Tourists defy Kashmir war

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The Independent Online

In Kashmir, it's mayhem as usual. After a brief ceasefire in July, the Valley has gone back to its normal diet of bombs, grenades and cross-border shelling. A series of massacres at the beginning of the month claimed the lives of more than 100 people. A car bomb in central Srinagar on 10 August killed 11 and injured dozens more. Tension remains high. As ever, the city looks like an enormous armed camp.

In Kashmir, it's mayhem as usual. After a brief ceasefire in July, the Valley has gone back to its normal diet of bombs, grenades and cross-border shelling. A series of massacres at the beginning of the month claimed the lives of more than 100 people. A car bomb in central Srinagar on 10 August killed 11 and injured dozens more. Tension remains high. As ever, the city looks like an enormous armed camp.

But the khaki and the grey are relieved once in a while by a flash of colour, an improbably fashionable cut of clothing. Despite it all, the foreign tourists will not be kept away.

A group of Italians in their 20s and 30s stand outside a long-shut carpet shop in the city's northern reaches, waiting for instructions. "Is it dangerous?" one woman asks, her eyes widening. "We didn't know about the problems. We've been trekking for 11 days and had no information."

Other visitors know but affect not to care. Roee from Haifa strolls along Boulevard Road with her boyfriend Liron, between well-manned bunkers of the Border Security Force. "In Israel, too, there is army everywhere, so we are used to it," she says.

And others such as Offie, 30, from Jersey, have been travelling around India long enough to make a shrewd calculation: some tension, a lot of guns and uniforms, but in exchange an amazing travel bargain.

Until the uprising against the Indian government that broke out in Kashmir in 1989, this was the most popular destination in the subcontinent. In 1989 more than 700,000 tourists came to the Valley, including 67,000 foreigners. The following year there were none; the Valley's most important industry closed down overnight.

But Kashmir remains as enchanting as ever. Ten years of stagnation have had the good effect, from the visitor's point of view, of stalling development. Kashmir has been spared the mad proliferation of souvenir shops and internet cafes that has transformed places like Kathmandu.

For anyone trying to stretch a small budget, Kashmir is hard to resist. Offie - full name Adrian Osborne - is staying with friends in a nicely furnished houseboat called Morning Star on Dal Lake, a placid 10-minute ride in a shikara, the local flat-bottomed boat, from the centre of town. "In the lake here," says Shibir, one of the owners, "there is no touch of the road. It's a place where you feel yourself very peace and very quiet." The cost this summer: 150 rupees per person per night, a little over £2, which includes bed, breakfast and a solid Kashmiri dinner. "The best food in India," says Offie.

Srinagar is a fascinating city. As well as the Mughal gardens on the outskirts, the enormous lake with its boats and the half-timbered Tudoresque architecture of the Old Town, it also houses one of the most curious must-sees in Asia: the grave of Jesus Christ. According to several books citing ancient sources, Jesus' life on earth did not end in Palestine: after his resurrection he travelled across central Asia, dying in Srinagar in 109AD at the age of 103. A well-maintained shrine in the Old Town contains a huge catafalque, supposedly containing the remains of Yuz Asaph, as Jesus was called in Kashmir, or so we are told. Pious local people still visit and offer prayers.

But whatever the attraction, foreign tourists on the whole keep away. Last year, the best since 1989, only 17,000 foreigners visited. "Good-class tourists are only coming from south-east Asia," says Mohammed Ashraf, director general of the tourism department. "The large figures in the past were possible due to group tourism. And the groups don't come because they can't get insurance, on account of the travel advice issued by Western governments. These are so scary I'd be scared to come myself."

The British counsel is unambiguous. "We advise against travel to all parts of the state ... apart from Ladakh," it begins. And it continues with "serious incidence of military ... a number of land-mine explosions ... risk of kidnapping".

Mr Ashraf is doing all he can to get the British advice toned down, but events conspire against him. In July a German hitch-hiker was reportedly killed by militants after unluckily witnessing a shootout in the Zanskar mountains. A week ago two Hungarian women were slightly hurt when a grenade exploded on Srinagar's outskirts.

But Offie and his friend are little troubled. No foreigners have been taken hostage since the still unresolved capture of five trekkers in 1995. Foreign tourists are not among the militants' targets.

On Thursday, the pair left Srinagar on a "water trek", being paddled gently down the River Jhelum to Wular Lake and back again. Cost per person for the four-night expedition: 750 rupees - about £11.

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