The Kashmir the world knows about begins when you emerge from the 2531 metre long Jawahar Tunnel. Leaving the darkness, you are immediately confronted with the two salient points which define what the locals call "paradise on earth": the fertility and the soldiers. Before the descent down into the valley, a sign invites you to take a break and admire the view. To the left, a military post, the first of many.
Soldiers are everywhere in Kashmir, on street-corners, in forests, by rivers, by Mosques. One Kashmiri told me there were 800,000 soldiers based in the state; with an overall population of just over ten million, that's quite an astonishing figure. On one hand, their presence is testament to the fact that the violence which killed thousands in the nineties is not far behind us. On the other hand, it's a reminder that India has a shit load of soldiers with little else to do. [For more on the political situation in Kashmir, see my Comment is Free piece - link above]
You soon get use to them, though, like a part of the furniture, and they don't stand in the way of appreciating the great life and fecundity of the valley. Alpine glades, fast-flowing rivers, snow-capped peaks - it would be Orientalist to describe the vistas in terms of the Alps, but that's the image which springs readily to mind.
Of course, the people are anything but European, and indeed are anything but Indian. The Kashmiris are a proud and hospitable people, of mysterious origin, often dressed in shawls and turbans like their Muslim counterparts in North-West Pakistan, but with a cannier approach to tourism. Especially given the warnings, it was gratifying to see a group of Israelis greeted so enthusiastically, a phenomenon that is surely unmatched elsewhere in the Muslim world. A few Hebrew signs dot the landscape; with many other western tourists still reluctant to visit, it seems that the Israeli contingent is still doing its best to keep Kashmir's connection to the outside world alive.
We stayed at Pahalgam, the valley's main tourist centre. From here, masses of Indian tourists head to the Armanath Caves, an important Hindu holy site, while the more adventurously inclined go raftnig and horse-riding. We did btoh, before heading for a few days hiking up-river from the nearby village of Aru.
We were accompanied by Haji - the patriarch of the 'Brown Palace' and assorted other tourist ventures - and his dimunitive nephew, Roma. In his shawl and white skull-cap, Haji loked like he should be reclining in a Mosque, but he was was the man responsible for setting up our camp in the midst of a community of Kashmiri herdsmen and their families, liberally translated by our guide as gypsies. While loading the jeep, I had been startled to find my rucksack placed alongside a box of two live chickens, which turned out to be our dinner. To sit by a mountain stream at twilight, watching Haji slaughter and then meticulously clean the chicken (this took him over an hour) was - how shall I put it? - a rather carnal experience, on that (I'm sorry to say) didn't make me a vegetarian. On the contrary, it made me realise that meat tastes better when it has been freshly killed.
Our days of hiking finished, we headed to Srinigar, just after the disturbances caused by the President's visit. In Srinigar, you stay on houseboats, hundreds of which create a floating island ni the heart of the gigantic Dal Lake (now there's tautology for you). Houseboats, shops, wandering chikoras selling jewellery, even floating gardens - Dal Lake is a random wonder which makes Venice seem rather ordinary. The only downside is that it serves to detract from the main city, which is justly famous for its wooden mosques sans minarets.
I probably should have stayed longer in Srinagar. Certainly, getting a boat to take me to shore at dawn has been one of this trip's great memories. But what struck me most, after having internalised Lonely Planet's annoying habit of referring to the security situation every other sentence (although, to eb fair, they do have to cover their backs), was just how safe and welcoming a place it was, and how much potential is still has. I hope the development continues, and that the Kashmiri people can find the self-determination that they - like anyone else - deserve.