For thrill-seekers, no destination is more alluring than Kashmir’s bowel—that vast, sparsely populated interior dotted with lakes, valleys, forests, mountain treks and tales. It is a land that defies easy explanation, a remote expanse filled with meaning. But this terra firma has been off-limits for most, except spirited Kashmiri adventurers who are discovering their backyard like never before. They take familiar trekking routes: Aru village to Kolahoi pass, Sheshnag lake and Betaab valley in Pahalgam, Gangabal lake and Mt Harmukh. Sequestered in their homes the entire summer, their movement restricted even after the lockdown slowly unlocked in stages, everyone now wants to be elsewhere. But tourists have been away for more than a year—since Article 370 was abrogated in August 2019, the state was sliced into two Union territories and restrictive measures imposed in anticipation of public unrest. Covid and the India-China standoff along the Line of Actual Control closed the door completely.
Popular trekking routes in Kashmir are less than two hours from Srinagar and the city is dotted with offices of tour operators offering guides, porters, and campsites. Most have not had a single client since August 2019 when the government ordered all “outsiders” to leave J&K. This year, according to a senior tourism department official, only 1,000 domestic tourists visited Kashmir. No foreigner, obviously. Britain, Australia, the US, Canada and Germany have advised its citizens to stay off Kashmir. The J&K government has lifted its travel advisory recently, but it had little impact. “Not a single country has lifted/modified its travel advisory to Kashmir,” the tourism official says.
Riyaz Ahmad Lone, 40, says the last time his company in Pahalgam took a group of foreigners for trekking was in July 2019. Domestic tourists are also down to a trickle. Lone has guided a few friends to Tarsar Marsar lake and that’s about all. The man who has been in the business for eight years says he hasn’t seen such a slump before. “We lost two years and don’t know what is in store. We don’t know what 2021 has in store,” he says. Rouf Tramboo, running a trekking company since the 1980s, couldn’t agree less. “We thought tourism might pick up this year, but COVID-19 dashed our hopes,” he says. He has started visiting his office on Boulevard road overlooking the Dal Lake in Srinagar in months. He spends most of his time reading books on Kashmir and gardening.
But there’s some hope. Lone says Kashmiris—hordes of college kids and professionals—are scouring the mountain trails, fording the rivers and posting pictures of their adventures on social media. These photos attract trekkers in the rest of the country and abroad as well. Travel agents and companies in the Valley are getting a number of queries, but these are not translating into business. Besides, the Kashmiri explorer is not a new thing. Kashmiris have been exploring the Valley’s hidden nooks, especially in southern Kashmir, in the past three decades, despite insurgency-fuelled upheaval in the region.
The government has reopened Kashmir for tourism, but partial restrictions remain. Like Gangbal lake and Mughal Road are closed for tourists, as was Zaberwan hills, including the Shankaracharya hilltop in Srinagar, for some time. There are more obstacles—take the popular seven-day Kashmir Great Lakes Trek from Sonamarg to Naranag Valley. The route covers Vishansar lake (at an altitude of 12,700 feet and comes after Nichnai mountain pass), Kishnasar, Gadsar and Satsar lakes. It includes Gangabal and ends at Nundkol lake, which can be reached through Zach pass—the trek’s highest point at 13,500 feet. But many trekkers develop cold feet as the army’s permission is needed for the tour. Yet there are optimists like Mohammad Arif, an alpine mountaineer, skier and owner of a trekking company who has taken several tourists on the lakes trek, including Barsar lake, the highest in the Valley. “My aim is to introduce Kashmir to the world. Our trekking routes, our mountains, skiing fields can attract tourists from all over the world. I am doing my bit,” says the man who quit his bank job to open his own company.
He says the most beautiful thing about the Valley is that it was explored by locals. “That is why you see a good number of Kashmiris going trekking. It is a good sign.” There’s good news too. In July, Arif climbed Eastern Pinnacle Peak in the Thajiwas mountain range along with three local mountaineers, including Nazir Junior, a ‘ponywala’ or people who hire out mules. British explorer John A. Jackson scaled it in 1945 and no one since in 75 years. More such feats—26-year-old Nawab Moazum Khan and seven more, including three Kashmiris, reached Kolahoi glacier, 26km from Pahalgam, in September. The trekkers double up as unofficial surveyors of a land less visited. “I could feel the glacier has receded,” says Khan, whose previous expedition to Kolahoi was in 2015.
The free-spirited Kashmiri adventure-seekers have not enthused one vital cog in the trekking business: the porters and ponywalas. In Pahalgam, ponywala Javed Ahmad Mir says the good old days of his horse ferrying trekkers and supplies through narrow mountainside treks are gone. “Tourists don’t visit. Kashmiris go for trekking on their own. They won’t take a guide along,” he says. Mir has been working in MGNREGA project to make ends meet. “It is difficult…nothing seems right with this place and lack of tourists says it loudly.
By Naseer Ganai in Srinagar