How safe is Kashmir?
A reader of this blog asked me how safe is Kashmir for a tourist. This question might seem too general but it merits an answer and anyone wanting to visit Kashmir would ask such a question.
How safe is it then really?
Pre 1989, Kashmir was a Paradise in the true sense. Crime was unheard of, a single murder in a year would shake up the administration. Kashmir was very unlike Jammu were murders weren’t so uncommon. Gang wars did not exist in Kashmir, one would never see a drunk lying on a road. Women would return alone, as late as 2 in the night, from a marriage laden with jewellery, without fear. Pickpockets were unheard of. Tolerance has always been a virtue of Kashmiris. People who have been to Kashmir in the past will still recall the beauty of the place and the people. You must be wondering why am I talking about the past. Past is gone, over, done with! It is, to an extent, but not all of it. The conflict is a reality of Kashmir that was thrust upon them, not by the ‘neighbours’ but by the conditions. Let me not dwell into the politics and history of Kashmir. The conflict has not changed the basic behaviour of Kashmiris. The conflict has not changed the hospitality of Kashmiris. The conflict has not changed, to a large extent, the goodness of the people of Kashmir. Kashmir is thus largely safe for tourists. It is not, as might be wrongly presumed, the presence of the army that has made Kashmir safe. It is the presence of the people. I am not trying to glorify the people of Kashmir, I am just trying to put forward a basic trait of Kashmiris that has been, sadly, buried under the blanket of the term ‘terrorists’ – a gift of the Indian government and media to the people of Kashmir. Kashmiri and a Terrorists are synonymous terms in India. But Kashmiris are far from being terrorists.
This is what makes Kashmir safe: the beauty of the land has made beautiful it’s people.
In spite of one of the most dangerous wars being fought, a civil war, tourists have never been the target of militants. Unlike Egypt, Israel and Indonesia where tourists and the public have been the selected targets, in Kashmir tourists and the public have never been the selected targets. Civilians have become prey thousands of times, but a tourist has never been. There have been very stray incidents and most of them have not caused much damage to the tourists.
What about the Al-Farhan Kidnapping?
Al-Farhan, a militant organisation, kidnapped in the early nineties a group of western tourists who were trekking in Pahalgam. They were never found. One should never, I repeat ‘never’ trek into places that are not deemed safe. As late as the year 2000 when I wanted to trek some place in Pahalgam, I was discouraged strongly. So, if you are a tourist and do want to trek, I would ask you to be very cautious about it. If you have to trek, trek in those areas which are safe and you should ask a tourist or a public officer beforehand.
Is Srinagar safe?
Srinagar is, mostly, very safe for tourists. Downtown or the old Srinagar city, on the banks of Jhelum, should be visited. Although it was a very dangerous place in the past, it has become a safe zone now. The attacks in the Srinagar city, though rare, are confined to the civil lines areas or the new city. The Lakes, Nageen and Dal, are safe for stay as well as sight-seeing. The Boulevard, running long the Dal Lake, is safe as well. Only Dal Gate (the start of the Dal Lake) has been targeted at times.
The health resorts, Gulmarg and Sonamarg are completely safe with the exception of Pahalgam. Pahgalgam has been targeted in the past as well as recently (injuring seven tourists). Pahalgam could be avoided, if the concern is too much. Gulmarg is thronged by a large number of people, given it’s proximity to Srinagar. Pahalgam is a larger resort and is the starting point for the Amarnath Yatra. Sonamarg falls on way to Ladakh and is a quieter place. The Thajwas glacier can be seen in Sonamarg. You usually have to hire a taxi to be able to reach these resorts. You could though go to a Tourist taxi Stand and enquire whether a single seat is available, in case you do not wish to hire an entire taxi. I am not too aware about other transport options available for tourists. It won’t be a good idea to take the government buses, as apart form taking a lot of time, won’t be too safe either.
What if I get in the midst of an attack?
If you are caught in an attack, move into the nearest shop and lie low till the conditions get better. If there is no shop around move into some other safer location (a nearby lane maybe) or just lie down on the ground. Do not attempt to run away. As a thumb rule follow what people around you do. Having lived in a conflict zone the people have developed an intrinsic response.
In the line of fire.
Obtain a Srinagar city tourist map. Bargain well with Auto Rickshaw drivers. Public transport is too crowded and not recommended. Stay in a houseboat in the Dal Lake. Budget houseboats are available and staying in a house boat is a different experience altogether. Avoid hotels that are near Abi Guzar (Lal Chowk, the city center) as they are secluded. Staying near Dal Lake, even Guest Houses in Raj Bagh, would be a nice choice. At the Tourist Reception Center (TRC), there is a Tourist Information Office and a Tourist Police Headquarter for helping tourists. Beware of touts. Their is a houseboat owners association office near Tourist Reception Center as well. Remember TRC, as it is the hub of tourist activities. TRC has a Tourist Taxi stand as well. Youth Hostel is non-functional (most probably) and there are no such options available.
Vegeterian food is served at various restaurants along the Boulevard. There are some vegetarian dhabas in Sonawar (near Dal Gate). If you are a non-vegetarian, there are a dozens of choices available . Do try out the Kashmiri Wazwaan. Ahdoos Restaurant (Residency Road) has a nice choice of Kashmiri food. Do try the Kanti (mutton cubes fried/cooked in onion), It’s pretty cheap and tastes good. Fast foods are not too much in vague, in case you do want a Pizza, you could try Shamyana Resturant on the Boulevard. Fast Food is also available at Hat-Trick Restaurant (Raj Bagh). Do try the Kashmiri Barbecue (mutton cubes done on charcoal on a skewer) called Sekeh Tujeh, the best in the town is available at Khayaam Chowk (very near Dal Gate). Also do try out Kashmiri bakery, which has a large variety. Have a Lawsah (Kashmiri tandoor bread) with Tea. You will enjoy it!
Local transport is available. Auto Rickshaws as well as public transport (buses, matadors) for moving within the city. Tata Sumos and state run buses for long distance travel.
You can withdraw cash from ATMs using your Master/VISA Debit/Credit cards. Jammu and Kashmir Bank has a huge network of ATMs in the valley (accepts all Maestro and VISA linked cards). HDFC Bank, State Bank of India and Punjab National Bank also have ATMs in the city. HDFC and SBI is VISA linked. Foreign currency can also be exchanged from the bank or authorised money changers.
Kashmiri art and craft shops are located at various locations. The government also runs an Arts Emporium. For Kashmiri Saffron / Almonds / Walnuts / Honey, the shop Amin Bin Khaliq (ABK) in the Polo View market is a good choice.
Internet and accessing kashmir.wordpress.com?
Internet Cafes are located all around the city. Polo view and Regal Chowk have quite a number of cafes and they have cheaper rates than those on the Boulevard. International Direct Dialing is possible. The Dal lake is said to be Wi-Fi enabled. All newspapers and magazines are available. Khan News Agency at Regal Chowk keeps all newspapers and magazines.
Jammu & Kashmir Tourism website (at http://www.jktourism.org) though not updated, has well organised information and should be read and referred to before visiting Kashmir. Also do read, the web edition of Greater Kashmir (at http://www.greaterkashmir.com) for an update on the latest conditions in Srinagar and Kashmir.