I can’t remember who I told this story to recently. But whoever it was suggested that I write it down; this and other stories. For a number of reasons, it’s a long time since I wrote a blog, and I never intended for it to be a travel blog as such, but I guess I do have a few tales to tell. I may as well start with this one. And so, ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, I bring you…The Kashmir Story.
As an experienced traveller, I’m well aware of the benefit of studying at least one, preferably two decent guidebooks, plus seeking out as much word of mouth from friends and strangers as possible, to decide where to visit, where to stay, how to stay safe and how to get into trouble. Unfortunately, in 2002, I was no experienced traveller. I flew into Delhi having read just the introduction to my Lonely Planet (it said expect constant noise, choking-polution, rubbish in the streets, massive crowds, and honking taxis – I pictured Camden, and wasn’t far wrong), and had planned on winging it and having an adventure. What I should have read, however, was the section entitled “Kasmiris will scam you before you even arrive and you’ll fall for it like a mug if you don’t read this, you twat” section.
Here’s what they do: a taxi driver sees a shiny-white, sleepy-eyed, green as grass first timer like me at the airport, and rubs his hand together. Inside, he laughs. This taxi then stops at a ‘travel agent’ en route to downtown Delhi, where the passenger/victim is invited to call ahead for reservations/confirmation. While sitting there, they are shown pictures of ‘beautiful Himalaya’, to where this travel agent happens to run tours, and they read through testimonials from happy travellers who eshue the virtue of these fine gentlemen and wax lyrical about the beauty, mystery and magic of the ‘beautiful Himalaya’.
I’m in the office with a Swedish girl named Jesse. She likes the sound of it. So do I. They take us into different rooms, and we pay up. We leave for ‘beautiful Himalaya’ tomorrow.
From the office we’re taken on a little drive around Delhi by the agent, a guy calling himself Ali G, before being taken to…wait for it…his mum’s house. At this point it’s still a bit whirlwind, a bit exciting, a bit novel and still kinda cool. We meet the family, have a fabulous meal (on the floor, eating with our fingers, obviously) and are kept up the entire night by an Indian wedding in the courtyard behind the flat.
It’s the next day when things start to get a bit…strange. Jesse is taken shopping by Mum. Son takes me to see a Bollywood movie. Half-way through he asks me if I need help understanding. I assure him that Bollywood requires no translation.
And when we get back to the house, Jesse, and all her stuff, are gone.
I ask why. My questions are batted away, avoided, or deliberately misunderstood. I’m told to get some sleep, as I fly early in the morning.
I get very little sleep. In a strange, strange quarter of a strange, strange city I’m stuck in a strange, strange house with some strange, strange people. It is the night before Eid. Traditionally, they slaughter a goat for Eid. I hope that I am not a goat. I hope Jesse, wherever she is, is not a goat.
Looking at a map in my now much poured-over Lonely Planet, I find my destination: Srinagar. The capital of Kashmir. Himalaya? Sort of. War-zone? Absolutely. Well done Jim, well done indeed.
I wake the next day to find that I’m not a goat. At least not yet. I’m driven to the airport. I get on a plane. I fly.
From the vast, flat plains of Northern India, we fly further north. The ground below is hidden by cloud. When the cloud finally clears, an hour later, the ground has risen up to become the rocky crags Himalayan foothills, with snow capping the steep slopes. It’s beautiful. As we pass over the mountains, houses begin to appear. I say houses: I mean tin huts. Shiny tin huts.
Hypnotised, I barely notice when we finally arrive at Srinagar airport. But the tanks, fighter aircraft and armoured turrets soon get my attention.
I’m collected by a Kashmiri guy with a cricket bat who tells me, in the car, about his admiration for the British model of world-colonization: divide and conquer. Divide and conquer.
The car stops by Dal Lake, and I get into a tiny little boat. We row across to an island, against which is moored maybe 100 or more houseboats; very old, quite beautiful, wooden, Victorian houseboats. We get out. We walk to a house. I say hello to two sleep tied to the door. An hour later, six guys pin them down and slit their throats.
The worse thing about seeing the sheep get killed was not the death or the struggling even of the sheep being killed. Rather, it was the fear and panic of the sheep that had to watch. As the first sheep was killed, the second saw, and knew.
After they were both dead, a hole was made in the rear leg, a tube inserted, and the sheep was inflated (it makes them easier to skin). They were skinned, and they were chopped up into tiny bits. We ate the sheep. The sheep was good. Then we watched TV. Out of the window, I saw two other tourists arrive. I’d seen them on the plane from the UK. They were English. Itold my hosts. Their response was, “there are many boats”. After this, I went to my boat, and slept to the sound gunfire, probably from the war at the border, possibly even from the war then raging in Afghanistan, just up the road. It’s fucking cold in Kashmir in February.
The next day I woke up early and went for a walk down the jettee, but everytime I got more than a few paces from the boat, I was dragged back, being given excuses about breakfast being ready, or somebody wanting to talk to me, or anything. Breakfast wasn’t ready. Nobody wanted to talk. And I never make it to the end of the jettee.
After lunch, it’s time to go to town. The tradition at Eid is to take the meat from the slaughter to friends and family around town, with the best cuts going to close kin, and the less good going to, I dunno, the postman. People had been popping by the house all day. So they packed me into a boat and gave me a hat to wear. I should explain that at this time I had bright red hair. So they gave me this hat, announcing it as ‘Kashmiri-style’. We went to town. We did stuff.
Srinagar is a fascinating place. 100 years ago it was the pride of India, a jewel in the crown, the summer seat of the British and a major tourist attraction. Now it was like a British seaside resort in Winter: closed, deserted, falling to pieces. The army had occupied all the hotels, and bombs had taken out a few of those. All the buildings were rotting. Becuase of the war, the tourists no longer came. Because of this, poverty was rife, people were desperate and most people had simply left. It was easy to see what it once must have been, and depressing to see what it had become.
When we got back to the island, I decided I had to make my move. I knew there was something going on here, and I needed to know what it was. So while everyone was watching a movie (the same I’d seen in Delhi, oddly enough), I got up, left the room, and made off down the jettee. And at the end, I met a girl. The English girl.
She asked me if I was Jim. We’d never met, so this was somewhat of a surprise, until she explained that she was here with her boyfriend and a Swedish girl called Jesse. Apparently ever since they arrived two days ago they’d been asking for Jim.
“There is no Jim”.
“The guy in Delhi…bright red hair…Jim”.
“There is no Jim”.
When Bashir, the owner, came out and saw me chatting to them, his disappointment was palpable.
Divide and conquer.
They’d split us, and were keeping us apart, to better rid us of our money. Together, we could say no to treks, crafts, tours and trips. Alone, we were more prone to capitulate. They’d even gone to the length of hiding my red hair with a hat, in order to deny my existence. They even denied my existence. Nobody had known I was there. Nobody still knew any of us were there. We were completely isolated, completely alone, trapped on an island in a warzone with some seriously dodgy people. The image of the sheep was always in my mind.
Together, we spent 12 days sitting on the roof. It was beautiful. It was cold. And it was absolutely terrifying.
I’ve still got the hat.