LACK OF A LINE OF CONTROL
I am swamped with The Deadlines yet again, and have found a wonderful new OCD-friendly way to procrastinate. Instead of cleaning the house or calling people I haven't spoken to in years or meeting someone for lunch or putting in the air conditioner or brushing the cat (not a euphemism) or taking a nap I am making occasional visits to the travelblog.org website. At the moment I'm hooked on the Jammu-Kashmir blogs. It seems most of the travelers don't realize the danger they're in (J-K is the bucolic, mountainous, indescribably beautiful disputed territory in Northern India that is primarily Muslim but controlled by India. Troops on both sides are always shooting at each other, and it is not uncommon for separatists to bomb public places or kidnap foreign tourists (hence the State Department warning not to go there; hence the rule that you can't visit unless you've already secured accommodations). So the tourism industry dropped to almost nil two decades ago, wiping out the local economy. Which is why neutral Switzerland serves as a stand-in for mountainous Kashmir in Hindi movies. Which is why you see so many rug, etc. sellers from Kasmir plying their wares down south in coastal tourist areas like Kovalam. Which is why, when, after plying you with Kashmiri green tea and carefully writing down their name and address and asking you to visit, you don't. Even though you want to). Some highlights:
"We returned to our boat house on Nagin Lake in Srinagar in the evening and ate supper to the sounds of Muslim prayers echoing across the lake. This is quite a magical place and is indeed a paradise on earth, as all the travel guides continue to tell us. "
"The boat was quite palacial, and it had a framed letter from a Ghandi who had stayed there before. It was however in serious need of a newer interior. I guess since the Kasmir conflict scared off tourists from the mid eighties not much had been done to improve the decor."
"We went to the two Moghul Gardens - the first one was beautiful and had a great many young students playing on the lawns. The second one was much more neglected, but both were a shadow of what they were - many fountains trickled and stonework was overrun with moss."
"I had much better things to do in Srinagar than go online! like buying saffron and shawls from bearded merchants, gazing out over the lakes and mountains from the holiest mosque in the subcontinent, and singing Titanic for my hosts' children. But most memorable was the crazy trip both ways from Jammutavi to Srinagar - along the most reacherous mountain roads I could have imagined... always entrtained by the desperate roadsigns - "better mr. late than late mr." "this is not a race or rally- enjoy Kashmir valley" and my favourite; "be gentle on my curves"."
"I heard in Leh that Kargil was shelled a few nights after we stayed there and someone died - so this journey isn't the safest in the world. I don't think it was downtown that was shelled but the army tents, but I have no idea how close they are."
And from the US State Department:
SPECIFIC AREAS OF INSTABILITY AND TERRORISM:
-- JAMMU and KASHMIR: The Department of State recommends that U.S. citizens avoid travel to the state of Jammu and Kashmir, with the exception of visits to the Ladakh region and its capital, Leh. A number of terrorist groups operate in the state, and security forces are active throughout the region, particularly along the Line of Control (LOC) separating Indian and Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, and are visible in the primary tourist destinations in the Kashmir Valley – Srinagar, Gulmarg and Pahalgam.
Since 1989, as many as 60,000 people (terrorists, security forces, and civilians) have been killed in the Kashmir conflict, including almost 1,000 civilians in 2003 alone. Many terrorist incidents take place in the state’s summer capital of Srinagar, but the majority occurs in rural areas. Foreigners are particularly visible, vulnerable, and definitely at risk. Occasionally, even the Ladakh region of the state has been affected by terrorist violence, but incidents there are rare. The last such case was in 2000, when terrorists in Ladakh's Zanskar region killed a German tourist. The Indian government prohibits foreign tourists from visiting the Kargil area of Ladakh along the LOC. U.S. Government employees are prohibited from traveling to the state of Jammu and Kashmir without permission from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi.
In 1999, the terrorist organization Harakat-ul Mujahideen issued a ban on U.S. citizens, including tourists, visiting Kashmir, but has not followed up on this threat. In 1995, the terrorist organization Al Faran kidnapped seven Western tourists, including two U.S. citizens, who were trekking in Kashmir valley. One of the hostages was brutally murdered, another escaped, and the other five -- including one U.S. citizen -- have never been found. Srinagar has also been the site of a great deal of violence, including car bombings, market bombings, hand grenade attacks that miss their targets and kill or injure innocent bystanders, and deaths resulting from improvised (remote controlled) explosive devices (IEDs). In recent years, several tourists, including at least one U.S. citizen, have been fatally shot or wounded in Srinagar. The 2002 state elections were marred by multiple terrorist attacks that killed some 800 people, a large percentage of whom were innocent civilians. Some terrorist violence also marred the national parliamentary polls in April/May 2004.
-- INDIA-PAKISTAN BORDER: The State Department recommends that U.S. citizens avoid travel to border areas between India and Pakistan, including within the states of Gujarat, Punjab, and Rajasthan, and the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir. A ceasefire along the Line of Control (LOC) in Kashmir began on November 26, 2003 and a dialogue between the two countries aimed at easing tensions continues. Both India and Pakistan maintain a strong military presence on both sides of the LOC. The only official India-Pakistan border crossing point is between Atari, India, and Wagah, Pakistan. A Pakistani visa is required to enter Pakistan. The border crossing is currently open. However, travelers are advised to confirm the current status of the border crossing prior to commencing travel.
Both India and Pakistan claim an area of the Karakoram mountain range that includes the Siachen glacier. The ceasefire in Kashmir that took effect in November 2003 has also been in effect on the glacier. U.S. citizens traveling to or climbing peaks in the disputed areas face significant risks. The disputed area includes the following peaks: Rimo Peak; Apsarasas I, II, and III; Tegam Kangri I, II and III; Suingri Kangri; Ghiant I and II; Indira Col.; and Sia Kangri.