
To the great amusement of David, I decide, in keeping with my tight budget, to sleep in a dormitory for the first time during my trip in India. The dorm is empty when I arrive so I reckon it’ll be OK This is a big mistake. After finally having drifted off after a long day of travel, a group of Indian tourists wake me with their chatter and mobile phone music from the hallway. Just as I’m drifting off again, I hear two of them talking loudly by my bed. Instinctively I open my eyes and say “Hey!” as in “Hey, I’m trying to get some sleep here” but one of the Indians, whose figure I see only as a silhouette with an outstretched hand naively responds with a jovial “Hey dude, how are you doing?”. Having been woken up twice and in no mood for pleasantries I tell the silhouette in no uncertain terms to fuck off, that he’s just woke me up and it would be great to be left alone to sleep. Shocked at the outburst, the silhouette utters “Oh my God” before retreating to the hallway among fits of giggles from his mates. Later the group come into the dorm to sleep, chatting loudly again without a care in the world, while I bite my tongue and wait for them to fall asleep. The next day we move to another guesthouse in the hope of a better night sleep but having not learnt my lesson from the night before, I choose the cheap dorm again. This one is even more basic, having no beds, with just mats on the floor to lay your blanket/sleeping bag. Once again David is in fits of laughter at what he sees at my cheapness, and I resign myself with the thought that maybe I’ll be lucky this time and have the dorm to myself. It’s not to be though, and along with getting a poor night sleep due to old Ladakhi travelers talking openly amongst themselves, one of my sweaters goes missing. This is the first personal item that has been stolen from me in the whole 8 month trip so far, which is ironic considering that the owner of the guesthouse reassured me when I arrived that my stuff was completely safe as “there is zero crime here in Ladakh”. The next day we leave oddball Kargil to get a bus to the more appealing prospect of the Ladakhi capital Leh, which I’m to make my base for the next month.