Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

“How can you talk of tourism in Kashmir?” asked my Kashmiri friend, incredulity writ large into the question.

I am aboard the Kingfisher flight. Outside the cabin window sheathed in snow, the Pir Panjal range rumbles past. It’s a 45 minute hop across these mountains from New Delhi to Srinagar. A hop from the land of the free, to the land of not so free. I am on one of the most challenging assignments of my career. Could this be the beginning of War Tourism?

“We are looking to explore the spaces of the mind and its relation to travel,” said my editor. I suggested skiing in war torn Kashmir. It’s an “extreme” sport in “extreme” environment, I offered. Two weeks later I am aboard the King of Good Times, keeping my finger crossed that the few clumsy ski rides I had as a teenager are going to keep me in good stead. That my knees don’t buckle and I don’t get snow blind or shot in some sudden crossfire.

This is my second time in Srinagar. I have been here in 2000, when the Indian Government announced its grand plans of launching the Kashir channel to counter the Pakistan propaganda from across the border. The city looks war worn, tired. I find the army bunkers almost at the same place I saw them last, only it seems there are more of them. There is an armed man standing at every 50m distance. Each one armed and dressed in bulky jackets and huge white snow boots.

My friend in Srinagar, a journalist with a Delhi paper treats me to a cup of Mocha in down-town Srinagar’s Broadway Café Bar. Outside the café, men in uniform take turns to peak into the cafe’s wood paneled interiors.

Soon I am in Gulmarg, among the tall ones and a posse of army men guarding the venue of forthcoming 5th Winter Games. Gulmarg is barely an hour’s drive from Srinagar. The National Highway cutting through the countryside, reveals a sad picture.

Abandoned houses, burnt homesteads, dilapidated shops, army jeep junkyards and logged forests. The army is everywhere. On the doorstep. On the streets. On the field. On top of houses. People under siege. In last ten years 8,000 people from villages have disappeared, every Kashmiri is psychologically scarred by blood and gore. The poets are wailing. A unique civilization is being driven into graves…graves with no names. Just numbers.

Next day dawns bright and sunny inviting me to take wings. After negotiating a few wired fields, I hop over to Yaseen’s to equip myself in ski gear. Then we hit the slopes.

I slide, hang loose and let myself glide effortlessly through mountain walls dressed in fine powder snow. “Ski to hell,” say the ski-bums. I push myself harder catch speed, zipping through the trees…fear comes as I slide to a close, a few feet away from a barbed wire cutting through the clump of trees.

Kosovo has declared independence. “After Kosowo, Kashmir” someone whispers hopefully. I flip through the local English daily from Srinagar, Greater Kashmir. The AP picture printed on the first fold of the newspaper shows Kosovars celebrating independence as they wave Kosovian and American flags. I am surprised at the presence of the stripes and joy with which they are being unfurled. Kosovo is important to America for its recently established military base in the eastern Mediterranean, should Muslim Greece or Turkey prove unreliable allies in the future. But who is thinking of tomorrow, if today is getting unfurled on short-term happiness?

Since 1947 Kashmir has been asking for people’s referendum to decide its choice of rule It has looked to Pakistan and through it at the United Nations and America, to help its journey to self determination.

“After Kosovo, Kashmir?” Who knows? In the vastness of nature and the richness of its bounty, the cities have no borders and nations have no name. There is nothing to stop your roaming heart from dropping 10 feet to arch a snow line. Here war minds appear small and horizon, endless.

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I never thought I would see a real sundial in use. It seemed to me somehow that this simple technique of measuring time had gone out fashion with the obelisks. But India, forever the land of surprises, threw up one for me in the watery region of the Indian Ocean – on the southernmost island of the Lakshwadeep, Minicoy.

Sundial in Minicoy

Sundial in Minicoy

This beautiful 4.8 sq km island, geographically part of the Maldives archipelago of islands, is inhabited by people who speak the Mahal language and write in Thana script (religious sonnets). The British named the island Minicoy, apparently because they found it inhabited by short and shy people. Mini+coy, however, would like to be called Maliku, the Good Harbour.

The whole island, apart from the administrative offices of the Indian government, is divided into 10 fishing villages. While most of the Maliku men spend long periods away from home working as sailors on various mercantile ships, the rest make their living by fishing in the Indian Ocean. And for them knowing the seasons and time is crucial for survival.

Indian Standard Time (IST) set on the relationship between Greenwich and the local time in the city of Mirzapur near Allahabad, in north Uttar Pradesh, is ridiculously irrelevant here. Here humanity wakes and sleeps to a different time. Time, that’s tuned to nature, to the power of the sun and moon. The sundial time.

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In my recent visit to Rajasthan, I came across this commemorative altar on the National Highway 8. The altar depicts two men astride a motorbike. Before it is placed a clay lamp with a green chili to ward off evil spirits. The men, said the villagers, had died in a road accident two years ago.

In many parts of North India one can come across “chattris” or commemorative altars to the departed. These are usually erected by the families in the memory of their ancestors and are often located on the field or land owned by the family. Standing sentinels, guardian spirits. In some regions, such as Shekhawati, they can also be found painted on the walls of the houses.

There is so much that connects us to these men. Indian statistics show that currently 270 people die everyday on Indian roads. Much of it is caused by faulty traffic plan and fast modes of transport. Most National Highways cut through towns and villages without requisite by-pass or provision for slow moving traffic and pedestrians. And most lack first aid facilities for traffic victims.

The traditionally dressed men on the motorbike – an Enfield or Bullet – died one such death. The family of the deceased has placed the altar on the road. Like a milestone. Marking, it seemed to me, the pain of loss.

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This beautiful pass is home to one of India’s largest glaciers, the Bara Shigri Glacier. Standing here, at 4,830 meters, all one can see are hill ranges and valleys covered in a blanket of ice and snow. Himalayas here are larger and mightier. The rugged mountain terrain awesome in its nakedness. And most charmingly, utterly oblivious of man.

I am not the first to cross it, nor the last. The path leading through the mountainous terrain has been used since the ancient times, connecting India with the inner Himalayan kingdoms, and beyond – China, Mongolia and the far away region of the Hindukush. This is the road through which people travelled, met, exchanged goods and ideas. It’s a road where almost nothing has changed since the earth convulsed and created the Himalayas.

Nothing…except climate change that has shrunk the glacier by a few inches, increased the volume of water in the already swelling Chenab and turned its lower valleys into apple growing orchards.

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