Jammu and Kashmir, the northern-most state of India, is officially home to 3 major ethnic groups. The state capital during summer months is in Srinagar, located in Kashmir valley, mountains away, while during the winter it relocates to Jammu, situated on the base of the Himalaya mountains.
We reached Jammu early in the morning, but in contrast to the majority of others boarding jeeps for Srinigar right outside the train station, we headed for a guest house. It seemed wise to break up the 24 hour Delhi to Srinagar journey and we didn’t mind learning what Jammu was all about. We weren’t disappointed – right behind the main streets of Jammu were hidden numerous old stone houses and restaurants. We also got to sample the local specialty dish – deep fried white cheese (paneer pakora), it was very nice.
Next day we arrange two seats on a shared jeep to Srinagar. The distance of 300km is said to take about 6 hours (the alternative government bus does it in 14 hours :) The road is nice, progressively getting steeper, sometimes dangerously narrow, especially considering the amount of traffic present. Many jeeps, minivans, busses and even trucks and motorcycles and occasional tourist cyclists all compete for a patch of road barely wide enough for two sedans. About a third of the way, the police pulls us over at a checkpost. To our amazement, it turns out that our driver doesn’t have the required paperwork to drive. The punishment for such offense was jail, explained the fellow travelers. What followed next was akin to something you see on the TV – the driver, on hearing the mentions of jailtime, panics and tries to do a runner with his jeep, the policeman, luckily already seated in the jeep, utilises his walking stick to neutralise the driver and snatch the keys to the ignition, halting the car. That could have been a lot worse, the road was really steep here and they could have easily ended up at the bottom of the valley. While the police work on the matter of our remaining trip, a generous roadside restaurant cook offers us a free lunch of lentils, veg, bread and rice. Another jeep arrives and we continue the journey, eventually reaching Srinagar after 10.5 hours, tired, joints aching and covered in roadside dust.
Srinagar, seemingly a quiet and green town by the bushy lake in Kashmir valley, surprises us with the amount of military soldiers on the streets. Srinagar is a regular fall-out zone from the ongoing Pakistan and India debate over the lands of Kashmir. Kashmiris themselves, people of peculiarly unique appearance – wide cheekbones, angled noses , green eyes and 80’s haircuts, don’t consider themselves to belong to either India or Pakistan and vote for complete independence of the entire Kashmir state. It seems India isn’t interested in heeding to Pakistan or Kashimirs, having deployed numerous military bases across the entire region over the years.
One day, a merchant strike took place in Srinagar – most shop owners refused to operate their stores. The reason for strike – few days ago a soldier of an Indian army shot down a Kashmiri man, questionably identifying him as a terrorist. Some Kashmiris suspect a greater conspiracy – India’s government isn’t only out to lock them all up, but is also working to undermine the religion of Islam that majority of population here actively practices. Few months ago a mysterious fire destroyed the most revered mosque located in the old town of Srinagar. Everyone knows this was no accident.
Kashmiris are devout muslims. Nowhere else have people always inquired what religion we belonged to, right after asking where we were from. Interestingly, while exclaiming that they are tolerant of other religions, the people we spoke to showed a noticeable resistance to an open discussion of the merits of different religions.
Disregarding all this though, we enjoyably spent several lazy days in Srinagar, visiting the quiet streets of the old town and walking along the wooden paths between the floating houses on the lake. Every evening we visited our friend Rubani, a roadside teastall operator, who brewed excellent salty tea (noor chai), gave us snacks and expounded on the ways of daily life in Kashmir. Not once did he accept any payment.